Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology between Christians and Muslims: Pt. V

0

See other parts:


In the first four parts of this research paper I have covered the historical development of the Arabic Bible, reported my personal journey in Bible translation, explored translation philosophy and suggested a paradigm shift in modern translation methods. I have demonstrated that Muslims and Christians have many words in common, yet the connotations associated with these words are vastly disparate.

Some see this as a cause to utilize Muslim terminology to express biblical truths in an acceptable style.  I take a contrary position.

Borrowing from the Quran or Islamic vocabulary has proven to confuse the meaning in the mind of a Muslim recipient. Every word in the Quran or the Bible can only be interpreted and understood in its own context. Therefore, the words in the Quran need to be interpreted in context of the Quran. Similarly, the context of the biblical words determines their biblical meaning.

Part V tackles the challenge of translating the controversial terms Son and Father pertaining to Christ and God.

 

God said it, I believe it:

Many a preacher in my early years often quoted from the King James Bible this endearing phrase: “Thus saith the Lord.” These words repeated hundreds of times in God’s written Word must be treated with the highest awe and reverence. Equally powerful are the words of Jesus: “Verily, verily I say unto you.”

The Father-Son language in the Bible were not conceived by the authors of the Biblical books. In fact the biblical authors often did not understand what these words meant or what they referred to. Case in point is Psalm 2:7

I will proclaim the decree of the LORD :

He said to me, “You are my Son ;

today I have become your Father.  (or Begotten you = gave birth to you)

These words are not the product of the imagination or reasoning power of the authors of the Scriptures. It was God who in his great wisdom chose to reveal himself as Father and to call Jesus his Son. Who are we to “instruct the all Wise” I Corinthians 2:16: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?”

Translating Son and Father:

A Muslim friendly translation of the gospels in Arabic was published under the title: The True  Meaning of the Gospel of Christ was sponsored by Frontiers in consultation with SIL  This is one sample of how it translates son and father:

وطهروهم بالماء باسم الله  ومسيحه والروح القدس

Literally this translates to:

“and circumcise them (cleanse) them with water in the name of  Allah and his messiah and his holy spirit.” Matt 28:19

Is anything wrong with this translation?

1.The choice of the Arabic for circumcise is Tahiruhum. Though denotatively this has the sense of cleansing, the primary meaning is to circumcise. This word is borrowed from an Islamic specialized use. When inserted in a Biblical context it is confusing. Did Jesus mandate for Christians to circumcise?

To deliver the meaning of baptism the translator added the phrase “with water.”  “Circumcise them with water” is also confusing because how do you circumcise with water? The translator seemingly hopes that using the word water may communicate the idea of baptism. This is not realistic to expect Muslim readers to make the shift in meaning between circumcision and baptism.

2.  The Trinity: In this translation the Trinity is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rather it is God, Messiah and holy spirit.

It is clear here that the translator wants to avoid offending Muslims who may get the impression that God had a son by a sexual relation with Mary. However the problem is not linguistic here. It is theological as the Quran denies that Jesus is the Son of God saying that God has no children.

Cognitive Confusion

This mix and match between Christian and Muslim terms causes a mental or cognitive interference.  Words are interpreted within their context.  A word borrowed from another context brings in meaning from the original context. To be thrown in with a bunch of words from another context may be intelligible to the translator who understands both contexts but not to the target reader who only understands one context. The brain decodes the meaning of words when they occur  in their natural textual context.

Putting Quranic language in the Bible is as confusing as putting biblical words in the Quran.

God the Father Christ the Son

The meaning of these phrases have been the subject of much debate in the last few years. I have looked into the various uses of the words Father and Son. Following is an analysis of these biblical texts and how the words “son” and “father” are used in different contexts:

✤ Broad Meaning of Father and Son: Again and again throughout the Bible God speaks in a general sense of being the father of all his creation.

 for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came. 1 Corinthians 8:6.

 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:6.

Here father Ab in Hebrew has the sense of being the source, starter, generator, and originator of all things created, human and natural.

 God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Psalms 53:2.

Son here is used in a very general sense to mean human kind.

✤ Figurative Meaning: Father and Son are used as metaphors, similes. As a figure of speech, God is father in a non literal sense.

Father: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

Here God is the originator of light who does not change. This refers to his steady character and that there is no darkness in him. Father here, is also used to add intensity to God being light. Not just light but even the Father, originator of light.

