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Q&A

Which was the first English Bible translation to capitalize pronouns referring to deity?

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I grew up thinking that the practice of capitalizing pronouns referring to deity was pretty normal. Here's an example of it, from Matthew 4:11–12 (New American Standard), where "He" and "Him" refer to Jesus:

11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to serve Him. 12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee;

But recently in the preface of the ESV Bible, I found the following claim:

the practice of capitalizing deity pronouns in English Bible translations is a recent innovation, which began only in the mid-twentieth century

From what I can tell, the New American Standard was an early adopter of this approach, publishing the New Testament in 1963. But I can't tell if they were the first. Did any earlier published English Bible translations capitalize deity pronouns?

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It's hard to answer this definitively since I'm not completely certain that there isn't some earlier one that's just a lot harder to find nowadays (and I'm no Biblical Translation Scholar or anything, just someone who's been digging through search engines and Wikipedia occasionally digging for an answer in the time since this was asked), but the best answer I can find is Young's Literal Translation which was first published in 1862. It uses capitalization for pronouns referring to God, but not for pronouns referring to Jesus.

  • For in Him doth our heart rejoice, For in His holy name we have trusted. — Psalm 33:21 (YLT)
  • John doth testify concerning him, and hath cried, saying, `This was he of whom I said, He who after me is coming, hath come before me, for he was before me;' — John 1:15 (YLT)
  • in whom we have the redemption through his blood, the remission of the trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, — Ephesians 1:7 (YLT)

And, if you look at, say, Psalm 33:21 across all translations available in Bible Gateway, the ones with capitalized pronouns are from newer translations than that if I eyeballed the list correctly.

The earliest translation I can find which also capitalizes pronouns referring to Jesus is the NASB that you mention:

  • For our heart rejoices in Him, Because we trust in His holy name. — Psalm 33:21 (NASB)
  • John testified about Him and called out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who is coming after me has proved to be my superior, because He existed before me.’” — John 1:15 (NASB)
  • "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our wrongdoings, according to the riches of His grace" — Ephesians 1:7 (NASB)

Now for some additional caveats and notes:

  • Of course the capitalization is not in the original text, so whether one capitalizes pronouns is entirely about which conventions of English one wants to use (and if one is okay with the translators choosing which pronouns refer to God).
  • In the 17th and 18th centuries, capitalization (along with other rules of English) wasn't nearly as standardized as it is now. But really even today it's still not fully standardized, with some modern translations capitalizing pronouns and others not doing so, and secular style guides also differ on the topic.
  • There does seem to be a bit of a resurgence of translations capitalizing pronouns starting in the 1960's, which is probably what the ESV preface is referring to, though I think to some extent it may just be reflective of that being a time when more translations were being made as the KJV started to lose its popularity. (I wasn't around at that time, though, so perhaps I'm misunderstanding the time period.)

Some references and/or possible interesting related reading that I found while researching:

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