History of the English Bible - Lesson 4

Why So Many Versions?

Daniel Wallace
History of the English Bible
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Why So Many Versions?

I. The Era of Accuracy (or ‘formal equivalence’) (1881-1971)

A. The Revised Version (1881, 1885)

B. The American Standard Version (1901)

C. The Revised Standard Version (1946, 1952)

D. The New American Standard Version (1963, 1971; revised 1995)


II. The Era of Readability (or ‘functional equivalence’) (1970-1998)

A. The New English Bible (1970; revised 1989)

B. The New International Version (1973, 1978)


III. Other Formal Equivalent Translations Since 1971

A. The New King James Bible (1979, 1983)

B. The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

C. The Holman Christian Standard Version (2000, 2002?)

D. The English Standard Version (2001)


IV. A New Era Begins with the NET Bible (1998, 2001)

A. Commitment to Accessibility: http://www.netbible.org/

B. Principles of Translation

C. A True Study Bible


V. Conclusion


This short class covers the history of the English Bible from the time of Wycliffe to the present day. The four lectures are just over two hours total. These lectures were given as a part of the Staley Lecture Series at Lancaster Bible College.


Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of a four-part series of lectures that were delivered at Lancaster Bible College in March, 2001, for the Staley Bible Lectureship. Dr. Wallace is available as a conference speaker on “The History of the English Bible.” If your church is interested, contact him for details.

Preface: Two Great Periods of Bible Translation

There have been two great periods of English Bible translation in history—the sixteenth century and the twentieth century. In many respects, they are mirror images of each other. Each began with a certain kind of translation that was then followed for many generations. The Tyndale was the template for almost all 16th century Bibles; the RV set the pattern for most modern translations.

In the sixteenth century, the predominant concern in Bible translation was beauty; in the twentieth century, it was truth. No single translation at any time has captured all that the original text has to offer. Not only this, but none of the Bible translations were produced in a vacuum. There were political and religious groups behind the scenes that were driving much of the production.

And this is why there is no simple answer to the question, “What’s the best translation available today?” No translation can capture the full force of the original. The best we can do is to own several different kinds of translations. You may need one for serious study, another for casual reading, and another for memorizing. But don’t shortchange yourself by thinking that one Bible is all you need. The only Bible that can make that claim is the Greek and Hebrew Bible. This hour, we will discuss the various kinds of translations and, hopefully, help you to understand the nature of some of the more popular Bibles available today.

A. The Era of Accuracy (or ‘formal equivalence’) (1881-1971)

1. The Revised Version (1881, 1885)

As we noted yesterday, when the RV appeared, it was meant to be a revision of the KJV. It was even touted as “the triumph of King Truth over King James.” But the scholars who produced it were far more interested in a literal translation than in a beautiful translation. In spite of all the scholarly clamor for this new translation, most people—including clergy—still preferred the King James.

2. The American Standard Version (1901)

The RV was primarily a British effort, but there were a few Americans who worked on the translation. By contractual agreement, the Americans promised not to publish their own translation until the RV had been on the market at least fourteen years. This would give the RV time to become established and overtake the KJ. As it turned out, 14 years or 140 years would still not be enough time for this stiff British translation to displace the AV.

The ASV was significantly better English than the RV. But it was still quite stilted. It is the most literal translation ever done in English that qualifies as passable English. Like the RV, this translation was a revision of the KJ—the sixth revision. The ASV was immediately recognized as vastly superior to the RV. It became a great study Bible, though it is now outdated by new discoveries.

3. The Revised Standard Version (1946, 1952)

Nearly fifty years passed before the next major translation was done. The impoverished style of the ASV prompted the International Council of Religious Education to recommend a revision. The work began in 1937 and the committee of 32 scholars consciously tried to make the RSV preserve the qualities of the KJV that had made it so great. The RSV is a product of American scholarship. It is very much in the spirit of the KJV, and should be regarded as the seventh revision of the KJV.

