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The Story of the Smith-Van Dyck Translation of the Bible into Arabic 1865

May 05, 2023
By Bassam Michael Madany

The Story of the Smith-Van Dyck Translation
of the Bible into Arabic


Bassam Michael Madany

28 February 2022

During 2022, I posted articles on “The Bible & the Church” and “The Translation of the Bible Into Arabic.” In this article, we get the story of the “Smith-Van Dyck Translation of the Bible into Arabic.” Thanks to the American missionary, Dr. Henry Jessup who reported on this historic event in his memoir, “Fifty-Three Years in Syria” This two-volume book has been reprinted; also, a digitized copy of the book is available at 

Prior to the Great War (WWI), Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, and Tyre, were parts of Syria that had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks. While “Jebel Lubnan” i.e., Mount Lebanon, was a semi-autonomous district inhabited by Maronite Christians and an Islamic sect, the Druze. Henry Jessup lived in Beirut, which explains the term “Syria” in the title of his book. Most American missionaries labored in Mount Lebanon in the 19th century.   

Here are excerpts from “Fifty-Three Years in Syria,” interspersed with my comments.

Referring to the challenges of Bible translations, Dr. Jessup wrote:

“If it was difficult for Luther to translate from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into German, how much more to translate [into Arabic] 960 pages from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and 270 pages from the Greek of the New Testament!”

The American missionaries arrived in the Levant during the early years of the 19th century. Their goal was to revive the Eastern Churches that had been under Islamic rule for twelve centuries. To accomplish this goal, required the availability of the Christian Scriptures in Arabic.

“The translation project began in 1848, with Dr. Eli Smith. On 9 April 1848, Dr. Smith submitted a copy of the new translation of the Book of Genesis.

Four years later, most of the Pentateuch had been translated and approved. Dr. Smith worked on the translation of the New Testament that was completed in 1855.”

“At the time of his death in 1856, Eli Smith had devoted nine years to this work. The mission appointed Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck who continued with the translation work in November 1857, until it was accomplished in 1865.

“Cornelius Van Alan Van Dyck, M.D., came to Syria, April 2, 1840, aged twenty-one years and four months, the youngest American ever sent to Syria. He came as a medical missionary, had never studied theology, but in seventeen years in Syria he had mastered the Arabic language, the Syrian, Hebrew, Greek, French, Italian and German. He was of Dutch origin, born at Kinderhook in 1818. He had a genius for languages, a phenomenal memory, a clear intellect, and excelled in medicine, astronomy, the higher mathematics, and linguistic science. His knowledge of Arabic, both classical and vulgar, was a wonder to both natives and foreigners, as will be seen in the chapter on his life and work. He had been ordained January 14, 1846, and afterwards received the degrees of D.D. and LL.D., and later that of L.H.D. from Edinburgh.”

“The following is a partial list of the "helps" that were available for use by the men involved in the translation:

“Of Hebrew Grammars, Gesenius' Lehrgebaude (1817), a smaller grammar edited by Rodiger (1851), a gift from the editor; Ewald's Lehrbuch (1844) and Nordheimer's Grammar. Of Lexicons: Gesenius' Hebrew Thesaurus, and Robinson's Gesenius, also Furst's Concordance and his School Dictionary, also Noldin’s Concordance.

“Of Commentaries: Rosenmuller on the Pentateuch, and Tuch and Delitzch and Knobel on Genesis. The London Polyglot with Buxtorf's Chaldee, and Castel's Syriac Lexicon, and Schleusner's Greek Lexicon of the Septuagint. Also, Tischendorf's Septuagint, and for a general Greek lexicon, Liddell, and Scott.

Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck continued with the translation work assisted by the Lebanese scholars Nasif El Yazigy, and Butrus El Bistany. He consulted with Arabic scholars in Germany, viz: Professor Fleischer of Leipsic, Professor Rodiger of Halle, Professor Flugel of Dresden, and Dr. Haranguer, librarian of the Imperial Library, Vienna.”

The Arabic Language of the translation

“The style of Arabic adopted was to be the same as had been adopted by Dr. Smith after long and frequent consultations with the mission and with native scholars. Some would have preferred the style “Qur’anic” i.e., Islamic, adopting idioms and expressions peculiar to Muslims. All native Christian scholars decidedly objected to this. It was agreed to adopt a simple but pure Arabic, free from foreign idioms, but never to sacrifice the sense to a grammatical quick or a rhetorical quibble, or a fanciful tinkling of words. As a matter of fact, it will be seen that in the historical and didactic parts, the style is pure and simple, but in the poetical parts, the style necessarily takes on the higher standard of the original, e.g., Job, Psalms, and parts of the prophets. 

“The work of the translation of the New Testament was finished on March 9, 1860. Dr. Van Dyck was assisted by a Muslim scholar of high repute, Sheikh Yusef El Asir, a graduate of Al-Azhar University of Cairo, whose purely Arabic tastes and training fitted him to pronounce on all questions of grammar, rhetoric and vowelling, subject to the revision and final judgement of Dr. Van Dyck.

“Dr. Van Dyck reported the completion of the translation of the Old Testament. Friday, March 10, 1865, a celebration took place at the American Press, in honor of the printing of the Old Testament, thus completing the new Arabic translation of the Bible.”

Celebration and Praise

Dr. Henry Jessup continued: “In the upper room, where Dr. Smith had labored on the translation eight years, and Dr. Van Dyck eight years more, the assembled missionaries gave thanks to God for the completion of this arduous work.” 

“Just then, the sound of many voices arose from below, and on throwing open the door, we heard a large company of young men, laborers at the press and members of the Protestant community, singing to the tune of Hebron a “new song.” “Even praise to our God,” composed for the occasion by Mr. Ibrahim Sarkis, chief compositor, in the Arabic language. Surely not for centuries have the angels in heaven heard a sweeter sound arising from Syria [Beirut, Lebanon] than the voices of this band of pious young men, singing a hymn composed by one of themselves, ascribing glory and praise to God that now for the first time, the Word of God is given to their nation in its purity.

“The hymn was translated this hymn into English, and on Sunday evening, March 12th 1865, a public meeting was held in the old church in commemoration of this great event, and addresses were made by Rev. James Robertson, Scotch Chaplain, Mr. Butrus Bistany and Rev. D. Stuart Dodge. The hymn was sung in Arabic and English.”

The English translation follows:

Hail day, thrice blessed of our God. Rejoice, let all men bear a part. Complete at length Thy printed word; Lord, print its truths on every heart.

To Him who gave His gracious word, Arise, and with glad praises sing; Exalt and magnify our Lord Our Maker and our glorious King.

Lord, spare Thy servant through whose toil, Thou gav'st us this of books the best, Bless all who shared the arduous task From Eastern land or distant West.

Amen! Amen! lift up the voice, Praise God whose mercy's e'er the same, His goodness all our song employs, Thanksgiving then to His Great Name.

“On the 3rd of June 1865, Dr. Van Dyck proceeded to New York, in accordance with arrangements made with the American Bible Society and superintended the making of a set of electrotype plates of the entire Arabic Bible in large type 8 volumes, and of the voweled New Testament. Two years later he returned to Beirut with Mr. Samuel Hallock, an electrotyper, and superintended electrotyping the voweled Old Testament 8vo, and editions of the entire Bible and of the New Testament. The American Bible Society furnished the British and Foreign Bible Society with a duplicate set of plates of the Bible and New Testament made in New York and also of the vowelled Old Testament made in Beirut.”



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