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« In partibus fidelium ». Missions du Levant et connaissance de l’Orient chrétien (XIXe-XXIe siècles)

Marie Levant
Philippe Bourmaud
Séverine Gabry-Thienpont
et al.

Deuxième partie – Réception et reformulation des savoirs missionnaires

Bibles for ordinary people: the British and Foreign Bible Society and Middle Eastern vernacular publishing

Heather J. Sharkey


Cet article étudie le rôle et l’impact d’une mission et maison d’édition protestante, la British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), dans la diffusion de bibles « vernaculaires » au Moyen-Orient et en Afrique du Nord de la fin du XIXe au milieu du XXe siècle. Partant du principe que chacun devrait pouvoir lire et comprendre la Bible dans sa propre langue, la BFBS l’a traduite dans plusieurs formes d’arabe (comme les dialectes d’Égypte et d’Algérie), le turc et le persan entre autres, tout en faisant appel à des hommes et des femmes à peine alphabétisés. Ce travail, qui a contribué à créer de nouvelles communautés de lecteurs parmi les musulmans, les chrétiens et les juifs de la région, s’est déroulé dans le contexte des enchevêtrements globalisants de la société atteignant ainsi non seulement la population locale, mais aussi les voyageurs maritimes qui traversaient le canal de Suez. De cette manière, le BFBS a contribué à faire du Moyen-Orient et de l’Afrique du Nord un centre permanent de diffusion mondiale des idées chrétiennes au cours du siècle précédant la crise de Suez de 1956. Pendant ce temps, et à long terme, plusieurs de ses éditions bibliques ont gagné une importance ex post facto en tant que reliques d’un patrimoine linguistique local, surtout à mesure que les guerres, les migrations et les changements littéraires du XXe siècle ont fait disparaître certaines communautés linguistiques.

Texte intégral

Introduction: “Low” Christian culture and vernacular Bible publishing

  • 1 See Ayalon 2016.

1Many scholars have considered the role of missions in producing knowledge for highly literate and highly educated people. In this article, by contrast, I propose to examine the knowledge that missionaries and their local affiliates produced for people who were often barely literate and minimally educated. This knowledge took the form of Bible editions – including translations that missionaries produced in what they called “vernacular” or spoken languages, such as Algerian Arabic – for men and women. A major force behind these efforts was one particular Protestant organization, a publishing mission called the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), which was active in the eastern and southern Mediterranean region from the early nineteenth century until decolonization in the mid-twentieth century. In many ways, the BFBS specialized in promoting a “low” rather than “high” Christian culture through its circulation of Bible books for audiences of ordinary people who spoke a multitude of languages. Their work encouraged literacy, contributed to the “print revolution” of this period, and fostered new, popular cultures of reading.1

  • 2 Anderson 1991.
  • 3 Fraser – Hammond 2008, p. 9-10.

2In this essay, I examine the history of the BFBS’s vernacular Bible work in the Middle East and North Africa in light of the “careers” of certain editions. In the process, I advance three arguments regarding the society’s role in circulating knowledge. First, and most obviously, by rendering spoken languages into printed translations, which the society then circulated widely, the BFBS encouraged the construction of communal and national identities, however inadvertently. The society’s work confirmed the connection between vernacular print culture and the formation of “imagined communities”.2 Second, as a global organization based in London – the heart of the United Kingdom and the British Empire – the BFBS conducted its activities in the Middle East and North Africa within the context of the society’s global affairs. What happened in places like, say, New York and Ontario, influenced its actions and strategies in places like Egypt. And third, the work of the BFBS shows that the Middle East was not only a staging ground for people of Middle Eastern origin. During the “Age of Sea” in book history, when ships (not airplanes) were the major means of long-distance travel,3 the BFBS sold Bibles to travelers who sailed into the region’s harbors. The society’s sale of Bibles to transient people in Port Said and Alexandria, two ports where the BFBS was especially active, helped to make the Middle East a center for the global diffusion of Christianity during the pre-World War II era, while suggesting how Middle Eastern Christian cultures remained inextricably tied to events in the wider world.

  • 4 For a copy of Arabic records, see, for example, Bible Society (...)

3Two points of clarification are necessary before continuing. First, BFBS executives in London organized the administration of their work around linguistic, not regional, categories. Their tendency to think, for example, in terms of a category like “Arabic” meant that BFBS planners in London considered policies toward Arabic-speaking zones from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east within a common framework, although they focused much more on North Africa than on the Levant. They reflected this approach in their organization by keeping an “Editorial Sub-Committee” for Arabic.4 Recognizing their approach, I refer in this paper to the Middle East and North Africa, rather than to the Levant. Second, although the BFBS was a British society in its leadership, its translations were multinational, and drew upon the skills of local language experts as well as Americans, Swedes, Germans, and others. Likewise, while the translators and publishers who worked with the BFBS were all Christians – and almost always Protestants – the people who bought and presumably read the society’s editions included diverse Christians as well as Muslims, Jews, and others. This essay therefore departs from most of the other contributions to this volume, insofar as the target audiences of the BFBS as a mission were not exclusively or even primarily Christian.

