Pile #2 The Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David Stearn

24 Oct

The Complete Jewish Bible : An English Version of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and B’rit Hadashah (New  Testament) / [Translated by] David Stern. Clarksville, MD:  Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc. 1998.  lv, 1630 p. ,  ill. (maps). Includes  Bibliographic References and Index. [on title verso: “Published by Messianic Jewish  Publishers”; on cover “Translation by David H Stearn”]

The Christian faith is blessed to have its Sacred Scripture (Old and/or New Testaments) originally composed in Hebrew, (Aramaic,) and Koine Greek, translated into more than 2000 of the approximate 6,500 living  languages on the Earth, and some that are considered “dead”,  making the Christian Bible (and the Jewish Bible encased therein) one the most accessible pieces of literature whether sacred, or profane in the world.  English (in both it’s British and American variants and those nations of the British Commonwealth and influence) is but one of these languages as well as an international lingua franca and alone accounts for more than… well let’s just say there are not a few versions in English.  (This is like saying there are not a few Protestant denominations in the United States, where the number is something like 20,800 and counting.)  Now this is important because….

Translations and their uses

The Bible is also one of the most studied texts in the world. The modern academic and critical study of the Christian Scriptures involves a knowledge of Hebrew,  Aramaic, and Greek -the primary languages of biblical composition- but also encompasses plethora of other Near Eastern languages of antiquity including Syriac, Arabic and Akkadian.

For the majority of (Western) Christians without access or understanding of the original languages, however, exposure to the Bible has been mediated on the one hand by the Latin Vulgate, (and lesser extent the  Greek Septuagint) as translated into various vernacular languages, and on the other hand the message of biblical Judaism through Hebrew (and again, through the Vulgate and Septuagint). In short, we rely on translations.  And, as the history of translation has shown, not all translations are created equal, and some have been treated (rightly or wrongly) as heretical. Moreover, different editions and translations have different uses.

Quite apart from critical texts and the critical apparatus employed by academic scholarship and homiletics such as the membership of the Society of Biblical Literature (http://www.sbl-site.org), formal study of the Bible (Old or New) places more emphasis on original texts than on translations, but interlinear versions are often used.

Informal group use, individual, and pulpit preachers though, rarely go this deep, at most they may utilize word studies of certain words. And the versions used are correspondingly more varied. Examples include Today’s English Version “Good News Bible”) intentionally uses a limited vocabulary for those who read and speak English as a Second Language, The Living Bible, prepared originally for teenage children.  The Authorized Version, familiarly known as the King James Version for all it’s beauty as a text, was conceived of for political as well as theological reasons to be official version in opposition to the Geneva Bible replacing an earlier Bishops’ Bible and the Great Bible which was itself rendered to counter illegal vernaculars such as that produced by Tyndale, Coverdale, or Matthews.

Then, there is the plethora of other versions such as the Dhouay-Rheims Bible which was the first official Catholic English translation in the (or the closest thing to it), the Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bible, the New American Standard Bible (also Catholic in inspiration), various updates and revisions of the KJV such as the NKJV, the New International Version (NIV),  the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and it’s successor the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) -all of which are used in churches throughout the English speaking world.

And, there is the 1998 offering by Dr. David Stearn, titled The Complete Jewish Bible (herein CJB) which is very nearly a horse of a different color. Why is that, you may ask?

What’s in a name:

The Complete Jewish Bible takes it’s name from the combination of Stearn’s New Testament translation, and his rendering of the Tanahk/Old Testament. which he admits is “something between a translation and a paraphrase” using the 1917 JPS text (now in public domain) as a base for modernization and presented in Hebrew order. Aside from the biblical texts themselves,  the CJB includes a comprehensive introduction that provides the history of composition, intent, style, structure and use of the CJB, along with maps, glossary and pronunciation guide, an index of Tanakh texts cited in the B’rit Hadashah, and maps of the biblical Near East and Yeretz Yisrael, and a title of contents with accompanying lists of Books in the Christian Old Testament Order, and Books of the Bible in Alphabetical Order.  The Introduction (p xii-lv) is itself a wealth of information and insight into the translator’s intention and translations in general, and I have made much use of it for this review.

Every Translation an Interpretation

This is certainly true of Muslim attitudes toward any translation of the Qu’ran out of the Arabic, but in fact it holds true for any text that is translated from one language to another, because there is not a perfect word-for-word correlation. As noted earlier, different translations have different audiences, purposes, and generally fall into one of 4 categories: literal (sometimes called “word-for-word”), paraphrase, thought-for-thought, or a combination of the above. One thing all the versions have in common, though, is that through the Greek, it places the reader at least one remove from the actual thoughts and thinking of Jesus from His own people and believers in His Name through the ages.

Enter David Stearn, and his translation: The Complete Jewish Bible.

