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Part I Biblical Scroll links to Bible 1. Part II Electronic Bible links to Part 2.
The Bible: The Book That Bridges the Millennia

Three Early Biblical Translations

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We do not have any of the original manuscripts of the books that have been included in the Bible. All we have is copies of copies. Most of the original manuscripts of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew, although a few chapters of Ezra and Daniel were recorded in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The books of the New Testament were first written in Greek.

The first translations of the Bible were of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint (SEP-too-a-jint) was a Greek translation written about three centuries before the birth of Christ. Two other early translations, composed after the birth of Christ, were the Peshitta in Syriac and the Vulgate in Latin. These three translations, the Septuagint, Peshitta, and Vulgate became the official translations of the Old Testament for the Greek-, Syriac-, and Latin-speaking churches respectively. Each also became the basis for other translations of the Bible.

The Septuagint

The Septuagint (from the Latin word septuaginta meaning seventy) was a Greek version of the Bible created during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (ca. 285-246 BCE) in Alexandria, Egypt for Diaspora Jews. Most of Jews living outside of Palestine were Greek-speaking as a result of Alexander the Great's (357-323 BCE) campaign to Hellenize his empire.

At first, the Septuagint (LXX) consisted only of the Pentateuch (Torah, first five books of the Bible). Different books were translated from the Hebrew over a span of two centuries, including the books of the Apocrypha, and were added to the LXX. Since the Greek used in the LXX reflects an Alexandrian origin, the scholars who created it were most likely Alexandrian rather than Palestinian, as was suggested by a legend circulated by a writer who called himself Aristeas.

From Alexandria, use of the LXX spread to other Jews of the dispersion. Not surprisingly, early Christians, most of whom spoke Greek, also used the LXX, even in Palestine where they also knew Hebrew. The Septuagint became a very popular translation and a useful tool for evangelization. Many Christians during the time of Origen of Alexandria (185-254), for example, valued the LXX as strongly as many 20th-century Christians value the King James Version of the Bible. Origin studied Hebrew texts and revised the LXX. He then published the Hexapla, which featured six translations of the entire Old Testament divided in columns, including his version of the LXX.

Among Hellenistic Jews, two views of the Septuagint developed. One group thought the translation was too loose and revised the books in order to make them a more literal translation. Aquila, a Jewish proselyte produced such a translation ca. 128. Others, like Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BCE-50 CE), believed that the original Greek translators of the LXX were inspired and shared equal authority with the original Hebrew version. Jewish reaction against the LXX began in the first century and grew until Judaism rejected it entirely in the second century. Christians, on the other hand, followed the view of Philo.

Today members of the Eastern Church who speak Greek still hold the Septuagint in high regard. It remains the official translation of the Old Testament for them.

The Peshitta

The Peshitta is a Syriac Bible. Its creation represented an attempt to created a "standard version" of the Bible amidst a variety of other Syriac texts.

Map showing location of Edessa, Nisibis, and Antioch of Syria-

The name Peshitta (which means "simple" or "clear") was first used by Moses bar Kepha (d. 903), perhaps to distinguish it from the more complex Syrohexapla, translated ca. 616 from Origen's revised Septuagint. Written before Syrian Christians divided into two communities in 431 and this version therefore was accepted by both the Jacobites (Monophysites) and the Nestorians.

The Old Testament portion was probably created a different times spanning the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Some of it was translated by Jews working from mostly the Hebrew sometimes consulting the LXX. Except for Sirach, the books of the Apocrypha were translated from the Greek. The New Testament section was translated near the end of the 4th century or in the 5th century.

The Peshitta originated in Osrhoëne, a buffer state between the Roman and Parthian Empires. The language of Osrhoëne was Syriac, as it was for much of the area, except Antioch of Syria (see map). The Peshitta was probably written in the cities of Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey), Nisibis, and/or Arbela.

The Peshitta is the authoritative biblical text for today's Syrian Orthodox, Church of the East, and Maronite churches. The official New Testament canon includes 22 of the books in the Roman Catholic and Protestant canons but does not have 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the Book of Revelation. In addition, this Syriac New Testament does not include Luke 22:17-18 and John 7:53-8:11.

The Vulgate

As the centuries after the resurrection unfolded, the dominant language spoken in the Roman Empire began to change. No longer was Greek the dominant language. In 382, Pope Damascus therefore commissioned Jerome (c. 347-420) to translate the Bible into Latin, a task which took him twenty years to complete. This Bible came to be known as the versio vulgata (common translation) and became standard for the Western Church. In English, we call this Bible the Vulgate.

Jerome, detail from Rubens painting - 10885 Bytes

Jerome by Rubens (detail, original in color, click for complete painting)

Jerome's earliest translations of the Hebrew Bible were based upon Origen's revisions of the Septuagint; however around 393 he turned to manuscripts written in the original Hebrew. Augustine argued that, by using Hebrew manuscripts, Jerome was driving a wedge between Christians of the East and West because the Greek-speaking Christians of the East were using the Septuagint.

To illustrate the folly of Jerome's approach, Augustine told him the tale of a bishop from Tripoli who authorized Jerome's new translation for use in his church. When the people heard the Old Testament lesson from Jonah, it was so unfamiliar that they protested the bishop's innovation by rioting in the streets. Augustine saw this as proof that Jerome's “Hebrew” version was a serious mistake.1

Jerome's translation did not achieve wide acceptance until centuries after his death.

The first book printed with movable type by Johannes Gutenberg was the Vulgate. A handful of copies of the compete original Gutenberg Bible (four on parchment and seventeen on paper) exist today.

The Vulgate as we know it today is not the one done by Jerome. He did not complete a translation of the New Testament. The Vulgate was created by assembling books from a variety of sources, including Jerome.



Next: Early English Biblical Translations. The first written English translations of the Bible were made from the Latin Vulgate rather than the original Hebrew and Greek languages. Learn about Caedmon, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Aldhelm, Eadfrith, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and John Wycliffe.

Notes

1Leslie J. Hoppe, St. Jerome: The Perils of a Bible Translator, St. Anthony Messenger (September 1997).

"Jerome" is a detail from painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. III (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 134.