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by Henry Jessup
First Volume, Chapter 4, Pp. 66-78
New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1910

The Arabic Bible - Its Translation and the Translators (1848 - 1865)

"And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" Revelation 22:2

Foreign missionaries have moved mountains. Grain by grain, rock by rock, by steady work, year after year, toiling, delving, tunneling, the giant mountain obstacles have been gradually melted away. After years of silent, unseen, prayerful, agonizing work, suddenly a new version of the sacred Scriptures is announced, and millions find the door of knowledge and salvation suddenly opened to them. It is easy to read in a Bible society report that the Bible has been translated into Mandingo for eight millions, into Panjabi for fourteen millions, into Marathi for seventeen millions, into Cantones for twenty millions, into Japanese for fifty millions, into Bengali for thirty-nine millions, into Arabic for fifty millions, into Hindi for eighty-two millions, and into Mandarin Chinese for two hundred millions. But who can comprehend what it all means? To those who claim that missionaries are, or should be, only men who are failures at home, who are unable to fill home pulpits, but are good enough for Asiatic or African mission work, such a statement must be an unsolved and unsolvable riddle.

Translation is an art, a science, one of the most difficult of all literary undertakings. To translate an ordinary newspaper editorial from English into French, German or Italian, would cost most scholars many hours of work. It is easier to compose in a foreign tongue than to translate into it, adhering conscientiously to the meaning, yet casting it so perfectly into the native idiom as to conceal the fact of its foreign origin. Few natives of Asia can translate from English into their own tongue without revealing the stiff foreign unoriental source from which the material was taken.

Dr. Thomas Laurie in his able work "Missions and Science," p. 245, says, "If any wonder why so much pains should be taken to make a version not only accurate but idiomatic, et him read the following words of Luther in 1530: " In translating, I have striven to give pure and clear German, and it has verily happened that we have sought, a fortnight, three or four weeks, for a single word, and yet it was not always found. In Job we so laboured, Philip Melanchthon, Aurogalius and I, that in four days we sometimes barely finished three lines." Again he writes, "We must not ask the Latinizes how to speak German, but we must ask the mother in the house, the children in the lanes, the common man in the market place and read in their mouths how thy speak and translate accordingly."

If it was thus difficult for the learned Luther to translate from the Hebrew and Greek into his own mother German, how much more to translate from them into an Oriental tongue like the Arabic! And few foreign missionaries can translate ordinary tracts and books into the vernacular of their adopted country. Men must have a peculiar mental bent and devote yeas to studying and practicing the vulgar talk of the populace, and the pure classical language of the local literature, if there be a literature, and if not, it identify himself with those who are to read what he writes, before he can translate with success. But when you add to all this the work of translating a book of 960 pages from the ancient Hebrew, the Old Testament, and another of 270 pages from the ancient Greek, the New Testament, so as to give your readers the exact literal idea of the original, and this into a language utterly different in spirit, ideals and idioms not only from the Hebrew and Greek, but also from your own tongue, and remember that this is the Word of God in which error is inadmissible and ,might be fatal; knowing that the eyes of scores of missionaries and the hundreds of native scholars in the future, as well as, servants in philology and linguistic science in Europe and America will scan and criticize your work, and you might well exclaim, "Who is sufficient for these things?" The true translator "nascitur, non fit." It is born in him, and without this native genius and preparation he cannot succeed.

Translators of the Scriptures are "called of God, as was Aaron".   Missionary boards send out young men to foreign lands, not knowing to what special work God may call them. It may be exploring, as Livingston; or healing, as Dr. Parker," who opened China to the Gospel at the point of the lancet", or teaching as Duff, Hamlin and Calhoun; or preaching as Titus Coan of Hilo, Sandwich Isaldn; or it may be translating, as Morrison, Hepburn, Riggs, Goodell, Eli Smith and Van Dyck.

