Ambivalencies: Jews and the King James Version

By Alan T. Levenson
Schusterman/Josey Professor of Jewish Intellectual History
Judaic Studies, University of Oklahoma
October 2011

The 400th birthday of the King James Version (KJV) has prompted widespread celebration in academic and popular venues.1 While Jews have usually read the Bible from a scroll in Hebrew for liturgical purposes, the history of Jewish Bible translation is a long one and includes many languages, including Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, and Yiddish. Modernity sparked a renewed interest in the Bible among Jews and a new wave of translations, particularly into German and English.2 Surveying the relationship of Jews and the KJV, I cannot help but employ that overused word in the scholarly lexicon: ambivalence.

As “secondary canon” for the West, KJV reigns supreme. Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron argues that a slew of American authors of the first rank can only be understood via their debt to KJV. Alter’s Jewish predilections in his own Bible scholarship lend piquancy to his celebration of KJV. (Even in Pen of Iron, Alter claims America’s Pilgrim Fathers were more Old Testament than New Testament driven.)3 An adept translator, Alter sides with KJV in striving to capture the Hebrew cadence of the original and tries to reproduce that effect by paying close attention to the Hebrew word order.4 Alter believes in the elevated nature of biblical Hebrew, as did the KJV translators. Of neither translation could T.S. Eliot’s famous put down of the NEB be applied: “dignified mediocrity.” For Alter, as for Harold Bloom, two of America’s preeminent literary scholars, KJV’s place rests assured.5

As “primary canon” of a nation, I bring KJV kudos from an unexpected quarter: Ahad Haam, a Zionist thinker who rejected Orthodoxy but felt bound to the Jewish past. Having moved from Odessa to London, Ahad Haam witnessed the English celebrating the KJV’s 300th birthday with what can only be called “Bible-envy.” Writing against more radical Zionists who were willing to consider other texts equally central to Jewishness as the Hebrew Scriptures,6 Ahad Haam retorted that all the products of the Jewish past held value, but only the Hebrew Bible could be Scripture:

Someone who says that he has no portion in the God of Israel, or in that historical force which has given our people life and influence that life, its sprit and its progress for thousands of years… can be a decent human being , but he is not a national Jew even if he lives in Eretz Israel and speaks Hebrew.7

Ahad Haam won out: the Hebrew Bible became part of Israel’s educational curriculum in 1953-1954. Prime Minister David ben Gurion made HB an important part of forging a national identity. While HB does not play the dominant role it once did (neither does the archaeology craze or the fetishizing of the Hebrew language), HB remains, as Ahad Haam had hoped, the primary canon – and the secondary canon as well, judging by its ubiquity in Israeli literature, art, and music.

As a translation model, KJV offers a more ambiguous case. Professor Leonard Greenspoon observes that the KJV itself has “Jewish’ elements – beginning with its acknowledged debt to the Septuagint, the first translation into Greek.8 The KJV translators knew their Hebrew, and they knew their medieval Jewish commentators, with Rabbi David Kimchi being a favorite of KJV translating companies. Among 18th- 19th centuries Anglo Jewry, KJV was the most widely read Bible, a sharp contrast with the reception accorded the Luther Bible, which never won German Jewish readership to the same degree.9 Early Anglo-American Jewish Bibles, Greenspoon demonstrates, were mainly “revisions” of KJV: plus Hebrew text, minus christological renderings and NT.

Even Max Margolis, the main editor of the 1917 Old Jewish Publication Society translation, tried to emulate the KJV, adding thou’s and thee’s with abandon, and translating all those vavim, a single letter in Hebrew, KJV’s stylistic calling card. Old JPS often lifted the translation straight from the 1885 revised KJV. Margolis wanted dignity and fidelity to the Hebrew original – in 1917, no English translation came close. Indeed, Margolis hoped for the day when a Jewish Bible translation would be more King Jamesian! Old JPS remained the key translation for over half-century of Anglo-American Jewry, providing the text for the profoundly influential Torah and Haftorahs edited by the Chief Rabbi of England, Joseph Hertz. (This “Hertz Chumash” dominated synagogues of Anglo-American Jews from the 1930s until the 1980s, surely an irony given that had King James himself wanted to visit a synagogue he would have had to leave his realm.)

