The Circle
 Previous issues
No 10






Leonard J. Greenspoon / The Birth of a Bible


     Those of us who work extensively on documents from antiquity often feel a sense of frustration in the knowledge that there is so little we know about the origins of such texts.  Even in the modern period there are considerable gaps in our knowledge.  This article attempts to fill in some of the gaps, explain why they exist, and make use of phenomena from the modern period to suggest profitable lines of inquiry with respect to ancient materials.

    We begin with an exploration of the origins of English language Bibles by/for Jews.  We trace developments, largely in Great Britain, from the end of the eighteenth through the early part of the twentieth centuries.  In the second section we note the relative paucity of similar studies, suggest reasons for this lack of interest, and list some recent efforts, by ourselves and others, to remedy this situation.

     In the third and final section of this paper we offer some tentative suggestions about how the study of modern Bible translations can enrich the analysis of similar endeavors from antiquity. We hope that those readers who are in general temperamentally or intellectually adverse to such speculative efforts will nonetheless grant such efforts a fair hearing.

Section 1   

In the middle of winter 1776, with the Colonial War going badly, King George III appointed December 13 (equivalent to 3 Tevet 5537) as a fast day.  The Bodleian Library at Oxford University preserves the Form of Prayer and Sermon for that service at London’s Synagogue of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews.  Although we are informed that the Congregation’s Minister, Moses Cohen d’Azevedo, “translated from the original Hebrew and Spanish into English,” the wording for all of the Hebrew Bible passages (including Psalms 27, 46, and 67) is identical to the King James (or Authorized) Version (abbreviation: KJV).

     Fourteen years later, to be exact on Friday, March 26, 1790, The Great Jews Synagogue was dedicated at St. James, Duke’s Place, London.  Contained within “A Song and Praise to be Performed” on that occasion are the following Psalms (in the order printed in a pamphlet again preserved at the Bodleian):  91, 30, 24, 84, 122, 132, 100.  The English text of these Psalms, prepared by David Levi, is a distinctive version, although clearly recognizable as a revision of KJV.

     It is tempting to see in these two liturgical programs a distinct shift in practice from reliance on the King James Version by Jews to an attempt to produce a unique Jewish version for English speakers.  It is usually wiser to avoid giving in to such temptations, but in this case there is some justification for doing so:  (1)  The earliest known English version of the Hebrew Bible for Jews appeared precisely in the period between 1776 and 1790;  (2) That first version (and several subsequent ones as well) was little more than the Hebrew text on one side of the page, the English of the KJV facing it, with a selection of commentary from classic Jewish sources such as Rashi at the foot of the page;  (3) The first English translation of the Hebrew Bible by a Jew that differed from the KJV appeared in 1789, just a year before the second pamphlet described above;  (4) That first translation, by Isaac Delgado, was not a continuous text, but consisted of revised passages from the KJV Pentateuch, “wherever it deviates from the genuine Sense of the Hebrew Expressions, or where it renders obscure the Meaning of the Text; or, lastly, when it occasions a seeming contradiction” (from Delgado’s introduction);  (5) David Levi was one of the early Jewish translators/revisers of the KJV.  Consequently, although there is indeed something serendipitous about the Bodleian’s preserving these two pamphlets and my uncovering them, we ought not to dismiss out-of-hand the valuable evidence they preserve about Jewish practice in translating the Hebrew Bible.

      As indicated above, the earliest Jewish versions of the Bible into English date from the last decades of the eighteenth century and were produced in Great Britain. Below we list the translations, primarily from England, that I have discovered from the late eighteenth - the early twentieth century. The catalogue most relevant to this research is A. S. Herbert, ed. Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961   (London and New York:  British and Foreign Bible Society and American Bible Society, 1968).  See also Margaret T. Hills, ed., The English Bible in America:  A Bibliography of Editions of the Bible & the New Testament Published in America 1777-1957 (New York:  American Bible Society and the New York Public Library, 1962); and Robert Singerman, Judaica Americana: A Bibliography of Publications to 1900. 2 vols. Bibliographies and Indexes in American History 14 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990); additionally, Jonathan D. and Nahum Sarna, “Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations in the United States” in The Bible and Bibles in America.  Ed. Ernest S. Frerichs (Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1988), pp. 83-116.

