Phoenician Punic Translation of the Bible

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Phoenician Punic Translation of the Bible
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Some scholars claim that a Punic translation of the Bible never existed; however, careful analysis of the ancient writings of the Church Fathers and Teachers prove that the preponderance of evidence, though circumstantial, strongly suggests the opposite -- that is a Punic translation of the Bible existed in the early years of the Church.

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One of many unknown facts about the Phoenician language is its popularity in the ancient world. Before Latin, Phoenician and Greek were the predominant languages of the Mediterranean world. In fact, Phoenician seems to have been widely known and spoken throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Today, Phoenician monuments and inscriptions continue to turn up in archaeological sites in the Near East, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, the Adriatic, North Africa, Spain and the islands thereof.

Across the centuries, foreign invaders of the Phoenician homeland had a negative impact on the Phoenician language and a time came when Western Aramaic took over as the lingua franca of most people in the Eastern Mediterranean. That is, not only the Phoenicians but also the Jews and other ethnic communities of the East. Greek, as well, became the other predominant language in the area beginning with the Macedonian conquest and ending in the Byzantine Era. Recent archaeological digs in Sepphoris/Tsippori near Nazareth suggest that the population during the time of Christ, including Christ himself, must have known Greek, in addition to Aramaic the lingua franca of the region.

The Phoenician language in the East continued to be present in one form or another until the 3rd century A.D. Regretfully, Phoenician literature somehow vanished completely thereafter. There are many conjectured reasons for this occurrence. First, papyri as writing medium do not stand the test of time unless completely sealed in safe environments like those of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Further, the rise of Christianity and the animosity between Phoenician Christian writers and Phoenician Pagan writers worked to the disadvantage of the latter. Consequently, we know of Sanchuniathon of Berytus, for example, from the writings of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (260 - 341 AD) in his Praeparatio Evangelica. On the other hand, the works of Phoenician pagan, Porphyry Malchus of Tyre (223 - 309 AD) in his Against the Christians, for example, barely survived extermination by the "new religion." Of course, Porphyry's writings were going against the new religion (Christianity) that was gaining acceptance in Phoenicia Prima ahead of any other nation. That and the growing strength of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) overwhelmed the East with the Greek language.

Saint Jerome (347 – 420 AD), who translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, called the Vulgate Bible, is a major witness to the abandonment of the Phoenician language in the East. He lived in Palestine and mentioned the Phoenician Punic (Phoenician of the Western Mediterranean such as Carthage, North Africa and Spain) but never the Phoenician of the motherland. That most probably is so because the Punic Church spoke Punic and among its patrons was a Doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo. He revered his ancestral Punic language and called it “Our own tongue.” Further, he indicated that there was a lot of wisdom in the old Punic books, which shows that he was well versed in them. On the other hand, Saint Jerome found Phoenician literature unchaste, in many ways. The most important testimony of them all is Saint Paul's. While traveling to Rome, he boarded an Alexandrian grain freighter on the isle of Crete, and was shipwrecked near the island of Malta where he took refuge in 67 AD. Saint Paul, like other Greek educated people, called the people of Malta, Berber (Acts 27, 28). The Maltese who showed him "unusual kindness" were Punic speakers; however, the Greek (and the Greek educated) referred to some people as Berber when the latter spoke languages they did not understand. (The Berber people of today are not called as such but are actually called Amazigh.)

With the above in mind, there are the testimonies of many of the Church Fathers and historians regarding the strategy and desire by the early Church and new converts to translate Scriptures into the local tongue. The Church Fathers, Church Teachers of the World and others confirm that the Bible was translated into the languages of the local people as soon as they were converted.

“…as soon as any nation was converted, that spoke an uncommon tongue, immediately to procure a new version of the Scriptures into their language.” Eusebius" says. They were translated into all languages, both of Greeks and barbarians, throughout the world, and "...were studied by all nations as the oracles of God,” Chrysostomus assures us. Further, he confirms that Bible was translated into the languages (own tongues) of the Syriacs, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Persians, the Ethiopians, and a multitude of other nations, whereby barbarians learned to be philosophers, and women and children, with the greatest ease imbibed the doctrine of the gospel. Theodoret says the same; “…every nation under heaven had the Scripture in their own tongue. The Hebrew books were not only translated into Greek, but into the Roman, Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Armenian, Scythian, and Sauromatic languages, and, in a word, into all tongues used by all nations in his time. The like is attested by St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, and many others. Ulphilas is said, by all historians, to have translated the whole Bible into the Gothic tongue. St. Jerome translated it into the Dalmatic, as he himself seems to intimate, when he calls it his own tongue. St. Chrysostomus sometimes mentions the Syriac translation; and the author of his life says that he had procured, during his exile in Armenia, a translation of the Psalms and New Testament for the use in the Armenian churches. Further, Saints Methodius or Cyril translated it into the Slavonian tongue.

