Middle East Resources

The Treasures of St. Catherine’s Monastery

Shirley W. Madany

At the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, in the wilderness that separates Egypt from Israel, there is an ancient monastery, St. Catherine’s. Its library contains thousands of precious manuscripts, all waiting to be explored. Many of these manuscripts have been microfilmed by a team of experts and are easily available from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

When Dr. Harvey Staal, Reformed Church missionary to the Middle East, was taking advanced Arabic at the University of Michigan in order to get his Master’s degree in Middle East Studies, one of his professors was Dr. Aziz Suriyal Atiya. Professor Atiya was closely associated with the microfilming of the manuscripts, which was completed in the 1950s.

Sensing that he had a potential scholar on his hands, Professor Atiya encouraged Harvey Staal to obtain one of these important relics of the past, and transcribe a portion of it. He recommended Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151, because it was dated A.D. 867, had the name of the translator, Bishr Ibn Al Sirri, and gave as its location Damascus, Syria. Dr. Staal began right away with the book of Philippians.

It was to be a lifetime project which culminated in the publication, in 1985, of the manuscript in a two-volume work, one in English and the other in Arabic. Printed in Louvain, Belgium, the new volumes are part of a renowned series of Christian Oriental texts. This impressive and masterly work covered 1,800 pages of typed manuscript, and the final proofreading was done in war-torn Beirut. But that is getting ahead of our story.

The Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151 was indeed a most exciting discovery. It appears to be the oldest Arabic translation of the Bible in existence. Certainly it is the oldest Arabic translation with commentary supplied by the translator. The original manuscript was completed in Damascus, Syria, 1,000 years before the famous Smith-Van Dyke Arabic Bible appeared in Beirut. It consists of all the Pauline Epistles, plus the book of Acts and the General Epistles. The Gospels evidently were done, but in a separate book. This manuscript volume is missing and may be lost forever.

Who was this translator Bishr ibn Al Sirri? He was a Nestorian Christian living in Damascus whose work was done about 200 years after the Arab conquest of the Middle East. It is fascinating, therefore, to notice the vocabulary chosen at that period of time by this Arabic-speaking Christian. Al Sirri began with the Epistle to the Romans (the starting point in missions to Muslims). He also used language that would be easily understood by Muslims, both then and now. This meant that Arabic-speaking Christians had not yet become ghettoized. Later on, in the aftermath of the Crusades (1096-1291), Eastern Christians developed certain Arabic terms and expressions which are considered as purely their own. This shows up all too often in Christian preaching and literature in the Arabic language.

In his introduction to the English text of Al Sirri’s translation, Dr. Staal makes the following observation:

“This has been a most interesting, inspiring, and profitable study, especially from two aspects—word study and interpretation. There are a number of translations of individual words that add additional insight to our understanding of some of our basic Christian concepts. It is also most interesting to read the comments made by Middle Eastern Christians of a thousand years ago, reflecting the theology of people from a cultural background very similar to that of our Lord. We trust that some of this will carry over to you in the English translation.”

There is something mysterious and exciting about the desert monastery of St. Catherine. When Dr. Staal visited there, he discovered that Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151 was a fascinating book, of a large size, bound with a remarkable cover of wood and leather. You could imagine, looking at it, that it was certainly one of a kind, perhaps the only Arabic translation of the Bible in Damascus in A.D. 867.

Perhaps in a time of grave danger, some monk hid the manuscript volume under his cloak and walked the long rugged miles to this place of safety, where it has reposed ever since.                  St. Catherine’s has had a reputation of safety for centuries. One look at the map and you will see why.

Those indeed were troubled times. This manuscript probably was deposited for safekeeping in the 1200s. As far as we know, it remained untouched until the microfilming in the 1950s.

Dr. Staal did not have to walk to St. Catherine’s monastery. He flew to a small airstrip nearby. He was able to spend five memorable days, after completing his work on the microfilm copies of the manuscript. What a thrill to see and touch and photograph the manuscript itself!

In 1966, Harvey Staal decided to pursue his doctorate, again under Dr. Atiya, who had moved to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Harvey and Hilda speak of their two years in Utah in glowing terms. They enjoyed those years in America. Their children were able to attend school, and they experienced happy fellowship with the Christian Reformed people of Salt Lake City. His doctorate achieved, Dr. Staal continued his project in his spare time until he had completed the entire manuscript.

