This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II can be found here.
Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) and WEA approval
Al-Kalima, in collaboration with Wycliffe/SIL, published a new Arabic translation of the Gospels and Acts in 2008 called The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ. Concerns regarding translation practices adopted in this translation (and others) prompted the World Evangelical Association (WEA) to form a committee to review biblical translation practices related to the translation of divine familial terms i.e. “Father” and “Son.” In 2013 the WEA committee published standards for translation that were to be adopted in future translations. Since the release of the WEA standards, there have been two bible translations that have publically claimed to adhere to these standards, these are the The Bold Proclamation of the Apostles of Christ released in 2015 and a revision of the The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ released in 2016. Al-Kalima’s website states that “Al Kalima is committed to working within the guidelines drawn up by the WEA Global Review Panel on divine familial terms” and the following link: http://www.al-kalima.com/content/in-translation/wea-approval states that the WEA positively has assessed the terms used in these versions. For this reason, these translations provide a good opportunity to evaluate how well the WEA process is working to ensure that Scripture translations produced by our evangelical organizations accurately reflect God’s word.
The following are a few questions to consider as we look at these two translations:
- Has the WEA process truly resolved issues related to the translation of divine familial terms?
- Are the current guidelines sufficient to ensure that the bible translations our evangelical organizations produce accurately communicate God’s word?
- Do the WEA guidelines offer any guidance that would protect Evangelical bible translations from significant sectarian bias?
- Can a bible translation that significantly miscommunicates God’s word obtain WEA approval?
With these questions in mind, let’s take a look at a few verses from the current revision of The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ and The Bold Proclamation of the Apostles of Christ to see how well these translations have resolved the problems that the 2013 WEA report had attempted to address.
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (ESV)
“As for the promise of these happenings, no one knows when that day and that hour comes, not even the master of humanity and the angels. For Allah, the father, the All-Beneficent, the All-merciful alone possesses knowledge of the hour.” (The True Meaning of the Gospel Christ)
- Islam teaches that God does not have a son and this verse re-enforces that belief by translating the word “Son” as “Master of Humanity.” Elsewhere in this translation, when the literal word “son” is used, it is either qualified as “spiritual son” or changed to a comparison i.e. God’s relationship with Jesus is LIKE a father to his son. I have spoken with a number of native Arabic speakers, and their understanding of a “spiritual son” is either someone who is a disciple or someone who is a “godson” (as would be understood in Catholicism). I could not find a single native Arabic speaker, [Christian, Muslim, or secular], who understood the term “spiritual son” as describing a familial relationship.
- The first chapter of the Qur’an is part of every Muslim’s daily prayer. Surah 1:1 is as recognizable to a Muslim as Genesis 1:1 is to most Christians. This verse from the Qur’an reads as follows: “In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.” (بِسمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحمٰنِ الرَّحيمِ). The extensive explanatory text that qualifies “Father” in the “True Meaning” mirrors this well-known Islamic passage; this would not be missed by a Muslim audience. Translating the single word “father” as “Allah, the father, the All-Beneficent, the All-merciful” is very troubling. Similar explanatory texts qualify almost every reference to “Father” in the True Meaning and Bold Proclamation.
- “Knowledge of the hour” is a Quranic phrase interpreted as referring to the end of the world – see Surah 31:34; 41:47; 43:85. Its use here re-enforces a belief in the inspiration of the Qur’an.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (ESV)
“O family of Jacob, hear and give heed, Allah is the One, the Indivisible, so love Allah your Lord with all your heart and your soul and your mind and with all your strength.” (The True Meaning of the Gospel Christ)
- The Greek word ‘kurios’ has historically been translated by words that carry a similar meaning to this Greek word i.e. English (Lord), Spanish (SEÑOR), French (SEIGNEUR), German (HERR), and Arabic (رَبٌّ [Rab]). Translating ‘kurios’ as ‘Allah’ is unprecedented and problematic. In Arabic, ‘allah’ is the normal word used to translate words like ‘theos’ (Greek), el, eloah/elohim (Hebrew), and ‘elah’ (Aramaic). The True Meaning and the Bold Proclamation have broken with historical translation practices and frequently translate ‘kurios’ as “Allah.” By doing so, they are treating “Allah” as the proper name for God and not a generic noun denoting his divinity. In this verse, a significant amount of grammatical restructuring was required in the translation in order to preserve the idea that “Allah” is God’s name.
