One of the misconceptions that many Westerners have is that all Arabs are Muslims, and that Muslims are all Arabs. In fact, of course, many of the major Islamic countries in the world (e.g., Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and the most populous of them all, Indonesia) are not Arab, and large minorities in some Arab countries are not Muslim.
Christianity is a Near Eastern religion, not a European one, and it is has been in the Near East since its origin. (An Egyptian Christian friend once complained to me about how tired he had become of Americans and Europeans asking him whether his family had been converted by the Germans, the French, or the British. His ancestors, he pointed out, had been converted by Mark, the writer of the second Gospel, in the first century AD. My own forebears, in Scandinavia, didn’t accept Christianity until roughly a millennium later.)
Another misconception that many of us have is that Christendom can essentially be divided between Protestants and Catholics. In fact, though, Protestantism is a fairly recent religious minority in the Christian world. The much older division is that between western Christianity (essentially the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries) and eastern Christianity (including, but not limited to, such groups as the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox).
There is, and always has been, an entire world of Christianity, rich and full of variety, beyond the (to us) more familiar realm of Protestants and Catholics.
A new book just published by Brigham Young University’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI) may help to overcome both misconceptions. Theodore Abu Qurrah is the first volume in METI’s newest publication series, the Library of the Christian East, which now joins three sister ventures – the Islamic Translation Series, the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides, and Eastern Christian Texts.
(Unlike them, it is monolingual – English only – lacking the original-language text on the facing page.) The series editor of the Library of the Christian East is David G. K. Taylor, of the University of Oxford.
Theodore Abu Qurrah is an anthology of essays by the earliest Christian Arabic writer whose name we know. Living between roughly 750 and 820 or 825 AD, he was a monk at the important Mar Sabas monastery in the Judean desert, although, for a time, he served as the Melkite bishop of Haran, in northern Mesopotamia.
(The Melkites – the term comes from a Syriac word meaning “imperial” – were Syrian and Egyptian Christians who sided with the patriarch of Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, in the disputes that arose after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. They were, thus, the “Emperor’s men.”)
Theodore’s native language was Syriac, the Christian form of Aramaic (the language that Jesus and the first apostles spoke). But he also spoke and wrote in Greek, a language first brought to the region via the conquests of Alexander the Great, as well as in Arabic, which had arrived in Syria with the coming of the Muslim Arabs in the middle of the seventh century.
He spent his life defending not only his own form of Christianity against rivals, but Christianity itself against Judaism and against the rising challenge of Islam – which would nonetheless, over the coming centuries, largely but not entirely absorb the ancient Christian communities of North Africa and the Near East.
This new book, the work of Southern Methodist University’s John C. Lamoreaux, represents a nearly complete collection of Theodore’s surviving writings; most of the essays included have been translated into English for the first time from their original Arabic and Greek.
Nineteen essays follow a very substantial introduction, by the translator, that discusses Theodore’s life and ministry. Among them are such titles as “That Christianity is from God,” “Against the Jews,” “On the Characteristics of the True Religion,” “On the Death of Christ,” “On the Trinity,” “On Free Will,” and “Refutations of the Saracens [i.e., of the Muslim Arabs].”
Theodore Abu Qurrah will, fairly shortly, be available from the University of Chicago Press as well as via the BYU Bookstore and BYU’s Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, the parent organization of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). It will also, of course, be available for order through quality bookstores and from the usual on-line venues.