Tracking the roots of the English Bible is a long lesson in church history, religious politics and self-sacrificing linguistics. Rather than bog you down with too many details, we’ll just give you this brief description. There are lots of excellent sources of this information if you are interested in learning more.
There have been hundreds of English translations of God’s Word over the years, in some cases the entire Bible, but in others, just a portion of the books. John Wycliffe’s Bible of 1384 was the first complete translation into English, but William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1530 was the first to draw on the original languages in which the biblical books were written: Greek and Hebrew. The Geneva Bible (1560) was the first to separate the Bible into verses, and the King James Bible that is still used today has changed very little from the original 1611 edition.
The modern English translations of the Bible that you’ll find in bookstores today are based on a wider variety of manuscripts in the original languages. The translators were very diligent in cross-checking the various sources such as the Septuagint, Textus Receptus and Masoretic Text. Relatively recent discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, provide additional reference information.
Modern translations are usually shortened to acronyms that you’ll become more familiar with as you shop for a Bible. The New King James Version (NKJV), the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT) are three of the most popular today. Other versions are even more contemporary and one, The Message, reads more like a novel.
An important difference between many of today’s Bibles is the choice between a literal, word-for-word translation and more of a thought-for-thought translation. Two very popular translations (NIV and NLT) are easy to read but are not as literal in their translation as versions like the New American Standard (NAS) or the English Standard Version (ESV).
Here are two downloadable PDF charts that help explain (a) the roots of the English translations, and (b) the scope of Bibles between “word-for-word” and "thought-for-thought”:
Chart of the Development of the English Bible
Chart of the Translation Continuum