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THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, Tanakh 1917 edition
ACCORDING TO THE MASORETIC TEXT (JPS 1917 Edition)

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In the early nineteenth century, most American Jews couldn’t read the Bible because they were not literate in Hebrew and an adequate English translation didn’t exist. Isaac Leeser’s The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures, published in 1854, attempted to fill this need. And it did, more or less, for many years. But Jewish interest in the Bible grew and a more discriminating audience found Leeser’s translation inadequate; it was antiquated and filled with many errors. At its second biennial convention in 1892, The Jewish Publication Society, just four years old, decided that its highest priority was to produce for American Jews “a new and popular English rendition” [1] of the Bible.

The Society formed a Bible committee made up of representatives of the three major Jewish institutions of higher learning at the time: Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and Dropsie College in Philadelphia. The committee wanted its new Bible to be in the best English possible, and this, they felt, was to be found in the Protestant Revised Version, which was based on the King James Version. Its members agreed to use the Revised Version, and to “remove all un-Jewish and anti-Jewish phrases, expressions, renderings, and usages…”[2] and introduce traditional Jewish interpretation to reflect Jewish feeling, law, faith and tradition.

The committee had good intentions, but it floundered until Max Margolis, one of American Jewry’s leading scholars of Bible and Semitics, was hired as editor-in-chief. Though he edited the translation (which had been prepared by 32 contributors) in just 12 months, a remarkable accomplishment, it had to be reviewed by a board of editors so diverse that its members argued for years over minor details. JPS Secretary Henrietta Szold then went over the manuscript 12 times. The project eventually cost about 10 times its original budget.

But it was worth it. The Holy Scriptures became the Society’s best-selling volume, selling nearly 40,000 copies within its first year of publication. Most Jewish textbooks, as well as the leading Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform prayer books, turned to the Society’s translation when quoting Scripture.

The back-to-the-Bible movement of the 1950s inspired JPS to make its Bible as widely available as possible. And so it published many editions: a quarto-sized pulpit Bible for Jewish chaplains, a two-volume Hebrew-English edition, and even a large-size illustrated version that was sold door-to-door.

This renewed interest in the Bible also inspired Harry Orlinsky, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion in New York, to lobby for a brand new JPS translation, a clear departure from the King James Version, one that would truly be considered the authoritative Jewish view of what the words of the Bible meant.

The new Bible committee first published The Torah, Prophets, and Writings separately from the rest of the Bible, over a more than 20-year period. Orlinsky headed the committee that prepared The Torah, which was published in the mid-1960s. He was also part of the group that worked on the Prophets. The committee that prepared the Writings was made up of other scholars from North America and Israel. In 1985, all three parts were brought together in one volume, the JPS Tanakh. This translation came to be known as NJPS (New JPS) and the original 1917 translation as the OJPS (Old JPS). To date, the NJPS is the most widely read translation of the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible, and one of the world’s most “accessible and readable English Bibles.”[3]

You will notice that the 1917 translation uses some archaic language, such as “shalt,” “thee,” and “thou,” because it borrowed heavily from the King James Version. Several passages in the 1917 version are much more poetic in tone than those in the 1985 translation (see Psalm 23). Also, the 1985 translation is more gender neutral than the 1917 version (see 2 Kings 25:9).


[1] Sarna, JPS The Americanization of Jewish Culture 1888—1988, 97.

[2] Sarna, JPS The Americanization of Jewish Culture 1888—1988, 104.

[3] Greenspoon, “A Short History of Bible Translations,” JPS Guide The Jewish Bible, 48.


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