The Evolution of the English Bible, Part 2 : From the 1800s to the Present Day

Modern Bibles are massively more readable, attractively set out, and offer helpful supplementary material, such as shown in this Study Version of the very popular ESV Bible.

This is the second part of a two part article tracing the history of English language Bibles, from the first such Bible (the Wycliffe Bible in 1382, laboriously hand-copied, with each copy taking about ten months to create) to the most recent (online Bibles that are possibly never printed at all).

The first part took us to the King James Version, a bible that was the unchallenged prime English Bible for 275 years, from 1611 until the 1880s.  Let’s start off the second part by looking at how it lasted so long, and why was it then replaced (or at least, attempted to be replaced)?

The Extraordinary Change in the 1800s

We wrote about how stable society had been, for centuries, in the first part.  This stability continued on past the publication of the KJV, and only started to change with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, around 1760.  And then, like a snowball running downhill, all the changes and developments started to pile on top of each other, to accumulate and interact.  The rate of change accelerated, and was no longer evolutionary and slow, and became revolutionary and fast.

There was a cascade of improvements in a number of totally different fields, but which synergistically interacted to create what truly was indeed a revolution – developments in new materials, new energy sources, new machinery, mass-production in factories, and new forms of transportation and communication.

While this is termed the Industrial Revolution, it in turn caused great changes to society in a broader sense – change to all elements of society, of life, and how it was lived.  Change – while not always for the better – was now the constant, and the older and more traditional things were changed from being good to bad.  The passing of time no longer validated but instead challenged things.  The more vulnerable older things began to be attacked by change – sometimes this was a good development, but sometimes changes were made for the sake of change itself.

By the time Britain reached the Victorian era (Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901, the period of her reign being termed the Victorian era) the extraordinary growth of the British Empire and of technology in general saw a huge increase in both national and self-confidence and a belief in the supremacy of man being able to triumph against nature and the elements, and of now possessing enormous knowledge and capabilities.  This culminated in such things as the suggestion the Titanic was unsinkable, with so much confidence in its resilient design that it sailed with insufficient lifeboats and liferafts for everyone on board – they were felt to be more for decoration than desperate need.

So, for these various reasons, an outcome of this flowering of so much genuine accomplishment was a belief that modern things were innately superior to older things, and a related belief that old things could be revisited and improved upon.

Such concepts extended also to Biblical scholarship, and in particular, the Greek texts upon which the KJV translation was based.  There never was one single Greek text that was the sole reference work for Biblical translation.  Rather, there translation had always been a two-part process – first, determining which the best source documents were, and then secondly, deciding how best to express the Greek in English.  The KJV scholars had based their translations on the works of Erasmus and what was termed the Textus Receptus, which became the primary source for the KJV translation.

However, since that time (the 1520s), more and more text fragments had been discovered, and it seemed appropriate and in line with the times to revisit the assumptions and choices within what comprised the Textus Receptus and come up with with a definitive series of choices from among the multiplying profusion of different sources.

New Greek Biblical Sources

It was in the 1880s that alternative sources started to be used for Bible translations.  A couple of English scholars – Westcott and Hort – tried to evaluate the varying degrees of credibility and authority between various different source documents, and also came up with what they considered to be two more authoritative sources of original Greek texts, a claim which was at the time not universally accepted, but which somehow has become accepted as mainstream wisdom subsequently.  There are valid reasons to both understand and accept the claim, and also to dispute and reject the claim, which has lead to considerable tension ever since.  Westcott and Hort said their preferred two sources – the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus – were better than the Textus Receptus because they dated further back (to the 400s) and so were less likely to have had errors creep in over the years.

On the face of it, this seems sensible.  One concept is that being written earlier, such documents had been transcribed fewer times and so there was less opportunity for error to creep in.  That seems fair, but it is interesting to note that most of the later (ie middle ages) documents are remarkably consistent with each other – there is no sign of major errors appearing in the later documents.

Simply being written closer to the time of Christ is no guarantee that the documents are more accurate, either in terms of underlying doctrine or in terms of copying accuracy.  Paul was already lamenting the doctrinal errors and outright paganism that was being adopted by some church groups, when writing in his Epistles, between 50-58AD, mere decades after the death of Christ.  So giving preference to these documents based primarily on their age is far from conclusively persuasive.

Other scholars said these two codices were of very dubious provenance, indeed one of them was rescued from the trash where it was due to be burned to keep a monastery warm in winter, and the other was essentially unused in a Vatican archive.  It is certainly true that, where they differ from other sources, the two codices seem to have largely been ignored since their time of writing.

These scholars suggested that while their preferred sources – the “Textus Receptus” were more recent, the fact that there were many more of them (almost 6,000, of varying lengths) and all generally agreeing with each other gave them more self-referential integrity.  This contrasts with these two codices which are more at odds with other source documents – if they truly were authoritative, they’d probably be reflected more closely in other source documents.

