A New Tanakh for Klal Yisrael

Presentation de la Loi, Edouard Moyse (1860)

A New Tanakh for Klal Yisrael

The Koren Tanakh: the Magerman Edition, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2021, Pp. 2033, $59.95. KJV Topaz Reference Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2022, Pp. 1534, $325.00, reviewed by Darrell Sutton   

Ancient texts serve several purposes. Those that read them may find them intriguing, distasteful, boring, or even irrelevant. Whether or not they are esteemed and preserved depends on how successive generations view their value, the worth of which is determined by their origins and interpretations. There is a substantial amount of religious literature extant today. Ample time is devoted to it by academics who investigate everything from old Tibetan works, oral African cults, Hindu legends, Greek and Latin prose and poetry and ancient near eastern tablets whose cuneiform script is notoriously difficult to grasp.

There are texts that have been passed down successively through the ages. The Tanakh (Torah, Nev’iim, Ketuvim), Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is one of them. In the eyes of Jewish partisans, the consonantal text was inviolate. Originally composed without vowels, accents, or breaks between letters, the Hebrew texts came to be conserved through the strenuous labors of Soferim and Masoretes (copyists) who standardized the texts. They counted letters and words and sometimes inserted ‘correct readings’ in the margins. These marginalia, often made on Hebrew MSS, were concerned with notes on forms or phrases that now are referred to as the Masorah. Many comments are details touching on grammatical issues.

The Masorah has been a reference source for hundreds of years. Continually in use among Jews, various groups have placed their confidence in a wide range of Hebrew MSS since the 15th century, and still strictly observe their tradition’s readings today. As stated in the section entitled ‘About This Edition’, for a long time Christians produced the scriptures that many Jews utilized in their devotions and in the writing of their commentaries (p.xvii). Christian scholarship was not deficient, but the Koren publishers’ objective was to produce a Bible that was not a product of ‘gentiles’, i.e., non-Jewish persons. They succeeded. This edition was the first one produced principally by Jews since the 1500s.

Eliyahu Koren (1907-2001), and likeminded persons, sought to honor an ancient text:  כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר ה’ מִירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם, “For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). The Koren Tanakh (KT) realizes that purpose. It is a handy tool. Based on the work of Wolf Heidenheim’s (1757-1832) Minat Shai and the Leningrad codex, in a beautiful Hebrew font and first issued first in 1962, it takes readers from mankind’s creation in Genesis to Israel’s captivity in Babylon at the end of II Chronicles. Qumran scrolls were not consulted, seeing that they were unused by anyone in Late Antiquity and were not a part of any medieval Jewish tradition.

This book is a noteworthy production although not a critical work, so the authenticity of all that it communicates must be taken on trust. Nevertheless, it contains views on Middle Eastern history still held by millions of Jews and Christians today. Two letters of Approbation (Haskama) by noted rabbis are supplied; but initially they were composed for the first edition of the Koren Bible. And not every adherent to Judaism will be pleased to see the concession made in the use of gender-neutral English terms for gender specific Hebrew words (e.g. see Deut. 4:25). Doubtless it is an interpretative issue, but one that still rankles. KT is user-friendly. Select readings from the Prophets (Haftarot) are provided ‘with variations for Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites and Minhag Anglia’ (p.xxixf.).

The outer margins of the pages are rather wide, and they mark and number the divisions of the Hebrew text according the traditional Jewish sedarim. This step was important. Each page now reflects a form of tradition otherwise ignored in times past. Inner margins contain chapter and verse numbers that do not run into the gutter. It is stated that every ‘page is printed in the style of a sefer Torah’ (p.xviii). That statement slightly misleads. The KT lacks all the commentary usually found on a standard page of Gemara (rabbinical comments on the Mishnah). But the Hebrew text likewise is  presented suitably but is not a text that Yeshiva or Kollel students (bocherim) will be able to employ so long as an English translation is appended; even so, the text will find acceptance among more progressive ellements of European Jewry, of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish community as a whole) and beyond.

KT will doubtless be used for research and for personal devotions. Religious traditions differ in every sect. Indeed, because of its insistence on purity and sacrifice, Jewish children often begin learning the Tanakh with Leviticus. One midrash (Jewish interpretation), Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, states that ‘children are pure, so let them study laws of purity’. Not everyone will agree with the latter assertion or with the expressed intention connected with it: neither will all agree with that telling scheme of instruction nor its wished-for results. All the same, in KT, the translated matter for Leviticus does not fail to educate readers.