In 1847, a committee of which Dr. Eli Smith was chairman, and Drs. Thomson and Van Dyck were members, sent to the United States an appeal in behalf of a new translation of the Bible into the Arabic language, in which, after speaking of the comparatively evanescent character of translations of the Bible into the languages of tribes evidently hastening to extinction, the appeal rises to high and almost prophetic eloquence in speaking of the future of the Arabic Bible." The Arab translator is interpreting the lively oracles for the forty millions of an undying race whose successive and ever augmenting generations shall fail only with the final termination of all early things. Can we exaggerate on such a them? Is it easy to overestimate the importance of that mighty power that shall send the healing leaves of salvation down the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Niger; that shall open living fountains in the plains of Syria, the deserts of Arabia and the sands of Africa; that shall gild with the light of life the craggy summits of goodly Lebanon and sacred Sinai and giant Atlas?" We think not. These and kindred thoughts are not the thoughtless and fitful scintillation's of imagination, the baseless dreams of a wild enthusiasm. To give the Word of God to forty millions of perishing sinners, to write their commentaries, their concordances, there theology, their sermons, their tracts, their school-books and their religious journals; in short, to give them a Christian literature, or that germinating commencement of one, which can perpetuate its life and expand into full grown maturity, are great gigantic verities taking fast hold on the salvation of myriad's which no man can number, of the present and all future generations"

On the 21st of February 1885, Rev. James S. Dennis, D.D., then a member and librarian of the Syria Mission in Beirut, wrote to Dr. Van Dyck requesting him to prepare a careful sketch of the history of the translation of the Bible into the Arabic language. The following account to p. 76 summarizes the facts given in Dr. Van Dyck's reply:

"An account of the Arabic Version of the Scriptures made under the auspices of the Syria Mission and the American Bible Society".

At the general meeting of the mission held in Beirut, February, 1848, under the date of February 11th, we find the following vote:

"Resolved that at the end of the present term of the seminary (Abeih) Butrus el Bistany be transferred to the Beirut station with a view to his being employed in the translation of the Scriptures, under the direction of Dr. Eli Smith." (Mr. Bistany had been associated with Dr. Van Dyck in the Boys' Seminary of Abeih, from the time of its opening)".  

Under same date, February 11, 1848, we have the following resolution:

"Resolved, that Dr. Smith be authorized to correspond with the secretaries of the American Bible Society in relation to the contemplated new translations of the Scriptures into Arabic".

Under the date of April 4, 1849, we find the following:

"Dr. Smith reported progress in the work of translating the Scriptures, and laid before the mission the first ten chapters of Genesis for examination, and Messrs, Whiting, Thomson, Van Dyck, Hurter, DeForest and Ford were appointed a committee to examine what had been done and report to this meeting. This committee reported April 7th, stating that they find the new translation, faithful to the original, and a decided improvement upon the version we now circulate, and recommend that the work be prosecuted to its completion upon the same general principles which appear to have guided the translator hitherto. They also commended the translator and those associated with him to the fervent prayers of all the members of the mission, that they may be guided by divine wisdom in the prosecution of this all important work."

It is plain from the above that Dr. Smith began to work on the translation in 1848, assisted by Sheikh Nasif el Yazigy, and Mr. Butrus el Bistany. First, Mr. Bistany made a translation into Arabic from the Hebrew or Greek with the aid of the Syrian. Then Sheikyh Nasif, who knew no language but Arabic, rewrote what had been translated, carefully sifting out all foreign idioms. Then Dr. Smith revised Sheikh Nasif's manuscript by himself, and made his own corrections and emendations.  Then he and Sheikh Nasif went over the work in company, and Dr. Smith was careful not to let the meaning be sacrificed for a question of Arabic grammar or rhetoric.

Under date of April 9th, the mission records state that "Dr. Smith submitted a copy of the new translation of the Book of Genesis, with some remarks and explanations, and it was voted that 100 copies of the new translation of Genesis be printed at the expense of the mission."

As each form was struck off, a copy was sent to each member of the mission, and the Arabic scholars outside the mission, especially to the missionaries of other societies, and by special vote in March 29, 1851, all the members of the mission were urged to give special attention to the new translation and to render Dr. Smith all the assistance in their power to carry it forward to its completion.

