The Fallacies of “Progress”: On Leonard Greenspoon’s “Jewish Bible Translations”

July 25, 2021   •   By Atar Hadari

Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress

Leonard Greenspoon

THIS SURVEY of a vast terrain begins where its author’s involvement with the subject began. After entering Harvard to study Classics in 1970, he transferred to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where he took a seminar on the Book of Joshua taught by Protestant theologian G. Ernest Wright. Wright regaled him with stories of Max Margolis, editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America Bible of 1917, and his student Harry M. Orlinsky, chief editor of the New Jewish Publication Society version of 1985 and of the Greek translation of Joshua. This was a headier brew than Homer and Aeschylus. Greenspoon was hooked, and his new account of Jewish translations of the Bible from the Septuagint onward, Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress, benefits from his warm fellow-feeling toward most of the Jewish translators he surveys. It also suffers from assumptions betrayed in the last word of the book’s subtitle, since any notion of “progress” may appear, on closer examination, to be more in the mind of the historian than in historical reality. Ironically, as his survey approaches the present era, Greenspoon identifies progress with certain kinds of emendation of the Hebrew text but not others, an ideological rift not that different from the issues he lays out with admirable clarity in his discussion of the first Greek translations.

Nobody actually knows why those versions came about. Of the four theories Greenspoon reports, the oldest is by St. John Thackeray (1869–1930), who suspected that the translations were needed in Greek synagogues to assist a congregation who no longer knew enough Hebrew to follow the Torah reading. Thackeray’s theory seems plausible because it conforms to the reason various later Aramaic Targums were created — and to the use of English translations in contemporary synagogues. That it conforms with our experience today, however, does not make it true of the past. Greenspoon makes the explicit comparison:

[I]t is likely that ancient translators, much like their modern counterparts, sometimes strayed from that Hebrew for any number of reasons: to make theological or stylistic “improvements” for the sake of consistency, to update references likely to be obscure to the intended audience, even to radically reshape whole sections for purposes of clarity and/or relevance.

An even more revealing observation comes just a page later: “[T]hose individuals who felt obliged to revise an earlier form of the Greek text were motivated by the perceived need to ‘correct’ the text in the direction of the Hebrew text in use within their community.” That Hebrew text did indeed once upon a time vary, as rival versions in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran demonstrate, but a consistently punctuated Masoretic Text, with an added layer of cantillation, did emerge in the 10th century CE — that is, after the Septuagint. This is where a difficulty with terms such as “clarity” or “relevance” or “progress” arises for the present-day reader.

The best known and only redacted Aramaic Targum of the Pentateuch is attributed by the Babylonian Talmud to Onkelos, a second-century convert to Judaism. Onkelos incorporated into his word-by-word Aramaic paraphrase a host of narrative explanations known as midrash: strict rabbinic interpretations and occasionally heavy-handed attempts to stop anyone reading the Hebrew getting the idea that the Almighty has a body, raises a hand, can come down physically into the Garden of Eden, and so forth. Greenspoon does not object to such rabbinically approved interventions in Onkelos, nor to similar insertions into the Arabic Bible translation of Saadiah Gaon (882–942), which was billed as a Tafsir — that is, an interpretation or commentary rather than straight translation. Far from setting out to correct the Christological interpretations in the dominant Protestant culture (as the JPSA Bible purported to do), Saadiah quietly incorporated a host of Muslim cultural stereotypes and religious phraseology to ease the passage of the new text down the gullets of Jews habituated to Islamic culture. Saadiah was waging war with the Karaites, a Jewish movement that emerged in the seventh century and purported to understand the text “properly,” without recourse to rabbinic interpretation, and piggybacking on Muslim culture as a host for his work seemed the lesser evil.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729–’86), accepting the German Bible translation hammered out by the avowed antisemite Martin Luther (who reviled the rabbis’ inability to agree on the meaning of the Hebrew and consistent failure to prophesy the coming of Jesus, as he felt the Pentateuch ought to do), just pruned away overtly Christian renderings. Mendelssohn aimed to increase Jews’ knowledge of their Judaism but also “to enhance their social, cultural and political opportunities in the outside world.” Lest you wonder whether these aims might be contradictory, Greenspoon approvingly quotes Max Margolis’s observation, in the early 20th century, that “inwardly it wrought a change by luring the youth from the narrower occupation with codes and casuistry to the wider field of biblical interpretation.” In other words, for both Greenspoon and Margolis, the “narrower occupation with codes and casuistry” — presumably a reference to the Talmud — was all right for Onkelos and Saadiah in their own ideological confrontations, but problematic in the post-Enlightenment present when Jews should have been concerned with “progress.” According to this view, the renowned 11th-century commentator Rashi (a.k.a. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaqi) was an admirable exegete because he focused on the literal meaning (pshat), and the King James translators (among other Christian Hebraists) are to be admired for their reliance on him, but rabbinic interpretations are otherwise suspect and obscurantist, and distort the text.

