What Were the Earliest Translations of the Bible?

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from 40 Questions About Bible Translation
by Mark L. Strauss

Ancient Jewish Versions of Scripture  

Although Jesus accused the Pharisees of crossing land and sea to make a single convert (Matt. 23:15), there is little evidence for widespread proselytizing by the Jews of antiquity. Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible were not generally initiated for evangelistic purposes, but rather to provide the Scriptures for Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew. This was certainly the case for the first two languages into which the Bible was translated, Greek and Aramaic. 

The Greek Septuagint 

The first and most important translation of the Hebrew Bible is the Greek version known as the Septuagint, probably beginning to be translated in the mid-third century BC. The name “Septuagint” comes from the Latin septuaginta, meaning “seventy,” a rounded-off reference to the legend that seventy- two scholars translated the work in seventy-two days. The Septuagint is commonly abbreviated as “LXX,” the Roman numeral for “seventy.” 

The account of its origin comes from the Letter of Aristeas, an ancient document that purports to be a letter from a man named Aristeas to his “brother” (or friend) Philocrates. It recounts how, during the reign of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (284–247 BC), Demetrius, the chief librarian of the great library of Alexandria, sent a request to Eleazar, the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, to produce a Greek translation of the Torah, the great Jewish book of law. Eleazar sent seventy-two scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes, with Hebrew Torah scrolls to Egypt to do the work. According to the letter, the work was completed in seventy-two days and then read to the Jewish community in Alexandria, who rejoiced at its accuracy. In light of the divine providence behind its production, the priests and elders pronounced a curse on anyone who would change the text in any way. 

Today most scholars consider the Letter of Aristeas to be a pseudonymous document written near the end of the second century BC, a hundred years after the events it describes. Its primary purpose seems to be apologetic, a theological defense of Judaism as a religion and more specifically of the Septuagint as a translation. 

While the details of the story are probably legendary,[1] it may contain a kernel of truth. A Greek translation of the Pentateuch was probably produced in Alexandria in the middle of the third century BC, perhaps during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great (fourth century BC), Greek had become the lingua franca of much of the Eastern Mediterranean. Most Jews of the Diaspora no longer spoke Hebrew, resulting in the need for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah was likely translated first, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible (the Prophets and the Writings) followed over the next century. 

The LXX is a mixed translation, sometimes more literal, sometimes more free.[2] Like the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament, it also has its own textual history of transmission and recension. The influence of the Septuagint runs in two directions. On the one hand, it was shaped by the Judaism of its day and so helps us to understand the theological milieu leading up to the time of Christ. On the other hand, the Septuagint itself shaped Judaism and early Christianity. For example, the LXX helped to bridge the gap between Jews and Gentiles by expanding the meaning of Greek words to include Hebrew concepts. For example, in classical Greek, the term doxa generally carried the sense of “opinion.” By using this word to translate the Hebrew word kevod, the LXX emphasized the sense of divine “glory.” In this way the LXX helped introduce a Jewish worldview into the Greek world and gave the Christians a ready-made vocabulary for preaching a message whose foundations lay in Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The LXX provided the early Christians with a Bible that was understandable throughout the Mediterranean world. Christians could use it when preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. It thus became a powerful apologetic tool for the early church. Most Old Testament quotations in the NT are taken from the LXX. An example of this apologetic value may be seen in Isaiah 7:14, where the Hebrew term ‘almah (“young woman”) was translated in the LXX as parthenos, a Greek term with strong connotations of virginity (cf. Matt. 1:23). Using the LXX, Christians could point to this Old Testament text as evidence for the virgin birth of Christ. 

Other Greek Versions 

Three Greek versions of note followed the Septuagint, those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.[3] Aquila of Sinope was a convert to Christianity, who later converted to Judaism and became a disciple of the famous Rabbi Akiba. Around AD 130 Aquila produced a highly literal Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, whose primary purpose may have been to challenge the Septuagint’s dominance. No copies of the full version have survived, although many of its readings are known to us from Origen’s Hexapla (see below). 

Sometime in the late second or early third century, Symmachus produced a new Greek version, which Jerome praised as more elegant and clear than the literal version of Aquila. According to Eusebius and Jerome, Symmachus was an Ebionite (a Jewish-Christian sect), although Epiphanius claims he was a Samaritan who had converted to Judaism. Only fragments of this work remain. 

Somewhere between the literal work of Aquila and the idiomatic work of Symmachus was the Greek translation of Theodotion, whose second-century translation was evidently a revision of an earlier Greek translation, though whether this was the Septuagint or another version is unclear. Early church tradition claimed Theodotion was a convert to Judaism from Ephesus, although Jerome identifies him as an Ebionite. 

