New take on the New Testament

December 18, 2012

Scholar translates Scriptures from Jesus' primary language to Arabic

A former monk/civil engineer/business manager, who now teaches Arabic at Baylor, has translated the New Testament for the first time into Arabic directly from what most scholars believe was Jesus' primary language.

Dr. Abdul-Massih Saadi, a lecturer in Arabic in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, said his 12-year undertaking has been "a good struggle" to translate the text into two versions -- Modern Standard Arabic as well as a colloquial Arabic dialect -- in the volume.

Saadi's 800-page project meant not only poring over original texts rather than the English of the King James Version or the New International Version, but also holding the colloquial Arabic version up for scrutiny by people ranging from educated to illiterate to be certain it meshed with the language they speak and understand -- including idioms.

"Our translation is the first Arabic Bible based on Eastern Bible tradition, namely the Syriac," said Saadi, who is from Aleppo, Syria. "Most unique in this project is the Colloquial Arabic Version, with the colloquial known as Mardini."

The term Syriac refers to one Aramaic dialect in which Christian literature was written. Evidence from the second century A.D. indicates Aramaic-speaking Christians undertook translating the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament into Syriac, he said.

"The Syriac translation of the Greek New Testament restores many of Jesus' expressions in the language He spoke," Saadi said. "The Lord's Prayer, for instance, is as close as it possibly can be to the very words of Jesus Himself. It is natural to think that those early Aramaic-speaking Christians had memorized the Lord's Prayer in its original form and that the translators wrote their memorized Aramaic version as they were consulting the written version in Greek."

He said that Aramaic is "still a living language in Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Many Christian families there, including my wife's family and mine, speak it as their first language. There are even Muslims and Jews who speak it as their first language."

Saadi joined a monastic order at age 12 and spent 20 years there. He holds degrees in civil engineering, business management, theology and Eastern Christianity, and New Testament studies. He said that in 2002, God called him to marry and raise a family, and he has two sons. He taught at the University of Notre Dame before coming to Baylor.

"It would be very difficult to over-emphasize the scholarly and spiritual significance of this," said Dr. Heidi Bostic, chair of the Department of Modern and Foreign Languages in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences. "Dr. Saadi's scholarly work, and indeed his own life story, highlight the significance of Arabic-speaking Christians around the world."

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