Jan 25, 2022

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What’s On The Pastor’s Shelf?

Pastor Trey Graham of First Melissa in Melissa, Texas has approximately 20 versions of the Hebrew Bible in his office and has access to 26 additional translations through his Bible study software. Pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries told Breaking Israel News that he has “lots and lots” of translations of Hebrew scripture on his shelves.

Graham and Biltz, along with thousands of Christian pastors worldwide, consult Jewish translations of Hebrew scriptures as part of their daily work.

Pastor David Swaggerty, Senior Pastor at ChrismaLife Ministries in Whitehall, Ohio told Breaking Israel News that he no longer relies on many of the Bible commentaries on his shelf. “[These books] were written by gentile men. While trying to give insight, they neither could read nor write Hebrew. Therefore, they did not have a good grasp of the true depth nor meaning of the Hebrew language.

A few issues
“Their information was often very shallow or would bypass many important scriptures with nothing to expound on. These books were compiled by good men trying their best to interpret the scripture, but were very limited in their understanding of the original text,” he noted.

“Very honestly, after receiving a copy of The Israel Bible, I have now practically abandoned the seven sets of commentaries and only use TIB. In my opinion, any Christian and/or pastor would greatly benefit from learning from a Jewish translation to grasp the real intended meaning.”

A lot to learn

Pastor Keith Johnson of the Biblical Foundations Academy, International has inspired over 500 Christians to read the Hebrew scriptures this year. Many of them, including Johnson himself, are using The Israel Bible. “I think that if Christians would compare and contrast their favorite English translation with a Jewish translation they could learn quite a bit,” Johnson told Breaking Israel News

“I find that Christian translations tend to be more ‘theological’ in their translations, especially regarding what they believe to be ‘Messianic prophecies’. I am of the opinion that short of reading directly from the Hebrew Tanach (complete Hebrew Bible), a person who is serious about understanding the scriptures would do well to always have two or three translations in front of them, in order to compare to see where there are differences,” he advised.

The advantages

Like his colleagues, Biltz believes Christians can benefit from “more accuracy and better understanding” by reading a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible. However, he cautions that “We have to remember that there are huge differences between what is called a ‘translation’ compared to what is called a ‘version’. In a version, you have added words to the text itself that the author felt should be there, based on their bias, so their bias becomes part of the text, rather than a separate commentary.”

Graham offers advice on how to choose a translation. “For Christian Bibles in English, there is a scale from most literal translation to less literal translations (usually called paraphrases). I prefer the more literal translations (from both Hebrew and Greek) because they are truer to the original text and meaning.  Every translator in every language brings inherent biases and preferences.”

Lost in translation

Graham continued. “There is great power in studying God’s Word in English, but there can be more depth when one endeavor to study in the original languages.  If one studies in English, care should be taken to find the most academically and theologically reliable sources, so human bias and opinion are as minimal as possible. Christians who use Jewish translations of Hebrew scripture should apply these tests also, learning about the various publishers and their preferences, biases, and reputations.

“I believe that, for Christians and Jews, there is no more powerful spiritual exercise than studying God’s Word. That is my personal testimony, but it is also the promise of the Bible itself,” he concluded.

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who follow the teaching of Hashem.

Psalm 119:1

From a Jewish Perspective

Breaking Israel News spoke with Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, a prominent voice in Jewish-Christian relations, who lectures and writes for numerous organizations including CJCUC, IFCJ, and CUFI. Wolicki explained his preference for relying on a Jewish translation of the Bible in his work teaching Christians. 

“When I am preparing to speak to English-speaking audiences, I find that the Christian translations, especially the modern ones, are not as precise in terms of fidelity to the exact syntax as the Jewish ones. Respect for the original Hebrew is a more sensitive concern for Jewish translations. 

“Another issue is theology. Christian translations are, sadly, often skewed by theological concerns. Here’s an example: in Psalm 126, which speaks of the return of Israel to their land after the long exile, after the opening verse, the Psalm clearly and unequivocally shifts into the future tense, “Then, our mouths WILL BE filled with laughter…. Then it WILL BE said among the nations…” The Christian translations all translate this in the past tense. This is just incorrect.

