From out of the Vorlage...

The Hebrew Bible, as you might hypothesize, my darlings, was written almost entirely in Hebrew with a teeny smattering of Aramaic, mostly in the later writings when Aramaic was the lingua franca or "universal language" of the ancient Near East.

But then in the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Near East and initiated what is called the Hellenistic period, when Greek ideals and language permeated the region. Because Greek was now the dominant language of discourse and learning in the ancient Near East, the Bible was translated into Greek, even though passages such as Deut 4:2 warn against changing any of the text.

According to tradition, the Greek translation was ordered by this man, King Ptolemy II, ruler of Egypt.

[Ptolemy II]

That's exactly right, Cleopatra. There I was in my library, by far the best in the world in the 3rd century BCE, and I was informed that I only had a measly 200,000 books. I wanted more!

When I was asking about how to get more I discovered that one essential volume was missing — a Greek translation of the Torah of the Jews. As no such translation existed at that time, I invited 72 elders, six from each tribe of Israel, to Alexandria to translate the Bible. I sent them off to the island of Pharos, secluded them for 72 days, and they emerged with a Greek translation of the Torah of Moses. The translation was miraculously beautiful — so miraculous that later legends even said that all 72 men came up with identical translations, and we cursed anyone who might dare to alter our work!

Eventually the other books of the Hebrew Bible were translated into Greek, including the writings that now make up the Apocrypha. This translation became known as the Septuagint (Latin for 70), or in scholarly lingo, LXX (Roman numeral for 70).

That's a lousy name! The thing wasn't written in Latin. It should be called the 'Ebdomakonta, Greek for 72, and besides, what happened to the other two translators? I'll bet it has something to do with that Vorlage word on the top of this page! Did it eat them?

Hardly. You see, this idea that 70 elders created the Septuagint symbolically parallels the original 70 elders that accompanied Moses up Mt. Sinai and received the Torah (Exod 24:1). And Vorlage is simply a German term that scholars use to refer to the original text of the biblical writings.

These ancient writings have been copied so many times by scribes it is difficult to determine what the original said, and so the Septuagint is an excellent tool that Bible scholars use to determine the Vorlage or earliest writings.

But for quite some time, thousands of years even, people studying the Bible believed that the LXX wasn't such a groovy translation. They felt the best source for the Bible's Vorlage was something called the Masoretic Text, or MT, for short. And who better to explain the ins and outs of the MT than Mr. MT himself, Aaron Ben Asher, all the way here from 9th century CE Tiberius.

[Aaron Ben Asher]

I'm the most famous of the Masoretes, and as Hebrew masora means "tradition," I worked hard to maintain the traditions of my ancestors.

You see, the original Hebrew Bible was written for the most part without vowels. Well, the Masoretes standardized the Hebrew text, and added vowels as well as accents. My work survives even today in what was the oldest complete Hebrew Bible, known as the Aleppo Codex, a manuscript that I vocalized and accented in 925 CE. This was the Bible that the famous Jewish scholar Maimonides considered authoritative. Unfortunately, about 1/4 of this, including the Torah, was destroyed by a fire in 1948. Now the oldest complete Masoretic Text is the Leningrad Codex, which dates to about 1010 CE.

According to tradition, the Hebrew Bible was written between 1250 and 400 BCE, so these MT's that exist today are well over a thousand years removed from the Vorlage.

Then something happened that shocked and forever changed the world. The year was 1947.


I'll never forget that day BibleDudes. It all started after a typical fun-filled night of cow abductions and heavy drinking near Area 51 when suddenly Bigfoot came out of nowhere and threw my flying saucer into a lake where the Loch Ness Monster...

Forgive me Mr. Alien, darling, but I'm quite certain that Mr. Ben Asher mentioned 1947 because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the grandest archaeological finds of all times.

In a cave near Qumran along the shores of the Dead Sea, a young Bedouin shepherd named Muhammad ed-Dheibh stumbled upon a clay jar holding several manuscripts, one of which was a complete scroll of the biblical Book of Isaiah.

Over the following 10 years, in 11 different caves, remains were recovered from 800 manuscripts, many of them biblical, dating from approximately 200 BCE-68 CE. Now scholars were able to read Bibles 1000 years closer to the Vorlage.


