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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Jewish Quest for a German Bible:The Nineteenth-Century Translations of Joseph Johlson and Leopold Zunz

 Abigail Gillman

In 1894, the central periodical for Jewish historical study in Germany devoted a special issue to Dr. Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) in honor of the one hundreth anniversary of his birth.[1] Zunz’s Bible translation was the only book of this prolific scholar to which a separate article was devoted.[2]The article noted that every significant advance in the historical development of the Jewish people had been marked by a new translation of Hebrew scripture, from the Aramaic Targum, to the Greek Septuagint, to Saadia’s Arabic translation, to the monumental translation of Moses Mendelssohn, the very first German Jewish Bible. Why so many translations? “As if … our preservative common possession [zusammenhaltende Gemeinbesitz], a treasure for spirit and mind rescued from the past, needed to be safeguarded in the face of the age that was powerfully propelling us forwards.”[3] The author continues: Mendelssohn translated only the Pentateuch, the Song of Songs, and the Psalms; subsequent editions and revisions of his Bible were error-laden; the editions that stayed true to Mendelssohn’s vision and included Hebrew scripture and the commentary were too expensive; and the Mendelssohn Bible was not viable for young women. A new translation was needed, and Zunz took up the gauntlet. The Zunz Bible was the first complete translation printed in German to incorporate recent research into exegesis, lexicography, and grammar; it was inexpensive, accessible, and an excellent aid for the study of the Hebrew text.

This 1894 discussion of “die Zunz’sche Bibel” spells out the fundamental issues in the history of German Jewish Bible translation. Between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, German Jews produced more translations than any other community—sixteen different translations in roughly 150 years. The enterprise was part of a multifaceted campaign throughout western and central Europe to reclaim the Hebrew Bible—Jewish religious and national Urtext, bridge to Christianity, and established part of the European canon—as a foundation for modern Jewish identity. In an exemplary way, translation allowed German Jews to respond to new realities on the ground—be they linguistic, philological, economic, gender-related—and at the same time to persuade themselves that they were only tightening their grip on the Jewish past. Because of this ambiguity, each new translation had to be carefully justified. Moreover, every translator had to answer a critical question: why was the Mendelssohn Bible—a work mythologized to the degree that it was credited with creating German Jewry—no longer adequate in his or her age? This latter question was of course most pressing for the “second-generation” translators in the early-nineteenth century, who were raised on the Mendelssohn Bible, received doctorates at German universities, and went on to become, like Zunz, the leading scholars and preachers of their day.

This essay will focus on two representative Bibles of this generation: the Pentateuch translation of Joseph Johlson (1777-1851), a Hebraist and teacher in Frankfurt, and the complete Bible edited and partially translated by Leopold Zunz. These two Bibles share an underlying purpose: to provide a contemporary alternative to Mendelssohn’s “free” or idiomatic translation. The Mendelssohn Bible, whose original audience was Yiddish-speaking Ashkenzic Jews before emancipation, continued to be reprinted and revised, and it remained enormously influential, especially among traditional Jews, in western and eastern Europe throughout the nineteenth century.[4]Yet Johlson and Zunz had a different audience in mind: newly emancipated, assimilated German Jews, fluent in German, for whom the Hebrew Bible had little innate appeal. Acculturation had occurred so rapidly that those intellectuals who promoted a return to Scripture required a translation that was simultaneously more modern in appearance, and more ancient (i.e., more Hebraic) in its language than the Mendelssohn Bible. While the shared emphasis on Hebrew was the common overarching impulse, a comparison of Johlson’s Pentateuch (1831) and Zunz’s Tanach (1838) reveals two very different visions of what a more Hebraic German Bible entailed. Ultimately, the differences between these two Bibles illuminate two distinct paths that emerge from the Enlightenment—pedagogy and philology, culture and Wissenschaft —both continuing the goals of Mendelssohn and his followers, yet driven by distinctly nineteenth-century concerns.


Joseph Johlson’s translation of the Pentateuch, Die fünf Bücher Mose, nach dem masoretischen Texte worttreu übersetzt mit Anmerkungen, was the first of four translations published in the 1830s and 1840s. Johlson taught at the Jüdisches Philanthropin in Frankfurt, a modern Jewish school founded in 1804. He is known mainly as an educational reformer and textbook author, whose curricula were widely in use in the first half of the nineteenth century.[5]As a translator, Johlson is the unacknowledged forerunner of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in his attention to the oral character of Scripture and the nuances of its language. Unlike Buber and Rosenzweig, Johlson’s approach was pedagogical to the core.

