The Messianic Writings
translated and annotated by Daniel Gruber
Elijah Publishing, 2011; 411 pp.
Two thousand years ago, a Jewish teacher named Yeshua ben Yosef appeared in the hills of Galilee and shared his simple, heartfelt, brilliant interpretation of Torah with the many crowds of Jews and some others who flocked to hear him. He quickly gained a reputation as a great prophet and healer, and many believed him to be the promised Messiah -- the deliverer of Israel. In subsequent decades, Yeshua's followers wrote accounts of his words and deeds, as well as their own letters and visions. These texts have come down to us in a Jewish-Greek hybrid language heavily influenced by Hebrew (similar to Yiddish or Ladino). Such a dialect had been employed a couple centuries earlier in producing the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Hebrew Scripture, which at the time of Yeshua was widely used by Greek-speaking Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world.
The Messianic Writings as translated and annotated by Daniel Gruber represent, to my knowledge, the first attempt to render the texts about Yeshua (Jesus) into English from Jewish-Greek. Common translations erroneously operate as if these writings were originally written in a Christian, rather than a Jewish, idiom. However, an enormous and continually growing body of scholarship demonstrates that this was certainly not the case. Anyone familiar with the works of David Flusser, James Charlesworth, Daniel Boyarin, David Bivin, Oskar Skarsaune, or other leading researchers in the field will immediately recognize the validity and importance of translating from a first-century Jewish context instead of anachronistically and inappropriately from a Gentile Christian one. Today such an approach is widely accepted, at least in theory -- much more so than a century ago when Yosef Klausner began to urge studying Yeshua in his first-century Jewish context. Nonetheless, until now no one had actually made an English translation from the correct language or dialect: Hebraic or Judeo-Greek.
The print version of this book consists essentially of four parts: an introduction; the translation itself; notes attached to the translation; and additional notes or brief essays on specific questions of interpretation, usually related to enigmatic passages.
In his introduction, Gruber explains that the LXX "is an indispensable bridge for understanding the ways in which words are used in the Messianic Writings" (5). He describes his approach to translation in general and to the various manuscripts and textual compilations. He argues that Christian "New Testaments" often distort the original meaning of the texts due to theological bias and misinterpretation. Such errors in interpretation and translation -- such as the infamous "synagogue of Satan" rendering in Revelation -- have often fed into anti-Jewish sentiment and persecution throughout history, including "violent, tragic events" (7). Though no translation is perfect, this one at least has the advantage of starting from a historically defensible perspective on the original language and context.
The Greek word christos meant "smeared with oil." Jewish-Greek authors such as the LXX translators employed it as the equivalent for Hebrew mashiakh, "anointed, Messiah." The Messianic Writings translation therefore renders christos as "Messiah," since that is the most accurate English equivalent today for what was meant. Recognizing what Jean Carmignac called the obvious "Semitic substructure" of the text, Gruber correctly perceives diatheke as standing for Hebrew brit, "covenant," and thus avoids much confusion introduced by Christian use of the word "testament." Simply translating this word and related notions correctly shows Heb. 9:15-18 to be clear, straightforward, and consistent with its context, whereas most other translations make it appear incomprehensible and fallacious. Ekklesia is not translated as "church," nor sunagoge as "synagogue," because that is not what the terms meant in their first-century historical setting. Other expressions concerning government, law, faith, prophecy, and daily life are also rendered in a more contextually appropriate manner, often leading to eye-opening reinterpretations. These are but some of the more obvious examples of difference from common translations. No reader is likely to agree with every one of Gruber's choices, but that is to be expected when dealing with complex ancient writings. One subtle but highly commendable inclusion is the differentiation between singular and plural "you," an important distinction usually ignored in modern English versions.
The accompanying notes contain some brief explanatory comments and excerpts from related material in Qumranic, rabbinic, and other sources. This usually helps to frame the text in an ancient Jewish context and to reveal "conversations" that were ongoing at the time, even though much of the material does date from a later period. For example, the notes to Mt. 5:13 and Luke 14:34-35 ("if the salt becomes flat and tasteless, with what will it be seasoned?") point to a Talmudic tractate that asks the very same hypothetical or rhetorical question (16, 123). The note to Acts 15:29 (an explanation of what commandments Gentiles should keep) refers to a Talmudic discussion of the seven "Noahide laws" considered applicable to all humans, not only Jews (203). This reader finds the notes extremely helpful and hopes that they will continue to be developed in future editions. In particular, the roughly contemporaneous Qumran library (Dead Sea Scrolls) has much to offer in this respect. Both DSS 4QFlor and Philo Judaeus mention the idea of miqdash adam, a temple for God's presence constructed of human beings rather than of stones; it would be useful to have such references when reading 1Cor. 3:16-19, 2Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:20-22, or Rev. 3:12 -- all of which describe the same or a very similar notion. There is almost no end to the number of useful notes that could be compiled and that would help to modify widespread but mistaken understandings of numerous passages.
The additional notes or essays at the back of the book address such topics as: other ancient Jewish sources that speak of the Messiah dying; textual rebuttal of allegations that Yeshua opposed or abrogated Torah's dietary guidelines; and whether long hair was considered desirable for men in the ancient world. The note on "The Seat of Moses" presents a powerful and convincing resolution of a difficult passage in Mt. 23. These notes also help to explain further the translation approach and choices. Some people are likely to disagree on religious (theological) grounds. However, if one's interest lies first of all in understanding the texts themselves as accurately as possible, then such considerations are both irrelevant and prejudicial. The Messianic Writings do not seek to cater to any particular religious standpoint, but rather to remain faithful to the records of the past as they were written at the time. This endeavor should please all honest seekers of truth -- whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, or other.
In sum, it is hard to overestimate the importance of this groundbreaking attempt at a translation from Jewish-Greek into English. Translations that fully recognize the Hebraic dimensions of the writings in question have previously appeared in Hebrew (e.g., Yitskhak Zalkinson) and French (André Chouraqui). Yet the vast majority of existent versions in all modern languages do not translate from the original language or context. As the back cover of The Messianic Writings notes, "This initial translation is not perfect, and will always stand in need of improvement, but it is faithful to the text and its context." That fundamental reorientation -- accepting the text in its own historical setting, rather than through the prism of later theologies and biases -- makes a world of difference. This translation opens up vast areas for future discoveries and refinements. It is a new starting point for all those who are willing to encounter profound and revelatory Jewish faith of the first century on its own terms.
The Messianic Writings are available in the following formats:
Print -- messianicwritings.com
Kindle -- amazon.com
Nook -- barnesandnoble.com
iPod/iPhone/iPad -- iTunes, iBookstore