As to ancient practices, it may be evidenced further, and confirmed, the order to use interpreters in the church. Their office, as has been shown in Epiphanius, and other writers, was to [translate] render one language into another, as there was occasion, both in reading the Scriptures and in the homilies that were made to the people. For it happened sometimes that there were men of different languages in the same church: as in the churches of Syria and Palestine, some understood Syriac only, and others Greek. In the North African churches, some spoke Latin and others Punic: in which cases, whatever was said in one language, was immediately rendered into the other by the interpreter for the benefit of the people.

While the Church Fathers, Teachers and historians affirmed that Scriptures were translated into most languages in the Mediterranean and much deeper into Europe or the East, some claim that there was no translation of the Bible into Phoenician Punic. Their claims fall short of providing evidence or written reference from history to that effect. Sound logic does not allow for the claim that when something is lost it never existed. While it is well known that Phoenician Punic was very alive and well in the Western Mediterranean during the early years of the Church, it is impossible to suggest that though the Bible was translated into dozens of languages, including minor or obscure languages of the Mediterranean and otherwise, but not translated into Phoenician Punic. The assumption that the Phoenician Punic Bible never existed because it did not survive to this day is unscientific and unworthy of credibility. The most important factors that denote the importance of Carthage in the Early Church are the Church Council held on Carthaginian land. Carthage is said to have been second to Rome, in the West, in importance and prominence for the Christian Church.

On the Canaanites Phoenicians in general, see especially F. Jeremias in Ch. de la Saussaye's Lehrbuch der Religionasgeschichte, Tubingen, 1905, i. p. 348 ff.; G. Rawilson, Phoenicia, in "Story of Nations" series; HDB vol. iii., art by G. W. Thatcher. The latest and most accessible edition of the inscription is in M Lidzbarski, Ephemeris für Semitische Epigraphik, Giessen. 1900 ff. (Geden, A. S. Outlines of introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Classification of Semitic Languages. 1909.)

The Christian population in North Africa was greater than anywhere else in the empire with the exception of Asia Minor. The character of the people had much to do with this. Once converted to Christ, most of them were faithful to the end. The first report that comes to us of the North African church is an account of martyrdom. Seven men and five women from the city of Scillium in Numidia, all with Latin names, were executed in Carthage for the sake of the gospel. When Montanism lost strength in Asia Minor, it found a welcome in North Africa. There its special appeal was not its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on prophecy but rather its practices of self-discipline and asceticism. (Boer, H. 1976A Short History of the Early Church).

Racist historians with agenda claim that the first converts to Christianity in the Carthaginian territories were of Roman blood. Thereafter, they falsely claim that the second racial group in these territories to convert to Christianity were the Phoenician Punic and the last were the Amazigh (Berber). This claim is clearly unfounded based on the history of the people of what used to be Punic territories before they were subjugated by the Romans in the Punic Wars. Unlike modern racial discrimination and bigotry, the Romans had none of that. In fact, Rome was Punicized and more than one third of the Roman Senate became one consisting of Punic blood. Further, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193 - 211 AD) -- and his dynasty -- was Phoenician Punic himself and spoke Latin with a Punic accent. His sister, who did not speak Latin, was an embarrassment to him because of that. Consequently, he sent her packing back to Leptis Magna, her birth place, away from his court.

Christian Church Synods and Councils of Carthage,
Carthage enjoys prosperity and becomes a center of the Christian church in the West next to Rome

During the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries AD the city of Carthage served as the meeting-place of a large number of church synods and councils to deal with ecclesiastic matters.