One of the hallmarks of the nineteenth-century Bibles was the inclusion of front and back matter. To my knowledge, Johlson’s Bible was the first German Jewish translation to include a table of contents. Symbolically, he divided the Pentateuch two ways: liturgically, according to weekly synagogue portions, and by chapter. The chapter descriptions are studded with Hebrew keywords (mabul = flood, challah = bread-dough) and important years listed according to the Jewish calendar (2006 – Noah dies). The modern readers whom Johlson addressed were in a state of transition: lacking intimate knowledge of the Scripture, yet able to decipher Hebrew script and familiar with key terms; looking to Scripture as a reference guide, yet in need of a navigator to help them do so.

Johlson’s lively preface, written for the layperson, also broke new ground. Mendelssohn’s preface, if it can be called that, is a lengthy treatise composed in Hebrew and written in a rabbinic idiom that attempted to justify his translation in the most traditional terms possible. Zunz’s preface—for reasons that will shortly become clear—amounts to a cursory statement that says next to nothing about his methods and motives. The purpose of Johlson’s preface was to situate the new translation as a necessary successor to the Bible of “the unforgettable Mendelssohn.” Johlson states his goals plainly enough, namely, to provide a “literal” (worttreu) translation of the Masoretic text, to follow the word order of the original Hebrew, to imitate instances of “wordplay” wherever possible, to clarify difficult passages in notes, and to use notes also to mention alternate translations. Of central concern is not whether his method is justifiable in the abstract, but how and why it diverges from its predecessor. “It will astonish no one,” Johlson continues, that the present work bears little affinity with Mendelssohn’s free translation. Mendelssohn’s goal was the education (Bildung) of his coreligionists by foregrounding the beauty, power, and fullness of the German language. “This is the only way to explain why” Mendelssohn’s approach to the form of the Hebrew is so problematic. Johlson enumerates: Mendelssohn omits many words from the original Hebrew and elsewhere adds others that are not present in the original; he ignores word order and syntactic inversions in the Hebrew; and he “anxiously” avoids repetition. Nonetheless, Johlson is alert to the cultural forces that shaped previous Bible translations from beyond the parameters of the Jewish world. Mendelssohn couldn’t have done otherwise, he goes on to say, for in an age where the standard in Bible translation was represented by Johann David Michaelis, it would have been impossible for Mendelssohn to find approval for a translation that sought to be “identical to the original.” Most fascinating of all, Johlson claims that Mendelssohn regarded his own translation as “short-lived, and dictated by the needs of his age.”

The very first footnote in the Johlson Bible, appended to Gen 1:2, is another exemplary moment. Johlson does not concern himself with the tendentious matters that normally surround this verse; his translation and footnote serve rather to highlight the literary-poetic nature of biblical Hebrew:

 JPS (1917): Now the earth was unformed and void…

Mendelssohn: Die Erde aber war unförmlich und vermischt…

Johlson: Die Erde aber war wirr’ und wüst*)...

Johlson’s Footnote: *) The Chaldean has Tzadia V’Rakania, “öde (wüst) und leer”.—Mendelssohn: unförmlich und vermischt [unformed and mixed]; because he, like others, sees vohu as a combination of vo – hu [in it]– Thus: wüstes Gewirre (Chaos). In the above translation, the Hebraic paranomasia hayta tohu vavohu is meant to be recreated.

This footnote reveals in capsule form the factors shaping the translator’s praxis. He first cites “the Chaldean” or Aramaic Targum, on the assumption that that version matters, or should matter, to the reader. He then pays homage to Mendelssohn and explains how the latter arrived at the odd word “vermischt” or “mixed,” that is, by way of the midrash that interprets the Hebrew word vohu as a composite of two words. Only then does Johlson provide a rationale for his own decision to replace Mendelssohn’s “unförmlich und vermischt” with “war wirr’ und wüst” in the name of paranomasia. This comprehensive footnote explains a decision that ends up being about sound rather than sense! In this way, Johlson links the decisions translators make to larger issues in the history of Jewish exegesis, in the aesthetics of the Hebrew, and in the translator’s own approach to precursor Bibles. These issues are presented pedagogically as part of Scripture.

