Saadia Gaon’s Bible Commentary and Translation

It was important to Saadia that his work became known to Muslims. It would have little polemical value if it simply remained a text used by the Jews. He had been educated in a Muslim environment and spent his life surrounded by Islamic culture; he knew how to make his translation acceptable to the aesthetic refinements of literary Arabic. His purpose may have been to rebut Muslim criticism of the Bible but he deferred to Islamic grammarians and philologists when it came to matters of style.

See Also: The Murderous History of Bible Translations (Bloomsbury Press, 2016)

By Harry Freedman
April 2016

The Bible has been translated many times, mostly without incident. But now and again a particular translation stands out as a seminal event in the history of religion. The translation composed by Saadia, the 10th century gaon, or rabbinic head, of the Talmudic academy in the Mesopotamian city of Sura was one such case.

Saadia was born in Fiyum, in Egypt in 882. His birthplace was, at that time, a stronghold of the Karaite sect; a Jewish faction which differed forcefully from the rabbinic mainstream. The rabbis and their followers believed that the Bible’s injunctions could only be understood through the traditional interpretations of the Talmud. The Karaites took the Bible at face value; they weren’t interested in Talmudic reasoning. The gulf between the two camps is thrown into sharpest contrast by the Biblical stricture not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath. The rabbis took it to mean that it was acceptable to bask in the heat and light of a fire kindled before the holy day began. The Karaites on the other hand took the injunction literally. They spent the day in the dark and cold. Saadia, a great scholar but a quarrelsome man, was implacably opposed to the Karaites.

Saadia’s attitude towards the perceived dangers of Karaism was far more impassioned than his fellow Talmudists; he had no interest in communal reconciliation, he considered the Karaites to be apostates who should be ostracized by the community. At the age of twenty three, whilst still in Egypt, Saadia fired his first shot in his war against them, publishing a fierce polemic against the followers of Anan, who at that time still retained a separate identity within the Karaite movement. Not surprisingly the Karaites regarded him as their main opponent and they counter-attacked vigorously. Salmon ben Jeroham was particularly abusive towards him: “You have written lies... where do you flee to hide yourself in utter ruin...may your steps be hampered as you walk."[1]

Saadia’s quarrelsome reputation preceded him. David the Exilarch, the secular head of the Jewish community in Babylon had been warned not to appoint him as Gaon of Sura, for Saadia “feared no one, deferred to no-one in the world, because of his great wisdom and his large mouth and his long tongue...”.[2] But Saadia’s scholarship placed him head and shoulders above all his rivals, the Exilarch had little choice but to appoint him to the post.

Saadia wasn’t just quarrelsome; he was also a good strategist. His persistent attacks achieved the outcome he had wanted, a complete break between the Talmud academies and the Karaites. Even so, he didn’t get everything right; he strengthened the Karaites by propelling the Ananites, who were his intellectual equals and could hold their own against him in polemic, into a dominant position in Karaism. Saadia’s attacks helped the Karaite ideologues to create a unitary position out of quarrelling sects. “Karaism honed its intellectual edge on the confrontation with Saadia... without Saadia, Karaism might have had a very different fate & form.”[3]

Saadia’s Old Testament translation bears all the hallmarks of his personality. There was no obvious need for another Arabic translation of the Bible, several existed already. But Saadia deemed that there was a need, and not simply because he believed earlier translations to be inadequate. In his youth he had dreamed of producing a grammatically correct, stylistically attractive Arabic version of the Bible that conformed both to Jewish tradition and to current philosophical thinking.[4] But as he grew older, and more disputatious, he perceived a more urgent need. A new translation was essential, Saadia contended, to address the twin challenges that the Bible faced; the Muslim charge that the Jews had falsified its text, and the Karaite rejection of traditional biblical interpretation.

Saadia’s first translation, which he probably commenced while living in Tiberias,[5] began as a series of annotations on the Pentateuch. The annotations evolved into a commentary and eventually metamorphosed into a full blown translation. It covered the whole of the Pentateuch and several other books of the Bible.[6]

It was important to Saadia that his work became known to Muslims. It would have little polemical value if it simply remained a text used by the Jews. He had been educated in a Muslim environment and spent his life surrounded by Islamic culture; he knew how to make his translation acceptable to the aesthetic refinements of literary Arabic. His purpose may have been to rebut Muslim criticism of the Bible but he deferred to Islamic grammarians and philologists when it came to matters of style.

Saadia was not the first to translate the Bible into Arabic. The Gospels were probably the first sections to be translated, in monasteries in Syria and Judea during the seventh and eighth centuries. The earliest surviving example, dating from around the year 800, resides in the Vatican.[7] We know little of the story behind this translation, other than that it was probably inscribed in the Mar Saba monastery in the Judean desert, that it seems to have been copied from an earlier manuscript, and that it was translated from the Syriac, not from the Greek.[8] The history of this particular translation is, however, so shrouded in the fog of time that we have no idea how widely it circulated, or what impact it had.

