What follows is an overview of the major versions and translations of the biblical text. Other versions and translations exist, but the ones discussed below are important both historically and for their continuing use by various contemporary communities of faith.
Masoretic Text (MT)
The earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible were written without vowels or accents, as written Hebrew did not represent vowels until the Middle Ages. To preserve traditional spoken readings, starting in the fifth century C.E., a group of Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes carefully selected, copied, and annotated biblical scrolls, adding vowels and accents to the ancient Hebrew consonants in the process. Though the Masoretic scribes added these vowels to the ancient text long after it had been written, they were likely preserving traditional vocalizations that dated to much earlier times. The Masoretes produced several different systems of vocalization (writing in vowels) between 500 and 700 C.E.
Until the last few decades, most biblical scholars believed that the Masoretic biblical texts were, with some exceptions, the best witnesses to the most ancient Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians sometimes call the Old Testament).
Recent discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, suggest that there were several different versions of many biblical books in the Second Temple period. Some of these versions differed only slightly from each other, but some versions were very different. After the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., Jewish groups dispersed across the ancient world, preserving these versions of the Hebrew Scriptures in their communities. One of these groups preserved the texts that would later become the Masoretic Text. Others are preserved in versions such as the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation.
In the 10th century C.E., the ben Asher scribal family of Tiberias produced a manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that Maimonides, a famous Jewish scholar, declared to be the best known version of the sacred text. Soon after, the Tiberian Masoretic text and its particular version of vowels and annotations became the standard, authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible for rabbinic Judaism. The most important Masoretic medieval manuscripts are the Aleppo Codex, which dates to the 10th century C.E., and the Leningrad Codex, which dates to 1009 C.E.
The Masoretic Text is the version held as authoritative and used liturgically in most synagogues today. The Catholic Church since the time of Jerome (fourth century C.E.) and most Protestant Christian churches use this version as their source text for modern translations.
Old Greek (OG) or Septuagint
The earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible is the Old Greek (OG), the translation made in Alexandria, Egypt, for the use of the Greek-speaking Jewish community there. At first, just the Torah was translated, in the third century B.C.E.; the rest of the biblical books were translated later. The whole Hebrew Bible was likely translated into ancient Greek by the middle of the second century B.C.E.
Scholars think that many OG translators worked from early Hebrew versions of biblical books that were quite different from those versions that became the MT. As a result, some biblical books, such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and Job, are longer or shorter in the OG version of the Bible than they are in the MT.
We now know from discoveries in the Dead Sea region that these alternate Hebrew versions were circulated alongside the versions that became the MT. It is not clear that one Hebrew version was preferred over the others. In any event, the OG translators sometimes chose versions very similar to those later chosen for the MT version, and other times the translators chose versions that were very different.
At the time the Bible was translated into Greek, there was no MT or any official or authorized Bible in existence. There were merely multiple editions of many scrolls of various perceived levels of sacredness. In fact, it seems that there wasn’t an official project to translate “the Bible” into ancient Greek; instead, many different Greek-speaking Jews in various times and places simply translated their favorite books into ancient Greek. Some of these books were later chosen to be included in the Bible, and some were not. It was only many centuries later that people began to choose the best of these Greek translations and to copy them all together as if they were one book. So, it can be said that the Bible was translated in its entirety before there even was a Bible!
Eventually, early Christians adopted the OG as their preferred version of the Hebrew Bible. Most Jews in Greek-speaking lands returned to using the Hebrew version that would later become the MT. Christians then added bits and pieces to what had already been added by Jewish editors and translators, and the resulting text used in early Christian liturgy (and still used by Eastern Orthodox Churches) is called the Septuagint.
Christians then translated the Greek version into many other languages, such as Latin (the Old Latin version, completed by the third century C.E.), African languages such as Coptic (third century C.E.), Asian languages such as Armenian (circa fifth century C.E.), and Arabic (ninth century C.E.).
Because the Jews in Palestine spoke mostly Aramaic by the time the biblical books were coming into their final forms, translations were required even while the finishing touches were being put on the texts. For example, some parts of the Aramaic translation of the Torah, called Targum Onqelos, probably go back as far as 100 B.C.E. Others, such as Targum Psalms, date from as late as 600 C.E. These Aramaic translations are usually called targums, the Aramaic word for “translation.” Some targums are more literal, and others are more expansive and creative. Some biblical books have a number of different targums made from them, whereas for others we can only find one.
The Syriac language was spoken by Jews in northern Syria; they translated their Bible into Syriac at various points in the second century C.E. Several translators worked on this project, so the quality and style of translation varies. The Peshitta (which means “simple,” that is, a plain translation without textual comments) was prepared for the use of Jews. Later, Syriac-speaking Christians adopted the Peshitta and added a Syriac version of the New Testament, although the far-Eastern Christian churches seemed not to include several New Testament letters or the book of Revelation.
In the second century C.E., a Christian named Tatian decided to harmonize all four canonical Greek Gospels and, at the same time, translate them into Syriac. Because the four Gospels seem to exhibit some discrepancies, Tatian rewrote them so that they would not conflict. Although Tatian’s harmonization was very popular in the East until the fifth century C.E., other early Christian interpreters such as Irenaeus urged Christians to maintain all four (separate) canonical Gospels. The tradition of four separate Gospels continues in almost all Christian churches to this day.
The New Testament
By the end of the first and the beginning of the second century C.E., various Gospels, narratives, letters, and apocalyptic writings, all written in a broadly used dialect of Greek named koine, or “common,” were being used by various Christian communities.
Selection among these sacred texts, and from the Hebrew Bible, for public reading in Christian worship probably began the process of canonization of Christian writings. When disputes broke out about beliefs or traditions, the canonical status of the various Christian writings became a touchstone in the debates.
Official lists of books in or out of the canon only began to appear in the fourth century C.E., as a result of particular theological disputes, usually about the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity. However, Christian canon lists remained fluid through the seventh century; during this time, books such as the Shepherd of Hermas or the forged Epistle to the Laodiceans could be found in certain Christian Bibles.
Overall, by the end of the fourth century C.E. there was general agreement about which books should have scriptural status. Although early Christians wrote quite a few letters and books, only a few became widely accepted. For a work to be considered sacred in the fourth century and beyond, it seems that it had to claim apostolic authority: the work had to be written or authorized by one of the earliest Christian leaders, especially Paul and the twelve apostles. Apostolic authority required that the books be consistent with the teachings about Jesus and the Trinity that were found in other accepted books and that were current in fourth-century Christianity. As a result, books such as the Gospel of Peter were rejected from most Christian canon lists, and some of the writings deemed noncanonical were lost and only rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries.