CAN you read Biblical Hebrew? Probably not. Perhaps you have never even seen a Hebrew Bible. However, you may well deepen your appreciation for your personal copy of the Holy Scriptures by learning something about the 16th-century scholar Elias Hutter and the two Hebrew Bible editions that he published.
Elias Hutter was born in 1553 in Görlitz, a small town close to Germany’s present-day border with Poland and the Czech Republic. Hutter studied Oriental languages at the Lutheran University in Jena. When he was barely 24 years old, he was appointed professor of Hebrew in Leipzig. As an educational reformer, he later founded a school in Nuremberg where students could learn Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German within four years. That was then impossible at any other school or university.
“THE SPLENDOR OF THIS EDITION”
In 1587, Hutter produced a Hebrew edition of what is commonly called the Old Testament. This edition was entitled Derekh ha-Kodesh, taken from Isaiah 35:8 and meaning “The Way of Holiness.” The beautiful typeface elicited the comment that “every thing bespeaks the splendor of this edition.” But what made this Bible especially valuable was the way students could use it as an effective tool for learning Hebrew.
To understand why Hutter’s Hebrew Bible was so helpful, consider two challenges that a learner faced when trying to read the Bible in Hebrew. First, it is in a different and unfamiliar alphabet, and second, the attached prefixes and suffixes make the root words hard to recognize. For example, consider the Hebrew word נפשׁ (transliterated ne’phesh), meaning “soul.” At Ezekiel 18:4, it is preceded by the prefix ה (ha), meaning “the,” thus forming the compound word הנפשׁ (han·ne’phesh), or “the soul.” To the untrained eye, הנפשׁ (han·ne’phesh) could appear to be a totally different word from נפשׁ (ne’phesh).
To help his students, Hutter used an ingenious printing technique—a typeface with Hebrew letters in both solid and outline form. He printed the root of each word in solid letters. For the prefixes and suffixes, he used outline (hollow) letters. This simple device made it easier for students to identify the root of a Hebrew word, helping them in the process of learning the language. The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References uses a similar practical approach in its footnotes.a The transliterated root is in bold type, and the prefixes and suffixes are in regular type. The highlighted portions of the illustrations show the typeface used in Hutter’s Hebrew Bible at Ezekiel 18:4 and that used by the Reference Bible in its footnote to the same verse.
A HEBREW EDITION OF THE “NEW TESTAMENT”
Hutter also printed what is commonly called the New Testament, with the text in 12 languages. This edition was published in Nuremberg in 1599 and is often referred to as the Nuremberg Polyglot. Hutter wanted to include a Hebrew-language translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. But he said that even if he “had been willing to pay a fortune” for such a Hebrew translation, the search would have been in vain.b So he decided to translate the New Testament from Greek into Hebrew himself. Laying all other undertakings aside, Hutter finished the whole translation project in just one year!
How good was Hutter’s Hebrew translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures? Noted 19th-century Hebrew scholar Franz Delitzsch wrote: “His Hebrew translation reveals a grasp of the language rare among Christians and it is still worth consulting, for in instance after instance he has been most fortunate in striking on precisely the right expression.”
A LASTING INFLUENCE
Hutter did not become rich from his translation work; evidently his editions did not sell well. Nevertheless, his work has had an important and lasting influence. For example, his Hebrew New Testament was revised and reprinted in 1661 by William Robertson and again in 1798 by Richard Caddick. In translating from the original Greek, Hutter appropriately rendered the titles Kyʹri·os (Lord) and The·osʹ (God) as “Jehovah” (יהוה, JHVH) where the text is a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures or where he felt it referred to Jehovah. This is of interest because although many translations of the New Testament do not use God’s personal name, Hutter’s translation does and thus adds evidence in favor of restoring God’s name in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
The next time you see God’s name, Jehovah, in the Christian Greek Scriptures or look at a footnote in the Reference Bible, remember the work of Elias Hutter and his remarkable Hebrew Bibles.
b Evidently, scholars had previously produced Hebrew translations of the New Testament. One such was Simon Atoumanos, a Byzantine monk, in about 1360. Another was Oswald Schreckenfuchs, a German scholar, in about 1565. These translations were never published and are now lost.