Hebrew Bible Translation and Publication

by Ray Pritz

The first books of the Bible, the Torah, were written outside the land, according to the traditional attribution of all of them to Moses. Likewise, other parts of the Old Testament were written outside the land, for example, Ezekiel, parts of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, and some of the Psalms.

Many of the New Testament books were also written outside Israel, from places like Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, and the small island of Patmos. It is likely that some of Paul’s letters were written during his imprisonment in Caesarea. The actual location of the writing of the synoptic gospels and Acts is uncertain. Similarly, it would seem that parts of the synoptic gospels, or at least some of their sources, were written in Hebrew.

Background: Early New Testament Translations

It is ironic, then, that during the centuries when Hebrew lay dormant as a spoken language, so too the New Testament was unknown in Hebrew. Translation into the language in which many of its original events took place began to happen about 1300 years after those events. One scholar, Jean Carmignac, has collected extensive information regarding Hebrew translations of the New Testament. Carmignac lists over 100 different Hebrew translations of all or part of the New Testament, dating back as early as 1360, and he claims that his list is incomplete. Since Hebrew was not spoken during these centuries, the Hebrew in them is ancient, usually that of the Old Testament. Most of these translations were done by individual scholars, although several were the joint effort of two or more. Until this generation, all such translations were done outside of Israel.

In the mid-1850s there appeared a translation of Romans, done by Isaac Salkinson. Like most of his predecessors, Salkinson limited himself to biblical Hebrew. The entire New Testament was printed in 1885 and was published again the following year with a thorough revision by Christian Ginsburg. It was published by the Trinitarian Bible Society (an organization unrelated to modern national Bible Societies) in London. This translation continues to be reprinted in the diglot Hebrew-Spanish and Hebrew-Dutch New Testaments.


The well-known translation of Franz Delitzsch was preceded by no less than 42 previous translations. The entire New Testament first appeared in 1877 and had an interesting history. Delitzsch did not set out to preserve biblical Hebrew in his translation. He attempted rather to render according to the Hebrew which might have been spoken at Jesus’ time. This meant using many words which are found in the Mishnah and other post-biblical documents. In fact, his translation of Romans alone contains over 100 words which are not found in the Old Testament.

Also, Delitzsch wanted to take advantage of the latest advances in textual criticism in his translation. As a result his first edition omitted a number of passages which had been shown to be later additions to the text. However, most projects as large as a New Testament translation are dependent on outside financial support. Delitzsch was no exception. His sponsor was the British and Foreign Bible Society. While they helped with a limited (2500 copies) first “experimental” edition, the BFBS refused to finance it further unless he made two fundamental changes.

Since their founding in 1804, their policy had been to publish Bible editions based on the so-called Majority Text or Textus Receptus (received text), which had been established back in 1550. The innovations desired by Delitzsch were rejected, and he reverted to the Majority Text, introducing a system of brackets and parentheses to indicate where scholarship felt the old text to be inferior. The second change had to do with how Old Testament passages were quoted. Delitzsch had been in the habit of taking the Masoretic text directly from the Old Testament without regard to the differences in the New Testament Greek. BFBS insisted that the translation reflect the Greek, even where it contradicted the Masoretic text.

During Delitzsch’s lifetime his translation underwent ten editions. After his death in 1890 another four editions were done, although the last two were little more than reprints of the 12th edition of 1901. All fourteen editions were printed in Germany. There were later printings, based on the 8th edition, in London in 1937 and 1954 and in other countries, especially Sweden. These were imported into Israel by various agencies, including the Bible Society and Kaarlo Syvanto. It was only in 1959 that the first Hebrew Bibles with the Delitzsch New Testament were printed in Israel.

Modern Hebrew Translations

Translation of the New Testament into modern Hebrew only began about twenty years after the foundation of the state. Naturally, but significantly, such translations were the first to have been done in the land. In 1967 there appeared a Gospel of John, produced anonymously by two Hebrew Catholic scholars, Yochanan Elichai and Yehoshua Blum. They followed this in 1970 with Matthew, in 1972 with Luke, and in 1974 with the entire New Testament.

In 1970 the Baptist missionary Robert Lindsey published his translation of Mark, including a long introduction propounding the theory that the Gospel of Luke probably represents the earliest of the synoptic gospels.

Another full New Testament in modern Hebrew was produced in 1975 by two other Catholic scholars, Jean-Marie Bauchet and David Kinneret. Bauchet had earlier (1948-50) done a revision of the Matthew and Mark of Delitzsch. This translation, published in Rome, lacked vowel pointing. It never received wide circulation in Israel.

In 1973 the Bible Society in Israel, then based in Haifa, began a translation of the New Testament into modern Hebrew. From the outset it was envisioned that this would be published together with the Old Testament and would eventually be fully annotated. The translation process was somewhat complex. In the first stage, a Hebrew language expert, Mr. Joseph Atzmon, made a translation from English. In so doing, he also routinely consulted existing translations by Delitzsch, Salkinson, and many others in several languages. These, of course, had been translated directly from Greek. At the same time he made use of special tools developed by the United Bible Societies for the use of Bible translators. These books, written in English, relate back to the Greek text phrase by phrase, guiding the translator who does not know Greek to understand the meaning of the original language.

For three years Atzmon worked hand in hand with Yochanan Elichai, an expert in the Greek New Testament who repeatedly checked the translation against the original. In addition, Atzmon met twice a year with a team of eight experts in biblical languages. These included Robert Lindsey and Elichai, both of whom had already worked at translating parts of the New Testament, and Dr. Jan de Waard, a United Bible Societies translation consultant and world renowned expert in both Hebrew and Greek. In these sessions as well, the translation was judged against the Greek.

