The study of the Bible in Arabic is in its infancy. While there are literally hundreds of known manuscripts containing portions of the Bible in Arabic translation, they have up to now been of little interest either to biblical scholars or even to church historians. One nineteenth-century scholar is quoted as having said, ‘There are more Arabic versions of the Gospels than can be welcome to theologians, pressed as they are with other urgent tasks.’ Bible scholars have typically thought of the Arabic versions as being too late to be of importance for the textual criticism of the Bible, and the history of the intellectual and cultural lives of the churches in the Arabic-speaking world of Islam still awaits its modern-day Eusebius. Nevertheless, the relatively few recent studies of Arabic versions of portions of the scriptures do allow us to sketch the history of the Arabic versions in broad outline, and they have shown that the translations are a gold mine for those interested in the history of biblical interpretation, especially in the ever more important realm of the history of relations between Muslims and Christians. As we shall see below, in a number of instances the studies have shown that Arabic translations of some apocryphal and so-called ‘pseudepigraphical’ biblical works have in fact proved to be indispensable for the establishment of their texts. In its origins, however, the Bible in Arabic seems first to have been an oral scripture.
Origins and early translations
Biblical texts translated into Arabic first circulated orally among Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians in pre-Islamic times. The Arabic Qurʾān, in its canonical form a product of the mid- to late seventh century ce at the earliest, presents the earliest textual evidence for the circulation of the Bible in Arabic. The Qurʾān paraphrases biblical narratives, refers to biblical personae by name, alludes to and comments on biblical verses, but does not exactly quote from the biblical text, with the exception of one or two possible instances (e.g., Ps. 37:29 in Qurʾān 21:105).