 Johlson’s rendering of Gen 4:13 further exemplifies the use of translation to carry on multiple arguments simultaneously. At stake is the exact meaning of Cain’s protest upon hearing his punishment for committing fratricide:          

JPS 1917: And Cain said unto the LORD: “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” Mendelssohn: Kajin sprach zu dem Ewigen, meine Strafe ist zu groß, um sie zu ertragen.

Johlson: Kajin sprach zu dem Ewigen: Zu gross is meine Verschuldung, um sie zu ertragen.*)

Johlson’s Footnote: *) Gadol avoni m’nsoa means both: my sin is too great to forgive, and my punishment is too great to bear. In this above translation, one hopes to express both.

The difficulty here is that the Hebrew noun avon is ambiguous. The word almost always means “sin,” but in this context it appears to connote “punishment.” “Strafe” or “punishment” are perfectly adequate choices, but they are opaque choices. Johlson uses Verschuldung,“debt” or “indebtedness,” and here too adds a footnote to explain why. The note does not bother to clarify that the Hebrew word avon belongs to a class of words in the Bible that denote both a thing and its correction; it explains the ambiguity without the grammatical substratum. Without being arcane (as much of Mendelssohn’s commentary is), Johlson provides an insight into the compactness of biblical Hebrew that was heretofore unavailable to speakers of German.

In his preface, Johlson chastises Mendelssohn for being fearful of repetition. In the Hebrew Bible, repetition is inescapable as one of the most frequently used methods for expressing certainty or emphasis. This priority, entirely in keeping with his commitment to the literary, prompts Johlson’s lively approach to the “red, red stuff” that Jacob gives the hungry Esau in Gen 25:30:

JPS (1989): And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom.

Mendelssohn: Da sprach Esaw zu Jaakow, laß mich doch von disem rohten Gerichte kosten, den ich bin abgematet. Darum nent man ihn Edom.

Johlson: Sprach Esau zu Jakob: Lass mich doch kosten von dem rothen—von diesem rothen da! Denn ich bin ermattet. Darum nennt man seinen Namen Edom [der Rothe].

Why does it matter if Esau says “red red stuff” or “red stuff”? Because when we hear him say “Let me...try some of that red stuff—that red stuff over there!” the desperation of this very hungry man becomes palpable. Diction matters, not in the least because the verse as a whole, by punning on Edom (the Edomite nation) and adom adom (red), reminds us that redness comes to define Esau. To bring the point home, Johlson also provides the purported meaning of Edom, “the red one,” in square brackets.

The analysis of these sample verses in Genesis is hardly able to convey the full extent of Johlson’s undertaking. A larger survey of his techniques and decisions would reinforce the fundamental point that Johlson evokes the word artistry of the Hebrew for the same reason that he includes brackets, informative footnotes, page headings, and a table of contents: these are ways of opening up the riches of the source text and granting unfiltered access to its many layers of meaning, as well as to the pathos of the text. To reveal the Bible as a great work of literature is not an end in itself, after all, but a testament to its potential to speak to a wide range of people. The literary genius of the Bible would be the best argument for a return to Scripture.


The Zunz Bible, or Die vier und zwanzig Bücher der Heiligen Schrift, nach dem masoretischen Texte, was a collaboration with three scholars who did the bulk of the translating: Dr. Julius Fürst in Leipzig, Heymann Arnheim in Glogau, and Dr. Michael Sachs of Prague. Zunz himself translated only 1 and 2 Chronicles. The correspondence between Sachs and Dr. Moritz Veit, the Berlin publisher who instigated the project, reveals that the prime motive was to produce an affordable translation that would capture the spirit of the original Hebrew; there would be no place for “imprecision, randomness, modernization, the aesthetic embellishment of the original.”[6] Veit enlisted Zunz to play the all-important role of redactor.

Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) was a true pioneer, both as a scholar, and as co-founder of the Society for the Culture and Academic Study of Judaism in 1819. It was at the University of Berlin, under the influence of classical philologists Friedrich August Wolf and his disciple August Boeckh, that Zunz became inspired to approach Judaism as a civilization like every other. Philology, broadly defined, entailed the “critical examination of the language and literature of every people in every age: ancient, medieval, and modern.” Zunz’s “life’s task [was] to create “a Jewish philology utilizing the principles and methods of modern scholarship.”[7] The premise of the movement that came to be known as “Wissenschaft der Judentums” (the academic study of Judaism) was that only by subjecting the entirety of the Jewish past to a critical, scientific investigation could one obtain “a fair estimate of the nature of Judaism and of the Jew.”