Stearn says in his introduction that in writing his Jewish New Testament Commentary, he found that much of what he was writing was “arguing with the translator of the English version I was using” (xiii), so, to cut a long story short, he went back and made his own translation, doing a reconstruction of it to recast it in a Jewish light. This is more than just cosmetic facelift.   Jesus spoke in Aramaic, his first followers spoke Aramaic. Jews of the Diaspora who heard and believed, as well as those God-fearing Gentiles who heard and believed the message, not to mention the out and out Gentiles who heard and believed, spoke, thought, and wrote in Greek, and what has come down to us is a Greek text and not the Aramaic or Hebrew thought that underlies the text.

As translators will admit, there is always a loss of nuance in going between a donor and a receptor language, so there will of necessity being a greater or lesser distortion of the message, and in this case of Jewish concepts. What Dr. Stearn has done in his capacity of a one-man translation committee (in this respect I a reminded of J.B. Phillips’ translations, or Martin Luther German Bible) is to bring a fresh exposure to the Jewish nature of the New Testament documents. Using the  Greek text as a base, he nonetheless gives the Hebrew form for names and concepts (for example Yeshua and Miriam for Jesus and Mary,  Torah and Talmidim, for Law and Disciples) and other expressions (he calls the “Letter to the Hebrews” “Letter to Messianic Jews”), and in other cases he has simply transliterated a Greek word rather than supply a translation (such as “church” and “saints”) when such words as traditionally translated carry too much intellectual and emotional baggage.

One irritation for me personally, was Dr. Stearn’s decision to render the word traditionally read “man” as “human being” no matter where it occurs, unless specifically being addressed to a male.  I like to think that the prophets receiving Revelation would have heard the Almighty addressing them as “Man” or “O Man” and not “Human Being”.
Stearn’s concluding thoughts on translations are “The beauty of God’s Word is that it can be translated into various ways that serve these purposes and others, without obscuring the Bible’s own purpose -which is to show people the truth about God, themselves, relationships and the meaning of life, and to call forth the appropriate and necessary responses.” (p xv)

Insightful, and Disconcerting

The CJB is not an academic text, and it doesn’t make use of a critical apparatus, though it may be helpful in individual or group Bible studies as an aide to understanding the richness of the text.   His translation of the B’rit Hadashah was meant to be for both conventional and Messianic Jews, and for interested gentile Christians -to show to both groups that the message of the B’rit Hadash was not foreign to what had come before in the Tanakh.

The CJB was not conceived as a single whole: it incorporates an earlier work “The Jewish New Testament” (published in 1989  and well received by: “Messianic Jews and by Christians open to experiencing the Jewishness of their faith” (p xiii), and the commitment to bring the JNT and a compatibly paraphrased  (non-Christian) Tanakh together under a single cover came later. (xiii)

For potential readers I do offer a caution -as part of Stearn’s intention to  harmonize  into a Jewish context  and style both the Old and New Testaments (Tanakh, and B’rit Hadashah) it introduces and uses a lot of unfamiliar non-English vocabulary: names, places, concepts which can be confusing to the unprepared reader  It also tends to utilize Yiddish expressions, which, for the purist and stickler out there among us -besides being anachronistic is (to quote Captain Hook) “bad form”. One could argue (though I don’t know if Stearn himself does so) that Yiddish was used because Yiddish is a commonly accessible popular language to contemporary Jews, in the same way that Aramaic was a commonly accessible popular language for Jews of antiquity.

Some nonprofessional readers and reviewers (on Amazon.com and other sites with user-generated content reviews) of the CJB condemn it as a deceptive tool of Christian evangelism, and thus an “unJewish” book.  However, in evaluating the claims of a work, it is necessary as far as possible to know who the intended audience of the work is.  It is not enough to read the body of the text without giving consideration to Forewords, Prefaces, and/or Introductions of a work where the author (or translator) often states his own intentions in producing the work.  Those same reader-reviewers who claim that the CJB is an “unJewish” book often make further claim that Messianic Judaism is not sufficiently “Jewish”. Their complaint only holds though,  if we allow them to define the terms.

Final thoughts: The CJB is a fine text to get a feel for the authentic Jewish flavor of the New Testament, best used in conjunction with other versions for the fullest understanding of the Message of Jesus.

Additional information obtained from

1. Wikipedia Article “List of Christian Denominations by Number of Members”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations_by_number_of_members accessed on October 23, 2012 17:29 (EST)

2. “Versions of the Bible” Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) hosted by New Advent.org Article http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15367a.htm#English accessed on October 23, 2012 17:34  (EST)

3. “Literal Bible Translations on The Baptist Page.net”  http://www.thebaptistpage.net/Bible_Translations/Bible_Literal_Translations_page1.html accessed on October 23, 2012 17:09 (EST)

4. “complete_jewish_bible.pdf (application/pdf Object)” http://www.torahtimes.org/gnmbook/complete_jewish_bible.pdf accessed on October 23, 2012 17:08 (EST) (n.b. pdf document)


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