On the first day of publication—September 30, 1952—it sold one million copies. Among many churches in America, it quickly replaced the AV. It is still one of the most popular translations ever done. It is powerful in its simplicity and directness. The conservative NT scholar, F. F. Bruce, gives it high praise: "for the English-speaking world as a whole there is no modern version of the Bible which comes so near as the R.S.V. does to making the all-purpose provision which the A.V. made for so many years." But not everyone took a liking to the RSV. It is in fact the most hated English translation of all time.

The first half of the 20th century saw two new major translations—the ASV and the RSV. But the second half of the 20th has seen a multitude of new translations. Why the change? What was the catalyst that spawned all these new versions? It was primarily the RSV—and fundamentally it was a negative reaction to the RSV.

Once again, we cannot understand Bible translations unless we put them in their historical context. When the RSV was produced, there was a distinctive religious and political climate. On the religious front, we were embroiled in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. This reached its apex in the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial when a high school biology teacher was put on trial in Tennessee for teaching Darwinian evolution in the classroom! And on the political front, immediately after World War II the Cold War with Communism commenced. This was the era of Senator McCarthy who smelled a communist under every rock. It should not surprise us that the strongest attacks on the RSV came from the religious and political conservatives.

Senator McCarthy condemned this new translation as communist propaganda. His sole basis was that the RSV used the word “comrade” in three verses. And since the communists referred to themselves as “comrades,” McCarthy surmised that the RSV was the result of a communist plot! Remarkably, he was successful in persuading some members of the military of his logic. The RSV was banned for use in the Air Force for several years.

But by far the deepest criticisms of the RSV came from religious fundamentalists. The RSV was sponsored by the National Council of Churches. This is a large group embodying several denominations, but very few fundamentalist churches were included. The doctrinal commitments of the NCC had some modernist leanings to them. So, when the RSV appeared, there was an instant suspicion on the part of some fundamentalists.

And they didn’t have to look too far to find ground for their suspicions. Isaiah 7.14 became the lightning rod that attracted their thunderbolt of criticism. In the KJV this verse said, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This famous passage is quoted in Matthew 1.23 where Matthew uses it as proof of the virgin birth of Christ. In the RSV, Isaiah 7.14 was a little different: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

There was an immediate reaction. Scores of pamphlets appeared with such titles as The Bible of Antichrist, The New Blasphemous Bible, and Whose Unclean Fingers Have Been Tampering With the Holy Bible—God’s Pure, Infallible, Verbally Inspired Word? Several fundamentalist preachers publicly burned the RSV. One of them took a blowtorch and in front of his congregation tried to light it on fire. When he had trouble getting it lit, he remarked that it was just like the devil because it was so hard to burn! Another preacher sent the ashes of the RSV to the senior editor.

1983—I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Bruce Metzger of Princeton Seminary. … While there, he showed me an urn full of ashes. I didn’t know what had been burned, but at first I thought this was a bizarre thing to show a guest. He said, “These are the ashes of the Revised Standard Version Bible.” Dr. Metzger had inherited the ashes from the previous senior editor. He quipped, “I am grateful to be a Bible translator in the 20th century. Nowadays, they only burn the translations rather than the translators!” But he quickly added that it was a terrible shame that people would treat the Word of God the way this preacher did.

Isaiah 7.14 in the RSV became the most divisive verse in 20th century translations. This text was a watershed for orthodoxy. The Hebrew word that the RSV translated as ‘young woman’ and that the KJV had translated as virgin was the word ALMAH. The debates raged so much in the churches across America that one observer noted that ALMAH had become the most recognized Hebrew word in the country!

The conservative reaction to the RSV’s translation of this one word gave birth to the NASB, the NIV, and a host of other translations. But just like the reactions to every new Bible translation that has ever come down the pike, the criticisms are often generated more by emotions than by evidence. Recall the words of the 19th century conservative Christian scholar, Henry Alford: “a translator of Holy Scripture must be… ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.”

