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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The KJV and the Jews

In the middle of winter 1776, with the Colonial War going badly, King George III appointed December 13 (equivalent to 3 Tevet 5537) as a fast day. The Bodleian Library at Oxford University preserves the Form of Prayer and Sermon for that service at London's Synagogue of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews. Although we are informed that the Congregation's Minister, Moses Cohen d'Azevedo, "translated from the original Hebrew and Spanish into English," the wording for all of the Hebrew Bible passages (including Psalms 27, 46, and 67) is identical to the King James (or Authorized) Version.

Fourteen years later, on Friday, March 26, 1790, the Great Synagogue was re-dedicated at St. James, Duke's Place, London. Contained within "A Song and Praise to be Performed" on that occasion are the following Psalms (in the order printed in a pamphlet again preserved at the Bodleian): 91, 30, 24, 84, 122, 132, 100. The English text of these Psalms, prepared by David Levi, is a distinctive version, although clearly recognizable as a revision of the KJV.

In these two liturgical programs, we can detect the beginnings of a shift from dependence on the KJV by Jews to the attempt to produce a unique Jewish version for English speakers while still relying on the KJV. The earliest known English versions of the Hebrew Bible for Jews appeared precisely in the period between 1776 and 1790. These early versions, for which David Levi was one of the editors, were little more than the Hebrew text on one side of the page and the English text of the KJV on the other, with commentary from classic Jewish sources such as Rashi at the foot of the page. The first English translation of the Hebrew Bible by a Jew that differed at all from the KJV appeared in 1789. This translation, by Isaac Delgado, was not a continuous text but consisted of revised passages from the KJV Pentateuch, "wherever it deviates from the genuine Sense of the Hebrew Expressions, or where it renders obscure the Meaning of the Text; or, lastly, when it occasions a seeming contradiction" (from Delgado's introduction). The Bodleian's serendipitous preservation of these two liturgical pamphlets offers valuable evidence about Jewish practice in translating the Hebrew Bible.

A continuous Jewish translation did not appear until Solomon Bennett's 1836 Specimen, which contained a new version of selected chapters from the books of Genesis, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Malachi. It was not until 1841 that—to quote J. Hertz's words—"an independent Jewish translation," David Aaron deSola's Genesis, was produced. Another decade passed before the publication of the whole Hebrew Bible, Abraham Benisch's Jewish School' Family Edition.

Even these "independent" versions were heavily dependent on the KJV. There was, in short, reluctance among Jews to part company with the KJV, even after Protestants had begun to experiment with entirely new translations rather than KJV revisions. This was the case as late as the Jewish Publication Society's (JPS) 1917 version. This phenomenon says a great deal about the Jewish community's self-image as well as the image it wished to project for outsiders.

When JPS embarked on its first Bible translation project, it selected as editor-in-chief Max L. Margolis, who was uniquely qualified for the task at hand. He was thoroughly grounded in traditional Jewish learning, as might be expected, but was also well trained in the classics and in the critical approaches to biblical study then in vogue. In one respect, the choice of Margolis was unusual: he had been born in eastern Europe and came to the United States only in the late 1880s. As it happened, the selection of an immigrant rather than a native speaker of English shaped the process that produced this version and the translation itself.

As an immigrant, Margolis was acutely aware of distinctions in English diction and the negative effects of improper language or slang as a newly arrived populace sought to improve its status in America. To Margolis, the language of King James, albeit lexically antiquated and stylistically out-of-date, was nonetheless the best possible model for immigrants. As he wrote: "The English Bible [KJV] is a classic. As English-speaking Jews, we must be here receivers not givers. We Jews of America—and of England—must study the Bible English, read it and re-read it, that we may possess ourselves of an English style which may pass scrutiny on the part of those who know."