     I have not yet investigated specifically American versions, outside of Leeser and those associated with the Jewish Publication Society.  Those versions, undoubtedly containing surprises of their own, must await future work on my part and/or on the part of others.

   Following this list I will make a few general observations and comments on some specific texts:

1785  Pentateuch, Alexander

1787  Pentateuch, David Levi [also 1789 edition]

1789  Pentateuch, Isaac Delgado

1821  Genesis 1-4, Levi Alexander

1821  Pentateuch (D. Levi's), Levi Alexander

1825  Pentateuch (D. Levi's?), Levi Alexander

1834  "Critical Remarks on the Authorised Version,"  Solomon Bennett

1836  "Specimen of a New Version of the Hebrew Bible," Solomon Bennett

1839  "Emendations of the Authorised Version of the Old Testament,” Selig Newman

1840  "Prospectus of a New Edition of the Sacred Scriptures with Notes Critical and Explanatory," David Aaron deSola

1841  "The Sacred Scriptures in Hebrew and English": Vol. 1, Genesis, David Aaron deSola

1841  Genesis 1-41, Solomon Bennett

1841  "The Hebrew and English Holy Bible," Francis Barham, containing Bennett's version

1845  Pentateuch, Isaac Leeser

1846  "Mykur Hayem. Mistranslations and Difficult Passages of the Old Testament" Benjamin Marcus  

1848  "The Way of Faith, or the Abridged Bible," David Asher           

1851-1861  "Jewish School & Family Bible," Abraham Benisch 

1853-1854  Old Testament, Isaac Leeser

1855  Exodus, Marcus M. Kalisch

1858  Genesis, Marcus M. Kalisch

1858 Pentateuch, [Anon.]

1859 Pentateuch, [Anon.]

1867-1872  Leviticus, Marcus M. Kalisch

1871  Proverbs, Abraham Elzas

1872  Job, Abraham Elzas

1873  Hosea, Joel, Abraham Elzas

1874  Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Abraham Elzas

1880  Old Testament, Hermann Gollancz

1881  "The Jewish Family Bible," Michael Friedlander

1896  "Appendix to the Revised Version," Jewish Religious Education Board

1896  "The Bible for Home Reading," Claude J. G. Montefiore      

1901  Psalms, Claude J. G. Montefiore [ = 1896 Psalms]

1903  Psalms, Kaufmann Kohler

1909  The Synoptic Gospels, Claude J. G. Montefiore  

1916  Alexander Harkavy  

1917  Jewish Publication Society of America's (JPS) Translation

1926-1939  Pentateuch and Haftorahs, J. Hertz

1.  My interest in English translations of the Bible by Jews is less in the different texts themselves than in the social, cultural, historical, and religious circumstances in which translators, as individuals or as committees, worked.  My further comments will largely reflect such an interest.

2.  As noted at the beginning of this article, the earliest English versions were either (a) a volume with KJV on one side, the Hebrew text facing, with a few Jewish exegetical notes at the bottom of the page; or (b) a listing of KJV passages that needed to be “corrected” either because they were erroneous or should be improved upon.  A continuous Jewish translation did not appear until Solomon Bennett’s 1836, “Specimen,” which contained a new version of selected chapters from the books of Genesis, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Malachi.  It was not until 1841 that an entire biblical book was produced in “an independent Jewish translation” (the quoted words are J. Hertz’s), with David Aaron deSola’s Genesis;  another decade passed before the publication of the whole Hebrew Bible: the first edition of Abraham Benisch’s “Jewish School & Family Edition.”

3.  In looking at the translators themselves, the earliest that we know of tended to be on the periphery of the Jewish community or even at odds with its leaders;  later, as if the establishment recognized the value of such versions, translators came from the leadership, even the elite.