This is precisely what the RSV translators did. The Hebrew word almah means ‘young woman’; it does not mean ‘virgin.’ But when it came to Matt 1.23, where Isa 7.14 is quoted, the RSV translators have ‘virgin’ because this is what the Greek word means. They are not denying the virgin birth of Christ; they are simply being honest with the Greek and Hebrew texts. Nevertheless, not all conservative scholars saw it this way.

4. The New American Standard Bible (1963, 1971; revised 1995)

The first major reaction to the RSV was the NASB. It was produced by the Lockman Foundation in La Habra, CA—a theologically conservative organization. The names of the translators were kept secret. But many of them, if not most, were Talbot and Dallas Seminary professors.

  • Revision of the ASV, not of the RSV.
  • Literal translation, very popular among conservative pastors, but not so popular in the pew. More literal than RSV, but also less readable. Many times it is simply Greek put in English dress.
  • “If the R.S.V. had never appeared, this revision of the A.S.V. would be a more valuable work than it is. As things are, there are few things done well by the N.A.S.B. which are not done better by the R.S.V.”
  • One of the things it does better, however, is that it is a better study Bible than the RSV.
  • Still, it has curiously antiquated features—features that trace their roots in the Geneva Bible—such as indenting each verse and using italics for words that are not in the original.
  • Sometimes, the translators are too rigid in their understanding of Greek and Hebrew For example, they often translate the Greek perfect as though it were an English perfect. But the two do not mean the same thing. The Greek perfect should often be translated like an English present tense. In Eph 2.8, for example, the KJV has ‘for by grace ye are saved’ while the NASB has ‘for by grace you have been saved.’ But ‘you have been saved’ in English offers no comfort to the present time since it says nothing about the continuation of salvation. The Greek perfect actually has the force of both: you have been saved in the past and you are still saved. In this instance, the KJV translators did a better job than the NASB largely because they understood English better than the NASB translators. Further, one of my professors, S. Lewis Johnson, once commented in class that the NASB was wrong in some verse in Revelation. I don’t recall which one. But he went on to say, “That’s because the person who translated Revelation was dozing in class when I taught him that text!” Dr. Johnson stands, to a large degree, behind much of the NASB New Testament, though without wanting to take credit for much.

B. The Era of Readability (or ‘functional equivalence’) (1970-1998)

Even before the NASB appeared, there was already an increasing restlessness about the nature of translation. In Great Britain, because of the disastrous response to the RV, biblical scholars decided that they could no longer patch up the KJV. Something entirely different needed to be done. In America, there was an equal reaction to the RSV—both because of Isa 7.14 and because of the style of translation the RSV was.

The NEB and NIV would be born as a result. What marks both of these translations out is that they are the first major translations done by Protestants that are completely new works. Neither one is in the Tyndale—King James lineage. Neither one is a literal or formal equivalent translation. Both of them represented a new school of thought about Bible translation.

The older school said that all translation needs to be as literal as possible, or word-for-word. This is called formal equivalent. But that is not always possible. Idioms in one language do not always transfer over into another. E.g., the Greek expression that a woman is pregnant is literally, “she is having it in the belly.” When the OT speaks of God’s anger, it says, “God’s nostrils are enlarged.” Further, a major problem with formal equivalence is that although it may work on a cognitive level, it often fails on an emotional level. The goal of a translator is not only to reproduce the message of the original, but also to reproduce the impact of that original message. This requires another approach.

The newer school of translation argues for dynamic equivalence. This is more phrase-for-phrase translation. It is more interpretive.

1. The New English Bible (1970; revised 1989)

The first completely new English Bible since Tyndale was the NEB. It was conceived in 1946, but not completed until 1970. Done by British scholars; perhaps an overreaction to the dismal failure of the RV. Nevertheless, it is a very fresh and very readable translation. It is the most beautiful translation of the 20th century and in many places has moving and powerful passages.

The great NT prof at Cambridge, C. H. Dodd, was the project director. Dodd had a brilliant mind and a quick wit. He had memorized the entire NT—in Greek! He knew several languages, ancient and modern. And his skills in both Greek and English would be the 20th century equivalent of Tyndale’s in the 16th century.

