English Bible Translations

The history of Bible translation

The Bible in the early Middle Ages

For centuries the main version of the Bible used in the British Isles and throughout Europe, was the Vulgate, Saint Jerome's Latin translation from Greek and Hebrew, dating from about 400 C.E.

The Psalms and the Gospels, which were used regularly in the mass, were translated from Latin into many languages from the 5th century onwards. Between the 8th and 10th centuries free translations were made into Old English (the language used by the Anglo-Saxons). Some of these translations survive in later manuscripts.

As very few people could read, the Bible was probably best known to ordinary people through hearing sermons.

The Bible in the later Middle Ages

Richard RolleMany people would have known the Bible best through wall paintings and stained glass in churches and through the telling of the stories through drama. However, from the fourteenth century onwards interest in making the Bible text available to ordinary people in English grew. Richard Rolle, a hermit and writer of spiritual texts, translated the Psalms and produced other texts in English for those who could not read Latin. The production of these kinds of texts stimulated major developments in the English language, which had hitherto been inadequate to express much of the detail and subtlety of the Latin.

John Wyclif

John WyclifJohn Wyclif was an Oxford scholar who disagreed with many practices of the Church and asserted that the Bible was the sole authority for Christians. It is doubtful that he translated more than a small proportion of the Bible, the rest being produced by his collaborators, but it has been known as the Wyclif Bible ever since. The translation itself was proscribed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and condemned by the Provincial Council of Oxford in 1408. Wyclif's followers, known as ‘Lollards', faced persecution. The Wyclif translation was however in use throughout the 15th century.

Early modern English translations

Tyndale's Bible

William Tyndale lived from c. 1492-1536. Although he had a great influence on the movement towards translation if the Bible into the languages spoken by ordinary people, it is clear that the wish for a vernacular Bible existed throughout catholic Europe long before he was born.

Tyndale's translation was published in 1526, in Worms in Germany, where he was then living. He had spent much time with Martin Luther, whose German version of the Bible had been published in 1522. He avoided Wyclif's work, apparently regarding it as old-fashioned; he wanted his translation to be expressed in the language of his day. English was developing at an extraordinary speed in this period, perhaps even faster than it is developing today.

More on Tyndale's sources: Tyndale was familiar with the Vulgate, Luther's translation and the parallel Greek and Latin New Testament translation by Erasmus (a Dutch scholar who worked for some years in both Oxford and Cambridge). Tyndale revised his English translation twice, in 1534 and 1536, working from the Greek.

Tyndale's version has stood the test of time in its sensitivity to the English language, and was clearly used to a considerable extent by the committee that produced the King James Bible. Tyndale's Bible was the first English translation to appear after the introduction of printing, which greatly increased the speed at which large numbers of copies could be produced.

Coverdale's Bible

Miles Coverdale (1488-1568) produced his translation in 1535, in Zurich:

  • In 1534 Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church, and an English version of the Bible was timely

  • The new Protestantism needed a Bible, but in 1537 Coverdale's first translation was superseded by a new version consisting of some of Tyndale's version and much of Coverdale's

  • A revision of this by Coverdale was published in 1539, and became known as the Great Bible because it was so large

  • There were six more revisions published within a year, each with a preface by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer; for this reason it has become known as the Cranmer Bible

  • Its real significance is that it was licensed by Henry VIII, who ruled that a copy of it should be placed in every church in the country.


In 1553, the catholic queen of England, Mary, banned the reading of the Bible in churches. Ironically this was followed by an almost frenzied production of new translations.

The ‘Geneva Bible'

In 1557 William Whittingham translated the New Testament in Geneva, The Geneva Biblewhere he was living. Geneva was the centre of much lively reforming Protestantism at this time. In 1560 he was one of a small group who collaborated to produce the Geneva Bible, much handier in size than the Great Bible and very popular with the Puritans of the next 80 or 90 years, during which 140 editions were produced. It was introduced into Scotland in 1579 and adopted as the standard translation there.

Shakespeare makes many references to the Bible in his works, often to the Geneva Bible, although he also refers to the Rheims Bible, a Catholic translation published in 1582. The Geneva Bible was finally banned by Archbishop Laud in 1644.

The ‘Bishops' Bible'

In 1568 the Bishops' Bible appeared, a revision of the Great Bible by a committee of bishops led by Archbishop Parker, who was determined that the learned clergy of the Anglican Church should produce an authorised translation more sympathetic to the Catholic position than the Geneva Bible.

