One hundred and fifty years ago the Van Dyck Bible was completed in Beirut in present-day Lebanon. According to David Grafton, a professor of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the author of “The Contested Origins of the 1865 Arabic Bible: Contributions to the Nineteenth Century Nahda,” other Arabic-language Bibles had preceded it and others would follow, but the Van Dyck Bible soon became the most popular and authoritative Bible in the Arabic language, attaining a status akin to that of the King James Bible among English speakers. In countries such as Egypt, it has been a source of unity among Christians, being used by Roman Catholic, Copt Orthodox and Protestant Christians.
A major celebration of the Van Dyck Bible was held last November 5 at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo under the auspices of the Egyptian Council of Churches, and other celebrations have been planned in Egypt throughout 2015. During November 1-3 this year, a conference on the Van Dyck Bible was also held in Beirut, sponsored by the Near East School of Theology (NEST) where the original manuscripts for the Van Dyck Bible are now held.
The PC(USA)’s director of World Mission, Hunter Farrell, spoke at the Cairo celebration last November. He estimated that some 50 million copies of the Van Dyck Bible have been distributed to Arabic speakers throughout the Middle East. While the PC(USA) was not involved in the Van Dyck translation project, in 1870 the Presbyterian Church assumed responsibility for the American Mission in Syria that had produced the Bible, and it has been involved ever since in helping to fund the organizations that have printed and distributed this translation. These organizations currently include the Bible Society of Egypt.
A collaborative translation
Ironically, Grafton and other scholars believe that the Van Dyck Bible has been misnamed. It was not simply the work of a single scholar as the name implies; rather, it was the work of several translators. The work was commissioned by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM or American Board) in 1848. The American Board gave the task to Eli Smith, who was head of the board’s American Mission Press.
According to Christine B. Linder, former director of the Preserving Protestant Heritage in the Middle East project at NEST, much of the translation was done by two Lebanese translators, Butrus al-Bustanī and Nāsīf al-Yāzjiī. Al-Bustanī, a graduate of the prestigious Marionite seminary Ayn Warqa, began to work for the American Mission in Beirut in 1840 as a translator and teacher. He later converted to Protestantism and was instrumental in establishing the National Evangelical Church in 1848. Al-Yāzjii was a Greek Catholic from the town of Kfar Shima on Mt. Lebanon. He worked for a time as a court poet for the emir Bashir II, but later became a teacher and translator for the American Mission.
Al-Bustanī made the original translation, Linder explains, from the biblical languages into Arabic; al-Yāzjiī then perused the text to correct and improve the grammar and only then did Smith review the texts before sending them on to other scholars for comment. When Smith died in 1857, the entire Bible had been translated but only the first 16 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel had been typeset.
Changes to translation practices
Smith lived at a time when the Textus Receptus, the standard version of Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament used by scholars, was in the process of being respectfully retired in the light of new developments in textual criticism. The Textus Receptus, the “received text” of the New Testament, was first assembled by Desierius Erasmus in his 1516 edition. Although revised by scholars from time to time, it became the standard or “majority” text of the New Testament and the one used for the King James Bible or Authorized Version. While Smith was working on his translation, the American Bible Society, which was paying for the project, required that translators use the Textus Receptus of Augustus Hahn’s Greek Testament (1841).
It is clear that Smith consulted the Textus Receptus and used it as the basis for some of the Arabic translation, but he also used new texts that were then being published, especially the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, picking and choosing from among them as seem best to him. Using these older texts and others, scholars eventually created what is now called the Eclectic Text. In this sense, Smith was a pioneer in the field of biblical translation in that he was willing to use the most reputable texts available at the time.
Cornelius Van Dyck assumes leadership of the project
Upon Smith’s death, the American Board appointed Cornelius Van Dyck to complete the translation. Van Dyck, who had been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church in New York, had arrived in Syria in 1840 as a medical missionary. While on the field, he studied theology and was ordained a minister in 1846. In the same year he helped to establish a mission seminary in Abeith, Syria, where he taught geography and biblical studies. Being fluent in Arabic, he spent much of his time writing textbooks on numerous subjects for the seminary. He was serving at a new mission station in Sidon as a minister and medical doctor when the American Board asked him to move to Beirut to continue the work on the Arabic Bible translation.
According to the traditional story of how this Bible was produced, Van Dyck decided to revert to the Textus Receptus to complete the translation of the Arabic Bible. Henry Jessup in his 1910 book “Fifty-three Years in Syria” recounted this version of the story, saying that 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 protracted very much beyond what it really was.”
Rather than continue to work with al-Bustanī and al-Yāzjiī, Van Dyck dismissed them from the project. In their place, he hired Sheikh Yusuf al-Asir, an Egyptian Muslim who worked for the American Mission Press and later taught Arabic at the Syrian Protestant College. He was also part of the Arabic literary revival of the time known as the al-Nahda (Renaissance). According to Grafton, Van Dyck “hired al-Asir because he wanted a native Arabic-speaking Muslim who did not have any preconceptions regarding Arab Christian terminology.”
Van Dyck completed the translation project in 1864 and the American Mission Press in Beirut published it the following year. The Bible was named after Van Dyck because it was completed under his direction and because, as Henry Jessup relates, it was believed that he had extensively revised Smith’s work. Grafton, however, disputes this. Closely examining the original manuscripts held in the NEST archive, he discovered notes in the text in the handwriting of each of the translators. Matching these to reports by Smith and Van Dyck on the progress of the work as well as minutes from mission meetings, he concluded that most of the translation was done by al-Bustanī while the others made only minor changes.
In an article written for the Cairo Journal of Theology, Grafton writes, “The MSS [manuscripts] clearly show that Cornelius Van Dyck made very few changes to the New Testament work of al-Bustanī.” Nevertheless, “Van Dyck was the sole translator of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Malachi. In the case of the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, Van Dyck was assisted by Yusuf al-Asir. Van Dyck, however, did complete much of the editorial work in providing cross reference notes and tashkil [diacritical marks] for the final printing of the text. Even in this, however, I wonder if he was not assisted by Yusuf al-Asir.”
What then of the use of the Textus Receptus rather than the Eclectic Text? Grafton explains that both Smith and Van Dyck were aware that the Textus Receptus was not as accurate as the texts then being made available that would eventually be used to make up the Eclectic Text. Van Dyck, therefore, followed Smith’s version of the Eclectic Text, but he excluded the variant readings that they included, such as Mark 16:9, in order to conform to the Textus Receptus and thus satisfy the American Bible Society.
Because the Van Dyck Bible is clearly misnamed, scholars have suggested various alternatives such as the “so-called Van Dyck Bible.” Presbyterian Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey has suggested the “Bustanī-Van Dyck Bible” and Grafton prefers the “1865 Arabic Bible Translation” or “ABT1865.” It is unlikely, however, that this much honored and beloved translation will ever be known as thing other than the Van Dyck Bible.
MICHAEL PARKER is the director of graduate studies and professor of church history at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo.