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.