Review: Earliest New Testament Translations

Earliest New Testament Translations is “an interlinear comparison of the [six?] earliest English translations 1382 to 1611, updated to modern English.” My edition includes:

  • Wycliffe’s 1382 translation, which was done from Latin, not Greek;
  • Purvey’s 1395 revision of Wycliffe’s New Testament;
  • Tyndale’s 1530 New Testament, which was translated from Greek;
  • The Geneva Bible (1560), which was translated by a group of Reformed scholars in Switzerland;
  • The King James Version, completed in 1611.

This was put together and self-published by Clayton Porter. Porter has expanded to include other translations over time, so there are a number of volumes and versions out there, both digitally and in print.

This is an excellent parallel translation. I like that the spelling has been updated; reading Wycliffe without it is both unnecessary and a pain, even for a linguist. (It is very seldom that the outdated spelling creates any lexical ambiguity, but very often that a modern reader cannot guess what word is meant.)

In addition, the introduction was helpful in highlighting the differences between the translations.

Reading this brings to light how much we owe to Wycliffe and Tyndale, whose works are not so easy to get a hold of even now. Versions that pre-date the King James are extremely important to English history, but sadly do not appear on most Bible study websites like BibleHub, BibleGateway, or Blue Letter Bible.

This is an important addition to my digital library and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to explore why a New Testament verse has always been translated “this way” and not “that way.” Below I’ve given a few things I learned and some examples from the book.

Committee or Single-Scholar?

A key question to consider in reading a Bible translation is whether or not it is the product of group effort. As a kid I always imagined that translations are done by one dude with a very good dictionary, but since Geneva, nearly all have been done by committee. Single-scholar translations do not generally get a lot of attention anymore: Young’s Literal, Darby’s, Weymouth’s, Moffat’s, Wuest’s, and The Passion Translation are hardly considered by academics. I do see Young’s Literal sometimes referenced as a baseline for a purely literal translation (not a “reading” translation), and Weymouth’s work is highly regarded by some. Moffat’s was quite fashionable around the time of World War I, but enthusiasm waned. Robert Alter’s work is probably the biggest exception to the rule. Almost any modern Bible translation, regardless of the language, is done by committee.

So the work of Wycliffe and Tyndale is exceptional in this regard. It means that their personality “colors” the New Testament text. This sounds like a negative assessment, but I hardly mean it that way. Each individual brings out shades of meaning in the text that give us new lenses of interpretation and help us see the Word with fresh eyes. There is a wonderful novelty to reading Wycliffe and especially Tyndale. Their work required tremendous creativity, a virtue not often praised in Bible scholars or translators.

The Originality of Tyndale

Tyndale is exemplary in many respects, and may have contributed more neologisms and original wording than the King James—for instance, we are indebted to him for the words “scapegoat” and “passover”. He translates ekklēsia as “congregation” instead of “church”, and has many other eccentricities.

He also just stands out as someone with many novel (but tenable) readings of the Greek. For example, Tyndale—in my opinion, correctly—translates 1 Corinthians 14:34a this way:

Let your wives keep silence in the congregations.

The Greek phrase αἱ γυναῖκες ὑμῶν is awkwardly translated “your women” in quite a few versions, both old and modern, starting with Geneva. I can only guess that the intended meaning is the church’s women. Others only have “women” or “the women”, which make it sound like Paul is making a very broad prohibition. But the plural possessive pronoun ὑμῶν (“y’all’s”) and the universal use of “husbands” in the very next verse mean that we are most likely dealing with a situation involving specific Corinthian wives, not all women for all time. Theologian Michael F. Bird writes that this is the case in his booklet on women’s roles.

Of all the translations I found, only Tyndale, Coverdale, and the WEB version use “wives” in this verse.

A Committee of Centuries

Modern Bible translations are heavily influenced by tradition, and, for good or for ill, it is very difficult to break free of. Translators are not only bound to the work of their translation committee and revision committees, they are bound to a committee of centuries. It is not hard to find verses in which either Wycliffe or Tyndale set a tone that has never been broken.

Observe 1 Timothy 2:5:

For one God and one mediator is of God and of men, a man Christ Jesus … (Wycliffe, Wycliffe-Purvey)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, which is the man Christ Jesus … (Tyndale, Geneva)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus … (King James)

This verse exemplifies the awkwardness sometimes found in Wycliffe’s version. Like Slavic languages, Latin has no definite or indefinite article (“a” or “the”), which is why we have “a man Christ Jesus.”

You can also see that Geneva is identical to Tyndale. Bible versions are almost never made with a clean slate; translators basically revise past versions rather than reinventing the wheel.

It is very rare to find examples where all four translations disagree. Here is one that I find intriguing (Galatians 2:21):

I cast not away the grace of God; for if rightwiseness is by the law, then Christ died without cause. (Wycliffe, Wycliffe-Purvey)

I despise not the grace of God: For if righteousness come of the law, then Christ died [is Christ dead] in vain. (Tyndale, brackets showing a later revision)

I do not abrogate the grace of God, for if righteousness be by the Law, then Christ died without a cause. (Geneva)

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (King James)

In the last phrase, Geneva followed Wycliffe and King James followed Tyndale, showing that they are not just revising the most recent version; later translators had access to multiple translations and compared to choose the preferred reading of a phrase.

But they cannot agree on how to “English” this word ἀθετῶ, with various attempts shown in bold. It is notable that they differ so widely. Here are some more modern translations of the same phrase:

I do not make void the grace of God. (Young’s Literal)

I do not nullify the grace of God. (Weymouth, RSV, ESV)

I do not set aside the grace of God. (Darby, NIV, NKJV)

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. (NLT)

I hope that this review helps others to understand some of what I have learned from this wonderful parallel New Testament, so that we can better live by God’s Word and edify God’s people.

1 thought on “Review: Earliest New Testament Translations

  1. Pingback: Review: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts | Pioneer Library

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