The History of the Salkinson-Ginsburg Translation

The history of the Salkinson-Ginsburg translation of the New Testament has hardly been researched or documented. Its translator, the Jewish poet and missionary Isaac Edward Salkinson (ca. 1820-1883) worked on it for the better part of his life. He passed away when he was just a few chapters shy of finishing his masterpiece. His good friend Christian David Ginsburg (1831-1914), a Jewish scholar, finished the translation and subsequently edited the first and second edition in 1885 and 1886. In this article, we will outline a short history of the conception of this work.

Salkinson’s Early Years and Conversion

Biographical information on Salkinson is scarce, especially for the years leading up to his conversion to Christianity. Not only is the historical record limited, it is also contradictory. Some sources claim that he was born around 1820 in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, which was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1795. At the time, Vilna was a city with a large Jewish population and a rich Jewish cultural life. Another source claims he was born in a small shtetl outside of Shklov in Belorussia, where many Jews lived as well. Later his family would move to Shklov. Both Vilna and Shklov were in the so-called chertá osédlosti (the Pale of Settlement), a geographical area in the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed to live.

Some claim that Salkinson was the son of Salomon Ben Baruch Salkind, a poet and teacher at the rabbinical seminary in Vilna. This is unlikely, because Salkind died in 1868, while Salkinson became an orphan at an early age. A special publication from 1894 of Salkinson’s later missionary organization, the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews, has a short biography of Salkinson, which does deal with his formative years: “His parents were strictly orthodox, and wished him to become a rabbi. He was very early and carefully instructed, so at the age of four he was able to read the Hebrew bible. When still a child he lost his father, and seven years after his mother.”

Salkinson attended several yeshivas in his youth. He likely started German and literature studies at the Vilna University. Afterwards he intended to go to the United States to study under a renowned Rabbi. Things would work out quite differently, however. While traveling to the United States, Salkinson stayed in London for a short time. There he was approached by some missionaries from the London Missionary Society. They shared the Gospel message with him and he converted to Christianity. He was baptized shortly after.

Salkinson, Missionary and Translator

Salkinson chose to remain in London. Instead of becoming a rabbi, he would become a missionary among his own people. He started studies at the seminary of the aforementioned British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews. During this four-year period, he first met Christian David Ginsburg, and they became close friends. After his education, Salkinson went to Scotland, and in 1854 he became a missionary for an organization called the Friend of Israel. He also trained to become a pastor for the Scottish Presbyterian church in Edinburgh and was ordained in 1859.

The Letter to the Romans

Salkinson’s first translation of a New Testament book appeared in 1855. It was Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In a short autobiographical piece that Salkinson wrote on the period 1849–1879, he shares some details on his motivation to translate the New Testament:

“When for the first time I read the New Testament–it was a Hebrew version–I felt how great a necessity there is for a version in idiomatic Hebrew. As soon, therefore, as I acquired a knowledge of reading the New Testament in its original Greek, I translated the Epistle to the Romans . . . I however, found that to acquire the art of translating properly requires long and tedious practice. The Jews, in every generation, have produced great Hebrew writers, but very seldom very good translators. I, therefore set my heart to translate classical pieces into Hebrew.”

Salksinson considered his later translations of classic literary works, which would receive much praise, only practice work to prepare him for the translation of the New Testament. The 1855 edition of his Letter to the Romans contains some criticism on older Hebrew translations, such as that of Fry & Collyer (published between 1813-1817), which he considered to have odd structures and a vocabulary that was foreign to the Hebrew language. Also, the Greenfeld edition (published in 1831) had too many Aramaic forms, too much vernacular and leaned heavily on Mishnaic Hebrew. Salkinson considered these earlier translations incompatible with the character and style of the Tanakh. He saw a justifiable need to provide a new translation into what he called “the pure Hebrew tongue for the Hebrew people”. This work would share the same characteristics as the Tanakh.

The reason why he choose the Letter to the Romans was to see if the public could also be convinced. Another reason to translate one of the epistles first, was because Salkinson thought that “it is only in the Epistles that the difficulties of Hebrew translation present themselves." In other words, Paul’s epistles were generally the most challenging to translate from Greek to Hebrew.

Although Salkinson himself was a bit doubtful of the quality of his first attempt, the critics likes his translation. In the following years he would continue to translate more books of the New Testament, but he did not publish any of them. Instead, in 1858 he published a translation of an anonymous tract, the Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation, later revealed to be written by James Barr. This tract tries to prove the universal truth claim of Christianity. Because it was somewhat philosophical in outlook and did not contain anti-Semitic polemics, it was deemed useful for the Jewish mission.

