Bible Translations:
A Few Words About Them

Why a few words? Because over the centuries, there have been so many Bible translations in so many languages that it is impossible to cover them all on one webpage. Here you will read briefly about:

bible translations, Hebrew bible

Ancient Versions And Masoretic Text

None of the works included in the Bible has come down to us in the form in which it was originally written by its author (or authors). The point is that like all literary monuments of the past biblical texts were copied by hand and therefore all sorts of slips, errors and distortions crept into them. Moreover, such distortions were then copied by later generations of scribes.

Many paragraphs of biblical texts bear the traces of so-called unintentional damage. Typically, those are errors of copyists (error scribae). Ancient scribes were not always sufficiently literate, attentive and accurate.
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    A copyist could, for example, confuse one
     of the Hebrew Bible        letter with the other visually similar to the
(Tanakh, Masoretic Text).    first one; and if copying was done from
        Find out more here.          dictation (as it often was the case), the
                                            copyist could misheard the words.

It happened that an inattentive copyist missed not one or two letters but a few words, the whole line or even the whole verse. If later he detected the error, he added the missing lines elsewhere in the text. Not suspecting the error, subsequent copyists of the manuscript copied the error and thus the whole verse could gain a foothold in quite an unusual place creating great difficulties in understanding the manuscript.

Moreover, biblical texts were repeatedly revised and edited in ancient times. It was not infrequent that the manuscript fell into the hands of a person who, for some reason, deemed appropriate to comment on the text or add a few words in explanation of paragraphs unclear or doubtful in his opinion. Sometimes those explanations, or glosses, were introduced directly into the text and sometimes they were written in the margins. However, subsequent copyists often put them directly into the text. Those amendments sometimes drastically altered the meaning of the original text.

There was one more cause that could lead, and sometimes actually led, to discrepancies in the copied texts. It happened that the Hebrew script, as well as the scripts of Aramaic and other ancient Semitic languages, had only letters meant to designate consonants. Here is a simple example. The combination of three consonants qtl means the root of the verb "to kill." Depending on the context, such combination can mean: "to kill," "to be killed," "he has killed," "he was killing," "he was killed," "kill," killing." You see the difficulties that would arise in the interpretation and reading of such word.

The existence of different versions of the same "holy books" disturbed rabbis who were interested in maintaining the high authority of their Scriptures. So starting from the first centuries AD, the rabbis began to unify the text of the Old Testament by comparing its different versions. That work was completed only by the 9th century.

Several generations of Jewish scholars and scribes, so-called masoretes (from Hebrew masorah meaning traditions) processed and revised the text of the Old Testament. As a result, the canonical text was compiled and recorded. Moreover, the mandatory number of letters, words and verses in each book of the Old Testament was estimated. (For example, the Pentateuch had to contain exactly 305,607 letters and 5,845 verses).

Ancient Bible Translations: Septuagint and Peshitta

The need for Bible translations from Hebrew into other languages emerged very early for a multitude of reasons. Starting from the 6th century BC, those Jews who lived in Palestine and other countries of the region gradually switched from Hebrew to Aramaic which dominated in Western Asia at that time.

Later on, after the conquests of Alexander of Macedon, the Greek language became predominant among Jews, especially among those Jews who lived in Egypt and Greek colonies in other places. Hebrew became mostly the tongue of the Bible and religious services and was incomprehensible to the majority of faithful Jews. That explained the need for translation of the Scripture into the other languages.

As far as we know, translation into Greek was the first Bible translation into a foreign language. Today, this translation is known as the Septuagint (from Latin septuaginta meaning seventy). According to the legend (which is, however, completely unreliable), the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (284 - 247 BC) invited 72 Jewish scholars to take part in that translation. Hence the name of the translation. In fact, different parts of the translation appeared at various times during the 3rd – 2nd centuries BC.

After the Septuagint, there were several more translations of the Old Testament into Greek: Aquila (2nd century AD), Theodotion and Symmachus (2nd century – 3rd century). They are extant today only in small fragments.

In the 2nd century BC, a Syriac translation of the Bible was made. It is known as Peshitta (means "simple"). The translation was made from Hebrew but under the significant impact of the Septuagint.

Bible Translations Into Latin. Vulgate

The first Bible translations into Latin were made apparently as early as the 1st century BC along with the spread of Christianity. However, those translations were based not on the Hebrew text, but on the Septuagint; and they were very imperfect. They reached us only in fragments.

At the end of the 4th century, St. Jerome made a new Bible translation into Latin. In the preface to his translation of the Book of Job, St. Jerome writes: "To understand this book, I have used the advice of one scholar rabbi from Lod, who is considered the best among the Jews and whom I rewarded with plenty of money."

In the other preface, he assures that he has examined all Greek versions, but in the translation "has strictly stuck to the Jewish truth." In fact, however, St. Jerome followed the Septuagint in many aspects and sometimes not only departed from the Hebrew text, but evidently misrepresented it. His aim was to bring the meaning closer to the ideas of Christianity.

Later on, the translation of St. Jerome, which is commonly known as Vulgate, was recognized by the Catholic Church as canonical.


Hebrew was replaced by Aramaic as the common spoken language in Judea. As a result, there was need for Aramaic translation of biblical and prayer books. So the so-called targums (targum means translation or interpretation in Aramaic) developed as fairly loose renderings of the original text, accompanied by more or less extensive interpretation.

Bible Translations Into Old Slavonic Language

The first Bible translation into the Old Slavonic language was made in the 9th century by Cyril and Methodius, great educators of Slavs. The translation was based on the Septuagint. A complete version of the translation has not reached us.

Later, individual books of the Old Testament were translated into Old Slavonic. Some of those translations were based on the Vulgate and others directly on the Hebrew original. The printed Ostrog Bible (1581) included translations of the Old Testament books which were based mostly on the Greek version. Under Peter I and Elizabeth, "reformers" introduced a number of amendments in that text.

Bible Translations Into Russian. Synodical Translation

Russian translations of individual books of the Old Testament started appearing as early as the 16th-17th centuries. But only at the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Bible Society initiated an attempt to publish a complete Bible translation in Russian. However, the highest representatives of the Orthodox Church strongly opposed that attempt.

In the end the leadership of the Orthodox Church in Russia had to abandon their position and undertook the publication of the Bible in Russian. The reasons for such decision were quite clearly expressed in a decree of the Holy Synod: "It is true that the Old Slavonic translation of the Bible has a lot of incomprehensible language... and many people need to turn to foreign translations of the Bible made outside the Orthodox Church... and therefore many people may fall into wrong interpretations."

By that time, Bible translations into all Western European languages had already been made. Any more or less educated person in Russia usually knew at least one foreign language and was able to read foreign translations of the Bible.

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