We also suggest that documents including sections of the Apocrypha would seem to be of lesser authority than those which stick to the generally accepted canon of texts.  Both these codices include Apocryphal writings, so, by some measures, that would surely detract from their credibility in cases where there are differences between their wording choices and those of the source documents used to create the KJV.

The original work of Westcott and Hort was used as a base by another pair of scholars, Eberhard Nestle and Kurt Aland, to create a new critical edition of the underlying Greek text for the New Testament, known as the Nestle-Aland (NA) Novum Testamentum Graece.  This is sometimes described as the “Critical Text” (meaning “created by the critics”).

Their first edition was published in 1898.  It has been updated over the years, due to new documents being found and new evaluations of the respective merits of each document, and is currently in its 28th edition (NA28).  This document is twinned by the United Bible Societies fifth edition (UBS5) – a version intended to be used by translators seeking to translate into other languages.

While we abhor ad hominem arguments, it might be appropriate to note that Westcott and Hort both denied the concept of Biblical inerrancy, were spiritualists, and evolutionists.  Nestle and Aland were also evolutionists and theological skeptics.  Are these really the best people to be tasked with deciding what original texts to use to create the official source from which English bibles are translated from?

There is one more point to consider as well.  The two Codices were apparently known to the translators who created the KJV.  Those translators presumably evaluated the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Vaticanus, and other “Alexandrinus” codices, and rejected them all as being less authoritative than the other texts they relied upon.  For sure, they might have been mistaken about this, but it is wrong to imply that the KJV translators did not know of these sources, with the follow-on implication being that if they had known, they would have used them.  They did know, and rejected them.

The argument continues, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable, to this day as to whether this (NA28/UBS5) version is better than the Textus Receptus (TR).  Making the matter even more complex is the apparent creation of “back-translations” that took the English from the KJV and used it to “fill in the gaps” of earlier documents, which may have then been cited (by other people, unwittingly) as evidence to support the KJV’s superior authenticity.

A third approach has created another “source” in the 1980s.  This is the so-called “Majority Text” (MT) whereby a mere 8% of the over 5700 documents that together make up the Textus Receptus source have been deemed the most persuasive and have been matched together to create a new version of the original Greek, based on which variations are most common.

The concept of “majority wins” is a noble one, and for sure, the thought of working through many thousands of source documents is unappealing.  But “majority wins” is also a concept fraught with problems.  What say an early error was then copied many times, compared to a more accurate version that has fewer surviving copies?  Applying a simple “majority wins” approach would deem the erroneous version the better version.

It is certainly fair to note that the term “Majority Text” is a misstatement of what it is.  8% is not a majority, and one can only guess why the two writers (Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad, in 1982) who labeled this selection as being the majority of the text did so, other than as a desire to give their selections more credibility than might otherwise be valid.

English Bibles Subsequent to the KJV

Unsurprisingly, the re-evaluation of what constituted the “best” source documents resulted in new Bibles, combining both different source material and then more modern translations of those documents.  The extended pause in Bible versions, subsequent to the KJV, ended with the release (in Britain) of the “Revised Version“, with the New Testament appearing in 1881, the Old Testament in 1885, and – giving a clue as to the step back from strict standards of Biblical authority that this new version embraced, an Apocrypha in 1895.

The decision to include an Apocrypha is perhaps a hint that this Bible was diverging from the established Canon and principles, although it could also be argued that the editors and publishers merely wished to be neutral and to provide the full range of source materials to allow people to form their own opinions.

This new Revised Version Bible, while obviously described as a revised version of the long-established and universally accepted KJV, in actuality was based on the a new Greek source text, compiled by Edwin Palmer, that had somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 changes from the texts used for the KJV for the New Testament (as well as tens of thousands of stylistic changes to update the English).

That is a change per every 1.5 verses of the New Testament, way more than should be described as a simple revision, and we’re somewhat uncomfortable with the way this new Bible tried to cloak itself in the credibility of the universally accepted KJV it then attempted to displace and replace.  The Revised Version was an only moderately well-received work, although while the text was more easily understood, it was not as “inspirational” as the stately KJV version. It was most notable for “opening up the field” to considering new source material other than purely the TR used by the KJV.

This Revised Version was prepared and published in England (and is sometimes referred to as the English Revised Version), at the behest of the Church of England.  Its lack of popularity encouraged American scholars to come up with a “better” and more American revised version, also based on the same WH source, which was published in 1901, and called the American Standard Version.  American scholars had been invited to participate in the development of the Revised Version, but their comments were subject to being overruled by the English (and often were), and so this new version was closer to the form the American Scholars had always wanted.

The ASV was also never very popular, with the KJV remaining the most popular version until 1952.  However, although not popular, it was influential because it formed the base for a number of derivative revised versions, most notably the Revised Standard Version of 1952, which finally displaced the KJV as the most popular Bible version in the US, and was based on the NA text.

The ASV has also formed the basis of the Amplified Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the Recovery Version, the World English Bible, and The Living Bible.