The difference between Johlson and Zunz as translators can be summarized as follows: whereas Johlson followed Mendelssohn (and the Aramaic Targum) in viewing Bible translation as a pedagogical opportunity and, implicitly, as a type of commentary, Zunz aspired to be the first invisible Jewish translator of Scripture, hiding behind the masks of philological correctness and historical authenticity. The translation would exemplify the priorities of Wissenschaft by historicizing Hebrew scripture—by transforming it back into a foreign (i.e., Hebraic) book.

The historian’s agenda is visible in the exceptionally detailed supplementary material bracketing the 1838 edition of the Zunz Bible. Frontal matter includes a “List of Paraschahs and Haftarahs for holidays, fast days and special Sabbaths”; back matter includes a detailed biblical chronology that references two dating systems, the Jewish (“years from creation”) and the Christian (“years from the beginning of the common era”). The intended reader of this Bible is in tune with three different calendars: Jewish sacred, Jewish numerical, and secular. The entry for the year 1656 conveys the way in which Zunz used numerical data as scaffolding for the biblical story:

1656     On the 10th day of the 2nd month, announcement of the great flood.

Noach and his three sons: Jefet, Shem, Ham and their wives go into the ark.

On the 17th day of the 2nd month, beginning of the flood.

On the 17th day of the 7th month, that is, after 150 days, the ark rests on Mount Ararat.

On the 1st day of the 10th month, mountaintops become visible.

Zunz’s hyper-attentiveness to dates and details goes hand in hand with the omission of the preface and commentary from the page of Scripture. The translator qua historian/philologist is not an exegete, nor does he need to justify his decisions. By the same logic, and also in sharp contrast to Mendelssohn and Johlson, Zunz makes no attempt to resolve difficulties in the source text.

Both Johlson’s and Zunz’s projects required a new infusion of Hebrew into German, yet the formula was quite different in each case. How does Zunz Hebraize his translation? I note three important innovations. First, Zunz preserves the Hebrew word order, even in the case of syntactic inversion. See Genesis 34:1:

Hebrew: “Va-tetze Dinah…”

­ JPS (1999): Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land.

Zunz: Und ausging Dinah, die Tochter Leah’s, die sie geboren hatte dem Jakob, um sich umzusehen unter den Töchtern des Landes.

Mendelssohn: Dinah Leahs Tochter, die sie dem Jaakow gebohren, ging aus. Sich umzusehen unter den Töchtern des Landes.

Johlson: Als Dinah ausgieng, die Tochter Leah, welche Sie dem Jakob geboren, sich umzusehen unter den Tochtern des Landes.

Of the three German versions, only Mendelssohn places the verb “went out” where it properly belongs: at the very end of the sentence. Johlson shunts the verb up front, but after the subject, and so preserves correct German word order. Zunz absurdly places the verb in the first position, just because the Hebrew narrator does so.       

Second, Zunz was the first Jewish translator to render all place and personal names as Fremdwörter: Noah became Noach, Moses Mosche, Rebecca Rivkah, and in Genesis 3:20, Eve became Chawah:

JPS (1999). The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living

 Zunz: Und es nannte Adam den Namen seines Weibes: Chawah, denn sie war die Mutter alles Lebenden.

Johlson: Adam nannte den Namen seines Weibes Eva [die Belebende]; denn sie ward eine Mutter alles Lebenden.

 Let us compare the approaches of Zunz and Johlson. Johlson, characteristically, gives two names: the Germanic “Eva” and its translation, “die Belebende” (the giver of life). Zunz’s reader gains knowledge of the actual name; Johlson’s reader will not learn the Hebraic form, but will gain access to the play on words and, as such, a more nuanced understanding of the verse in its entirety. The difference encapsulates the disparity between two visions of what a “more Hebrew” translation of the Bible could accomplish: Zunz targets the linguistic form of the Hebrew, whereas Johlson targets the aesthetic sense of the Hebrew.