- In Hebrew, nouns are declined to show possession by suffixing the pronoun onto the noun. This quote in Mark comes from Deut. 6:4-5, and in the Hebrew text, “God” is declined in both instances where it appears i.e. “our God (אלהינו)” and “your God (אלהיך).” These declined forms are mirrored in the Greek quote found in Mark. Arabic, a Semitic language like Hebrew, also declines nouns to show possession, and in Arabic “Our God” is “إلهنا” and “Your God” is “إلهك”. The True Meaning, in order to retain the un-declined form “Allah,” has chosen to break with both the original text and historical translations of this text and attach the possessive pronoun to “Lord (ربك).” It is only in the undeclined form that “Allah” is understood as a proper name. Additionally, the restructured text of the True Meaning has completely eliminated the reference to “Our God.” These changes also bring this verse into conformance with Islamic references like usuf Ali–Saudi which use similar phrasing i.e. “That is Allah, your Lord! There is no god but He, the Creator of all things: then worship ye Him: and He hath power to dispose of all affairs (6:102 usuf Ali–Saudi 1985 rev.). The translation offered in the True Meaning is not a faithful translation of this text and these changes appear to have been done only to promote the idea that “Allah” is God’s proper name.
- By changing the phrase “The Lord is one” to the well-recognized Islamic phrase “Allah is the One, the Indivisible,” a link is drawn with one of the 99 names of Allah. These are the 99 names memorized by devoted Muslims. This again reinforces the idea that “Allah” is the proper name for God. And again, this translation makes a significant break from the long history of bible translation practices.
- Israel is God’s given name to Jacob (Ge. 32:28), and translating “Israel” as “Family of Jacob” is unprecedented in the history of bible translation. It is hard to imagine a motivation for making such a change other than to obscure Israel’s place in God’s redemptive history. Our bible translations should not be making concessions to modern political or religious issues.
“this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.'” (ESV)
“And here his promise to us, their sons, is fulfilled, through the sending of our master Isa, as it says in the second Psalm from the Zabur: “You are closer to me than the son is to his father and today we seated you upon the throne.” (The True Meaning of the Gospel Christ)
- While the biblical text declares “You are my son,” the True Meaning changes this to a comparison. In the True Meaning, God is declaring that his relationship to Jesus is like a father’s relationship to his son. Is this change to comparative language really compliant with the WEA guidelines? The WEA Panel recommends that when the words for “father” and “son” refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words always be translated with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients. And the WEA panel further notes that “the words for “father” and “son’ have great cultural and linguistic transferability and can be used in all translations.” 1
- In the biblical text, God declares “Today I have begotten you,” but the True Meaning provides the highly interpretive rendering “today we have seated you upon the throne.” This rendering avoids conflicts with the Qur’anic statements that declare that God has not begotten sons, but misses much of the richness inherent in the biblical text. John B. Polhill, in the The New American Commentary on Acts, says that “in the immediate context, however, the emphasis is on the resurrection of Jesus. By the resurrection of Jesus, God demonstrated that he had truly accomplished his promise by bringing forth the Son who abides forever” 2 and F.H. Chase notes that prevalent in Jewish thought was the idea that those who had been appointed as King of the nation of Israel (God’s chosen nation) were themselves adopted as God’s son. Rather than using the language of sonship as an idiom for placing a king on the throne, they recognized a change in the relationship of those who had already been seated on the throne 3. FF. Bruce affirms this view, stating that “The day of the king’s anointing in Israel “was ideally the day in which he, the nation’s representative, was born into a new relation of sonship towards Jehovah.” Jesus entered into no new relation of sonship to his heavenly Father; but on the day when God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power and called him to his messianic mission, it was in terms of that oracle that he addressed him: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”” 4
- By tying the biblical name of Psalms to the Quranic name Zabur, the True Meaning re-enforces the idea that the Qur’an is an inspired source of Scripture.