4.  There was a reluctance among Jews to part company with the KJV, even after Protestants began to experiment with entirely new translations rather than KJV revisions.  This was the case as late as the JPS 1917 version, which is a rather light revision of the English Revised Version of 1885 (a direct descendant of KJV), although no reader of the JPS version would discern this on the basis of the title page or introduction.  Such reluctance says a great deal about the Jewish community’s  self-image as well as the image it wished to project for outsiders.

5.  At the same time, the very production of a Jewish version of any sort in English was at least in part a response to outside forces.  In this connection, we call special attention to the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804 and the American Bible Society a few years later (in 1816). The primary purpose of such societies was to make Bibles available to the largest number of people at the smallest cost.  Since such inexpensive Bibles were frequently used by missionaries (see, for example, the very active London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, or simply, the London Jews Society), Jews might well have perceived the need to produce (if not mass produce) texts of their own to combat the growing number of “Christian” Bibles.

6.  There were also internal reasons for producing Jewish versions in English.  As was the case with the Septuagint, lack of familiarity with the Hebrew language (and also with Spanish) led, by the turn of the 19th century to English sermons and fuller English-Hebrew prayer books.

7  It is generally argued (when the matter is discussed at all) that Jews never produced an “authorized” version.  Surely that is correct, if by “authorized” we adopt the connotation of the Church of England:  authorized for use in Churches (or, in our case, in Synagogues).  However, at least two of the Jewish versions were indeed authorized or more specifically “sanctioned” by no less than the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire:  see the title pages of the versions by David Asher and Michael Friedlander;  see also Abraham Benisch’s work mentioned above.  Unlike the Anglican “authorized,” the Jewish “sanctioned” centered on use at home and in schools;  so Asher’s text was “intended for the use of Jewish School and Families.”  No Jewish version was intended to usurp the central place of the Hebrew text in synagogue worship.

8.  All of these versions make use--extensive, judicious, or otherwise--of Jewish exegetical traditions.  Inclusion of the Hebrew text, of Jewish exegesis, of Haftaroth, and certain conventions of formatting (e.g., some, but not all of these books open from left-to-right;  some have the date of printing in accordance with the Jewish calendar, and so forth) mark these as JEWISH versions.  On their title pages and in their introductions and forwards, many of these translations call attention to distinctive features of their versions, such as the ones just listed.

Section 2

If biblical scholars and Jewish studies researchers are unfamiliar with most, or all, of the material presented thus far (and much that follows as well), this is symptomatic of a general lack of interest in Bible translations among Jews. Outside of Max L. Margolis’ still-valuable survey from 1917, The Story of Bible Translations (Philadelphia: JPS), Jewish scholars have produced no book-length study of Bible translation.  (In his last major publication, Harry M. Orlinsky partially rectified this situation with A History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution  [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991], which he co-authored with Robert G. Bratcher; see also Leonard J. Greenspoon, "From the Septuagint to the New Revised Standard Version: A Brief Account of Jewish Involvement in Bible Translating and Translations" in The Solomon Goldman Lectures.  Vol 6, ed. Mayer I. Gruber [Chicago: Spertus College, 1993] 19-50). This is not to say that researchers have ignored specific Jewish translations;  e.g., the Septuagint, the Targums, Saadia, Moses Mendelssohn, and more recently Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig.  But even with these, translations of the Bible have never assumed for Jews the central position they have traditionally played, and continue to play, among Christians.

     To a considerable degree, this is understandable, for the heart of the foundational document of Christianity, the New Testament, is a translation into koine Greek of the Semitic parables and other sayings of Jesus.  Moreover, with the exception of certain segments of the Orthodox Church, few Christian communities have ever felt compelled to promote the original, or at least the original languages, over a vernacular text.  By contrast, the Hebrew text, Masoretic or otherwise, has always held a privileged position in Jewish life, especially in Synagogue practice, and instruction in the Hebrew language remains at the core of most Jewish educational systems to this very day.

     In spite of these observations, we wish to blunt the force of statements that seek to relegate biblical translation to the periphery (or even beyond the pale) within Judaism and among Jews. After all, the earliest Bible translations--the Septuagint into Greek, the Targums into Aramaic--were prepared by Jews for Jews (that is, in a completely “Jewish” context), and it is not clear that the net effect of such efforts was entirely negative.  Quite the contrary.