4The essay that follows has four parts. First, I discuss briefly the history, nature, and evangelical ideology of the BFBS. I argue that we must understand the motives of this organization, as well as its position within Britain, in order to appreciate what it did and how it worked in the eastern and southern Mediterranean lands. Second, I discuss the organization’s role in “knowledge production” by considering the Bible editions that it sold and the new translations it developed for Middle Eastern and North African peoples. Among these were Bibles rendered in spoken languages of the region, including forms of Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Berber, Hebrew, and Persian. Third, I briefly examine how the BFBS worked not only to distribute texts to local eastern and southern Mediterranean peoples, but also to travelers who sailed through the region on ships. The society used the Egyptian port cities of Alexandria and Port Said to sell Bibles in an assortment of languages such as Russian, Chinese, Hindi, and Vietnamese. This point suggests how the eastern Mediterranean region – which the society’s leaders called “the Bible lands” – fit within larger histories of world Christianity. Fourth, to conclude, I assess the role of the BFBS in stimulating literacy and forms of nationalism, while questioning the impact that the society may have had as a custodian of linguistic heritage.

The British and Foreign Bible Society: history and ideology

  • 5 Hofmeyr 2004, p. 19.

5The BFBS was a Protestant publishing mission founded in London in 1804. It published only one book – the Bible – or parts of it. The society worked from several evangelical assumptions, among them the following: faith is personal. All people should be able to read and understand the Bible for themselves. The Bible can always be translated. The Bible has power to “seize and entirely transform”5 people and to improve lives, while offering guidance and comfort. Simply, the society’s supporters believed that reading the Bible was a good thing and that people should do it often.

  • 6 Steer 2006.
  • 7 British and Foreign Bible Society 1965.

6The society maintained a non-sectarian Protestant character and, to avoid disagreements among supporters, published Bibles plain, “without note or comment” added to its texts.6 It did not associate with any one church, but drew members, supporters, and workers from many different British Protestant churches that had slightly different doctrines and practices. Its founders and members included Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists; the organization remained conscious of these distinctions to ensure that it preserved a diverse leadership and constituency. But while the society was British in origins and leadership, it was not exclusively British in its work, and it collaborated with dozens of mission societies representing different nationalities. In the Middle East and North Africa, the society worked most closely with Americans. It offered grants to scholars (mostly professional missionaries) who were working on Bible translations, and published the results. By 1965 it claimed to have published full or partial Bible translations in 872 languages, all testifying to what the society believed to be the global potential and pluralistic culture of Christianity.7

  • 8 Canton 1904, see p. 299-300; Martin 2006; Lane 2006. The most (...)

7Unlike most Protestant missions, the society sponsored no churches and performed no baptisms. Nor did it keep track of converts. Especially among men, the society appointed and supervised male Bible sellers, called “colporteurs,” to sell scriptures to passing strangers before sending them on their way. To reach females, the society deputized other mission societies and gave them grants to appoint networks of “Bible Women,” who tended to stay within particular neighborhoods where they could make repeat visits to women in their homes.8 The society also distributed Bibles in bulk through other missionary organizations, that used them in mission-school classrooms.

  • 9 Henderson 1995.

8While the BFBS was a mission, it was also a business. It sold books – it did not give them away freely – although its goal was to cover costs and not necessarily make profits. The society’s leaders believed that buying Bibles could help people to cultivate economic self-discipline. They determined prices depending on what they thought people could pay. In its insistence on receiving payment for Bibles, the BFBS differed from Gideons International, a Bible-publishing mission founded in Wisconsin in 1899 (initially with the goal of appealing to traveling salesmen) which distributed Bibles for free.9

  • 10 Anderson 1991.
  • 11 Howsam 1991.

9The BFBS flourished in an age of print, within a publishing culture that the anthropologist Benedict Anderson famously described as “print capitalism.”10 The society specialized in selling cheap books in vernacular languages that reflected what people spoke.11 These were sometimes printed on low-quality paper and consisted, for the cheapest editions, of “portions” or single books of the Bible such as Genesis or the Gospel of Matthew. Their low quality often made them ephemeral, meaning that they were not the kind of grand editions that one would expect to save in a place like a monastery library. In some cases, we know that people sometimes bought the cheapest editions and soon threw them away. For these reasons, many of the BFBS Bible editions are likely to survive in only one place: Cambridge University Library in England, which preserves the society’s records, including single copies of editions that the society published between 1805 and the 1960s, along with annual reports and archival materials that give some information about sales figures for each of these versions.

  • 12 Roe 1965.
  • 13 Sharkey 2011a.
  • 14 Ibid.

10The BFBS had global aspirations; it tried to be everywhere. By the time World War I started, it had connections to almost every country in the world.12 And yet, the eastern Mediterranean was especially important to its work, for two reasons. First, the region contained the Bible lands; it was the cradle of Christianity and therefore loomed large in the imaginations of its supporters.13 And second, the region was geo-strategically important for global Bible distribution, especially after 1869, because of its position along the global shipping routes of the Suez Canal.14

  • 15 Kverndal 1986.

