The Old Testament in Greek: 3rd c. BC - 3rd c. AD

There is no need for any part of the Bible to be translated until a community of Jews, in the Diaspora, forget their Hebrew. For the Jews of Alexandria, in the 3rd century BC, Greek is the first language. They undertake the translation of the Old Testament now known as the Septuagint.

Five centuries later the early Christians, who use Greek for their own New Testament, need to read both Old and new testaments - for they see themselves as the inheritors of the Old Testament tradition. It is essential for their arguments, when debating with Jewish rabbis, that they have an accurate understanding of the original Hebrew. Their need prompts the great work of biblical scholarship undertaken by Origen in the 3rd century AD.

In his Hexapla (from the Greek word for 'sixfold') Origen arranges six versions of the Old Testament in parallel columns for comparative study. The first column is the original Hebrew; next comes a transliteration of this in Greek letters, so that Christians can pronounce the Hebrew text; this is followed by the Septuagint, and then by Greek translations by Christian scholars.

When it comes to the Psalms, Origen adds a further two versions. One of them is the text of a scroll which he has himself discovered in a jar in the valley of the Jordan - exactly as with the Dead Sea Scrolls in our own time.

The Bible in Latin: 2nd - 4th century AD

During the 1st century Greek remains the language of the small Christian community, but with the spread of the faith through the Roman empire a Latin version of the Bible texts is needed in western regions. By the second century there is one such version in use in north Africa and another in Italy.

These versions become corrupted and others are added, until by the 4th century - in the words of St Jerome, the leading biblical scholar of the time - there are 'almost as many texts as manuscripts'.

In 382 the pope, Damasus, commissions Jerome to provide a definitive Latin version. In his monastery at Bethlehem, tended by aristocratic virgins, the saint produces the Vulgate. This eventually becomes established as the Bible of the whole western church until the Reformation.

By the time the Vulgate is complete (in about 405), the barbarian Goths also have their own version of parts of the Bible - thanks to the astonishing missionary effort of Ulfilas.

Ulfilas and his alphabet: AD c.360

Ulfilas is the first man known to have undertaken an extraordinarily difficult intellectual task - writing down, from scratch, a language which is as yet purely oral. He even devises a new alphabet to capture accurately the sounds of spoken Gothic, using a total of twenty-seven letters adapted from examples in the Greek and Roman alphabets.

God's work is Ulfilas' purpose. He needs the alphabet for his translation of the Bible from Greek into the language of the Goths. It is not known how much he completes, but large sections of the Gospels and the Epistles survive in his version - dating from several years before Jerome begins work on his Latin text.

The achievement of Ulfilas is repeated in the 9th century by two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, who adapt their own Greek alphabet for the purposes of writing down a previously oral Slavonic language.

An even more extraordinary feat of the same kind is achieved by Cherokee indians in the 19th century. Their analysis of their own previously unwritten language leads them to the conclusion that it consists of eighty-six different syllables. They turn it into a written languge by adopting a symbol for each syllable.

A restricted Bible: 8th - 14th century AD

The intention of St Jerome, translating into Latin the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, was that ordinary Christians of the Roman empire should be able to read the word of God. 'Ignorance of the scriptures', he wrote, 'is ignorance of Christ'.

Gradually this perception is altered. After the collapse of the Western empire, the people of Christian Europe speak varieties of German, French, Anglo-Saxon, Italian or Spanish. The text of Jerome's Vulgate is understood only by the learned, most of whom are priests. They prefer to corner the source of Christian truth, keeping for themselves the privilege of interpreting it for the people. Translation into vulgar tongues is discouraged.

There are exceptions. In the late 8th century Charlemagne commissions translation of parts of the Bible for the use of his missionaries in the drive to convert pagan Germans. In the 9th century the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius, sent from Constantinople to Moravia at royal request, translate the Gospels and parts of the Old Testament into Slavonic.

These are missionary endeavours, promoted by rulers as an act of government when pagan Europe is being brought into the Christian fold. In the later fully Christian centuries there is no equivalent need to provide the holy texts in vernacular form. Any such impulse is now a radical demand on behalf of ordinary Christians against the church hierarchy.

