by Rabih Hasbany
On February 7, many Lebanese Christians celebrated the launching of the Arabic Contemporary Commentary on the Bible. The commentary was issued first on October 15 in Cairo, Egypt by Dar El Thaqafa in partnership with Langham Literature.
The first of its kind in the Arab world, the Arabic Contemporary Commentary on the Bible is the offspring of the collective effort of forty-eight men and women, theologians and researchers from six Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, Lebanon and Iraq. Dr. Riad Kassis, the Director of Langham Scholarships Program, calls it a “landmark in the history of the church in the region” that aims to equip not only pastors, preachers, scholars and leaders but also every Arabic-reader to relate to Scriptures from a Middle Eastern perspective. Moreover, it allows the reader to biblically address contemporary issues facing the region.
Langham Scholar Dr. Andrea Zaki Stephanous, President of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, notes that this project is a step toward Christian unity in the region as it brings together Arab Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Bible scholars.
Pieter Kwant, Director of Langham Literature, says that one of the foundational principles for publishing this commentary is the importance of contextualization. The commentary is written in harmony with the daily issues that people of this region face and in faithfulness to the original meaning of the biblical text. It addresses in a brief manner key issues in this region, such as peacemaking, the inerrancy of the Bible and the role of women.
This work is important as it comes during the post-uprising era within the history of the MENA region. The so-called “Arab Spring” brought more challenges than reforms to the communities of the region. One of its outcomes consists of the persecution that Christian communities are facing, threating their very existence in the region. We have heard so many heart-breaking stories from Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian Christians who are suffering, dying or emigrating. These issues are also addressed in IMES’ The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically Through Adversity, which seeks to inspire Christians worldwide to stand alongside those experiencing turbulence, trauma, tragedy and hopelessness and to provoke everyone, in the Middle East and elsewhere, to ask what they should be doing to encourage the transformation of their respective societies to the glory of God. In the midst of this struggle for survival, Christians must learn how to come together in unity. The Arabic Contemporary Commentary represents not only a form of academic unity but rather a unity of thought, passion and concern, as these forty-eight scholars came together to biblically and theologically address the critical issues facing MENA communities. It is a statement, which stands against the religious divisions tearing apart the region and scattering our diverse communities like pieces of a puzzle.
Paul tells us to “be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The expression “unity of the Spirit” clearly is a reference to the “unity” that is sought and initiated by the Holy Spirit. This expression gives us the sense that the Holy Spirit is the giver of unity. The unity about which Paul speaks is not only within the body of the local church but also within the Church universal, the body of Christ on Earth. The Holy Spirit is found within all Christians and churches genuinely following after Christ. The Spirit is not exclusive to any particular church but is a God-given gift to the Church. This leads us to think of unity beyond the walls of our local church; it opens our arms wide in embrace of our brothers and sisters belonging to other churches, with whom we can partner for the common good of our communities for the ultimate purpose of advancing the Gospel of Christ and his Kingdom.
One factor that promotes unity is “peace.” Paul uses the expression “bond of peace.” It is metaphorically used as the element “which brings various entities into a united relationship” (Danker et al. 2000, 966; cf. Colossians 2:19; 3:14). Peace has a variety of uses, such as resulting in reconciled with God (Romans 5:1), tranquility with other people (Hebrews 12:14), or an inward mental serenity (Philippians 4:7). This brings us to a major understanding of the type of relationships that we should seek with one another as Christians. Being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, we are also called to express this reconciliation with each other as members of the same body. It is crucial to think of the one body of Christ on Earth, not different bodies of Christ, and this helps us to seek unity with our fellow Christians in different local churches.
When we recognize the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that Paul is talking about, we refrain from identifying ourselves as “followers of Paul,” and others, “followers of Apollos.” Rather we start calling ourselves “God’s fellow workers.” We are all laborers working in the same field that belongs to the same master. It is worthy to invest all our efforts and collaborate to bring in more crops to the master of the harvest.
This is a crucial time for the MENA Church to come together in unity for the sake of its ongoing existence as it aims to glorify God and bring his good news to suffering communities. The global Church is also invited to join the efforts of the regional church, for together they form the one body of Christ that is called to the ministry of reconciliation which we all sorely need.
Of major significance for the Arabic Contemporary Commentary on the Bible is its having been written in Arabic, the language of the people in this region. Many of the biblical commentaries that we have access to, and many of the books that you can find on the shelves of Christian bookshops in the Middle East, are either written in English or translated from English to Arabic. As Dr. Kassis says, only a few are written in Arabic by Arabs.
As we learn from the example of Jesus in Scripture, the most effective words we can speak are those spoken within the language and thought patterns of those indigenous persons we are ministering to. Jesus quoted passages from the Old Testament that were familiar to his Jewish audiences and he taught the crowds using parables connected to their daily lives. We also see this model of contextualization in Paul’s ministry. When Paul spoke to a Jewish audience, he used Old Testament scriptures. However, in Athens, he quoted from Greek poets so as to connect with and speak into the culture of his Gentile audience.
This encourages Arab scholars, researchers and theologians to indulge in writing and producing books that enrich the Arabic-speaking church. It is the responsibility of Arab academics to develop resources with fresh insights on key issues facing the church in the region. This also makes it a responsibility of every follower of Christ in the Arab world to seek appropriate theological training through the many programs that are offered. Our online programs have made it easy for all followers of Christ from all backgrounds and all countries in the region to have access to theological education. It is also calling for Christian and non-Christian Middle Eastern communities to embrace reading as a good habit that enriches our insights into how best to respond to the challenges we are facing in a godly manner.