The English translation of KT is accurate when it is not tilting toward paraphrase, and it draws somewhat on the Authorized Version of 1611. For Psalm 120, these words are printed (in the KT, verse numbers appear to the left of each line),

A song of ascents. I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.Lord save me from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.” What will be done to you, and what will you gain, O deceitful tongue? – only a warrior’s sharp arrow’s and hot broomwood coals. Woe to me that I dwell in Meshekh, that I live among the tents of Kedar. I have lived too long among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but whenever I speak of it, they are for war.

In this rendering, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) wisely relied on select verbiage in the King James Bible and used that version judiciously. Further explanatory help is given in the footnotes in this edition. Following the above description ‘A song of ascents’, fn.135 declares

The next fifteen psalms carry the same superscription. “Ascents” perhaps denotes a musical instruction, a literary structure, or the physical ascents to the Temple or from exile.

It is satisfying to see that they were open-minded when there was no need to be dogmatic in interpretative matters.

Renditions in the KT reflect astute decisions. Yet there are flaws. At Exodus 5:1 one reads:

After this, Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh; they said, “Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Send My people forth so that they may hold a festival for Me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord that I should obey Him and send Israel forth? I do not know the Lord, and I will not send Israel forth.” “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us,” they said. “Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God, or He may strike us with the plague or with the sword.” The King of Egypt said to them, “Why, Moshe and Aharon, would you take the people from their work? Get back to your labor! Look,” said Pharaoh, [sic]”.

The punctuation for the English is sometimes baffling. In numerous places the literary editors failed to see where revision was needed. All the renderings do not clarify and are not true manifestations of the underlying Hebrew. At I Sam 4:14, Dr Binyamin Goldstein translates it as

when Eli heard the sound of screaming, he asked, “what is that cacophony?” and the man ran over and broke the news to Eli. [italics mine]

It is hard to imagine that a question worded in this way would be employed among modern speakers of English idiom, much less among ancient Hebrews. ‘Cacophony’ (a bad sound, i.e. like nails clawing an old black board) does not convey the intensity or disturbing nature of the sound. The context refers to more than the tone and pitch of human voices. The loss of the ark of the covenant unnerved the city. It was a frantic moment- hence the Hebrew wording; but there were more than disagreeable sounds heard among the people. It was an undivided  noise of fear, a chaotic tumult or uproar. At Ezekiel 22:3 one reads,

Say: So says the Lord God: City that spills blood in her own midst….

This sentence is infelicitous. Regarding the Hebrew term for ‘city’, the word עִיר stands in the text. It is indefinite in this line. So why not write ‘ A city that…’. Or preface it with an interjection, ‘O city…’. Indeed ‘oh, city that…’ would not be inapt. In previous sentences reference had been made to ‘the bloody city’. Essentially the same train of thought continues. Further cavils are unnecessary.

In truth, KT’s translation would make a good topic of discussion within translation-studies if the instructor is a clear-headed thinker and able to compare versions. Hebrew personal names are transliterated in English; and although the English does not reflect it, Hebrew texts of the two songs of Moses (pp.163;493), and Deborah’s (p.585), are displayed lyrically, just as they are in the excellent Jerusalem Crown Hebrew Bible (2001), which was founded on The Aleppo Codex, and like the KT, was also printed in Jerusalem. But in KT the Psalms are not fortunate enough to receive such poetic display. In this regard, but in comparison with the Jerusalem Crown Hebrew Bible, KT’s renditions of Psalms is less attractive.

As for reference material, there are more than 30 pages at the volume’s end. Most important are the Textual Variants on pages 2000-2004. Maps are included. Several pictographic timetables, with outlines of content, are inserted at the beginning of each Hebrew book.

Rabbis and pastors, seminarians and university students who can read Hebrew should acquire KT. Obviously a great deal of planning and thought went into the composition of this volume. Eliyahu Koren, a creative typographer, pioneered this decades-long project. It is a stand-out artistic achievement. His name will be remembered for generations to come. The hardcover edition looks impressive, bound between two stiff boards in navy blue and maroon, with Hebrew, the script and the titles embossed in silver.

Pastor Darrell Sutton is a classicist and biblical scholar

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11 Responses to A New Tanakh for Klal Yisrael

  1. David ASHTON says:

    How is Daniel 9.25 translated and puncuated, Dr Sutton?

    • Darrell Sutton says:

      It reads
      ‘You must know and be aware of this: from the utterance of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until there is an anointed leader will be seven cycles of seven years, and during sixty-two cycles of seven years it will be rebuilt with a plaza and a moat, albeit in times of distress.’