11The BFBS, finally, was an extremely British organization, in the sense of being both nationalistic and imperialistic. It often benefitted from the power of the British Empire, and like the empire, historically expanded through maritime activities.15 Its British culture had some direct consequences for the work it did in the eastern Mediterranean region. We can see this cultural impact by looking at three examples, relating to three Bibles, that figured prominently in the society’s imagination and ideology, and shaped its ethos in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • 16 BFBS 1925, p. 1.
  • 17 Sharkey 2013.

12First, there was the example of the English Bible of William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536). Tyndale was the Protestant who had dared, between 1525 and 1535, to translate the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek. For this heresy, emissaries of King Henry VIII captured Tyndale near Brussels and had him strangled and burnt at the stake. Writing in 1926, the society hailed Tyndale as one of the “greatest of God’s Englishmen,” Shakespeare’s forerunner.16 Heeding the example of Tyndale’s achievement, the Bible Society’s executives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rejected the notion that any language was too “low” for the Bible. Their awareness of the history of the English Bible informed their decision later to prepare Bible translations in humble spoken forms of Arabic.17

  • 18 Ropes 1892.
  • 19 Canton, 1904 p. 7-8, 18-31.

13Second, there was the example of the Welsh Bible associated with Mary Jones. Mary Jones was a teenage girl who wanted a Welsh-language Bible so badly that she reportedly walked over a mountain trying to find one.18 Her story, and her search, inspired the foundation of the society in 1804 and led it, in years ahead, to publish translations of the Bible in various British languages – not only English, but also Welsh, forms of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man).19 When the society eventually expanded its work into the Suez Canal Zone, they named their boat the Mary Jones in a reference to this Welsh young woman who had wanted a Bible in her own language so badly.

  • 20 Banks 2006, p. 317; Benn 2012.
  • 21 Fea 2016.
  • 22 Sharkey 2020.

14Third, there was the Mohawk Bible of 1805 – technically, a translation only of the Gospel of John – the society’s first original Bible translation. Its translator was a British military officer, not missionary, named John Norton, who claimed to be the son of a Scottish mother and Native American, Cherokee father. Norton produced this translation for Native Americans in Ontario who had helped Britain to fight against the colonial Americans in the American war for independence and who had lost their lands in New York when the Americans won the war.20 As I have argued elsewhere, the Norton translation reflected another important aspect of the society’s British culture: namely, the society shared Britain’s complicated, love-hate relationship with English-speaking U.S. Protestants. The circumstances surrounding this Mohawk translation anticipated the rivalry that drove the BFBS’s work in the Middle East as its leaders considered what the American Bible Society (founded in New York in 1817) was doing.21 This rivalry sharpened acutely after the latter published the Van Dyck or Beirut Arabic Bible in 1865, on behalf of the American Presbyterian mission of Beirut, whose members led the translation.22

The society’s Middle Eastern and North African editions

  • 23 Grafton 2015.
  • 24 Bible Society of Egypt 1999.
  • 25 Grafton 2018.

15The Van Dyck Arabic Bible, published, again, in 1865, is one of the enduring accomplishments of the American Presbyterian mission of Beirut. It remains important for two reasons. First, its translation involved major thinkers of the Arabic literary and nationalist movement known as the Nahda, such as Būtrūs al-Bustānī, and can be regarded as one product of this revival.23 Second, the Van Dyck Bible has shown cultural longevity, or “staying power.” Many Middle Eastern Christians still read this edition today; it was revised most recently by the Bible Society of Egypt in 1999.24 Its literary and devotional value notwithstanding, the Van Dyck Bible also had political dimensions. As David Grafton has noted, this edition aimed to confirm Protestant communal claims to state-recognized communal autonomy – that is, to millet status – within the late Ottoman Empire while distinguishing Protestants from Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities. As such, the Van Dyck Bible along with other translations became an integral part of the diplomatic maneuvering known as the “Eastern Question,” whereby Western states and their emissaries jockeyed for influence and advantage within Ottoman domains.25

  • 26 Reeves-Ellington 2011.

16The translators of the Van Dyck Bible self-consciously aimed to give the text a high, classical-Arabic-style tone. In the Near East as the English-speaking peoples imagined that region in the mid-nineteenth century, the BFBS also sponsored the translation of a “high” literary Bible, though in a different language: this was the 1866 Bulgarian translation, produced by American Presbyterian missionaries in collaboration with a prominent early Bulgarian nationalist named Petko Slaveykov. This Bulgarian Bible (which represented in many ways a joint British-American, not to mention British-American-Bulgarian collaboration) played a significant role in stimulating a form of Bulgarian nationalism that developed close associations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.26

17I mention these details to show that the British society did sell some of what I would call high literary Bibles. They sold the American Bible Society’s Van Dyck Bible to educated Arabic speakers who wanted it; they also sold their own imprint, the Bulgarian Bible. Meanwhile, the British society carried on a brisk business selling Hebrew Bibles to Jews, some of whom were becoming interested in the incipient Zionist movement, as well as French Bibles to Muslims, Christians, and Jews who were attending Catholic and Jewish Francophone schools in places like Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.

  • 27 For details on these translations, see Sharkey 2013.
  • 28 On the CMS in Egypt, see Rhodes 2003; Sedra 2011.
  • 29 Many of the Protestant missionary societies were committed to what (...)
  • 30 Sharkey 2011.

