Jewish Translations of the Bible
Leonard J. Greenspoon
Jews first translated the Bible approximately 2,300 years ago, and Jews continue—as individuals and as members of committees—to translate the Bible to the present day. The first translation was the Septuagint or Old Greek version of the Bible, produced in Alexandria for use by Greek‐speaking Jews. Translations such as the Jewish Publication Society's new Tanakh, therefore, on which this study Bible is based, have a considerable lineage.
In spite of a rich and varied heritage, Jewish translations have not received the attention accorded to Christian versions. This has only partly to do with the relative sizes of the Jewish and Christian communities. It has much more to do with the role of translation in the history of Christianity. Translation was present from the beginning: Although Jesus (presumably) primarily spoke Aramaic, his words were preserved and disseminated in Greek. Translation, therefore, as a function of mission, was present in Christianity from the beginning.
In Judaism, by contrast, respect for the original Hebrew wording has been maintained through the intervening centuries. Even when substantial numbers of Jews have not understood Hebrew—as occurred during the Hellenistic period, when many adopted Greek as their primary language—those who translated the Hebrew text produced a version that was markedly influenced by Hebrew phrasing,idiom, and syntax. This points to a distinctive feature of Judaism: the desire to preserve some familiarity with the Hebrew text and language in at least some part of the community. Thus, for instance, chanting of the Bible in Hebrew remains a part of liturgical practice in almost all contemporary synagogues—whether or not most worshippers can understand the text in its original tongue.
Thus for Jews a translated Bible is an accompaniment to, not replacement for, the original Hebrew. This helps explain the prominence of Jewish versions that display the Hebrew and English (or other foreign language text) on facing pages. Even when the Hebrew text is not physically present in its entirety, it is typically brought to the reader's attention through numerous notations and references.
On the other hand, another tradition attempted to make the Bible available in more idiomatic versions to the increasing number of Jews who had little or no acquaintance with Hebrew and no desire to learn it. These two impulses have continued in the history of Jewish translation to the present.
From these remarks it can be deduced that for many in the Jewish community Bible translations have had an ambivalent status: The Bible has needed to be translated so it would be understood; at the same time, this translation typically pointed to the importance of the original Hebrew. These translations have followed the Jewish tradition in terms not only of contents and order, but with familiar divisions into weekly Torah portions, inclusion of haftarot (the readings from the Prophets that accompany the weekly Torah readings), and other features associated with synagogue usage. Moreover, such a version reflects the richness of the exegetical traditions, both halakhic and midrashic; christological interpretations have no place in such editions.