Few books in the history of Jews writing in Arabic have been read with greater vigour by pre-modern and modern readers alike than Saadiah Gaon’s Judaeo-Arabic translation of the Tora. The Tafsīr, the name by which his translation became known, spread quickly through the Jewish communities of the Near East, North Africa and Muslim Spain and, indeed, well beyond these. The Tafsīr did not only have Jewish readers, it was also read, copied and transmitted by Samaritan, Christian and Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages.
The Tafsīr had an afterlife, as it were, a life of its own that is independent from its author: a reception history. The material evidence of this reception history consists of hundreds of full manuscripts, which attest to what happens to the Tafsīr as it moves further from, not closer to, its context of origin.
A good example is found in the manuscript Oxford, Bodl., Poc. 395–396, a trilingual codex (Hebrew incipits, Targum Onkelos, and Saadiah’s Tafsīr) that was copied in 1449 in Ḥamāt, Syria. An ownership note on fol. 244v indicates that in 1612 the codex came into the possession of Abraham Dīqnīs (דיקניש), a figure known from other Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. He bequeathed a large number of manuscripts that originated from the family library of Maimonides’s successors to the Jewish communities of Aleppo. Edward Pococke later acquired the codices and brought them to Oxford. When Pococke was charged with the improvement of the Arabic version of the Paris Polyglot, he collated it with this manuscript, as well as the Constantinople Polyglot, and furnished the variants in Vol. 6 of the London Polyglot. His notes are still found in the margins of Oxford, Bodl., Poc. 395–396: readings of the Paris Polyglot are introduced in the margins by the letter ‘P’, while those of the Constantinople Polyglot have the siglum ‘C’.
The manuscript Oxford, Bodl., Poc. 395–396 is also important as it revealed Saadiah’s forgotten longer preface to his Pentateuch translation. An autobiographical note in this preface allows insights as to his aspirations as an ardent young scholar about to embark upon an Arabic translation of the Tora. He says:
Ever since I dwelt in my country [baladī] it had been my desire for a long time that among the people of our belief a translation of the Tora, composed by my own hands, shall be found, done appropriately […]. I hesitated to take this task upon myself […], as it seemed to me that there must be clear and well-arranged translations in the hands of those living in distant countries.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Arabic versions of the Bible and current research in the field, visit the Biblia Arabica blog: https://biblia-arabica.com/category/blog/.