18Starting in the opening years of the twentieth century, the British society also agreed to sponsor new “vernacular” Bible translations for poor Arabic-speaking men and women who could barely read.27 Motivating their efforts was the belief that all people should have access to the Bible, regardless of the language they spoke or the level of education they had reached. Starting in 1905, they published versions of this kind for Muslims in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and also for Jews, speakers of Judeo-Arabic, in Tunisia. I call these translations their “colloquial Arabic” or ʿammiyya editions. Few individuals bought these colloquial Arabic versions in bookstores. Instead, it appears that the society mostly distributed them through other mission societies, such as the (British) Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Egypt28 and the American Methodist mission in Algeria, that used them to educate children, or more often, adults.29 Strikingly, they did not sell or distribute these colloquial translations to Christians like the Copts, because it appeared that Arabic-speaking Christians always preferred the literary Van Dyck edition.30

  • 31 British and Foreign Bible Society 1939 and 1965.

19The British society also published versions in different writing systems. For Turkish-speakers in Anatolia, they published a Turkish-language version in Arabic characters (for Muslims) in 1885, a Turkish-language version in Armenian characters (for Armenian Christians) in 1888, and a Turkish-language version in Greek characters (for Greek Christians) in 1909. Only much later, in 1941, did they publish a Turkish Bible in Roman characters for use in the Turkish republic. They devised at least four Armenian-language editions for Armenian Christians: in what they called “Ancient church” Armenian in 1895, “Modern Eastern Armenian” for Iran and the Caucasus region in 1914, “Modern Western” or “Constantinople Dialect” Armenian in 1917, and “Modern Western Armenian” for Turkey in 1923. They devised a Persian Bible in Hebrew characters (“Judeo-Iranian”) for Jews, in 1909.31

  • 32 For example, the translator of the society’s Egyptian colloquial (...)

20I have only looked at some of the Arabic versions closely, and even then, the records held at Cambridge University Library are limited. Part of the challenge for the historian is that each Bible version had its own history. That is, each had its own translators, of various nationalities and churches, who were collaborating with the Bible society and experiencing a distinct set of challenges while imagining different target audiences. Since the society kept records for each edition it published, we can in most cases identify the missionaries and other scholars who prepared them.32 Despite variations in the circumstances surrounding their creation, their translation teams, and so forth, I can make a few general points about the society’s Middle Eastern and North African editions. These points, in turn, can help us to evaluate the society’s role in knowledge production, as well as the political and ideological features that shaped its work.

  • 33 Reeves-Ellington 2011; Sharkey, Sudanese Arabic (...)

21First, the quality and rigor of the translations varied depending on the knowledge and skill of the translators. Some versions developed a reputation for being rigorous and high-quality, like the Bulgarian translation. Others, the Bible society’s leaders admitted, were rather poor in quality, like its Sudanese Arabic versions.33

22Second, some versions had more prestige than others, and the Bible society sold the more prestigious books in fancier editions with better-quality paper, leather covers, and higher prices. These versions are more likely to have survived in libraries. The cheapest versions, produced for and sold to poor people, were more likely to be ephemeral and perhaps to fall apart, because their paper bindings cracked, or because their paper, which had a higher acid content, browned and crumbled.

  • 34 Sharkey 2011b.

23In the case of the colloquial Arabic versions, the last two editions were a full Moroccan Bible (Old and New Testaments) published in 1963, and a Maghribi New Testament produced in a kind of “union” Algerian and Tunisian Arabic, which appeared in 1965. The society’s effort to unify Algerian and Tunisian Arabic into one translation – something that it also did for its Swahili versions for East and Central Africa – shows how it sometimes engaged in linguistic engineering, by consciously rendering language in a way to reconfigure communities of readers. Both the 1963 and 1965 editions were products of rigorous team translation projects that had started many years before. However, they took so long to complete that decolonization occurred before they appeared, rendering them obsolete as postcolonial governments forced Christian missions into contraction.34

24Why did the British and Foreign Bible Society devise these “vernacular” translations in languages like Moroccan Arabic and Constantinople Armenian? Recall one of the evangelical beliefs that inspired the society’s work: the idea that the Bible could be more intimate, more meaningful, and more transformative, if it could “speak” to people in their own language. Remember also the barriers that literacy had historically posed, for women even more than for men. Part of the mission of the Bible society’s evangelical supporters was to spread literacy, by bringing texts within reach.

The eastern Mediterranean as a zone of global Bible transmission

25The “Bible lands” of the eastern Mediterranean have continued to serve across history as a center for the diffusion of Christian ideas and not just as Christianity’s historical birthplace. We can see the region’s role in this process when we consider how the BFBS used it as a global headquarters for Bible distribution, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The canal quickly became so important as a conduit for worldwide sea travel that the society decided to move its “Bible lands” headquarters to the new Egyptian canal town of Port Said, beginning in 1912. They constructed a grand, modern building on the town’s main boulevard, opened a bookstore, and built a warehouse that could store 150,000 volumes.

  • 35 Sharkey 2011b.