More on the Bishops' Bible: The existence of such a translation marked the establishment of an official Bible which could be the basis of a national church separate from Rome but avoiding what were seen as the extremes of the Geneva Bible. The rush to print the new translation showed that the Bible was to be the focus not just of a new church but also a rallying point for the national consciousness, particularly in relation to the threat from Spain, which was then the superpower of the world and a Catholic country.

Altogether by the beginning of the 17th century there were over 50 translations of the Bible into English; the need for a vernacular Bible was clearly heartfelt.

An authoritative state Bible

When James I came to the throne in 1603, he agreed to a request from churchmen to produce a new version of the Bible in English. The outcome was the great King James Bible of 1611.

More on translating the King James Bible: Six translating committees were set up, totalling about 50 men, based in Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge, each charged with producing translations of specific parts of the Old and New Testaments. They were told to base their work on the Bishops' Bible, referring to the Tyndale, Coverdale, the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible when they thought the wording of the Bishops' Bible was unsatisfactory.

The work was immediately prescribed for use in all Anglican churches and services, which is why it is also known as the Authorised Version.

The influence of the King James Bible

Its influence has been more profound on the linguistic habits of English-speakers than any other book; some examples appear below of words and phrases that are in common use today, even though those who use them may be completely unaware of their origin. Its sonorities and rhythms have helped to shape the language for nearly 400 years.

More on familiarity with the King James Bible: Owing to ongoing religious controversy laws existed which required people to attend church weekly. When in church people heard the language of the King James Bible and absorbed the religion it expressed. It was normal for people to know large parts of the Bible by heart. For centuries a copy of the Bible was to be found in virtually every house, read and consulted regularly. People could express their reactions to life in biblical language – specifically the language of the King James Bible - because it was so powerful and so familiar.

Only in the mid 20th century did more modern translations start to appear, of which there have been many since, reflecting the rapid changes in the use of English.

Biblical translation and language change

The history of biblical translation is so long that it contains a huge amount of evidence about how English had changed over the centuries. Any part of the Bible could be chosen as an example; here are three versions of the Lord's Prayer (also known as the ‘Our Father') from Matthew 6:9-13.

1. Wyclif's translation, 1382

The modern slashes printed here mark the division between the verses. The familiar ‘for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, now and for ever, Amen.' that ends the prayer today was not part of the original prayer. It became customary to add these words later.

Oure fadir that art in hevenes halowid be thi name / thi kingdom come to / be thi wille don in erthe as in hevene / geve to us this day oure breed ovir othir substaunce / and forgeve to us oure dettis, as we forgeven to our dettouris / and lede us not in to temptacioun: but delyver us fro yvel. Amen.
  • Notice how little punctuation there is. There was not much punctuation at all in the 14th century because as far as most people were concerned written language – like the Lord's Prayer – would have been read aloud in church with the verse divisions helping the reader find the sense and the rhythm. Punctuation developed slowly as a series of pointers to silent readers of a text, so that they could work rapidly through it, gaining the meaning without stumbling

  • fadir' (father) was printed with a ‘d', but would have been pronounced ‘father'. The letter that looks like a ‘d' here was a letter which survived from the Anglo-Saxon alphabet called ‘eth' (ð). It was pronounced like the modern ‘th', which is presumably why it was superseded
  • Halowid' means ‘hallowed' or ‘blessed' We still use the word when we talk about about Hallowe'en, that is, the eve of (or day before) the Christian feast of All Hallows (All Saints)

  • erthe' (earth) was printed in 1382 with another old letter originally from the the Anglo-Saxon alphabet (þ). It was called ‘thorn' and was also pronounced like the modern ‘th'
  • ovir' (over) means ‘above', and refers to holy communion – it means something like ‘our bread above (i.e. higher than) the substance of (earthly) bread', and is a clumsy translation of the Latin ‘supersubstantialem'.

Try reading this passage aloud, changing your pronunciation to follow the spelling as closely as you can, and use the slashes as commas or full stops. The meaning will probably become clearer as you do so, but some obscurities persist. Understanding the first line will be easier if you think that ‘thi kingdom come to' should either have the word ‘the' (i.e. ‘thee', or ‘you' in modern English), so that it reads ‘thi kingdom come to the', or ‘to' should be left out –‘thi kingdom come', which is the modern wording.

The English of Wyclif (technically called Middle English) had developed out of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. It was still developing fast, and Wyclif had to use several words taken from French because English (or the Anglo-Saxon part of English) did not have them: ‘substaunce', ‘dettis', ‘dettoris', ‘temptacioun', and ‘deliver'.

2. The King James Bible, 1611

The King James Bible of 1611 prints the prayer like this (the numbers refer to the verse numbers):

9 Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

The language has come a long way since 1382, and can be read much more easily.