Dr. Staal recalls that he needed two hours to decipher just two lines when he first started on Philippians. It was like working with code. The dots, which ordinarily distinguish various letters of the Arabic alphabet, were omitted. Evidently they were not considered necessary for people educated enough to read the Bible! For an example of the difficulty which this presented, consider that one particular mark (“stroke” in Arabic) like the bottom half of a circle could be taken for the letter “n,” “b,” “t,” “th,” or “y” according to where the dots were placed. The translation work became easier only after Harvey became completely familiar with Al Sirri’s script. He spoke with great appreciation of the invaluable help of Dr. Jibrail S. Jabbur of the American University of Beirut, who joined him in the labor of proofreading every word. Dr. Jabbur was able to help him greatly with some almost undecipherable words.

For personal Bible study, Dr. Staal’s English volumes of this ancient manuscript would provide many new insights. It simply is a literal translation of the Arabic text. Here you have an interpretation of various passages of Scripture by a Christian of the 9th century A.D. The translation into Arabic was made from the Aramaic, a language in common use in the Middle East for over 1,000 years—including the time that Jesus was on earth. Dr. Staal had hoped that more Arab scholars would avail themselves of Mt. Sinai’s hidden treasures.

He continued his translation work, choosing this time a very early translation of the Gospels from an Egyptian manuscript dated around the 13th century. By this time, he was greatly helped by possession of an English/Arabic computer program.

Considering the seriousness of the situation in the Middle East, the Al Sirri manuscript from A.D. 867 takes on great importance. It helps everyone to understand the tremendous roots of Middle Eastern Christianity and is a boost to the self-image of Eastern Christians as they face extinction from a reluctant immigration away from the lands of their birth.

With the sudden passing of Dr. Harvey Staal on February 21, 1999, the Christian world lost one of its rare scholars. In August of 1999, a large group of friends and family gathered at the Heritage Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan, to participate in a memorial service.

Memories were shared from a variety of times and places in the Staals’ busy lives of service. Harvey and Hilda spent seven years each in Basra, Iraq; Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman and six years in Beirut, Lebanon, as well as one year in Cyprus.

Gaylen Byker, now president of Calvin College, recalled the great hospitality they enjoyed in the home of the Staals in Beirut, and the courage that Harvey displayed when they were being evacuated by helicopter during a particularly stressful time in that civil war. Harvey came down to the beach to see them off! A friend recalled Harvey’s sense of humor when he, Bob Block, was teamed up to work with Harvey in Basra. His friend joked that probably they wouldn’t get much done as it would either be “blocked” or “stalled.”

One of their sons recalled his father’s mental prowess in the Arabic language when he actually won a TV Quiz show in Kuwait, competing in Arabic as the only foreigner among Arabs, on a wide-ranging knowledge of the Arab world. The program was widely shown and gave Dr. Staal a certain kind of fame.

Among the many who remembered their hospitality, the Madanys (Bassam and Shirley) recalled spending Easter with them during their lengthy stay in Cyprus which happened to coincide with the Staals’ one year there. Bassam Madany likened Harvey Staal’s literary work to that of the early scholars, Samuel Zwemer and Cornelius Van Dyke.

Harvey presented Bassam with a gift of the English and Arabic copies of Codex 151. They were published by the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium of Louvain, Belgium. Codex 151 consisted of all the New Testament Epistles plus the Book of Acts.

It wasn’t until May of 1998 that Rev. Madany was able to introduce this valuable work to a group of students at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in Amman, Jordan. As he had expected, they were overjoyed to discover the existence of this portion of Scripture, one thousand years older than the treasured Smith-Van Dyke version of 1860! At that time the branch office of the United Bible Societies in Amman had sufficient copies for all 35 students to purchase. Not only was this an early translation from Syriac into Arabic, but it also contained notes and comments written by the original Christian translator. Here was evidence of evangelical roots!

Back in America, and through our E-mail contacts and web page, we began to sense that there was renewed interest in Mt. Sinai Codex 151.   Eventually there was a second printing of the book to replenish supplies in Beirut, Lebanon.  Further information about obtaining copies may be obtained from the Lebanon Bible Society:  <bsl@biblesociety.org.lb>

SUMMARY NOTE

The late Dr. Harvey Staal, veteran scholar and missionary to the Middle East, successfully worked on an ancient Arabic manuscript of the New Testament, containing the Epistles and the Book of Acts. It was preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It was discovered in the early fifties, and after years of hard work, Dr. Staal published it in 1985 under the auspices of the United Bible Societies in Beirut, Lebanon. It is known as Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151.