Aquila and his Islamic doppelganger translate Hebrew scripture

Group identity interacts closely with the form and content of communication.  Consider Aquila, a Greek-speaking Roman from Pontus.  He probably was a relative of the second-century Roman Emperor Hadrian.  A Jewish biblical interpretive text (midrash) transmits a dialogue between Aquila and Hadrian:

Aquila once said to Hadrian the King: I wish to convert and become a Jew.

Hadrian said:  Do you really want to join this people?  How much have I humiliated it!  How many of them I have killed!  You would get mixed up with the very lowest of nations?  What do you see in them that makes you wish to become a proselyte?

Aquila said:  The least among them knows how the Holy One created the world, what was created on the first day and what was created on the second day, how long it is since the world was created and on what the world is founded.  Besides, their Torah is the truth.

Hadrian said:  Go and study their Torah, but do not be circumcised. [1]

Aquila learned Hebrew, studied the Torah, and got circumcised.  He became a proselyte to Judaism and conversed with leading Jewish sages.  Seeking knowledge and truth led him into a new group identity.

Solomon reading Hebrew scripture

Aquila translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek.  Aquila’s translation was not into his native Greek.  Aquila’s Greek translation closely followed the verbal sense of the Hebrew Bible.  Aquila translated the Hebrew into Greek “syllable by syllable and letter by letter,” capturing Hebrew linguistic particles and Hebrew etymologies within individual words.[2]  Aquila’s Greek translation is difficult to read and not pleasing by ancient standards for Greek style.  Aquila’s Greek translation probably was meant to be read under the guidance of an expositor who knew the Hebrew source text.[3]

Aquila’s translation encouraged personal intimacy with Jews.  The Torah was translated into Greek about four centuries earlier than Aquila’s translation as part of what’s come to be known as the Septuagint.  The Septuagint was probably made for Jews in Alexandria who could not read Hebrew.  The Christian New Testament, written in Greek hundreds of years after the Septuagint, incorporated text from versions of the Septuagint.  Compared to the Septuagint, Aquila’s translation brought Greek readers much closer to the Hebrew.  Like the Septuagint, Aquila’s translation served Jews who could not read Hebrew.  Aquila’s translation also served non-Jews who sought Jewish knowledge through becoming closer to the Jewish people.  Aquila’s translation strengthened the division between Jewish and Christian peoples and led readers of Hebrew scripture in Greek toward the Jews.

Another conversation between Aquila and Hadrian highlighted the importance of common life-forms in conveying the meaning of a text.  The importance of form appears in Hebrew from the beginning:

the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while ruah {wind/spirit} of God swept over the face of the waters [4]

The “face of the deep” and the “face of the waters” are images difficult to imagine.  Moreover, the Hebrew word ruah ranges in meaning from the physical movement of air in a living being’s breathing to an abstract cosmological spirit.  Leading Greek intellectuals of the time probably would have associated the latter portion of meaning with a Platonic demiurge.  Aquila described the meaning of ruah to Hadrian through specific, detailed action:

Hadrian asked Aquila the proselyte:  Is it true that you {plural form, probably but not necessarily meaning Jews} say that the world is sustained by ruah?

Aquila said to Hadrian: Yes.

Hadrian said to Aquila: Based on what do you say this?

Aquila said to Hadrian: Bring me camels.

Hadrian brought Aquila camels.  Aquila loaded the camels with burdens, stood the camels up and made them kneel, and then took the camels and strangled them.

Aquila said to Hadrian: Here are your camels, make them stand up.

Hadrian said to Aquila: After you strangled them?!

Aquila said to Hadrian: I have taken nothing from them; is it not ruah that I took from them? [5]

Many descriptions of a camel apply equally well to a recently strangled camel.  Signs of missing breath aren’t easy to perceive.  An animated form is a work of art that isn’t easy to translate.  Aquila’s response was to stay close to the animated form, which for Aquila meant Hebrew scripture in Hebrew.