The book of Romans was completed first, printed, and samples sent to pastors and other interested persons around the country for their reactions. Then in 1976 the first modern Hebrew New Testaments were printed by the Yanetz Press in Jerusalem. This translation was fully vowel-pointed. The level of Hebrew was to be that of a high school graduate, although there were occasional variations from that mean in both directions.

Another modern Hebrew translation made its appearance a year later. This was produced for Living Bible International and also printed by Yanetz Press. Like the original Living Bible in English, it was not a translation from Greek but rather from English, presumably with an eye on older existing translations such as Delitzsch. This book was printed three times by Yanetz, first under the title, “The Man from Bethlehem,” then (1979) as “I have loved you with an eternal love,” and also as “The Way.” These books were, for the most part, distributed free. The translation itself never really caught on within the Hebrew-speaking Messianic community, and it is doubtful that there could be found today anyone who considers it his Bible of daily use.

Complications of Bible Production

While Hebrew Bibles including the New Testament had been imported in relatively small quantities since the foundation of the State, import laws made it difficult to bring in the numbers to meet increasing demands. Like any enlightened state, Israel wanted to protect its own industries. The law stated that any book containing more than 15% Hebrew needed special permission for import.

Some distribution organizations tried to get around this by mailing many small packages of Bibles or by having groups of tourists bring them in. The Bible Society was prevented by its own constitution from operating in any way which could be construed as contrary to the law, and so the only alternative was to print in Israel. While this looked idealistically like a step in keeping with good Zionism, it also brought serious drawbacks. For one thing, the whole process was  considerably more expensive than printing, say, in the Far East and importing.

But there were more serious problems. The Bible is a large book, often reaching 1500 pages or more. To keep a book of that length to one volume, it is necessary to print it on special paper, paper which is very thin but of a quality high enough to prevent the text on one side of the page showing through to the other side. The average printing equipment cannot handle such thin paper. In Israel in the early years the only printers working with such paper were those who printed religious books such as the Hebrew Old Testament or the Talmud. While the printers themselves may not have been orthodox, their customers were. To agree to print the New Testament in Hebrew could lose a printer a lot of business, and it was a risk that almost no one was ready to take.

The Bible Society located a secular printer with offices in Tel Aviv and its print operation in Nazareth. This was a company which specialized in coloring books and other things for children. Precision was not a major consideration in their operation. Several editions of  scriptures in Hebrew were printed by them, but the quality was always marginal.

The special Bible paper is not produced in Israel and had to be imported. It was subject to customs duties, which made each Bible just that much more expensive. However, government office responsible for fixing customs payments operated under a guideline which said that paper used for printing the Tanach (Hebrew Old Testament) was exempt from payment. Because part of the books being produced was the New Testament, it could not be determined until after printing how much of the paper had been used for the Tanach. This resulted in the following scene: After a printing of 5000 Bibles, one copy was taken to the customs office. There an official physically separated the New Testament and weighed it. The amount of paper in the New Testament was then multiplied by 5000, and customs duties were fixed based on this figure.

The Bible Society decided to challenge this discrimination, and a lawyer was engaged. As often happens in such cases, a letter from a lawyer threatening to take the matter to court was sufficient to bring about a change of practice (and a refund). It seems that the law itself had only said something about exempting “holy scriptures,” and internal interpretations in the customs office had applied that exclusively to kosher books.

At about the same time the Bible Society got tired of printing sub-standard Bibles and began a campaign to receive permits to import books. This meant convincing a certain official in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry that reasonable quality Bibles could not be printed in the land. Mr. Biala was an old-school sort of individual. He grew mint for his tea in a window box, and he was quite familiar with the New Testament. But he saw it as his duty (which it was) to prevent people importing things which they should be getting in Israel. The director of the Bible Society met with him several times, showed him the low quality of recently printed Bibles, and submitted letters from several big print houses stating that they were not ready to print Bibles with the New Testament. The campaign was successful and resulted in a renewable permit to import attractive Bibles which, unlike the old ones, did not resemble building blocks in both shape and weight. And they were less expensive.

On another occasion, involving the annotated Hebrew New Testament, a printer was found in Jerusalem. He himself did not bind books but sent them out. After many false starts, a binder was found in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem. The man said that he was opposed to religious coercion and had no problem with binding the New Testament or anything else. However, most of his customers were orthodox Jews, and he would have to do the work after hours. In the end, he could not even use his regular workers, and so three Bible Society staff members worked late into the night and helped him bind books.

Overall, it has become far easier in recent years to find professionals in all areas of publishing (typesetting, printing, and binding) ready to work with the New Testament.

New Hebrew Bible

For several decades Hebrew Bibles were composed of a strange mixture of typefaces and styles. No new typesetting had been done for perhaps thirty years, and Hebrew Bibles distributed before 1991 had different typefaces and page layouts in the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew Bible published by the Bible Society in 1991 was completely new. It was laid out in two columns, saving space and making reading easier. It also included subject headings and running titles at the top of the page so you could find your way around more easily. Qere readings were clearly listed at the bottom of the page. And for the first time the Israeli user could read all of the Aramaic sections of Daniel and Ezra in Hebrew translation. Because of the new layout, the book only had about 1200 pages and for the first time looked like a book you can carry rather than like a brick.