Margolis' efforts were entirely consistent with the approach prescribed by JPS. The new version was to adhere closely to the Revised Version of 1885, which constituted a major revision of the 1611 KJV. Verse-by-verse comparisons between the Jewish Version of 1917 and the Protestant revision of 1885 reveal agreement—typically word-for-word agreement—in most passages. Where it was necessary for any reason to incorporate materials not found in the KJV or its revision, Margolis deliberately chose KJV-sounding language, so as to achieve a text that seamlessly combined the new with the old. When Rabbi Hertz, by then Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, substituted this JPS text for the Revised Version he had until then used in his commentary, it was a good, and easy, fit.

In looking at the hold the KJV maintained on Jewish Bible translation and translators for more than a century and a half, we have thus far mentioned issues relating to image and education. Although we may not typically associate such concerns with the shaping of Bible translations, they are often more prominent in the making and marketing of such versions than many would care to admit.

But there is more at work here. Harry M. Orlinsky, editor of JPS's later version, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, turned sharply away from the earlier JPS model and once remarked that all translations of the Hebrew Bible (with the exception of one he chose not to mention in public) were basically Jewish. This observation is nowhere truer or more profound than in connection with the KJV. Although it is true that no Jews served as KJV translators, many of the Old Testament translators&mdsah;for example, Lancelot Andrewes, Edward Lively, John Richardson, John Harding, and John Rainolds (Reynolds)—were deeply steeped in both the Hebrew language and the exegetical traditions of Judaism.

This enthusiastic embrace of Hebraism, especially by Anglican clerics, led the KJV teams charged with preparing the Old Testament translation to adopt "Jewish" readings already incorporated into earlier English-language versions and to seek out others on their own. In this connection, it was twelfth-century Jewish exegete and grammarian David Kimchi, also known as Radak, who was most influential. An analysis of the first fifteen chapters of the book of Isaiah in KJV reveals a high number of English renderings that reflect Kimchi's interpretations. In most cases, the KJV shares these interpretations with earlier English versions, especially the Geneva Bible. But in at least a dozen instances, the KJV's dependence on Kimchi is unique: e.g., "the chaines" (3:19); "and their honourable men are famished" (5:13); "they shall lay their hands upon Edom and Moab" (11:14); and "the golden city" (14:4). Of course, theological considerations, as at 7:14, could prove more powerful than Kimchi.

Beyond these specifics, as important as they are, is the larger question of KJV style. Here it can easily be demonstrated how much of what we call "biblical English" is quite literally a reflection of the Hebrew original. So Margolis: "[KJV] has an inimitable style and rhythm; the coloring of the original is not obliterated….What imparts to the English Bible its beauty, aye, its simplicity, comes from the [Hebrew] original."

Thus, it can be argued that the English-speaking Jewish community was being quite true to its multiple roots in its attitude towards the KJV. Initially, it made use of the KJV in its unaltered form (as can be seen from the text of the 1776 worship service). Perhaps, in this retention we can detect the community's recognition of the huge Jewish contribution to what was by that time widely accepted as a national (or imperial) treasure. When the community began, slowly and, we might surmise, somewhat reluctantly, to part company with the KJV, it was at most only a partial breach that was created-at least until well into the twentieth century.

Leonard Greenspoon is a member of SBL and holds the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University.

For further reading
On Jewish Bible Translation
David Daiches, The King James Version of the English Bible: An Account of the Development and Sources of the English Bible of 1611 with Special Reference to the Hebrew Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1941).
Leonard Greenspoon, "Jewish Bible Translation" in The Biblical World, vol. II, ed. John Barton (Routledge, 2002), 397-412.
Leonard Greenspoon, "Jewish Translations of the Bible" in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler (Oxford, 2003 [forthcoming]).
Max L. Margolis, The Story of Bible Translations (Jewish Publication Society, 1917).
Orlinsky, Harry M., Essays in Biblical Culture and Bible Translation (New York: Ktav, 1964)
Recent (popular) books on the KJV (reviewed elsewhere in this issue)
Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Doubleday, 2001).
Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (Simon ' Schuster, 2001).
Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (HarperCollins, 2003).

Citation: Leonard Greenspoon, " The KJV and the Jews," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=185

 
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