The Jewish Bishop and the Chinese Bible

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The Jewish Bishop and the Chinese Bible: S.I.J. Schereschewsky (1831-1906)
Studies in Christian Mission, Vol 22. General Editor, Marc R. Spindler.
by Irene Eber. (Brill: Leiden), 1999. 

Reviewed by Theresa Newell 

How Joseph Schereschewsky, a Lithuanian Jewish boy, came to be an Episcopal bishop of Shanghai in the 19th century and the greatest Orientalist of his day, and perhaps of all times, is well documented in this volume by Irene Eber. Eber is herself an Israeli Orientalist and Louis Frieberg Professor of East Asian Studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Emeritus. 

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

The story starts and ends with Bible translation work. At the front end is the translation of the New Testament into Hebrew in 1817 by CMJ (then the London Society for the Promoting of Christianity amongst the Jews or as it was informally known, the London Jews’ Society). Following the first printing, “in 1819, a second edition of 10,000 followed.”1 This translation was circulated broadly throughout the Jewish population areas of Europe. Various Bible Societies and other mission agencies aided in its distribution. Eber noted that The London Society at that time “was circulating large numbers of Yiddish and Hebrew Old and New Testaments.It was one of the Hebrew New Testaments that was put into Schereschewsky’s hands. His reading of it convinced him that Jesus was indeed the awaited Jewish messiah. 

At the other end was his own historic translation of the entire Bible – Old and New Testaments – into both Mandarin and Wenli (literary) Chinese. These translations made it possible for a quarter of the world’s population to read the Scriptures in their own language for the first time! Obviously, there was much history in between.

Eber points out that at the time that Schereschewsky left the yeshiva in his hometown of Taurage 2 for the larger school in Zhitomir in Ukraine at age 16, several issues were raging: for young Jewish boys, imminent conscription into the Russian army was paramount; and, orthodox rabbis were decrying the intrusion of the maskilim, those Jewish leaders who were part of the Enlightenment and urging Jewish boys to be educated in government schools where secular subjects were taught. “The Jewish faculty [at Zhitomir] were all leading men of the Russian Haskalah . . .” The Bible was taught in German. It was young Schereschewsky’s first experience of “the translator’s responsibility to produce an accurate yet clear and idiomatic translation. 

The principle stuck with Schereschewsky all of his life and he brought it full-blown into his Bible translation from Hebrew and Greek into several Chinese venaculars.  Eber wrote, “There is little doubt that Schereschewsky’s first encounter with Christianity, via the New Testament, occurred in Zhitomir” in 1852.

Coming to Faith in Jesus

In 1852, the lure of Jewish emancipation farther west took the 19-year-old Schereschewsky to Breslau, Germany. An 1812 royal edict had granted citizenship to German Jews, and the University of Breslau had opened its doors to Jewish students and faculty. There he met Dr. Henricus Christophilius Neumann (1778-1865), a lecturer in Hebrew at the university and “a convert and ‘agent’ of the London Society 3 Eber noted that Neumann, having been “associated with the London Society for over two decades . . . introduced the newcomer to the ideology of Hebrew Christianity. Besides being a mentor to Schereschewsky, Neumann also wrote several articles “emphasizing the importance of mission and of Bible translation into Chinese. 

Once he was intellectually convinced of the claims of Jesus, Schereschewsky immigrated to America in 1854. Eber pointed out the London Society connection, which helped him make connections in the New World. He had a letter of introduction to John Neander, given to him “by a certain Jacobi,” 4 a native of Prussia who had joined the London Society in Germany before immigrating to America himself in the 1820s Apparently, there were strong connections among the Hebrew believers of the day. 5 Joseph Frey, founder of the London Society, is not mentioned by Eber, but the society he founded when he arrived in America in 1820, The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews, played a welcoming role for many of the German Jewish immigrants on their arrival in New York 

An earlier Schereschewsky biographer, George Muller, wrote that it was during a Passover Seder held on 2 April 1855 in New York with Jewish-Christian friends that the young man from Taurage made his public confession of faith in Jesus. Muller records his words at that time, “I can no longer deny my Lord. I will follow Him without the camp. 6  

Seminary Life and China

Schereschewsky then spent two years at Western Theological Seminary near Pittsburgh and another year at Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York. From the beginning he applied for duty on the mission field. A week after his ordination as Episcopal deacon, he sailed for Shanghai in July 1859. During the six-month sea voyage, he began his study of the Chinese language. He remained in China for fifteen years before returning to the United States in 1875. 

Eber emphasized that Schereschewsky did not see himself as a great evangelist or preacher but as a translator of the Word into various dialects of Chinese. Working with an international translation team in Peking for his first ten years, he was assigned immediately to work on the Old Testament, given his knowledge of not just Hebrew but also of the rabbinic biblical commentaries.  

Eber recounts Schereschewsky’s journey in 1867 to Kaifeng’s Jewish remnant in remote Henan Province, following the visit a year earlier by the first Protestant missionary visit there.7 Soon after, three Kaifeng Jews arrived in Peking with three scrolls to attend the mission school. Schereschewsky was assigned to teach Hebrew to the new arrivals. Later that year, he made a visit to Shanghai where he met and married an American missionary, Susan M. Waring, in April 1868. Susan brought her own gifts of teaching to the mission schools and served as a great encourager for her husband’s translation work and through his long illness. 

