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If you could just revise one word in a Bible translation ….

October 19, 2014

Suppose that you could just revise one word in a Bible translation.  Which word would it be?

Well, that’s the opportunity that presented itself to Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler in their (brand new for Simchas Torah) second edition of the (Oxford) Jewish Study Bible.  They were able to persuade the Jewish Publication Society, which owns the copyright on the NJPS (“Tanakh”) translation to change one word. 

The word they chose was חטאת, which they persuaded the JPS to allow them to present as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.”  Now doubtlessly this was a justifiable choice – after all, it is 43 years since Jacob Milgrom published his study “Sin-Offering or Purification-Offering,” persuasively arguing that “purification offering” was the better translation.  But certainly there must be more words than that to revise!

Even in the first (2004) edition, Baruch Schwartz’s notes made it clear that he considered “purification offering” the better choice (in the way that scholarly study Bibles often correct the translation being used).  And there are many more places in both the first and second editions that commentators suggest better translations than the NJPS used. 

But there are so many other places one could revise.  For example, David E. S. Stein, in a series of volumes (Torah:  A Modern Commentary, The Contemporary Torah, Torah: A Women’s Commentary) has been making persuasive arguments for revising the NJPS translation of the Pentateuch and Haftoroh for nearly a decade.  But instead, Berlin and Brettler decided just to settle on “purification offering.”  Odd.

Berlin and Brettler say “in some cases, we sought new annotators to reflect more recent scholarship and to include more women and Israeli scholars.”  (However, despite these words, a number of women got the boot in the second edition, including Carol Meyers – who was the consulting editor for the Genesis and Exodus in The Contemporary Torah.  Neither can we somehow assume that the Berlin and Brettler were ignorant of The Contemporary Torah – in fact, Berlin was the consulting editor for Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in that work.  And the same editor, Ellen Frankel, was key to both The Jewish Study Bible and The Contemporary Torah.)  Somehow, it seems that Berlin and Brettler were eager “to include more women” (even though that meant booting women) but were not eager to use a more accurate translation that better reflected the meaning of gender in the Pentateuch.

(Note:  I hope to post a full review in due course.  But for now, I’ll just mention my disappointment that much good material from the first edition has been deleted, including Elliot Wolfson’s sublime essay “The Glorious Name and the Incarnate Torah.”)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rachel permalink
    October 20, 2014 2:50 pm

    I agree that a thorough revision of the JPS transaltion along the lines of the Contemporary Torah would be a good idea. But I think you may be being a little unfair on the editors/contributors here. It’s surely not in their gift to make the fuller changes you suggest, even though some of them were involved in the earlier Contemporary Torah project. It’s JPS themselves who would have to commision such a wide-ranging revision – and indeed pay for it. Also, the one change that they have made in this 2nd ed study Bible has a precedent: Etz Hayyim (the Conservative Humash) already did the same thing, presumably with permisision from JPS, back in 2001.

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