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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Hebrew Version of the New Testament

If we may believe tradition, translations of parts of the New Test. already existed at a very early period. But as there is no certain information concerning such a version into the language of the Old-Test. Scriptures, the history of this work can only be traced back to the year 1537, when the gospel of Matthew was published in Hebrew by Sebastian Munster (q.v.). Great attention was excited by this book at the time of its appearance, on account of an ancient tradition which prevailed in the Church, that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew. It was very evident, however, that Munster's publication, תורת המשיח, had no pretension to be regarded as the text of the sacred original, nor even as an ancient version, for the language in which it was written was not the SyroChaldaic, current in Palestine at the time of our Lord, but the rabbinical Hebrew in use among the Jews of the 12th century.

It was, moreover, full of solecisms and barbarisms, and bore indubitable marks of having been translated either directly from the Vulgate, or from an Italian version thereof. In an apology for this work, dedicated to Henry VIII of England, Munster states that the MS. from which he printed was defective in several passages, and that he was compelled to supply the omissions as best he could from his own resources. It passed through several editions, and a Hebrew version of the epistle to the Hebrews was appended to it. Another edition of the same translation of Matthew, but printed from a more complete and correct MS. (Recens Judceorum Penetralibus Erutum), brought for the purpose from Italy, was published by Tillet, bishop of St. Brieux, at Paris, in 1555, with a Latin version by Mercer. (Ad Vulgatam quoad Fieri Potuit Accomodata). The latter was published again by Dr. Herbst, under the title, Des Schemtob ben-Schaphrnut hebr. Uebersetzung des Evang. Matthaei nach dei Drucken des S. Munster und J. du Tillet-Mercier (Gottingen, 1879). In this edition the editor proves that the author of this version was none else than Shem-Tob Isaac ben-Schaphrut (q.v.), who translated this gospel for polemical purposes. Passing over the other translations of parts of the gospels, we mention the version of the four gospels into Biblical Hebrew, made by Giovanni Batista Giona (q.v.), a converted Jew, and professor of Hebrew at Rome. He dedicated it to pope Clement IX, and it was published at Rome in 1668, at the expense of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide. But this translation, as professor Delitzsch remarks, fuilfilled less than might be expected from a man born at Safet, in Upper Galilee, who, besides, was a Jewish scholar. The first translation of the entire New Test. into Hebrew was made by Elias Hutter (q.v.), and published at Nuremberg in 1600 in his Polyglot Test.

According to the judgment of professor Delitzsch, it is of great value, and is still worth consulting, because in many places it is very correct. A revised edition was published in London in 1661, under the superintendence of W. Robertson; but the greater part of this edition was consumed in the fire of London in 1666. A Corrected New Testament in Hebrew was published at London in 1798 by the Reverend R. Caddock, but it proved not to be acceptable to the Jews, for whose benefit it was published, and a new translation became a desideratum. In the meantime Dr. Buchanan brought from India a translation of the New Test., executed in Travancore, among the Jews of that country, the translator being a learned Jew. The MS. was written in the small rabbinical or Jerusalem character; the style was elegant and flowing, and tolerably faithful to the text. Dr. Buchanan deposited the MS. in the university library at Cambridge, after it had been transcribed by Mr. Yeates, of Cambridge, into the square Hebrew character. A copy was presented to the London Society for the Conversion of the Jews, and it was at one time thought that it would greatly promote the object of the society to print and circulate the production of a Jew, evidently master of his own ancient language.

After much deliberation, however, a more strictly literal translation was still deemed desirable, and accordingly, in 1816, Mr. Frey and other learned He braists executed, under the patronage of the Jews' Society, a new edition of the New Test. In 1818 this new edition left the society's press, and was speedily followed by another issue. The British and Foreign Bible Society assisted materially in this work by purchasing at various times to a large amount. After this version had been in circulation for some time, complaints from Hebrew readers in various parts of the world were laid before the Jews' Society Committee, concerning the rendering of certain passages. To insure minute accuracy, the committee- determined on a thorough revision.