By the time we are able to pick up the main thrust of the Arabic Bible’s story there had been a fresh impetus for translation. It was now the 8th century and times were changing. Islam was established and confident, and a new age was dawning. It was an age which placed ideas, art, science and literature at its pinnacle, rather than the ideological quarrels of different belief systems.

The change began in the aspirational city of Baghdad, Islam’s pioneering capital founded by the Abbasid dynasty’s second caliph, Al-Mansur. The Abbasids had come to power in 750, overthrowing the previous Umayyad dynasty. To mark the transition of power, Al-Mansur, built himself a new city with the ambition of making it the greatest the world had ever known. It was here in Baghdad that the process of translating the Bible into Arabic would flourish, as an offshoot of a project to make all the great mathematical, philosophical and scientific works of the Greeks available in Arabic.

The project was the brainchild of the caliph Harun al-Rashid. His influence on Islam’s emergence as the leading civilisation of the early Middle Ages was profound. It extends far beyond his legendary cameos in the Thousand and One Nights.

Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, was the flagship institution of what we now call the Translation Movement. Its seeds were sown by Al-Mansur when he founded the city but it attained its greatest prominence during the reign of Harun Al-Rashid’s son, Al-Ma’amun. Inspired by his father’s vision of a Baghdad unmatched by any other in architectural, cultural and scientific grandeur, Al Ma’amun turned the dream into reality. The House of Wisdom was to be the city’s library, the place where all the books in the civilised world, now available in Arabic, were to be stored. The echoes of Alexandria a millennium earlier were not hard to discern.

The project to translate everything worth knowing into Arabic, realising the caliphate’s ambition to elevate Islamic knowledge, culture and civilisation above anything that had gone before, was greatly assisted by new paper-making technology from China. It made the manufacture of books cheaper and easier, allowed authors and scribes to work faster and elevated the written word above memory as the medium in which to store knowledge.[9]

The Translation Movement lasted for over two centuries. It was made possible by generous subsidies and endowments from both public and private funds, and was supported by the elite of Baghdadi society.[10] It underpinned the Golden Age of Islamic philosophy and medicine. But on the face of it, it wasn’t about the Bible at all. Its declared aim was to render Greek philosophical and scientific works into Arabic. The translation of the Bible into Arabic was little more than a spin-off. Who could have dreamt that it would outlive all its secular rivals?

Dozens, probably hundreds of translators worked in the House of Wisdom during the lifespan of the project. None was more famous, nor more influential, than the man whose name has come to symbolise the entire Translation Movement; Hunayn ibn Ishāq.

Hunayn’s speciality was the translation of Greek and Syriac medical and logical texts into Arabic. But according to the tenth century historian, Al-Masudi, he also translated some of the Septuagint. Al-Masudi was nearly correct; Hunayn did translate some of the Bible, but from the Syriac, not from the Greek.[11] That is what we would expect, Hunayn was a Nestorian Christian, he spoke Syriac and had grown up reading the Bible in that language. But he wasn’t recognised as a theologian or scriptural expert; he was a doctor by profession and his literary skill lay in translating medical, philosophical and scientific works. He translated Galen’s anatomical writings and is said to have authored over 100 works himself, including 10 treatises on ophthalmology.[12] When he chose to turn his hand to translating the Bible it was almost certainly a labour of love, not a career move.

Hunayn doesn’t get the credit for the first Arabic Bibles, that went to the anonymous monks in the Syrian and Palestinian monasteries a century or so earlier. But by admitting the Arabic Bible into the House of Wisdom, the translation scholar par excellence threw down a gauntlet to its detractors. As a Christian living in an Islamic city he had a point to make. The Bible, he implied, should no longer be seen in Islamic eyes as the old, corrupted text belonging to two decaying religious faiths which the new faith declared had been superseded. In the House of Wisdom the Bible ranked as equal to every other classical literary work. Hunayn took the Bible out of the monasteries, churches and synagogues, and planted it firmly within the Islamic secular corpus, on the pinnacle of world civilisation.

Nothing remains of Hunayn’s biblical translations, although it is likely that subsequent Arabic Bible manuscripts were based on his. Saadia almost certainly drew on his scholarship, but only after it had been refracted through the prism of the literary critic and philologist, ibn-Qutayba.

Islamic writers and intellectuals of the time placed great emphasis on the literary economy of language. They frowned on the use of unnecessary words or phrases and on superfluous repetition. That the Hebrew Bible contained such, apparently unnecessary, material offered ammunition for the Muslim accusation that the Jews had falsified the Bible. Ibn-Qutayba, had ameliorated Hunayn’s classic Arabic translation by converting repeated names into pronouns and deleting phrases that seemed redundant. Saadia’s Tafsir, as his translation came to be known, displays similar stylistic alterations.

