Middle East Resources

The Translation of the Bible Into Arabic

Bassam Michael Madany

21 February 2022

Introduction

Throughout my ministerial career that began in Syria in 1953, and that is still continuing by the grace of God to the early decades of the Twenty-First Century, I have studied the Holy Scriptures in several languages. 

 I have been reading the Bible in Arabic since my early days. As Syria was under French control during my formative years, I learned French as well. Eventually, I learned English that supplanted French after Syria’s independence in 1946.

My call to the ministry brought me to the USA. I spent three academic years at the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by 1958, and after one year of theological studies at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I embarked on my life work. It consisted of the preparation and recording of messages on the Bible in Arabic. They were broadcast over international radio stations in the direction of North Africa and the Middle East.

While I continued to reside in the United States, I kept my Arabic up-to date through listening to short-wave stations, reading daily and weekly papers from the Middle East. I visited North Africa and the Middle East frequently. During such visits, I purchased Arabic books that gave me information about the evolving Arab culture, and the growing Arabic vocabulary.

The radio and literature ministry became a two-way traffic: the broadcasts brought responses from Eastern Christian and Muslim listeners. I responded via air mail letters and printed follow-up materials.

In my work I used the Smith-Van Dyke translation of the Bible. It was published in1865 and became the most widely used version of the Bible in Arabic. A moving account of this venture was related by Dr. Henry Jessup In his book, “Fifty-Three Years in Syria.” (First Volume, Chapter 4, Pp. 66-78, published by Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1910)

The preparation of messages was done with the audience in mind. The exposition of the Word of God was done with full awareness of the prejudices and misunderstandings of the Bible that are part and parcel of the Islamic tradition. My messages were not polemical, and did not refer to the Qur’an, the Hadith, or Muhammad.

Besides my education in the Middle East, I also taught in Arabic, at Roman Catholic and Protestant mission schools for six years. That enabled me to become fluent in the use of Standard/ Classical Arabic.

The Bible in Missions to Muslims

While proclaiming the Gospel to Muslims, one must not ignore the Islamic baggage regarding the Bible. For them, the Qur’an is Allah’s final revelation; it abrogates all previous revelations. Muslims claim that the Bible was corrupted prior to the rise of Islam. Thus, to publish a revised version of the Smith/Van Dyke of the Bible, may allow Muslims to point to the Christians’ propensity to keep amending their Holy Book. 

Arabic is a living and changing language. I have compiled a list of the new Arabic vocabulary that I had not known prior to 1950.Every time I read Asharq al-Awsat or Assafir Newspapers, or the digital program of BBC Arabic, I discovered a new Arabic word. But this does not mean that ‘older’ Arabic terms cannot be understood by contemporary Arabs. Why? Because the Arabic language is based on the Qur’an, a document that had its text finalized during the life of Caliph Uthman (644- 656.) This document plays a significant role in the life of Arabic speaking people, regardless of their religious affiliation. Arabic is tied to the Qur’an much more than English is related to the Authorized Version of the Bible or, to Shakespeare.

Before too long, the Smith-Van Dyck Arabic Bible will be two-hundred years old. It has become the Bible for most of Arabic speaking Eastern Christians of the Middle East. It’s loved, cherished, and memorized by the new Christians of North Africa who have crossed over from Islam to freedom in Christ.  

The pioneer missionaries who sponsored and worked on the translation of the Bible in Beirut, were churchmen and operated within confessional contexts. They adhered to the early Ecumenical Creeds, and to the Reformed Catechisms and Confessions of Faith. They were not innovators, but reformers. Part of being Confessionally Protestant (whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican) is to believe that the primary means of grace is the preaching of the Word of God. 

While emphasizing the importance of the written text of the Bible, the missionaries realized that converts needed more than a Bible translation. A.A. Hodge’s book on Systematic Theology was translated, and commentaries on the Old and New Testaments were provided in Arabic. The Psalter was translated, and we sang it in a beautiful Arabic poetic style. Also, Arabic hymns were composed by Evangelical (Presbyterian) converts. One American missionary, the Rev. George Ford had the gift of composing Arabic hymns, a talent that I had coveted but never obtained!ii

The mission of the Church requires the proclamation of the Gospel, in Arabic it is known as al-Injeel, derived from the Greek Evangelium. When a person believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, he is grafted into a communion of believers whose faith is anchored in a tradition that stretches back for centuries. Twenty-first century Christians cannot approach the Bible de nuovo, they must read it in the light of a living heritage that goes back to the Apostolic Age.