  • Today people say 'who art in Heaven' (rather than which).

  • The prayer still used words like ‘art', ‘thy' and ‘thine'. Although these are familiar (because many people learnt this prayer), the modern English verb form is to use the words is / your / yours.

  • Much of the rest of the passage reads and sounds like modern English.

  • ‘Trespasses' is used instead of ‘debts', and ‘those who trespass against us' is used instead of ‘debtors'

  • The spelling is modern, and punctuation has developed a great deal.

  • ‘Daily bread' now lacks the clumsy echo of the Latin original ‘breed ovir othir substaunce', and is understood to refer to spiritual needs without this being spelled out.

  • The last sentence has now been incorporated into the prayer.

More on the language of prayer: Some people argue that religious language, while needing to be clear in meaning, should be ‘heightened', out of respect for God and for the process of prayer, and that contemporary language is not necessarily always right for worship. When the King James Bible came out in 1611 its language was not up-to-date but echoed earlier usage. Parts of it came from the Geneva Bible (1557-60) from Coverdale's work (1535-41) and even from Wyclif's translation (1382).

3. The Good News Bible, 1976

The Good News Bible, a 20th century version, translates the prayer as follows:

Our Father in Heaven:
May your holy name be honoured:
may your kingdom come;
may your will be done on earth as it is heaven.
Give us today the food we need*.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.
Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us from the Evil One**.

* variation: ‘for today' / ‘for tomorrow'

** Some manuscripts add

For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever. Amen
  • The language and the punctuation are now clearly modern

  • The opening is printed rather as if it were the opening of a letter (as if it read ‘Dear Father in Heaven'), followed by a colon to show that what follows is addressed to God

  • ‘Hallowed (blessed) be thy name' has become ‘May your holy name be honoured'. The word ‘holy' has the same force as ‘hallowed', but is supported by ‘honoured'

  • ‘May' has the sense of a wish - ‘please allow (or grant) that'

  • ‘The food we need' still seems to mean (or include in its meaning) spiritual food, but ‘daily' has now become ‘for today' or ‘for tomorrow', presumably to be added according to the time or circumstances in which the prayer is read

  • ‘Trespasses' has been modernised to ‘wrongs', as the meaning of trespass has now narrowed to the context of ‘illegal entry onto private property'

  • ‘Lead us not into temptation' has become ‘Do not bring us to hard testing', which brings the word order up to date. If we wanted to keep ‘lead' today we might think that ‘Do not lead us into temptation …' would be more suitable than ‘Lead us not …', but ‘Do not lead us to hard testing' seems wrong. ‘Do not lead us …' is an older usage, and ‘hard testing' is a modern expression – though it could be argued that ‘temptation' is at least as clear as ‘hard testing'

  • ‘Deliver us from evil' has become ‘keep us from the Evil One', where ‘keep' has the sense of ‘save' and evil is personified as Satan

  • The optional addition of the last sentence copies the 1611 version in ‘For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever', with ‘yours' replacing ‘thine'. ‘For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory …' would be equally clear.


This version of the Lord's Prayer comes from an edition of the Bible that assumes readers coming to it for the first time will want something immediately approachable. The weighty vocabulary and the ritual tone and rhythms of earlier versions, deriving perhaps from public reading in church, are now omitted. Instead there is language seen as more suited to private reading or to reading in the company of others when quiet, conversational tones are appropriate. It therefore reflects not only the language changes that have occurred since 1611 but people's expectations of Bible reading.

Questions of translation

The possible variations mentioned above show that translation of the Bible raises a number of questions:

  • Where does biblical translation start – with the Aramaic, the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, or with a combination of these?

  • How far should translation take account of earlier English versions?

  • Is the translation to be suited to English speakers from round the world, with all their differences in expression and meaning?

  • How far is translation affected by a particular interpretation of Christianity?

Clearly we have not seen the last English version of the Bible.

The influence of the King James Bible on English Literature

The Bible has had two main influences on English language and literature: direct quotation and a habit of thought.

Direct quotations

Many phrases from the Bible are still heard in ordinary conversation today, even though those who use the phrases may not always realise where they come from. Here are some examples:

  • from Exodus: 'To spy out the land'; 'Be sure your sin will find you out'

  • from Luke: 'He that is not with me is against me'

  • from Judges: 'The people arose as one man'

  • from John: 'The truth shall make you free'

  • from 1 Samuel: 'A man after his own heart'; 'I have played the fool'

  • from Job: I am escaped by the skin of my teeth

  • from Matthew: 'The signs of the times'

See the Common sayings from the Bible repository for lots more.