Salkinson’s Translations of Classic Literary Works

Salkinson remained working for the Friend of Israel until private circumstances forced him to leave in 1862. He would return as a missionary for the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews. His wife Henrietta was at his side in all his missionary activities. Although we know little about the years between 1864 and 1876, we know that Salkinson was in Pressburg (modern-day Bratislava) in 1876 and that he was sent to Vienna in the same year. Here he worked and lived until his death in 1883. All of Salkinson’s works were published in Vienna during this period, so it is likely that he worked as a missionary in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Salkinson’s Hebrew translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared in 1871. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he also translated Urania über Gott, Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit (Urania on God: Immortality and Freedom) in 1876, a lyrical didactic poem by the German poet Christoph August Tiedge. This poem was inspired by the Ethics of German philosopher Emmanuel Kant. Salkinson translated it because it was very much liked in certain Jewish literary circles. In his spare time, he also worked on some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays: Othello appeared in 1872, and Romeo and Juliet in 1878. All these works received praise from critics and literary audiences alike.

Salkinson and Delitzsch

It was at a missionary conference in 1870 that Salkinson met Franz Delitzsch, the famous German theologian and biblical scholar. They became friends quickly. At the time Delitzsch was close to finishing his own translation of the New Testament, but he was unable to secure the necessary finances to publish it. This would happen to Salkinson later as well. There are also other similarities between the two:
Like Salkinson, Delitzsch was not content with the quality of the available Hebrew translations. He had written a first plea to publish a new and better translation as early as 1838. Delitzsch had also first published a translation of the letter to the Romans, which appeared in 1870. Salkinson offered to help him with his translation, but as Delitzsch was already close to finishing, it did not happen. In a later article from 1889, Delitzsch would reflect on his own work and that of Salkinson. He was convinced that his own translation would have been much better if his friend would have assisted him, but he writes: “I look upon it now as quite natural that the man who had won great applause by his translations of the Urania of Tiedge, the Paradise Lost of Milton, and some plays of Shakespeare would not be able easily to bring himself to take the place of a worker under me.”

Because of the deep friendship that existed between them, and out of respect for Delitzsch’s work, Salkinson took a hiatus from his own New Testament translation. He gave Delitzsch the opportunity to publish his work. In a letter to Delitzsch, dated in 1877, he writes:

“With regard to your query, you will remember, after your publication of the Epistle to the Romans, that I offered you my co-operation in continuing and carrying out the out the version; but you then informed me that you had the materials of the whole book already, which required only correction. Accordingly, out of the high respect and true Christian affection which I cherish for you, I made a self-denying resolution, and determined to let you have the whole field free.”

When Delitzsch’s New Testament was published, Salkinson’s missionary organization asked him to write a Talmudic Christology that could be used in the mission field. After some considering, Salkinson told them that he would rather finish his New Testament translation, not that he – as has later been suggested – was unhappy with Delitzsch’s work, but because he was deeply concerned that his people would not accept a translation from a non-Jewish author, and in this way would lose the chance to read the Gospel. In an 1883 letter to the Trinitarian Bible Society, who would eventually publish his translation, he writes:

“Far be it from me to claim superiority in anything, or even equality with such one as Delitzsch, I readily own his superior scholarship; I sincerely pray that his Hebrew version may guide many readers to the Cross, for there is a class of Jewish readers who may be perfectly satisfied with such a version. But there is another class of readers who object to that version even more to than that of the London Society. That class looks for a version from the hand of a native Hebrew writer, who has had practice in the art of translation.”

The friendship between Delitzsch and Salkinson is quite remarkable, as it runs counter to the later rivalry between supporters of both translations. This rivalry had its roots in the tensions that arose between the Trinitarian Bible Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society (who published Delitzsch’s translation). An entirely unnecessary battle – mostly fought in newspaper articles and editorial letters – about which translation was superior. Both authors had nothing but the utmost respect for one another. Even more, Delitzsch would later admit that they both heavily borrowed from each other’s translations, in order to improve upon their own work.

Salkinson and Wilkinson

Salkinson resumed his New Testament translation in Vienna in 1877. An unknown Russian Jewish doctor proof read and critiqued his manuscripts on a daily basis. At the end of 1881, Paul’s epistles, the general epistles, and Revelation were finished. In the next few months, he also finished the four Gospels, of which a large part had already been done years prior. The only book that was left was the Acts of the Apostles, and so it became time to secure a publisher.

To that end, Salkinson traveled to England in 1882. His own missionary organization tried to convince the British and Foreign Bible Society to publish Salkinson’s work in addition to Delitzsch’s, but to no avail. All other attempts to find a publisher had failed as well, until he met his old friend John Wilkinson in the fall of 1882.

