Translating Familial Biblical Terms

An Overview of the Issue

This article is an abridgement of “A New Look at Translating Familial Language,” forthcoming in The International Journal of Frontier Missiology 28:3 (2011).

A well-educated non-Christian woman was reading the Gospel of Luke for the first time. She came to Luke 2:48, where Mary says to Jesus, “Son,…Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (ESV). The woman said, “I can’t accept this! We know that Jesus was born from a virgin and did not have a human father!” She protested strongly that Joseph could not have been Jesus’ biological father, and she cited this statement in Luke as “proof that the Bible has been corrupted and is unreliable,” meaning the translation was corrupt. What could have been the cause of her misunderstanding?

The Difference between Biological and Social Familial Terms

The problem for this woman was that the word used for father in the Bible translation that she was reading is biological in meaning. It is not normally used for non-biological fathers, such as stepfathers and adoptive fathers. Thus it implied that Joseph had sired Jesus by having sex with Mary. The word was equivalent in meaning to the English words biological father, genitor, and procreator, rather than to social father, pater, or paterfamilias. The biological father is the one who begets the children. The social father is the one who raises the children as their father, looks after them, and has authority over them. 

In a typical family, the same man is both the social and biological father, i.e., he is a parenting father, meaning he is the provider of both paternal DNA and paternal nurturing to the same child. In some cases, however, the social father of a child is not the biological father. An adopted child, for example, has an adoptive father and a birth father.  These categories are shown in table 1.

figure 1

Table 1 Categories of fatherhood and corresponding English terms


It is crucial to note that social father and biological father are overlapping categories, and a parenting father is in both categories. So a man can be described as a child’s social father without implying that he is the child’s biological father as well, even if most social fathers are also the biological fathers of the children they raise. In Luke 2:48–49, both Joseph and God are called in Greek Jesus’ patêr “social father.” Since neither one passed DNA to Jesus, the paternal relationship was not only social but also non-biological.

As shown in table 1, the English word father is broad in meaning and not necessarily biological, since one can be a father to someone without having sired him or her. In some languages, however, the word commonly used for a paternal family member is limited in meaning to biological father, so it is not used of a stepfather or adoptive father. In the translation read by the woman above, the word used to translate patêr “social father” actually meant biological father; this implied that Joseph had sired Jesus and hence that Mary was not a virgin when she conceived him. It was not an accurate translation.

A similar distinction exists between social son, which signifies a filial social relationship to a father, and biological son, which signifies a filial biological relationship to the source of one’s paternal genes. Again, in a typical situation the same person has both relationships; a parented son receives his DNA and paternal nurturing from the same man. In some situations, however, this is not the case; Jesus received paternal nurture from Joseph but did not receive DNA from him. These categories are shown in table 2.

Table 2  Categories of sonship and corresponding English terms


The English word son covers all three categories, but in some languages the word commonly used for a male child of the family is limited in meaning to biological offspring. Such a word does not accurately describe Jesus’ relationship to Joseph.

Biblical Greek and Hebrew have one set of terms signifying social familial relationships, similar to English father and son, but with broader application, and a second set for biological familial relations, like English procreator and offspring.2 In a nurturing biological family both sets of terms apply to the same people. A stepson, however, is not called a biological son, and a disowned biological son is no longer a social son. 

It is important to realize that to express divine familial relationships, the Bible uses the Greek and Hebrew social familial terms, not the biological ones. It presents the essence of God’s fatherhood of us in his paternal care for us as his loved ones rather than in siring us as his biological offspring. 

While in Hebrew and Greek the social familial terms are the ones commonly used to refer to members of one’s family, in some languages the biological terms are most commonly used. Other languages, like Arabic and various Turkic languages, lack a set of social familial terms, and neither adoption nor step relations are recognized, so to convey a non-procreated familial relationship one must use a phrase, such as like a father to me, or use a term for paterfamilias (head of family). When translating the Bible into such languages, it would be inaccurate to translate the Hebrew or Greek word for a social father or son using a word for a biological father or son in the target language unless the relationship is truly biological. This is especially the case with regard to the Father-Son relation, which was generated non-biologically, without procreation. Translating Father and Son with biological terms has caused readers to think the text claims that Jesus is the offspring of God procreating with Mary, and this has caused Muslim readers to reject such translations as corrupt and even blasphemous.

