By Ian Westmark
Several compelling reasons for transliterating the name Jesus in all Bible translations, even in languages deeply impacted by Islam
For many, the advantages of employing the name Issa in Islamic contexts are rather obvious. Why employ Yesu, 1 a relatively unknown term, when the Islamic term is widely known? And even if the Christian term is widely known, why use it when doing so would probably draw a line in the sand, given that it clearly comes from the opposite side of the religious divide? After all, was not the whole thrust of Pentecost to empower believers to preach the gospel in the various languages of the world rather than require the peoples of the world to learn languages common to believers? And doesn’t effective communication also mean employing local idioms, even those shaped by a different religious outlook?
A rudimentary internet search on New Testament translations available in languages of the Muslim world reveals that a number have opted for the idiomatic expression ‘Issa’:
- Arabic (Al Sharif) عِيسَى 2
- Azerbaijani, North Эса 3
- Bangla/Bengali ঈসা /Īsā/ 4
- Farsi عيسى 5
- Kidal Tamasheq n-Ɣisa 6
- Kurdish Sorani Standard (KSS) عيساى 7
- Malay (I) Isa 8
- Somali Ciise 9
- Turkish İsa 10
- Uyghur (China) ئەيسا 11
Other translations, however, have employed a transliteration of the Messiah’s Hebrew or Greek name instead:
- Arabic Easy-to-Read Version يَسُوع 12
- Arabic Ketab El Hayat (NAV) يَسُوع
- Malay (II) Yesus 13
- Indonesian Yesus 14
- Urdu يسوع 15
- Hausa Yesu 16
- Nigerian Fulfulde Version (Arabic Script) يٜىٰسُ 17
- Zarma (Niger) Yesu 18
- Bambara Yesu 19
- Wolof 20(Latin script) Yeesu
- Pulaar Yeesu
This divergence in translation practice raises a number of important questions: Are both options equally valid, or is one better than the other? Is the final decision on whether to employ Yesu or Issa up to “the stakeholders” of each translation to decide? And just who are the stakeholders? Are there any indications within the text of Scripture itself that could guide us in our decision making? To even suggest the latter possibility might seem preposterous to some, but to reject it outright would, for others, be precipitous, as there are compelling scriptural reasons for transliterating the Savior’s name rather than employing the idiomatic version.
We 21 believe that the bilingual 22 Scriptures comprised of the 39 books of the Old Testament (OT) and the 27 books of the New Testament (NT) provide an internal model of good and acceptable Bible translation. 23 Given the plenary inspiration of Scripture, its multiple instances of translation (primarily from Hebrew to Greek) 24 implicitly bear heaven’s seal of approval and therefore give us exceptional guidance on a wide range of issues. In fact, it seems that several contemporary debates 25 could have been avoided, or at least more quickly resolved, had the various sides taken a deeper look into the way that Scripture renders Scripture in regard to the particular issues under discussion. The way that the NT cites, amends, and sometimes corrects the Septuagint (LXX) 26 is especially instructive, making it a virtual handbook on best translation practices, shedding light on a number of important linguistic and ethical concerns, including the question: Issa or Yesu?
At the outset it should be clarified that the purpose of this paper is not to condemn translations that have employed Issa instead of Yesu, nor necessarily to discourage their use—especially if there are no other translations available in a given language—but rather to identify and recommend best translation practices for future translations and revisions. Another hoped-for outcome is to spark a deeper discussion among those who are better positioned to tackle these issues as seasoned translators and/or as theologically attuned cross-cultural communicators. 27
My personal pilgrimage
Having imbibed, at least in part, the emphasis on “contextualization” current in missiological training in the 1980s, I frequently employed the name Issa in the early years when conversing with Muslim friends and contacts about the gospel, though not necessarily hiding the Messiah’s real name as given in Scripture. In the 90s I helped put the Jesus film into an Arabic dialect in which the name Issa was employed throughout. Then in the following decade I became acquainted with a Christian brother from the Middle East who bristled at the practice of employing Issa in personal outreach. “Why use a name that means ‘hairy’ instead of ‘Savior’?” he would ask. Though I probably considered his stance to be a bit extreme and rigid at first, I have since come to appreciate it more deeply and have found greater Scriptural support for it than I would have first imagined. Over the years I have become increasingly concerned with the quest to find the right balance between employing language that people of other religious backgrounds can readily grasp while at the same time introducing them to the language and culture of God’s kingdom, and allowing Scripture to confront the longstanding spiritual strongholds present in every culture.
As for the question at hand—Should we employ Issa or Yesu in Bible translation? —we will begin by examining the way the apostles preached the gospel in cross-cultural (non-Jewish) settings to determine the extent to which they employed local names and idioms on the one hand, and foreign (Hebrew) names and idioms on the other.
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to declare God’s mighty works in the languages of the Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from various foreign lands for the annual festival, thereby setting a pattern for evangelism that has continued to this day. Now as always God empowers his ambassadors to communicate the message of salvation in terms that people everywhere can understand. This does not mean, however, that the apostles never employed foreign words or concepts derived from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In support of employing local terminology, we observe that when the apostles preached in the Greek speaking world, the Holy Spirit directed them to employ θεός /theos/, the generic Greek term for God, rather than a transliteration of Elohim (the generic Hebrew term for God). Similarly they employed the Greek term for Lord, Κύριος /kyrios/, rather than a transliteration of Adonai (the Hebrew term for Lord). Such adaptability was fitting and proper given that Gentiles everywhere, through the witness of general revelation, have a basic awareness of God’s eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:19-20), as the presence of generic terms for God and Lord in multiple languages of the world attests. But when it came to the name of Jesus, the apostles did not replace it with a name drawn from the ambient culture but consistently employed Ἰησοῦς /Iēsous/ ‘Yesu(s)’ instead, which is the standard Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Joshua used in the Septuagint (LXX). Though this transliteration was not an exact duplicate of the original name—nor could it be—it was a reasonable approximation given the natural limits of the Greek language.
|Acts 2:14-41, Peter to Jews on Pentecost||God: 10x||Lord: 7x||Jesus: 5x (of which “this Jesus” 3x)|
|Acts 4:8-12, Peter to rulers and elders||God: 1x||Lord: 0x||Jesus: 2x (of which “this Jesus” 1x)|
|Acts 10:34-43, Peter to Cornelius, his relatives and friends||God: 6x||Lord: 1x||Jesus: 2x|
|Acts 13:16-41, Paul to Jews and God-fearers||God: 9x||Lord:0x||Jesus: 2x|
|Acts 16:31, Paul to the Philippian jailer||God: 0x||Lord: 0x||Jesus: 1x|
|Acts 17:22-31, Paul to the Areopagus||God: 5x (of which “unknown god” 1x)||Lord: 1x||Jesus: 0x|
Observations: Endowed by the Holy Spirit for preaching Christ crucified to those who were both near and far-away, it is striking that the apostles—who were God-fearing men of Jewish background—consistently employed the Greek terms for ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ when preaching in the Greek speaking world. 28 Though they were adaptable in this sense we should not conclude that they were contextualization purists, given that they were also ready to introduce foreign names and concepts as needed. Their consistent use of the Hebrew name Yeshua (Yesu)—the Messiah’s proper name—is a prime example of this. Other examples include the occasional use of Hebrew loan words such as ‘amen,’ ‘Sabbath,’ ‘hosanna,’ and ‘Passover,’ 29 as well as Hebrew names such as ‘Abraham,’ Moses,’ ‘David,’ and ‘Elijah,’ to name a few. This naturally raises questions about the necessity and propriety of replacing Yesu with Issa in Islamic contexts and about the presuppositions that may be fueling the desire to do so. 30
Apostolic evangelism appears then to have been a two-way bridge. That is, not only did the apostles consistently employ ‘Theos,’ the local term for God, they also employed ‘Yesu,’ an imported name. Consequently, the auditors as well as the speakers were obliged to cross a cultural bridge of sorts. When God’s ambassadors follow in Peter and Paul’s footsteps today, they will not only cross the bridge to the other side to examine and draw on elements of the culture and language of the people they are addressing, they will simultaneously invite those they are addressing to cross over and examine elements of the culture and language of God’s kingdom. Whenever people accept the invitation to cross over and examine God’s ways, they will discover some of the life-giving truths that he progressively revealed about himself, about people, and about the way of salvation in and through the history of his chosen people, culminating in Jesus the Messiah, all of which was documented long ago for the benefit of all people everywhere.