The World English Bible, while also based on the ASV, used the Majority Text rather than NA.

The AMP is an interesting version, because it often shows alternate versions/translations of texts, or adds additional clarification to the text.  The first New Testament version was published in 1958 and complete Bible in 1965.  A revision in 2015 had additional amplification text, and the Bible was slightly renamed to Amplified Holy Bible.  It has been criticized however by some, who say that the suggested alternate words and explanatory meanings are the opinions of the editors rather than true Biblical authority.

The RSV in turn lead to the New Revised Standard Version of 1989 (which claims to be the version most commonly preferred by Biblical scholars), and, in 2001, the English Standard Version, also based on the NA text.

A new Bible translation first appeared in 1978, with an emphasis being to write it in broadly understood modern and more colloquial English.  This is the New International Version, which has become one of the most popular Bible versions.  It has gone through several versions, including an unpopular “inclusive” version that used gender-neutral terms – “human beings” instead of “mankind”, for example.  It is based on the NA text, and its current version is a 2011 update.

The ESV has tried to straddle the gap between the accuracy of the NASB with the more freely flowing and easily readable text of the NIV.  It has gone through three revisions (2007, 2011 and 2016).  There have been only minor changes in the three revisions, and the 2016 edition was initially described rather boldly as being the permanent form that would never change any more.  That rather ridiculous statement was hastily withdrawn and the publishers said they’d continue to make changes based on ongoing discoveries of new text and changes in the English language.

Other translations have gone back to the basic source texts.  One example of that would be what was first the Holman Christian Standard Bible, published in 1999, and subsequently updated and revised, republished as the Christian Standard Bible,, in 2017 (and with minor revisions, mainly to footnotes, in 2020).  Both these two versions are based on the NA/UBS text, although originally the HCSB was planned to be based on the Majority Text, but the death of its general editor (Arthur Farstad, one of the developers of the MT) saw a change in policy.

Another example is the Lexham English Bible, published online in 2010 (New Testament) based on a new SBL Greek version of the New Testament (tracing its origin to the Westcott and Hort text).

New Versions of the KJV

The enduring popularity of the KJV has seen a large number of new Bible versions published that in some way claim to be part of the KJV heritage, whether there be any accuracy in that claim or not.

The first of these was probably Webster’s Revision of 1833, a very light edit of the KJV to update some words and phrases by an American, Noah Webster.  It is little used these days, because newer revisions have eclipsed it.  Another revision was Young’s Literal Translation, first published in 1862, revised in 1887 and (posthumously) in 1888, and then again in 1898.

The first major change was the innocuously named Revised Version (see above), which in truth wasn’t just a revision of the KJV but more akin to a major rewrite, and using different source material.

Four significant new versions, all relying on the same underlying TR Greek, are :

  • The 21st Century King James Version (KJ21) – this is an updating of the KJV, not a new translation.  It replaces some no-longer-understood archaic words and phrases with appropriate modern equivalents, but in doing so, is careful not to change the original meaning, and also preserves some of the stately “Biblical English” formal language in the KJV.  It was published in 1994.  A slightly differently formatted version is known as the Third Millennium Bible (TMB).
  • The Modern English Version (MEV) – This is described as an updated edition of the KJV using a more modern (American) English vernacular, and is based on the same Textus Receptus as the original KJV.  It was published in 2014.
  • The New King James Version (NKJV) – this is a complete new translation, but drawing on the same Textus Receptus as the original KJV.  It also includes helpful notes pointing out differences between the TR they are relying upon and the Nestle-Aland and Majority Text versions.  It was published in 1982 and revised in 1984.  It is much easier to read than the KJV, but does not “flow” as easily as, for example, the ESV, and still has some puzzling elements to it.
  • The King James Version 2016 Edition (KJV 2016) is a work in progress.  It is also based on the Masoretic Text and Textus Receptus, and at this point the New Testament has been completed and is available for download, while the Old Testament continues to be translated

There is only one version of the Bible that features Majority Text as a source, and that is the World English Bible (explained here).

Are Modern Bibles Better?

So, were the changes to the Bible that appeared first in the Revised Version of the 1880s, and then with more and more new versions of the Bible subsequently, a good thing, or changes for the sake of change alone, or even actually bad things?

That is a very contentious question.  We’ll consider it separately, in a subsequent article.  For now, we feel that the differences are minor and the commonalities overwhelming, and for all except “forensic” type Biblical study that few of us ever participate in, the most important thing is probably to get a Bible you enjoy reading and can readily understand, and for key passages, compare a KJV type Bible to a non-KJV type to get two perspectives on what the passage probably should be.

The happy truth is that being a Christian is easy.  Accept Jesus as your personal savior, love God, and, as best you can, live a Christian life.  None of the major translations interfere with any part of that.

This is the second part of a two-part article tracing the evolution and changes in English language Bibles from the first ever English Bible in 1382 and the present day.  The first part covers the period up to the KJV, and can be seen here.

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