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The Bible was written across a period of several centuries in the languages of Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). With the changing of nations and cultures across the centuries, these original writings have been translated many times to make the Bible available in different languages. Following are the major versions and translations of the Bible that have been issued during the past 2,200 years. Just as God inspired people to write His Word, He also has preserved the Bible by using human instruments to pass it on to succeeding generations.
Ancient Versions. Ancient versions of the Bible are those that were produced in classical languages such as Greek, Syriac, and Latin. The following ancient versions were issued during a 600-year period from about 200 BC to A.D. 400.
Greek - The oldest Bible translation in the world was made in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek for the benefit of the Greek-speaking Jews of that city. A Jewish community had existed in Alexandria almost from its foundation by ALEXANDER the Great in 331 BC In two or three generations this community had forgotten its native Palestinian language. These Jews realized they needed the Hebrew Scriptures rendered into the only language they knew-Greek. The first section of the Hebrew Bible to be translated into Greek was the PENTATEUCH, or the first five books of the Old Testament, some time before 200 BC Other parts were translated during the next century.
This version is commonly called the SEPTUAGINT, from septuaginta, the Latin word for 70 (LXX). This name was selected because of a tradition that the Pentateuch was translated into Greek by about 70 elders of Israel who were brought to Alexandria especially for this purpose.
Only a few fragments of this version survive from the period before Christ. Most copies of the Greek Old Testament belong to the Christian era and were made by Christians. The John Rylands University Library, Manchester, England, owns a fragment of Deuteronomy in Greek from the second century B.C. Another fragment of the same book in Greek dating from about the same time exists in Cairo. Other fragments of the Septuagint have been identified among the texts known as the DEAD SEA SCROLLS, discovered in 1947.
When Christianity penetrated the world of the Greek-speaking Jews, and then the Gentiles, the Septuagint was the Bible used for preaching the gospel. Most of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are taken from this Greek Bible. In fact, the Christians adopted the Septuagint so wholeheartedly that the Jewish people lost interest in it. They produced other Greek versions that did not lend themselves so easily to Christian interpretation.
The Septuagint thus became the "authorized version" of the early Gentile churches. To this day it is the official version of the Old Testament used in the Greek Orthodox Church. After the books of the New Testament were written and accepted by the early church, they were added to the Old Testament Septuagint to form the complete Greek version of the Bible.
The Septuagint was based on a Hebrew text much older than most surviving Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. Occasionally, this Greek Old Testament helps scholars to reconstruct the wording of a passage where it has been lost or miscopied by scribes as the text was passed down across the centuries. An early instance of this occurs in Genesis 4:8, where Cain's words to Abel, "Let us go out to the field," are reproduced from the Septuagint in the RSV and other modern versions. These words had been lost from the standard Hebrew text, but they were necessary to complete the sense of the English translation.
8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. NIV
Aramaic targums - The word targum means "translation." After their return from CAPTIVITY in Babylon, many Jews spoke Aramaic, a sister-language, instead of the pure Hebrew of their ancestors. They found it difficult to follow the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures at worship. So they adopted the practice of providing an oral paraphrase into Aramaic when the Scriptures were read in Hebrew. The person who provided this paraphrase, the Turgeman, was an official in the synagogue.
One of the earliest examples of such a paraphrase occurs in Nehemiah 8:8. Because of the work of Ezra, the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament, was officially recognized as the constitution of the Jewish state during the days of the Persian Empire. This constitution was read publicly to the whole community after their return to Jerusalem. The appointed readers "read distinctly [or, with interpretation] from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them understand the reading."
8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. NIV
The phrase "with interpretation" appears as a marginal reading in several modern versions (for example, the RSV), but it probably indicates exactly what happened. The Hebrew text was read, followed by an oral paraphrase in Aramaic so everyone would be sure to understand.
This practice continued as standard in the Jewish synagogue for a long time. The targum, or paraphrase of the Hebrew, was not read from a written document, lest some in the congregation might think the authoritative law was being read. Some religious leaders apparently held that the targum should not be written down, even for use outside the synagogue.
In time, all objections to a written targum disappeared. A number of such paraphrases began to be used. Official Jewish recognition was given to two in particular-the Targum of Onkelos on the Pentateuch and the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets. Some were far from being word-for-word translations. As expanded paraphrases, they included interpretations and comments on the biblical text.
Some New Testament writers indicate knowledge of targumic interpretations in their quotations from the Old Testament. For example, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30) is a quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35; but it conforms neither to the Hebrew text nor to the Greek text of the Septuagint. This particular phrase comes from the Targum. Again, the words of Ephesians 4:8, "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men," are taken from Psalms 68:18. But the Hebrew and Septuagint texts speak of the receiving of gifts. Only the Targum on this text mentions the giving of gifts.
19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. NIV
30 For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." NIV
35 It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them." NIV
8 This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." NIV
18 When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious — that you, O LORD God, might dwell there. NIV
Syriac - The term Syriac describes the Eastern Aramaic language spoken in Northern Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers northeast of the land of Palestine. Large Jewish settlements were located there. At some point, the Old Testament must have been translated into Syriac for their benefit.
As Christianity expanded, this area became an important center of Christian life and action. The Christians in northern Mesopotamia inherited the Syriac Old Testament and added a Syriac translation of the New Testament to it. This "authorized version" of the Syriac Bible is called the Peshitta (the "common" or "simple" version). In its present form, it goes back to the beginning of the fifth century A.D. But there were earlier Syriac translations of parts of the New Testament. Two important manuscripts of the Gospels exist in an Old Syriac version, which probably goes back to about the second century A.D.
The Syriac-speaking church was very missionary-minded. It carried the gospel into Central Asia, evangelizing India and parts of China. It translated portions of the Bible from Syriac into the local languages of these areas which it evangelized. The earliest forms of the Bible in the languages of Armenia and Georgia (north of Armenia) were based on the Syriac version.
Coptic - Coptic was a highly developed form of the native language of the ancient Egyptians. Christianity was planted in Egypt while some of the twelve apostles were still alive, although there is no record of how it was carried there. With the development of a Christian community in Egypt, the need arose for a Bible in the Coptic tongue. To this day the Coptic Church of Egypt uses the Bohairic version of the Coptic Bible, translated in the early centuries from the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament into the dialect of Lower Egypt. Earlier still is the Sahidic version, in the dialect of Upper Egypt.