vii. Persian Translations of the Bible
The Pentateuch (Pers. and Ar. tawrāt, Hebrew tōrāh), the books of the prophets (Pers. and Ar. anbīā, Heb. nabīīm), and the writings (Heb. ketūbīm), including the Psalms (Pers. Zabūr; Ar. mazmūr, plur. mazāmīr; Heb. mīzmōr), from the Hebrew scriptures, collectively known as the Old Testament (Pers. and Ar. ʿahd-e ʿatīq), and the Gospels (Pers. and Ar. anājīl, sing. enjīl, Gk. euangélion) and other writings in Greek, collectively known as the New Testament (Pers. and Ar. ʿahd-e jadīd), have all been translated into Persian.
The date of the first Bible translation in a Persian language is uncertain. In the 4th century A.D. John Chrysostom (fl. 391), patriarch of Constantinople, noted that the doctrines of Christ had been translated into the languages of the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Persians, and the Ethiopians (Homily on John, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca LIX, col. 32). In the 5th century Theodoret, bishop of Cyr, wrote that the Persians venerated the writings of the Christian apostles and evangelists as having come down from heaven (Graecarum affectionum curatio IX.936, in Migne, PG LXXXIII, col. 1045c). These references do not in themselves establish that the Greek text of the scriptures had been translated into Middle Persian. As Maʿna of Shiraz, a 5th-century teacher and possibly a Christian bishop, translated some works of the church fathers from Syriac into Middle Persian, it has been assumed that the Christian scriptures were already known in that language (Metzger, 1977, p. 276).
Translations from Syriac. The earliest Christian communities in Iran were presumably founded by Syriac-speaking missionaries, and the early Persian translations were made from Syriac translations. The first extant version in Persian language is the so-called Pahlavi Psalter. This is an early Middle Persian translation of the Psalms, written in an archaic form of the Book Pahlavi script; it can be dated to the 5th or 4th centuries though the manuscript itself may be younger (see iv, above). The earliest known translation into New Persian is represented by a fragmentary double page from a Syriac-Persian bilingual translation of the Psalms, found in the ruined Nestorian monastery at Bulayïq near Turfan in Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan). It is written in the Sogdian variant of the Syriac Estrangelo script (Henning, Mitteliranisch, p. 79). The double page contains Psalm 146:5-147:7 according to the arrangement of the Pešīṭṭā, corresponding to Psalm 147:5-18 in the masoretic text (Müller, 1915; Sundermann, 1974). These Middle Persian and early New Persian fragments are also important for the history of Syriac translations.
The earliest surviving Persian translation of the four Gospels was also based on a Syriac original. It consists of a Persian harmony of the four Gospels translated in the 13th century by a Jacobite layman of Tabrīz named Īwannīs ʿEzz-al-Dīn Moḥammad b. Moẓaffar. The sole existing manuscript is in the Laurentian Library in Florence; it was copied in 954/1547 by the Jacobite priest Ebrāhīm b. Šammās ʿAbd-Allāh in Ḥeṣn Kayfā (modern Hasankayf) on the Tigris. Scholars had originally thought this text a translation of Tatian’s Diatesseron, a 2nd-century harmony of the four Gospels translated from Greek into Syriac. It has now been determined, however, that it was translated from a different Syriac text, but retaining many readings from Tatian (Metzger, 1963, p. 108). It is characteristic of the translation that it maintains typical Hebraic parallelism and syntax and that quotations from the Old Testament conform to the Hebrew text. It was edited by Messina (1951; repr. Tehran, 1957).
Related to this text is a translation of all four gospels by Yūḥannā b. al-Ḵāṣṣ Yūsof Yaʿqūbī, a Jacobite or Nestorian cleric. A copy made in 742/1341 in Kaffa (modern Feodosiya) in the Crimea by Simon b. Yūsof b. Ebrāhīm Tabrīzī, an Armenian Catholic, was sent to India in 1598. The inscription at the end of this copy is identical to that on the earlier Persian harmony of the Gospels, and the two translations may thus have been made from the same Syriac original. Eventually Bishop Brian Walton incorporated this translation into the London Polyglot Bible of 1657, the first Persian translation of the Gospels to be printed.
An earlier Persian translation of the Gospel of Matthew, probably from Syriac, is known from a manuscript in the Vatican Library (Pets. 4), copied in nasḵ script by Masʿūd b. Ebrāhīm in 712/1312-13. There is no information about the translator. This manuscript is believed to have been taken to India by the Chaldean bishop Mar Joseph in 1556 (Gulbenkian, 1980, 212 n. 80, citing Giorgio Levi Della Vida, Ricerche sulla formazione del più antico fondo dei manoscritti orientali della Biblioteca Vaticana, Vatican, 1939, pp. 197-90).