Overlapping, encompassing, and enduring group identities make translation necessary though treacherous.  A text-based group identity requires at least interpretative translation of the text through the group’s changing linguistic practice over time.  The constellation and boundaries of groups are also dynamic.  The new Christian way incorporated Hebrew scripture, which has to be translated for Christians who cannot read Hebrew.  In Islam, the Qur’an revealed God’s message specifically in Arabic.  The Qur’an itself recognizes God speaking through Jewish and Christian scripture, but expresses concern about Jews and Christians corrupting God’s message:

there are among them illiterates, who know not the Book, but (see therein their own) desires, and they do nothing but conjecture.  Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say, “This is from Allah.”

They change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them [6]

Corruption is always a risk in human communication.  Yet staying close to an animated form isn’t the same as preserving a textual artifact.  Without translation or extensive cross-linguistic description, a sacred text may die.

Translation technique alone does not necessarily have any implications for group identity.  Al-Nadim’s Fihrist, a learned, extensive book catalog from late tenth-century Baghdad, transmits from an ancient source a description of translations from Hebrew.  The translator was Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam.  The Fihrist describes Ahmad as a “protegé” of Caliph Harun al-Rashid.  Ahmad’s name describes him as a son of the Jewish convert to Islam, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Salām, who was a celebrated companion of the Prophet of Islam.  Ahmad describes his translations as being like Aquila’s translations:

I have translated the beginning of this book {the book of a righteous follower of Abraham in pre-Islamic times}, and the Torah, the Gospels, and the books of the prophets and disciples from Hebrew, Greek and Sabian, which are the languages of the people of each book, into Arabic, letter for letter.  In so doing I did not wish to beautify or embellish the style for fear of inaccuracy.  I added nothing to what I found in the book which I was translating and I subtracted nothing, unless there were words presented by the language of the people of that book with meanings which could not be clearly translated into Arabic except by transposing.  Thus something coming last may not be clear unless it is placed first, so as to be understood in Arabic.  For example, the {Hebrew} words of one who says at maym tan I have translated into Arabic as ma’ hat, only I have placed ma’ (water) last and hat (bring) first.  So in translating these languages correctly into Arabic I seek the protection of Allah lest I add or subtract, except in the manner which I have recorded and explained in this book. [7]

Translation from Hebrew “letter for letter” is the type of translation Aquila did.  Ahmad’s claim that he did not add or subtract is consistent with imperatives in Deuteronomy.[8]  It would also seem to foreclose, like Aquila’s translation technique, Islamic concerns about corruption of Jewish scripture.  While sharing patterning in closeness to high authority, religious conversion, knowledge of ancient scripture, and translation technique, Aquila and Ahmad had much different positions relative to the Jewish people.  Aquila was a second-century convert to Judaism.  Ahmad was a Muslim from a Jewish family that had converted to Islam.

Ahmad as a translator of Hebrew scripture seems to be not a historical figure but an Islamic literary doppelganger of Aquila.  Specific biographical chronology is an important organizing principle within al-Nadim’s Fihrist.[9]  The biographical chronology that the Fihrist provides for Ahmad is meager and incoherent.  The Fihrist records Ahmad describing “People of the Book who became Muslims, among whom were ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam, ….”[10]  ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam died in 663/4.[11]  Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam means Ahmad, son of ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam.  That filial relation is inconsistent with Ahmad being a protegé of Caliph al-Rashid, who reigned from 786-809.  Moreover, al-Nadim in the Fihrist provides a folkloric context for Ahmad’s statements:

I once read a book which fell into my hands, and which was an ancient transcription, apparently from the library of al-Ma’mun.  In it the copyist mentions the names and numbers of the scriptures and revealed books, with their scope and with the things which most of the common people and the populace feel sure of and believe. [12]

