Off the Shelf: The Bible through Jewish and Christian eyes

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When someone who doesn’t understand Hebrew asks me what is the most accurate translation of the Bible, I find it difficult to suggest just one work. If you are really interested in the meaning of the words, the best way to study is to compare two or three translations. Where the translations agree, it’s fairly safe to assume that no one is arguing about the meaning of those verses. Seeing where they disagree – use different words or have a different sentence structure – means the text is more problematic and not everyone agrees on its meaning. 

All translation is interpretation, something noted in two recent works: Leonard Greenspoon’s “Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passion, Politics, Progress” (The Jewish Publication Society) and “The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently” by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (HarperOne). Greenspoon, a professor at Creighton University, examines a wide variety of Jewish translations from ancient Greco-Roman times to the present day. While Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and Brettler, a professor at Duke University, agree that every translation is an interpretation, their focus is on how one’s worldview and religious beliefs affect one’s understanding of the text. In their work, they compare and contrast the different ways Jews and Christians see and interpret the Bible. 

Although Greenspoon’s book has a narrower range in that it’s interested only in Jewish translations, he does note one large difference between the way that Jews and Christians view the biblical text. Even though not every Jew can read the Bible in its original Hebrew, the Hebrew text is considered extremely important, with both traditional and nontraditional contemporary Jewish movements reading from a Hebrew Torah scroll during religious services. He believes that unlike “contemporary Christians for whom the Bible is a Bible in translation, not the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek... no Jewish Bible translation is intended as a practical or implicit replacement of the original. Jewish Bibles point to the original rather than attempt to replace it. In other words, they supplement but never supplant the original Hebrew.”

Greenspoon discusses two major styles of translation – formal vs. functional – although the division is not complete since translators often use both styles in their work. Formal translations were once called literal translations – those that try to keep the same grammatical and sentence structure as the original Hebrew. Functional translations first look to understand what the text meant to its original readers and then use modern language to obtain that meaning even if their translation differs in syntax. Greenspoon notes that some translations add material that was not in the original text in order to explain the meaning of a verse, or change the format of the text from prose to poetry, or poetry to prose. He ponders whether these works should be called translations rather than reinterpretations, but offers a few examples from them so readers can see just how greatly they differ from other types of translations.

Among the different translations Greenspoon writes about are the Septuagint (a translation into Greek around 275 B.C.E. that some believe was the first biblical translation), the Targuns (Aramaic translations, of which there are several) and translations in such languages as Arabic, Yiddish, German, Spanish, French, Italian and English. The author places these works into the context of their times, showing how and where a translation took place affects the result. He also offers material on the authors (if they are known), specifically looking at how their religious views may have affected their translations. For example, although the Bible text attributes human aspects to God (who walks in a garden, has human body parts or experiences emotion), the Targuns (written in the rabbinic period, from 70-600 C.E.) deleted these anthropomorphic images of God. According to Greenspan, the idea was “to avoid even the possibility that God really had a human type of body or human emotions. [The translators] also avoided the suggestion that other beings could be categorized, however mistakenly, a ‘god.’” When looking at Jewish English translations, he discusses the effect of the King James translation. Greenspoon notes that, even though none of the translators of the King James Bible were Jewish, those Protestant Christian scholars were well versed in Hebrew and sometimes gave a Jewish slant to the text because of their familiarity with rabbinic interpretations of the Bible.

My favorite parts of “Jewish Bible Translation” were the comparisons Greenspoon offers of different translations of the text. These sections made his other discussions come alive by showing how altering the word order, leaving out a word or two, or adding a sentence greatly changes the meaning of the text. It also shows how differences in Jewish theology affect the way that one interprets the text, something those attending Torah study at their synagogue will understand. Anyone who wants to better understand the translation they use will definitely want to read Greenspoon’s work.

While Greenspoon focused specifically on translation, Levine and Brettler show there is more to finding meaning in the Bible than the specific translations one used. For example, how a verse is understood differs greatly whether one views it through a Jewish or Christian lense. The authors are not looking to convince either side that their interpretation is correct, but rather to open a dialogue that will allow everyone to have a better understanding of the text. Their book looks at 10 passages and themes from what they call “Israel’s scriptures” and seeks to answer three questions about them: “What did the text mean in its original context in ancient Israel? How did the New Testament authors interpret the text? And how do post-biblical Jews from the time of Jesus (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first-century historian Josephus, and the first-century philosopher Philo) through rabbinic and medieval Jewish tradition and later Christian traditions understand those same texts?” 

Among the texts being reviewed are those that relate to the creation of the world; Adam and Eve in the garden; the priesthood of ancient Israel; animal sacrifice; Isaiah’s suffering servant; the Book of Jonah; and the psalms. The authors believe the main difference between the Jewish and Christian traditions is that they approach the text in very different ways. For example, a “central feature of Jewish interpretation is that it has no single point or goal,” meaning they are not trying to prove something specific, which allows them to disagree about the meaning of the text. The authors note that this Jewish “approach contrasts with Christian interpretation, which sees Jesus as the main theme of the Old Testament, even though he is never explicitly mentioned there.” They also mention that for Jews all parts of the text have meaning and even simple statements should be mined for deeper meaning. There is also no expectation that everyone will agree on the results, which allows for multiple interpretations.

It’s difficult to summarize Levine and Brettler’s excellent analysis of the biblical text because their book is more than 400 pages long. Some parts do stand out. For example, the authors note Christians see Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden as original sin, which means “that all humanity inherits, literally, the sin of Adam.” Because of this, Christ needed to enter the world in order to redeem humanity. Jewish commentators see Adam and Eve’s action as no different from any other human sin; for them, the text does not mean that there is a permanent breach between humans and God. The connection between Jews and God is based on the giving of the Torah, rather than what occurred in the Garden of Eden. 

When writing about Jewish law, Levine and Brettler note the stereotype that says the Jewish Bible focuses on law, while the Christian one talks about love. Yet, they show that Jesus’ take on Jewish law could be stricter than the Jewish Bible: Jesus went “from forbidding murder to forbidding anger; from forbidding adultery to forbidding lust; from forbidding false or violated oaths to forbidding oath-taking; from permission to divorce to forbidding it; from not abusing the enemy to loving the enemy.”

The different Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Book of Jonah were also well done. For example, while many Jews take little notice of the number of days Jonah spent in the belly of a large fish, for Christians, the three days represent the number of days between Jesus’ death and resurrection. The latter also believe that Jonah’s preaching to non-Jews is a sign that God’s rule would not always be restricted to Jews and that the covenant would someday belong to Christians.

Levine and Brettler note that the purpose of their book was to encourage dialogue. They believe “we are stronger when we wrestle, and when we read together,” and encourage Jews to see the connections between their own scriptures and Christian ones. They also encourage Christians to study how Jewish tradition understands the texts that are important to Christianity. “The Bible With and Without Jesus” is easy to read and would be perfect for Jewish-Christian dialogue groups to read. Its interpretations of biblical verses will also appeal to anyone interested in understanding the Bible.