“Obviously, there is an anachronistic theological concern where Christian thinking was that the only ingathering was the smaller ones in the days of Ezra. The Psalm is obviously speaking of a future return of Israel, which was not traditionally acceptable to Christian theologians.”

Translating the Hebrew Bible into another language is fraught with challenges, as Wolicki explains, echoing Graham, “There is really no such thing as a translation. Every translator has to make choices that compromise the integrity of the original language. Inevitably, nuances and layers of meaning are lost.”

The Importance of Hebrew

AnaRina Heymann, Director of Align With Zion told Breaking Israel News that there is a Jewish custom to fast on the 8th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet when, according to an ancient Jewish source known as Megillat Ta’anit, the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek. This translation, completed in the third century BCE, is widely known as the Septuagint.

According to a translation of Megillat Ta’anit, “On the eighth of Tevet, during the rule of King Ptolemy, the Torah was written in Greek, and darkness fell on the world for three days.”

Making the Bible accessible to non-Hebrew speaking gentiles helped establish the Bible as a treasury of morality, monotheism and justice. Why then did the rabbis declare a fast day when the work was completed?

According to Heymann, who recently launched a podcast called The Power of the Hebrew Letters, “In any other language, you can only read the Bible at the pshat (plain meaning of the text) level. Translating the Bible into something other than Hebrew brings Torah into shallow, murky waters where you can’t access the deeper levels of meaning.

“God allowed the Bible to be translated to share it more widely. If it wasn’t translated, the rest of the world wouldn’t have a share in the Bible. But the level that the world could connect to it is, by definition, diluted into something more shallow.

Words matter

“Every Hebrew letter is a world into itself – its meaning, its form, its gematria (numerical value). These things can only be appreciated if you look at the Hebrew.” Heymann, who recommends the free online translation at Mechon Mamre, offered two examples of elements that are simply lost in translation. 

Psalm 119 is an acrostic, made up of sets of eight verses in order of the Hebrew alphabet. The first eight verses all begin with the letter alef, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The second set of eight verses all begin with the letter bet, which is the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and so on.

Similarly, Aishet Chayil is sung at Shabbat tables throughout the world in praise of the Jewish woman in whose merit the world will be redeemed. The verses, written in order of the Hebrew alphabet, come from the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31). This is totally missed when the verses are read in translation.

Heymann continued, “There are certain places where you can only understand what God is saying when you understand the Hebrew language.” She cited Jeremiah 1:11 as a clear example.

The word of Hashem came to me: What do you see, Yirmiyahu? I replied: I see a branch of an almond tree. Jeremiah 1:11

The Israel Bible offers a commentary on this verse that makes Heymann’s point precisely: “In his first vision, Yirmiyahu is shown an almond branch, makel shaked (מקל שקד) in Hebrew. Hashem explains that the branch symbolizes His watching over His word to perform it. The Hebrew word he chooses for ‘watch,’ shoked (שֹׁקֵד), also means ‘to hasten.’ Yirmiyahu deli­berately chose this word since it is similar to the word for ‘almond,’ shaked 

(שָׁקֵד). Commentators give two explanations for this wordplay. First, just as the almond tree blossoms quickly, so too Hashem will hasten to punish Israel. Furthermore, the almond tree is the first to blossom in Eretz Yisrael. When all else is dead, the almond trees awaken the countryside from its winter slumber. So too, although the people are spiritually dead, God’s word, like the almond blossoms, will awaken the nation.”

Christians Studying Authentic Jewish Texts Connected to Redemption

The recent interest among non-Jews in the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Bible is, according to Heymann, a harbinger of redemption. “Awakening to understand the roots of the Hebrew Bible better means that we are in the time of redemption. Now the world is exploring the deeper levels of Hebrew. That is obviously opening up the multi-dimensional worlds of God’s Words,” she concluded.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Christians to at least consult a Jewish translation, and to learn Bible from Jewish teachers, was articulated by Wolicki, “In my writings and teachings to Christians, when I dig into the nuances of the original Hebrew, there is a sense of wonder and excitement among my Christian students. At the same time, they often feel frustrated that they don’t have access.

“I believe there is a love and hunger for the authentic word of God. This is a role Jews can – and must – fill. This is the essence of our role as a light unto the nations,” Wolicki concluded.