Griffith, 2013, The Bible in Arabic



From the first centuries of Islam to well into the Middle Ages, Jews and Christians produced hundreds of manuscripts containing portions of the Bible in Arabic. Until recently, however, these translations remained largely neglected by Biblical scholars and historians. In telling the story of the Bible in Arabic, this book casts light on a crucial transition in the cultural and religious life of Jews and Christians in Arabic-speaking lands.

In pre-Islamic times, Jewish and Christian scriptures circulated orally in the Arabic-speaking milieu. After the rise of Islam–and the Qur’an’s appearance as a scripture in its own right–Jews and Christians translated the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament into Arabic for their own use and as a response to the Qur’an’s retelling of Biblical narratives. From the ninth century onward, a steady stream of Jewish and Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament crossed communal borders to influence the Islamic world.

The Bible in Arabic offers a new frame of reference for the pivotal place of Arabic Bible translations in the religious and cultural interactions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

(From the publisher’s website)


By Dr Martin Whittingham, Director, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

Sidney Griffith is a world authority on early Arabic and Syriac Christian writings responding to Islam. He has produced here what sounds like a contradiction in terms – a thorough survey, combining detailed coverage of many relevant ideas and writings with a journey through large tracts of territory. Early chapters cover ‘The Bible in Pre-Islamic Arabia’, ‘The Bible in the Arabic Qur’an’, and ‘The Earliest Translations of the Bible into Arabic’. Griffith then surveys Christian and Jewish translations of the Bible into Arabic, with two final chapters reflecting on Muslim responses to the Bible and the intertwined nature of the two scriptures.

Griffith’s headline conclusions include the ideas that: the Bible in Arabic was more generally available than is often thought (p.4); Syriac Biblical commentary often underlies the Qur’an’s use of the Bible (p.3); the Qur’an almost never quotes the Bible directly, but very often recalls it in paraphrased form. This all suggests that Syriac Christians were, therefore, ‘in all likelihood the immediate source of biblical lore for Muhammad and the Qur’an’ (p. 144). He also argues that the Christians and Jews mentioned in the Qur’an represented mainstream faith, and were not heretics, as often supposed.

One particularly hot topic in this field of study is the dating of the earliest Arabic Bible translations. Did they appear before the emergence of Islam? Griffith answers ‘no’ to this question, preferring to date the first Arabic translations from the late seventh to early eighth century. He engages in detail with Hikmat Kachouh’s important book, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and their Families (Berlin, 2012), which argues for Arabic Bible translations existing before the rise of Islam. Contrary to this view Griffith contends that the emergence of the Qur’an in Arabic acted as a stimulus and challenge to other scriptural communities to produce Arabic translations of their own scripture. This was so as to ‘set the record straight’ (p. 126) about the content of the Bible, in the light of the Qur’an’s presentation of Biblical figures and narratives.

I would question one point of Griffith’s presentation. He notes (pp. 63-64, and see also pp. 39, 71) that ‘In the Qur’anic view, God always vindicates his prophets and messengers in their struggles with their adversaries’. There are, however, several Qur’anic verses accusing Jews of being those who killed the prophets. This has important implications for interreligious discussions about the Qur’anic perspective on the plausibility or otherwise of Jesus being crucified. But this is a minor quibble in a book rich with both information and insightful interpretation.

The Bible in Arabic closes with broader reflection on a contemporary topic, the modern appropriation of Abraham as a symbol for inter-religious harmony. The author notes (p. 211) the irony that Abraham – who was often claimed by each faith in an attempt to put clear water between their own community and others – has become a figure used to try to create ‘a sort of monotheistic, interreligious family’. For Griffith, a master of detail and nuance, ‘the expression “Abrahamic religions” is in the end something of a misnomer’ (pp. 213-14) since it ‘misleadingly suggests’ that Abraham has a similar role in all three faiths.

Griffith’s book needs and repays careful reading. No-one will absorb all the detail on first encounter, but it is a goldmine of useful background on an important issue relevant to the emergence and development of early Islam. It provides yet more evidence of the need for Biblical and Qur’anic studies to take place in the light of their intertwined relationships.

Publisher’s page

Marginalia book review

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