The Bible in our hands

23-12-2015 04:35 PM

Sanaa’ Farouk -Sherine Nader








 150 years on the most-read and most-printed Arabic translation of the Holy Bible


It must be admitted that despite the millions of Arabic-speaking Christians who read the Bible, very few pause to ask how this Book reached them. Yet the Arabic translation of the Bible has a long history, but barely 150 years since it was made so easily available and accessible to all.

The first day of this month, December 2015, saw a four-day celebration seminar to mark 150 years on the publication of Al-Bustani–Van Dyck Bible, one of the most widely used Arabic translations of the holy book. The celebration was organised by the Center for Middle Eastern Christianity (CMEC) of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC), jointly with the Center of Coptic Studies of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), and was held at the ETSC in Abassiya, Cairo. Participating in the event were a number of theologians as well as scholars, students and researchers of the Bible from inside and outside Egypt.


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Only in churches

Atef Mehanna, President of the ETSC gave the inaugural address. He praised Van Dyck as a blessed man who was “a true reflection of the light of Jesus in our corner of the world in the 19th century. His Arabic translation of the Bible has proved to be best for its adherence to the original source text [Textus Receptus].”

Bishop Epiphanius, Abbott of Saint Macarius monastery, praised the Van Dyck translation as the first Arabic translation of the Bible to be printed on a large scale, making the Bible thus accessible to Arabic-speakers in their native tongue. Before that, he said, the few copies of the Bible existed only in churches and were only available for clergymen. Bishops and priests, however, often then preferred to read the scripture in Coptic or Greek.

For Loay Mahmoud, Head of the BA’s Center for Coptic Studies, Egyptians have lagged behind other Arab translators of the Bible, which he finds surprising. “Ancient Egyptians,” Dr Mahmoud said, “were the first to use the concept of collation of a text written in different languages and its translation in the same document. This was the case with the famous Rosetta Stone, written in two different languages and three different scripts, which enabled Champollion to decipher the ancient hieroglyphics.

“Apart from partial translations,” Dr Mahmoud said, “there are 10 full translations of the Bible in addition to one full translation of the New Testament. Three of these were made by Egyptians and eight by Lebanese. I wonder why Egypt, with all her cultural heritage and many researchers, has such a minimal share in translating the Bible.”


Egyptian minimal share

During 20 centuries of Christianity in Egypt, Dr Mahmoud said, Egyptians only once translated the Bible into their mother tongue. That was back in the 4th-5th century when the Bible was translated into the Sahidic Coptic dialect, he said. After the Arab Conquest of the Levant and Egypt in the 7th century, Arabic gradually took over as the official language, and Arabic translations of the Bible emerged in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, long before the first attempts to translate the Bible into Arabic by Egyptians in the 10th century. This was the time Christians in Egypt began losing their majority status and, some two centuries later, Arabic became by decree the only language of the State and official documents. However, most Egyptian translations were incomplete, inaccurate and of unknown origin such as the Alexandrian Vulgate. It was only in 1968 that Pope Kyrillos VI formed a committee headed by Anba Gregorius, the Coptic Bishop of Studies and Research to translate the Bible into Arabic; only the New Testament was translated and was published by the State-owned Dar al-Maaref. “It is a shame that Egyptians have long been recipients rather than active producers of Bible translation,” he said.

Dr Mahmoud suggested that Egypt Council of Churches (ECC) would form a committee to revise the Van Dyck translation to adapt it better to the Egyptian tongue and take into consideration the historical and spatial context of the original text. He also asked the ECC to establish a Bible museum that would hold a collection of ancient manuscripts of the Bible and the various translations, as well as information on the translators and translation stages. “That would make it a unique educational museum in the region,” he said.

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Revise the Arabic

Ramez Attalla, Director of the Bible Society of Egypt, gave a review of the role the Society has played in Egypt during the past 25 years. “Always ‘at the service’ of the Van Dyck Bible,” Mr Attalla said, “we noticed that it had remained unrevised for more than 135 years. The society thus worked on proofreading the Arabic translation, correcting some of the syntax, modernising the spelling of some words, adding vowel marks (tashkeel) and punctuation, placing subtitles, editing the layout and publishing the Bible in various sizes and covers. We also published special editions of the Bible such as a reference edition, study edition, illustrated edition, and a Braille edition. We did not alter the original Van Dyck translation, however. Now that we are in the 21st century, we need a revised translation with modern wording. The Bible Society will support any initiative to revise the Van Dyck translation in that context.”

