The Jewish Translation That Rewrote the Bible

After 50 Years, Is JPS Version Getting Old in the Tooth?

By Jonathan Sarna

Published January 27, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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“The Catholics have done it; the Protestants have done it; AND NOW THE JEWS ARE GOING TO DO IT!” So began a 1956 solicitation letter for, of all things, a new Jewish translation of the Bible. Fifty years have now passed since the first part of that translation, “The Torah: The Five Books of Moses,” was published, amid great fanfare, by the Jewish Publication Society. Looking back, what did those Jewish translators accomplish?

Past Middle Age: The JPS translation of the Bible was a singular achievement. But it may be time to reassess the famed work.
Past Middle Age: The JPS translation of the Bible was a singular achievement. But it may be time to reassess the famed work.

As the solicitation letter for the project implied, the translation responded to a nationwide revival of interest in the Bible during the immediate postwar era. Among Protestants, this resulted in the translation known as the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, published in 1952.

Among Catholics, it resulted in a translation begun in 1948 and was published in 1970 as the New American Bible. Modern scholarship, modern English and modern typography characterized both of those translations. They cast off the increasingly impenetrable English of former translations, influenced by the King James Bible of 1611, in favor of a respectful but more contemporary idiom.

English-speaking Jews had their own arcane translation in the spirit of the King James Bible. A team led by the noted American Jewish scholar Max L. Margolis had produced it, and JPS published it in 1917. That translation made use of traditional Jewish Bible commentaries, followed the traditional Jewish ordering of the biblical books and, most important, purged Christian renderings that read into the Hebrew Bible anticipations of the coming of Jesus.

“To the Jews,” one scholar later explained, the translation “presented a Bible which combined the spirit of Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval and modern. To non-Jews, it opened the gateway of Jewish tradition in the interpretation of the Word of God.”

Banker Jacob Schiff, who largely funded the project, confidently predicted that the work would not need to be done again “for several centuries.”


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