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deracination: What’s a Bible translator to do?

April 29, 2015

Two decades ago, in 1995, translator Willis Barnstone lamented:

The most notorious and successful means of deracinating the Jews from their own Bible has been to change the very name by which they are addressed there.  They are called Hebrews (with reference to a language) or Israelites (with reference to a place).  They are often referred to as “the ancient Hebrews” as we speak of ancient Greeks, thereby further distancing them, as a mythic, legendary, or symbolic people, from any real association with the Jews of the Christian Scriptures and thereafter.  But the Jews of the Christian Scriptures are also presented as a deracinated people, separated from their biblical ancestors.  They are never Jews, and certainly not “the ancient Jews,” which might identify the prophets and partiarchs more closely with them….  The Jews do not appear as Jews until the Christian Scriptures, when the word Jew uniformly means “unfriendly,” “unreformed,” “unrepentant,” and much worse.  It is used to designate all the implicit enemies of the sect that is being born, which will later be called Christianity.  Yet again through magical transformation, the participants in these first moments of the foundation are themselves exempt from their heritage.  They are just there, with no designation of race or religion (later they will anachronistically be called the first Christians), and Jesus, his family, and his entourage are not Jews, ancient Jews, or even Hebrews or Israelites (which might at least link them to worthy ancestors), but simply unaffiliated people.

His solution to the problem of Christian Antisemitism and of Christian Bible translator racism, that de-races the Jews, was to re-store the Jewishness of Jesus and his entourage as written in the New Testament Greek.

As the solution, Barnstone eventually produced his (2002) New Covenant translation and then his more complete (2009) Restored New Testament and his later more focused (2012) Poems of Jesus. For the Greek of Luke 2:26, Barnstone has this English:

It had been revealed to him by the holy spirit that he would not see death until he saw the mashiah of the lord.

Now for this particular Lucan line of Greek, and for its particular Barnstonian English translation, there doesn’t seem to be much new. There’s not much new, that is, when the English alphabetic transliteration of the Jewish-Hebrew language is “restored” from the English alphabetic transliteration of the Jewish-Greek language translation. In other words, if Messiah (i.e., “mashiah”) is restored from Christ, then Barnstone here has done nothing new, nothing more than a few other Christian translation teams had done for the Christian Scriptures. For example, in 1995 when Barnstone was dreaming of his own translation, the NIV, the NRSV (which Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler adopted for their 2011 Jewish Annotated New Testament), the Good News, and God’s Word had already used Messiah, not Christ, for Luke’s Χριστὸν (and eventually the NLT and the Holman and the Messianic Christian Jewish translations – the Complete Jewish Bible and the Orthodox Jewish Bible – also did for this English-lettering of the Hebrew phrase as the more-Jewish translation of the Greek phrase in Luke).

Some time ago, my BLT co-blogger Theophrastus commented on Barnstone’s project, asking:

How are Christians to react to statements like Barnstone’s…. How are Jews are supposed to react to statements like Barnstone’s.

I had already posed my own questions:

Does this restorative translation … require belief for membership among either Christians or Jews? Has the translation rendered ineffective the millennia of deracination and implication of Jews as enemies of the sect that was being born as Christianity? Has it brought any attention to antisemitism?

I think we still have these questions.

I’ve already shown a bit of what Barnstone wanted to do and eventually has done and some questions about it. What I’d like to propose today is to move a bit into and then beyond a critique of the Barnstonian English. In the title of this post today, my additional question is “What’s a Bible translator to do?


The focus here is on the Septuagint, by translators of both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.

Let me first bring in a couple of things Barnstone says about the Septuagint in the Introduction to his Restored English translation of the Greek New Testament:


  1. Clearly, Barnstone assumes that the Jews writing the Greek “New Testament had bypassed the Hebrew scripture by relying exclusively on the Greek Septuagint translation of the Tanak.”
  2. Likewise, Barnstone believes “readers of other languages” such as English exclude the “meaning ‘the Anointed who is Messiah'” from “Christ,” for example, as an English loan word, a mere “transliteration” and not a “translation” of the Greek χρίστος, which is most clearly not a Greek alphabetic transliteration of the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ.

Let’s notice the binaries implicit in these assumptions:

  • Hebrew scripture / NOT HEBREW, or the passing by of that scripture (i.e., the Septuagint Greek Bible in Greek of the Jews in Alexandria)
  • the later authors of the letters and of the epistles of the Greek New Testament to “Christian Jews and the Greek converts” to very new Christianity mostly outside of Alexandria understanding a clear translation of Hebrew into Greek / NOT GREEK LITERATES, or the much later and more recent Christian readers of other languages (such as English) who reduce the Greek to its mere transliteration “Christ,” not the translation “Anointed One [of the Jews]” (and who begin to de-race the Jews by by-passing this translation χρίστος, as the most meaningful match for that Jewish Hebrew phrase מָשִׁיחַ).