The similarities between his amendments and those of ibn-Qutayba, and his echoes of Hunayn’s phraseology, has led Richard Steiner to suggest that Saadia may also have made use of Hunayn Ibn-Ishāq’s translation when composing his own.[13] Both men translate the opening words of Genesis as ‘the first of what God created was heaven and earth’. To our minds this is little different from the standard rendering of ‘In the beginning God created’. But as Sidney Griffiths points out, the prevailing view at the time was the Aristotelean notion that time had always existed. ‘In the beginning’ suggests that the world was created within pre-existent time. Saadia is at pains to stress that nothing, not even time, existed before the creation of the world.[14]

Saadia went to great lengths to eliminate every biblical suggestion that God might have a body or a voice, worrying that the mention of a divine hand, arm, heart or speech might lead uneducated people to believe that God had a physical presence. This was not just a matter of education, Saadia’s pugnacity displayed itself in every aspect of his life, even his Bible translation. The Muslim theologian al-Jāḥiẓ, had attacked the Hebrew Bible for its portrayal of God as a physical being. He had taken particular exception to the reference in Deuteronomy 4,24 in which the deity is described as a ‘consuming fire’. Saadia had no qualms about meeting such criticisms head on. The consuming fire, according to Saadia, is a metaphor for heavenly punishment.

In his preface to the translation Saadia made it clear that he wanted to produce a work that would not be ‘rebutted by tradition’.[15] He meant rabbinic tradition, the very system that the Karaites opposed. Throughout his translation Saadia was at pains to reflect the mainstream rabbinic interpretation; no unnuanced Karaite literalism would grace his endeavour. He’d dreamed, as a young man, of producing a sublime, literarily immaculate Arabic rendition of the Hebrew Bible. By the time he reached middle age he had become more concerned to refute and silence his two great intellectual enemies, Islamic and Karaite theologians. The great polemicist never left a battle unfought.

Saadia’s ideological fervour didn’t go down well with everyone. He probably enjoyed some success in deflecting Muslim and Karaite attacks but the Jews themselves, long used to their traditional way of reading the Bible, weren’t well pleased. He was criticised by his own followers for artlessness; for transforming metaphysical ideas like God’s heart in Genesis 6,6 into ‘his prophet’, a substitution which made little sense and did not fit the context. The Jews had long accepted the principle that the Bible speaks in human terms, using language that people understand to express complex theological ideas. Many felt that in his zeal to rebut external criticism, Saadia had gone too far in abandoning this principle.

Saadia did listen to his critics- up to a point. He accepted some of what they said and revised a number of his translated phrases. But he stuck to his guns as far as the bigger picture was concerned; he had set out to write a polemical work, and that is exactly what it was. Saadia wasn’t the sort of person to hand ammunition to his opponents just to appease critics who were not as willing to stick their necks out as was he.

Perhaps this is why, despite all the criticism, Saadia’s translation endured. It may not have been a word for word literal rendition, it may have replaced poetic anthropomorphisms with somewhat clumsy alternatives, but it was a readable and ideologically clear text. It became the most well-known and popular of all Arabic Bible translations, widely used by Jews, Copts and Arabic-speaking Christians. In the sixteenth century, when multi-lingual, polyglot Bibles became briefly fashionable in Europe, Saadia’s translation was the most likely Arabic version to be found on the page. It is still in use today.

Adapted from The Murderous History of Bible Translations by Harry Freedman, to be published by Bloomsbury Press in the UK in May 2015 and in the USA in October 2016


[1] Schur, N., 1995. The Karaite Encyclopedia. Frankfurt : Peter Lang.

[2] Gil, M., 2004. Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Steiner, R. C., 2011. A Biblical Translation in the Making: The Evolution and Impact of Saadia Gaon's Tafsir. Harvard, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[5] Ibid. However Henry Malter believes Saadia wrote his first translation in Egypt, (Malter, H., 1921. Saadia Gaon. Philadephia: Jewish Publication Society of America.)

[6] Saadia translated the Pentateuch, Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Esther and Daniel. Griffith, S. H., 2013. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the "People of the Book" in the Language of Islam. Princeton NJ: Princeton Universty Press.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. See also “H. Kachouch, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: A Case Study of John 1:1 and 1:18” in David Thomas (ed.) The Bible in Arab Christianity (The History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol 6; Leiden, Brill 2007).

[9] Bennison, A. K., 2009. The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the 'Abbasid Empire. London: I.B.Tauris.

[10] Gutas, D., 1998. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbasaid Society (2nd-4th/5th-10th c.). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

[11] Griffith (2013) citing Steiner (2011).

[12] Hunayn Ibn Ishaq: A Forgotten Legend; Samir Johna, American Foundation For Syriac Studies, July 2011….

[13] Steiner (2011).

[14] Griffith (2013).

[15] Preface to the Tafsir, translated in Steiner ( 2011).

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