The Translation of the Bible Into Arabic

Preliminary Remarks

by Rev. Bassam M. Madany


Introduction

Throughout my ministerial career that began in Syria in 1953, and that is still continuing by the grace of God to the early years of the New Century, I have dealt with several translations of the Scriptures. My mother tongue is Arabic. My father, Michael Nicholas Madany, was a convert from the Orthodox Church, and served as pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Seleucia, and Alexandretta, Syria. I have been reading the Bible in Arabic since my early days. Due to the fact that Syria was under French control during my formative years, I learned French quite early, and this language (with Arabic) became my first language. English became a second language, and Turkish, a third one.

My call to the ministry brought me to the USA. I spent three academic years at the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I learned both Greek and Hebrew, and became quite at home in reading the NT in the original Greek.

By 1958, and after one more year of theological studies at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I embarked on my life work. It was the preparation and recording of messages on the Word of God in Arabic. They were broadcast over several international radio stations in the direction of North Africa and the Middle East. Due to several factors, I continued to reside in the US, but kept my knowledge of Arabic up-to-date through listening to short-wave stations, reading daily and weekly papers from the Middle East, and frequent visits to North Africa and the Middle East. During such visits, I purchased Arabic books that gave me the latest 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 (both from Eastern Christians and Muslims), and I in turn, responded via air mail letters and follow-up materials.

The broadcast ministry dealt with the Bible. My weekly sermons were expository, and dealt with OT and NT passages. Five days a week were devoted to a systematic Bible Study of the NT. It took over 600 15-minute programs to cover this aspect of the ministry. Once a week, I had special programs that dealt with doctrinal and historical themes.

All these activities required a careful preparation and writing of the broadcast materials. I read the Bible from the SVDB translation as it was the only version available to me in 1958. (Naturally, I was aware of the Jesuit translation of1870, but did not make use of it.) The preparation of messages was done with the audience in mind. Then expounding of the Word of God was done with full awareness of the prejudices and misunderstandings of the Bible that have become part and parcel of the Islamic tradition. I was not polemical, and never referred to the Qur’an, or the Hadith, or Muhammad.

My life experiences prepared me for my life work. Besides my education in the Middle East, I also taught (in Arabic) in Roman Catholic and Protestant mission schools for a total of six years. During those years, I did a good deal of lecturing which enabled me to be quite at home in the use of Standard (Classical Arabic), both in writing and delivery of the broadcasts.

Furthermore, I managed to study (on the side) books by well-known missionaries such as Samuel Zwemer and J. W. Sweetman. I read the quarterly Muslim World, and the Bulletin of the Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies. On account of my theological training at two Reformed seminaries as well as my commitment to ecclesiastical rather than independent missions, I developed a missiology (before the term became popular) of missions to Muslims that was Bible-based, Christ-centered, and Church-oriented.

The Bible in Missions to Muslims

When proclaiming the Biblical Gospel or teaching the contents of the Word of God to Muslims, one cannot ignore the baggage that Muslims bring to their hearing of the Bible in Arabic, or in any other Islamic language. Needless to mention that Muslims believe in the Qur’an as the final revelation of God to man, that it abrogates previous revelations, and that the Scriptures of the OT & NT have been corrupted prior to the rise of Islam.

The Christian messenger must do his utmost not to add any more difficulties, in his endeavor to bring the saving Word of God to Muslims. This is why, as a matter of principle, I do not favor having many translations of the Bible into Arabic, or any other Islamic language.

Let me be specific. Arabic is a living and changing language. I have personally compiled a list of the new Arabic vocabulary that I had not known or heard prior to 1950. Every time I look at Asharq al-Awsat or Assafir Newspapers, or the digital contents of BBC Arabic, I discover (now in 2005) new Arabic words. But, this does not mean that the language is of such a nature that ‘older’ Arabic cannot be deciphered by contemporary Arabs. Why? Because Arabic is based on the Qur’an. This document plays a very significant role in the life of all-Arabic speaking people, regardless of their religious affiliation. Arabic is tied to the Qur’an much more than English is related to the AV or to Shakespeare. Thus, the necessity for revision is much less needed than in Western languages.

One must always remember that any revision of an existing Arabic Bible is very confusing to Arabic-speaking Muslims. They cannot help but ask: why do you keep revising the Bible? We can and do read and understand the great books that were produced during the revival of Classical Arabic and Arab culture in the 19th Century; so why should the 1865 version of the Arabic Bible need revision?