Just two examples: Luke 11.48—In Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the religious leaders, the passage in Greek is beautifully terse. But many translations get wordy and cumbersome. The KJV: “Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres.” NEB: “and so [you] testify that you approve of the deeds your fathers did; they committed the murders and you provide the monuments.” This comes as close to picking up the snappy feel of the original as any translation I’ve seen. John 1.1—Virtually all translations follow the KJV, which follows Tyndale: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

NEB is very bold to depart from that tradition rendering here: “In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was.” Although this is not as literal as the traditional rendering, it is actually more faithful to the meaning of the original. John is not saying that the Word is the same person as God; he’s saying that he shares the same essence that God has. In the original Greek, this statement is the most concise way that John could both affirm that Christ is equal to the Father and distinct from the Father. The NEB captures that truth better than any other translation.


  • Not a good study Bible, because it is so free in its wording.
  • At times, it really misses the mark of what the Greek text means.

2. The New International Version (1973, 1978)

Like the NASB, this is another evangelical reaction to the RSV.

  • Although 100 scholars from many denominations and three countries worked on it, it is largely an American effort.
  • First major American translation not in the KJV tradition.
  • Highly readable, but hardly elegant.
  • By 1995, outsold KJV. #1 book in the world. Over 100 million sold.


  • Readability seems to have been a higher priority than anything else. Creates shorter sentences, but the continuity of thought is often lost. Example: 1 Peter 5.6-7: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” … [explain ‘cast’ is a participle—it explains how to humble ourselves, by casting our cares. Not two separate ideas, but totally connected. To humble yourself before God is not a negative act; you do it positively by giving him your troubles!
  • 100 scholars worked on this—that’s too many. Not all well-qualified. I do not know how their opinions were weighed, but with this many scholars it seems that the lowest common denominator could reign in several places. That is, if this was done by a democratic process at all, the translation would often have the least undesirable reading rather than the most desirable to some. Democracy is a great leveler of elegance, exchanging great literature for mundane clarity.
  • It is so readable that it has no memorable expressions, nothing that lingers in the mind. This is a serious problem for the NIV that is not always acknowledged.

C. Other Formal Equivalent Translations Since 1971

1. The New King James Bible (1979, 1983)

The NKJB is another formal equivalent translation. It significantly updates the KJV, making it much more accurate of a translation. But there are two problems with this translation. First, the translation is much more like the NASB than the KJV. And that means that the beauty of the original KJ has been sacrificed. But what do we get in exchange? Nothing that can’t be found in the RSV or the NASB. Second, the NKJ is based on the same Greek text as the old KJ! None of the editors believed that the Erasmus text always went back to the original. In fact, even though they were quite sympathetic to that kind of text, they felt that the Textus Receptus of the KJB was wrong in nearly 2000 places! And still they used it to translate from. Nevertheless, if someone wants to understand the old KJB better, the NKJB is the best tool to do it with.

2. The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

By 1989, the RSV was nearly 40 years old. A lot of things had changed in those 40 years. For one thing, several significant MS discoveries had been made. For another, the English language had undergone some important alterations. In Psalm 50.9, the RSV had God say, “I will accept no bull from your house”! In 1952 English this meant that God would not accept any sacrifices, including bulls. But in 1989 “I will accept no bull” means something decidedly different. It was time to revise the revision once again.

English had changed in some other ways, too. No longer was “man” commonly understood to be a generic term that could include women. And all older translations used ‘man’ in this way; all older translations were gender exclusive. A new translation was needed—one that was current with the language. Not only this, but it had become politically incorrect in some circles to use the generic “he” when referring to a mixed group. So, both because of language shifts and, in my view, cultural pressures, the NRSV became one of the first gender-inclusive translations of the Bible. For example, in John 14.23, the old RSV records Jesus’ words this way: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The problem with this translation is that it excludes women in today’s English. And the Greek text does not exclude women—there is in fact no Greek word for man in this verse!