“For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”?” (Heb. 1:5 ESV)
“For we read in the book of Zabur about our master Isa, “You are closer to me than the son is to his father and today we seated you upon the throne.” And God did not in any respect address anyone from the angels in this way. And in the book of the prophet Samuel we read God saying about our master Isa – and none other than him: “I will be in status to him, the father; and he will be in status [to me], my spiritual son.“” (The Bold Proclamation of the Apostles of Christ)
- While the biblical text declares “You are my son,” the Bold Proclamation changes this to a comparison. In the Bold Proclamation, God is declaring that his relationship to Jesus is like a father’s relationship to his son. Is this change to comparative language really compliant with the WEA guidelines?
- The WEA Panel recommends that when the words for “father” and “son” refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words always be translated with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients. And the WEA panel further notes that “the words for “father” and “son’ have great cultural and linguistic transferability and can be used in all translations.” 5
- In the biblical text God declares “Today I have begotten you,” but the True Meaning provides the highly interpretive rendering “today we have seated you upon the throne.” This rendering avoids conflicts with the Qur’anic statements that declare that God has not begotten sons, but misses much of the richness inherent in the biblical text. (See notes on Acts 13:33 for additional information)
- In both OT quotes, the text very clearly states that Jesus is God’s son, and God is his father, but the Bold Proclamation qualifies this clear statement by declaring that Jesus will be “in status” a “spiritual son” and God will be “in status” his father. This is a significant concession to the Islamic belief that God has no sons. If qualifying familial terms with phrases like “in status a father” are permissible in a “WEA approved” translation, then we have a very significant problem with the WEA guidelines.
- The use of “spiritual son” is problematic. As noted above, this is not a term that communicates the idea of a familial relationship to Arabic speakers. To an Arabic speaker, “spiritual son” is either someone who is a disciple or someone who is a “godson” (as would be understood in Catholicism). This phrase does not convey a biblical understanding of God’s sonship to an Arabic speaker.
“For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” (ESV)
“Evil people have slipped in among you, turning God’s favor into a pretext to live immorally, and they deny our [authoritative]master (Arabic, sayyidna) and only master (Arabic, mawlana) Isa the Messiah. [But] from a long time ago, the book of God has revealed their wretched fate. Even though you know what I am saying to you, I want to remind you that Allah saved the sons of Jacob and freed them from Egypt; then he destroyed all who disbelieved him.” (The Bold Proclamation of the Apostles of Christ)
- There is a very significant textual variant in the Greek manuscripts of Jude 5. Some manuscripts read ‘kurios’ (Lord), but a significant number of the oldest manuscripts read ‘Jesus.’ The current editions of the Greek critical NT i.e. NA28, UBS5 read “Jesus,” and the weight of the manuscript evidence is so overwhelming that few textual critical scholars are willing to give primary support to the κύριος variant anymore. One must wonder why a translation published in 2015 has rejected the near unanimous opinion of the textual scholars who produced these critical texts, especially since a footnote of this very significant variant is not included!
- When we look at Jude verse 5 in the context of the prior verse, it is almost an inescapable conclusion that the context is speaking of Jesus and not the Father. The prior verse reads, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” In this verse, it is absolutely clear that ‘kurios’ refers to Jesus. There is very little reason to conclude that the very next reference to ‘kurios’ is no longer speaking of Jesus, even in the absence of textual variants that specifically read “Jesus.”
- Kurios (Lord) is used both for the Father and the Son in the NT. Even if the ‘kurios’ variant is followed, the interpretation of Jesus is still a valid option when the text is translated using “Rab” (رَبٌّ) [Lord] as has been done historically. The choice to use ‘Allah’ as a translation for ‘kurios’ is unprecedented and very problematic; in cases like this, it forces the translator to choose an interpretation that finds little support among scholars.