Credible sourcing in the Islamic world typically meant a chronological list of respected scholars transmitting a text across time.  Al-Nadim provides, in contrast, a vague, abstract chronology (“once” upon a time; “an ancient transcription”) and a reference to common belief.  Moreover, al-Nadim records Ahmad declaring that the total number of books that God revealed was 104, with 100 books revealed from the time of Adam to that of Moses.  According to Ahmad, Adam wrote 21 books.[13]  A non-biblical Adam literature undoubtedly was in circulation, but it probably fell well short of 21 books.  Moreover, the Christian Gospels, the Christian epistles, and the Christian books of Acts and Revelation seem to add up to more than three books, even with Islamic combinations and discounting.[14]  Some Jews were renowned for multilingualism in the ancient Islamic world.[15]  But Ahmad translating from Hebrew, Greek, and Sabian seems like a construct created from the Qur’anic description of the People of the Book.  While the Fihrist is an expansive, detailed book catalog, it doesn’t seem to take seriously cataloging Jewish and Christian scripture.[16]  The most plausible explanation for the Fihrist‘s lack of care in cataloging Jewish and Christian books is that al-Nadim believed Jewish and Christian books were not credibly transmitted.  Abbasid courtly literature parodically inventing Ahmad as Aquila’s Islamic doppelganger is consistent with al-Nadim’s approach to cataloging Jewish and Christian books.

Human symbolic forms are not easily to control.  Horace, who was an eminent poet close to the Roman Emperor Augustus, wrote, “Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium.”  But Horace wrote of Greek culture in Latin, the language of imperial Rome.  Jerome, a Christian translating Hebrew scripture and Greek Christian gospels and epistles into Latin about three hundred years later, wrote, “What harmony can there be between Christ and the Devil? What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospels, and Cicero with the Apostle?”[17]  By Jerome’s time, Horace, Virgil, and Cicero were models of elegant Latin style.  They were ghostly figures that could influence Jerome’s translation of the bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  The treachery of translation is mainly in over-interpreting intentionality in human symbolic action.

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[1] From Exodus Rabba 30:12, trans. Seidman (2006) p. 87, adapted slightly.  The text is probably from the 11th or 12th century, and may reflect significant editing over time.  See Labendz (2009) pp. 354-5.  Seidman (2006), p. 87, observes that various sources describe Aquila as a relative of Hadrian, usually his nephew.  According to Epiphanius of Salamis, a fourth-century Christian bishop, Aquila first converted to Christianity.  However, Aquila’s devotion to astrology prompted him to renounce Christianity.  Epiphanius stated that Aquila was a relative to Hadrian by marriage and from Sinope in Pontus.  Epiphanius, On Weights and Measures, para. 14-15, trans. Dean (1935).

[2] From Jerome, Letter LVII. To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating, para. 11, trans. Fremantle (1892) (NPNF2-06).

[3] Brock (1979) pp. 74, 79.  The Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud), redacted sometime between late in the fourth century and early in the fifth century, indicates that translating Hebrew Scripture into Greek was acceptable to Jewish rabbis, in particular Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, about 2000 years ago.  Yerushalmi Megillah 1:8, 71a-b, trans. Labendz (2009) 358-9.  Id. p. 354 for dating.  Aquila’s translation was included in Origen’s Hexapla along with the Hebrew-Greek translations of Theodotion and Symmachus.  Among the three, Aquila seems to have attracted the most attention.  These three Hebrew-Greek translations were carried forward subsequently across 1500 years of Jewish life.

[4] Genesis 1:2.

[5] Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1, 77a, trans. Labendz (2009) p. 357, adapted slightly.  The text’s original language is Aramaic.  I’ve used above the Hebrew word ruah for the closely related Aramaic word ruha.  See Seidman (2006) p. 111.

[6] Qur’an 2:78-79, 5:13, described in English by ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ali.  Here’s more on this issue (tahrif) in Islamic thought.

[7] Fihrist, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 1, p. 42.  As-Safadi (d. 1363) described two methods of translation among (mainly Christian) translators from Greek and Syriac into Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad.  These methods were word-for-word translation and translation of the sense of whole sentences.  He declared that the second method of translations is superior.  Trans. Brock (1979) pp. 74-5.  In fact, a variety of translation styles existed.  Translations into Arabic in the ninth century did not develop chronologically from “crudely literal translations” to “polished, free translations.”  Gutas (1998) pp. 142-4

[8] Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32.  The phrases “nothing added” / “nothing subtracted” were also used in ancient Greek treaties.  Brock (1979) p. 76. They are sensible phrases for early contracts that were recopied.  Literal translation more generally was a defense against charges of changing the text or responsibility for heresies within the text.  Id.

[9] Stewart (2007).

[10] Fihrist, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 1, p. 42.

[11] On ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam, see Horovitz, J. “ʿAbd Allāh b. Salām.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition; Steven M. Wasserstrom. “ʿAbd Allāh ibn Salām.” Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World.

[12] Fihrist, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 1, p. 41.  Al-Maʾmun was caliph from 813 to 833.

[13] Id. p. 42.

[14] Based on Ahmad’s count, God revealed four books after Moses.  From an Islamic perspective, the Qur’an was one.  That leave three others.  The three remaining must include at least the Christian scripture that the Qur’an explicitly recognizes.

[15] E.g. Sallām at-Turjumānī.

[16] The Fihrist‘s relevant section first presents a Muslim forerunner (a pre-Islamic believer in Abraham) and a Muslim convert from Judaism (Ahmad).  The section then presents information from Jewish and Christian informants that al-Nadim consulted.  The sub-section on Christian books begins:

I asked Yunus the priest, who was an excellent man, about the books translated into Arabic language which they expounded and according to which they act.

Trans. Dodge (1970) p. 45.  The Fihrist‘s list of Christian books includes:

The Gospel of Matthew; The Gospel of Mark; The Gospel of Luke; The Gospel of John.  Book of Disciples, known as Fraksis {Acts}; Paul the Apostle, twenty-four epistles

Id. The Christian New Testament includes four gospels, Acts, twenty-one epistles (of which thirteen are under the name of Paul), and the Book of Revelation.  Thus the above count for Paul the Apostle appears to be inconsistent with any reasonable counting of the New Testament canon.  An accurate catalog of the New Testament canon should have been relatively easy for al-Nadim to acquire from the still vibrant Christian church under the early ‘Abbasids.  Al-Nadim seems to distance himself from his catalog of Jewish and Christian books.  The Fihrist describes the relevant section as “about titles of the books of the laws revealed to the sects of the Muslims and the sects of {other} peoples.” Dodge notes that the meaning of this phrase isn’t entirely clear. Id p. 2 (text translation from al-Nadim’s “Summary of Book”), p. 2, n. 6 (comment).  Al-Nadim’s position seems to be that Jewish and Christian scripture is encompassed historically within Islam, but not credibly transmitted.

[17] Horace, Epistles 2.1.156; Jerome, Epistle 22, To Eustochium, sec. 29.   At the time of Jerome’s Latin translation, existing Latin translations of Hebrew scripture (Vetus Latina) apparently had been made from the Septuagint.  Tertullian exclaimed:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy in common with the church?

Tertullian, On the prescription of heretics, Ch. 7.  The Christian New Testament has been transmitted in Greek.  Paul of Tarsus, a Jewish Christian, wrote his epistles in Greek and was highly learned and polished Greek rhetorician.

[image] Solomon studying Torah.  From the thirteenth-century Northern French Miscellany, British Library Additional 11639, folio f. 116.


Brock, Sebastian. 1979. “Aspects of Translation Technique in Antiquity.”  Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20, 1: 69-87.

Dean, James Elmer Dean, trans. 1935.  Epiphanius’ Treatise on weights and measures; the Syriac version. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gutas, Dimitri. 1998. Greek thought, Arabic culture: the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in Baghdad and early ʻAbbāsid society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries). London: Routledge.

Labendz, Jenny R. 2009. “Aquila’s Bible Translation in Late Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Perspectives.” The Harvard Theological Review. 102 (3): 353-388.

Seidman, Naomi. 2006. Faithful renderings: Jewish-Christian difference and the politics of translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stewart, Devin. 2007. “The Structure of the Fihrist: Ibn al-Nadim as Historian of Islamic Legal and Theological Schools.” International Journal of Middle East Studies. 39 (3): 369-387.

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