Harry M. Orlinsky, Scholar

March 24, 1992

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.

In the 1970s, Dr. Orlinsky was still raising eyebrows when he supported feminists' criticism of the way biblical translators had rendered male and female gender distinctions in the Scriptures. He suggested that scholars had erred when they translated words with both male and female meanings in the original using words that had only male implications in modern English. "We were perverting the Bible by limiting it to the English point of view by the way of sex," he said. Yet he shunned the modern compulsion to make Bible translation serve religious or ideological dogma. "My job is not to improve on the original," he insisted.

Leivy Smolar, president of Baltimore Hebrew University, where Dr. Orlinsky taught from 1936 to 1944, called him "one of the great scholars in the field of Bible and the interpretation of the Bible throughout history." That surely will be history's judgment on a truly extraordinary scholar whose singular contributions constitute an enduring cultural legacy to Baltimore and the world.

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