Lost or Unknown?

Kitāb-I Zabūr [-I Dā’ūd] (The Book of the Psalms [of David]) completed on 8 Dhū al-Ḥijjah 1071 [= 4 August 1661]   MS 105

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 105, fol. 43b. Detail of the text

Two 17th-century Persian translations of the Psalms are known to scholars. The earlier of these was made from the Latin Vulgate by the Spanish Jesuit Jeronimo Xavier (1549-1617), a missionary to the Islamic South Asian Mughal court under Akbar I and his son Janhāngīr (Savage-Smith, pp. 92-3; Wikipedia, ‘Jeronimo Xavier’). Unfortunately, there are no identified copies of his translation. Scholars only ‘know of’ it. The other translation was made at least a year later around 1618 by the Portuguese Carmelite monk John Thaddeus (1574-1633), also known as Padre Juan, from the original Hebrew with the help of three Muslim mullahs and one Jewish rabbi at the behest of the Shah of Iran (Savage-Smith, p. 92). During the reign of Shah Abbās I (1571-1629), Iran was brought out of its political and economic isolation. As a result, several Catholic orders settled in the country, including the Carmelite order lead by John Thaddeus, who established a good rapport with Abbās I (Thomas & Aghbar, pp. 123-127). The translation in MS 105 differs from Thaddeus’s translation, which has survived in several manuscripts, three of which are now in the Bodleian Libraries.

Is St John’s MS 105 a copy of Xavier’s translation or of another, hitherto unidentified Persian translation of the Psalms? The same translation also appears in St John’s MS 133, which is dated to the ‘16th to 17th century’ (Savage-Smith, p. 96) and in two Bodleian manuscripts. The earlier of the latter (MS Laud Or. 141), with the ownership date 1640, had previously belonged to Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645). It is not impossible that St John’s MS 133 and/or Laud’s copy had been made before 1618 or copied from an exemplar made before 1618. By itself, this does not mean much, but a linguistic analysis may perhaps lead to an answer of our question.

MS 105 is now fully digitized at Digital Bodleian as part of St John’s digitization project. Library digitization projects which can address a global audience of scholars will hopefully contribute to identifying hitherto unidentified texts or even to declaring texts previously assumed lost as found. Whether this will be the case for our MS 105 remains to be seen.


Savage-Smith, Emilie, A Descriptive Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts at St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Thomas, Kenneth J., and Ali-Asghar Aghbar, A Restless Search: A History of Persian Translations of the Bible, Society of Biblical Literature, 2015. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt19jcg9n [accessed 15 May 2023]

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jerome Xavier’, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (16 March 2022), available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jerome_Xavier&oldid=1077439306 [accessed 15 May 2023]

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Pahlavi Psalter’, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (27 March 2023), available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pahlavi_Psalter&oldid=1146925189 [accessed 15 May 2023]

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