     But even if we come to appreciate sentiments like those discussed just above, does that justify or at least explain the almost complete lack of serious study of Jewish Bible translating, outside of the exceptions mentioned earlier?  When we turn specifically to Jewish translations into English, we are immediately confronted by an inescapable fact:  There is not one competent discussion of this phenomenon in any accessible source.  This is all the more extraordinary when we simply list the authors of articles on this topic in widely consulted sources (listed in chronological order): Richard Gottheil (“Bible Translations” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 3, pp. 194f), Raphael Loewe (“Anglo-Jewish Versions” in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 4, cols. 871-872), Harry M. Orlinsky (“Versions, Jewish” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, pp. 838-842). I was saddened to see that these scholars, so careful and so thorough elsewhere, did not produce similarly authoritative discussions in this case.  And we cannot fail to observe that this list includes practicing translators as well. 

     It is not that these articles are full of errors, although they contain their share (and perhaps more) of misstatements.  It is simply that they are incomplete and superficial.  The only exception is a fine and thoughtful discussion by Rabbi J. H. Hertz ("Jewish Translations of the Bible in English [being the concluding lecture in series, 'Translations of the Bible,' Toynbee Hall, 1919]”), but contained as it is in volume 2 of his Sermons, Addresses and Studies  (London: Soncino [1938] 70-93), it is not likely to be consulted by many.

     I have tried to fill this gap by conducting research of my own.  I do not think it would be possible to explore this topic without direct access to a collection like that of the Bodleian.  Among my most recent efforts in this regard are: “Jewish Translations of the Bible” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler (Oxford: New York, 2002);  “Jewish Bible Translations” in The Bible World, ed. John Barton (New York/London: Routledge, 2002) 397-412; and  “Top Dollar, Bottom Line? Marketing English-Language Bibles within the Jewish Community” in Biblical Translation in Context. ed. Frederick W. Knobloch (Potomac: CDL Press, 2002) 115-134.  

     But there is a price that the entire Jewish community pays for failure to consider these matters.  Whether we like it or not, most Jews (at least, non-Israeli Jews) are reading the Hebrew Bible in a language other than Hebrew.  This practice carries with it considerable implications, none of which we are able to face unless we consider seriously what we are reading, how it was prepared, how it fits in with Jewish and other traditions of translation, and what sort of text we’d like the next generation to use.  If, as Harry Orlinsky once observed, English translations of the Bible have a life span of about fifty years within the Jewish community (at least, this was true with Leeser, then JPS 1917, followed by NJV), then we probably have two or more decades before a new “standard” will be produced.  But, in a world where records are broken almost as soon as they are established, where nothing sells so well as “new and improved,” it is a safe bet that some individuals and some groups aren’t waiting the “traditional” fifty years.  That being the case, now is the time to learn and then teach others as much as we can about the history of Bible translating among Jews, including English-speaking Jews.

     The post-World War II period has seen the general proliferation of English-language translations of the Bible, and this trend has clearly had its effect within the Jewish community.  Among the best known of such versions are: Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah:  The Five Books of Moses (New York: Maznaim Publishing, 1981 [2nd edition];  subsequent volumes, incorporating Kaplan’s insights and principles, have continued to appear); TANAKH. A  New Translation of THE HOLY SCRIPTURES According to the Traditional Hebrew Text.   Philadelphia:  JPS, 1985 [for first edition of the entire text, containing revisions from earlier publications of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings]); Everett Fox,  The Schocken Bible:  Volume 1.  The Five Books of Moses.  A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes   (New York: Schocken, 1995 [earlier versions of Genesis and Exodus also appeared]); The Tanach. The ArtScroll Series/Stone Edition (Brooklyn, NY:  Mesorah Publications, 1996 [incorporating in revised form earlier editions as well as new material]).  Also of interest is Chaim Stern’s new translation in The Haftarah Commentary  edited by Gunter Plaut (New York: UAHC Press, 1996) and Harold Fisch, The Jerusalem Bible  (Feldheim, 1997 [for the latest edition]), which incorporates Michael Friedlander’s Jewish Family Bible   from the 1880s. 

