Early Judeo-Arabic Biblical Translations



During the last generation, there has been published no small or insignificant number of loose pages of different Judeo Arabic (henceforth: JA) translations of the Bible, preserved in the Cairo Genizah. The prevailing view among Judaic Studies scholars is that these translations predated the earliest JA Biblical translation known hitherto, namely, that produced by Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon (882-942). Sa’adia was familiar with these older translations and occasionally used them for his translation (tafsīr), but on the whole he composed his own translation with a view of being a critique on their two main traits: (a) the phonetic orthography which does not fit the strict rules of classical Arabic grammar; (b) the literary translation, namely, giving an Arabic word for each Hebrew word, according to the order of the words in the Bible, and ignoring Arabic syntax.

What is known about the life of the Jewish communities in the north-western regions of the Arabian Peninsula during the centuries that preceded Sa’adia mostly comes from early Muslim sources. We may conjecture that these translations already existed prior to the advent of Islam, that is to say, not later than the beginning of the seventh century. They were produced and used for teaching the Torah (Pentateuch), and for the Bible as a whole, in the schoolrooms where Jewish children were gathered in the Arabic speaking Jewish communities of north-western Arabia. A related genre of biblical translation written in non-classical JA is the ŠarḥAlfāẓ, that is to say, lists of difficult words in the Scripture according to their order in any given book with their Arabic translation. The didactic, or educational advantages of having these translations is proven as well by their wide-ranging commentaries found written for variant translations, and interspersed within the texts, and which have no other function in liturgy within the congregation.