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Bernard Bettelheim is one of those historical figures you just love to hate. Or, well, hate might be too strong of a word. But, he was certainly a colorful character. Today, Mike Williams of the UPenn Libraries shares with us some glimpses into the “Loochooan” (Ryukyuan) Bibles that Bettelheim had compiled and published in 1855.

Right: Title page of Bettelheim’s Gospel of Luke (1855). UPenn Libraries.

Born into a Jewish family in Pressburg, Hungary, and raised up towards someday becoming a rabbi, he came to Okinawa in 1846 as a Protestant missionary, along with his wife and two children. Since Christianity was banned in Ryukyu, and contacts with foreigners were extremely restricted, he was denied permission to come ashore, but forced or tricked his way onshore anyway. Granted permission to stay the night at the Buddhist temple Gokoku-ji, with the plan that the Ryukyuan authorities could send him away in the morning, Bettelheim instead stayed at the temple for seven years, throwing out the monks, idols, anything he thought sacrilegious, and defending his position at the temple in part by accusing anyone who came to kick him out of violating his wife’s privacy, of trying to see her unclothed.

For the next seven years, he tried continuously to proselytize in the port city of Naha and the royal capital of Shuri, though he was opposed by the authorities at every turn. As merchants were forbidden from engaging in interactions with foreigners (and specifically with Bettelheim), he took to, essentially, stealing, taking whatever he wanted in the markets, and leaving whatever he thought a fair price. He distributed missionizing leaflets, which were always collected up by the authorities and returned to him, and even sometimes broke into private homes to sermon at people who likely could not have understood him. Bettelheim had reading/writing fluency in English, French, German, and Hebrew before coming to Okinawa, and so it is feasible that as a person with a skill for languages, he might have picked up some of the Ryukyuan language. But, as Williams points out in the link I’m sharing today, “it is difficult to determine exactly what language Bettelheim spoke while on Okinawa, and to what degree he recognized the [distinction] between native Ryukyuan, mainland Japanese, Okinawan dialect Japanese, and the heavily Chinese-influenced “officialese” used by the local government.” Nevertheless, he managed with the help of his Classical Chinese tutor to compile six volumes of books of the New Testament in “translation” into “Loochooan.” These were later printed & published in Hong Kong, after Bettelheim was finally taken away from Okinawa by the American Commodore Matthew Perry, much to the relief of the beleaguered Ryukyuan Court.

As Williams’ beautiful blog post shows, the volumes were written entirely in katakana (with the exception of the title pages), rendering them extremely difficult to parse, even if they were in a standard Okinawan or Japanese language, which Williams tells us they surely are not. I had wondered about these volumes, wondered what they looked like, what the language looked like in them. It’s really interesting to get to see some openings, and to get some sense of it.

For further details and discussion of Bettelheim’s life in Ryukyu, and about these volumes, including some beautiful pictures, see Michael William’s blog post “A “Loochooan” New Testament,” on the UPenn Libraries’ official blog site, “Unique at Penn.”

My thanks to Molly Des Jardin, Japanese Studies Librarian at the UPenn Libraries, for bringing this post to my attention.

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