And what shocked the discipline of biblical studies was that often the Dead Sea Scrolls differed substantially from the MT, and what's more, these differences were shared by the LXX. That is to say, the Greek translation of the Bible was based on a parent Hebrew text quite similar to the scrolls found at Qumran, and substantially different from the parent text of the MT. Now scholars had to deal with the idea that different sects and schools had different texts. Moreover, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls gave an incredible boost to the legitimacy and accuracy of the LXX.

[Vorlage chart]

This is like soooo completely why I love my exciting job as a Bible scholar!

Let me give you some real examples to show you the difficulty we face in recreating the original text. In the same MT, King David's commander Heled is called "Heleb" because a scribe mistakenly wrote a "b" rather than a "d."

And some scribes altered the text on purpose. For example, King Saul's son Ishbaal (meaning "Man of Baal," the Canaanite god) is at times both in the MT and LXX recorded as Ishbosheth ("Man of shame") because the scribe didn't like such a prominent figure being named after a god other than Yahweh, so they changed it.

Also, consider the difficulty in 1 Sam 13:1, which according to the MT literally reads: "Saul was one year old when he began to reign, and reigned two years." It like sort of seems impossible that Israel's first king was a rug rat. And this typo existed in antiquity, as some manuscripts of the LXX leave this verse out entirely, while others change the age to a more reasonable 30.

So not only does the word "Bible" mean different things to different people, but due to scribal error and additions, it is much more accurate to speak of "Bibles." And this also renders bogus claims that codes like "Clinton" can be found by counting every 9877th letter in a Bible passage. Like use a different manuscript, and the same formula might produce "xqggzyz" or "baloney."

So with all these differences, how on earth does one decide how to translate the Bible?

It isn't easy, and to do it properly scholars must examine all relative textual witnesses to make their best decision.

In addition to the MT, LXX, and Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the other valuable texts include the following:

The Samaritan Pentateuch:
A Hebrew version of the first five books of the Bible preserved by the Samaritan community in Israel. They are written in an early form of the Hebrew script, and their date is debated, but it seems that perhaps ca. 200 BCE seems reasonable. The text closely corresponds to some manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Targumim:
Translations of the Bible into Aramaic from various early dates (ca. 100 BCE-400 CE). Fragments of Targumim were found at Qumran, and the text corresponds to the MT. (note: Targum is singular, Targumim is plural).

The Peshitta:
Translation of the Bible into Syriac, a regional dialect of Aramaic. Many believe the Peshitta was created by early Christians in the first or second century CE, and the text parallels the MT.

The Vulgate:
The Church Father Jerome in the late 4th century CE felt that many of the Greek translations of the Bible were inferior to the original Hebrew, and so he translated directly from the Hebrew Bible into Latin. The work became known as the Vulgate, a Latin term for "common," as in the common translation. The Vulgate was the authoritative Bible of the Catholic Church for centuries, and translations from Latin into German by Bible scholars such as Martin Luther played an integral role in the Reformation.


Right on! And there are many more excellent ancient sources for this sort of thingamajig, such as the Jewish historian Josephus and the Talmud. Also, here I should say a few words about the pursuit of the New Testament's Vorlage — quite a bit different from the Hebrew Bible. While there are only a few ancient manuscripts to compare for the Hebrew Bible, there are about 5,000 Greek manuscripts that exist of the New Testament. Once scholars looked at 150 versions of the Gospel of Luke, and found 30,000 differences. Yikes! But for now, let's hold off a bit, as we'll cover this incredible art of textual criticism in more detail in the "Biblical Studies" section of the site. Dude! Like, I can hardly wait!

Astounding, darlings, but as we're all communicating in English (some better than others I might add), perhaps we could end this section by saying a word about English translations of the Bible? Please? To help us I've invited two of my friends from England, John Wyclif and William Shakespeare.

[John Wyclif]

Cheerio BibleDudes. Wayeth back in 1382 I madeth the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Well, neither the Church nor the king was too happy about that, as they feltest this took away their power. They burnedeth hundreds of my translation, and what's more and quite unfair if you asketh me, some 40 years after I died they dugeth up my corpse and didst seteth it on fire.

Well, after me the printing press cameth along, and people like William Tyndale madeth translations of the Bible that were better than mine.

[William Tyndale]

In fact, the King James Bible, put out in 1611, is mostly a copy of my work, with only about 1/4 of the material altered.

