On October 15, 1906, Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, the Jewish-born, rabbinical school-trained, former Anglican bishop of Shanghai, died in Tokyo, after a lengthy illness, at age 75. Apart from the novelty interest of a converted Jew becoming a church official and serving in the exotic East, Schereschewsky is remembered for having produced a much-respected translation into Mandarin Chinese of the Hebrew Bible, among other sacred texts, which became the standard 20th-century translation.
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Samuel Schereschewsky was born on May 6, 1831, in Tauroggen, a Jewish shtetl in the Russian empire, in what is today southwest Lithuania. Both of his parents – the former Rosa Salvatha, of Sephardi-Jewish heritage, and Samuel Joseph Schereschewsky – died when he was very young. Samuel was apparently raised by a much older half-brother, a timber merchant who was the product of his father’s first marriage.
At age 15, he left his brother’s home, and held jobs as a glazier and as a Hebrew tutor before entering the rabbinical seminary in Zhytomir, in Ukraine. This was not a traditional yeshiva, but rather a state-sanctioned institution, a number of whose teachers had been educated in the principles of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment.
A curious mind
At the time, explained historian Irene Eber, in her biographical study of Schereschewsky, “The Jewish Bishop and the Chinese Bible,” missionaries from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews were making their way around the villages of the region, distributing editions of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, in Hebrew and Yiddish. Eder says that many Jews eagerly accepted the books, out of an open-minded curiosity that characterized those who had been exposed to the Haskalah. Many fewer, she says, actually converted.
One of those who did was Schereschewsky. It’s not known if had direct contact with missionaries; what is known is that he read the New Testament, and it spoke to him.
Scherschewsky remained at Zhitomir as a rabbi-in-training for several years, before heading to Germany, where he studied Christianity, among other things, at both the universities of Frankfurt and Breslau, and then a short time later, in 1854, to the United States.
It was there that Schereschewsky underwent baptism, in 1855. He also moved, over the course of several years, from the Baptist church to the Presbyterian to the Episcopalian, as the Anglican church is called in America.
After two years of study at the General Theological Seminary Union, in 1858-59, and a decision to devote his life to missionary work, he was ordained as a deacon on July 7, 1859 (ordination as a priest took place the following year, once he was in China), and sailed for the East the following week. It is said that Schereschewsky only began studying Chinese on his voyage, aboard the clipper ship Golden Rule.
Bringing rabbinic knowledge to China
Schereschewsky spent his first decade living in Beijing (then called Peking), where he be
gan his project of translation, which included rendering not only the Hebrew Bible, but also the New Testament and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, into Mandarin Chinese.
Irene Eder notes that Schereschewsky’s Jewish education added immeasurably to his Old Testament translation. Not only did he translate from the original Hebrew, but he brought to bear his knowledge of both rabbinic and midrashic literature, so that his version “can be regarded as the only Chinese Old Testament to reflect not only the traditional Jewish text but to also included elements of the Jewish exegetical tradition.”
In 1877, Schereschewsky was appointed bishop of Shanghai. He also established St. John’s College there in 1879: later it would become a university, which remained in existence until 1952.
Nominally, he remained bishop until 1884, but after being struck with paralysis – caused, it was said, by sunstroke -- in 1881, Schereschewsky resettled in Tokyo, where he lived until his death. There, he carried on with his translation work, against almost unbearable odds. Missionary and writer Marshall Broomhall described him as "paralysed in every limb, and with his powers of speech partly gone, sitting for nearly twenty-five years in the same chair, slowly and painfully typing out with two fingers his Mandarin translation of the Old Testament and Easy Wen-li translation of the whole Bible."