26The Bible House in Port Said distributed books locally, regionally, and globally, sometimes sending shipments to central Africa, South America, and East Asia. Within Port Said, it appealed to the vast number of sea travelers who passed through the harbor: sailors and soldiers; tourists, refugees, and emigrants; and even Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian men who worked in the kitchens of ships. It had its boat – called, again, the Mary Jones – that could sail out to meet ships as they came into harbor. The society also worked on land, sending male Bible-sellers into the bars and brothels that gave Port Said a reputation of a “sin city.”35

  • 36 British and Foreign Bible Society 1914, p. 142.

27In 1914, the Bible society reported that it had that year sold Bibles in 57 different languages in Port Said alone. English, German, French, Dutch, Greek and Ethiopic (in that order) were the six bestsellers for full Bibles or New Testaments. In terms of “portions” (just the Psalms, for example), the six best-sellers in Port Said were Chinese, followed by Dutch, Arabic, Bengali, Hindustani, and Greek.36

  • 37 Copies of these reports are available at Cambridge University (...)
  • 38 Batalden 2006, p. 169.

28After reading annual reports of the society’s Egyptian agency that supervised book sales from Port Said, I can share the following general remarks.37 First, among British executives of the society, anti-Catholic sentiment was strong. British executives regarded Italian and French people with special suspicion, and often ascribed atheistic tendencies to them even while maligning their Roman Catholic backgrounds. Before the Bolshevik Revolution closed off opportunities in Russia, the society’s leaders highly praised Russian Orthodox sailors, whom they described as devout Christians and eager Bible customers. Reports from Egypt about Russian editions give credence to the claim that, “the Russian Empire was the scene for the Society’s greatest international success and [after the Bolshevik Revolution] its most conspicuous failure.”38 Working on land in Egypt, Bible sellers reported that Muslims were occasionally skeptical, though often interested, in buying Arabic Bibles. In general, Muslims respected the books when they bought them.

  • 39 Gutjahr 1999, p. 39.

29During the interwar era, reports from Egypt occasionally mentioned incidents when sailors – again, usually French or Italian – bought a Bible only to torment the Bible-seller by throwing it into the water. Clearly, people did not necessarily buy Bibles to read them: they occasionally bought Bibles in order to destroy them. Others, especially soldiers and refugees, sometimes wanted Bibles to have and to hold, as tangible objects of solace. This last point about the materiality of the Bible as a book reminds us of how “one must attempt to understand the Bible as a physical artifact in its own commercial milieu [in order] to grasp its role in the larger culture.”39 Other travelers seemed simply grateful to have a book written in the language of home, far away – a language that was close to their hearts.

30While we cannot know for certain what impact Bible-buying or Bible-reading may have had on individuals, the statistics for book sales according to language do give us some sense of the popularity and global distribution of books. Again, the work of the BFBS confirmed the place of the eastern Mediterranean “Bible lands” as a center for the diffusion of biblical knowledge throughout the world.

Conclusion: Bible circulation, heritage building, and language revivals

31The British and Foreign Bible Society helped to circulate Bible books and biblical knowledge. Through the sale and distribution of editions not only to speakers of language like Arabic and Turkish, but also to sea travelers from places farther away (such as Madagascar and Indochina), the BFBS used its foothold in eastern Mediterranean lands to spread Judeo-Christian ideas far and wide. Part of the reason one may say “Judeo-Christian” and not simply “Christian” is because the Bible society seemed to sell many Hebrew Bibles (Old, not New, Testament Bibles) to Jewish readers – leading me to suspect that the society may have helped to consolidate distinctly Jewish identities among them.

  • 40 Khalidi – Farrukh 1957; and Sharkey 2004.
  • 41 Bible Society Archives, Cambridge University Library, BSA/E3/3/18: (...)
  • 42 Sharkey 2018.

32Inspiring or consolidating identities: this was one of the most important ways that the society had an impact. Every Bible version they printed had the potential to inform a distinct kind of ethno-nationalism. This point was not lost on pan-Arab nationalists, who in the 1950s, began to mount fierce attacks on missionary efforts to promote colloquial Arabic – describing missionaries as major agents of imperialism who tried to divide Arabs on the basis of their spoken-language diversity.40 It may be no accident that, during this decade of decolonization, executives at the BFBS began to consider anew the possibility of producing a new collaborative literary Arabic edition. More remarkably still, given the long history of Christian sectarian conflict, the society’s leaders in the 1950s began to write wistfully about the possibility that Catholic and Orthodox Christians would be willing to join in a collaborative effort.41 Christian ecumenical solidarity, across Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox lines, was certainly growing stronger in this period, and reflected the beleaguerment of Christians, regardless of sect, in Middle Eastern and North African lands.42

  • 43 See, for example, Hart 1999; Boukhris et al. 2014.

33In terms of seeding ethno-nationalism, the society’s translations into forms of Shilha, a Berber language spoken in Morocco, may have also contributed in the long run to sustaining forms of Berber or Amazigh nationalism today. While I have not closely studied the history of the society’s Shilha translations, I would hypothesize that the BFBS publications helped to foster the kind of cultural consciousness that has translated into Berber revivals.43

  • 44 Bar-Asher 1992.
  • 45 See, for example, Hanioğlu 2008, p. 63 on the everyday use of (...)

34Every Bible version that the society devised was a gamble. Some versions succeeded: in the category of “success stories” one could go beyond the Middle East and North Africa by citing, for example, the society’s versions in African languages like Ibo (in what is now Nigeria) and Swahili (in East Africa). Other versions failed: some because the translations were weak and unappealing (such as the Sudanese Arabic editions mentioned earlier), and some because their language communities vanished. The Judeo-Arabic versions became obsolete in this way: either because Jews in North Africa learned French or (in Libya especially) Italian, and therefore abandoned Judeo-Arabic, or because they emigrated and stopped speaking Arabic after the start of Israeli-Arab wars in 1948.44 The Turkish version that the society produced in Greek characters became obsolete because of World War I and the Turkish-Greek population exchange that followed. Today, the phrase “Greek Turk” may sound like an ethnic paradox, but to Bible society officials over a century ago, it may have seemed plausible. Meanwhile, the society’s versions both in Turkish rendered in Armenian characters, and in Constantinople Armenian dialect, became obsolete because the Armenian genocide eliminated the Christians who used them.45 As a result of these population flows and language extinctions, some of the society’s Bibles are now museum pieces.

35Many of the Bibles that I have described were not produced in deluxe editions. Since most of them were meant to be affordable, the publisher used cheap, thin paper for the pages and binding – materials that made these texts ephemeral in the long run. And yet, even if only one copy survives, it may be enough to carry a retrievable or revivable heritage. One copy also acts as a witness for history: these texts are linguistic acts that prove, for example, that many Armenians and Greeks once lived in what is now Turkey, and that many Jews lived in North African lands.

  • 46 Canton 1904, p. 31.
  • 47 Phillips 2004, p. 2.
  • 48 Broderick 1999, p. 187.
  • 49 Y Vible Ghaelgagh 2018.
  • 50 BBC 2013.
  • 51 Draskau 2008, p. xx.

36I can think of one example where a rediscovery has happened: it is a minor example from another part of the world, but may be illustrative, anyway. Once upon a time, people spoke a language called Manx on the Isle of Man, which is located in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Manx was, in fact, the language of the society’s first non-English British translation. The society’s Manx Bible went through multiple editions after 1819 but by the mid-nineteenth century was falling out of use because the English language was taking over (much as French supplanted languages like Occitan and Breton in France); the last Manx copies were circulated in 1875.46 By 1921, only 1% of the island’s population spoke Manx. The language’s last fully fluent native speaker – a man named Edward Maddrell – died at age ninety-seven in 1974.47 And yet, through an act of willpower by committed language conservationists, Manx has been experiencing a modest revival. Local school systems introduced it as an optional subject in 1992,48 while the Manx Heritage Foundation, founded in 1982, and renamed Culture Vannin in 2014, posted an electronic and searchable form of the nineteenth-century BFBS Manx Bible.49 A Manx revivalist went on to publish, in 2006, the first novel in the language, about vampires;50 while a linguist, writing in 2008, was able to claim that Manx’s “lexicon [was] being replenished through the efforts of translators and revivalists.”51

37In 2009, UNESCO had classified the Manx language as extinct, but more recently, UNESCO modified its claim to call Manx only “critically endangered.” Time will tell if the resurrection of the Manx language continues, and if it can offer lessons to linguistic conservationists elsewhere, for example, in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • 52 Green 2016; iTunes Preview 2018.

38This leads me to my last point, which is this: there is something special about the Bible, aside from whatever its inspirational content may be. The Bible from the nineteenth century onward has functioned as a “gold standard” for translation: a prestigious and venerable vehicle for rendering any language. When a language carries the Bible, the Bible dignifies the language. This point has been as true for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bible translations into languages like Arabic and Swahili as it is, now, for early twenty-first-century translations, like the Emoji English Bible of 2016, which was originally disseminated, verse by verse, through the social media platform Twitter.52 This version takes its name from “emojis,” meaning simple cartoon-like images or “icons” used in text messages on mobile phones, in order to convey concepts in lieu of words. This Emoji Bible, for example, uses emojis of stars to represent the heavens; an angelic face with a halo to stand in for God; and an upturned thumb to signal goodness.

  • 53 The translator is a Pennsylvanian “solutions engineer” named Zacha (...)
  • 54 Stack 2016.

39The arguments that critics have leveled against this Emoji English Bible – that it is a joke, that it degrades the scripture – are familiar: they echo the criticisms that early twentieth-century critics leveled against the society’s Bible translations into the Arabic dialects of poor people. There were some early twentieth-century missionaries (especially some Americans) who objected to the British society’s colloquial Arabic translations because, they said, Muslims would ridicule Christians for producing them. When I read an interview with the Emoji Bible’s American translator,53 the way he defended the translation sounded familiar as well. He expressed hope that the Emoji version would reach new audiences and get people to think about the Bible for themselves.54 In short, the 2016 Emoji English version, like all other versions, has its own history, and people may someday look back on it as a relic of the past and of the digital culture in which we are living right now.



BSA = Bible Society Archives, Cambridge University Library.

Primary sources

BFBS 1914 = British and Foreign Bible Society, The hundred and ninth report of the British and Foreign Bible Society for the year ending March MCMXIV, London, 1914.