What sayeth thou on this matter, Sir Shakespeare?

Correct art thou, my noble-tongued Tyndale. Thou must alloweth me to relay the most engaging tale of my connection to the aforespoken translation procured by said king and mine employer called James. That Bible didst achieve publication in 1611, on the 46th anniversary of my birth, and thine scrutiny willst reveal that in the Psalm numbered 46, "shake" wast penned as the 46th word, whilst "spear" shows 46th to said Psalm's end.

Willie's like totally right on correct, but that only works in King James Bibles. While I think it is just an awesome coincidence, some believe the playwright (or a buddy of his) translated Psalm 46 and arranged the words on purpose. And related to the King James Bible, the translation is beautiful, influential, and fairly accurate for its time. But dude, that was like 400 years ago. It was written before amazing discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, before the decipherment of cuneiform or hieroglyphics, and before the discipline of archaeology. There are like totally many more accurate translations today.

While there are more than 500 English translations of the Bible, here are some of the most popular English translations used today. Some are formal translations, meaning they stick close to the word order and structure of the original text, while others are dynamic, meaning they might change a word here or there to get the main meaning across in plain English.

English Bible Translations

Name Year Translation Denomination Notes
DRB Douay-Rheims Bible 1609 Formal Catholic Translated from Vulgate. Some revisions in 1749 and 1941.
KJV King James Version 1611 Formal Protestant Most popular English Bible.
JPS Jewish Publication Society 1917 Dynamic Jewish Based on the MT. Only contains the Hebrew Bible.
RSV Revised Standard Version 1946 Formal Protestant and Catholic
NEB New English Bible 1961 Dynamic Protestant and Catholic
JB Jerusalem Bible 1966 Dynamic Catholic Great study notes. First Catholic Bible not solely translated from Vulgate.
TEV Today's English Version 1966 Dynamic Protestant
CEV Contemporary English Version 1966 Dynamic Protestant
NAB New American Bible 1970 Formal Catholic Most popular English Bible for Catholics.
NASB New American Standard Bible 1971 Formal/Dynamic Protestant A modern revision of the ASV (1901), which was produced by English and American scholars.
LIV The Living Bible 1971 Paraphrase Protestant Very very loosely translated.
NIV New International Version 1978 Dynamic Protestant Good study notes in the "study note" edition, though decidedly protestant in orientation.
NJPS New Jewish Publication Society 1982 Formal Jewish Revision of JPS.
NKJV New King James Version 1982 Formal Protestant Modern verb endings and replaced "thou" with "you."
NJB New Jerusalem Bible 1985 Dynamic Catholic Revision of JB.
NRSV New Revised Standard Version 1989 Formal Protestant and Catholic Gender neutral, revision of RSV.
REB Revised English Bible 1992 Dynamic Protestant and Catholic Revision of NEB.

So many Bibles, my darlings. And so to examine exactly how this plays out, let's take a looksy at a few translations of Psalm 2:12.

KJV Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
DRB Embrace discipline, lest at any time the Lord be angry
NEB Kiss the king, lest the Lord be angry
NRSV Kiss his feet, or he will be angry
NAB Bow down in homage, Lest God be angry
JPS Do homage in purity, lest He be angry
NJPS Pay homage in good faith, lest He be angry
JB Tremble and kiss his feet, or he will be angry

Yow! That's quite a bit of difference. Also dudes, when you're like choosing a translation, it's important to know where it's coming from, cause each translation sort of has its own agenda. Take the case of Jesus' mom Mary. Well, Christians believe the birth of Jesus was predicted by the prophet Isaiah (7:14), who said that a "virgin" would conceive a son and name him Immanuel (meaning "God is with us"). So for Christians, Mary immaculately conceived her son. However, Jewish translators, who do not believe the passage has anything to do with Mary, say that Isaiah is simply predicting that a "young girl" will conceive (in the standard way) and bear a son and so forth. Like, both readings are totally possible from the original Hebrew text, but as you might imagine, the differences are super astounding.


Come on BibleDudes —

While I'm crazy for you baby, open your heart, and rather than immaculately conceiving of things like a virgin Madonna, let's keep on pushing me to borderline —

the final page of this section, the Bible's influence on civilization

— cause I'm keepin' my baby...