Project Summary


The history of the Arabic text of the Gospels remains one of the most unstudied topics among the ancient translations of the New Testament[1]. Historically, many attempts were made to study this text starting with critical editions of the Bible in the nineteenth century, then continuing in the work of Orientalists and lately in the work of scholars interested in the Arab Christian heritage. Although these efforts have not yet covered every aspect of this issue, they have succeeded in drawing attention to the richness of this tradition and to its potential contribution to Biblical studies and to researches related to Church history, linguistics, Muslim-Christian relations and other topics. 

The main obstacle in studying the history of the Arabic text of the Gospels is its heterogeneous aspect. This is due to many elements:  the wide spectrum of translation dates, the different Vorlagen of the translations and their linguistic origins, the plurality in terms of compilations and forms (continuous text, lectionary…), etc..

Why were the Ancient Arabic Translations of the Gospels excluded from the search for the Ur-text of the Four Gospels? This remains among the top unanswered questions until now. The traditional answers to this type of questions are based mainly on the following hypothesis: the Arabic tradition is late and is a translation from Syriac and Latin and not directly from Greek.  We think that the reason for keeping the Arabic text in the shadow has two aspects: first, the Arabic was considered as a recent translation compared to Syriac and Latin. Second, the Arabic text was preserved mainly in lectionaries, not in continuous texts of the Gospels; accordingly, some scholars considered lectionaries to contain a weak text compared to the continuous or canonical version of the four Gospels mainly because lectionaries are church compilation of the original text.

The following chronological survey shows the controversial nature of this issue. In the nineteenth century, Baron Hermann von Soden[2] discounted lectionaries as a possible source of information relevant to continuous Gospels books and did not even choose to classify them. Caspar René Gregory[3] was one of the first scholars to attempt to establish the importance of the lectionary text in the quest for the Ur-text of the four Gospels. In the twentieth century, many scholars started to pay more attention to lectionaries as authentic witness of the Gospels. Ernest Cadman Colwell[4] highlighted the importance of the lectionary text in the framework of the Chicago Lectionary project. He indicated the possible existence of a lectionary text distinguishable from the regular Gospel text and disputed the earlier & contemporary notion that the lectionary was unworthy of serious studies because it was a bad text. Lately, Christopher Robert Jordan[5] defended the hypothesis saying that the text of the lectionaries derives from the continuous text tradition of the 8th – 11th centuries. The Center for Study and Preservation of the Majority Text[6] considers that the textual tradition is found and preserved in the Greek New Testament and lectionary text of the Orthodox Church.

The complex[7] nature of the text requires a comprehensive approach that tackles the Arabic text of the Gospels from different angles.  According to this approach, our project deals with the whole tradition of the Arabic translations of the Gospels as one dynamic entity made up of inter-related components and witnessing to the life of Christian communities. Accordingly, the project aims to build an online digital corpus of the Gospels in Arabic. Over time, this corpus will include the transcribed texts, citations and allusions of the Arabic translations of the Gospels. This online database will include both explicit and implicit verses of the Gospels with different layers of metadata (textual, paleographical, codicological, linguistic, etc.). In addition to this digital corpus, the project will provide a set of tools to enable and facilitate the study of the text.

[1] For an up-to-date overview about the state of research in the field of the Arabic Manuscripts of the New Testament see: S. Schulthess Die arabischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments in der zeitgenössischen Forschung: ein Überblick, in Early Christianity, Volume 3, Number 4, December 2012 , pp. 518-539

[2] H. Von Soden, Die Schriften des neuen Testaments, in ihrer ältesten erreichbaren Textgestalt / hergestellt auf Grund ihrer Textgeschichte: 4 vols., Berlin: Glaue, 1902-1910

[3] C. R. Gregory, Textkritik des Neuen Testaments, Leipzig, 1900.

[4] E. C. Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament , Leiden, 1969.

[5] C. R. Jordan, The Textual Tradition of the Gospel of John in Greek Gospel Lectionaries from the Middle Byzantine Period (8th-11th century), Birmingham, 2009.

[7] The same verse may derive from different heterogeneous formats. For exemple: a regular verse from a chapter in a Gospel or a verse from a lection or a patristic citation or an allusion in an apologetic text.



III. Methodology

To achieve these objectives, the project will proceed in the following way:

  1. Collecting digital copies of all known Arabic Gospels texts. To achieve this task, we are in the process of consolidating accounts from manuscript catalogues that are held in different countries. We use the monumental work of Graf on Arabic Christian Literature as our basis and update it with new findings from catalogues, manuscripts examination and complementary literature published since the work of Graf. Thus far we have completed a detailed list of Arabic Gospels manuscripts conserved in Lebanon, Syria and Germany[1].
  2. Building a digital corpus for the Gospels in Arabic containing the transcriptions of the identified texts.
  3. Defining types and techniques of analysis that will be performed on the content of the corpus.
  4. Designing, developing and implementing appropriate tools for textual analysis.
  5. Conceiving a formal evaluation grid that may be used to define the identity of a text and to build a taxonomy of the Arabic translations.

[1] This part was developed in 2012 in collaboration with the German “Orient Institut” in Beirut.  



The project has two main objectives:

  1. Contributing to the scholarly quest for the first translations of the four gospels into Arabic. When and where was the earliest Arabic translation of the Gospels compiled? There have been some debates over the dating of this version, possibly because this question has been tackled from different angles. Historical accounts confirm the existence of an Arabic Christian community before the rise of Islam, but cannot confirm that Arabic was the scriptural and liturgical language that they used[1].
  2. Identifying the different families of the Arabic translations preserved in the manuscripts’ tradition.

Many attempts have been made to classify the textual traditions of the Arabic Gospels. They include the work of the following scholars: Ignazio Guidi (1888)[2], S. K. Samir (1992)[3], Jean Valentin (2003)[4] and Hikmat Kashouh (2012)[5]. These important studies highlight the complexity of this issue; but they were made on the basis of only a few test texts selected from a large number of manuscripts.. Their classifications were based mainly on verbal agreement. Our project intends to continue these efforts by extending the study to include a larger number of texts and manuscripts and by using new automated methods.

[1] H. Kashouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and their Families (Arbeiten zur neutestamentlichen Textforschung, 42), Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, 2012, pp. 34-35

[2] I. Guidi, Le traduzioni degli Evangelii in arabo e in etiopico, in Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, 4 (1888).

[3] S. K. Samir, La version arabe des évangiles d'al-As’ad ibn al-‘Assāl, in Parole de l’Orient, 19 (1992) 156-190.

[4] J. Valentin, Les évangéliaires arabes de la bibliothèque du monastère Ste.-Catherine (Mont Sinaï): essai de classification d'après l'étude d'un chapitre (Matth. 28): traducteurs, réviseurs, types textuels in Le Muséon 116 (2003) 415-477.

[5] H. Kashouh,  The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and their Families (Arbeiten zur neutestamentlichen Textforschung, 42), Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, 2012, xiv, 761 pages.