They consulted some of the most eminent men in Europe, and professor Gesenius was recommended to them as the first Hebrew scholar of the age. To him, therefore, the version was confided, with a request of a critique upon it, and suggestions as to alterations. Gesenius went carefully through the work as far as the Acts, and likewise through the book of Revelation. Numerous other engagements, however, compelled him to resign the task. The work, together with Gesenius's notes, was then transferred by the Jews' Committee to Dr. Joachim Neumann (q.v.), a converted Hebrew, lecturer on Hebrew at the University of Breslau. Dr. Neumann commenced thle work anew, and his revision, when completed, was acknowledged to bear the stamp of diligence, accuracy, zeal, and profound scholarship. The limited funds of the society, however, prevented the publication of this valuable' revision, and thus it remained for some time in MS. At this very period, the publisher of the Polyglot Bible (Mr. Bagster), requiring a Hebrew version of the New Test. for the Polyglot, applied to the Jews' Society for the critical emendations they had been amassing: the important notes of Gesenius and Neumann were in consequence handed to Mr. Bagster, and were incorporated in the new version executed for the Polyglot by Mr. Greenfield, and published in 1831.

In comparing this edition of Greenfield with the second of the Jews' Society, published in 1821, the student will easily perceive that there has not been made a very great progress in the work of translation, and that neither could stand the test of criticism. The Jews' Society resolved, therefore, on a revision of the edition of 1821. A committee, consisting of Dr. M'Caul, the Reverend M.S. Alexander (afterwards bishop of Jerusalem), the Reverend J.C. Reichardt, and Mr. S. Hoga (the well-known translator of Bunyans's Pilgrim's Progress into Hebrew), was intrusted with the revision, which was commenced November 14, 1836, and finished February 8, 1838. The printing was commenced in December 1837, and was finished in September 1838. Duly considering and appreciating the labors of their predecessors, they endeavored to conform the Hebrew text as closely as possible to the Greek, following in most dubious cases the reading of the authorized English version; and were much pleased to find that, in very many cases, even the collocation of the Greek words furnished the best and most elegant collocation of the Hebrew.

They diligently consulted the Syriac, Vulgate, German, Dutch, and French versions, but in difficulties were generally guided by the Syriac. Their desire was, as far as possible, to furnish a literal translation, remembering that it was the word of the living God which they wished to communicate. They arrived at purity of style, but always preferred perspicuity to elegance. When the revision was finished, the MS. was read through by each person privately, and then by all together, confronting it again with the Greek text. Some alterations were then suggested, and even in the reading of the proof-sheets various little amendments were made. This new edition of 1838, although a great improvement upon the former, proved by no means to be the ultimatum. In the year 1856 a new revision of the work was decided upon, and to the Reverend C. Reichardt (q.v.), together with Dr. R. Biesenthal, the task of revision was given.

The edition of 1838 was carefully examined, and April 12, 1865, the work was completed. In 1866 the new. edition, with vowels and accents, was published, which redounds to the honor of both revisers and the society. But this edition, in spite of the great amount of labor bestowed and the money spent upon it, proved itself not to be the complete desideratum, especially in view of the criticism concerning the text as well as the accents, which professor Delitzsch published in his Hebrew edition of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. Considerations like these, especially the desire of realizing a hope cherished for about forty years, induced professor Delitzsch to undertake a new version of the New Test., on the basis of the Codex Sinaiticus. This edition was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1877. In 1878 professor Delitzsch published a second edition of his translation, taking for his basis the Textus Receptus of the Elzevir edition of 1624, respecting the exigencies of textual criticism in all the more important cases by bracketed readings. Thus a single parenthesis, (), indicated a passage with weak support, although from an early date; the same with a star, (*), indicated an important varying reading; a double parenthesis, (()), indicated a late addition to the text; and brackets, [, indicated words well supported by ancient testimony, but lacking in the received text. This edition also sold rapidly, and the third edition, again revised, appeared in 1880, with a slightly larger page and type. A fourth edition was published in 1881, and so also a in 1883. It should be observed that during all this time the translator had the constant help of many learned friends, especially of Dr. J.H.R. Biesenthal, who had traversed the same ground himself, and of the author of the work on Hebrew tenses, Reverend S.R. Driver of Oxford. See Delitzsch, The Hebrew New Testament of the British and Foreign Bible Society (Leipsic, 1883). (B.P.)

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Hebrew Version of the New Testament'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/h/hebrew-version-of-the-new-testament.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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