English Bible translations

English speakers have a wide range of Bible translations to choose from.

Tanakh sets Israel Book Shop

While known to English speakers as “the Old Testament”, Jewish people refer to our Bible as Tanakh, or Mikra . The word Tanakh תַּנַ”ךְ is an acronym of Torah {instruction}, Nevi’im {prophets}, and Ketuvim {writings}. The word Mikra מקרא means “that which is read.”

Jews follow the Masoretic Text of the Bible, as opposed to Christians who follow the Septuagint, which adds many text additions and the New Testament.

For almost 400 years, most English translations were based on the King James Version (KJV) (also known as The Authorized Version.) This translation was begun in 1604. It is widely considered to be a beautiful achievement in English literature. It was arguably the most accurate Bible translation of its era. However, even then, its translators often deviated from the original meaning of the text. King James ordered that this translation should conform to the ecclesiology of the Church of England.

By the first half of the 18th century, the KJV had become effectively unchallenged as the English translation used in Anglican and English Protestant churches. It’s wording became common: the language of the KJV became second nature even to Jewish readers of English texts, music and poetry.

The text below is loosely adapted from Wikipedia.

Jewish Publication Society translations

Old JPS (1917)

Completed in 1917 by a committee led by Max Margolis. Its literary form was consciously based on that of the King James Version; Margolis, a non-native speaker of English, felt that was the proper standard of language that Jews should adopt for their translation.

The Old JPS translation was used in many Jewish works published before the 1980s, such as the influential Pentateuch and Haftaroth edited by J. H. Hertz and the Soncino Books of the Bible series. The translation committee included Cyrus Adler, Solomon Schechter, Kaufmann Kohler, Samuel Schulman, and David Philipson.

New JPS (1985)

In the 1950s a new effort developed, with cooperation between numerous Jewish scholars, Conservative, Reform and Orthodox. The translation of the Torah was started in 1955 and completed in 1962. Nevi’im was published in 1978 and Ketuvim in 1984.
The entire Tanakh was revised and published in one volume in 1985. It is known as: the New JPS, NJPS, New Jewish Version, or NJV.

The translators were experts in both traditional Jewish exegesis and modern biblical scholarship. The translation attempts to present the original meaning of the text in an aesthetic form. The New JPS version is used in:

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

* Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, 2001, Jewish Publication Society. The official Torah commentary of Conservative Judaism.

* The Jewish Study Bible (2004, Oxford University Press)

* The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (2006, JPS)

* Numerous academic articles by Jewish scholars now use the NJPS as the standard translation.

The Koren Jerusalem Bible

(not to be confused with the Catholic translation of the same title)

A Hebrew/English Tanakh by Koren Publishers, Jerusalem. This was the first Bible published in modern Israel, distinguished for its accuracy and beauty. The English translation was based King James Version. 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”.

Judaica Press

Judaica Press, United States, publishes The Judaica Press Complete Tanach with Rashi. A multi-volume, Hebrew–English translation of the Bible that includes Rashi’s commentary in both Hebrew and English. The English translations were made by A. J. Rosenberg. It is now available online.

ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications

In 1976 Mesorah Publications, a Haredi Orthodox publisher, began publishing a series of bilingual Hebrew–English books of the Bible under its ArtScroll imprint. The Torah volumes were collected, revised, and published in a Hebrew–English bilingual volume as the Stone Edition of the Chumash (1993) followed by the Stone Edition of the Tanach (1996). The English translation in the ArtScroll series relies heavily on the interpretation of Rashi.

The translation methodology does not include modern historical scholarship. That is unfortunate since 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. See this Analysis of ArtScroll books.

Everett Fox

Everett Fox translated the Torah (The Five Books of Moses, 1995) for Schocken Press. Fox’s approach to translation was inspired by the German translation prepared by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and he describes his work as an “offshoot” of theirs. His translation was also guided by the principle that the Bible “was meant to be read aloud”. Fox’s translation is printed in blank verse, and the personal and place names are transliterated versions of the Hebrew names.

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

In 2004 Robert Alter translated the Torah with his own commentary. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. 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 tried to accomplish 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”.


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