In 1852, during the visit of Dr. Edward Robinson, of Union Seminary, Dr. Smith laid on the table the translation of the Pentateuch up to the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, and a committee, consisting of Messrs, Thomson, Whiting, Robinson, Calhoun, Marsh of Mosuland Ford, examined the translation and approved it, whereupon the translator was directed to finish the Pentateuch and then take up the New Testament. March 23, 1853, Dr. Smith laid upon the table the remainder of Deuteronomy, Matthew, Mark, and to the twelfth chapter of Luke.


March 3, 1854, Dr. Smith had completed during the year from the twelfth chapter of Luke to 1 Corinthians.

April 3, 1855, Dr. Smith reported that the New Testament had been completed, and also Jonah, Joel, and Amos, and the printing of the Pentateuch had reached the sixth chapter of Exodus.

April 1, 1856, Dr. Smith made his last report, that in the Old Testament, after finishing Nahum he had taken up Isaiah, and had reached the fifty-third chapter, and that in printing, the Pentateuch had advanced to the end of Exodus, and the New Testament to the sixteenth chapter of Matthew.

At the time of his death he had devoted nine years to this work, or rather eight years of actual labor. A day or two before his death Rev. D. M. Wilson asked him if he had anything to day about the translation.  He replied, "I will be responsible only for what has been printed. If
the work should be carried on, I hope that what I have done will be found of some value."

Before narrating the work of Dr. Van Dyck in completing the translation, let us see what "helps" these learned scholars had at hand is a "translation apparatus." connected with the Old Testament. This list will deeply interest those who regard missionaries as unscholarly and
behind the times.

1. Of Hebrew Grammars, they had Gesenius' Lehrgebaude (1817), has smaller grammar edited by Rodiger (1851), a gift from the editor; Ewald's Lehrbuch (1844) and Nordheimer's Grammar.

2. Of Lexicons; Gesenius' Hebrew Thesaurus, now completed by Rodiger (who kindly sent Dr. Smith the last part as soon as it left the press); and also Robinson's Gesenius, a gift from the translator. He had also Furst's Concordance and his School Dictionary, also Nuldin's Concordance or the Hebrew particles.

3. Of Commentaries: Rosenmuller on the Pentateuch, and Tuch and Delitzch and Knobel on Genesis. Also the Glossa Ordinaria, a voluminous digest from the Fathers, and Pools, Synopsis, with other more common commentaries in English.

4. Of non-Arabic versions of critical value; the London Polyglot (a gift of Mrs. Fisher Howe, of Brooklyn, New York), with Buxtorf's Chaldee, and Castel's Syriac Lexicon, and Schleusner's Greek Lexicon of the Septuagint, besides the lexicons which compose the seventh volume of the Polyglot. Also Tischendorf's Septuagint, containing the readings of four ancient manuscripts; and for a general Greek lexicon, Liddeli and Scott.  Among modern versions Dr. Smith made constant reference to that of De Wett's.

5. Of Arabic versions: Dr. Smith had besides that of Saadias Gaon in the Polyglot, the Ebreo-Mauritanian version, edited by Erpenius, and three copies faith the version of Abu Sa'd, the Samaritan; two of these copies he had made from manuscripts some five hundred years old, and the other edited by Kuenen, with the readings and notes of three manuscripts; also a distinct version in manuscript apparently made from the Peshito written nearly five hundred years ago. The above are ancient. Of more modern versions, I have the Romish edition reprinted by the British and Foreign Bible Society, which we now circulate and which is conformed to the Vulgate with frequent accommodations to the Peshito. Also the lessons read in the Green and Greek Catholic Churches printed at Shuwair and translated from the Septuagint but following after other readings than those of the Polyglot; and the Karshuay lessons read in the Maronite Churches, printed at Koshalya and translated from the Peshito. This version of the Maronites, if reference be had both to conformity with the Hebrew and acceptableness of style to modern readers, is the best of all, but it contains, as well as the lessons of the Greeks, only a small portion of the Old Testament.