Translations from Hebrew. The Jewish community in Iran also produced translations of the scriptures from Hebrew into Persian. The 6th/12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides reported that a Persian translation of the Hebrew scriptures had existed long before the time of Moḥammad. Quotations from Hebrew scripture are found in the (probably) 9th-century Škand-gumānīg wizār (see iv, above). During the 8th/14th and 9th/15th centuries Jewish scholars in Iran were actively engaged in translating the Hebrew scriptures into Judeo-Persian (Fischel, X, p. 433). In the late 10th/16th century an Italian, Giambattista Vecchietti, was sent on a diplomatic mission to Iran. He learned Persian and for twenty years sought Judeo-Persian translations of the Bible in Iran and India. He found manuscripts of all parts of the Hebrew scriptures, including a copy of Psalms dated 1316 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Blochet, I, p. 1 n. 1) and a manuscript of the Torah dated 1319 (British Library Or. 5446; Paper, 1972). He spent 1600-1606 transliterating these works into Persian script, with the help of a Persian Christian named Šams-al-Dīn Ḵanjī and a Carmelite monk named Dawlat Khan Ṭarazī b. Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Wahhāb Gwālīārlī (Fischel, 1952, pp. 15, 20). All Vecchietti’s manuscripts may be the products of a single school of translators that flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries (Fischel, 1972, p. 433). Since then other Judeo-Persian manuscripts have been found. All these translations are characterized by uniformity of style, use of Aramaisms and Arabic vocabulary, and the choice of some Persian equivalents (Fischel, 1960, p. 1158). The first Persian translation of any part of the Bible to be printed was a version of the Pentateuch prepared by Jacob ben Joseph Ṭāvūs, professor of Persian at the Jewish Academy in Constantinople; it was included (in Hebrew characters) in the Constantinople Polyglot Bible of 1546. (See further on Judeo-Persian translations, above.)
Translations from Greek. The only Persian translation of the New Testament from the original Greek known to have been made before the 17th century was done between 718/1318 and 728/1328 by Sarkis Loudj b. Amīr Malek, possibly from Urmia. A number of copies of this translation were made in India in the early 17th century and are now found in several European libraries (Gulbenkian, 1980, p. 192). The first seventeen chapters of the Gospel of Matthew in Abraham Wheelocke’s 1653 London edition of the four gospels in Persian may have been taken from this translation (Metzger, 1977, p. 278, and Gulbenkian, 1980, pp. 278-79). This edition is usually listed in critical editions of the Greek New Testament.
Royal commissions. From the 10th/16th century onward a series of Persian-speaking rulers commissioned Persian translations of the Bible. The Mughal Akbar I (r. 963-1014/1556-1605) was interested in a variety of religions and their scriptures. He commissioned his court historian, Abu’l-Fażl, to translate the Gospels into Persian, but there is no evidence that the work was ever done (Fischel, 1952, p. 19, and Gulbenkian, 1980, pp. 206-07). It is likely that word of Akbar’s request reached Jerusalem, for in 1598 Brother Nicholas, an Armenian, left there for India with two manuscripts of the Gospels in Persian to be given to Akbar (Gulbenkian, 1980, pp. 195-209). They were copies of the translations by Yūḥannā and Sarkis Loudj already mentioned. These manuscripts fell instead into the hands of a Jesuit priest, Father Jeronimo Xavier, who corrected and amended one of them to conform to the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible that was officially approved by the Roman Catholic Church, evidently intending this one for Akbar. Father Jeronimo made several copies of the two Gospel manuscripts, marked them prohibetur (it is prohibited), and forwarded them to several locations in Europe (Gulbenkian, 1980, pp. 216). Akbar died without ever seeing the Gospels in Persian. His successor, Jahāngīr, continued to ask for a copy, and eventually Father Jeronimo did give him the translation that he had corrected according to the Vulgate (Gulbenkian, 1980, pp. 215).
On 24 Rabīʿ I 1025/11 April 1616 Shah ʿAbbās I, who had developed an interest in the Bible after having seen biblical illustrations and through contact with his Christian subjects, ordered John Thaddeus, a Spaniard and Carmelite bishop of Isfahan, to translate the Psalms and Gospels into Persian (Gulbenkian, 1981, p. 40). With the help of three Muslim mullahs and a Jewish rabbi he translated the Psalms from Hebrew and the Gospels from Greek, completing the task and presenting the results to the shah on 5 Jomādā II 1027/18 June 1618 (Gulbenkian, 1981, pp. 39-42). Evidently none of these men knew about any of the previous Persian translations.
