The Bible Translation: Ancient and English Versions

By Bruce Metzger
Grand Rapids : Baker (2001). 200 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 138-139

 Bruce Metzger has been associated with Bible translation for over fifty years. The George Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary has participated in three major Bible translation projects and was also chairman of the New Revised Standard Version translation committee. Furthermore, due to his writings on textual criticism and the canon of the NT, he has established a reputation for being one of the foremost NT scholars of the twentieth century. No one is more eminently qualified academically and by personal experience to write a general history of how the Bible has been translated from Hebrew and Greek into other languages.

Metzger does not limit his treatment to the translation of the Bible into English. He also discusses translation of the Scriptures into other ancient languages. His work is in two sections. “Part 1: Ancient Versions” (13-54) discusses two ancient translations made for Jews—the Septuagint and the Targum—as well as eleven made for Christians—Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Sogdian, Old Slavonic, and Nubian. Metzger is also careful to explain that almost every one of these had more than one version as well.

“Part 2: English Versions” (55-190) presents the story of nearly fifty translations, revisions, and paraphrases of the Scriptures done in England and America. Metzger acknowledges the obvious fact that the Bible has been translated in modern times into many more languages than English. “By the opening of the year 2000, the entire Bible had been made available in 371 languages and dialects, and portions of the Bible in 1,862 languages and dialects” (9).

The saga of the attempts to render the Bible in English, however, is the main thrust of the book. Some Bible students reared on the King James Version will be surprised to learn that eleven English versions appeared before 1611 when that “Authorized Version” became available. Metzger also discusses four little-known translations that were published between the King James Version and the British Revised Version of 1876.

This reviewer was fascinated by his account of “Julia E. Smith’s Bible” printed in 1876 (92-98). Miss Smith, unlike most of the young ladies of her day, was educated in classical Greek and Latin. When she became convinced that a “literal” translation was needed (motivated by her involvement with the Millerite “Adventist” movement), she taught herself Hebrew and began to work. She labored for eight years and “translated the Bible five times, twice from the Greek (LXX and NT), twice from the Hebrew and once from the Vulgate” (95). Although only one thousand copies of her Bible were printed, these did enable Smith and her sister to pay their delinquent tax bills! The inclusion of personal stories like these about the translators as they labored makes Metzger’s volume immensely interesting as well as informative.

The English Standard Version(2001) and the NET Bible (2001) were published after Metzger completed his manuscript and discussions of them are not included in this volume. This reviewer was disappointed, however, to notice the omission of any reference to the New Living Translation (1997), a major revision of the paraphrased Living Bible, which Metzger did describe on pages 79-81. Perhaps Metzger will be granted the time to publish a second version of this fine work that will take into account these three and other versions that will inevitably appear, such as the Southern Baptist related Holman Christian Standard Bible, to be published in 2004.

English Bible translations abound and with them comes the subsequent confusion of how to sort out all of them. Here then is a guide that describes them all (almost) and also explains the translation theory behind each one. It is also helpful for us today to realize that Bible translation is an enterprise that has been carried on for over two thousand years. Translators today stand on some strong shoulders.

I heartily commend this volume to pastors, scholars and students of the Word.