Julia Smith's Version of the Bible

Julia E. Smith, The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments; Translated Literally from the Original Tongues. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1876.

This peculiar translation of the Bible has received some attention in recent years because it is the only complete translation of the Bible done by a woman, Julia E. Smith (1792-1886), of Glastonbury Connecticut.

Julia E. Smith was one of five daughters born to Zepheniah Smith (1759-1836), who studied theology at Yale, and had served as a Congregationalist minister between 1785 and 1790, but who had resigned from the ministry after adopting sectarian opinions. He associated himself and his house with the followers of Robert Sandeman (1718-71), who believed that the established churches and their clergy were only a hindrance to true Christianity. They did not attend church, but instead gathered in homes for Bible study and "spirit-led" worship after a manner similar to the early Quakers.

After resigning from the ministry, Mr. Smith became a prosperous lawyer and landowner in Glastonbury. All of his daughters passed the time of marriage without obtaining husbands. Their father died in 1836, their mother in 1850, and the five maiden sisters came into an ample inheritance. They continued to live together in the spacious family home after the death of their parents, renting out much of the land acquired by their father, and occupying themselves with gardening and with tending to a few dairy cows.

The Smith sisters became deeply interested in Bible study during the 1830's and 40's, in the midst of the religious excitement generated by the disciples of William Miller, who preached that Christ would return in 1844. After the failure of this prediction, Julia continued to spend much of her time studying the Bible, and made a hobby of writing out "literal translations" of the sacred books. These translations — which are more in the nature of interlinear glosses than translations in the ordinary sense — were not prepared with a view to publication, but as a spiritual exercise, and a resource to be used by the sisters in their home Bible studies.

As a girl, Julia had acquired some elementary knowledge of Greek, along with Latin and French, and she took up the study of Hebrew by herself during the 1840's. Her knowledge of these languages was imperfect, but she imagined that it equalled that of the most learned scholars, and so she proceeded with an attitude of complete independence, seeking no advice, and giving no attention to scholarly commentaries. This individualistic stance, accompanied by an ostentatious contempt for theological tradition and professional scholarship, was typical of the Sandemanians with whom her family associated. In her preface she writes:

It may be thought by the public in general, that I have great confidence in myself, in not conferring with the learned in so great a work, but as there is but one book in the Hebrew tongue, and I have defined it word for word, I do not see how anybody can know more about it than I do.

However, it is quite possible for a self-taught person to acquire a knowledge of the usual dictionary glosses for Greek and Hebrew words, without being able to discern what sense the words carry in specific contexts, or the contextual meaning of the tenses and aspects of the verbs, or the meaning of idoms, grammatical constructions, and sentences belonging to a body of ancient writings. It is this level of ability that distinguishes the competent from the incompetent in Biblical translation.

Miss Smith's translation uses English words, but it often fails to present any clear idea of the meaning of the sentences. It presents one word after another, just they occur in the original text, without making any adjustments for the sake of English grammar. For example, Isaiah 7:23 reads: "And it was in that day every place shall be where shall be there a thousand vines for a thousand of silver, for sharp points and thorns shall it be." (the American Standard Version has here, "And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, shall be for briers and thorns.") She does not even take into account the "waw consecutive" rule in the rendering of the Hebrew verbs, and so she translates many of the verbs which should be understood as perfects as if they corresponded to the sense of the future tense in English. For example, in Genesis 1:6 she translates "And God will say there shall be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and there shall be a separating between waters to waters." This of course makes no sense in the context, but in her preface she explains that in this handling of the tenses she is "going according to the Hebrew grammar," which "had no regard to time," and that she feels constrained to "follow the tenses as they are," however wrong or even nonsensical the resulting translation may seem to be. She often mistakes the meaning of words, especially the contextual meaning of particles, and so the version displays many grotesque errors of interpretation. In Isaiah 7:9 we find the baffling rendering "If ye will not believe, because ye will not believe" instead of "if ye believe not, indeed ye will not be established." In the New Testament also, many renderings are absurdly stilted, wrong, or mystifying: e.g. Romans 12:10 "in honour preceding one another;" 12:13, "participating in the necessities of the holy ones;" I John 5:21, "watch yourselves from idols." As might be expected, there are many eccentric renderings. The version often betrays an amateurish fascination with etymological "root" meanings, which are put in the place of the ordinary meanings established by usage: e.g. "sunrising" is given instead of "East" as a translation for anatole in Matthew 2:1, 2, 9. But Miss Smith seems to have been quite satisfied with her translation. In her preface she writes: "There may be some little inaccuracies, like putting the verb to be, for is, in a few instances, but I think never has the sense of the Original Tongue been altered."