BFBS 1925 = British and Foreign Bible Society, The hundred and twenty-first report of the British and Foreign Bible Society for the year ending March MCMXXV, London, The Bible House, 1925.

BFBS 1939 = British and Foreign Bible Society, The Gospel in many tongues: specimens of 734 languages in which the British and Foreign Bible Society has published or circulated some portion of the Word of God, London, 1939.

BFBS 1965 = British and Foreign Bible Society, The Gospel in many tongues: specimens of 875 languages in which the British and Foreign Bible Society has published or circulated some portion of the Bible, London, 1965.

BFBS 1910 = British and Foreign Bible Society, The hundred and sixth report of the British and Foreign Bible Society for the year ending March MDCCCCX, London, 1910.

Bible Society of Egypt 1999 = Bible Society of Egypt, al-kitāb al-mūqaddas, Cairo, 1999.

Bible Society UK 2018 = Bible Society UK, Arabic Bible: revised new Van Dyke [sic] Bible, (accessed February 5, 2018).

iTunes Preview 2018 = iTunes Preview, Bible Emoji: Scripture 4 Millenials [sic], (accessed February 28, 2018).

Y Vible Ghaelgagh (Manx Bible Translation Search), Culture Vannin, (accessed February 20, 2018).

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Ayalon 2016 = A. Ayalon, The Arabic print revolution: cultural production and mass readership, Cambridge, 2016.

Banks 2006 = J. Banks, The BFBS and native language literature in nineteenth-century Canada, in S. Batalden, K. Cann, J. Dean (ed.), Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004, Sheffield, 2006, p. 316-326.

Bar-Asher 1992 = M. Bar-Asher, La composante hébraïque du judéo-arabe algérien (communautés de Tlemcen et Aïn-Témouchent), Jerusalem, 1992.

Batalden 2006 = S. Batalden, The BFBS Petersburg Agency and Russian biblical translation, 1856-1875, in S. Batalden, K. Cann, J. Dean (ed.), Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004, Sheffield, 2006, p. 169-196.

BBC 2013 = BBC News, Manx: bringing a dead language back from the dead, January 31, 2013,, accessed February 20, 2018.

BBC 2018 = BBC News, Manx Gaelic “not extinct,” says UN, August 19, 2009, (accessed February 20, 2018).

Benn 2006 = C. Benn, Missed opportunities and the problem of Mohawk chief John Norton’s Cherokee ancestry, in Ethnohistory, 59-2, 2012, p. 261-291.

Boukhris et al. 2014 = F. Boukhris et al., Naḥwa al-amaziġiyyā, Rabat, 2014.

Boulos 2016 = S. Boulos, European Evangelicals in Egypt (1900-1956): cultural entanglements and missionary spaces, Leiden, 2016.

Broderick 1999 = G. Broderick, Language death on the Isle of Man: an investigation into the decline and extinction of Manx Gaelic as a community language in the Isle of Man, Tübingen, 1999.

Canton 1904 = W. Canton, The story of the Bible Society, London, 1904.

Draskau 2008 = J. Draskau, Practical Manx, Liverpool, 2008.

Fea 2016 = J. Fea, The Bible cause: a history of the American Bible Society, Oxford, 2016.

Fraser – Hammond = R. Fraser, M. Hammond (ed.), Books without Borders, Vol. 1: The cross-national dimension in print culture, Houndmills, 2008.

Grafton 2015 = D. Grafton, The contested origins of the 1865 Arabic Bible: contributions to the nineteenth-century Nahda, Leiden, 2015.

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Green 2016 = E. Green, The Emoji Bible, reviewed, in The Atlantic, June 9, 2016, (accessed February 20, 2018).

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Hanioğlu 2008 = M. Hanioğlu, A brief history of the late Ottoman Empire, Princeton, 2008.

Hart 1999 = D. Hart, Scratch a Moroccan, find a Berber, in Journal of North African Studies, 4-2, 1999, p. 23-26.

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Hofmeyr 2004 = I. Hofmeyr, The portable Bunyan: a transnational history of the Pilgrim’s progress, Princeton, 2004.

Howsam 1991 = L. Howsam, Cheap Bibles: nineteenth-century publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society, Cambridge, 1991.

Hunt 2018 = E. Hunt, The Emoji Bible has arrived, and [Emoji image of God] has yet to declare it [Emoji image of OK sign with fingers], in The Guardian, May 30, 2016, (accessed March 10, 2018).

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Kverndal 1986 = R. Kverndal, Seamen’s missions: their origin and early growth, Pasadena, 1986.

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Lane 2006 = S. Lane, Forgotten labours: women’s Bible work and the BFBS, in S. Batalden, K. Cann, J. Dean (ed.), Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004, Sheffield, 2006, p. 52-62.

Martin 2006 = R. Martin, Women and the Bible Society, in S. Batalden, K. Cann, J. Dean (ed.), Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004, Sheffield, 2006, p. 38-52.

Phillips 2004 = J. Phillips, Manx, Munich, 2004.