Saint Paul expected all believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, to appropriate the sacred history of the Old Testament. In First Corinthians 10:1, he included all members of the church (both Jews and Gentiles) in the statement:

1فَإِنِّي لَسْتُ أُرِيدُ أَيُّهَا الإِخْوَةُ أَنْ تَجْهَلُوا أَنَّ آبَاءَنَا جَمِيعَهُمْ كَانُوا تَحْتَ السَّحَابَةِ، وَجَمِيعَهُمُ اجْتَازُوا فِي

الْبَحْرِ، 2وَجَمِيعَهُمُ اعْتَمَدُوا لِمُوسَى فِي السَّحَابَةِ وَفِي الْبَحْرِ،

“Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;”

Paul informed the non-Jewish background-believers that the Israelites of the Old Testament, who went through the Red Sea, were their fathers. Non-Jewish people upon conversion to Christ had appropriated the Old Testament translation into Greek, known as the Septuagint. That was the only Scriptures they had, as the New Testament was still in the process of being recorded. The British scholar Michael Green in his book, “Evangelism in the Early Church,” referred to the Jewish Diaspora and the Septuagint as playing a key role in the spread of the Christian faith.”  iii

The apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:21 “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching (Kerugmatos) to save them that believe.”

In his Letter to the Church in Rome (10:17), Paul explained how people are saved.

“So then, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” AV

“So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” ESV                          

In F. F. Bruce’s “Tradition, Old & New,” Published by the Paternoster Press in 1970, he stressed the role of the Christian Tradition in the interpretation of the Bible.

“Hold fast to the traditions,’ wrote Paul to the Christians in Corinth. Yet one would regard freedom from any kind of tradition as the sign of spiritual maturity and emancipation. That is because of the mistaken idea that tradition is always bad. Yet the living tradition, the community of Christian life, is indispensable. Without it, Scripture would have had no context. If we would suppose that the church had been wiped out in the Diocletian persecution and the church’s scripture lost, to be rediscovered in our own day like the Dead Sea Scrolls, would the rediscovered scriptures once more have the effect which we know them to have in experience, or would they, like the Scrolls, be an archeological curiosity and a subject of historical debate?

“On the other hand, the living tradition without the constant corrective of Scripture, (or, in more modern language, without the possibility of ‘reformation according to the Word of God’), might have developed out of all recognition if it had not indeed slowly faded and died.”  Page 128 

“And, for the Christian, history is the arena of the witness of the Spirit, by whose vital presence the once-for-all act of God which launched the Christian era and is documented in the New Testament retains its dynamism from generation to generation and is effective in human life today. The history of Christian beginnings inevitably takes on fresh significance as it is reapplied and reinterpreted in the experience of successive generations that receive it as their heritage. Thus, it remains potent and relevant. But it is necessary that the history as received should be checked from time to time against the history ‘as it actually occurred’, lest the two should part company irretrievably.”     Pages 172,173

The importance of sound hermeneutics for the proper understanding of the Bible, is masterfully expounded by Dr. Gerald Bray in his article: 

“Two Testaments, But One Bible”iv

The Old Testament worldview is taken for granted by the New Testament writers. The doctrine of creation is an obvious case in point. The belief that there is an intimate correlation between doctrine and ethics is another Old Testament principle which the New Testament writers took for granted.

The message of redemption cannot be separated from the doctrine of creation. The New Testament teaches us that all things were made in and through Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. A gospel which does not affect the material order is no gospel at all, and Evangelical Christians have historically been in the forefront of those who insist that God changes things - not just in the sky when we die, but here and now, on this earth. As human beings, we have not chosen to be made in God’s image, nor can we abdicate this status. We can rebel against God’s covenant, of course, but if we do so we will be punished for trying to escape from our God-given responsibilities. 

It is in this context that we read the Bible and interpret what the different dispensations have to say to us today. We do not have the freedom to disregard its teaching on the ground that it is now outdated, because the underlying principles remain the same. At the current time we have to face the issue of homosexuality. We all agree that the Levitical prescription of stoning is no longer applicable, but we should not conclude from that, that the prohibition of homosexual behaviour has been lifted as well. 

When we read the Bible, we are called to read it spiritually - looking for the underlying principle, and then trying to work out how those principles should be applied in practice. If the principles are kept in view, the range of possible applications will be coherent. To interpret the Bible correctly therefore is to learn how to discern its spiritual principles and then seek ways in which those principles can and should be applied in a given context. Armed with such resources, it is then the privilege of the pastor and preacher to bring God’s Word to his people and show them that it is indeed a living power, just as vital and effective today as it was when it was first written and proclaimed.

http://www.theologian.org.uk/bible/2testaments1bible.html

 

_________________________________________________________________

i A Lexicon of Contemporary Arabic Vocabulary & Phrases

ii George Edward Ford, son of an American Missionary, was born in Aleppo, Syria, and lived in Sidon. There he founded the National Evangelical Institute for Girls & boys, along with Rev. William King Eddy, on the 1st of Dec. 1881 He died in 1928. Rev. Ford translated two hymns and composed nine hymns in Arabic.

iii https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/review-of-evangelism-in-the-early-church

ivDr. Gerald Bray is professor at Beeson Divinity School – Samford University Birmingham, Alabama