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Icelandic Bible ICELAND

Publisher: Public Domain

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Translations have been a part of the Iceland’s literary heritage from the very beginning of the country’s recorded history. The authors who wrote our extensive medieval literature were all educated men who taught themselves the style and presentation which were typical of their era. Sermons and ecclesiastical explanations were translated into old Icelandic, along with sagas of holy men and apostles. Great parts of the Bible, mainly the Old Testament, were also translated very early on, though there is no possibility that the entire Bible would have been translated into Icelandic during the earliest centuries of Christianity. The only Icelandic Bible text preserved from the Middle Ages, and called Stjórn (Government), covers the first half of the Old Testament, from the Pentateuch to the end of the Second book of Kings. That text exists in several manuscripts and had a great impact on Old Icelandic literature during that era. Even though not much is known about other Bible texts, it has been claimed that a translation of the four Gospels had been printed by Bishop Jón Arason  (1484-1550), but the evidence for this are very uncertain. However, it has been said that the last copy had been put into Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson’s coffin on his death in 1675. Bible quotes are to be found in Icelandic literature, both direct quotes and indirect references.


It seems that a selection of Bible texts was translated when Oddur Gottskálksson (1515-1556), who worked in Bishop Ögmundur Pálsson’s service (around 1465-1541), had some resources to work from when he started translating the New Testament as a young man in a stable in the late 1530s, but it was eventually published in Roskilde, Denmark, in 1540. Oddur Gottskálksson’s New Testament was the first book to be printed in Iceland, and Icelandic was only the thirteenth language of the world to have had the New Testament translated into it. He worked mainly from the Latin Vulgate, but he also used Martin Luther’s German translation of 1534, as it contained Luther’s own Foreword to the New Testament.
After the Reformation, when Bishop Jón Arason and his two sons were beheaded in 1550, there was a greater urgency within the Church for the whole Bible to be translated into Icelandic. Oddur Gottskálksson, along with some others, had already translated some books of the Old Testament.


Guðbrandur Þorláksson (1541-1627), Bishop at Hólar in Hjaltadalur (1571-1627), was extremely productive as a translator and publisher, and his greatest achievement was undoubtedly the publication of a new translation of the entire Bible in 1584. It had enormous impact on the Icelandic language and its preservation. It has even been claimed that, if the Bible had not been translated and published so early, Icelanders would have lost their language and would today probably speak Danish or some kind of Norwegian, or even English!  This Bible version is based on Luther’s Bible of 1534 and the Danish Bible that King Christian III had published in 1550. The New Testament is in fact Oddur Gottskálksson’s version, with some corrections. Scholars had already translated some books of the Old Testament, but Guðbrandur corrected them and added the books that had not already been translated. It is interesting to note that in Hólar, which was Guðbrandur’s episcopal site, there exists a Hebrew version of the Bible, with handwritten quotes from Guðbrandur himself. Therefore, Guðbrandur must have used the Hebrew text, as he worked on the Icelandic Old Testament. It also contains Luther’s Foreword to the Bible and some further explanations from his Bible that Guðbrandur would have translated.


Guðbrandur’s grandson, Þorlákur Skúlason (1597-1656), who became the next Bishop at Hólar (1628-1656), published a Bible in two parts, in 1638 and 1644. Þorlákur’s Bible is the second version of the Icelandic Bible. It largely follows Guðbrandur’s version with some corrections. According to the Danish king’s order, Þorlákur was obliged to follow a Danish version that Hans Resen, who later became the Bishop of Sjaelland, had translated directly from Hebrew and Greek and published in 1607. In this second version in Icelandic, the chapters were divided into verses for the first time, alhough such an innovation had been started some decades earlier. Be that as it may, the division of the Biblical books into chapters had been practised earlier, as it had also been done both in Oddur Gottskálksson’s New Testament and Guðbrandur’s complete Bible.


The third version of the Bible was published in 1728. Bishop Steinn Jónsson (1660-1739), who also presided at Hólar (1711-1739), was the publisher. According to the Danish king’s order, Steinn was obliged to bring the text closer to the Danish language, probably Hans Svane’s translation of 1647.  This version had a very poor reputation, and was the last one to be printed in Hólar.