From the reigns of Shah Solaymān I (r. 1077-1105/1666-94) and Shah Solṭān Ḥosayn (r. 1105-35/1694-1722) there exist a translation of the four Gospels into Persian by an Armenian priest, Hovhannes Merkouz, written in Armenian characters, and another (anonymous) translation from Arabic, written in Georgian characters (Gulbenkian, 1981, pp. 44-45).
Another cooperative translation of the Bible was ordered by Nāder Shah after his victory in India in 1152/1739. To further his idea of a universal religion embracing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam he appointed his court historian, Mīrzā Mahdī, and two other Persian scholars, Mīr Moḥammad Maʿṣūm Ḥosaynī Ḵātūnābādī and his son ʿAbd-al-Ḡanī, to make translations of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures (Gulbenkian, 1981, p. 45). Again previous Persian translations seem to have been unknown. For the Hebrew scriptures four Jewish rabbis were enlisted, including Bābā ben Nūrīel. Three Carmelite missionaries assisted with the Gospels, Bishop Philip Mary, Father Urban of St. Elisaeus (vicar provincial), and Father Thomas Aquinas, working from an Arabic translation of the Vulgate, Six Armenians (two Catholics, two Orthodox priests, and two Orthodox monks) translated the rest of the New Testament, and four mullahs translated the Koran. The various groups experienced some mutual difficulties, and most had inadequate knowledge of Persian. They translated literally, each Persian word being placed under the corresponding word in the original language. These translations were completed in 1154/1741 and presented to the shah, who apparently never looked at them, having lost interest in religion (Fischel, 1952, pp. 32-39; Gulbenkian, 1981, pp. 45-48).
Modern translations. Only a single Persian translation of the Pentateuch and another of the Gospels had been printed before the 13th/19th century. None of the Persian translations of the Bible made before that time—including some not discussed here—had become generally known. In fact, each successive translation was made without knowledge of previous efforts. The Roman Catholics never printed any of the translations that they had made or collected, for none was based on the Vulgate text (Gulbenkian, 1981, pp. 49-50). With the beginning of Western Protestant Christian missionary activity in Asia, however, emphasis was placed on translation, publication, and distribution of the Bible. Persian translations made in the 13th/19th and 14th/20th centuries were thus published and widely distributed in Iran and India. A series of Persian translations of the Gospels was made in India at the beginning of the 13th/19th century by Mīrzā Moḥammad Feṭrat, an ethnic Persian living in Benares, under the supervision of R. H. Colebrook, professor of Sanskrit at the College of Fort William in Bengal, and surveyor-general of Bengal; Nathaniel Sabat, an Arab from Baghdad, under the direction of Henry Martyn, chaplain of the East India Company; and Leopoldo Sebastiani, head of the Roman Catholic missions to Persia and Qandahār (Waterfield, 1973, pp. 178-79; Gulbenkian, 1981, pp. 51-52). Martyn recognized that none of these efforts was satisfactory, for none of the translators was a native speaker of Persian. He therefore went to Shiraz to work with the Persian scholar Mīrzā Sayyed ʿAlī Khan. Together they translated the whole New Testament from Greek and the Psalms from Hebrew in one year. The translation was completed in 1227/1812, and a copy was presented to Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah in Tabrīz. Martyn was too ill to present the copy personally and died soon after in Turkey, on his way to England (Gulbenkian, 1981, pp. 51-52). This first known translation of the complete New Testament into Persian was published by the Russian Bible Society in St. Petersburg two years later. The Calcutta auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society published both the New Testament and the Psalms in 1816. The Martyn translation was highly acclaimed, and it has become the foundation for later work (Waterfield, 1973, p. 179). It was also the first translation to be widely distributed for liturgical use and study by Christian clergy and laymen. Work on translation of the Old Testament followed. The first complete version, translated by Thomas Robinson, chaplain at Poona and Anglican archdeacon of Madras, later professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, with the help of an unidentified Persian scribe, was published in three volumes in Calcutta between 1836 and 1838. At the same time William Glen of the Scottish mission at Astrakhan and Mīrzā Moḥammad Jaʿfar of Shiraz were translating from Hebrew the complete Old Testament, which was published in Edinburgh in 1845. In the following year it was combined with the Martyn New Testament and published in a single volume at Edinburgh by the British and Foreign Bible Society, the first complete Christian Bible ever published in Persian. After some years it was recognized that changes in the Persian language required a revision of both texts (Waterfield, 1973, p. 179). Robert Bruce, a missionary and representative of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Iran, spent twenty years revising these translations, with the help of Carapet Ohannes of New Jolfā and others. The revised New Testament was published in 1882, and the revision of the whole Bible was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in Leipzig in 1895. Although a subsequent revision and new translations have been made, the so-called “Bruce translation” is still the standard Bible translation in Persian, used by all communities of faith. A translation of the Hebrew scriptures into the Persian dialect of the Bukharan Jews was begun in Jerusalem by Shimon Ḥakham and completed by others after his death in 1910 (Fischel, 1952, p. 45; see also Judeo-Persian translations, above). In the 20th century two new translations of the New Testament from Greek into contemporary Persian have been published; they have followed modern principles of translation by means of dynamic equivalents in order to communicate the meaning of the original languages, rather than adhering to the exact sentence structures and grammatical forms of Hebrew and Greek. In 1976 the Bible Society in Iran published a version that had been translated by Šams Esḥāq and Edwin H. Jaeger; it was edited by Mehdī Abharī and Lewis Johnson. This project was sponsored jointly by all the Christian churches in Iran—Catholic, Eastern, and Protestant—and the translation is in current use in Iran and other countries. A second recent translation was made by Sāro Ḵačīkī, Mehdī Dībāj, Farīda Eršādī, and Armān Rošdī and was published in Tehran (1979) by Living Bibles International. These two organizations are also having the Old Testament translated according to similar principles, and the Jewish community in Iran is making a new Persian translation of the Hebrew scriptures.