Now, an appropriate fix would be to render the verse, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” This, in fact, best represents the meaning of the Greek. But the NRSV views even that translation as gender-exclusive. It renders this verse as follows: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” The problem with this rendering is that in order to avoid being politically incorrect, the NRSV has actually misrepresented the text. The point of the passage is the intimacy that both the Father and the Son can have with each one of us. By using the plural throughout, that one-on-one intimacy is wiped out.

In some other passages the meaning is changed in even more dramatic ways. In 1 Tim 3.2, e.g., instead of saying that the elder should be ‘husband of one wife’ the NRSV says that the elder should be ‘married only once.’ No longer is the requirement that an elder be a man found in the translation. It is unfortunate that the NRSV has gone to such lengths to maintain a gender-inclusive rendering. However, it could have gone much, much further. When the NRSV was getting under way, one of the translators on the committee suggested that God be treated as a woman. If this suggestion had been approved, the Lord’s Prayer would have begun, “Our Mother who is in heaven”! The Great Commission would be: “Baptize them in the name of the Mother, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”!

Dr. Bruce Metzger, who was the chairman of the committee, dealt with this issue swiftly and decisively. Dr. Metzger is a conservative Christian, and a diplomatic genius. He could sell ice cubes to eskimos; he could tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip! So he responded to this woman translator: “Yes, I believe we should call God a ‘she.’ … And we should call the devil a she, too!” That was the end of the discussion. Overall, the NRSV is an excellent translation whose only real flaw is its gender-inclusive thrust. Not only does this change the meaning of the text in some places, but it also is bad English style.

3. The Holman Christian Standard Version (2000, 2001?)

In 1997, an article by Susan Olasky in World Magazine shocked the evangelical community when it suggested that the upcoming revision of the NIV was going to become gender-inclusive—just like the NRSV. This one article created a huge uproar. The possibility that the most popular Bible translation in the world would become gender-inclusive was too much. In 1952, a single woman (the woman of Isa 7.14) was the prime mover in most Bible translations for the next several decades. Now, 45 years later, all women—women as a class—were doing the same thing!

The Holman Christian Standard Version, sponsored by the SBC, is in some measure a reaction to the revised NIV that hasn’t (in 2001) even appeared yet. In some respects, this translation represents a fracturing of the evangelical community. It seems that Bibles have become political and religious pawns once again. Nevertheless, regardless of the initial impetus behind this translation, it is probably going to be a very good work. I haven’t read much of it, but what I have read looks pretty good to me.

4. The English Standard Version (2001)

Then there’s the English Standard Version. This translation is an evangelical reaction to the NRSV. The publisher, Crossway Books, bought the rights to the RSV and is now in the process of revising the RSV in a direction that is different from the NRSV. A team of scholars is in the process of updating the translation without making it gender-inclusive. It promises to be a good translation, though for some tastes, a bit too formal. It is consciously in line with KJV.

D. A New Era Begins with the NET Bible (1998, 2001)

1. Commitment to Accessibility: www.netbible.org

A new era in Bible translating began with the NET Bible. What makes this translation unique is that it is not reacting to the RSV, the NIV, or the NRSV! And it is not in the King James tradition, which makes the New English Translation the first completely new major translation in a quarter of a century. I’d like to tell you a number of things about this translation, but we’re out of time once again. So, I’ll tell you the three most important things about the NET Bible.

First, I’ve given you the website address—“netbible.org.” This Bible is free on the internet—and it will be free forever. You can not only download it and print it off, but you can also read about it on this website.

We’re in a situation today in which pastors are using a different translation from their congregations. Pastors, especially evangelical pastors, tend to prefer more formal equivalent translations such as RSV or NASB. But laypeople tend to prefer more readable translations, especially the NIV. This is parallel to the situation that gave rise to the KJV: Bishops and Geneva. It is our desire to bridge this gap with the NET Bible. Already a few churches have adopted the NET Bible as its official translation. It is our prayer that others will follow and that the gulf between pulpit and pew will be bridged.

