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 completed Torah translation, when published in 1963 (publication was delayed pending settlement of the New York newspaper strike), was warmly welcomed by Catholic and Protestant scholars as well as by Jewish ones. Even Justice Arthur J. Goldberg, then newly appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, pronounced the new translation “excellent.”

In a much- discussed Commentary review, Theodor Gaster of Columbia University demurred, lamenting that “with all its excellencies and clarifications,” the translation somehow lacked “the magic of the Bible… the verbal tact, the economy of statement, the pregnancy of phrase, the ability to catch a scene in a sentence and a situation in a word.” But whatever its deficiencies, “The Torah” achieved wide sales; a quarter of a million copies were printed within a decade.

Twenty more years would pass before JPS celebrated the translation of the whole Bible, in 1982. Three years later, all three parts of the Bible translation, with revisions, were brought together in one volume, titled Tanakh — from the Hebrew acronym for Torah (Pentateuch), nevi’im (prophets), and kethuvim (writings). That title, carefully chosen, underscored the Jewishness of the new translation.

A “Judeo-Christian” title like “The Holy Scriptures” was consciously rejected. Tanakh thus encapsulated an important message about the JPS Bible translation as a whole: that even though Jews had the Hebrew Bible in common with their Christian neighbors, they understood much of it differently, and even called it by a different name.

Today, half-a-century since its first appearance, the JPS Torah translation is showing its age. Scholars have pointed to numerous passages where the translation fails to take account of the latest research. Feminists have called for a translation that is “gender sensitive,” especially in its depictions of God. Translators like Everett Fox and Robert Alter have produced alternative Jewish translations, foregrounding principles markedly different from those that the JPS team employed.
In light of these developments, the argument that JPS made when it first solicited funds for the new translation back in 1956 might well be revisited. With Catholics and the Protestants looking to update their Bible translations, should not Jews be doing so, as well?

Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, is the author of, among other books, “JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture, 1888–1988.” His late father, Nahum M. Sarna, was part of the team that translated the writings for the JPS Tanakh.


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