  1. In May 251 a synod, assembled under the presidency of Cyprian to consider the treatment of the lapsi (those who had fallen away from the faith during persecution), excommunicated Felicissimus and five other Novatian bishops (Rigorists), and declared that the lapsi should be dealt with, not with indiscriminate severity, but according to the degree of individual guilt. These decisions were confirmed by a synod of Rome in the autumn of the same year. Other Carthaginian synods concerning the lapsi were held in 252 and 254.1
  2. Two synods, in 255 and 256, held under Cyprian, pronounced against the validity of heretical baptism, thus taking direct issue with Stephen, bishop of Rome, who promptly repudiated them, and separated himself from the Church in north Africa. A third synod, September 256, unanimously reaffirmed the position of the other two. Stephens pretensions to authority as bishop of bishops were sharply resented, and for some time the relations of the Roman and Churches in north Africa were severely strained.2
  3. The Donatist schism occasioned a number of important synods. About 348 a synod of Catholic bishops, who had met to record their gratitude for the effective official repression of the Circumcelliones (Donatist terrorists), declared against the rebaptism of any one who had been baptized in the name of the Trinity, and adopted twelve canons of clerical discipline.3
  4. The Conference of Carthage held by imperial command in 411 with a view to terminating the Donatist schism, while not strictly a synod, was nevertheless one of the most important assemblies in the history of the church in Africa, and, indeed of the whole Christian church.4
  5. On the 1st of May 418 a great synod, which assembled under the presidency of Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, to take action concerning the errors of Caelestius, a disciple of Peagius, denounced the Pelagian doctrines of human nature, original sin; grace and perfectibility, and fully approved the contrary views of Augustine. Prompted by the reinstatement by the bishop of Rome of a deposed Carthaginian priest, the synod enacted that whoever appeals to a court on the other side of the sea (meaning Rome) may not again be received into communion by any one in the church in Africa (canon 17).5
  6. The question of appeals to Rome occasioned two synods, one in 419, the other in 424. The latter addressed a letter to the, bishop of Rome, Celestine, protesting against his claim to appellate jurisdiction, and urgently requesting the immediate recall of his legate, and advising him to send no more judges to Africa.6
    1. Hefle, 2nd ed., i. pp. 111 sqq. (English translation, i. pp. 93 sqq.); Mansi, i. pp. 863 sqq., 905 sqq.; Hardouin, i. pp. 133 sqq., 147 sqq.; Cyprian, Epp. 52, 54, 55, 68.
    2. Hefele, 2nd ed., i. pp. 117-119 (English translation, i. pp. 99 sqq.); Mansi, i. pp. 921 sqq., 951 sqq.; Hardouin, i. pp. 153 sqq.; Cyprian, Epp. 69-75.
    3. Hefele, 2nd. ed., i. pp. 632-633 (English translation, ii. pp. 184-186); Mansi, iii. pp. 143 sqq.; Hardouin, i. pp. 683 sqq.
    4. Hefele, 2nd ed., ii. pp. 103-104 (English translation, ii. pp. 445-446) ; Mansi, iv. pp. 7-283 ; Hardouin, i. pp. 1043-f 190.
    5. Hefele, 2nd ed., ii. pp. 116 sqq. (English translation, ii. pp. 458 sqq.); Mansi, iii. pp. 810 sqq., iv. pp. 377 sqq., 45I sqq.; Hardouin, i. pp. 926 sqq.
    6. Hefele, 2nd ed., ii. pp. 120 sqq., 137 sqq. (English translation, ii. pp.462 sqq., 480 sqq.); Mansi, iii. pp. 835 sqq., iv. pp. 401 sqq., 477 sqq.; Hardodin, i. pp. 943 sqq., 1241 sqq. (L F. C.)

In Mauritania and Numidia, Phoenician Punic remained, in a corrupted form, the reigning tongue as late as the 4th c. A.D.; and Saint Augustine draws his explanations of Scripture from the Punic current in the 5th century. There was a translation of the whole Bible into Punic made for the use by the Punic Churches; and in and near Tripolis it was the language of the common people up to a late period, possibly until the Arab Conquest.

From the 6th century, however, it rapidly died out, chiefly in consequence of the Vandals, Goths, Moors, Arabs and other foreign tribes overrunning the country, and engrafting their own idioms upon it. As a branch of the so-called Semitic family of languages (Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Nabatean and Arabic) the Phoenicians naturally are closely related to them.

The Phoenicians, not confined within the narrow limits of their home-country but mixing freely with all the nations of the earth, spread their own colonies far and near among them, opened a wide field for the 'development' of their language, or rather for its corruption, by its entering into alliance with Libyan in North Africa, Sardinia, and Spain, and with Aramaic in Northern Phoenicia, Cilicia, and perhaps even in Cyprus.

In recent years, new research on inscriptions which were thought to have been Latin inscriptions by the Amazigh (Berber) in the desert of North Africa were actually transliterated Phoenician Punic using Latin characters. This confirms the claim that Punic survived until the Arab Conquest based on dating these inscriptions.


The preponderance of evidence presented herewith, specifically based on the testimonies of the Church Fathers, Teachers and historians presents strong circumstantial evidence that a Punic Bible existed, though probably not throughout the poorer regions of the Carthaginian world, and was used until the Phoenician Punic language died out with the advent of Islamic Arabs.


  1. Eusebius of Caesarea. Praeparatio Evangelica
  2. Praesertira de Laud. Glossarium comparativum linguae sanscritae
  3. Augustine, Epist. 16, 2 (Maximus to Augustine) and Augustine in the answer, Epist. 17, 2. For dating and spelling of the name, cf. J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Part II, S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp I (London 1885), pp. 507f
  4. Chrysostom. Horn. 1. in Joan. al. 2. Edit. Savil. t. 2 and Homilies
  5. Bingham, J. Antiquities of the Christian Church
  6. Jongeling, K. 1984: Names in Neo-Punic Inscriptions (Thesis Groningen)
  7. Kerr, R. M. 2001, Wie lange dauerte die Gegenwart? DS NELL 4:129-174 Latino-Punic Epigraphy: A Descriptive Study of the Inscriptions
  8. Zahn. Geschichte des Neutestamentilichen Kanons, I, 40-44
  9. Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung, 515.
  10. Geden, A. S. Outlines of introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Classification of Semitic Languages. 1909

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