Rev. Andrea Zaky, Head of the Evangelical Community of Egypt, fully agrees with the opinion that a more modern, revised Arabic translation of the Bible is needed. “Because the Van Dyck translation was made in Lebanon,” he said, “Egyptians find difficulty with specific words and terms.”

Another advocate for a revised translation is Anba Maqar, Bishop of Sharqiya, who spoke of the Book of Job as an example of a difficult translated text. The original Hebrew text, he explained, is full of Aramaic words especially in the poems where the sentences are highly complex, which adds to the difficulty in understanding the meaning. “Van Dyck’s rendition is a very skillful literal translation,” Anba Maqar admitted, “but the Arabic wording is very difficult, especially for young people who are used to modern Arabic.”


That all-important accuracy

Rev. Tharwat Qades gave an overview of the attempts to translate the Bible into Arabic since the first centuries. He said the Bible has been translated into more than 2000 languages and dialects, the translation movement attaining its golden age during the 19th century. In the Arab World, this coincided with a revival of the Arabic language in the Levant and the emergence of distinguished Arabic language scholars such as Butros al-Bustani, Nasif and Ibrahim al-Yaziji, and Faris al-Shidyaq. This was also the time when Catholic and Protestant missionaries to the Middle East showed special interest in translating the Bible into Arabic; the Protestant translation was completed by Cornelius Van Dyck and the Jesuit translation by Fr Augustin Rodet.

For his part, Youssef Nathan explained that modern-day readers may find some difficulty with the Van Dyck Bible. “Language is in a state of perpetual evolution. It is proper to research the origins of some terms in order to come up with a better translation that would convey the original meaning more accurately or that would replace difficult or ambiguous words with others easier or more widely used.” But he especially warned against any attempt to alter the original meaning. He cited examples of modern translations of the Bible, such as the Book of Life interpretive translation and the modern Jesuit translation, which he considers very good translations.  Book of Life’s New Testament was published in 1982 and the full Bible in 1988. The New Testament of the modern Jesuit translation was published in 1969 and the entire Bible in 1989. Both translations were reprinted several times. But Mr Nathan also criticised other modern translations that use inaccurate prepositions and words which alter the meaning of some verses to the point of undermining the divinity of Christ.

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Constant revision

Rev. Ghassan Khalaf from Lebanon, who was himself among those who attempted several revisions of the Van Dyck translation through the Holy Bible Society, called for the formation of a five-member committee of Bible scholars to constantly revise the Bible translation. He said the committee should gather suggestions and notes sent by readers and scholars to the Bible Society, and investigate them and research their validity. Suggestions that are approved could be inserted into the original text every 10 years; this process ensures that the Bible translation is constantly revised and upgraded for decades to come. The main reasons for the revision, he believes, is to substitute outdated or archaic terms with modern ones that would adapt to changing times, improve the Arabic syntax, correct typos, and remove the ambiguity related to some terms.

Dr Khalaf said the revision process must be supported by the various local Churches so that they would eventually adopt the revised versions. However, this could be a lengthy process because not all believers and Church officials are aware of the problem nor have the necessary theological culture. Marketing or spreading the revised editions in churches and among the believers is a difficult task especially that they usually object to the renewal of the Holy Scripture.

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Story of the Arabic Bible

Attempts to translate the Bible are as old as Christianity itself and date back to the first centuries AD.

Whether an Arabic version of the Bible existed before Islam is a highly debatable matter among Bible scholars and researchers; the only fact is that no written copy (if ever such a copy existed) has survived.

Arabic was the language of the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula long before the rise of Islam. In the first centuries, several Christian communities formed in scattered areas of the Arabian Peninsula, especially to the North in Hira (The Lakhmids in modern-day Iraq) and to the South in Najran (in modern-day Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen). A commercial route linked al-Hira to al-Hijaz then to Najran in the South; most scholars agree that the Bible was being preached in several places in Arabia before the rise of Islam. At least some parts of the Bible must have been translated into Arabic to convey the Word of God to the dwellers of these areas. Supporters of this theory include Jesuit Father Louis Cheikho (1859 – 1927), and orientalists Carl Anton Baumstark (1872 – 1948), and Alfred Guillaume (1888 – 1965).

