Jewish linguists contribute to the King James Bible translation

When a new translation of the Bible was commissioned in 1604 by King James the First of England, no fewer than twenty-five of the men chosen to translate the Hebrew scriptures were from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The high standard of Hebrew linguistics at these universities was attained partly through the contributions Philip Ferdinand and John Immanuel Tremellius – two gifted scholars, who had both converted from Judaism to the Messianic faith. The project culminated in the Authorized Version of the English Bible, first published in 1611 and still one of the most trusted and influential English version today.

Philip Ferdinand was born in Poland about 1555. He arrived at Oxford University as a poor student, but his knowledge of Hebrew soon earned him lecturing positions in several of the colleges. When he later transferred to Cambridge, he counted many of the professors among his pupils.[1] In 1597 Ferdinand published a volume of rabbinic writings at Canterbury ,[2]  not written – he claims in its introduction – for financial reward, but in order to provide specimens of Hebrew literature for those who desire to learn the language. The volume is largely comprised of Ferdinand’s translations into Latin of works contained in Daniel Bomberg’s first Rabbinic Bible, being principally the “Commands and Prohibitions” of Abraham ibn Hassan ha-Levi.[3] The little we know Ferdinand’s conversion, comes from the introduction to this work, where he notes the many errors that had become apparent to him in Judaism, and how diligently he had then studied the sacred language in search of truth.

At Cambridge a friend and fellow Hebraist, Joseph Scaliger, obtained an appointment for Ferdinand as Professor of Hebrew at Leyden University. After a short stay at Leyden – possibly marred by ill health – Ferdinand returned to London in 1599. He was admitted to the Domus Conversorum, a house for indigent Jewish converts established by King Henry the Third, where he received a small pension. He reportedly died in 1600.

As a linguist and teacher of Hebrew, Ferdinand continued in the legacy of John Immanuel Tremellius, another distinguished convert who fled to England during the Germany Reformation wars, and was appointed “king’s reader of Hebrew” at Cambridge in 1549. Tremellius produced a Latin translation of the Bible, from Hebrew and Syriac sources, which was published in London in 1580.

Tremellius was born at Ferrara in Italy in 1510 and educated at the University of Padua. He came under the influence of Cardinal Pole and was baptised by the Catholics in 1540 before he became a Protestant one year later. On returning to Germany from England he was arrested by the Catholics at Zweibrücken and imprisoned as a Calvinist.[4] He was released and served as professor of the Old Testament at Heidelberg from 1561 until 1577. He died in 1580 at the Huguenot Academy of Sedan, in France. His last words, reportedly, were “Not Barabbas, but Jesus” (thus reversing the tragic choice his forefathers had made before Pilate).[5]

[1]  A History of the Jews inEngland, Albert Montefiore Hyamson, 1907. p. 124.

[2] Afterward reprinted by J. von Lenz in his “Theologia Judaica,” in 1694.

[3] Ferdinand’s work contains the 613 precepts of the Mosaic Law, a list of Biblical and Rabbinical Feasts, the seven precepts of Noah (Noahide laws), dietary laws of the Jews, classes of men not allowed to act as witnesses among Jews, the four methods of capital punishment ordained by the Rabbis, the thirteen creeds of Maimonides, the opinions of Rabbi Elias Leyitas on the Hebrew vowel system, the commentary of Rabbi Jacob (the Baal haTurim )on the first chapter of Genesis, a list of the twenty-four verses in the Bible that contain all the letters of the alphabet, the thirteen exegetical rules of Rabbi Ishmael, and the poetical names of the Law of Moses as given in Psalm 119, based on the commentary by Kimchi.

[4] Nicholas Barker, ‘The Perils of Publishing in the Sixteenth Century: Pietro Bizari and William Parry, Two Elizabethan Misfits’, in Edward Chaney and Peter Mack (editors),England and the Continental Renaissance: Essays in Honour of J. B. Trapp (1990), pp. 125-6.

[5] James Morison, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According St. Matthew, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), p. 581.

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