In the Arabic language the word father is often used figuratively to intensify the meaning associated with a person. For example to express the extent of the knowledge of a Mathematician, he is called Father of Math.

Speakers of English would not use such a figure of speech but I doubt that any semi educated reader would not be able to figure out its meaning. 

Examples:

Son is also used figuratively. The name Benjamin for instance has the word son imbedded in the name, Ben-jamin or Son of my right hand.

Boanerges, Sons of Thunder.Mark 3: 17

Here son is an intensification of the power of the thunder by calling a man son of thunder.

You are all sons of the light and sons of the day.      I Thessalonians 5:5

Translating Figures of Speech:

Many hold that figures of speech cannot be translated literally because the meaning of the individual words in a figure of speech mean something different separately than when they are put together.

Metaphors that need to be translated literally: The Bible is full of metaphors that have powerful imagery that carry connotations beyond the denotative or literal definition. They need to be translated literally or they would lose their meaning.

In most instances a figure of speech can be translated as it is.  Among the many advantages of this is that the reader can have a glimpse into the Biblical culture and learn to appreciate the poetic style of the Hebrew and Greek languages.

Westerners like to convert images to their fundamental abstract parts and translate the parts. Eastern thinkers do the opposite, they convert abstract ideas into images.

I am the light of the World,

I am the bread of life,

I am the living water,

I am the door,

I am the good shepherd

These beautiful figures of speech should be translated as they are. To translate them any other way, is to strip them from their powerful imagery.

 

Metaphors that may or may not be translated literally:

When a verse or phrase is ambiguous and cannot be translated literally, then a translation is useful. For instance here is a prime example of the usefulness of a meaning based translation philosophy of figures of speech used by Solomon in a poetic style. This passage from Solomon’s pen is a poetic rendering of the physical body of an old man. These do not make sense if translated literally.

when the keepers of the house tremble, (Legs)
and the strong men stoop, (Backbones)
when the grinders cease because they are few, (Teeth)
and those looking through the windows grow dim; (Eyes)

A casual reader of this verse would not be able to understand the imagery involved because the specific metaphors and images are vague. The meaning can only be understood by analyzing it in the context of the entire chapter which speaks about old age. Solomon describes the arms (keepers of the house) and the legs (the strong men), the teeth (grinders) and the eyes (those looking through the windows.”

It is advisable to translate the intent of the images rather than using a literal transfer. However, it is also possible to retain the imagery and put the intended meaning in a para-text such as footnotes and endnotes.

My translation team in the New Arabic Version decided to keep the imagery of the passage above and put the meaning in parentheses for clarification. There is richness and art that is lost in a paraphrase. Retaining the imagery has the added function of feeling with the author.

Every time you take away an image, metaphor, or simile, and replace it with another, you lose aspects of meaning that are necessary to communicate the truth and you gain aspects of meaning that cloud the truth. So you lose on both sides.

✤ Spiritual Meaning: God’s special relationship with his people is described with fatherly language.

“I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” II Corinthians 6:18

No one seems to be bothered by the imagery of God’s fatherhood to Israel. But his Fatherhood to the Lord Jesus Christ is under attack. It should not be.

 

…yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John 1:12, 13

✤  Sexual Meaning: God does not seem to be too concerned that readers of his word would be reading sex into his relationship with his people. On the one hand God says he is the father to Israel, on the other he is her husband. There is no passage in the Bible that is more offensive and more puzzling than these words:

When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD. Hosea 1:2:

God was not shy to explicitly use sexual language to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord.

Revealed Meaning: Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”

This is extraordinary. Something that the mind cannot grasp. It had to be revealed.

The New Testament declares and affirms Jesus as the Son of God. These verses speak of Jesus being the Son of God as a matter of fact.

  1. An angel prophesied and announced that Jesus will be called or known to be the Son of God:
    The Holy Spirit will come upon you…. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Luke 1:35
  2. John the beloved disciple testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. He says that acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God is an indicator of our spiritual condition:
    “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 1 John 4:14-16.
  3. The disciples declared Jesus to be the Son of God:
    And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.‘” Matthew 14:32-33.
  4. Paul repeatedly referred to Jesus as the Son of God:
    and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 1:4
  5. God called Jesus his Son at Baptism:
    This is my son, with whom I am well pleased. Mtt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22
  6. The devil knows the Sonship of Jesus:
    If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Matthew 4:1-3.
  7. The demons Know who Jesus is:
    ..What do you want with us, Son of God? Matthew 8:28-29.
  8. The centurion proclaimed:
    “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:39.