Several figures living in Mecca in the early days of Islam were known to have practiced some form of Christianity, although no formal Church existed. Most famous among them is Waraqa Ibn Nawfal who was the uncle of Khadija, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. This is confirmed by two hadiths narrated in Sahih al-Bukhari, which confirm that Nawfal was a Christian and read the Bible in Hebrew [hadiths are quotations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; Sahih al-Bukhari is among the most reliable sources of hadith]. Quotes from the Bible which appear in Sirat Rasul Allah (Biography of the Messenger of God) by Muslim historian Ibn-Ishaq (c. 707 – 770) imply that an Arabic translation may have existed around that time.

After the Muslim conquests (622 – 750), Islam spread in the territories of the Persian and Byzantine empires, and reached the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim rulers decreed Arabic as the official language in all the conquered lands; this forced the local inhabitants to use Arabic, and Christians and Jews had to translate their prayers, liturgy and scriptures into Arabic. From the manuscripts that survived since then, it is believed that the oldest known translations of the Bible into Arabic appeared around the 9th century, although a fragment of the Psalms of the Old Testament found in the Ummayad mosque in Damascus is believed to date back to the 8th century. The monks in Palestine, especially from the monastery of Mar Saba, were the first translators of the Bible into Arabic from the original Hebrew and Greek; most orientalists describe these translations as “so awkward and literal that they are hardly worthy being called Arabic at all.” Another translation that dates back to the 8th century was made by the by Bishop Juan/John of Seville and the Mozarabs (Christians living under Arab rule in Andalusia). Unfortunately, no copy of this translation exists today; however, a copy of an Arabic Bible from Andalusia from the 10th century is preserved at the Cathedral of Leon in Spain.

The Monastery of St Catherine in Egypt is home to some of the oldest Arabic full or partial translations of the Bible. The most important of these is the Mt Sinai Arabic Codex 151, discovered in the 19th century. Inscriptions on its paper indicate it was written in 867, making it the oldest existing translation of the Bible into Arabic. The codex also includes the name of the translator, Bishr Ibn al-Sirri and the location where it was written, Damascus; it has a cover wood and leather and includes side commentaries by the translator.

Jews also had their share in Bible translation. In the 10th century, Rabbi Saadiya Gaon (or Saadiya al-Fayumi, in reference to his place of birth in Fayum, Egypt), translated the Torah and some of the other books of the Jewish Bible into the Judeo-Arabic dialect.

In Egypt, the Bible was first translated into Coptic but after the Arab Conquest, the Copts started using Arabic translations which originated in other Arabic-speaking regions such as Palestine and Syria. However, around the 10th century, these translations were revised and adjusted in conformity with the previously adopted Coptic translations; this revised translation is known as the Egyptian or Alexandrine Vulgate. Another translation was done by Hibatallah Ibn al-Assal around 1252.

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The King James version of Arabophones

All these Bibles were transcribed by hand and therefore were not made in many copies. However, the invention of the printing press in 15th century Europe allowed for numerous copies of the same book to be made; it also allowed for the printing of the same book in several languages, written in parallel columns on the same page. These are called the Polyglot Bibles. Examples of such Bibles (or parts of the Bible) include the Genoa Psalter (1516) and the Paris Polyglot (1645).

In 1671, the entire Bible was printed in Arabic in Rome under the direction of Sergius Rizi, the Catholic Patriarch of Damascus, and was widely used.

But the real breakthrough in Bible translation into Arabic occurred in the mid-19th century. American Protestant missionaries had come to the Middle East since the turn of the century and aimed to establish a modern Arabic printing press at the Syrian Mission in Beirut.

Eli Smith, an American missionary and scholar who mastered Greek, Hebrew and Arabic was put in charge of the project. The project started in 1848; the team consisted of Butros al-Bustani, a professor of languages in Jesuit colleges and expert in Semitic languages whose work consisted of writing the preliminary drafts which were then compared with the original Hebrew and Greek texts by Smith; and Nassif al-Yaziji, an Arabic scholar performed proofreading and language correction tasks. Dr Smith died of cancer in 1857 and the work was completed by another missionary, Cornelius Van Dyck who decided to replace al-Yaziji with Youssef al-Assir (a Muslim sheikh and graduate of al-Azhar University). The work was completed in 1865 and published by the American Bible Society.