The fourth version of the Icelandic Bible was the so-called Bible of Vejsenhus, published in 1747 by the Royal Vajsenhus, an orphanage which had recently been founded and to which the Danish king had given the copyright to publish Bibles in Denmark, which in fact it still has.


The next version of the entire Bible, the fifth in Icelandic, was published in 1813. In fact, the New Testament had already been published in 1750 and 1807. This version was published on the initiative of the British and Foreign Bible Society which had been founded in 1804. Its purpose has always been the distribution of the Holy Scriptures throughout Britain and the entire world. This Bible was very welcome even though there were some printing errors and the paper was of poor quality. The text of this Bible was in full agreement with the Vajsenhus Bible apart from the omission of Luther’s Foreword and the apocryphal books. The British and Foreign Bible Society would not acknowledge the latter and did not wish to sponsor the publication of a Bible that contained them. The Scotsman Ebenezer Henderson (1784-1850) travelled around Iceland in 1814 and 1815 and distributed Bibles. It was at his initiative that the Icelandic Bible Society was founded on July 10th, 1815, which will therefore celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2015.


The pioneers of the Icelandic Bible Society under the leadership of Bishop Geir Vídalín (1761-1823), who also was the chairman of the Bible Society, very soon started working on a new translation of the Bible, and the New Testament was published in 1827. Along with Bishop Geir Vídalín, Sveinbjörn Egilsson and some others worked on this translation. In 1841 the so-called Bible of Viðey was published and it is the sixth version in Icelandic. It was clearly written for the ordinary Icelander, and its language was much freer of Danish influence than earlier versions, which indeed was the main aim of Icelandic Romanticism. Perhaps the translations, which were supposed to be rendered directly from Hebrew and Greek, were not always precise but still they are in many ways very beautiful. Some translators also used a German Bible, probably Martin Luther’s.


The seventh version of the Icelandic Bible was printed in Reykjavík in 1859. The Icelandic Bible Society sponsored this version, and the apocryphal books were again included. In fact, the apocryphal books were included in all Icelandic Bible versions, apart from those which the British and Foreign Bible Society sponsored. The text of this 1859 version contains the text from the 1841 Bible of Viðey, with some corrections.


One criticism of the 1841 and 1859 versions was that the text seemed to be incoherent, and consistency between each book had not been maintained; instead, each translator had left his own mark on his translation of the relevant book.  Some people also felt that the language was too commonplace, and its majesty had been swept away. So a new translation, sponsored by the British and Foreign Bible Society, was started a little later. Pétur Pétursson (1808-1891), later Bishop of Iceland, and Sigurður Melsteð (1819-1895), who were professors at the Vicar College of Iceland, oversaw the revision and translated the New Testament again and proofread some parts of the Old Testament. This Bible version was published in 1866 and was printed in London. It was however very controversial, in that Pétur and Sigurður were accused of not having translated the Bible word for word, but had only corrected some texts from the Bible of 1859. However, this Bible was welcomed and accepted by Icelanders for the rest of the nineteenth century.


The administration of the Icelandic Bible Society applied for a financial assistance for a new translation of the Bible in 1887. Ten years later, in 1897, a young theologian, Haraldur Níelsson (1868-1928), started translating the Old Testament. The Rev. Gísli Skúlason (1877-1942) worked with him on this.  The Rev. Þórhallur Bjarnarson (1855-1916), the Rev. Eiríkur Briem (1846-1929), and the Rev. Hallgrímur Sveinsson (1841-1909) translated the New Testament. The Revs. Þórhallur and Hallgrímur, along with the poet Steingrímur Thorsteinsson (1831-1913), sat on the commitee charged with proofreading and revising the whole text. The New Testament was published in 1906 and the whole Bible in 1908. But not everyone was happy with it. Apart from a number of shortcomings, it was criticised on the grounds that the Hebrew word ‘Jahweh’ was used instead of the Icelandic word ‘Drottinn’ (Lord). So this version of the Bible was revoked and republished in 1912 as the ninth version of the Icelandic Bible, but still including the word ‘Jahve’ for ‘Lord’ and ‘hinn smurði’ (‘the anointed one’) for Jesus Christ. Various place-names were corrected and controversial verses restored.  The New Testament in general was revised and some parts of it were retranslated. The apocryphal books were not included in this Bible, but they were translated later on and published in 1931. This Bible was printed many times during the next decades, until the late 1970s.