The rich Meanings of Son of God

9. Heir of all things: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Hebrews 1:2
10. Exact representation (like God) possessing the same attributes: The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,  Hebrews 1:3
11. Lord of the House: But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house… Hebrews 3:6
12. Exercise full Authority:For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. John 5:21-23
13. Self Sustaining: as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge. John 5:24-27
14. Equal with God: For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:18

Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, I am God’s Son’? John 10:36

Jesus is the First Born:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Col. 1:15

What does it mean that Jesus is the first born?

  1. He is the legitimate son
  2. He is the heir who inherits his father
  3. He is the legal trustee for his father
  4. He is entrusted with the care for his siblings

Jesus is not only the first born of God but the only “begotten of God. This gives him full rights and he inherits everything.

Jesus is begotten of God

The sexual language in the Bible is a matter of fact. We cannot apologize for it whether we understand it or not. God intentionally used a hebrew word Yeled which is the same word used to speak of a woman who delivers a baby.

Thou art My son, this day have I begotten thee. (KJV)

יְהוָה, אָמַר אֵלַי בְּנִי אַתָּהאֲנִי, הַיּוֹם יְלִדְתִּיךָ.

Jesus is the begotten son who was procreated by God himself.

Some have tried to make a distinction between the words Yeled and ben.

However in Hebrew ben and yeled have the same sense:

Psalms 2:7

Beni       בְּנִ֥י                  son-mine          Noun

atah           אַ֑תָּה            you-are

Ani           אֲ֝נִ֗י                I

hayom        הַיּ֥וֹם          today

yeldetika    יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ      I-begot-you     Verb

Compare with

You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Hebrews 5:5

υιος μου ει συ εγω σημερον γεγεννηκα σε”

huios mou  ei sy ego semeron gegenneka se

son,   mine you   are I today procreated you

In Hebrew the word for son is בְּנִי which carries exactly the same meaning as the Greek, huios  (Noun)

The King James translation uses the word Begotten which has been abandoned by some modern translations. However, the Greek word is the same word from which the word “genes” is derived. It does refer to a birth. Some translators preferred to translate it “I have fathered you” or “I have become your father.”

The Hebrew word for  יְלִדְתִּיךָ is the same as Greek γεγεννηκα  (Verb)

It’s the nature of Hebrew. You can conjugate yalad but not ben.

In English we have the same linguistic limitations. Son is a noun and cannot be made into a verb. You cannot say “I have sonned you or childed you. So an accurate translation would  be “I have begotten you or fathered you.”

Similarly:

Isaiah 7:14 The virgin will conceive and bear a son.

הָעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן

ha3alma               virgin (girl)

harah                  conceives

wa-yeldet            begets (procreates)

ben                     son literally

Again, same thing both words are used to refer to Jesus. She will procreate (yeled) a son (ben.)

Hebrew: Genesis 5:5

Genealogy: Adam begets a son on and on ..

ben is a noun

yeled is a verb

Referring to the same person.

Greek: Matthew 1: 1-17

Verse 1 xristus huios of David,

Verse 17 Abraham fathered (gennao) Jacob

The exact Greek word is used to refer to all the sons from fathers and Jesus is son of Adam, son of David, Son of God.

More Meanings of Son

  • Son comes from God
  • Son represents the Father.
  • Son bears the name of the Father
  • Son preserves the name of his father
  • Son is the heir to all the Father has.
  • Son has the authority of the Father.
  • Son has full rights of the father.
  • Son knows the father well and reveals him.
  • Son ransoms the family honor.

WHAT WORD CAN MEAN ALL THIS? GUESS?

Not one word proposed to replace Son can do justice to all these meanings for Son.

The Great Confession of Christians:

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. I John 4:15

Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. I John 5:5

We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.I John 5:9

Consistency

Linguistic consistency is one of the most precious characteristics of the Bible. This is how you can do word study and compare the various uses of words and concepts that are repetitive throughout.

Unity of the Entire Bible; Fatherhood of God and Sonship of Christ are consistent themes throughout the Bible. These need to be preserved for the unity of the Bible. Additionally the various contexts of these terms enriches the understanding of these terms.

An example of this found in the story of Abraham when God tested him and asked him to sacrifice his son.  The words used are “your only Son, the one you love.”

Jesus is referred to with the same words: He is the beloved son and the one and only.

