The History of the Bible Society in Israel
Nearly 200 years of introducing the God of Israel to the People of Israel in the Land of Israel
Today in Israel, the "tongue of the prophets" has been revived. The streets of Jerusalem reverberate with essentially the same language used by Moses and the prophets, a language known to Jesus and his disciples. The scribes of Israel played a key role in transmitting the written Word to posterity, as evidenced by the 2000-year-old Isaiah scroll found in 1947 at Qumran near the Dead Sea. This scroll is nearly identical to the Massoretic Hebrew text used in most Bible translations today.
Ironically, the very land that gave the world the Bible became bereft of God’s Word in prolonged desolation. Travelers to the Holy Land in past centuries were astonished at its utter physical ruin, poverty, and illiteracy. These wretched conditions coincided with the dearth of God’s written Word. Physical restoration of the Promised Land only began in the nineteenth century with the Zionist return to the land. As Isaiah promised: "The Lord will comfort Zion, he will comfort all her waste places, and her wilderness he will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord" (Isaiah 51:3). Significantly, this Zionist renewal was preceded by the reintroduction of God’s written word to the land, carried out by the Bible Society and other Protestant organizations.
The Bible Society of the State of Israel as we know it today was founded in 1949 after the establishment of the State. Even before that, however, the Bible Society worked in the land of Israel as a local agency of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). The BFBS was founded in 1804, following Thomas Charles’ meeting with Mary Jones in 1800. In contrast to other national Bible societies, the BFBS saw the world as its mission field from the very beginning, and the land of Israel (“Turkish Palestine” at the time) was no exception. Many other organizations were born with a similar vision during this time, and the work of the Bible Society in the land of Israel started by giving or selling Bibles to missionaries going to different parts of the Levant.
The first "Bible Man," Cristoph Burckhardt, paid a short visit to Jerusalem in 1818 where he sold and distributed Bibles.
BFBS established an agency in the Levant in 1820. Two years later Joseph Wolff came to Jerusalem with twenty camels loaded with Bibles. Wolff, the son of a rabbi, was a Jewish believer known as an “eccentric pioneer.” He had received most of his Bibles from the BFBS. In 1824, the BFBS representative to the Turkish Empire, Benjamin Barker, visited Jerusalem, noting that Bible distribution was done by English and American missionaries, often equipped by BFBS. Throughout the nineteenth century the BFBS’s work in the Holy Land was carried out by maintaining contact with local missionaries and occasional visits by BFBS representatives. In 1870 a small depot was set up jointly with another organization in Nazareth.
In 1905 the first BFBS depot was established in Jerusalem outside Jaffa Gate. The work was done under the administration of the Cairo Agency of BFBS. During World War I the depot was evacuated, but it was kept open and maintained by Mr. Whelan. Work started afresh in 1918 after British troops had captured Jerusalem from the Turks.
In 1926 the Society purchased property near the municipality building in Jerusalem and operated from there in the “Bible House” until 1948.
During this time the BFBS established a joint agency with the American Bible Society (ABS) in Cairo; it was called the "Bible Lands South." This agency administered all of the work in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Cyprus, and the mandate of Palestine.
This joint agency proved to be very successful, and the idea was put forward to establish a worldwide “United Bible Societies” (UBS) that would administer and facilitate the cooperation between the many national Bible Societies throughout the world. Because of World War II this idea had to wait until 1946, when the UBS was officially established in Elfinsward in England.
The operation in Jerusalem continued from the “Bible House” until 1948 and the outbreak of the War of Independence. The Bible House was damaged by a bomb, and the property had to be abandoned and the staff evacuated. Today the former Bible House is a part of the Jerusalem Municipality in Safra Square.
The Bible Society moved to Haifa. Magne Solheim’s services as “Honorary Assistant Secretary” were secured through the generosity of the church of Norway, and the establishment of the Bible Society of the State of Israel was a fact. New location and new staff, but still the same Bible!
In 1959 the first full Bible in Hebrew was printed in Israel. That was an accomplishment that drew the attention of Prime Minister Ben Gurion who expressed pleasure that "we can now print the Bible in the Land of the Bible."
In 1969 the idea was put forward to translate the New Testament into modern Hebrew. The work was begun in 1970, a project that drew the attention and excitement of the now-retired Ben Gurion. Unfortunately Ben Gurion passed away before the final translation was published.
The year 1977 saw the printing of the first New Testament in modern Hebrew, and in 1979 the Bible Society returned to Jerusalem opposite its original site. The Bible Society is now located on Jaffa Road in a spot that is very visible and easily accessible to the hundreds of people from Israel and from around the world who stroll along Jaffa Road every day.
In 1993 the Bible Society received the Israeli government’s highest literary award for its complete Bible, and in 2000 the first Modern Hebrew New Testament concordance was published.
The Bible Society started as a foreign mission to Israel, but today it is maintained and led by local Messianic Jewish believers. It is a joy for us to keep up this ancient heritage, and we are grateful to our foreign predecessors who introduced the word of God to our nation. We intend to keep up the good work, no longer as a foreign entity, but as a local Israeli Bible Society serving the local Messianic congregations while still maintaining our international cooperation and brotherhood with other Bible Societies throughout the world.
With this ancient heritage behind us, we look to the future. Our vision is that the life-changing message of the Bible will shape the community of Israel and that the people of Israel will learn to know the Messiah of Israel. Let the people of Israel in the Land of Israel hear the good news of salvation through the Messiah of Israel. Will you join us in this important God-given mission?