Subsequent American Jewish translators (Orlinksy, Plaut, Lieber, Fox, Alter, Friedman, Kaplan) sought greater independence from KJV than Margolis. But it was actually the latter’s predecessor who most tellingly expressed Jewish resistance to KJV’s magic spell. By Isaac Leeser’s lifetime (1806-1868), American Jews were awash in Christian Bibles, many distributed by the American Bible Society (founded 1816). Leeser found that intolerable and stepped into the breach. Here is Leeser’s introduction to the first distinguished Bible translation of an American Jew:

The Book commonly known as the Authorized or King James version has been so long looked upon with a deep veneration almost bordering on superstitious dread, that to most persons the very thought of furnishing an improved translation of the Divine records will be viewed as an impious assumption and a contempt of the wisdom of former ages. But even if no colouring had been given to the English words not warranted by the Hebrew, it would be a species of mental slavery to rely for ever upon the arbitrary decree of a deceased King of England who was surely no prophet, for the correct understanding of the Scriptures, upon which our life in this world and the next depends.10

Leeser’s points may be summarized: King James was not a prophet; the Hebrew Bible contains all that is needed for Jewish life; Christians cannot be counted on for accurate Hebrew translation; American Jews must show their independence through producing a Bible of their own. Leeser, preacher and cantor of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, sought to provide Jews with home Bibles that contained the books of the Jewish canon only and in their traditional order, that followed the division of the Pentateuch into weekly portions, that hewed closely to the Masoretic text, that avoided christological renderings, and that had a few blank pages to record births, circumcisions, marriages, and deaths. When Lance Sussman credits Leeser for bringing “the Protestantization of American Judaism to completion,” he means that Leeser made the Bible central to American Jewry.11 Of course, one could also claim that the idea of universal biblical literacy was itself pretty Jewish (Nehemiah 8).

Jumping ahead a century from Leeser’s day, I stop at the principal advocate and chief editor of the New JPS, Harry Orlinsky. Orlinsky’s opinion, though he strategically hid himself behind Benjamin Franklin’s verdict, “the King James style was obsolete and thence less agreeable,” was that moderns found the foreigness of the KJV off-putting. Beyond that, Orlinsky argued archaeological-philological findings had revolutionized the modern understanding of the Bible, data unavailable to the KJV companies. Finally, Orlinsky believed that the modern reader of the Bible was not the “naïve believer that his ancestors were.” Translating the translator, I presume Orlinsky meant that the modern reader could stomach notes suggesting: “variant reading” or the dreaded “precise meaning unknown.” (Ironically, the “notes” in the Puritans’ beloved Geneva Bible quite enraged King James.) Orlinsky dodged an obvious objection: if lack of modernity was KJV’s sole deficiency, would not its new incarnation, the NRSV do for Jews too? Echoing Leeser, Orlinsky asserted that Jews must have a book produced by Jews, more ethnic than a theological argument.

In my view, claims made for the KJV’s inerrancy by latter-day proponents remain more problematic than the KJV itself.12 For Jews, the Hebrew Bible must be Hebrew – translation, in theory, if not practice, must always play second-fiddle.


1 Charles McGrath, “Thou Shalt Not Be Colloquial,” The New York Times: Sunday Review (24 April 2011); Leland Ryken, “How We Got the Best-selling Book of All Time,” Wall Street Journal: Weekender (27-28 August 2011).

2 Alan T. Levenson, The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

3 Alter explains that nation, community, and family were bigger topics in OT than NT.

4 This procedure follows KJV but diverges from New JPS, which, like Mendelssohn’s Bible, relied on dynamic equivalence not formal equivalence. See Edward Greenstein, “Theories of Modern Bible Translation,” Prooftexts 31:1 (1985): 9-39.

5 Harold Bloom, The Shadow of A Great Rock (Yale University Press, 2011).

6 Yosef Chaim Brenner, cited in Laurence Silberstein, The Postzionism Debates (NY: Routledge, 1999), 43.

7 Cited in Menahem Brinker, “Brenner’s Jewishness,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 4 (1988): 235.

8 Leonard Greenspoon, “The King James Bible and Jewish Bible Translations” in David Burke, ed., Translation That Openeth the Window (NY: American Bible Society, 2007): 123-138. See also Greenspoon’s essay in The Jewish Study Bible.

9 On the Mendelssohn Bible, see David J. Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (Berkeley, 1996). On developments in Germany and England, see Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible (Princeton, 2005).

10 Lance J. Sussman, “Another Look at Isaac Leeser and the First Jewish Translation of the Bible in the United States,” Modern Judaism 5:2 (May 1985): 161, 159-190.

11 Sussman, “Another Look at Isaac Leeser” 168, 181; Orlinsky, “Jewish Biblical Scholarship,” 294; Joseph Hertz, “Jewish Translations of the Bible in English,” in Sermons, Addresses and Studies, vol. 2. (London: Soncino, 1938), 70-93.

12 For example, Grace Baptist College in Gaylord, Michigan eschews study of Greek and Hebrew as unnecessary given the KJV’s inerrancy. Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries. The Making of the King James Bible (Harper Collins, 2003) offers an accessible account of the translating “companies.”

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