What I’d like to show here is that it is possible, and perhaps preferable, to see the Hebrew and its Greek translation together as Jewish, the later not simply only always some by-passing of the former. The Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint can both be read as of the Jews. Robert Alter, for example, uses the Septuagint Greek to give a more correct English translation of the Psalms and even sees the Greek as better than the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text in many instances. And Adele Berlin asserts, “The Septuagint is a window onto how Greek-speaking Jews of the early pre-Christian centuries read and understood the story of Esther.” She also allows that “we may conclude that the Septuagint is, on one hand, more biblical than the Masoretic Text, but on the other hand it is more Hellenistic, both in respect to Jewish identity and practice and in respect to Hellenistic storytelling.” Both are Jewish.

Isn’t there an analogy we might make with English-language Jewish Bibles of this century, that plurality of specifically “Jewish” English Bibles? Yes, there is a varied Jewishness in the English that gives a window into the ways the Hebrew is read in our century. For example, here within “Exodus,” within the “decalogue” or the “The Ten Commandments,” there is both Jewish English translation and Jewish English transliteration:

“keep it holy,” “sanctify it,” and “hallow it” are translations for לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ.

tasks,” “work,” and “[creating] work” are translations for מְלָאכָ֡֜ה.

Sabbath is the consistent transliteration for שַׁבָּת.

God your Lord” and “God, your God” and “HASHEM, your God” and “YHWH your God” and “the LORD your God” and “the Lord thy God” are the translations and the transliteration for לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

The Septuagint has, respectively for the Hebrew noted above, the following Greek translations and transliterations: ἁγιάζειν αὐτήν, τὰ ἔργα, σάββατα, κυρίῳ τῷ θεῷ σου.

And the Septuagint translators at various points in the Pentateuch and beyond have regularly used both translations and transliterations. Below, for example, is what English translator of the Greek Septuagint, Bernard A. Taylor, sees and says:


What I’d also like to illustrate is that the writers of the New Testament practiced Jewish-Greek variations on the Jewish Hebrew. The writer of the gospel of John used both translation and then a transliteration of Hebrew:  χριστός is μεσ[σ]ίας. And Paul would sprinkle into his Greek epistles Hebrew words spelled with Greek letters, or transliterations when he translated.

When Christian English-language translators of the Greek New Testament de-race, they have to make their English not Jewish by ignoring the Jewishnesses of this Hebraic Greek. The Hellene of the New Testament, like the Greek of the Septuagint, is inclusive of a combination of Greek translation of phrases the Hebrew scriptures and of Greek lettering (or transliteration) of phrases of the Hebrew scriptures. The de-racinating Christian Bibles ignore this fact, in fact.


When a translator of, say, the gospel of Luke renders the Greek into English, then the cultural mix should not be ignored. The message of God ostensibly to the unbelievers (to the not yet Christianized) should not trump the medium of the message. The Greeky rhetoric of Luke and the Jewish literary of Luke should not be lost in favor of clear English.

Luke’s opener needs to be read in light of Greek-reader understanding of classical rhetoric. Luke’s beginning with a Hannah validating the little baby Joshua and his making the little boy, Joshua, grow in favor, needs to draw the reader back to Hannah and to the baby and then boy Samuel, who are described in both the Hebrew version of I Samuel and its Greek translation (with Greek transliterations of the Hebrew). Luke’s Jewish Greek relies on the Jewish Hellene and the Jewish Hebrew of the earlier Jewish stories.

“Christ” in Luke needs to be understood in light of “Christ” in the Greek translation of I Samuel. The holy kiss of peace of the prophet there in I Samuel (the Hebrew and its Jewish Hellene translation), needs to enlighten what Greek readers, Jewish readers, of Luke read when seeing how a sinful woman kisses and Anoints Jesus.

When the Greek literary and rhetorical as the Jewish literary and rhetorical come through an English translation, then that translation will not de-race. And, moving beyond Barnstone’s binaries, when the New Testament is seen with the Septuagint as inclusive of both translation and also transliteration of phrasing in the Hebrew scriptures, then the Greek texts are not de-raced. Then these texts may be read as rich, Jewish Hellene and as wonderfully Greekish Jewishness.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    May 6, 2015 8:22 am

    Thanks for an interesting piece. But the initial link to Willis’ original item doesn’t work. Is there any chance you could fix that?

  2. May 6, 2015 9:53 am

    Thanks for reading and especially for noting the troubles with the initial link.

    I meant it as a link to Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice, which can be found here:

    But it’s rather a link to the google books site for that same work (with specific search terms marking the pages within it where that initial quotation is from):

    Let me reproduce those pages more fully here:

    Hope that helps!

  3. Jonathan permalink
    May 10, 2015 10:04 am

    Thanks a lot – that’s really helpful.

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