The problem with this view is that it misrepresents Rashi — who was engaged in ideological conflict with Christianity and, like Onkelos, incorporated every rabbinic tale he could lay his hands on into his commentary. The pshat, when you really look for it, does not exist as something you can separate from rabbinic opinion. How is the Masoretic Text, which post-dates Onkelos and the advent of Christianity, less rabbinic than the Mishnah or Talmud? Peek at the notes of the Daat Mikra edition of the Pentateuch (1980), which attempts to represent both a digest of Jewish commentary and some biblical criticism, and you find on every page of the Hebrew at least one word the notes confess is “a unique usage.” Which is to say: We do not know what it means. We know nothing except the interpretative tradition, or trail of examples of usage, which are all, as of the end of the prophetic books, the writings of rabbis. A Hebrew dictionary will give you a list of usages, many from the Talmud. Edward Lively, professor of Hebrew at Cambridge and head of the First Cambridge Company entrusted by King James I to produce translations of the Bible, made it a practice to cite as many passages as he could find where a given phrase was used and, by careful comparison, to arrive at a conclusion of what the phrase meant. This presumes that the phrase meant the same thing in different books of the Hebrew Bible, a huge assumption, but still remains the only sensible option. You have only, at the end of the day, different rabbis to choose from.

When I studied the Book of Joshua at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa with Dr. Yehezkel Cohen, he would respond, when offered an explanation that relied on midrashic explanation, “Ani Pashtan” — which would translate, I suppose, as “I rely on the literal meaning of the text.” For years I kept that as a motto and was suspicious of any rabbinic explanation of a word. Greenspoon’s survey, and his qualms about rabbinic adjustments of the “literal” meaning to conform with Talmudic interpretations, makes me acknowledge my own prejudice and realize the math: there is a greater temporal gap between the Pentateuch and Ezra-Nehemiah than between Ezra and the first rabbinic legal code of the Mishnah. Whatever your prejudice against this opinion or that, you are no better off restricting yourself to examples of how a word was used 1,000 years later than you are including stories that offer an overt interpretation of the Hebrew, rather than merely claiming to use the same word the same way centuries on, in totally changed social circumstances. There is, finally, no such thing as pshat, when the very meaning of a word is unknown. A philologist like Margolis might look to parallel languages to provide a possible echo, but that is all you can do to avoid choosing among rival rabbinic opinions.

Greenspoon’s wish to see progress post-Enlightenment obscures key details in the present era. Margolis not only did not retranslate the Pentateuch from scratch (as one might expect from a version setting out to extirpate Christological interpretations) but simply printed the revised King James Version of 1885 on large cards (some of which Greenspoon located) and made all his emendations on them within a year. Orlinsky made his subsequent NJPS version by allying himself with Protestant scholars of the American Bible Society and asking “what the original Bible authors intended to say.” Greenspoon’s correspondence with David E. S. Stein, the editor of a further revision, The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (1962), shows where this approach led. Stein wrote: “I have come to believe that in (Exodus 15:6) among others verses ish must refer to households rather than individuals.” The Greek translators may have revised the Greek translations to match the Hebrew text used in their community, but the American translators asking themselves what the Bible meant to say are revising the text to match the conversation in their own community. Which may be fine but cannot be called a “progress” from Onkelos or Saadiah Gaon — call it a commentary, not a translation.

Greenspoon mostly fails to give me a social sense of who Margolis or Orlinsky were, not to mention Isaac Leeser, whose 1853 revision of the King James Bible Margolis credited as a major source. My doctoral study of the English Deuteronomy, which focused on how translators from Tyndale to the King James Version used Jewish commentators, struggled to pinpoint any entry point for a Jewish interpretation because Jerome’s revision of the Latin Vulgate, which incorporated many Jewish interpretations, predated and informed all English versions. I had the idea of going forward in time to see what the JPSA team thought of these “Jewish” renderings, rather than backward. Noting Leeser’s importance to Margolis, I started checking Leeser. Where Margolis changed a King James Version rendering that seemed supported by Rashi, that seemed to suggest that it was perhaps not a Jewish reading; but there were verses and word changes where Leeser and Margolis disagreed, so to try and account for that change of opinion, I was forced to ask myself: “What changed in American Jewry between 1853 and 1917?” Alas, Greenspoon doesn’t say. There’s a fuller account of the life of Saadiah Gaon (admittedly derived from the correspondence of his contemporary Maimonides) than of Margolis or Orlinsky, our contemporaries. Greenspoon perhaps finds the social nuances of change from Leeser to Margolis to Orlinsky outside his theme, but I think, as his correspondence with David Stein reveals, that those changes are the very pith and marrow of any Jewish Bible translation and have been since it all began.

I wish Greenspoon would write a memoir of what he has seen in his 50 years in the field. I would like to know. Moreover, to understand contemporary Bible versions, we need to know who changed what and who they were talking to in order to even begin to know why.


Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press, 2000) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award and his PEN Translates Award-winning “Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin” appeared in June from Arc Publications. He received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes and was awarded a PhD in Theology from Liverpool Hope University for a thesis on Jewish commentators in William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy and its revisions into the King James Bible.