Ways of thinking

Some quotations from the Bible express particular ways of looking at the world:

  • ‘And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.' Matthew 19:24
    Matthew is here reporting the answer of Christ to a rich young man who asked what he had to do to enter the kingdom of heaven. The young man could not bring himself to sell all that he possessed and to give the proceeds to the poor – that is, he was more concerned with his worldly possessions than with his prospects for eternal life. These days the expression is often used simply to refer to something very difficult.

  • ‘Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours …And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him …And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their; and said father and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.' Genesis 37:3; Genesis 37:23; Genesis 37:32
    Joseph was a younger son much loved by his father and given more privileges than his older brothers. The coat was a sign of this. The jealous brothers stole the coat, sold Joseph into slavery, stained the coat with blood and brought it to their father to make him think Joseph was dead. The story is told in the musical Joseph and His Techni-coloured Dreamcoat, a title and a story now familiar to everyone.
    Ironically, the ‘coat of many colours' may be a mistranslation (it now seems more likely that the coat had long sleeves, a sign of favour or higher rank) but the phrase has become embedded in the language suggesting the power possessed by the language of the King James Bible to shape people's imaginations.

  • ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.' Leviticus 24:20
    These are the stern words of God to Moses, repeated later in Deuteronomy 19:21. They establish a law governing relationships between people, and are often quoted as a simple prescription for justice. In the New Testament Christ preaches a new justice of forgiveness and love.

  • ‘Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly in him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.' Ecclesiastes 10:1
    These days ‘a fly in the ointment', referring to a drawback or disadvantage in some plan, is almost like a proverb.

  • ‘But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.' Matthew 18:6 (also Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2)
    Here Christ speaks of the need for humans to become like little children in their innocence and faith. To damage anyone's faith is a sin earning this grim penalty. Nowadays the phrase is often used to refer to a handicap suffered by someone.

  • ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.' Ecclesiastes 1:9
    The speaker points out that human ideas about the world and about themselves do not compare with eternity and the world of God. It is used now to express a humorous recognition that even within worldly life things repeat themselves and what seems to us a new thing is not in fact new. The expression is now slightly modernised: ‘There is nothing new under the sun.'

  • ‘And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.'And he shall set the sheep on his right hand but the goats on his left.' Matthew 25:32-33
    Matthew is writing about the second coming of Christ at the end of the world, when people are to be judged. The division is between those destined for heaven and those sent to hell, but today the expression refers to any division to be made between groups.

See the Common sayings from the Bible repository for further examples.

Biblical references in English literature

The references above suggest that much biblical quotation goes unrecognised. Biblical reference on a larger scale – at the level of whole incidents or ideas within the Bible – runs through much of Western literature. It would be hard to recognise English literature if all works that rest in some way on the Bible were to be removed. A few examples might make this clear. The story of Lot's wife (turned into a pillar of salt) appears in several of Blake's poems, in James Joyce's work and in D. H. Lawrence's poem ‘She Looks Back'. It is not hard to see the connection between the hunt for the white whale in Melville's Moby Dick and the story of Jonah and the whale in the Old Testament or the story of Eden and the Fall in Beckett's Waiting For Godot. The story of Cain can be seen in Arthur and Mordred in the Arthurian stories; it appears in Coleridge's The Wanderings of Cain (and also in a slightly different way in The Ancient Mariner), and also in Blake's The Ghost of Abel. Cain's eternal guilt for murdering his brother can be seen again in Conrad's Lord Jim.

These writers referred to biblical stories because of the power these stories had to move people. Not only were the stories well known, but they could be varied for effect for particular purposes because the writers knew they could rely on the knowledge of their readers to recognise the variations.

More on individual Saxon translations: The famous Lindisfarne Gospels, produced in the 7th century and now in the British Library, have an Old English gloss added above the text by a monk called Aldred around the year 1000. Other early Vulgate manuscripts, e.g. the Vespasian Psalter of the early 9th century and the Rushworth Gospels in the 10th century, also had glosses added. These early manuscripts were glorious works of art, produced and kept in monasteries (later museums and libraries) as artistic treasures.

The Benedictine monk Aelfric (c.955-1020) translated The Pentateuch and most of the historical books of the Old Testament, and other Benedictines produced The West Saxon Gospels (i.e. the Gospels in the West Saxon dialect). Aelfric also translated The Heptateuch (the five books of Moses with the books of Joshua and Judges) from the Old Testament. While a full translation of the Bible from Latin was not produced, there were many devotional books and books of sermons produced in Old English.

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