These three Greek versions are known to us primarily because of the monumental work of scholarship known as the Hexapla, compiled by Origen, the third-century scholar and theologian (c. 186–253).[4] Origen’s Hexapla (produced c. 230–45) was a six-column edition of the Old Testament, with columns dedicated, respectively, to (1) the Hebrew text; (2) a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew; (3) the translation of Aquila; (4) the translation of Symmachus; (5) Origen’s own revision of the Septuagint; and (6) the edition of Theodotion. The whole work was massive, comprising more than 6,500 pages in fifteen volumes.[5] Kept in Caesarea, the manuscripts were probably never copied fully and were likely destroyed in the Arab invasions of the early seventh century. Only parts of the work are preserved, appearing in various authors who utilized Origen’s work. 

The Aramaic Targums 

During and after the Babylonian exile, Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people (see Question 1). For this reason, readings from the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogues were usually followed by a targum, an Aramaic translation or paraphrase of the Hebrew text, provided by an interpreter (meturgeman). These Aramaic readings, or targumim, were written down over time and formalized. While some targums are very literal, others are paraphrastic interpretations, providing insight into how the Hebrew text was applied by the rabbis of that day. For example, the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel on the Prophets interprets the fourth Servant Song, Isaiah 52:13–53:12, as referring to the Messiah, but interprets the suffering as applying to the nation Israel.[6] Unfortunately, the traditions found in the targums can be very difficult to date, and so the beliefs expressed in them are difficult to identify with specific Jewish communities. 

Early Christian Versions of Scripture 

As a missionary religion, Christianity sought to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. This created a need to render God’s Word into the diverse languages of the world. With the dawn of Christianity, the age of Bible translation began in earnest. 

Old Latin Versions and the Vulgate 

The term “Old Latin” refers to a variety of Latin versions that were produced prior to the translation of the Vulgate. These were likely first produced in the late second or early third centuries, perhaps in Carthage, and circulated in North Africa, Italy, Gaul, and Spain. Most were translations from the Greek, often very woodenly, and some may have begun as interlinear readings in Greek manuscripts.[7] Their diversity and low quality caused Augustine to complain that it seemed that anyone who got his hands on a Greek manuscript of the NT would translate it into Latin, no matter how little they knew of either language! Jerome similarly (and hyperbolically) complained that there were almost as many Latin versions as there were manuscript copies.[8] While Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–220) wrote in Latin, his biblical quotes appear to be translated directly from the Greek. The first evidence of the use of a Latin text comes from Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258), and the Bible of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was almost certainly the Old Latin.[9] Old Latin manuscripts are identified with a lowercase “it” and a superscript identifying the manuscript: ita, itb, itc, itd. 

The inconsistencies found in the Old Latin called for a revision, and in AD 382 Pope Damasus I commissioned the early church father Jerome (c. 345–420), the leading biblical scholar of his day, to produce a new Latin edition. This version, known today as the Vulgate (the “common” version), was destined to become the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Jerome produced a copy of the Gospels within a year and followed this with a translation of the Psalms. Scholars debate whether the rest of the New Testament was also translated at this time and what role Jerome played in its production.[10] Eventually, recognizing the need to translate the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew, Jerome moved to Bethlehem and continued his work there under the tutelage of Jewish rabbis. He completed the Old Testament around AD 405. 

Jerome famously spoke of his work as both a labor of love and a perilous and presumptuous endeavor. In a letter to Damasus in the preface to the four Gospels, he writes: 

You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein?[11] 

Since the Septuagint was generally considered the “real Bible,” Jerome faced severe criticism for using the Hebrew text for his Old Testament. Yet the Vulgate weathered this criticism and by the eighth or ninth centuries had gained ascendancy over the Old Latin. It wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1546, however, that the Vulgate was declared to be the only true and authentic Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Syriac (Aramaic) Versions, Including the Peshitta 

Syriac, also known as Syrian Aramaic, is the name given to a version of Aramaic that emerged in the first century and became the main literary language of Christian communities living in Syria and throughout the Near East. Syriac flourished from the fourth to the eighth centuries as a liturgical language for Christians of the East as far away as India and even China. In much the same way that the disparate Old Latin versions gave way to the standardized Vulgate, so in the fifth century a standard Syriac version, the Peshitta, was produced. When the Syrian Church split in AD 431, two major recensions emerged, the Eastern (Nestorian) and the Western (Jacobite). Scholars debate whether the OT of the Peshitta was originally produced by Jews or Christians.[12] The former is likely, since the OT seems to have been translated from the Hebrew text and influenced by the Aramaic targums. Yet the text was apparently revised in later centuries using the Septuagint. Another debate swirls around the NT Gospels. Since Jesus spoke Aramaic, some have claimed that the Aramaic recorded here are the original words of Jesus. This, however, is unlikely, since the NT Peshitta is a fifth-century translation from the Greek, with no direct link to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus.[13] 

Coptic Versions 

Coptic refers to a group of related dialects that descended from the ancient Egyptian language. Although Greek became the common language for trade and diplomacy in Egypt following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, Coptic remained the language of everyday discourse. As Christianity spread to Egypt, missionary translations of the New Testament were produced in Coptic. Most Coptic manuscripts are in two major dialects, the Sahidic of Upper (southern) Egypt, a version likely translated in the early third century, and the Bohairic of Lower (northern) Egypt, of uncertain date, though perhaps from the fourth century.[14] Both tend to follow the Alexandrian text type. 