Problems with Mixing up Biological and Social Familial Terms

It is the task of Bible translators to communicate “the meaning of the original text…as exactly as possible…including the informational content, feelings, and attitudes of the original text” by re-expressing it “in forms that are consistent with normal usage in the receptor language.”3 It might seem astounding, therefore, that Bible translations would ever use expressions that misrepresent the divine relations by implying they arose from sexual procreation. However, this has happened in the history of Bible translation for two reasons. One is that translators have historically preferred word-for-word translations of key biblical terms. Some translators are under pressure to do so even if it misrepresents the meaning, as it can when the target language requires the use of a phrase to express a non-biological familial relation. Another reason is that some translators simply used the most common words in the target language for all familial relationships, even if those words were biological in meaning and a different, specialized term was required to express the social or non-biological relationships in the family of God. 

The reality is that there are usually semantic mismatches between the words in any two languages, especially if they are from different language families and different cultures, and translators often have to use phrases in the target language to express the intended meaning of a single term in the Greek or Hebrew text. Not understanding this, some well-intentioned Christians have insisted that the Bible translators in other countries produce word-for-word translations of familial terms because they mistakenly assume that every language describes familial relations in the broad sense expressed by the common English, Hebrew, and Greek familial terms. But that is not the case, and the common, single-word terms used for family members in some languages are strictly biological and are inappropriate for describing the family of God. The problem is that these translations end up attributing a biological meaning to the fatherhood of God, implying he reproduced the Son, the angels, or even the spirits of people through sexual activity. This meaning was not communicated by the original-language expressions, and it conflicts with the intended meaning of the text.

This mistake results in readers understanding the Lord’s Prayer to say “Our Begetter, who is in heaven,” and understanding Jesus to be “God’s (procreated) offspring.” The “longing of creation” (Rom 8:19) is understood to be “for the revealing of God’s biological children.” Such wordings are inaccurate because they add a procreative meaning that was absent from the original, and they sideline the important interpersonal relationships that were expressed in the original text.  Readers from polytheistic religions readily accept that gods procreate with goddesses and with women, and they assume the phrase Offspring of God signifies a procreated origin. Readers in many Muslim language groups understand Offspring of God in a similar way, namely that it means God had sexual relations with a woman; unlike polytheists, however, they reject this possibility and consider the phrase to be a blasphemous corruption of the Bible that insults God by attributing carnality to him. They fear that even saying such a phrase will incur the wrath of God. These misunderstandings disappear, however, when translators express the divine familial relationships in ways that do not imply sexual activity on the part of God. Muslim readers and listeners can then focus on the message without being preoccupied with the fear of attributing carnality to God, and when they do, they recognize that the deity and mission of Christ is evident throughout the Gospels. This highlights the fact that translators are not trying to remove original meanings from the translation that might offend the audience. On the contrary, their concern is to avoid incorrect meanings that fail to communicate the informational content, feelings, and attitudes of the original inspired text. 

Some Possible Translations for Father and Son of God

If translators wish to avoid those mistakes and express the divine familial relations in non-biological terms, then what expressions can they use? 

  1. Obviously, in languages that have single words for social fathers and sons, if phrases like our Father and sons of God are understood as signifying God in his caring, paternal relationship to us as his loved ones, without implying a claim that God produced our bodies or spirits by having sex with females (as even Mormons claim), then these expressions are to be preferred.
  2. In some languages where the commonly used kinship terms are biological, there are also social familial terms similar in meaning to paterfamilias and loved ones (meaning one’s beloved family), and Christians use these to describe God’s paternal relationship to us and our filial relationship to him.
  3. Where such terms are not available, it is sometimes possible to say something like our God in heaven, who is like a procreator to us, and we are like offspring to God. On the other hand, a phrase like God’s loved ones may be better at conveying the loving nature of the relationship. 
  4. To describe the Father-Son relationship, some languages add a word that helps block the biological meaning of the words, using phrases equivalent to Offspring sent from God or Spiritual Offspring of God. 
  5. Some languages have terms for a favorite son, only son, firstborn son, or ruling-heir (who is usually the firstborn), and people use these for the Father-Son relationship, as in God’s Loved One and God’s Only One. The Greek New Testament uses terms for Jesus equivalent to all four of these, but it also has a term for social son, huios, that is used more often. Unfortunately many languages lack a term equivalent in meaning to huios. 

