Important Early Translations of the Bible -- By: Bruce M. Metzger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 150:597 (Jan 1993)
Article: Important Early Translations of the Bible
Author: Bruce M. Metzger


Important Early Translations of the Bible

Bruce M. Metzger

[Bruce M. Metzger is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.]

[This is article one in the four-part series, “Translating the Bible: An Ongoing Task,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 4–7, 1992. {Editor’s note: This paragraph was originally a footnote numbered * on the title line.}]

As is commonly known, the Bible has been translated into more languages than any other piece of literature. What is not generally appreciated, however, is the great increase in the number of different translations that have been produced relatively recently, that is, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Before this period the church was slow in providing renderings of the Scriptures in other languages.

According to a recent calculation, there are 6,170 living languages in the world.1 However, by the year A.D. 600 the four Gospels had been translated into only eight of these languages. These were Latin and Gothic in the West, and Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Sogdian in the East. One might have expected that Augustine and other Christian leaders in North Africa would have provided a translation of the Gospels in Berber or Punic, or that Irenaeus and his successors would have made a translation into the Celtic dialect used in Gaul. But there is no evidence of the existence of such versions in antiquity, despite the presence of Christian communities in these areas.

When printing with movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1456, only 33 languages had any part of the Bible. Even when the Bible society movement began some two centuries ago, parts of the Scriptures had been rendered into only 67 languages. During the 19th century, however, more than 400 languages received some part of the Scriptures, and within the first half of the 20th century some part of the Bible was published in more than 500 languages. This rapid increase in the preparation of many versions of the Bible is due to the role played by the Bible societies, by Wycliffe Bible Translators, and similar organizations. At the close of 1991, the entire Bible had been made available in 318 languages and dialects, and portions of the Bible in 1,946 languages and dialects. Because many of these languages are used by great numbers of people, it is estimated that today four out of five people in the world, or 80 percent, have at least one book of the Bible in their mother tongue.2

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