In 1954, when the Israeli Consulate in New York needed to verify the authenticity of some ancient documents that had been discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave near Jericho on the shores of the Dead Sea seven years earlier, it called in Harry M. Orlinsky. Dr. Orlinsky examined the writings, which had been put up for sale by a Syrian Orthodox prelate, and pronounced them authentic: Today, the Dead Sea Scrolls are recognized as the world's oldest surviving biblical writings.
For most scholars, that would have been enough to ensure their place in history. But it was only a chapter in the illustrious career of Harry M. Orlinsky, who died Saturday at age 84. Dr. Orlinsky, a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute in New York, was also the only Jewish scholar on the team that produced the monumental Revised Standard Version of the Bible in the 1950s; a translator for the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1991; and chief editor of the New Translation of the Torah for the Jewish Publication Society of America.
He began his career in the 1930s, an era that saw a revival of interest in Bible reading, which had been dying off before the Wall Street crash of 1929. The Depression attracted many new readers, but they had trouble with the archaic language of the King James Version. That fact sparked a boom in new biblical scholarship during the 1930s and '40s. Dr. Orlinsky, who believed the translator's job was above all to make sense of the text, became a major figure in the philosophical movement to turn biblical scholarship away from word-for-word literalism toward idiomatic translations aimed at capturing the original meaning of phrases.