A Chart of English Bibles and Their Relationships

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.

13 thoughts on “A Chart of English Bibles and Their Relationships

  1. One thought from my side. Are there no translations that worked directly from the original languages after King James? Maybe working from the Geneva Bible?
    Or the Jewish ones, did they not work directly from the Hebrew?
    Just wondering

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    • Most of these translations worked directly from the original languages in some form, except for some older ones like Wycliffe and Rheims-Douay, which translated from the Latin Vulgate. And a few others were abridgements or simplifications of prior translations. The arrows simply indicate that some translations were influenced by particular English versions, in the form of a revision or possibly a source secondary to the originals. For example, the ESV in its preface states that they translated from the original languages, but used the 1971 RSV as a starting point, so as to stay within the RSV-ASV-RV-KJV-Tyndale tradition.

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  2. Great work! I counted 50 something which is a good start. https://find.bible/languages/eng lists 116 English Bibles and probably still doesn’t get them all (but it’s trying) . One of several that you might add in the next update would be the World English Bible http://worldenglishbible.org/ , a public domain version based on the ASB. There are also a huge number of contemporary English dialect versions and paraphrases of the gospels or selected stories eg Rob Lacey’s “Street Bible”, or Bernard Miles’ “God’s Brainwave”
    The chart for most languages of the world is so much simpler!

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    • Thanks, I’ll look into those! I’m sure if I tried to include them all, this chart would become too unwieldy, but I’m trying to hit the most significant or notable, which of course is a bit subjective.

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  3. Nice work.

    Two suggestions:
    1) Consider adding the Knox translation. It was from the Vulgate, so it may not fit the paradigm very well; but so was the D-R.
    2) Have you considered an arrow pointing both directions between the TNIV and NIV since the gleanings of the TNIV influenced the NIV 2011 revision?

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  4. Very helpful.

    One thing that I would note is that I would make sure that all of us looking at this map realize that there is a lot more interdependence, of varying degrees than the simple arrow/no-arrow/double-arrow choice. For example, I believe that the 1995 NASB was influenced by NIV.

    Another project would be to map in the largest translations from other international languages. Something that has repeatedly come up in our project is the extent that most of us on the field are locked into the English traditions. These are clearly related to the German, at the very least through Tyndale, though though it is clear that this protestant giant did not slavishly follow Luther.

    I know less of French and Spanish. Though it seems that they show some independence from English interpretations or text critical decisions. One thing I have seen is that while the Lockman Foundation backed LBLA sometimes seems highly related to the NASB, there are clear instances where they truly did go back to the originals and “disagree” with the English American version.

    Slavic languages often present interesting counter balance to many of the traditions of the Romance and Germanic traditions.

    This is definitely an area that is due more attention for several reasons.

    First, one of the “tests” from a consultant continues to be, “Well, I have 20 translations against 2 that your interpretation is incorrect.” If those 20 are all part of the same tradition, the weight of the majority is weakened considerably. This is especially true as it is well known that, particularly in beloved passages, tradition may result in translations that are not the ultimate desire of the translators. Tradition and habit become the measures of acceptability and this steers translation.

    At the same time, multiple books I have read on Lexicography that I have read, including Silva’s Biblical Words and their Meaning make clear that often what we believe a word means, and thus the options open to the translator, rely a good bit on translation tradition and glosses from older translations. Their meanings are not really the result of full and proper lexicography. Translations and lexicons are often less original that we give credit.

    Years ago, I found all of this out when trying to pin down this history and meaning of the concept of being “more than a conqueror.” It was shocking how wide-spread this translation solution really was. It is a global phenomenon. But what does it mean? Is it really the best way for translating hypernikao that we can come up with?

    Since others have since bucked the trend and used renderings such “overwhelmingly conquer” it would seem that there are options and the “more than” option just caught on and held on for centuries.

    {Some would say it doesn’t matter, but I remember finding a great deal of confusion over this paraphrase, with one interpreter actually declaring that the point is that we don’t actually conquer! Being more than a conqueror means that we no longer desire to win. (!)}

    All of that is just to underscore the reality that translation traditions are a thing and there is a lot more reliance than the map above might suggest.

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    • Though I’m new on the field, I’d tend to agree with your concluding statement. From the start with training translators it is very difficult to get them to detach from the English translation(s) they use to translate, especially when back translating. It is one of the main reasons we want separate back translators than the person(s) that did the translating in the first place. It is common to see their back translations look almost identical to the NIV(most common source text) when doing workshops. Its frustrating, but I know I tend to do the same thing.

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  5. Pingback: English Bible Translations Chart | The Carpenter's Sight

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