When I was a child I used to play with Legos. My brothers had two massive bins in their bedrooms filled with tiny pieces. We would dump the bins out on the bedroom floor and build for hours.
Eventually, by the time we were finished, the entire floor was covered with legos. I remember we used to have a method for searching for those pieces smaller than the rest, meticulously sorting through each section of the bedroom floor to find one small piece that was so desperately needed to finish our masterpiece.
I thought of this memory as we searched through the almost 220 acres of the cemetery in Leipzig, Germany. We spent over eleven hours searching for two holy gravestones belonging to Yechiel Tzvi Herschensohn-Lichtenstein and Franz Julius Delitzsch.
One we were able to find, the other we were not.
A Fitting Eulogy
Franz Julius Delitzsch came into this world on February 23, 1813. Born into a Gentile Christian family his life would be one of greatness. To simply write about the impact of his life work seems to do it very little justice. Words on paper could never amount to the effect his work had among the Jewish people during the mid-eighteenth century and still today. From a young age Delitzsch stood out from the other children as exceptional in his generation. His godfather, Levy Hirsch, saw this and educated him with the highest of educations, which would eventually lead the way for his great accomplishments.
Delitzsch was a thinker. He was a seeker. But most importantly he sought after truth. Deep, unbending truth.
Throughout his young adult years in university he searched for truth in many different corners, particularly in German philosophy and thought. According to his own autobiography he recounts to having lost himself in the works of a secular German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and almost completely drowned in his works. It wasn’t until a young student friend of his, a devout disciple of Yeshua, shared the gospel message with him that Delitzsch’s life was transformed. He writes:
Even now I can point out the specific street corner in Leipzig where a light from above flashed around me like a bolt of lightning, and I heard a voice saying to me: “Do not be lacking in faith, rather you must surely believe.” And like Thomas I too proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
Referring to this moment, Theophilus Lucky writes in his eulogy for Delitzsch:
From that day on, he cleaved to the Messiah with all the might of his spirit and with all the fire of his heart. His soul’s only wish was to serve him with a pure heart, and so he ceased studying the teachings of German philosophers and began studying the teachings of HaShem. He drew living water from the well that was dug in the fields of HaShem, the God of Jacob, and he drank his fill and never drank foreign waters again.
From the moment Delitzsch took on the yoke of discipleship he dedicated unceasing devotion to bringing the name of Yeshua to all nations. The Jewishness of Yeshua and the importance of Israel were so much a part of Delitzsch’s worldview that shortly after becoming a Yeshua follower, he took on the task of learning Mishnaic Hebrew, Yiddish, and advancing his biblical Hebrew studies. In addition to the holy language he also took on learning Rabbinic literature and, as Lucky states: “He plummeted those depths and brought up pearls and precious jewels which sparked on his head, embedded in golden diadem.”
After many years at the Leipzig University learning the depths of Jewish thought and history, Delitzsch graduated to professor and received his doctorate degree. The end of his education marked the beginning of his work and he readily began building the kingdom.
Lucky writes about this time:
HaShem blessed Franz Delitzsch, for whoever studies Torah for its own sake has mysteries of Torah revealed to him and he is made like a fountain whose waters never cease to overflow. Delitzsch placed the yoke of Scripture around his neck and never unloaded it. Work was his whole life, and he arose in the morning for it and went to bed late for it, for he was of the same opinion as Rabbi Elazar of Bartuta and always said to himself: “What belongs to him I will give to him, for I and my life belong to him; why did he give me life if not to serve him and tend to his vineyard?”
A Pious One
During his studies Delitzsch fell in love with the Jewish people and set out to help publish many works not only revealing his brilliance but also professing his deep love and devotion to the Jewish people. Throughout the many years of writing, Delitzsch rose through the ranks of academia and eventually made his way to become a professor of theology in Erlangen, Germany, a position that gave him much honor and joy. Later in his life he moved back to Leipzig, also in a professor position, where he remained until his death.
