The Gospels are Jewish. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who preserved them and transmitted them through the centuries, but the time has come for us to reclaim what is ours. The Gospels belong to the Jewish people, as does the central character in the Gospel story.
These words introduce a new translation of the four Gospels, not from the Greek of its oldest and best original manuscripts, but from Hebrew. Still, we might ask why we need another Jewish-oriented translation of the Gospels. And even if we do, why base it on a text that is itself a translation?
The answer lies with the Hebrew Gospel text itself, which was created by the renowned 19th century biblical scholar, Franz Delitzsch.
Delitzsch was a prolific scholar, whose extensive commentary on the Old Testament, co-authored with C.F. Keil, remains in wide use today, but he considered the Hebrew New Testament his crowning achievement. It went through eleven editions, and enjoyed a circulation of 60,000 copies—not a bestseller, of course, but an impressive number for a translation of the iconic Christian book into the language of the Jewish people.
Speaking of this work, Delitzsch said,
Far from priding myself, I acknowledge, on the contrary, the merits of my fellow-labourers, among whom are not a small number of Jewish friends. We have cause to say, that our new translation has contributed somewhat to bring the New Testament nearer to the Jews, as a prominent work of their literature.
Delitzsch maintained this same understated approach in his witness to Jewish friends. Believing that “Only God’s word does it,” he sought to produce a translation that would convey the message of Messiah Yeshua with sensitivity and regard toward the Jewish people he loved. Delitzsch also sought to recapture the Jewish context of the Gospels, rendering them into classical Hebrew that reconnected them to the matrix of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and rabbinic literature.
A hundred and twenty years after Delitzsch’s death, Vine of David, a branch of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), has produced an English translation of his Gospels that captures its rich Jewish flavor and deep connection to the Tanakh. For years, FFOZ was known for promoting Torah observance as an obligation for all believers, Gentiles as well as Jews. Eventually, however, as Director Boaz Michael comments, “We realized that we couldn’t force our Gentile-obligation theology through the grid of Acts 21, where the apostles clearly distinguish between what’s expected of Jewish and Gentile believers.” FFOZ shifted its terminology from obligation to invitation for Gentiles, believing that this preserves a significant place for Gentiles within the wider Messianic movement without diminishing the unique covenant responsibility of the Jewish people. This shift led FFOZ to launch Vine of David specifically to publish materials for Jewish people, while maintaining its extensive teaching ministry primarily focused on Gentile believers. “Damage was done to the name of Yeshua among the Jewish people by taking him outside of his Jewish context,” Michael explains, “and Vine of David seeks to repair that damage.” He continues,
In Messianic Judaism, we need to be devoted to the study of the words and teachings of Messiah. I am confident that some have shied away from Gospel studies because, as people become more familiar with Torah, the Christian presentation of the Gospels feels less authentic. The DHE [Delitzsch Gospels] will change that, and give people the opportunity to study the Gospels within authentic Jewish space, bringing depth to the Gospels from a Jewish perspective.
Examples of this depth abound, including some cited in the DHE Introduction. One example, Matthew 6:34, says, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (ESV). Delitzsch, according to the Introduction, “recognized this phrase as a rabbinic proverb. Not only does it appear in the Talmud (b.Brachot 9b), it remains a common figure of speech even today in modern Hebrew. By including this proverb verbatim, Delitzsch produces an authentically and intrinsically Jewish representation of Yeshua and quite likely approximates Yeshua’s actual spoken words.” As another example, Mark concludes his description of Yeshua’s temptation in the wilderness, “he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13 ESV). Delitzsch translates “wild animals” as chayot, a term also used in Ezekiel 1 to describe the “living creatures” surrounding the throne of God. This suggests that Yeshua, like Moses and the prophets, was granted a vision of the heavenly court at the culmination of His testing.
Much of the DHE translation will sound familiar to most English readers, but gems like these make it a valuable resource for students, especially those with a background in Hebrew and the Tanakh. At the same time, the hope that it will be an effective resource for outreach seems well-founded. The book is physically beautiful, and resembles other Jewish editions of Scripture, such as the familiar Artscroll Chumash (Pentateuch). In preparing this review, I had access to an electronic version and found myself longing to have a real copy in my hands, just to touch it and turn the pages. It is a beautiful volume, in line with the Jewish tradition of hiddur mitzvah, or beautifying an object used to fulfill a mitzvah.
For it was taught: “This is my God, and I will adorn him”—that is, adorn yourself before him in the fulfillment of commandments: make a beautiful sukkah in his honor, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful fringes, and a beautiful scroll of the Torah . . . Talmud, Shabbat 133b
The physical beauty of the Vine of David Gospels reflects the One who inspired the text, and the One of whom it speaks. It reflects well the hope expressed by the translators: “May those who study his words take up his yoke and find peace for their souls, for the words of eternal life are with him.”