- Even when comparing the translation of Jude verse 5 in the Bold Proclamation to other Muslim Idiom Translations, the translation choices made in this verse appear to be unprecedented. Other MIT’s maintain a connection between verse 4 and verse 5 that is lost in the Bold Proclamation.
- In Arabic “kafara,” the word used for “disbelieve” in verse 5, has a very distinctive meaning; within Islam it means one is an infidel. According to Sharia, a “Kafara” has one of two choices: immediate conversion to Islam or death.
While there is disagreement among theologians about whether Islam presents a distorted image of the God revealed to us through the Scriptures or an image of an entirely false god, historically there has been pretty strong agreement that these kinds of questions should never be resolved through biblical translation efforts. One of the expectations of a good bible translation is that it avoids sectarian bias, and translations like the True Meaning and Bold Proclamation have significantly failed to achieve this goal. In many cases the translation choices made in these translations demonstrate at least indifference, if not complete rejection, of Christian orthodoxy. Additionally, Islam teaches that Christians have corrupted the Scriptures, and these new versions are providing tangible proof that this has been done, undermining efforts to reach Muslims with any version of Scripture. While the Church cannot stop errant translations of Scriptures from being produced, we can do a much better job of not participating in the production and distribution of translations like these. We can begin by being as clear as possible of our rejection of translation projects like these so we leave little room as possible for substantiating the claim we have corrupted the Scriptures, and we should take the time to better understand how the money we donate to bible translation and distribution efforts is being used so that we can be assured we are not funding these efforts. It is far better that Muslims see these translations as the product of fringe groups rejected by the majority of Christians, than as biblical translations endorsed and funded by the Christian Church.
Additionally, according to the WEA, the WEA guidelines always apply only to Wycliffe/SIL and only to issues related directly to the translation of Divine Familial Terms. Serious translations issue that are identified, but unrelated to the translation of Divine Familial Terms, are considered out of scope and will not be addressed by the WEA panel. There are currently no panels designated to address any of the myriad of other translation issues that have arisen in Muslim Idiom Translations, issues like the ones described in this article.
Furthermore, the panel’s scope is limited only to translations published with Wycliffe/SIL’s direct involvement. Translations published by other evangelical organizations are not evaluated, even when Wycliffe/SIL has assisted with the translation, as long as Wycliffe/SIL has withdrawn before it is published. The WEA guidelines state only that “If either internal or external review demonstrates that a project is not in compliance with SIL standards and the other stakeholders in the project wish to continue with their current approach, SIL and Wycliffe organizations who are key stakeholders will withdraw from involvement by procedures agreed upon with the other stakeholders. SIL and Wycliffe organizations who are key stakeholders will not provide funding for translation projects that are not in compliance with SIL standards. Withdrawal of funding will be done according to proper legal and financial obligations in the project context.” 6 Without a procedure that allows for the review of translations produced by other agencies after Wycliffe/SIL’s withdrawal, a public accounting of the length of time Wycliffe/SIL remained engaged in non-compliant translations, and an public accounting of the amount of funding invested by Wycliffe/SIL in non-compliant translation projects, this guideline does nothing more than shield Wycliffe/SIL from public accountability for their participation in non-compliant translation projects.
Addendum After Initial Publishing:
Al Kalima’s website no longer claims that their translations are WEA approved. This development highlights the difficulty of determining what translations have been “officially” WEA approved, and what translations have not. There needs to be much more transparency in the WEA process. WEA needs to do more than just write translation guidelines. They need to follow up and make sure theses guidelines are followed.
Screenshots of original site:
This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II can be found here.
- REPORT TO WORLD EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE FOR CONVEYANCE TO WYCLIFFE GLOBAL ALLIANCE AND SIL INTERNATIONAL, April 15, 2013 ↩
- John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 303. ↩
- F.H. Chase, Hulsean Lectures ↩
- F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, pg. 259. ↩
- REPORT TO WORLD EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE FOR CONVEYANCE TO WYCLIFFE GLOBAL ALLIANCE AND SIL INTERNATIONAL, April 15, 2013 ↩
- Processes for Accuracy and Accountability in Bible Translation of Divine Familial Terms, WEA 11/24/2013 ↩