Jews on Mission to Censor Bible

Leading a mission to alter Bible phrase that can hurt

Local man finds the portrayal of the Jewish people offensive.

Irvin J. Borowsky said New Testament depictions of Jews surprised him. (LUIS SANCHEZ / Inquirer Staff Photographer)

By David O’Reilly

“So, because Jesus was doing [healings] on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. . . . For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him.”

John 5:16-18 (New International Version)

The Jews.

It is a term that appears 195 times in the New Testament.

And ever since the early Christian era, Jews striving to comprehend their persecution by Crusaders, Cossacks, Nazis or village thugs have lamented their New Testament portrait as Christ-killers.

“After this, Jesus traveled in Galilee, since He did not want to travel in Judea because the Jews were trying to kill Him.” (John 7:1, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

But unlike the millions who have shrugged off – or suffered under – the New Testament image of “the Jews,” Irvin J. Borowsky is on a campaign to rid the Good Book of its dark depiction of his people.

A retired magazine publisher and founder of the Liberty Museum in Old City, Borowsky has for 19 years been urging Bible publishers to find other ways to translate the Greek hoi Ioudaioi – literally, “the Jews.”

The New Testament was written in Greek. Hoi Ioudaioi (pronounced hoy yu-dye-yoy) appears 151 times in John and Acts, often referring to enemies of Jesus.

“The New Testament has led to the murder of one out of two Jews in history, all based on the idea that Jews killed Jesus,” said Borowsky, 76. “But Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jews, and so were all his early followers.”

Borowsky began his campaign in 1982 after finding a Gideon Bible in the dresser of a Chicago hotel room. Leafing through its New Testament, he encountered images of Jews that he said left him “rather shocked.”

Though not a particularly observant Jew, he soon created the American Interfaith Institute, dedicated to “rethinking relationships among Protestants, Catholics and Jews.”

Through books, international symposiums, and a scholarly newsletter, the institute, based at the Liberty Museum, proposes that hoi Ioudaioi be translated not as “the Jews” but with equivalents drawn from the scriptural context, such as “the people” or “the religious leaders” or “some Jews.”

This “functional equivalent” approach conveys the Gospel writers’ intent more accurately than a literal translation, according to Borowsky.

But most New Testament publishers are resistant. They say they have no right to modify the word of God.

“In almost every case, ‘the Jews’ is a pretty logical choice,” says Tim Beals, associate publisher of the Bible group at Zondervan Inc., which publishes the top-selling New International Version.

“The question [of translating hoi Ioudaioi differently] was never on the radar screen” when the International Bible Society’s team of scholars sat down in the early 1960s to begin the New International Version translation, Beals said.

And while Zondervan “respects the goals” of Borowsky, Beals said, the New International Version has been so successful that the International Bible Society has “committed never to change” the translation. Released in 1973, the New International Version now commands about 45 percent of all English-language Bible sales.

The Quest Study Bible, an extensively annotated New International Version published in 1993 by Zondervan and the International Bible Society, tells readers that the Jews killed Jesus.

Its commentary on John 18:28 explains that “the Jews” who deliver Christ to Pilate don’t enter his palace because “the Jews considered Gentile dwellings unclean. … Ironically, while they were trying to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, they were plotting to murder the Son of God.”

Larry Lincoln, a spokesman for the International Bible Society in Colorado Springs, said last week that no translator was available to discuss the Ioudaioi question. “We are aware of the issue,” he said, adding that future International Bible Society publications may address the matter.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible, published last year in association with the Southern Baptist Convention, also uses “the Jews” in most translations of hoi Ioudaioi.

Edwin Blum, general editor of the Holman Bible, said his translation team had “wrestled with whether we could use Judeans instead,” but “that doesn’t solve the problem, because it limits the responsibility” for Jesus’ death to the people of southern Palestine.

The Holman Bible does contain a small-print footnote that reads: “In John, the Jews usually indicates the Jewish authorities who led the nation.”

But in Experiencing the Word, Holman’s annotated New Testament released last month in paperback, margin essays are featured on the 200 most important Greek words in the New Testament; Ioudaioi is not mentioned.

It was a “judgment call” not to include Ioudaioi on the list, Blum said, but he said it might appear in a future edition.

One major publisher that shares Borowsky’s views is the 183-year-old American Bible Society, based in New York. Its 1995 Contemporary English Version, pitched to new English-readers, conspicuously avoids “the Jews” in the problematic passages and substitutes alternative terms based on the context.

For example, John 7:1 (cited above) reads in the Contemporary English Version as “the leaders of the people wanted to kill him” instead of “the Jews.”

“The problem is, modern audiences have virtually no understanding of the context that first-century people took for granted,” said David G. Burke, an American Bible Society scholar.

“[The gospel of] John is really an internal dialogue between two Jewish communities who had survived the destruction of the temple, and were in the process of splitting into early rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement,” Burke said.

The Rev. Gerard Sloyan, final editor of the 1970 New American Bible published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, agreed.

Although the New American Bible typically translates as “the Jews,” Father Sloyan said he had proposed leaving the Greek untranslated.

The publishers rejected his suggestion, he said, “but I thought it was a good idea. It would have forced readers to look up hoi Ioudaioi, to study it and find out what it really means.”

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