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 scholars 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, it is better first to understand the process of translation of al kitab, or the Bible. That is what we will do in this article.

Translation vs. Transliteration

We need to first understand some basics of translation. 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 to mean 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.

The Septuagint

The first translation of the Bible was when the Hebrew Old Testament (= Taurat & Zabur) was translated into Greek about 250BC. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it was very influential.  Since the New Testament was written in Greek, the many quotations of the Old Testament were taken from the Greek 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 quadrant #1 and is accessible today in the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Because the Septuagint was a Hebrew –> Greek translation it is shown as an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2.  The New Testament was itself originally written in Greek, so this means #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language translation of the Bible (eg English).  To get there the Old Testament is translated from the original Hebrew (1 -> 3) and the New Testament is translated from the Greek (2 -> 3). The translators must decide on transliteration or translation of names and titles as explained previously. This is illustrated with the green arrows labeled transliterate and translate, showing that the translators can take either approach.

The Septuagint witness on the Question of Corruption of Bible

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.  Since these texts are almost identical this shows that the text of the Old Testament has not changed since at least 250 BC.  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 text. But they are essentially 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 to help with modern translation. 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 difficult translators can see how the Septuagint translators understood these obscure passages 2250 years ago.

Understanding translation/transliteration and the Septuagint 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.

In what Languages were the Books of the Bible written?

The word Bible literally means ‘Books’.  We see it today as one Book and we often refer to it as ‘a Book’.  This is why the Qur’an calls it ‘al kitab’.  But it really is a collection of Books written by more than 40 prophets who lived through a time span of over 1600 years.  These prophets had very different backgrounds.  Daniel (whose tomb is in modern-day Iran) was a prime minister in Babylonian (Iraq) and Persian (Iran) Empires.  Nehemiah was an attendant to the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes.  Ezekiel was a Priest.  Dawood (David) was King of Ancient Israel as was his son Suleiman (Solomon), and so on.  Thus you can really think of the Bible (or al Kitab) as more like a library, in one volume, that has 66 books.

To help us better ‘see’ the prophets and their books through history I have placed some (not all because there is not enough room) on a historical timeline.  What stands out is the very long period of human history this timeline covers.  The ticks (or units) of time in this timeline measure centuries (years by the 100’s)!  The green horizontal bars show the  lifespan of that particular prophet.  You can see that Ibrahim (Abraham) and Musa (Moses) lived many years!

Timeline for Prophets of Bible
Bible Prophets in Timeline – When these Prophets lived in human History

Because these prophets lived in different time periods, different countries (or empires) and in different social levels (i.e. some were with rulers and others with peasants) the languages used varied.  The Taurat (books of Moses/Musa – PBUH) was originally written in Hebrew.  The books of David/Dawood (PBUH) and Solomon/Suleiman (PBUH) in the Zabur were also in Hebrew.  Other books in Zabur (parts of Daniel and Nehemiah – PBUH) were originally written in Aramaic.  The prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) would have spoken in Aramaic and perhaps Hebrew.  The books of the Injil (they are not shown on this timeline) were originally written in Greek.

What is most interesting for us is that these original languages are preserved, accessible and even used to this very day.  It is just that these languages, not being European, are not used by Westerners so they do not get the attention that, say, English gets.  You can see the Taurat in Hebrew online by clicking here.  You will note that it reads right to left like Arabic.  You can see and hear a prayer of Isa in original Aramaic here.  You can also see the original Greek of the books of the Injil here.  Actually it is from these originals that scholars translate the books of the Bible into modern-day languages like English, French, Thai etc, similar to how scholars translate the Qur’an from Arabic into the many languages of today.