2. Principles of Translation

Second, we have traced the history of the English Bible through three major periods: the period of elegance, the period of accuracy, and the period of readability. The NET Bible is the first translation that attempts to hit all these marks—accurate, readable, and elegant. But frankly, these goals are often in conflict. Nevertheless, it is the desire of the editors that this translation will be as accurate as the formal equivalent translations, as readable as the dynamic equivalent translations, and more elegant than either.

  • first to be beta-tested. And the process has been open to all. You can even now send in comments and suggestions. 100,000s have seen it on-line and have made suggestions.
  • first evangelical translation to translate Isa 7.14 as ‘young woman.’
  • first modern conservative translation to include Apocrypha.
  • translators were picked because they had all taught these books in the original.

3. A True Study Bible

Third, the NET Bible has more notes in it than any other Bible in history. There are currently over 60,000 notes for the whole Bible. Here’s what Chuck Swindoll, President of Dallas Seminary had to say about these notes: “There are many wonderful things I could say about the NET Bible, but the most important is this: the NET Bible is a Bible you can trust. The translation is clear, accurate, and powerful. And the notes, those wonderful notes! They bring to the layman scholarly insights and discussions that have up till now been accessible only to those trained in the biblical languages. If you are serious about studying Scripture, get a copy of the NET Bible.”

That’s all I have time to tell you about the NET Bible.

E. Conclusion

Let me conclude. Are we better off today with all these translations—or worse? What are the real differences?

Except for the NKJV, virtually all modern translations are following the most ancient MSS. So, the textual basis (though different in a few particulars) is largely the same. And even here, no cardinal doctrine is at stake in any of these textual differences. God has preserved his word in such a way that a person could get saved reading the KJV, Tyndale, Bishops’, RSV, NIV, REB or NET.

As for the translation, there are three different flavors: accurate, readable, elegant. Each Christian should own at least one of each flavor. I recommend RSV, ESV, and NASB for accurate, NIV for readable, and REB for elegance. Or, what tries to combine all of these, the NET. And for study, the NET Bible is by far the best.

Does all this cause confusion? Have we somehow lost the sure Word of God? No, not at all. The reality is that the certainty that the King James Bible provided for 270 years could only happen if the church and state combined forces, as they did in 1611 England. But things are different now, especially in America. I don’t think we really want the U.S. Senate telling us what Bible we should have in our churches!

For the first 1500 years of the church’s existence, we had only handwritten MSS. But the church was able to survive with that. And those MSS differed more than the modern translations do today! It is only with the invention of the printing press that we have been able to embrace the myth of certainty about all the particulars of the wording of the Bible. Even though there are significant differences in the wording and style of these new Bibles, they all proclaim the same message.

Even with the proliferation of Bibles today, Christians are reading their Bibles less and less. I believe the evangelical church has only 50 years of life left. 50 years left of evangelicalism because of marginalization of the Word of God. We need another Reformation! The enemy of the gospel now is not religious hierarchy but moral anarchy, not tradition but entertainment. The enemy of the gospel is Protestantism run amock; it is an anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge, feel-good faith that has no content and no convictions. Part of the communal repentance that is needed is a repentance about the text. And even more importantly, there must be a repentance with regard to Christ our Lord. Just as the Bible has been marginalized, Jesus Christ has been ‘buddy-ized.’ His transcendence and majesty are only winked at, as we turn him into the genie in the bottle, beseeching God for more conveniences, more luxury, less hassle, and a life without worries or lack of comfort. He no longer wears the face that the apostles recognized. Or, as Erasmus remarked, “When you read the Greek New Testament, you can see the face of Jesus more clearly than if you were one of his disciples”! A bit of hyperbole, but the point is worth underscoring: The God we worship today no longer resembles the God of the Bible. Unless we return to him through a reading and digesting of the scriptures—through a commitment to the text, the evangelical church will become irrelevant, useless, dead.