“They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue, it is so rude. It is not so rude as they are false liars. . . . The properties of the Hebrew tongue agree a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin.”
—William Tyndale, Preface to The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528)
With these words, the Protestant scholar William Tyndale signaled the start of a special relationship between the Hebrew and English languages. His 1530 rendering of the Pentateuch, the first-ever English translation from the Hebrew, would provide the fabric for the 1611 King James Bible and inject a Hebraic quality into the syntax and phraseology of English literary and religious usage without parallel in any European culture.
In the 50 years before Tyndale, 22 Bible translations had appeared in European vernaculars. (England lagged behind because its bishops forbade alternatives to the Church-approved Latin translation known as the Vulgate.) The Continental translators, all associated with the Protestant Reformation, strove to capture the sense of the original Hebrew and Greek. Their German or French versions were not meant to sound Hebraic, but rather to render the meaning of the text as closely as possible in idiomatic French or German. Tyndale, however, who was well aware of these Continental efforts, strove for more.
Take, for instance, his rendition of Genesis 1:4, vayyar elohim et ha’or ki tov: “And God sawe the lyghte that it was good.” Here, Tyndale’s translation was patently not in agreement with idiomatic English, whether that of the 16th century or that of the 21st. Rather, it shadowed the syntax of the Hebrew. Instead of placing the word that (his rendering of the often ambiguous Hebrew ki) in front of the words “the light,” to accord with English syntax (“God saw that the light was good”), he left it where the text had it. And even the Hebrew construction is an uncommon, suggestive one; behind the literal sense, “God saw that the light was good,” are echoes of another biblical adage, “He [God] is good.” In the best spirit of 16th-century humanism, Tyndale wished his readers to puzzle over the original and to sense that it presented no single, self-evident meaning.
Tyndale could also convey biblical prosody. Take Genesis 3:15, where God, after Adam and Eve have eaten of the forbidden fruit, tells the serpent that there will be eternal hatred between his descendants and humankind. Here the text engages in characteristic wordplay, taking advantage of the similarity between the words nashaf (bite) and shaf (strike or tread):
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he will strike (shaf) you on the head, and you will bite (nashaf) him on the heel.
Martin Luther, in his highly influential German Bible, translates similarly to what I have done here; rendering nashaf as beissen (bite). But Tyndale was determined to capture the resonances of the Hebrew: “and that seed shall tread thee on the head, and thou shalt tread it on the heel.”
In his wish to forge a Hebraic consciousness, Tyndale was unlike so many recent translators who have tried to make readers forget they are reading a translation. The result in his case was an English that was at times even more “crude” than Renaissance English was generally considered to be. But Tyndale was not willing to sell his English birthright for a mess of Roman rhetoric.
Tyndale lived to complete only two-thirds of his Bible translation. The English regime, for unrelated reasons, hunted him down in Belgium, where in 1536, still in his forties, he was strangled at the stake. A letter in Latin to the prison governor survives, pleading for a lamp, “for it is tiresome to sit alone in the dark, but above all . . . [for] the use of my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew lexicon . . . that I might spend my time with that study.”
The King James Bible (1611), and the flood of other English Bible translations that fed into it, carried Tyndale’s notion of a Hebraic English scripture farther still. Take these verses from Exodus, which had sounded both maddeningly simple and altogether disjointed to men trained in the style of Cicero:
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And Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)
With the frequent use of the humble word and, King James’s 50 translators, almost all of them Oxford and Cambridge humanists accomplished in Hebrew, Greek, and other disciplines, felt they had captured the biblical style and structure better even than Tyndale. And rather than shunning repetition—a basic tool of Hebrew style—they embraced it:
This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. (Genesis 2:23)
They also aimed for consistency, trying as far as possible to reproduce the sparse biblical lexicon rather than rendering words differently according to their different contexts. Thus, every lev was rendered “heart” and every nefesh “soul.” They were able by this means to recreate biblical imagery in such passages as “and in the hearts of all that are wise-hearted I have put wisdom” (Exodus 31:5). Their passion for literalness was also unconstrained by tastefulness. Whereas the New English Bible (1970) speaks of killing “every mother’s son,” King James renders, more faithfully, “him that pisseth against the wall” (1 Samuel 25:22).
“As I finde in the Hebrew,” wrote Edward Lively of Cambridge, a leading contributor to the King James Version, “so I have Englished, that is, the truthe of interpretation, be it understood as it may.”
This massive Hebraic project occurred without any direct Jewish involvement. England, after all, had been judenrein since the late 13th century. Nonetheless, the King James humanists appreciated Jews, especially the baptized Hebrew tutors they imported from Europe. Edward Lively was lyrical about rabbinic Bible scholarship:
[Rabbinic scholars] alwaies preserved . . . the knowledge of the Hebrew tongue among them by the benefit of art and learning . . . and therefore the Hebrew text they placed faire in the midst like a Queene with the translations about it as it were handmaids attending on her.
Through the stylistic tradition that links the King James Bible, John Donne’s seminal sermons, the Book of Common Prayer (1662), the English choral scores of the baroque composers Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel, all the way to the Revised Standard Version (1952), some of the most canonical English literature and oratory that we commonly read today has been imbued with a Hebraic quality that rivals the syntactic complexities of the Latinate style of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. American instances range from the rhymeless rhythms of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Emily Dickinson’s hymn forms to the three-part structures in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”
The biblical influence on Britain and America wasn’t limited to language; it wasn’t even limited to the Bible. In England, Hebraic thought would become part of the country’s political fabric. The history of 17th-century England is above all the story of a struggle for religious and political liberties. Modern histories often portray this struggle as one of secularism-versus-religion. But in fact, as the historian Eric Nelson has shown, much of the debate was anchored in the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic interpreters.