Delitzsch worked relentlessly on many works but none as great as the famous Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels. For forty years Delitzsch labored and worked to help bring our holy Gospels into our holy tongue. Understanding the Jewish mind and Jewish culture through his studies, Delitzsch knew that no true Israelite would feel at home reading a document in a foreign language. Lucky goes on to say:
Since Delitzsch knew that a true son of Israel loathes books on Scripture that are not written in Hebrew, he took the enormous burden upon himself to translate the books of the Gospel writers and the apostles that are called the “New Testament” into Hebrew. He did so in order that every son of Israel would be able to understand the words written therein and see that a Jew who believes in Yeshua the Messiah is indeed a true Jew. He spent forty years on this work, and now we possess ten editions.
Delitzsch’s love for Israel was like the holy Saul’s love, even though Delitzsch originated from a different people. Delitzsch was truly unlike any other Gentile who loved the Jewish people, for the Jewish people returned his love, revering and blessing his name, calling him “righteous man” and “pious one.”
“A pious one” kept running through my mind as the hours crept by with no luck in finding his grave in the massive cemetery. Before coming to Leipzig we had spent time reading about his life. As young Messianic Jews we were all personally affected by his work and now found ourselves in love with his personal story as well.
As the sun began to set we found ourselves in one of the cemetery’s corners. Seeing an elderly gentleman we approached him with desperation. Our bodies ached from walking through each row searching for this holy grave and our stomachs growled with hunger. “I do not know where he is buried,” replied the elderly man, “but I do know this is where the professors from Leipzig University are buried…. my parents are here…my father was a great professor of history there.” My heart jumped in my chest and I could no longer focus on what the kind gentleman was saying. Knowing that Delitzsch was considered an honored professor at Leipzig, I knew we were getting close.
And just like that, as it was when I was a small girl and came across that tiny Lego piece, we came upon Delitzsch’s grave. The sun glistened softly on his gravestone and all three of us held our breath as we stood in honor. The last four hours of walking did not matter to us anymore; we found him, tenderly placed in the corner amongst other brilliant men of his day. We noticed the small red flowers planted on the ground and the elderly man explained to us that someone was taking care of the grave. On top of his gravestone we found small stones laid in honor of his Jewish work by some unknown individual marking their gratitude to him.
I wondered what he would think of us three young Messianic Jews who grew up listening to the Gospels in Hebrew, a gift that he gave to us. I wondered what he would think of the thousands and thousands of Jewish lives he affected and how his work so delicately places Yeshua back into the Jewish story.
Delitzsch’s life was that of greatness. He bequeathed a precious gift to us. Today the Gospels that he translated are read in the tongue of our people by thousands of Jews around the world. His work brought many of our luminaries to faith and helped start a revolution of Yeshua followers during his day. He turned the city of Leipzig into a safe haven for young religious Jews coming to faith in our Messiah Yeshua. Here he discipled both Jew and Gentile in the beauty and depth of the Messianic ideal.
But perhaps what is more remarkable than any of his works or accomplishments is that which a non-Jew gifted the Jewish world. Delitzsch was a true righteous among the nations. The testimony that the nations hold through him should be held like the jewels that adorn a crown.
We found the last piece to the masterpiece of his story. We respectfully placed the Levy Hirsch edition of the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels on his grave in honor of him and his work. We at Vine of David hope that we’ve done his work honor by republishing his translation of the Gospels in a beautiful and holy manner.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find the grave of Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein, also a great Jewish scholar whose faith in Yeshua led him to write many great works and commentaries on the New Testament. We found out later that his grave was most likely destroyed during the Second World War. We also found out that many Nazi youth would go into the cemetery and destroy Jewish graves as an initiation process into the Nazi ranks. We can only assume that Lichtenstein was a victim of the war as well. Perhaps if there had been more righteous Gentiles like Delitszch during WWII, graves like Lichtenstein’s would still be intact for us to visit and honor.
The world needs more righteous people. Delitzsch will stand as a pillar throughout time as someone whose love for the Jewish people emanated from deep within his soul, and with HaShem’s help he was able to give us a precious gift: the story of our Master Yeshua in the language into which he was birthed.
- [Cf. Curtiss. Franz Delitzsch: A Memorial Tribute, 19-20.]
- Pirkei Avot 3:7.
- [Delitzsch was working on the 11th edition at the time of his death, which was later published and is the edition used in Vine of David’s Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE).]