Lost in Translation: Ancient Translations

When Scripture was first spoken by the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21), it was in a language and style that the original audience would easily understand. This is especially true of the NT; it was written in Koine Greek, the language used in first-century correspondence, grocery lists, love letters, and other every-day communications. But it was inevitable that God’s Word would be translated. Bible translations, therefore, are not a new phenomenon. Scripture has been in need of translation since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. As we will discover in this lesson, the translation of God’s Word has a rich history. The versions now available to us in English continue this rich tradition. By informing ourselves of major Bible translations of the past, and how they affect today’s versions, we better appreciate how Scripture has been passed down to us.


In 586 BC, the nation of Judah was exiled to Babylon because of her wickedness. However, God promised that after seventy years, the people would be allowed to return home (Jer. 25:11), and this promise was fulfilled (Ezra 1:1-4). After Israel had rebuilt the Temple and walls of Jerusalem, they marked the occasion by calling an assembly and asking Ezra to read to them from the Book of the Law. As Ezra did so, however, he had to station thirteen men throughout the crowd and asked them to both translate his words and explain their meaning (Neh. 8:7-8). Why did Ezra have to do this? The reason is that while in Babylon, the Israelites’ primary language had morphed from Hebrew to Aramaic. In fact, some parts of the OT were originally written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-68; 7:12-26; Jer. 10:11; Dan. 2:4-7:28). Also, there had been a thousand years of changes to Israel’s culture since the Law had been given at Sinai. So Ezra’s thirteen assistants had to translate, not only the language, but also the meaning and application.


The Greek translation of the OT is known as the Septuagint, and is arguably the most important Bible translation in history. Around 250 BC, the OT was translated into Greek by about seventy Jewish scholars (hence the Septuagint’s abbreviation to LXX) in Alexandria, Egypt. This translation effectively became the Bible for most first-century Jews and the early church; when Paul or other NT writers quoted the OT, they almost always did so from the LXX. After the first century, few Christians knew Hebrew at all, so the LXX became the source for study of the OT in the church. Some of the stylistic choices made by the translators are worth noting: The LXX translators often substituted the Greek kurios (“Lord”) for the divine name, YHWH (i.e. Yahweh or “I Am”). They also toned down anthropomorphisms (e.g. “repented” becomes “considered” Gen. 6:6-7; “Yahweh is a warrior” becomes “The Lord crushes wars,” Exod. 15:3; “the hand of” becomes “the power of,” Josh. 4:24; “the hem of his robe” becomes “his glory,” Isa. 6:1).


In 382, Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to provide a standard Latin version of the Bible by revising existent Latin manuscripts. Jerome’s work became known as the Vulgate (from the same Latin word as our English “vulgar,” meaning “common”). The Vulgate is important because in this translation, Jerome coined many of today’s important theological terms: salvation, regeneration, justification, sanctification, propitiation, reconciliation, inspiration, Scripture, etc. Though some were slow to accept the Vulgate, they eventually did so. It became the most widely-used Bible for over a thousand years; it also served as the basis for the first translations into various modern languages: English (1388), German (1466), Italian (1471), and French (1530).

Textus Receptus

In 1516, a Dutch Catholic priest named Desiderius Erasmus published the first edition of the Greek NT, which quickly became known as the Textus Receptus (i.e. the “received text”). The TR is significant because it served as the basis of many subsequent NT translations up until 1881, including Luther’s German translation and the King James Version.

Erasmus’ contribution, while quite valuable, was plagued with several problems. None of his source manuscripts contained the entire NT, and none had been produced prior to ad 1100 (the three most important Greek manuscripts now extant had not been discovered then). Erasmus had only one Greek manuscript for Revelation, and even that manuscript was missing its last page, which included the final verses of the book. For his edition, Erasmus compensated by translating the Latin Vulgate back into Greek. But Erasmus’ most glaring mistake concerned 1 John 5:7-8.

The issues surrounding this text are apparent by means of comparison:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

The left column is the rendering of the KJV (translated from the TR). The words in italics are not supported by any Greek manuscript prior to the tenth century (and are found in only four afterwards). The right column is the rendering of the ESV. The insertion, known as the Comma Johanneum, was found in editions of the Latin Vulage, but not before the ninth century (400 years after Jerome’s first edition). It originated as a marginal note affirming the Trinity (possibly by papal persuasion). Erasmus knew of its existence in the Vulgate, but had no intention of including the passage in the TR because he knew of no Greek manuscript that contained it. He published two editions of the TR without including the Comma Johanneum, but was criticized for it.

In an unguarded moment Erasmus promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length such a copy was found—or was made to order! As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus stood by his promise and inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but he indicates in a lengthy footnote his suspicions that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him.[1]

The presence of the Comma Johanneum in the TR is not an anomaly; there are other places were spurious passages are included and, therefore, made their way into the KJV. As D. A. Carson writes: “The textual basis of the TR is a small number of haphazardly collected and relatively late minuscule manuscripts. In about a dozen places its reading is attested by no known Greek manuscript witness.”[2] This proves that modern translations hold an overwhelming advantage over those of yesteryear (KJV, ASV, RSV). With the passing of time, more manuscripts are uncovered which strengthens the integrity of our textual base.

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[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford U P, 1992), 101.

[2] D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978).

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