The strongest medieval demand for vernacular texts comes in France from a heretical sect, the Cathars. The suppression of the Cathars is complete by the mid-13th century. But in the following century the same demand surfaces within mainstream western Christianity.

John Wycliffe and his followers produce full English versions of the Old and New Testament in the late 14th century. At the same period the Czechs have their own vernacular Bible, subsequently much improved by John Huss.

These translations are part of the radical impulse for reform within the church. Indeed the issue of vernacular Bibles becomes one of the contentious themes of the Jerome.

A complaint by an English contemporary of Wycliffe, the chronicler Henry Knighton, is a measure of how far the church of Rome has swung on this issue since Jerome's campaign against 'ignorance of scripture'. Knighton rejects translation of the Bible on the grounds that by this means 'the jewel of the church is turned into the common sport of the people'.

Erasmus Luther and Tyndale: AD 1516-1536

By the 16th century the view is gaining ground that a personal knowledge of scripture is precisely what ordinary people most need for their own spiritual good. Erasmus, though he himself translates the New Testament only from Greek into Latin, expresses in his preface of 1516 the wish that the holy text should be in every language - so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it.

In the next decade this wish becomes a central demand of the Reformation. Fortunately writers with a vigorous style undertake the task. Notable among them are Luther and Tyndale. At a time of increasing literacy, their phrases have a profound influence on German and English literature.

Luther's interest in translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German has been stimulated, in 1518, by the arrival in Wittenberg of a new young professor, Philip Melanchthon. His lectures on Homer inspire Luther to study Greek. Melanchthon - soon to become Luther's lieutenant in the Reformation - gives advice on Luther's first efforts at translation.

Luther revives the task in the Wartburg. His New Testament is ready for publication in September 1522 (it becomes known as the September Bible). Luther's complete Bible, with the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew, is published in 1534.

Soon after the publication of Luther's New Testament an English scholar, William Tyndale, is studying in Wittenberg - where he probably matriculates in May 1524. Tyndale begins a translation of the New Testament from Greek into English. His version is printed at Worms in 1526 in 3000 copies. When they reach England, the bishop of London seizes every copy that his agents can lay their hands on.

The offending texts are burnt at St Paul's Cross, a gathering place in the precincts of the cathedral. So effective are the bishop's methods that today only two copies of the original 3000 survive.

Tyndale continues with his dangerous work (his life demonstrates the benefit to Luther of a strong protector, Frederick the wise). By 1535 he has translated the first half of the Old Testament. In that year, living inconspicuously among English merchants in Antwerp, his identity is betrayed to the authorities. This city is in the Spanish empire, so Tyndale is unmistakably a heretic. He is executed at the stake in 1536.

In spite of the destruction of printed copies, Tyndale's words survive in a living form. His texts become the source to which subsequent translators regularly return once it has been decided - by Henry VIII in 1534 - that there shall be an official English Bible.

The first authorized translation in England is that of Miles Coverdale, whose Bible of 1535 is dedicated to Henry VIII. Soon Henry commissions another version, edited under the supervision of Coverdale, with the intention that every church in the land shall possess a copy. This is the Great Bible, the saga of which from 1539 provides an intriguing insight into the politics of reform.

The translation which becomes central to English culture, as Luther's is to German, is the King James Bible (also called the Authorized Version). Edited by forty-seven scholars between 1604 and 1611, it aims to take the best from all earlier translations. By far its major source is Tyndale.

The missionarw's weapon: 19th - 20th century AD

The Bible in vernacular languages, a central demand of the Protestant Reformation, subsequently becomes the main weapon in the armoury of Protestant missionaries. Spreading around the world, along with the traders and administrators of the expanding European empires of the 19th century, these missionaries encounter more and more languages into which the holy text can be usefully translated.

During the 19th century translations of the Bible, in whole or in part, are published in some 400 new languages. The 20th century has added at least double that number.

One small local example can give an idea of the pace and energy of the missionary programme. In Papua New Guinea more than 800 languages are spoken. The first translation of the New Testament into one of these languages is not published until 1956. Yet by the 1990s the New Testament is available in more than 100 languages of the region, with almost 200 other versions in preparation.

Ulfilas, the pioneer in this great task, would be impressed.