6. Of other helps, Dr. Smith had Winer's Realworterbulch (last edition), DeWette's introduction to the Old Testament and Havernicks' Introduction to the Pentateuch; also Sherif-ed-Din-et-Tifasy on previous stones, and the Arabic Materia Medica called Ma-la-yisa: both useful in explaining terms connected with natural history and kindred subjects. The Hebrew text used was that of Michaelis, whose notes and especial references are often valuable; and also Dr. Rossi's various readings, and Bahrdt's remains of the Hexapla of Origen.

7. This catalogue would not be complete without mentioning the more important helps to a full understanding and proper use of the Arabic language. Grammars: The Commentary of Ashmuny, on the Alefiyeh of Ibn Malik; the Commentary of Dermanuy on the Teshil of the same author, and Millu Jamy of Ibn el Hajeb, also Mughny el Labib of Ibn Hashim, invaluable for its definitions of the particles. Of rhetoric, the Mukhtasr and Muttowwal of Teftazany. Of dictionaries, I have two copies of Feiruzabady, and one of Jauhari, as well as the dictionary Felyumy, and the Constantinople edition of Feiruzabady with definitions in Turkish. Of European works: the dictionary of Freytag and the Arabic-Turco-Persian dictionary of Meninski. Also the Tarifat of Jorjamy and the Kulliyat of Abuel Buka, which latter when furnished with a proper index will help to many definitions of great value.

After the death of Dr. Eli Smith many thought that the work of translation must   cease. Dr. Smith was so learned, so accurate and conscientious, and so singularly prepared for this great work, that it seemed as though no one could fill his place. But though the worker fails the work goes on. The mantle of Eli fell on Cornelius. God had been preparing for seventeen years the man who was to complete the great work of giving the Bible to forty millions of men. 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 Hollandic 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.

At the next annual meeting of the mission after Dr. Smith's death (April 3, 1857), a committee was appointed to examine and report on the state of the translation of the Scriptures as left by Dr. Smith. This committee consisted of Messrs, Calhoun, Van Dyck, Ford, Eddy and Wilson, and reported that Genesis and Exodus had been printed with the exception of the last of Exodus which was in type but not edited. That the books of the Bible yet untouched are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastics, Song of Solomon, Ezekiel, Daniel, Habakkuk, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Haggai and Malachi. The Historical Books from Joshua to Esther inclusive, and the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, had been put into Arabic by Mr. Bistany, the assistant translator, but not revised by Dr. Smith.

It was found that in the translation of the New Testament, the Greek text followed had been that of Hahn, but in the first thirteen chapters of Matthew there are some variations from that text according to the text of Tregelles and others.

The committee were unanimously of opinion that the translation of the New Testament had been made with great care and fidelity, and that it could, with comparatively little labor, be prepared for the press, and they accordingly recommended to the mission to prosecute and complete its publication as soon as possible.

The mission then appointed Dr. Van Dyck too the work. He was then living in Sidon, and removed to Beirut in November, 1857, and went on with the work as directed. As the American Bible Society required a strict adherence to the Textus Receptus of Hahn's Greek Testament, Dr. Van Dyck revised every verse in the New Testament taking up the work as if new. The basis left by Dr. Smith was found invaluable, and but for it the work would have been protected very much beyond what is really was.  The form adopted was the second font Reference New Testament. Thirty proofs were struck from each form as soon as set up in type and these proofs were distributed to all missionaries in the Arabic-speaking field, and to native scholars, and to Arabic scholars in Germany, viz:  Professor Fleischer of Leipsic, Professor Rodiger of Halle, afterwards of Berline, Professor Flugel of Dresden and Dr. Behrnauer, librarian of the Imperial Library, Vienena. Some letters and proofs from some of these gentlemen and others have survived, and have been placed in the standard copy of the Old Testament, deposited in the library of the mission. The proofs distributed were returned to the translator with the criticisms of those to whom they had been sent, all of which were carefully examined and decided upon.