A third innovation in the Zunz Bible is the re-introduction of the conjunction “und” (and) as a consistent marker of the letter vav that is appended to most biblical Hebrew verbs. In doing so, Zunz followed Martin Luther and also the King James Bible. Zunz’s slavish use of the conjunction “und”would serve to defamiliarize biblical syntax for the modern German reader.

In sum, Zunz’s innovation was to exchange the pose of the translator-exegete—an image promoted by Mendelssohn as a way of legitimizing his enterprise— for that of the translator-philologist. Zunz’s Bible is a primary source rather than a pedagogical tool. It does not try to supplement the Bible, but rather to be The Bible. The turn to Hebrew for Zunz was not an end in itself, but rather a means to the ultimate goal of restoring, perhaps even re-sanctifying, the ancient dignity and historical authenticity of Hebrew Scripture by means of piety and scholarship.

Comparing the motives and practices of subsequent generations of translators reveals how quickly the convictions of the bourgeoning German Jewish intelligentsia and the (perceived) needs of the German Jewish public evolved. Michael Meyer aptly summarizes the paradigm change that occurred just after the turn of the nineteenth century. The Enlightenment had sought “to reconcile the Jewish religion with reason” and thereby to propel the Jewish community out of the ghetto, on the road to becoming a cultured nation. The leaders of the next generation had to translate Mendelssohn’s “ephemeral solution” into educational and social programs. In the nineteenth century, moreover, nationalism replaced universalism as the guiding principle: the “pure ideal of Wissenschaft” replaced the standard of philosophy, and it “was accompanied by the transformation of the cosmopolitan ideal of humanity into the particularist ideal of the nation.”[8] While both Johlson and Zunz were driven to highlight the national origins of the Hebrew Bible, the differences between them correspond to the distinct priorities of the Jewish educator and the philologist of Judentum. Johlson followed Mendelssohn in viewing Bible translation as a pedagogical opportunity, but for him, instruction was about form as well as content. Johlson replaced commentary with footnotes—the hallmark of modern scholarship—to open up the richness and the ambiguities in the language. Zunz, by contrast, had no interest in translation as a hermeneutic or pedagogical tool; he had no need for footnotes, but would rely on philological research and numerical correctness to produce a scholarly Jewish translation in German that would present itself as an authorless source text.

Thus, though both Johlson and Zunz aspired to render the German more transparent to Hebrew, Hebrew served a different strategic function in each case. Johlson introduced Hebrew to make possible an intimate encounter between the reader and the original text, in all its richness and ambiguity. Mendelssohn’s free rendering had also sought to make the text as accessible as possible, but by taking the opposite approach—by using paraphrase to disambiguate the Bible and its language. Zunz alone used translation to emphasize the inaccessibility and foreignness of the Hebrew idiom, to widen the distance between modern speech and biblical syntax, and thereby to endow the Jewish Urtext with the solemn aura of historicity.

Abigail Gillman,Boston University



[1] I borrow my title from a 1957 essay by Hermann Levin Goldschmidt, one of the first scholars to examine this tradition as a whole: “The German Quest for a Jewish Bible,” in The Legacy of German Jewry (trans. David Suchoff; New York: Fordham University Press: 2007), 182-93. See also Hans-Joachim Bechthold, Jüdische deutsche Bibelübersetzungen vom ausgehenden 18. bis zum Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005); W. Gunther Plaut, “German Jewish Bible Translations: Linguistic Theology as a Political Phenomenon” (Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture 36; New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1992); William Weintraub, Targume Hatorah Lelashon Hagermanit (Chicago: The College of Jewish Studies Press, 1967); and Schalom Ben-Chorin, “Jüdische Bibelübersetzungen ins Deutsche,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 4 (1959): 311-31.

[2] Dr. David Rosin, “Die Zunz’sche Bibel,” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 38:11 (1894): 504-14.

[3] Ibid., 505.

[4] See Stephen Lowenstein, “The Readership of Mendelssohn’s Bible Translation,” HUCA 53 (1982): 179-213.

[5] Inge Schlotzhauer, Das Philanthropin 1804-1942. Die Schule der Israelitischen Gemeinde in Frankfurt am Main (Frankfurt am Main: Waldemar Kramer, 1990).

[6] Michael Sachs and Moritz Veit, Briefwechsel (ed. Ludwig Geiger; Frankfurt: Kauffmann, 1897).

[7] Michael A. Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 159-60.

[8] Ibid., 144-45.


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