  2. David ASHTON says:

    Thank you. As you know, there has been a dispute between Jews and Christians over how this verse and its context should be interpreted and “punctuated” in translation. The passage considered by some as a date-lined prediction of the arrival of Jesus as Christ, who will be “cut off” (i.e. executed). Some modern(ist) versions tend to weaken the impact. Sir Robert Anderson made one of several famous calculations, but I have found the Jehovah’s Witness Bible commentary, of all attempts, most convincing. The book of Daniel plays a signficant part in NT origins and Luke’s gospel gives clues to the chronology required.

  3. Brian S. Rockford says:

    This exchange led me to discover that there is a controversy over the passage in Daniel as a precise timeline prediction of the arrival and fate of Jesus Christ. I was not exactly enlightened by the vast mass of sceptical material on the “Seventy Sevens” prophecy on Wikipedia.
    Can any readers help me out here? It seems extraordinary.

  4. N. J. Casper says:

    Regarding this controversial passage in the book of Daniel, verses 9.24-26, the presumed author reflecting on Jeremiah realised that his predicted 70 years of Babylonian captivity had almost expired. God then told him that in future there would be an additional 70 sevens for his people and their holy city= Jerusalm, to achieve an end to “transgression” and sin, atone for them, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, seal up prophecies, and anoint the holy place; this would fit the Christian view of Golgotha and Pentecost.
    The Hebrews were accustomed to reckoning many periods of time in “sevens” = years. But these 70 sevens were segmented into three: (1) the rebuilding of the holy city, consummated 49 years after the rebuilding decree was announced; (2) the 62 added 7s bring us to the arrival of the Prince = Messiah; and (3) the remaining 7 concludes the full 70 sevens. While (1) and (2) making up the first 7 x 62 =69 seem continuous, Daniel 9.26 describes a gap in which Messiah = Christ would be “cut off” = killed, and the city would be destroyed (by the Romans, some four decades afterwards?), the final seven in the seventy not in sequence with the other sixty-nine.
    The “word” to restore Jerusalem could be (a) the decree Cyrus (= Darius the Mede?) issued in 538/7 BCE (Ezra 7.11-26); (b) the announcement by Artaxerxes in 458 BCE ; or (c) the proclamation by Artaxerxes in 445 BCE when Nehemiah returned to rebuild the walls themselves.
    Starting from 445 BCE, the terminus ad quem usually fits the lifetime of Christ. Taking the year as prophetic 360 days instead of solar 365+ we get 69 x 7 = 483 years from 445 to 30-33 AD, the ministry of Jesus.
    Couldn’t be clearer, could it?

    • Brian S. Rockford says:

      The trouble is that there are plausible secular alternatives to this passage, which are regarded as retrospective albeit not historically realistic inventions of the writer, and schematic numerically.
      The first division of the 70 heptads apparently refers to the 7×7 years between the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC [cf. Jeremiah 30 & 31] and the return of the high priest Joshua [=”Jesus”] in 538 BC [cf.Ezra 3.2, Zechariah 3.1].
      The second period lasts 62 “weeks” = 434 years, probably when the anointed high priest Onias III w as killed in 171 [?] BC. The chronology was vague because traditional.
      The third lasts for “one week” = 7 years, when a “prince” comes to destroy the city and sanctuary, and make a convenant with many people. This most likely refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes whose pagan troops plundered Jerusalem, and who enlisted the support of apostate Jews, desecrated the Temple by setting an image of Zeus (= Baal Shamen) on its “wing”, and thereby ending its sacrifices.

  5. Sandra Cooke says:

    This is certainly a fascinating question, especially for those who (still) believe the 80 KJV books are the inspired and inerrant Word of God. Some attempts have been made by “conservatives” to combine Mr Rockford’s “Maccabean” with Mr Casper’s “Messianic” views; e.g. Prof. Pietru Saydon in the original “Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture” (1953), and Dr Joyce Baldwin in the evangelical “Daniel” (1978) whose added Seventy Sevens “clarification” reads more like mud than crystal.
    Much depends on the shifting goalposts at each end of the chronology chosen. We can be reasonably certain about the pagan sackings of Jerusalem in BC 175 and AD 70. What the Talmud called the pre-Passover “hanging of Yeshua for leading Israel astray”, according to NT and other data, would have occurred on AD 33 (marginally more likely than the only serious alternative of AD 30).
    So what happens if you count back 70×7 = 490 and get BC 457? Try “The 70 Weeks and 457 B.C.” @ adventistbiblicalresearch.org online.