John Wilkinson (1824-1907) was a missionary and the director of the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, a small organization based in London, which he started in 1876. He was also Salkinson and Ginsburg’s fellow student at the seminary of the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews. Wilkinson describes in his diary how Salkinson spent a day with him in London, begging him to help secure a publisher. Wilkinson proposed the Trinitarian Bible Society, but also admitted that he did not know much about them. He made a promise to write them, and Salkinson went back to Vienna.

Salkinson and the Trinitarian Bible Society

At the time, the Trinitarian Bible Society had received a large financial gift. Just as the director’s board finished praying for guidance on how to spend the money, Wilkinson’s letter arrived. As mission among the Jewish people had become a priority for the organization, Wilkinson’s letter had to be ‘more than a coincidence’. In early 1883, Salkinson received a written request to send some of his manuscripts to the Trinitarian Bible Society, together with an explanation of his translation method. Salkinson’s own missionary organization agreed to let the Trinitarian Bible Society publish his work, as long as Salkinson was not compensated financially. This was not his intention, as he had always wanted to make his translation available free of charge. They came to an agreement, and around May 1883, the first steps were taken for the printing process of the New Testament. In one of his final letters, Salkinson reflects on his work as a translator: “Hebrew translation seems to be the only talent given me, and it I have consecrated to the Lord. It is my alabaster box of precious ointment which I pour out in honour of my Saviour, that the fragrance of His name may fill the whole house of Israel.

He did not live to see the publication of his masterpiece. At the same time as the first pages of the Gospel of Matthew were made into print sheets, he passed away on June 5, 1883 in Vienna.

Salkinson and Ginsburg

Isaac Edward Salkinson’s death was quite unexpected. The Trinitarian Bible Society, who did not want to cancel the publication of his life’s work, was in a great hurry to find someone to complete it. The task fell upon Salkinson’s old friend, David Ginsburg.

David Ginsburg (1831-1914) was born in Warschau. He converted to Christianity and adopted the name Christian David. When he went from Poland to England a few years later, he met Salkinson at the London seminary and they became friends for life.

Ginsburg worked as a missionary until 1859, most of his further life he spent by studying the Tanakh and attaining to other academic interests. Salkinson and Ginsburg also helped each other professionally. Salkinson helped Ginsburg in his research on the Masoretic tradition, and he in return later helped Salkinson with the translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. When Salkinson passed away, Ginsburg was the obvious choice.

A Difficult Task

Ginsburg saw it as a noble task to suspend his own research on the Massorah in order to finish the work of his old friend: “it fell to my lot to do it. I could not tolerate that the life-long work of my departed friend should be lost, more especially as I knew its value.” The task however, was not that simple. Most of the books had not been vocalized, and the final chapters of Acts had not been translated.
Ginsburg had his work cut out for him in Vienna were he edited the manuscript and saw it through the press in the space of a year. The work was also slowed down, because the first printer had died, and a new one had to be found, which would be Hofbuchdruckerei Carl Fromme.

First and Second Edition

Printing was finished in June 1885. The first edition of 2000 copies was sold out within a month and immediately work on a second revised edition began, which was announced as an issue of 10.000 copies in January 1886. However, through the efforts of John Wilkinson, the number would go up significantly to 110.000, as he had secured the necessary funds of £5000 through anonymous benefactors. 100.000 were distributed among Jewish communities in the former Russian empire, where at the time one-third of the Jewish people (about 4 million) lived.

The second edition also saw made quite some corrections and improvements on the original text. The first edition of the Salkinson-Ginsburg was loved by the public, but was somewhat lukewarmly received by the critics. Most of them loved Salkinson’s unrivaled use of Hebrew prose, but they did not always agree with his translation choices. Most problematic was the use of the Old Testament, when cited in the New Testament. Salkinson would from principle always use the Masoretic text, even if the original Greek would say something differently. The second edition would correct this. The entire revision took about a year and was finished in October, 1886. It was better received, and eventually sold out within the next three years.

Towards a New Edition

In the twentieth century, the Salkinson-Ginsburg was reprinted numerous times, but the text remained mostly unaltered, until Rev. dr. Eric S. Gabe’s revised the Salkinson-Ginsburg to confirm to the Textus Receptus. It appeared in 2000, almost a century and a half after Salkinson’s initial publication of the Romans. Some years later, Eric Gabe passed away. To get a clearer picture of the scope of Gabe’s textual changes, a research project was started under the guidance of Prof. dr. Pieter A. Siebesma. This research project eventually resulted in some revisions of the Hebrew text, and has been in use since 2012.

The Salkinson-Ginsburg is currently available in thirteen bilingual editions:
Hebrew – Arabic, Dutch, English, German, French, Modern Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. Let us hope and pray that these – and many other versions – may lead many people to their Messiah.