But even a more serious reason for my refusing to believe in the need for new and newer versions of the Bible in Arabic is theological. I may be here stepping on dangerous grounds. The pioneers who worked on the translation of the Bible in the 19th Century were churchmen, and operated within confessional contexts. They adhered to the early Ecumenical Creeds and to the Reformed Catechisms and Confessions of Faith. They believed that that Reformation was a reforming movement within the Church, and that reformation can be achieved by turning to the Word of God. They had not rejected the Apostolic Tradition. They were not innovators, but reformers.

Part of being Confessionally Protestant (whether Lutheran or Reformed) is to believe that the primary means of grace is the preaching of the Word of God. See Romans 10 and I Corinthians 1 & 2. While emphasizing the importance of the written text of the Bible, the Reformers, and the denominational missionaries after them, believed that missions needed much more than a Bible translation. A.A. Hodge’s book on Systematic Theology was translated, and a great project of OT & NT commentaries was initiated. The Psalter was translated and we sang it in a beautiful Arabic poetic style.

In my experience as a broadcaster, I read the Word, the Text of the day, and then began to expound it, or on the Lord’s Day, to preach a sermon based on the text. What I mean is that we do not and must not divorce the Bible from the ministry of the Church that brings the Bible to the field. The Word is to be proclaimed, and the converts need to read the Word, not as mere individuals, but as members of the Body of Christ. When a person comes to the Lord, he is grafted into a communion of believers whose faith is anchored in a long tradition that stretches back to the OT and NT times. Twenty-first century Christians do not and cannot approach the Bible de nuovo, they read it in the light of a living and believing heritage that goes back to the Apostolic Age.

I find it also very strange that concern for avoiding “Christian” Arabic. Now Muslims, who are not committed to translating their authoritative texts, expect their converts to learn Arabic, and say the liturgical prayers in Arabic. Even in non-Arabic-speaking areas of the Muslim world, the Qur’an is read in Arabic on Fridays. The “khutbas” in the mosques are then proclaimed in a local language, but never without the use of many Arabic terms!

When we read the NT epistles, we should notice how Paul, having organized converts into Christian churches, expected all new believers (whether Jewish or Gentile) to appropriate the Redemptive History of the OT, in order to fully understand their new status as NT believers.

The First Letter to the Corinthians is a good example. In Chapters I & II, Paul dealt with both the Jewish and Gentile objections to the Cross, and he did that in the same breath! Then, in Chapter 10:1, He included all members of the church (both Jews and Gentiles) in the statement: “Fa’inni lastu uridu ayyuha’l ikhwa an tajhalu anna ‘aba-ana jami’uhom kano tahta as-sahaba, etc.” (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; etc.)

Paul did not hesitate to tell those non-Jewish background-believers that the Israelites of the Old Testament, who went through the Red Sea, were their fathers. Of course, he did not mean physically, but spiritually. When non-Jewish people joined the Church, an important part of the heritage they appropriated was the OT. That included learning the language and phraseology of the Septuagint.

Michael Green in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, made the statement that ran like this: “Paul’s work of missions would have been impossible without the dispersion of the Jews and the translation of the OT into Greek.” While Paul did sometimes do his own direct translation from the Hebrew text, most of the time, he used the LXX, regardless of the audience. While the Hellenistic culture had made Greek the language of the Mediterranean World, still that did not signify that everybody was quite at home in Greek. Paul preached the Christ of the OT who, in the fullness of time, had come to our world, and fulfilled the promises of God as given in the OT. See Romans 10.

I wonder how many of the modern exponents of new Bible translations are church-committed and church-related! Even the Bible Societies have become detached from the Church, and quite often act as free-enterprise organizations. Other groups that have sponsored translations seem to have little connection with a confessional Church. While relying for the finances of their organizations on the various churches, the same organizations act independently from the long-standing heritage of the church. As absolutely necessary as the Bible is for missions, no Bible translation by itself can and will accomplish the missionary task of the Church. The Bible we love and cherish must be proclaimed.

As Paul put it 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.” And let’s never forget the fundamental role of proclamation that Paul ascribed to the hearing of the Gospel. “So then, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” (ara e pistis ex akoes, e de akoe dia ‘rematos Xristou.” (Romans 10:17) Let’s never divorce the written Word of God from the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy 3:15b)

Finally, I would like to share these few words from F. F. Bruce’s book “Tradition, Old & New,” Published by the Paternoster Press in 1970.

“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.” (A quote from the inside of the jacket of the book.)

“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 Diocletianic 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 archaeological 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


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