The Holy bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, Translated Literally from the Original Tongues (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1876).

Madeline B. Stern, "The First Feminist Bible: The 'Alderney' Edition, 1876," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 34, no. 1 (1977), pp. 23-31.

Kathleen L. Housley, "The Letter Kills but the Spirit Gives Life: Julia Smith's Translation of the Bible," The New England Quarterly 61/4 (1988), pp. 555-568.

Susan J. Shaw, A Religious History of Julia Evelina Smith's 1876 Translation of the Holy Bible: Doing More Than Any Man Has Ever Done. San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1993.

Emily Sampson, With Her Own Eyes: the Story of Julia Smith, her Life, and her Bible. University of Tennessee Press, 2006.


It may seem presumptuous for an ordinary woman with no particular advantages of education to translate and publish alone, the most wonderful book that has ever appeared in the world, and thought to be the most difficult to translate. It has occupied the time and attention of the wisest and most learned of all ages, believing, as the world has believed, that such only could give the correct rendering of the language in which the Bible was written.

Over twenty years ago, when I had four sisters, a friend met with us weekly, to search the Scriptures, we being desirous to learn the exact meaning of every Greek and Hebrew word, from which King James's forty-seven translators had taken their version of the Bible. We saw by the margin that the text had not been given literally, and it was the literal meaning we were seeking. I had studied Latin and Greek at school, and began by translating the Greek New Testament, and then the Septuagint, from which our Saviour quoted one or two texts which are not in the Hebrew Bible, and there is now said to be no Hebrew Bible extant so old as the Septuagint. We all had a strong desire to learn the signification of the proper names, and I wrote to a learned friend about it, and he advised me to study Hebrew, saying, "it was a simple language, and easily learned, there being but one book in the world, of pure Hebrew, which was the Bible." He added that, "then I could see with my own eyes, and not look through the glasses of my neighbors." I soon gave my attention to the Hebrew, and studied it thoroughly, and wrote it out word for word, giving no ideas of my own, but endeavoring to put the same English word for the same Hebrew or Greek word, everywhere, while King James's translators have wholly differed from this rule; but it appeared to us to give a much clearer understanding of the text.

It had never at that time entered my mind that I should ever publish the work, but I was so much interested and entertained to see the connection from Genesis to Revelation, that I continued my labors and wrote out the Bible five times, twice from the Greek, twice from the Hebrew, and once from the Latin—the Vulgate. These three languages were written over the head of our Saviour. They are now dead languages and cannot be altered. The whole construction is so complete, that it does seem to be the work of inspiration, and the only communication from God to man, for all time. The work is given in types, in figures, in parables, and in dark sayings, a knowledge of which is gained, as all other knowledge is gained, by the desire of the heart to learn it. It may be thought by the public in general, that I have great confidence in myself, in not conferring with the learned in so great a work, but as there is but one book in the Hebrew tongue, and I have defined it word for word, I do not see how anybody can know more about it than I do. It being a dead language no improvements can be made upon it. As for the Latin and Greek, I have no doubt many have searched deeper into the standard works than I have, but I think no one has given more time and attention to the literal meaning of the Bible text in these languages.

It is very possible that the readers of this book may think it strange that I have made such use of the tenses, going according to the Hebrew grammar. It seems that the original Hebrew had no regard to time, and that the Bible speaks for all ages. If I did not follow the tenses as they are, I myself should be the judge, and man must not be trusted with regard to the Word of God. I think the promiscuous use of the tenses shows that there must be something hidden, that we must search out, and not hold to the outward, for the "letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." It took me about seven years to accomplish the five translations, at least, I was engaged in it that length of time, not giving my whole time to it. I should probably have been much longer, had it come into my head that I should ever consent to have it published. There may be some little inaccuracies, like putting the verb to be, for is, in a few instances, but I think never has the sense of the Original Tongue been altered.

Glastonbury, March 23d, 1876.