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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As it turned out, however, complaints about what one critic described as “questionable renderings” and “queer-ities of English” arose within less than one decade. By the 1950s, the old JPS translation appeared awkward and outdated. Its use of “thee,” “thy” and “ye,” along with ancient forms such as “liveth” and “bringeth,” obscured the true meaning of the biblical text. Advances in biblical archaeology, and the discovery and decipherment of ancient Near Eastern inscriptions, meanwhile, clarified the meaning of many once puzzling biblical expressions that the 1917 translation had plainly misunderstood.

With Jews beginning to turn to the Protestant’s Revised Standard Version to learn what the Bible actually meant, Harry Orlinsky, professor of biblical literature at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, the only Jew involved in that Protestant translation, challenged his fellow Jews to act. The title of his much publicized address to the JPS in 1953 summed up his proposal: “Wanted: A New English Translation of the Bible for the Jewish People.”

Winning support for this proposal and recruiting a team of translators to carry it out proved no easy tasks, but in the end, three scholars, as well as rabbis representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism, took up the challenge. Little did they know what they were getting themselves into. The translation of the Torah alone occupied them from 1955 to 1962. The translation of Genesis alone required 13 different revisions before the committee felt confident enough to release it.

The committee members’ problems, perennial ones for Bible translators, concerned matters of principle. Should they strive above all to explain each word faithfully, or should they favor, instead, an idiomatic translation? Should they be guided by what they thought the Bible meant, or only by what the text actually said?

Should their highest priority be accuracy, readability or majesty of expression? And what about when ancient versions, like the Greek Septuagint, preserved variant readings? Might those be substituted for the traditional Hebrew text if they seemed to make more sense?

On the final point, the committee was unequivocal. Unlike its Catholic and Protestant counterparts, it “undertook faithfully to follow the traditional (masoretic) text.”

Every word was translated from the Hebrew original. Where committee members deviated from their Jewish predecessors was in their enthusiastic embrace of the idiomatic over the mechanical word-for-word translations that once had been normative. Instead of “Laban departed and returned unto his place,” for example, the new translation crisply substituted, “Laban left on his journey homeward” (Genesis 32:1).


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