In the midst of an extended social and political crisis, English jurists and political theorists turned to Judaism and the Hebrew Bible as a source of wisdom. This new fascination led to such works as Uxor Ebraica (“The Jewish Wife,” 1646), on the theory and practice of Jewish marriage and divorce law, and—shortly after the execution of Charles I—De synedriis et praefecturis juridicis veterum Ebraeorum (1650-1655), on the ancient rabbinic supreme court and its authority to control the ruler.
The author of these works was John Selden (1584-1654), hailed by the poet-philosopher John Milton as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land.” The first talmudist in England since the expulsion of the Jews in 1290—and, more surprisingly, a philo-Semite—Selden both recognized the humaneness of Jewish marital law and found in Deuteronomy and the Talmud a model for the proper relationship between the judicial and executive branches of government. Selden and his circle represented the high-water mark of humanist Hebrew-Aramaic erudition. Among its beneficiaries were the poet and playwright Ben Jonson and Milton himself, as well as the political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
But in England (as across Europe) the ideal of a trilingual humanist culture in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew rapidly waned. A major factor was the educational system: until the late 19th century, the curricula of elite schools and colleges revolved around Latin alone (plus Greek for advanced students). There were also religious prejudices and distaste for an alien Semitic tongue. Hebrew studies rapidly retreated to the religious seminary and the ivory tower.
In the unique circumstances of Puritan New England, however, the English Protestant spirit lived on. There, Hebrew entered the Christian public domain in an unprecedented way. The settlers who built New England saw themselves as latter-day Israelites brought by Providence to a second promised land, where the “new heaven and new earth” foretold by the prophets would unfold. In this drama, the Hebrew scripture took center stage and with it, the Hebrew language.
The Hebrew of the Bible supplied the colonists with many of their personal and place names: Ezra, Nathanael, and Abigail, Goshen and Salem. Names of Christian saints were a rarity. The Hebrew Bible itself was unceasingly studied; New England meetinghouses, like synagogues of old, were houses of study.
The first book printed in the New World embodied the powerful symbolism of American Hebraism: this was the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the Massachusetts Bay colonists’ own translation of the book of Psalms, directly from the Hebrew. That work was briefly surpassed in popularity by the edition of Henry Ainsworth, who “had not his better for the Hebrew tongue in the universitie [of Leiden] nor scarce in Europa” (in the words of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony).
Ainsworth’s glosses sought to bring the nuances of the Hebrew directly to the masses. One psalm, for instance, uses four terms for lions:
Lions of sundry-kinds have sundry-names. . . . Laby, that is Harty and couragious. Kphir, this lurking, couchant. . . . Shakhal, of ramping, fierce nature; and Lajith of subduing his prey.
In New England public schools and meetinghouses, a reading knowledge of biblical Hebrew was for a time widely imparted—the only such attempt in the history of Christianity. Although familiarity with Hebrew never became widespread among ordinary people, it was quite common among the intelligentsia and the better-trained of the clergy. At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the seven other colleges created to train these educated ministers and God-fearing gentlemen, all students had to devote substantial time (not always willingly) to Hebrew—a distinction reserved in Europe for Latin. They were also encouraged, in a practice borrowed from the teaching of Latin and Greek, to produce Hebrew compositions and orations. Harvard theses regularly addressed such issues as “Aleph with the function of a point has the sound of all vowels.”
Harvard’s first two presidents were Hebrew scholars, as were the first president of King’s College (later Columbia) and Ezra Stiles, the first president of Yale. A world-renowned intellectual, Stiles was the leading American Hebraist of the era, and also a prominent supporter of the American Revolution. This epitomizes the fact that the study of Hebrew marched hand in hand with the Enlightenment principles of the American founding—a tradition going back to Milton and Selden.
Like Selden, Ezra Stiles was a philo-Semite, even if he still hoped for the conversion of the Jews. But unlike his intellectual forebears, he counted Jews among his personal friends. He learned much about Hebrew and Judaism from his friend Rabbi Ḥayyim Carigal. In an elegant Hebrew letter to Carigal describing the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, Stiles beseeched him for a reply in Hebrew—and mentioned that his son, another Ezra, was taking Hebrew at the University of Connecticut.
Of altogether loftier significance, at least for some, were the native Indians. Could they be the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel? Were their languages descended from Hebrew? Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782-1783 and later a member of Thomas Jefferson’s administration, certainly believed so. Persuaded by the linguistic and cultural evidence of James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775) that the Indians were indeed Jews, Boudinot in his Star in the West assigned them a central role in the millennium, which he believed imminent. They would, he predicted, return to the land of Israel with all other Jews. Jefferson and Adams thought otherwise. Little more was heard of the Jewish-Indian theory until the Book of Mormon introduced its own version.
Even as revolution stirred in the colonies, school curricula were becoming noticeably more secular. After the defeat of the British “Pharaoh,” millenarianism faded, and so did the Puritan vision of a new Canaan. By 1800, the Harvards and Yales were no longer turning out men of the cloth but graduates in the arts and sciences. And even as the biblical heritage continued to influence American rhetoric, the Hebrew language itself would henceforth have little place in the American public domain.
This essay is adapted with permission from the just-published book, The Story of Hebrew, by Lewis Glinert. Copyright © 2017 by Princeton University Press. Cosponsored by the Tikvah Fund.