The Van Dyck Bible is often called “The Protestant Translation” and does not contain the books of the Apocrypha. It is a literal translation from the original Bible written in Hebrew and Koine Greek [Textus Receptus], unlike many of the previous other Arabic translations which were translated from the Syriac, Latin or Coptic languages. It is loyal to the source text to the point that any word that is found to be ambiguous in the original text is also given an ambiguous translation. Despite the flawless Arabic grammar and vocabulary used, some terms are difficult to understand and some sentence structures are considered very complex.

But the real importance of the Van Dyck translation is that it was the first Bible in the Arab World to be printed on a large scale in a modern printing press. It came at a time when literacy was spreading, and thus became accessible to all Christians who never had the chance to own a copy of the Bible and were only able to listen to the Scriptures in church.

The Van Dyck “Protestant” translation urged the Lebanese Jesuits to issue their Catholic translation of the Bible by Fr Augustin Rodet and Ibrahim al-Yaziji, published in 1880. This translation includes the Apocrypha books and is characterised by an easier Arabic style and terminology; it is easier to read because it is divided into paragraphs with headlines and includes comments and footnotes. The Modern Jesuit translation was published in 1989.

Many other translations were published, each attempting to conform better to our modern society. These include The New Catholic Translation (1969), the Book of Life (1982- 1988), al-Targama al-Arabiya al-Mushtaraka (1979-1993) (The Good News Arabic Bible/The Ecumenical Version published by Living Bible International) ; however, the Van Dyck translation continues to be the most widely used among the Arab-speaking Christians; it is called “The King James Version of Arabophones.”


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Story of the Van Dyck Bible


Publishing a Bible in Arabic was the pillar upon which the Protestants founded their missionary work in the Middle East.

Eli Smith (1801 – 1857) was an American missionary who worked with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. He graduated from Yale then from the Andover Theological Seminary, then travelled along the Middle East before settling in Beirut in 1834 where he learned and mastered the Arabic language besides the Greek, Latin, Hebrew, some German, French and Italian which he already knew. Smith was charged with establishing a modern Arabic press with the aim of translating the Bible into Arabic and printing it. The Bible translation began in 1848 with the Genesis; unfortunately, Smith died in 1857 without completing the translation. Only the books of Genesis and Exodus were revised and printed, much of the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament were translated but not revised or printed.

Smith’s right hand was Butros al-Bustani (1819 – 1883), a Catholic Maronite who later converted to Protestantism. He was among the most prominent writers and scholars of his time, and taught at the schools of the Protestant missionaries and then founded his own National School. He also founded several literary and political newspapers, and wrote the first Arabic encyclopedia Daerat al-Maaref and a widely used Arabic dictionary Moajam Moheet al-Moheet. He mastered Syriac and Latin and later learned Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew.

The third member of the team was the Greek Catholic Nasif al-Yaziji (1800 – 1871), another leader of the modern Arab renaissance. He was an Arabic tutor who worked at the Syrian Protestant College (Later the American University of Beirut) and had many writings on poetry, grammar and philosophy.

After Smith’s untimely death, the Syrian mission decided to appoint another missionary, Cornelius Van Alen Van Dyck (1818 – 1895) to succeed him as head of the translation team. Dr Van Dyck had graduated from Jefferson Medical College and was in Beirut as a medical missionary. He studied Arabic at the hands of Bustani, Yaziji and Yusif al-Assir (whom he later appointed as member of his team). He founded the Protestant Seminary in Abeih in the Lebanese mountain and wrote many textbooks in all subjects; he later practiced medicine at the St George hospital.

AfterVan Dyke took over the Bible translation in 1857 he replaced Yaziji with Yusif al-Asir (1815 – 1889) who was a reformist Muslim scholar educated at al-Azhar University. He held official positions in the Ottoman State (Mufti Acre, then Prosecutor General in Lebanon), and was one of the leaders of the Arab renaissance movement.

The translation was completed in 1865.

It is said that Eli Smith had preferred to base some verses of the New Testament on the eclectic text rather than the Textus Receptus which the Board had insisted that the Bible should conform to. Therefore, Van Dyke is said to have revised the entire Bible translation to make sure it conforms to the Textus Receptus. Some claim that for this reason, the Bible was attributed to him rather than to Smith.  Others say that it is called after him simply because he is the one who finished it.


Watani International

23 December 2015



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