In 1862, Dr. Van Dyck wrote to the American Bible Society with regard to the labor involved in the translation of the Old Testament : "In the first place, it must be carefully made from the Hebrew, then compared with the Syrian version of the Maronites, and the Septuagint of the Greeks; the various readings given, and in difficult places the Chaldee Targums must be consulted, and hosts of German commentators, so that the eye is constantly glancing from one set of characters to another: then after the sheet is in type, thirty copies are struck off and sent to scholars in Syria, Egypt and even Germany. These all come back with notes and suggestions, every one of which must be well weighed. Thus a critic, by one dash of his pen, may cause me a day's labor, and not till all is set right, can the sheet be printed."

In regard to the style of Arabic adopted, it was the same as had been adopted by Dr. Smith after long and frequent consultations with the mission and wi6th native scholars. Some would have preferred the style "Koranic," i.e. Islamic, adopting idioms and expressions peculiar to Mohammedans. 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 face, 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 March 9, 1860, and a complete copy was laid upon the table at the annual meeting. March 28th, and that same copy is now preserved in the mission library.

Dr. Van Dyck was assisted by a Mohammedan scholar of high repute, Sheikh Yusef el Asir, a graduate of the 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.

In April, 1860, the mission directed Dr. Van Dyck to carry on the translation of the Old Testament commencing with Leviticus. The last chapter of Exodus was edited by Dr. Van Dyck immediately after Dr. Smith's death, and printed, so that the whole of Genesis and Exodus might be before the mission.

In 1864, an edition of the vowelled Psalms in parallelisms was issued 16mo, and on August 22, 1864, 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 printed of the Old Testament thus completing the new Arabic translation of the Bible.

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 hears a large company of native young men, labors 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 that 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.

I translated this hymn into English, and on Sunday evening, March 12th, 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 is as 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 praised 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,
Praised God whose mercy's e'er the same,
His goodness all our song employs,
Thanksgiving then to His Great Name.

June 3, 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 vowelled New Testament. Two years later he returned to Beirut with Mr. Samuel Hallock, an electrotyper, and superintended
electrotyping the vowelled 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.

Thus was the Arabic Bible completed. In a short time ten editions, containing forty thousand copies, had been printed. The accuracy of its renderings, the idiomatic excellence of the style, and even the beauty of the type, which Dr. Smith had prepared especially for it, and which surpassed all that had gone before as much as the translation excelled all previous effort, made it popular among all classes, so that even the Moslem was forced to commend the Bible of the Christian. No literary work of the century exceeds it in importance and it is acknowledged to be one of the best translations of the b ever made.

Since that day, not less than thirty-two editions of the Arabic Bible and parts of the same have been printed, comprising about nine hundred thousand copies, and on the title page of every copy is the imperial permit and sanction of the government of the Turkish Sultan. These books have been sent, and are still being sent, by tens of thousands of copies, to the whole Arabic reading Mohammedan world, from Mogador and Sierra Leone on the Atlantic to Peking on the East; to Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, Egypt, Sudan, Arabic, Zanzibar, Aden, Muscat, Bussorah, Bagdad, India the East Indies, Northern China, Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria and to the new colonies of Syrian emigrants in the United States, Brazil and Australia.

The best selling book in Syria and Egypt today is the Arabic Bible. It is the loving gift of the one hundred and forty millions of Protestant Christians to the two hundred millions of Mohammedans of whom sixty millions speak the Arabic language, while the rest use the Arabic Koran as their sacred book, and are scattered all the way from the Canary Islands through North Africa and Southern Asia to Peking in China.

As Mr. Calhoun has beautifully said in one of his letters, "Just as Syria, once lighted up with the oil made from her own olives, is now illuminated by oil transported from America, so the light of revelation that once burned brightly there, lighting up the whole earth with its radiance long suffered to go out in darkness, has been rekindled by missionaries from America, in the translation of her own Scriptures into the spoken language of her present inhabitants." Priest Ghubreen Jebara, a learned Greek ecclesiastic in Beirut, said in a public address, in 1865, "But for the American missionaries, the Word of God had well-nigh perished out of the language; but now, through the labors of Dr. Eli Smith and Dr. Van Dyck, they have given us a translation so pure, so exact, so clear, and so classical, as to be acceptable to all classes and all sects."

Fifty Three Years in Syria - by Henry Jessup
First Volume, Chapter 4, Pp. 66-78
New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1910