Dr. Joseph Schereschewsky

Adapted from a biography published in Aaron Bernstein’s anthology “Some Jewish Witnesses for Christ”. First published in 1909. An edition of 1999 is available from Keren Ahvah Meshihit, P O Box 10382, 91103 Jerusalem.
When David Aikman’s ‘The Beijing Factor’ was published in 2005, it was subtitled “how Christianity is transforming China and changing the global balance of power”. Aikman suggested: “within the next 30 years, one-third of China’s population will be Christian, making China one of the largest Christian nations in the world. These Christians could also be China’s leaders, guiding the largest economy in the world”.

Another recent book, China’s Christian Millions, estimates 80 million Christians in China at the time of its publication in 2002.

At the time of the Communist insurgency of 1949 there were about 120,000 believers in all of China.

Fifty years earlier, a man in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease typed away laboriously, using the two fingers left at his disposal to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Chinese. The man was Dr. Joseph Schereschewsky, a Jewish convert from Russian Lithuania who served from 1859 to 1906 as a missionary to China.

Schereschewsky was born at Tauroggen in 1831 and raised in the Jewish religion. He graduated from the University of Breslau in 1852. After reading a Hebrew translation of the New Testament, he was convinced of the truth of Christianity and travelled to New York to study Greek in the Theological Seminary. He became, after baptism, a member of the American Episcopal Church, was ordained as deacon in St. George’s Church in 1859 and in the following year was advanced to the priesthood in China.

Within two years of his arrival, Schereschewsky completed a translation of the Psalms into the colloquial. This was his first work in translation. In 1863 he moved to Peking and with Bishop Burdon of Hong Kong, translated the Prayer Book into Mandarin. The main part of this work, namely Morning and Evening Prayer, the Collects, and the Psalter, is his. In 1865 a committee of five leading Chinese scholars, Dr. Edkins, Dr. Martin, Dr. Blodgett, Bishop Burdon and Schereschewsky, undertook the translation of the New Testament into Mandarin. More than a century later, this version was still in general use. Schereshewsky alone was responsible for the translation of the Old Testament into Northern Mandarin, a work he began in the autumn of 1865, and finished eight years later.

In 1875, China and Japan became independent Bishoprics of the American Episcopal Church and Bishop Channing Moore Williams was relieved of responsibility for China to serve with greater effort in Japan. Dr. Schereschewsky was elected to fill the vacancy as Bishop of Shanghai. With great modesty and self-distrust he declined the office, but being chosen a second time in 1877, he was persuaded that he should serve.

During 1879, Schereshewsky translated the whole Prayer Book into Wen-li, or classic style. Later that year, he went up the river to Wuchang, and began the translation of the Apocrypha. He had only completed one book when he was smitten down during the intense heat of the summer of 1881, and his physicians ordered his removal to Europe. He left for Geneva, Switzerland in 1882 and resigned his Bishopric in 1883 when it became evident that his treatment would be protracted.

With wonderful perseverance he now devoted his mind, which remained unimpaired, to the work of bringing the Scriptures within the reach of the greater Chinese nation. Fully acquainted with their language in its different forms, and being not only a skilful Sinologist, but one of the most learned Orientalists of the time, using – by the testimony of Professor Max Müller – “a pen as long as he could hold a pen, and then, owing to paralysis, working on a typewriter with the two fingers he could still control,” he translated the Old Testament from the original Hebrew into Wen-li, leaving to a secretary the reduction of the typewritten words into the Chinese character. For twenty years, day after day, first in China, then for a while in Massachusetts, and finally in Japan, he worked under disadvantages that would have put an end to the courage and labours of almost any other man. Not long before his death he completed his greatest work, the translation of the whole Bible, including the Apocrypha, into the Wen-li dialect. He also translated the Gospels into Mongolian and wrote Chinese and Mongolian grammars and dictionaries. He died at Tokyo, on 15 October 1906.

The Rev. Crayden Edmunds wrote of Schereshewsky in the Bible Society’s memoir:

“His early training, whereby he came to know Hebrew better than any other language, especially fitted him to become a translator of the Old Testament. This peculiar fitness was soon recognized by his missionary colleagues, who about 1865 entrusted him with the translation of the Old Testament into Northern Mandarin. He also worked on the Peking Committee as a translator of the New Testament. His version of the Old Testament, first published by the American Bible Society in 1875, has since been repeatedly issued by both the A.B.S and the B.F.B.S. A revised edition appeared in 1899. But a still greater work was his translation of the whole Bible into easy Wen-li; he added the New Testament in this case, in order to secure uniformity; both Burdon and Blodgett’s, and Griffin John’s versions of the New Testament being in a somewhat different style. This Bible the A.B.S published in 1902.

The significance of Bishop Schereschewsky’s achievements, however, lies not so much in their extent and scholarship as in their testimony to the indomitable courage of the man and his devotion to his work. Six years after his consecration as Bishop he became paralysed, and had to resign his episcopal jurisdiction. His malady increased till it left him with the use of only the middle finger of each hand. Fortunately his intellect remained unimpaired, and with these two fingers he was able to type out his manuscripts, which were afterwards rewritten in Chinese characters by his secretary.

But the toil was well worthwhile. To this man alone has it been granted to give to the two hundred and fifty million Mandarin-speaking Chinese, as well as to the mass of readers in China, the Oracles of God as found in the Old Testament. Reviewing, therefore, his life in the light of these facts, we may surely trace the divine purpose in taking him from one task, for which a successor would without difficulty be found, and setting him free for another, for which his whole previous life had been a unique preparation. As a translator his influence has been far wider than it could have been as a Bishop, and Chinese Christians will ever remember, with gratitude to God, the great scholar who out of weakness was made strong – who laid so well and so truly the foundations of the Bible in their greatest vernacular, and in the more popular form of their written language.”

Four years before his death in 1906, Schereschewsky said: “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”

He is remembered in the American Episcopal Calendar on 14 October of each year, on which day the following prayer is said in thanksgiving:

“O God, who in your providence called Joseph Schereschewsky from his home in Eastern Europe to the ministry of this Church, and sent him as a missionary to China, upholding him in his infirmity, that he might translate the Holy Scriptures into languages of that land: Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

With this prayer the following verses are read:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – 
a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty,
my King and my God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they walk through the Valley of Baca, 
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength 
till each appears before God in Zion. Psalm 84: 1-7.

While Schereschewsky’s is only one of many lives and labours behind the growth of the Chinese church, his perseverence serves as a very great encouragement to those of us in the present time, who in obedience to divine unction, are engaged in works that may only bear fruit to God’s glory in another lifetime.

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