Since the earliest centuries of the church, Bible translations the world over have followed the apostolic precedent in employing the local generic term for God on the one hand, and a reasonable transliteration of Yeshua/Yesu on the other. Observe this consistent pattern in Scripture translation in some of the world’s major languages:
- German 31 Gott /gɔt/ Jesus /yēzus/
- French 32 Dieu /djø/ Jésus /žēzu/
- Russian 33 Бог /Bog/ or /бох/ Иисус /Iisus/
- Chinese 34 神 /Shén/ 35 耶稣 /Yēsū/
- Vietnamese 36 Đức Chúa Trời 37 Giê-su
- Thai 38 พระเจ้า /Phracêā/ เยซู / Yesū/
- Hindi 39 परमेश्वर /parameshvar/ यीशु /yeeshu/
- Arabic 40الله /allah/ يَسُوع /yesūɁ/
- Kiswahili 41 Mungu Yesu
- Yoruba 42 Ọlọ́run Jesu
Now that we have established that the apostles consistently employed a transliteration of the Messiah’s Hebrew name in non-Hebrew contexts, we must try to understand why they did so. While this endeavor is admittedly a bit speculative, it is nevertheless a worthy one, since deviating from the apostolic precedent without first making an attempt to discern their reasons for doing what they did would fly in the face of “Chesterton’s fence,” which simply put is, “reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood.” 43 In other words, before modifying an established way or system of doing things for all of the supposed advantages, we must make sure that the changes will not somehow have negative secondary consequences that those who instituted the system were initially trying to avoid. As Scripture said long ago, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” (Pr. 19.2). 44 If during our investigation it becomes clear that key biblical values and principles would be seriously compromised by following the path of innovation (in this case replacing Yesu with Issa), it would be better to adhere to the apostolic path and precedent for the glory of God and the good of mankind.
Watch for Part 2 coming soon!
- Throughout this article ‘Yesu’ stands for Ἰησοῦς /Iēsous/, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name יהושׁע / יהושׁוּע/yehôshûa‛/ Yehoshua (Joshua in English) as it appears in the Septuagint (LXX). This ancient Greek translation, by the way, transliterates the name ישׁוּע /yêshûa‛/ Yeshua (which the ESV renders Jeshua), first appearing in the time of David (1 Chr. 24.11), in the same way, evidently taking it as a variant of Yehoshua. ↩
- https://live.bible.is/bible/ACMAS3/MRK/1 ↩
- https://live.bible.is/bible/AZEBSAC/MRK/1 ↩
- https://www.bible.com/bible/809/MRK.1.BACIB ↩
- http://www.farsinet.com/injil/mark/index.html ↩
- https://www.bible.com/en-GB/bible/1144/MRK.1.TAQNT ↩
- https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+1%3A1&version=KSS ↩
- https://inscript.org/?w1=bible&t1=local%3AZLMCTX&v1=JN1_1 ↩
- https://inscript.org/?w1=bible&t1=local%3AZLMCTX&v1=JN1_1 ↩
- http://www.nic.funet.fi/pub/doc/bible/html/turkish/Mr.1.html ↩
- https://live.bible.is/bible/UIGUMK/MRK/1 ↩
- https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+1%3A1&version=ERV-AR ↩
- https://www.bible.com/ms/bible/402/JHN.3.BM ↩
- https://etabetapi.com/read/id/Mark/1 ↩
- https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+1%3A1&version=ERV-UR ↩
- https://www.bible.com/en-GB/bible/71/MRK.1.HAU ↩
- https://live.bible.is/bible/FUVATBL/MRK/1 ↩
- https://etabetapi.com/read/ssa/Mark/1 ↩
- https://live.bible.is/bible/BAMLSB/MRK/1?audio_type=audio_drama ↩
- https://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/wb/wlf/mar.htm ↩
- By “we” the author includes himself and others he knows and/or believes would have the same conviction in this matter. ↩
- If Aramaic is counted as a separate language the Scriptures could rightly be termed tri-lingual. But given that most of it is written in Hebrew and Greek, and given that Hebrew and Aramaic are fairly close cognates, ‘bilingual’ is an adequate and fitting descriptor in a general sort of way. ↩
