How was the Bible translated?

The Bible, or al kitab, is not usually read in its original languages (Hebrew & Greek). This is not because it is not available in these languages. It is, and some study Greek and Hebrew at university for the purpose of being able to read and study the Bible in the original languages. This is often the way that professional teachers of the Bible study it. But regular believers do not generally read or study the Bible in its original languages, and instead read it in a translation of their native language. Therefore, the Bible is not often seen in its original languages, leading some to think that the original languages have been lost, and others think that the translation process has led to corruption. Before jumping to these conclusions, perhaps it is better first to understand the process of translation of al kitab, or the Bible. That is what I would like to do in this article.

Translation vs. Transliteration

We do need to first understand some very basic principles of translation. Translators try to capture the best meaning. Thus a word-for-word approach is not always used. For example, in my native Swedish if I was to asked about the time I would say “Hur mycket är klockan?” which translated word-for-word to English is “How much is the clock?” But we do not speak that way in English so translating that phrase by meaning rather than by literal words is preferred. But translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially when it comes to names or titles. This is known as transliteration.

The figure below illustrates the difference between translation and transliteration. From Arabic you can choose two ways to bring the word for ‘God’ into English. You can translate by meaning which gives ‘God’ or you can transliterate by sound to get ‘Allah’.

This uses the term ‘God’ to illustrate how we can translate or transliterate from one language to another

With the increased exchange between English and Arabic in recent years, the term ‘Allah’ has become a recognized word in the English language which means God. There is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the choice of translation or transliteration for titles and key words. The choice depends on how well the term is accepted or understood in the receiver language.

For the Bible (or its transliteration from Arabic = ‘al kitab’), translators had to decide whether words (especially names and titles) would be better in the receiver language through translation (by meaning) or through transliteration (by sound).

The Septuagint

Now let’s layer these principles onto the history of Biblical translation. The first translation of the Bible was when the Hebrew Old Testament (= Taurat & Zabur) was translated into Greek in about 250BC. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it has exerted an enormous influence. I described the LXX in posts I and II on the Septuagint in my other blog, and I encourage you to read them because they will help you better understand the Septuagint.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows how all this impacts modern-day Bibles where translation stages are shown in quadrants.

This shows the translation process of the Bible (al kitab) to modern language


The original Hebrew Old Testament (Taurat & Zabur) is in the upper-left quadrant #1 and is accessible today in the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek New Testament (injil) is in quadrant #2 in the upper-right. But because the Septuagint was a Hebrew to Greek translation it is shown as an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2, so that #2 contains both Old and New Testaments in Greek. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language, like English, that the Bible is translated into.

Throughout this process the translators had to decide whether words were better in the receiver language through transliteration or translation as explained above. This is illustrated with the green arrows labeled transliterate and translate on either side, showing that the translators could take either approach. Taken together, this figure shows the process by which the Biblical texts have gone from Hebrew and Greek, and then to the modern languages of today.

The Septuagint is very significant in textual criticism and in translation. I noted above that there are basically two Hebrew manuscript families from which we access the Hebrew Old Testament and translate it into a modern language. The more traditional stream is the Masoretic family of manuscripts, which has extant manuscripts dating from about 900 AD. This is the traditional source for the Old Testament in today’s Bible. I noted that the second stream, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were only recently discovered in 1948 and are dated back to about 200 BC. Thus in the DSS we have a much older family of manuscripts than the Masoretic text. And I noted that these two families of texts are basically identical – showing how well preserved the Hebrew Old Testament is. This is covered in more detail in my article on the science of textual criticism and anyone trying to understand whether the Bible or al kitab of today is reliable or if it is corrupted needs to think about it with this information in mind.

The Septuagint witness on the Question of Corruption of Bible

The Septuagint gives us a third stream of text to access the Old Testament. Since the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew around 250 BC we can see (if we reverse translate the Greek back to Hebrew) what these translators had in their Hebrew manuscripts that they translated from. The most widely accepted view today is that the Septuagint provides an accurate record of an early Hebrew text. The Septuagint was read across the Middle East and Mediterranean for hundreds of years, by Jews, Christians, and even pagans – and even today many in the Middle East still use it. If someone (Christians, Jews or someone else) changed the Old Testament and corrupted it, then the Septuagint would be different from the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But they are the same. Similarly, if for example someone in Alexandria, Egypt, had corrupted the Septuagint itself then the Septuagint manuscript copies in Alexandria would be different from the other Septuagint manuscripts across the Middle East and Mediterranean. But they are the same. So the data tells us without any contradiction that the Old Testament has not been corrupted.

The Septuagint in Translation

The Septuagint is also used as a supplemental source in translation today. This is why you can see some footnotes in modern translations of the Old Testament where modern translators tell us what the Septuagint says in some particular passage. In other words, translation scholars use the Septuagint to this very day to help them translate some of the more difficult passages of the Old Testament. Greek is very well understood and in some passages where the Hebrew is obscure translators can see how the Septuagint translators understood these obscure passages 2250 years ago. As an example, when the New International Version translates the last phrase of Job 7:20 to ‘Have I become a burden to you?’ they are helped by the Septuagint. How do I know this? The footnotes indicate it. The overall contribution then of the Septuagint to the Old Testament is that it provides another manuscript stream supporting the reliability of the Old Testament as well as providing insight for making better translation of some difficult passages.

But this is not all. Understanding translation/transliteration and the Septuagint will help us understand where the terms ‘Christ’, ‘Messiah’, and ‘Masih’ come from as these terms relate to Isa (or Jesus – PBUH), which we need to grasp if we are to understand the message of the Injil. We look at this in our next article.

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