     Also in keeping with the “modern era” is the widespread abandonment of the KJV as a model.  This abandonment is by no means always in the same direction.  So it is that the JPS’s New Jewish Version and Fox’s Schocken Bible are both consciously outside of--and distinct from--the KJV “mold,” but they are equally (if not more so) distinctive from each other.

     These new versions, products of today’s society as much as the earlier texts were of theirs, exemplify a very intense and spirited debate over the nature of JEWISH versions.  In short, they have spawned the question:  What makes a Bible translation Jewish?  To this brief question rather lengthier responses have been formulated. Among them, the most influential are coming from the practitioners themselves:  see, for example, the introductions to the translations mentioned just above.  Additionally (and here we limit ourselves to representative exemplars), interested readers should consult works by Edward Greenstein (Essays on Biblical Method and Translation  [Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1989], and  “What Might Make a Bible Translation Jewish?” in Translation and Scripture  [Philadelphia:  Annenburg Research Institute, 1990] 77-101) and Harry M. Orlinsky  (Notes on the New Translation of the Torah   [Philadelphia: JPS, 1969]. Essays in Biblical Culture and Bible Translation.   [New York:  KTAV, 1974], and the co-authored volume with Robert Bratcher mentioned just above).

Section 3

I am convinced that the study of English translations of the Bible by Jews is important in and of itself and as a component of larger considerations about Bible translating in general or about the possibility (or impossibility) of translating anything from one language to another.  In all of these contexts, failure to take English versions into account lessens the value and validity of scholarly debate. In this connection, we briefly note:

1. Ancient translations and versions are often viewed solely for their presumed importance in getting back to an assumed original.  Although such a quest is not without value, it is also not the only or, in every case, the most significant aspect of a given text.  We should learn to consider and appreciate that each version, say of Joshua, was THE Bible for a given community or segment of a community for a period of time.  We can learn a great deal through the process of situating such versions, even minor or “defective” versions, within the social, political, cultural, historical, religious, even technological contexts in which they were developed (see, for example, my article, “Traditional Text, Contemporary Contexts: English-Language Scriptures for Jews and the History of Bible Translating” in Interpretation of the Bible [Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1998] 565-576).

2.  We all too often consider a given ancient text as if it developed full-blown, as it were, without antecedents, without trial-and-error.  Even a cursory examination of English language translations by Jews points out how egregious an error we can easily commit in this regard.

3.  Although it is tempting to suppose that all foreign-language versions of the Bible represent community consensus and benefit from community support, we note that this was not the case with the earliest English language versions by Jews.  In fact, the earliest efforts, as tentative as they were, might appropriately be termed counter-cultural or anti-establishment.  Many decades passed before the establishment saw the value inherent in such endeavors.

4.  In seeking the origin of a phenomenon as complex as Bible translating, all too many scholars simplistically label such efforts as the result of intra-communal concerns OR external factors.  Life is typically messier than that:  as the examples cited above make clear, there were a number of factors, initially independent of each other and arising from diverse sources, that led to the rise of English-language translations of the Bible for Jews.  We do justice neither to the translators nor to their translations when we attempt to put artificial limitations on the factors that influenced them and that, in turn, they served to influence.

5.  As I have written about elsewhere (“Biblical Translators in Antiquity and in the Modern World: A Comparative Study,” Hebrew Union College Annual 60 [1989] 91-113), we need to distinguish a revision from a fresh translation and to keep in mind that the procedures followed by a reviser are always conservative in nature.  We do well then to ask, as we have with respect to the widespread reliance on KJV among nineteenth century Jewish translators, why a revision seems more appropriate in a given context.

     In closing, I should admit, if it is not already clear, that I am at least as interested in the translators themselves as in their finished products, Bible translations.  This is not to say that there is no realm for study of the texts in isolation from their contexts.  Only that, as I reflect on these materials, I continually and increasingly find the most fruitful explorations, for me at least, to be those that situate the translators within the contexts of their times, allowing both their individual features and those they share with other translators to come to the fore, thus enriching our appreciation of their work and of the sacred text on which they and we continue to labor.