- Only in those cases in which the NT deliberately cites the OT do we have a translation model. That is, due consideration must be given to the fact that the NT writers frequently allude to, rather than cite, the OT, and that they sometimes conflate several OT passages at once. When this is the case, they were not intending to translate Scripture and are not therefore providing us a model of translation. ↩
- The way later portions of the Hebrew Scriptures render set phrases and terms borrowed from earlier portions could also prove to be highly instructive and provide practical guidance for updating older Scripture translations in a given language. ↩
- Such debates include: 1) essentially literal vs. dynamic equivalent translation, 2) how to translate the divine familial terms, and 3) the use of alien religious idioms in rendering God’s message. ↩
- We can also learn from the way the NT seems to translate, in certain rare instances, the Hebrew more directly. ↩
- That said, the author, while by no means an expert, has had one summer of SIL, earned a MDiv, studied two dialects of Arabic, and spent over thirty years living and serving in the Muslim world. ↩
- In doing so they were following the lead of the LXX. ↩
- /pe•saḥ/ in Hebrew, πάσχα (pascha) in Greek; the English word ‘Passover’ is a translation or gloss rather than a transliteration ↩
- The underlying presuppositions we are thinking of include: 1) Because language is a man-made construct and constantly evolving; the meaning of words is relative; 2) Virtually all cultural and linguistic forms can be “redeemed” and filled with biblical meaning; 3) Translations of the Bible should only employ words and idioms drawn from the local language; 4) Yesu and Issa have one and the same referent; 5) ‘Issa’ is simply the Arabic way of saying Iēsou(s); 6) ‘Jesus,’ the English transliteration of Iēsou(s), is just as far from removed from Yesu as is ‘Issa’; 7) Every cultural-religious grouping within a given language could have and probably should have its own idiomatic Bible translation; ↩
- Hoffnung für Alle (HOF) ↩
- La Bible du Semeur (BDS) ↩
- New Russian Translation (NRT) ↩
- Chinese New Version (Simplified) (CNVS) ↩
- The Chinese Contemporary Bible (Simplified) employs ‘heavenly king’: 上帝 /Shàngdì/. ↩
- New Vietnamese Bible (NVB) ↩
- he NVB appears to employ a combination of three terms here: Đức Chúa Trời which Google Translate renders as ‘Lord.’ The first of the three means ‘virtue,’ while the last two are both defined as ‘God,’ that is, when translated independently on Google translate. ↩
- https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Gen+1.1&version=TNCV ↩
- Hindi Bible: Easy-to-Read Version (ERV-HI) ↩
- Ketab El Hayat (NAV) ↩
- Neno: Bibilia Takatifu (SNT) ↩
- Bíbélì Mímọ́ Yorùbá Òde Òn (BYO) ↩
- Wikipedia; For our purposes, the apostolic precedent is “the existing state of affairs,” while the practice of replacing Yeshua/Yesu with a local idiom is the “proposed reform” under examination. ↩
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture citations are taken from the ESV, Crossway, 2008. Also, some of the more detailed Hebrew words and their phonetic transcriptions were taken from the ESV’s on-line Bible study tools, while most of the unpointed Hebrew words and their transcriptions were taken from E-Sword’s version of BDB and Strong’s Concordance. ↩
I have read only this article; looking forward to the rest. You might answer my questions later, but after reading Part 1, these are my questions and comments.
1. Under Historical Perspective, you noted that the apostles did not replace “Jesus” with a name drawn from the ambient culture. Such as_____? What equivalent name was there in the Greek culture? What options did they have?
2. I note that “God and “lord” are nouns which are likely to have equivalents in other languages. “Messiah” was also put into Greek–“Christ”. Given names–Jesus, Moses, David, Abraham, Elijah–are less likely to have such. Were there Greek equivalents of those other names? Other options besides the Hebrew names?
3. What Hebrew names in WERE changed to Greek equivalents in the Septuagint or New Testament? Can you give examples of that?