Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky 1831-1906
Missionary Bishop and Bible Translator
The story of Schereschewsky is not only that of a Jew who became a great Christian leader, one of the three men of Jewish birth to become a Bishop, but also of a man who by courage and faith in God triumped over a crippling disability to complete his life work. [George H. Steven, Jewish Christian Leaders, 1966.]
Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky was born into an orthodox Jewish family in Lithuania. His parents died when he was just a young boy, and he was raised by his half brother, a well-to-do timber merchant. The family was highly educated and intellectually minded, and when Samuel himself showed intellectual promise, particularly in a remarkable aptitude for languages, he was given the best education available and trained to become a rabbi.At the age of 19 Samuel traveled to Germany where he studied for a year or more at Frankfurt and then for two years of graduate studies at the University of Breslau, where he earned distinction. To his fluency in Yiddish, Polish and Russian he added German, which he spoke like a native to the end of his days.
At some point Samuel was given a copy of a Hebrew New Testament. This translation was produced by the LJS long before Delitzsch and Salkinson produced the better-known translation used today. He began to read and study it and became convinced that in Jesus the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and the age-long hopes of his people had been fulfilled.
Road to China
In the summer of 1854 Samuel decided to emigrate to America. In New York he came in contact with other Jews who believed in Jesus and came to a saving faith in the Messiah of Israel. The seed planted in his heart had at last burst into fruition! To ground and inform his faith this lover of studies enrolled in a theological seminary in Pennsylvania.
Hearing the call for missionaries for China, Samuel left for Shanghai in 1859. His study of the Chinese language and culture was commenced during the voyage. His first attempt was to make a translation of the Psalms, which amazingly he achieved just a year after his arrival in China. Two years later he moved to Peking and co-translated the Prayer Book into Mandarin. In 1865 Schereschewsky joined a committee of five leading Chinese scholars and five English-speaking scholars for translating the New Testament from the Greek and became a dominant member of the committee. The next eight years of his life were dedicated to translating the entire Old Testament from the original Hebrew into Mandarin Chinese. For many years these two volumes (the Old and New Testaments) were the only Bibles generally used in China. George Stevens writes: “In this respect it is not too much to say that he was to China what Wycliffe was to England and Martin Luther to Germany” (Jewish Christian Leaders, p. 61).
In 1875 Dr. Schereschewsky was elected Bishop of Shanghai. He declined the office at first; but when he was again chosen in 1877 he was persuaded that it was his duty to undertake its labours and responsibility. Who would have thought that a former Lithuanian Yeshiva student would one day become a Bishop in China!
In 1881, while translating the Apocrypha in Wuchang, Samuel fell ill with Parkinson’s disease. On the orders of his doctors he traveled to Europe to undergo treatment. He felt it wrong to retain an office if he could not carry out its duties, and resigned his bishopric in 1883. However, his mind was still strong, and he determined to continue with the work of translation as long as God gave him strength. He returned to Shanghai in 1895 and continued his labour of love for the next twenty years, in China, the USA and Japan, wherever there was a printing press he could use. As long as he could, he wrote with a pen. When he became too paralysed to write, he found that he could still control the middle finger of his partially crippled hand, and labouriously tapped out the letters on a typewriter. In this way he typed some 2,000 pages. While the paralysis was a terrible affliction, he came to believe that God guided his life so that he could be released to do the work of translation. This conviction was expressed in the words of a colleage who said: “Reviewing his life in the light of these facts, we may surely trace the divine purpose in taking him from one task for which a successor would without difficulty be found, and setting him free for another, for which his whole previous life had been a unique preparation.” The former Bishop himself echoed this sentiment:
- 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.
By the time of his death in Tokyo in 1906 Schereschewsky had translated the entire Bible into the Wen-li language and the Old Testament into Mandarin, the Gospels into Mongolian and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin. He had also written Chinese grammars and dictionaries, sharing his vast linguistic knowledge with those who came after him.
(Another rabbi turned Bishop translated the Book of Common Prayer into Hebrew – see the biography of Michael Solomon Alexander.)
Bernstein, A. Jewish Witnesses for Christ. New edition 1999, Keren Ahvah Meschichit, Jerusalem
Eber, Irene. 1999. The Jewish Bishop and the Chinese Bible: S.I.J. Schereschewsky (1831-1906).
Gartenhaus, Jacob. Famous Hebrew Christians. Baker Book House, 1979.
Muller, James Arthur. Apostle of China: Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (1937)
Stevens, George H. Jewish Christian Leaders, Oliphants, London. 1966
http://www.bdcconline.net/en/stories/s/schereschewsky-samuel-isaac-joseph.php , by Paul Claspar, Formerly Dean of St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, China