Many of us are struggling to find the most accurate interpretation of God’s Word. One of the many concerns about English interpretations of the Tanakh, is that translations are often passionate in their efforts to anglicize the text and to make it friendly to the contemporary English readers. Although this may allow a smoother flow, it can stifle or minimize God’s Word. Still others will chose a Tanakh because of their blind obedience to a religious sect verse seeking the purity of God’s word (Proverbs 8:13, 11:2, 16:18). Here we will discuss the differences between Tanakhs and strategies that will help us to be a better student of His Holy Scriptures.
JPS vs Artscroll
The age-old debate regarding which Tanakh to read, usually become an argument between either the JPS or the Artscroll. The JPS is a favorite of Jewish non-denominations and more liberal groups, whereas, the Artscroll is usually used by Orthodox and more conservative types of Judaism. Sadly, many people will use a religious sect like a divining rod to help them determine which version of the Tanakh they should use. Christianity, also possesses this same bad habit, i.e. Catholic use the Latin Vulgate Bible and certain denominations stick exclusively to the KJB. Instead of validating the Tanakh through a religious sect, we should determine what makes each interpretation unique, and then, as individuals, make an educated decision.
The JPS Tanakh (New Jewish Translation 1985), is the most sold Jewish Bible. It was rewritten in 1985, making it easier to read and comprehend than its original, which was written in 1917 based off the KJB. The JPS uses many resources such as Masoretic Text, Rabbinical literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (Greek OT), and lexicographical insights, in developing its interpretation1. However, like many Christian translations of the bible, the JPS is a theologically-protected document and not a free rendering of the original. So, what does it mean to be “theologically-protected document”. Let’s use Christianity to prove our point. For example, in Christianity’s need to make God into someone more merciful and less of a disciplinarian the word “fear” (mora) has been replaced with the word “awe”. Let us look at Psalm 76:12:
Thus with certain Christian Bibles, awe is used instead of fear, which makes no sense since the Hebrew word for awe is “pachad”. Nonetheless, it does fit the doctrine of certain religions that want a gentler kinder god. Likewise, almost all Christian bible have renumber Psalms 76 so verse 12 is 11. The Jewish bibles will also do this on occasion to create a better flow.
The Artscroll is more literal than the JPS and although it may re-order words, it will never re-order whole verses like the JPS. What is concerning about the Artscroll is that it is often translated based on Rashi’s commentary. This is fine for those that make Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) a priority of their faith, but many of us do not choose to have God’s Word filtered through another man.
The best way to compare apples is to bite into them, so let’s bite into each by comparing verses.
If we look at Proverbs 20:1 both versions state that wine is a scoffer but the Art Scroll says “strong drink makes one cry our” whereas the JPS says “strong drink makes a roisterer”. By the way the word “roisterer” means loudmouth, carouser or boaster. So, who is right, the Art Scroll or the JPS? This is why, you should always have access to a lexicon. When we look at the lexicon we see the phrase in question drawn from this one word “hō·meh”, which means either brawler, rage or making noise. At this point you decide who is correct and ask yourself why add all that extra information when the word brawler would not only fit but be more accurate. Sadly, many Christian bibles do a better job of interpreting this verse.
Now let us go into one that is more extreme. At the beginning of verse 16 Malachi 2 it says;
“For I detest divorce – said the Lord…. (JPS)
“For he who hates (his wife) should divorce (her), says HASHEM… (Artscroll)
Wow, two opposite messages out of the same verse, kind of scary. If we look at the verse prior (Malachi 2:15) it tells us to not betray the wife of our youth. So, if we are to put this in context the JPS would be right. Yes, on the surface I would rather have a literal word by word interpretation like the Artscroll but sometimes a bible that has a more phrase by phrase interpretation like the JPS can be more accurate. From the perspective of those that have left Christianity, the Artscroll would be likened to the KJB, wheras the JPS is comparable to the NLT.
Now, to offer up a third solution, we have Everett Fox’s “The Five Books of Moses” and The Early Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Although this is not the entire Tanakh, it is a good start. Everett Foxe’s books are very popular among bible scholars because of the unbiased literal approach towards the original Hebrew. Also, his books have been endorsed by Robert Alter2. You might say to yourself “who is Robert Alter?”. He was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish for his book “Art of Biblical Narrative”. Also as an accomplished author, with degrees from Harvard and Yale, he has written twenty-three books, and served as a scholar for the Library of Congress. Mr. Alter supports Dr. Foxe’s use of the Hebrew, but also criticizes Fox being so loyal to the Hebrew, that the English suffers3. For those of us trying to find the most literal interpretation, this is not a bad criticism. This 55-minute interview will give you a better understanding of how Dr. Fox interprets God’s Holy Word.
When our group does a Torah Portion or a deep study we read out of several Tanakhs. Often you will find different versions of the Tanakh in contention with each other, so what is the tie breaker? Actual two things; context and a lexicon. As we did with Malachi 2:16, we read the verse before it to get the true meaning. Sometimes we will need to read the whole chapter to get the right perspective, sometimes more. The lexicon is also a valuable tool. Take the verse apart word by word and using the lexicon to get the true meaning will settle most arguments. Here are some popular links the will help you to interpreted His word:
“The Torah was purposefully written in a cryptic style so as to engage the mind in this most prized activity of analysis, induction, deduction and thought – our true purpose whose rewards are unmatched, both here, and in the next world.” – Moshe Ben-Chaim
- Paul Sumner; Rev. 02-10-2011; 7-3-11; 10-01-12; 04-05-14. “Hebrew Streams: Recommended Translations.” Hebrew Streams: Recommended Translations. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
- “Robert Alter”. Washington University in St. Louis. Archived from the original on 4 July 2008.
- Steinberg, Avi. “Tinkering With the Word of God.” The New Yorker. N.p., 18 May 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.