Monday, September 18, 2017

The Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki

Arabic original here. While some of the information in this article, published unsigned in the weekly bulletin of the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, is a bit dated, it pleased me to see interest in this extremely important but still sadly little-known figure in the history of the Church of Antioch who, as Antioch's greatest translator, is something of the patron saint of this blog. Below the article, I've put some links to more recent scholarship on him.

The Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki

He was one of the most prolific writers and translators in the Church of Antioch. He lived in the 11th century, according to indications in some manuscripts, but the writings he left for us will remain his lasting influence. His life story is not known precisely. Most of what has come down to us about his life are a few observations made by copyists and writers who came after him. This is something usual in the history of the Church. Even the lives of great teachers of the Church such as John of Damascus were written centuries after their repose. This means that we know writers from their works that they left for us. Returning to the deacon of Antioch, we find that later copyists gave him titles that shed light on his importance. Sometimes they call him "the holy and wise deacon", sometimes "the holy master" [al-shaykh al-qiddis], "the wise philosopher and translator of the holy scriptures", "the teacher", "the venerable deacon" or "Abu al-Fath" ["the victorious"]. This was the custom of the Christians, which continues until today, to indicate an exalted stature. This clearly demonstrates the intellectual and literary position that Abdallah ibn al-Fadl enjoyed. Something that further emphasizes the position of this writer is what the patriarch of Antioch Macarius III ibn al-Za'im (d. 1676) says about him in the preface to his History from the Era of Adam to the Days of Constantine:

"When God looked upon the patience of the Christians, he had mercy on them and sent them a virtuous man called the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl... He was very knowledgeable in the Arabic, Greek and Syriac languages and he translated for the Christians all the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, along with all their commentaries into Arabic, ordering them to read them on all Saturdays, Sundays and feasts of the Lord, as well as the stories of the saints. He spent his entire life in these good works..."

If we study these brief lines, we can deduce that the Patriarch Macarius considered the Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl as a gift from God, who sent him to the people of the Church of Antioch to help her children stand firm in faith. By virtue of his vast knowledge and his ability with the aforementioned languages, the Deacon Abdallah translated the Holy Bible (this is what is meant when the Patriarch Macarius says "he translated for the Christians all the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, along with all their commentaries"). In fact, Ibn al-Fadl translated the lectionary according to the divisions used in the services of the church. In addition to this, he translated the commentaries on the Holy Bible in order to help the faithful to understand the texts.The patriarch's saying that he "ordered them to read them"is a sign of the central place he occupied in the Church of Antioch. At that time, it was customary in the Orthodox Church for there to be an order of "teachers" in the Church. Not every priest or deacon is necessarily a teacher. (The Church was clear about this in the past and perhaps she should bring back this order once more. A priest might, for example, be excellent at administration or pastoral work but not be gifted at teaching, and the opposite may be true. For this reason, the Church determined who would teach and who would serve and only rarely would all these traits be found in the same person).

Sometimes Ibn al-Fadl was commissioned by bishops to compose a work or translate a text according to the needs of the diocese. It is said that the Book of Psalms is the most famous work he translated for us. The Church of Antioch used it for almost 900 years before the publication of the version by Abdallah Arman in 1954. The latter said that in his translation he also relied on Ibn al-Fadl's text.

The noteworthy thing about this deacon is his use of the Arabic language in his works, despite the fact that he was active during the period when Antioch had been liberated from Arab Muslim rule and brought back under Byzantine rule from 969 to 1084. Perhaps in this the deacon reflects a situation where the Hellenization of the Church of Antioch was rejected.

Ibn al-Fadl's activities were not, however, limited to the translation of biblical texts. Indeed, his range of interests included the commentaries of the holy fathers and spiritual and dogmatic works and he was very knowledgeable in philosophy and logic.

In conclusion, we cannot but say that this deacon of Antioch is a model to be imitated in our Antiochian Church on account of his knowledge and zeal for his Church and his having preserved the Orthodox faith. Our deacon did not want to make himself prominent. Rather, his concern was the glory of the Church's Bridegroom and not himself. Thus he fulfilled the words of the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease."

For a complete bibliography of Abdallah ibn al-Fadl's original works and secondary literature about him, see this article, by Fr Alexander Treiger.

For further studies of the history of Patristic translations into Arabic, see this and this by Fr Treiger.

For the Arabic text and English translation and study of his Discourse on the Holy Trinity, see this article by Fr Treiger and Samuel Noble.

For translations of his Essay Containing Ideas Useful to the Soul and Refutation of Astrology, consult Chapter 7 of Fr Treiger and Noble's Orthodox Church in the Arab World.

For a brief study of Ibn al-Fadl's Trinitarian thought, see this article by Noble.

For a study of Ibn al-Fadl's Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, see this article by Fr Ramy Wannous.


For a study of Ibn al-Fadl's Book of the Joy of the Believer, see this article by Floris Sepmeijer.

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