After being named Bishop of Shanghai in 1877, Shereschewsky turned his energy to establishing St. John’s University, the first Christian college in China. As a result of friction among the Shanghai missionaries whom he was overseeing, self-doubt as to his gifts as an administrator, loss of time to do the translation work he loved and an extraordinary summer heat when he went to see about a church being built in Wuhan, he suffered what seemed to be a heat stroke.  

The illness, which almost took his life, left him paralyzed in 1881 until his death in 1906. There was little recovery even after treatment in Europe and America, but he never stopped his translation work even when he was reduced to the use of one or two fingers, which he used for typing. He spent the last 20 years of his life refining his Old Testament translation and completing the translation of the entire Bible into literary Chinese dialect. It was a prodigious, unprecedented task for which he received very little support or acclaim. His last years were spent in Tokyo working with several Chinese co-workers and his wife. Shereschewsky and his wife were both buried there.  

Some Major Translation Issues

Eber devoted chapters five and six to the issues of technical Chinese translation work and its challenges. The author looked particularly at key biblical concepts such as “God,” “soul,” “Spirit,” and “nation.”8 The major issue which the translation team faced was what came to be called “The Term Question.It asked, “Which Chinese word(s) does one use for the name of God?” It was a complex question which engaged translators for many decades and yielded multiple answers! For those involved in Bible translation work or biblical studies in general, these chapters cause one to wrestle with how language and culture dictate clear conveyance of ideas. 

Eber admires her subject for his diligent study of not just the various Chinese dialects but of the country’s classic literature which delineated the depth of its ancient culture. He was committed to producing “a more readable and more clearly understandable text.familiar to the Chinese. I suspect Eber has a similar respect for the culture and language.  

 A gifted Jewish scholar, Eber gives fair treatment to Schereschewsky’s decision to accept Jesus as Messiah. She repudiates accusations made by earlier writers that his “conversion” was bought due to his poverty. She also confirmed that he understood himself to be a Jew who believed in Jesus and did not re-define himself outside of his Jewish heritage. For example, Eber found it significant that when, as Bishop of Shanghai, Schereschewsky “was in London for the Lambeth Conference of 1878, he attended services of the London Society, then at Palestine Place, Bethnal Green, where prayers were read in Hebrew. Was it that he needed to hear the prayers in the familiar language?.  

Schereschewsky is characterized by Eber as “an independent person” a trait which perhaps helped him persevere through the difficult physical trials in his last decades. He was not a self-promoter and in spite of his great translation success, other names are better known than his from that time period. It was here that I found myself in one of Eber’s footnotes as she mentioned that only a few pamphlets had been written about this remarkable man’s life and work. Theresa Mulligan (now Newell), Assistant Director of the CMJ/USA for sending me the pamphlet, ‘CMJ/USA Day in Honor of Bishop Joseph Schereschewsky’”! I certainly had forgotten having responded to Professor Eber’s request. Because Schereschewsky has a day in the Episcopal lectionary on October 14 each year, churches are encouraged to honor this amazing Jewish believer and bishop. Recorded in the Episcopal lectionary’s brief biography of Bishop Schereschewsky were these words attributed to him four years before his death: “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.” 9 

I have always regretted that this amazing Lithuanian Jewish believer in Jesus, master Orientalist and Bible translator extraordinaire, is not better known and properly honored for his work. Eber’s diligent research of his life and work, especially given her own scholarly abilities in the area of Chinese and Oriental studies, has hopefully turned the tide on Schereschewsky’s anonymity. Every seminary library needs a copy of this book, especially those offering Jewish and biblical studies.

Schereschewsky with assistants

[1] Gidney, W. T. The History of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews from 1809 to 1908. p. 56.

[2] Also spelled Tauragaj; German Tauroggen; Yiddish Tavrig.

[3] Gidney confirms this information with “from 1834 to 1859, Dr. S. Neumann, a Hebrew Christian, who had been led to the savior by J. C Moritz and was a professor of the University [Breslau], was the Society’s agent there.” p. 167. Gidney described Breslau as the capital of Silesia with 6,000 Jewish residents and a total population of 350,000, making it the third city in the German Empire of the day (Gidney, p. 128; Eber, p. 34, fn 39).

[4] Eber wrote, “This was probably John Christian Gottlieb Adolph Jacobi (1800-1874), a native of Prussia . . .who joined the London Society” (41).

[5] Eber noted that Neumann “may have arranged the letter,” that Neander was active in Bremen with a group “Society of the Friends of Israel” that Neander had been part of, etc (41).

[6] Muller, James A., Apostle to China (New York: Morehouse Pub) 1937.

[7] The Jews of Kaifeng had first been reported by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).

[8] See Eber’s article “The Peking Translating Committee and S.I.J. Schereschewsky’s Old Testament” in Anglican and Episcopal History, 1998, vol LXVII, No.2.

[9] The Proper for the Lesser Feasts and Fasts 1991, 358.

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Article published on 10/14/2021