Witness to a stack of Bibles

It is widely said, and almost universally believed, that every American home possesses a Bible. Certainly, in many homes, the Bible stands quietly apart from other texts, seen more as a moral commitment than as a text to be studied; yet it is brought forth whenever the family witnesses a marriage, a birth or a death, and the names of those family members are then duly inscribed on its preface pages.

Every word in the Bible is believed by many to be divinely inspired and inerrant. Yet, with so many different revisions and translations, this prompts the skeptic to ask: “Which of the Bible’s many versions?”

The canonical version of the Hebrew Bible was reputed to have been initiated by an assembly of scholars about 450 B.C.E. The process continued until the authoritative text, sometimes called the Masoretic (meaning “traditional”) text, was fashioned in about 300 C.E.

A translation of the Hebrew Bible into vernacular Greek, authorized by Ptolemy II around 330 B.C.E, employed 70 theological scholars – mainly Alexandrian Jews – who were versed in Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek. Most scholars believe that 72 (rather than 70) scholars began the task, but the enduring name for this translation of Aramaic/Hebrew to Greek is the Septuagint (in Latin, versio septuaginta interpretum, meaning “the text of the 70 interpreters”).

Later adopted by Christians, who renamed it the Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint with its Latin title became the basis for virtually all subsequent Christian translations of the Bible – whether portraying the travails of Moses, the felicities of Solomon or the adversities of Job.

Translation of the original Hebrew Scriptures directly into Latin was largely the work of Jerome (347 – 420 C.E.), the ascetic Christian scholar from Dalmatia. His work is generally known as the Vulgate Bible. It required much subsequent revision, in particular the Challoner revision, before it could be certified as free of doctrinal error. (The revisionist elements of “doctrinal error” changed frequently over time.)

English translations of the Bible probably began with the efforts of John Wycliffe (1328-1384) in 1380 during the reign of Richard II, the last Plantagenet king.

Another English theologian who felt that the Scriptures should be readily available in vernacular English was William Tyndale (1494-1536).  Publishing English Bibles, however, was a hazardous occupation prior to 1611.

Both Wycliffe and Tyndale were tried and convicted of heresy; Tyndale was burned at the stake, and the remains of Wycliffe – who inconveniently died of natural causes – were disinterred and duly burned.

The reign of James I, the first Stuart king of England, witnessed a new interest in making the Bible accessible to an increasingly literate Reformation public.  Laurence Chaderton (1536-1639) headed a committee of English clerics, which ultimately numbered 46. After seven years’ labor, the ministers brought forth in 1611 what would later be known as the Authorized (King James) Version.

The Protestant Reformation in 16th-century England prompted many Roman Catholics (called Recusants because they refused to attend Anglican services) to flee to Europe.

Many transplanted scholars settled in the French town of Douai, forming a small center of higher learning called the English College of Douai. In 1582, they published the New Testament as the first volume of the Douai Bible, which they called “The Holie Bible Faithfully Translated into English,” as a central tenet of the Counter-Reformation; in 1609-10, they brought out The Douai-Rheims Bible, in two volumes directly translated from the Latin Vulgate version.

The currently used Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible (the New JPS Tanakh) bypasses the many Greek, Koine and Latin translations, being based directly on the Masoretic texts.  The Tanakh comprises three traditional divisions: the Teaching (Heb. Torah) – also known as the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses; the Prophets (Heb. Nevi’im) and the Writings (Heb. Ketuvim). The term Tanakh is an acronym of the first letters of those three divisions (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim).

The date of canonization of the 24 books of the Tanakh is uncertain, but the canon may have been determined as early as the date of destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. (70 C.E.)

Its latest English translation, the culmination of three decades of collaboration by a committee of rabbis and scriptural scholars that included a Rhode Island-based rabbi, Rabbi Saul Leeman, was underwritten by the JPS and published in 1985.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. (smamd@cox.net) is a retired dean of the Brown University medical school.