In the 1950s it was clear that a new Bible was urgently needed, and a committee of translators was convened in the early 1960s . The three synoptic gospels were published in the 1970s, along with the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts. In 1981 the tenth version of the Icelandic Bible was published.  The Old Testament was revised, in that ‘Jahve’ was changed to ‘Drottinn’ (Lord), under the leadership of Professor Þórir Kr. Þórðarson (1924-1995). The four gospels and the Book of Acts were published in a new translation, while the Epistles and Revelation were revised by Professor Jón Sveinbjörnsson (b. 1928).

The inclusion of the apocryphal books with the Bible had been considered, and their 1931 translation was revised and corrected. For some reason, however, this was postponed, mainly because this translation had too many shortcomings.  So the Rev. Árni Bergur Sigurbjörnsson (1941-2005), along with Guðrún Kvaran (b. 1943) and Professor Jón Sveinbjörnsson, who also sat on the committee, completed a new translation of the apocryphal books. This was published in 1994.


In 1986, the Icelandic Bible Society asked Sigurður Örn Steingrímsson (1932-2012) and Professor Þórir Kr. Þórðarson to translate the Old Testament books of Jonah and Ruth, and Guðrún Kvaran was also asked to work with them on that translation as an adviser. That project was finished in 1988. This was, so to speak, the first step towards yet another translation of the Icelandic Bible.

In the autumn of 1990 a collaborative contract was made between the Theological Institution of the University of Iceland and the Icelandic Bible Society for a new translation of the Old Testament, and during the next couple of years there were published nine booklets introducing this project. The main translator was Sigurður Örn Steingrímsson, assisted by certain others. Later on, a committee was constituted to revise the text on behalf of the Bible Society. On this committee there sat originally Professor Þórir Kr. Þórðarson (chairman), the Rev. Árni Bergur Sigurbjörnsson, the Rev. Gunnar Kristjánsson (b. 1945), and Professor Gunnlaugur A. Jónsson (b. 1952), with Guðrún Kvaran as the representative of the Icelandic Language Committee. Later, Professor Þórir Kr. Þórðarson withdrew from the committee owing to illness. Guðrún Kvaran then became the committee’s chairman and the Rev. Sigurður Pálsson (b. 1936) also joined it.

In the autumn of 2001 it was decided to revise the 1981 New Testament again. For that committee, Jón Sveinbjörnsson (as main translator), the Rev. Árni Bergur Sigurbjörnsson and Guðrún Kvaran were chosen. In 2003 Professor Einar Sigurbjörnsson (b. 1944) joined the committee, as his brother Árni Bergur had fallen ill. This version was translated from the original languages, but also referred to older translations, both Icelandic and recent foreign ones. The main aim was to translate the entire Bible into a modern and comprehensible language, without losing too much of the timelessness of the Bible’s traditional style.

In 2007, the eleventh version of the Icelandic Bible was published, the Bible of the 21st century. In it, the apocryphal books are all included in a revised version.


The thinking behind this latest translation was that the language of the Bible had become too remote from the daily language of ordinary people. This new version, the eleventh, was intended to bring the Bible closer to the Icelander of the 21st century, without losing the majestic style that should characterise the Word of God. Language has been changing throughout the centuries, and the Bible must follow that evolution.



Biblía 21. aldar


Einar Sigurbjörnsson, 2007: Þýðingar á íslensku. Heilög ritning — Orð Guðs og móðurmálið, pp. 13-23.


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The Icelandic Bible is © 2007 Icelandic Bible Society.

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