A Dari (i.e., Persian of Afghanistan) adaptation of the New Testament from the Persian common language translation of 1976 was published by the Pakistan Bible Society in Lahore in 1982. Earlier, an adaptation from the Persian common language translation of the Gospel of Mark was published in Iran in 1974.
A Tajik (i.e., Persian of Tajikistan in Cyrillic script) translation of the Gospel of Mark was published in 1981 and the New Testament in 1983 by the Institute for Bible Translation in Stockholm.
J. P. Asmussen, Studies in Judeo-Persian Literature, Leiden, 1973.
E. Blochet, Catalogue des manuscrits persans de la Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, Paris, 1905.
British and Foreign Bible Society, Editorial Sub-Committee Minutes, vols. 28-59, London, 1900-1931.
Idem, Reports of the British and Foreign Bible Society, vols. 1-91, London, 1805-95.
E. G. Browne, Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1896.
W. Canton, A History of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 5 vols., London, 1904-10 (esp. II, pp. 353, 377-78; V, pp. 68-82, 431).
T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule, Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society II, London, 1911.
B. Dorn, “Über die auf Nadir Schah’s Befehl verfasste persische Übersetzung der vier Evangelien,” Bulletin de la classe des sciences historiques, philologiques et politiques de l’Académie impériale des sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg 5/5-6.
W. J. Fischel, “The Bible in Persian Translation,” The Harvard Theological Review 45, 1952, pp. 3-45.
Idem, “Israel in Iran. A Survey of Judeo-Persian Literature,” in Louis Finkelstein, ed., The Jews. Their History, Culture, and Religion, 3rd ed., New York, 1960, II, pp. 1149-90.
Idem, “Judeo-Persian Literature,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1972, X, pp. 431-39.
R. Gulbenkian, “The Translation of the Four Gospels into Persian,” Neue Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft 36, 1980, pp. 186-218, 267-89; 37, 1981, pp. 35-57.
G. Messina, Diatessaron Persiano, Biblica et Orientalia, no. 14, Rome, 1951; repr. Tehran, 1957.
Idem, Notizia su un Diatessaron Persiano, tradotto del Siriaco, Biblica et Orientalia, no. 10, Rome, 1943.
B. M. Metzger, Chapters in the History of New Testament Textual Criticism, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1963.
Idem, The Early Versions of the New Testament. Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations, Oxford, 1977.
F. W. K. Müller, “Ein syrisch-neupersisches Psalmenstück aus Chinesisch-Turkistan,” in Festschrift Eduard Sachau, Berlin, 1915, pp. 215-24.
E. A. Nida, ed., The Book of a Thousand Tongues, 2nd ed., London, 1972.
H. H. Paper, “Judeo-Persian Bible Translations. Some Sample Texts,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 8, 1968, pp. 99-113.
E. Rossi, Elenco dei manoscritti persiani della Biblioteca Vaticana, Studi e testi, no. 136, Vatican, 1948.
W. Sundermann, “Einige Bemerkungen zum syrisch-neupersischen Psalmenbruchstück aus Chinesisch-Turkistan,” in Mémorial Jean de Menasce, ed. Ph. Gignoux and A. Tafazzoli, Louvain, 1974, pp. 441-52.
A. Vööbus, Early Versions of the New Testament. Manuscript Studies, Stockholm, 1954.
R. E. Waterfield, Christians in Persia. Assyrians, Armenians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, London, 1973.
E. Yar-Shater, “The Jewish Communities of Persia and Their Dialects,” in Mémorial Jean de Menasce, ed. Ph. Gignoux and A. Tafazzoli, Louvain, 1974, pp. 454-66.
(Kenneth J. Thomas and Fereydun Vahman)
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 2, pp. 209-213