The Bible’s Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, with a few passages written in Aramaic. The Bible’s New Testament was written in Greek. Therefore, to read the Bible in its original languages, without the benefit of a translation, requires the reader’s proficiency in the Scripture’s original languages. If, however, you do not care to embroil yourself in the extensive study and mastery of the original languages, you will need a translation of the Bible into your own language in order to read it for yourself.
Whereas many Muslim scholars believe that their so-called holy book, the Koran, loses its inspiration when translated from its original language (Arabic) to any other language, Christianity has never held such a nonsensical notion. The Bible loses none of its divine inspiration when read in languages other than its original languages. However, without translations, it does lose its ability to inspire anyone unable to read Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic.
When it comes to ancient translations of the Hebrew Old Testament, or at least when it comes to translations of parts of it, we are aware of the fact that there were a few. An example would be the Samaritan Pentateuch, which is a translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, into the Samaritan alphabet.
In comparison to the few ancient translations of the Hebrew Old Testament, ancient translations of the Greek New Testament were far more numerous. This is easily explained by two things. First, the evangelistic nature of the Christian Faith. Christ’s Great Commission to His church was to take His Gospel to the ends of the earth, to everyone everywhere. As a result, the Gospel (Bible) needed to be translated into other languages in order for it to be communicated to the non-Greek speaking people of the world.
A second reason for the more numerous ancient translations of the New Testament over the Old Testament is the advancements in transportation and communication in the Roman Empire of the first century. These advancements allowed the spreading of the New Testament message to be much wider and farther than the Old Testament message could have ever been spread to the isolated people who lived in primitive antiquity.
The best known ancient translation of the Old Testament is the Septuagint. About three or four months after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC, a large number of Jews fled to Egypt. When Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331 BC, the descendants of these Jews made up an important part of Alexandria’s population. From the start, Alexandria was a Greek speaking city. It’s Jewish population soon forgot its native tongue and spoke exclusively in Greek. Therefore, the Greek speaking Jews of Alexandria eventually found themselves in desperate need of a Greek translation of their Hebrew Bible.
The word “Septuagint” means “seventy.” According to the story behind the translation, in 285 BC, seventy translators were assigned the task of translating the first five books of the Bible into Greek. It took them only seventy days to complete their task.
Although the term Septuagint was originally used for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Pentateuch alone, it eventually was used to refer to a Greek translation of the whole Old Testament. By the first century AD the Septuagint had been adopted by Greek speaking Jews as their version of the Old Testament. Most of the Old Testament quotations appearing in the New Testament are quotes from the Septuagint.
THE LATIN VULGATE
Although the New Testament was originally written in Greek, as Christianity spread to other parts of the world, translations into other languages were required. One of the earliest translations of the New Testament into another language was the “Old Syriac.” Syriac was the chief language spoken in the regions of Syria and Mesopotamia, and was almost identical to Aramaic, the language spoken by most Jews in the days of Jesus.
In the East, other translations were required. The Egyptian, the Armenian, and the Gothic are three good examples. These early eastern translations enabled non-Greek speaking people to read the Bible for themselves.
In the West, the official language of the Roman Empire was Latin. Therefore, in the western Roman Empire the translation of the Bible into Latin became of paramount importance. As a result, Pope Damasus, in the year 382 AD, commissioned his secretary Jerome, an eminent scholar and grammarian, to undertake the important task of translating the Bible into Latin.
Not long after being commissioned by the pope for so important a task, Jerome went to Bethlehem to examine the most ancient manuscripts he could find of the sacred Scriptures. After almost twenty years of tedious and difficult labor, Jerome finished his assigned task around 400 AD. His translation became known as the “Vulgate,” which means “common,” because it was a translation of the Bible into the language of the common people. For more than 1,000 years Jerome’s Latin Vulgate reigned supreme, as both the most popular translation of the Bible in the world and the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.