Translating Romans Into Persian in Ancient India

…More reliable is the reference by the Metropolitan of Merv, Ishodad, that in 425 a priest from India named David translated the Letter to the Romans into Persian.

A century later an Egyptian sailor, writing under the pseudonym Cosmas Indicopleustes, published an anti-Ptolemaic polemic entitled “Topographia christiana’, which described the world not as a sphere but as a disk. The value of the book, addressed to the Nestorian patriarch Mar Aba, lies in its description of the Christian communities he encountered during his voyage of 522/525 to Ethiopia, India, and Sri Lanka. ‘Even in Taprobane [Sri Lanka] there is a church of Christians, with clergy and believers.’ He added later, ‘The island has a church of Persian Christians and a priest who is appointed by Persia.’ Regarding India, we learn that there were also Christians in the region of Malé [Malabar], where pepper grows.’ And in ‘in Calliana [the city of Quilon] there is moreover a bishop, who is appointed from Persia; likewise on the island of the Dioscorides [Socotra] in the Indian Ocean’. There ‘the inhabitants speak Greek; there are clergy who receive their ordination in Persia and are sent to the island, and a multitude of Christians.’

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 28-29

Could this early translation of Romans – likely from Aramaic into Persian – represent the first time it was put into this important Central Asian language? That would mean it was finally passing out of the official language of the Church of the East (Syriac/Aramaic) and into the language of the more eastern marketplaces. Interesting that it may have been the far-flung communities of Persian-speakers in places like India and Sri Lanka that finally brought this about. David the Priest, like many Bible translators throughout history, may have found himself frustrated that God’s word in the “Christian” language was proving inaccessible to the Persian merchants and traders he was ministering to.

Notice also how Christian communities were present in the 500s even in now-unreached places like the island of Socotra, home of the Dragon Blood tree. Islam and Hinduism may have dominated communities around the Indian Ocean, like Socotra, for the last millennium, but some of these same places were outposts of ancient Christianity. Like those in our corner of Central Asia, the locals likely have no idea about this ancient Christian past. Sharing this kind of history with local first-generation believers can be a deep encouragement to their faith. God had not left their ancestors without a witness, and now the gospel has made its unstoppable return.

Photo by Andrew Svk on Unsplash

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