  6. N. J. Casper says:

    I have discovered three readable books presenting “Daniel” as a set of genuine divine prophecies albeit with minor variations in the precise chronology of 9.24-27 regarding the Crucifixion; see also the online Seed of Abraham Ministries about this.
    (1) Sir Robert Anderson, “The Coming Prince, 10th edition,” Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984. This erudite controversial investigator of Jack the Ripper ably presented a traditional case against the hardly less erudite Dean Farrar, (who seems to have pionerred the now dominant “Onias alternative” in late Victorian times) but put the Jerusalem welcome of the Messiah in Matthew 21.9 at 32 AD.
    (2) Dr Robert Gurney, “God in Control,” H. E. Walter: Worthing, 1980. This was revised in 2006, though solely online (at a Biblical Studies website that prefers 33 to 3o for the crucifixion).
    (3) W. Edmund Filmer, “Daniel’s Predictions,” London/NY: Regency Press, 1978, with a 37-volume bibliography. Though the author supports British Israel, these fantasies do not impact on this key issue.

  7. David ASHTON says:

    I had hoped that Darrell Sutton himself might contribute to this subject which I provoked.
    After all, modern translations effectively tend to damp down possible Christological inferences; see e.g. William Shea, “Poetic Relations of the Time Period….” (1980) online. Also: David Hemstra, “The Seventy Weeks Prophecy” (2018), citing Roger Beckwith (1981), online.
    Readers with sufficient curiosity and grim determination should plough through the Wikipedia entry, downloading were possible sources cited, especially Paul Tanner (2009), Richard Hess (2011) & Jaques Doukhan (1979).
    To be sure, in general Bible commentaries, a prediction of Jesus is “now abandoned by almost all exegetes” (Jerome [1969]) while some have left it “obscure” (Peake’s [1962]). Exceptions: a timeline convergence between the JW dictionary “Insight on the Scriptures” (except, of course, that along with other unorthodoxies they believe Jesus was impaled on a stake not a cross) fully available on line, and the equally lucid handbook by Harold Hoehner, “Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ” (1975).
    The supposedly enigmatic and ” mistranslated” expression “have nothing” (Daniel 9.26b) probably explains Mark 9.12 where Jesus says the Son of Man (=Messiah=Himself?) will be “set at nought”. It would indeed be something if a passage in the OT could be decoded with precise certainty as a prophecy of events in the future. But of course Christian “liberals” and anti-Christian “mythicists” will always claim that any such NT correspondences are faked retrospetively to fit; e.g. Robert Price, “The Christ Myth Theory & Its Problems” (2011).

  8. Darrell Sutton says:

    Interpretations vary for Daniel 9:24-27. I will not offer any. As for statements in the passages, however, several indisputable facts remain. The verses are predictive. Whether or not one believes statements of vv.25-26 directly refer to Jesus does not alter the fact that vv.25-27 refer to two important figures who will come on the scene, whose existence will trigger events of import. The author obviously was well read in ancient narrative-history (or had access to an extensive oral tradition), knowing about Jeremiah’s foretelling of the 70-year captivity, of Nehemiah’s burden and vision to rebuild, of Cyrus’ decree and of Israel’s efforts in rebuilding the wall: all of which undoubtedly happened.
    Some scholars believe Daniel was written much later than the times of the events recorded; but the assertion is of little relevance and does not undermine the veracity of the chain of events noted down in vv.24-27. No credible scholar believes the book contains shoddy historical material or was written in the post-Maccabean era. Other important facts are these: in the first century text of “Matthew”, Jesus did not distrust the authorship of Daniel, nor did he believe Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” had come to pass during his time of life (Mat. 24:15). In fact he believed that specific prediction of the abomination would be visible when it came to pass: “When ye shall see… .” If all these literary texts are presumed to be falsely attributed then it is only because modern assumptions are be taken to be entirely true.
    As for secularist views on this matter, people who are inwardly hostile to the nature of some predictive texts in the Old Testament usually are so because they deny the possibility of a supernatural imposition of divine power in earthly realms. That perspective misses the whole point, for Daniel’s allusions to other ancient Hebrew texts do not misrepresent HIS belief in divine superintendence of those events to which he alludes. Moreover, the source-texts as they stand in Hebrew are secure. There are no textual problems with Daniel 9:24-27; even still there are multiple explanations of meaning extant.

  9. David ASHTON says:

    Thank you, Darrell, for this courteous and sensible comment.
    I had supposed that different definitions of “year” lead independently from Daniel 9 to Jesus whether crucified in AD 30 (Robert Anderson, Ferdinand Prat), or 33 (George Ogg, H.W.Hoehner) more likely because of a partial eclipse and the Sejanus issue, until I read the recent critique of both by Derek Walker of the Oxford Bible Church.
    I’m beginning to lose the will to sieve.

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