Abraham and Isaac
“Take your son, your only son, Isaac,
whom you love, Genesis 22:2

God and Jesus

“This is my Son,

whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17

 

Far back in history God introduced a crucial connection between Isaac and Jesus to introduce the concept of redemption by blood.

 

Changing the connection between Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and God’s sacrifice of his son destroys the unity of the Bible and breaks the thread of consistent revelation of God.

 

Here are some of the stories that relate directly to the Fatherhood and Sonship language in the Bible.

God is the Father of Israel
The Jewish people knew God as the sovereign Lord and King. God wanted them to also see him as their father to express his love and care fro them. Father is a term of endearment.

Parable of Prodigal Son Luke 15:11-32
The prodigal son is a story of God’s people who have gone astray and God as their father is waiting to receive them back when they repent.

Jesus is son of Adam, son of David, Son of God. Luke 3:38
Here there is a parallelism between Jesus as son of David and him as son of God. This points out to the heavenly origin of Jesus.

Parable of the wedding Banquet for the King’s son. Matthew 22:1-14
This parable would be meaningless if Jesus were not the Son of God.

The parable of the owner of a vineyard who sent his son. Luke 20 :9-16
This parable points to Jesus who would be killed by the workers in the vineyard. It would be meaningless if Jesus were not the son of God.

Unity of National Church

Mistranslations that have been produced in some languages of Muslim people have caused confusion and division among Christians. Language unites and divides. When Christians across cultures talk with each other or write literature that is translated into other languages there needs to be a unity of terminology. God is known to be the Father of all people and Jesus is the son of God. So those need to be preserved across cultural differences.

False Claim of sexual connotations:

One of the proponents of an alternative translation of the “Son of God” that in some languages the words son and father have sexual connotations. I pointed out to him that as one who grew up with the language and as a Bible translator, I have never encountered this problem.  I assured him that there is no difference in connotation among the three languages I am acquainted with and there is no difference whatsoever in the way the words son and father are understood. I went further to affirm that because of the fact that every culture has fathers and sons, that these two words are the only words that should be used in translating the Father-Son language in the Bible.

 

Fatherhood of God is a wonderful reality:

Many who have crossed over from darkness to light have been attracted to God’s love as a father. It would be counter productive to remove that wonderful reality. The concept of God in Islam is so fearful that part of the good news is that God loves them and does not want to send them to hell. Rather he sent his one and only beloved son to rescue them and give them eternal life.

 

Bad Replacements

A number of alternative translations have been proposed. Here are some of the most problematic:

Wali: A wali means guardian and does not have the richness, authority, power and natural rights of a father. A wali is also a representative of his father.

Caliph: This is one of the most shocking recommendations. The word caliph or Khalifa refers to the successor of Muhammad who became the commander of chief of the Islamic armies and ruler of the Islamic Umma. Another sense of the word refers to anyone who succeeds his deceased father. This does not do justice to the nature and character of Jesus, the eternal son of God.

William Zwemer, referencing Cornelius Van Dyck, the translator of the 1865 Arabic Bible has these revealing words:

“The saddest thing in the Arabic language is the influence of the degradation of Islam in every line of poetry and in almost every word of the Arabic language.  Dr. Van Dyck said that every word in the Arabic language has a double meaning and that one meaning is vile. For this reason translators could not use any of the root words for love, and were forced finally to adopt a participle that was free from those sinister meanings. The missionaries must be careful in every hymn that they sing and watch the words they use in everything. The whole Arabic language is filled with the stain of awful degradation. The time has come to redeem the Arabic language as well as the Moslems.”

 

Plea

On behalf of millions of nationals who are offended, hurt and even angry, I plead with every Christian who loves Jesus to affirm the Fatherhood of God and the eternal Sonship of Jesus our Lord without hesitation.

Share.

About Author

Georges Houssney was raised in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon. He came to faith in Jesus Christ as a teenager. Soon God grew a deep love for Muslims in his heart, and he began to sense God's call for full-time service among them. Well-known for his work supervising the translation and publication of the Bible into clear modern Arabic, Georges and his family moved from the Middle East to the United States in 1982 to minister to international students. Georges is passionate about reaching internationals here and abroad with the great news of salvation. He writes and lectures internationally about ministry to Muslims, and he strives to awaken a new generation who will proclaim the gospel boldly. Georges is founder and director of Horizons International and does Muslim evangelism training through his training Engaging Islam.

Leave A Reply