Although Arabic replaced Coptic as the primary spoken language of Egypt following the Muslim conquests of the seventh century AD, Coptic remains today as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. 

Armenian and Georgian Versions 

In a number of places, no written version of a language existed, and so Christian missionaries had first to produce alphabets before translating the Scriptures. According to tradition, St. Mesrop (361–439), a soldier turned missionary, developed a new alphabet for the Armenian language around AD 406 and, with the help of others, translated the Bible into Armenian. The Armenian version is sometimes called the “queen of the versions” because of its beauty and accuracy.[15] 

The first versions in Georgian, the unique language of the rugged region north of Armenia in the Caucasus Mountains, were probably produced in the fifth century either from the Armenian or Old Syriac versions. Armenian tradition ascribes both the Georgian alphabet and this first Bible version to the same Mesrop who translated the Armenian version.[16] 

Old Slavonic Versions 

Perhaps the most famous example of alphabet-creating and language-shaping missionaries are the brothers Cyril and Methodius, the “apostles to the Slavs.”[17] Sons of a wealthy official in Salonica (Thessalonica), the brothers learned the Slavonic language from immigrants who had settled there from Eastern Europe. Sent by the eastern emperor Michael III to evangelize the Moravians, the brothers trained clergy and translated the Bible. Their translation work not only became the basis for versions into a variety of Slavonic languages, but Cyril is credited with creating the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, the latter still used today for Russian and other languages across Eurasia. 

Ethiopic Versions 

While some church traditions attribute the evangelization of ancient Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) to the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, others attribute the church there to the work of the apostles Matthew or Bartholomew. In any case, inscriptions of King Ezana confirm the establishment of Christianity there by the mid-fourth century. While our earliest Ethiopic NT manuscripts come from the tenth century, the text was likely translated first in the fifth or six centuries. 


The earliest translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were the Greek Septuagint and the Aramaic targums. Both were produced in contexts where Jews no longer spoke Hebrew and needed the Scriptures in their new languages. Early versions produced by Christians arose in missionary contexts, as the gospel advanced to new cultures and languages. The most important early versions were translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic, and Ethiopic. 

[1] The account of the story became even more fanciful over time. The first-century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo recounts a version whereby all the scholars working independently produced an identical Greek text—proof positive of the text’s divine inspiration! See Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 36; Sidney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 38–47.

[2] Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 51–53.

[3] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 53–55.

[4] Paul Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 198–99; Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 55–57; D. C. Parker, “Hexapla of Origen, The,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 188–89.

[5] Parker, “Hexapla,” 188–89.

[6] Wegner, Journey from Texts to Translations, 202–3.

[7] Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 101.

[8] Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed., trans. Errol F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 187.

[9] Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 187; Wegner, Journey from Texts to Translations, 251.

[10] Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 105.

[11] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Jerome: Select Works and Letters, vol. 6 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Accordance electronic ed. (New York: Christian Literature, 1890), para. 41, 489.

[12] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 80–81.

[13] F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, 5th ed. (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), 190; Wegner, Journey from Texts to Translations, 244.

[14] Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 110–12.

[15] Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 117.

[16] Wegner, Journey from Texts to Translations, 48; Aland and Aland, Text of the New Testament, 205, 209.

[17] Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 121–22.

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Bible Translation by Mark L. Strauss. This title is scheduled to be released on September 19, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Nearly all believers read a translation of the original texts of the Bible, yet few understand the complex art and scholarship unique to Bible translation

The importance of Bible translation in historic and contemporary Christianity cannot be overstated, with millions around the globe reading and studying the Bible in their own language. Notable translation expert Mark Strauss answers a wide range of questions about this the process and reliability of this endeavor so essential to the core Christian faith.

40 Questions About Bible Translation covers topics related to the process and history of Bible translation; Bible versions and international translation efforts; and the multifaceted challenges in translating the Bible, such as:

      • How do international Bible translators go about their work?
          • How did the King James Version (KJV) come about?
          • When, why, and how were chapters and verses introduced into the Bible?
          • What should be the goal of translation?
          • What makes Bible versions different from one another?
          • What is the difference between grammatical and biological gender and how does this affect translation?

40 Questions About the Text and Canon of the New Testament uses an accessible question-and-answer format so readers can pursue the issues that interest them most with additional resources at 40questions.net.


About Author

Mark L. Strauss (Ph.D., Aberdeen) is University Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary San Diego, where he has served since 1993. He is the author of various books and articles including commentaries on Mark’s Gospel in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series and Expositors Bible Commentary. He serves as Vice-Chair on the Committee for Bible Translation for the New International Version and as an associate editor for the NIV Study Bible.

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