Reeves-Ellington 2011 = B. Reeves-Ellington, Petko Slaveykov, the Protestant Press, and the gendered language of moral reform in Bulgarian nationalism, in M. Doğan, H. Sharkey (ed.), American missionaries and the Middle East: foundational encounters, Salt Lake City, 2011, p. 211-236.

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1 See Ayalon 2016.

2 Anderson 1991.

3 Fraser – Hammond 2008, p. 9-10.

4 For a copy of Arabic records, see, for example, Bible Society Archives, Cambridge University Library. B.F.B.S., E.S.C. Minute Cards, Volume 1, ABBAI to BWAIDOGA.

5 Hofmeyr 2004, p. 19.

6 Steer 2006.

7 British and Foreign Bible Society 1965.

8 Canton 1904, see p. 299-300; Martin 2006; Lane 2006. The most extensive study of Bible Women in the Middle East appears in Womack 2019, who studies their work in Syria and Lebanon. In Egypt, where trachoma was endemic, some Bible Women were blind and “carried their big Braille Bible portions with them as they found their way from house to house,” while others, including one woman named Sitt Bukhtea, even dispensed eye medicines to other women in the course of their work. Kinnear 1971, p. 64-65.

9 Henderson 1995.

10 Anderson 1991.

11 Howsam 1991.

12 Roe 1965.

13 Sharkey 2011a.

14 Ibid.

15 Kverndal 1986.

16 BFBS 1925, p. 1.

17 Sharkey 2013.

18 Ropes 1892.

19 Canton, 1904 p. 7-8, 18-31.

20 Banks 2006, p. 317; Benn 2012.

21 Fea 2016.

22 Sharkey 2020.

23 Grafton 2015.

24 Bible Society of Egypt 1999.

25 Grafton 2018.

26 Reeves-Ellington 2011.

27 For details on these translations, see Sharkey 2013.

28 On the CMS in Egypt, see Rhodes 2003; Sedra 2011.

29 Many of the Protestant missionary societies were committed to what we would now call “adult continuing education” – that is, to education for men and women who were typically beyond the age of schooling and who often had families and jobs to maintain.

30 Sharkey 2011.

31 British and Foreign Bible Society 1939 and 1965.

32 For example, the translator of the society’s Egyptian colloquial Gospel of Luke, printed in 1908 (based on an earlier 1905 edition), was a British missionary named J. Gordon Logan of the Egypt General Mission (EGM); whereas a later Egyptian colloquial translation of Romans, from 1935, was a team effort by missionaries from the EGM, CMS, Nile Mission Press, Canadian Holiness Mission, and BFBS. Bible Society Archives, Cambridge University Library, BSA/E3/3/16/1: Translation Dept., Correspondence, Arabic (All Varieties March 1909-Dec 1919); and E.S.C. Minute Cards, Vol. 1, ABBAI to BWAIDOGA. On the EGM, see Boulos 2016.

33 Reeves-Ellington 2011; Sharkey, Sudanese Arabic Bibles, 2011. The society’s Arabic translations seemed generally rigorous insofar as BFBS executives in London required a committee of missionaries (usually from various societies or churches) to review them before publication. By contrast, when the society’s reports mention translations prepared for, say, remote island communities – such as the 1910 editions published for “Fiu of Mwala Island of [the] Solomon Islands” and “Raga of Whitsuntide Island in [the] New Hebrides” – it is unclear whether there were any missionary teams who could perform the same kind of quality control. British and Foreign Bible Society 1910, p. 2. Quality varied from region to region around the world, though standards in the Middle East and North Africa were generally high.

34 Sharkey 2011b.

35 Sharkey 2011b.

36 British and Foreign Bible Society 1914, p. 142.

37 Copies of these reports are available at Cambridge University Library.

38 Batalden 2006, p. 169.

39 Gutjahr 1999, p. 39.

40 Khalidi – Farrukh 1957; and Sharkey 2004.

41 Bible Society Archives, Cambridge University Library, BSA/E3/3/18: Arabic Translation Papers, 1949-57, Letter to Dr Nida of the American Bible Society, October 4, 1954. On the broader history of Catholic and Protestant Bible translations in Arabic, see also Thompson 1956. It is not clear what happened to the plans for producing a new cross-sectarian, post-Van Dyck Arabic Bible translation; I was unable to gain access to the BFBS’s papers for the post-1957 period and I am not sure if the records even exist with regard to its Arabic editions. Around this time, in any case, the Suez Crisis forced the BFBS to withdraw from Egypt and the result was a rapid devolution of authority to local (national) Bible societies.

42 Sharkey 2018.

43 See, for example, Hart 1999; Boukhris et al. 2014.

44 Bar-Asher 1992.

45 See, for example, Hanioğlu 2008, p. 63 on the everyday use of Turkish among Armenian and Greeks in the late Ottoman Empire.

46 Canton 1904, p. 31.

47 Phillips 2004, p. 2.

48 Broderick 1999, p. 187.

49 Y Vible Ghaelgagh 2018.

50 BBC 2013.

51 Draskau 2008, p. xx.

52 Green 2016; iTunes Preview 2018.

53 The translator is a Pennsylvanian “solutions engineer” named Zachary Swetz. Swetz 2018; Green 2016.

54 Stack 2016.


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