UPDATE: I have replaced the chart introduced in this post here, along with a list of changes and some clarifications.
While I and so many others presently work to see the Bible translated into languages for the first time, a growing proliferation of Bible translations remains available to the English speaking world. I have my favorites, but it occurred to me that I really didn’t know that much about all the other versions, especially those that preceded my generation. Enter Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. While this book is not entirely devoted to English versions, it spends the majority of its pages on them. The time he does spend on ancient versions, particularly the Septuagint and the Vulgate, provide an important foundation for understanding some of the bases for the English versions that followed. Metzger provides a brief synopsis for every major English translation from Wycliffe to present day. (Since the book was published in 2001, more recent developments like the ESV, TNIV, HCSB, and NET Bible are absent.) He covers details including the circumstances under which these translations were undertaken, their aims, base texts, translation philosophies, idiosyncrasies, and critical and popular reception.
I found this book to be an easy but very informative read. It filled in many holes in my knowledge of English versions, and gave me an appreciation for their history. Occasionally, Metzger provided biographical sketches of individuals who took on a translation of their own, and some of these were utterly fascinating. One of my favorites was that of Julia E. Smith, the first woman to translate the Bible into English. A well-educated Adventist, she believed the world would end in 1843. When this failed to happen, she suspected that deficiencies in the King James Version resulted in erroneous calculations. Purely out of personal interest, she set out to produce her own translation of the Bible in order to uncover the “literal meaning” of the text. Meanwhile, a scandal emerged at her family farm because of an increase in property taxes. She fought this with the help of the women’s rights movement that was just beginning. To prove the point that women can do anything men can do, she published her Bible, which otherwise may never have seen the light of day.
As I read, the relationships between many of the English versions became very evident. Many were revisions or were influenced or inspired in some way by previous efforts. Because I like to process things visually, I decided to make a chart depicting the versions covered in this book and their relationships to one another. (I added some other more recent versions as well.) I was happy with the way it visually illustrates some general observations I made while reading this book:
1) The web-like appearance of the many English translations that were made in the 1500s brings out their interdependence on one another.
2) It can be clearly seen that the King James Version emerged from a crowded Bible market. It was not a purely original translation, but one that sought to bring unity out of the varying works that preceded it. Clearly its aims were successful, as the King James Version ruled as the standard Bible for the next 250 years with very little competition.
3) Around the onset of the twentieth century, English Bible translation utterly exploded, as can be seen on the chart. While many of the newer translations are purely original creations, the legacy of the older versions still continues today. For example, the ESV stands within a tradition that can be traced all the way back to Tyndale and King James.
This chart is a work in progress. If you see anything needing correction or revision, or identify a notable translation is missing from the list, I’d love to hear those as well.