English Bible translations

Jewish readers have a wide range of English Tanakh (Bible) translations to choose from.

Tanakh sets Israel Book Shop

While often known to English speakers as the Old Testament, Jewish people refer to our Bible as the Tanakh, or Mikra.

Tanakh תַּנַ”ךְ is an acronym of Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (The prophets), and Ketuvim (the Writings.)

Mikra מקרא means “that which is read.”

King James Version

For almost 400 years most English translations were based on the King James Version, KJV (also known as The Authorized Version.) This translation dates from 1604. It is a beautiful achievement in English literature and arguably the most accurate Bible translation of its era. However its translators often deviated from the original meaning of the text in order to follow Christian doctrine.

By the first half of the 18th century, the KJV was unchallenged as the English translation used in Anglican and English Protestant churches. While unquestionably beautiful, many have become disenchanted with it because it’s language doesn’t represent the form, rhythm, or poetic schemes of the Hebrew Bible, and it sometimes deviates from the plain meaning. This text is widely considered outdated.

The Jewish Family Bible

By M. Friedlander, published in 1881, this is a minor revision of the King James Version. For many years this was the only Jewish English translation of the Bible. This text is used in the Soncino Books of the Bible series. The Friedlander translation is similarly outdated.

Old JPS, Jewish Publication Society

Completed in 1917, this is a modified version of the King James Version. It was used in many Jewish works published before the 1980s, such as the influential Pentateuch and Haftaroth by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz. It corrects the errors made by the KJV which often changed the text of the Tanakah to make it fit better with the later New Testament. While superior to the KJV,  is no longer recommended.

The Koren Jerusalem Bible

(Not to be confused with the Catholic translation of the same title.) This is from Koren Publishers in Jerusalem, and was based King James Version, published in 1967. Koren Publishers states

The English translation of this Bible was revised and edited by Harold Fisch. It is a thoroughly corrected, modernized, and revised version of the Anglo-Jewish Bibles that have been accepted for home and synagogue throughout the English-speaking world. The Jewish Family Bible of M. Friedlander, published in 1881, was the basis for this edition…It also retained as much Jewish sentiment as permitted of the unsurpassed language and rhythm of the “Authorized Version” of 1611.

The names of people and places in the translation are transliterations of the Hebrew, as opposed to the Hellenized versions used in most translations. For example: Moses is Moshe, Eve is Havva, Jacob is Yaaquov. The translation uses archaic English formalisms such as “Thee” and “Thou”. As this was also based on the King James version, this text is not recommended.

Also see The Jerusalem Bible Edition of the Koren Tanakh – A Review

New JPS Jewish Publication Society

In the 1950s a new translation project, with cooperation from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox scholars. The translation of the Torah was completed in 1962. The Nevi’im was published in 1978 and the Ketuvim in 1984. The entire Tanakh was revised and published in one volume in 1985. It is known as the New JPS Translation, NJPS. The translators were experts in both traditional Jewish exegesis and modern biblical scholarship. Numerous popular and academic articles use the NJPS as the standard translation, including:

* The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Ed. Chaim Stern, Union for Reform Judaism

* Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, The official Torah commentary of Conservative Judaism.

* The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press

* The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation, JPS

ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications

In 1976 Mesorah Publications, a Haredi Orthodox publisher, began a series of bilingual Hebrew–English books of the Bible under its ArtScroll imprint. The single volume Stone Edition of the Chumash (1993) was followed by the Stone Edition of the Tanach (1996).

The commentaries made available in these books are quite valuable for the Jewish reader. However, the English translation is heavily criticized. Very often the editors don’t translate the Biblical text at all, but instead freely rewrite to match the midrash cited French medieval Bible commentator, Rashi. One of the characteristics of ArtScroll translation is to harmonize (change) the Bible to match midrashim that their editors believe to be historical facts.

Another issue is that their editors don’t include modern scholarship. In the last 200 years scholars have learned much about the historical context and language of the Hebrew Bible. There have been many discoveries in comparative Semitics and archaeology, which allows us to better understand the peshat, the point that the original author wanted to get across to the original audience. None of this is taken i to account by ArtScroll. As such see this Analysis of ArtScroll books.

Everett Fox

Everett Fox translated The Five Books of Moses, 1995, for Schocken Press. Then in 1999, Give Us a King!: A New English Translation of the Book of Samuel, and in 2014, The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings (2014.) His translation approach was inspired by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.

“The main guiding principle of Fox’s work is that the aural aspects of the Hebrew text should be translated as closely as possible. Instances of Hebrew word play, puns, word repetition, alliteration, and other literary devices of sound are echoed in English and, as with Buber-Rosenzweig, the text is printed in linear, not paragraph, fashion.” (Wikipedia)

Avi Steinberg writes, in Tinkering With the word of God (New Yorker)

Fox has dedicated his life to giving the Anglophone ear a hint of that Hebrew drama. Many translators have tried, in one way or another, to make the Bible do in English what it does in Hebrew, but few have given top priority to the sound and feel of the original language. Fox uses every poetic means at his disposal: phrase length, line break, puns. He has paid particular attention to the word repetitions that the Biblical narrator uses to develop the story’s themes.

He scrupulously preserves ancient Hebrew’s doubled verbs, which themselves sometimes double up (“you will overtake, yes, overtake, and will rescue, yes, rescue”).

Orality is key to understanding the story, Fox believes, because the Bible, like many ancient texts, was designed to be sung and performed aloud…. In a sense, Fox uses the English language to perform the Hebrew. His version of the text is closer to a foreign film with subtitles than a seamlessly translated novel: the audience is meant to partake of the original performance, to experience the sounds and gestures of the primary language, while simultaneously grasping the meanings of the words.

Writer John Updike cited some of these qualities as faults in Fox’s translation, describing Fox as “an extremist after Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig” who “liberally coins compound adjectives like ‘heavy-with-stubbornness’ and verbs like ‘adulter'” and noted that Fox renders the seventh commandment as “You are not to adulter”.

Robert Alter

Robert Alter has translated the entire Tanakh and written a commentary to it.

Alter aimed to reproduce in his translation the “slight strangeness”, “beautiful rhythms”, and “magic of biblical style” of the original Hebrew that he felt had been “neglected by English translators”. One way in which Alter does this was by using the same English equivalent in almost every instance that a Hebrew word appears in the Torah. As one reviewer noted, “if a Hebrew adjective is translated as ‘beautiful,’ it won’t next be rendered as ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive.’ This is important because it allows the reader to detect narrative and imagistic patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed”. (adapted from Wikipedia.)


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