Translators ask people from the intended audience, both believers and others, to read or listen to passages of Scripture in which these alternative wordings have been used; then they ask them questions to find out what they understood these phrases to mean in context. Based on this feedback from the community and feedback from other stakeholders, the translation team and the local editorial committee, with the help of an outside translation consultant, decide which translation is best. There may be several cycles to this testing phase until the best solution is found.

Using the Paratext

The authoritative text of Scripture is the one God communicated to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The task of translators is to enable readers to understand the message that God communicated via this original text. Because of differences in language and context, to communicate God’s message in another language requires both text and paratext. The paratext can effectively define the biblical meaning of an expression used in the translated text as long as that expression does not already mean something contrary to biblical meaning.

The paratext consists of any introductory articles, footnotes, glossary entries, and parenthetical notes in the text that the translators wrote as an integral part of the translation to explain terms, unfamiliar concepts, and essential background information. So even if translators find a way to express divine fatherhood and sonship in the text, it is also important to fill out the meaning of the expression in the paratext. In a non-print Scripture product, the paratext consists primarily of introductions to sections of text. So what should be included in the paratextual explanation of Son of God? 

Components of the Meaning of Son of God

Church history and contemporary scholarship emphasize two components of meaning of the term Son of God: 

  • Ontological (as the eternal Son he is consubstantial with the Father and eternally generated from him in a non-procreative way; Heb 1:3); and 
  • Mediatorial (as Son of God he is sent by the Father to mediate God’s rule, grace, and salvation to his people, to impart sonship to them, and to be their Savior and Advocate). 

Bible scholars suggest that the mediatorial meaning is the most prominent in many contexts of Scripture, but they also recognize that the Bible uses the phrase with six additional components of meaning: familial/relational, incarnational, revelational, instrumental, ethical, and representational. All these can be explained to readers in the paratext, usually in a mini-article, in the glossary, and in footnotes. While the mini-article goes into depth of meaning, the explanatory notes remind the audience that the phrase “Son of God” does not mean God’s procreated offspring but means that he is the eternal Word of God (ontological and revelational), who entered the womb of Mary (incarnational) and was born as the Messiah (mediatorial), and relates to God as Son to his Father (familial).

Preference for the Familial Component of Meaning

Although the concept signified by Son of God is rich in meaning, there are advantages to expressing the familial component in the text and explaining the other components in the paratext. This provides for consistency among translations and consistency with church tradition. More importantly, it is primarily the familial component of divine sonship that Christ imparts to believers, and he is the “firstborn among many brothers,” all under the paternal care of God as loved ones in his eternal family. This is not easily communicated if the familial component of Son of God is not expressed directly in the translated text.

Although Bible scholars agree on the prominence of the Mediatorial meaning of the term Son of God in most New Testament contexts, yet because of the advantages of expressing the familial component in the text, it is clearly best to do that and to explain the mediatorial and other components in the paratext. In particular, we believe mediatorial terms like Christ or Messiah should be used only to translate Greek Christos and should not be used to translate words like Son.

Clarifying Some Misperceptions

There have been a number of misperceptions about the translation of divine familial expressions, especially in languages spoken by Muslims, and these have been aggravated by the current level of tensions in the world. The explanation above clearly states that this is a linguistic issue, in which translators seek to communicate the social familial meanings of the Greek and Hebrew expressions while avoiding the wrong meaning that God reproduces children through procreation. This is the meaning of accuracy in translation. But it might be helpful to address the misperceptions as well:

Contrary to what some people imagine, the use in translation of non-biological expressions for Father and Son

  • is not imposed by outsiders, but is decided by believers in the language community;
  • is not limited to languages spoken by Muslims but is a challenge for any language in which the normal kinship terms are biological in meaning and imply procreation;
  • is not intended to lead audiences into any particular form of church, whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “insider”;
  • does not itself constitute an “insider” translation or even a “Muslim-idiom” translation;
  • is not contrary to normal translation principles but seeks to follow them, by using phrases to translate the meaning of Greek and Hebrew terms that lack a semantic counterpart in the target language, and by explaining the meaning of the terms in the paratext;
  • is not limited to “dynamic” translations but is used in more “literal” ones as well;
  • is not contrary to how conservative Biblical scholars interpret the Greek and Hebrew expressions but rather seeks to follow their scholarship;
  • is not intended to change or obscure the theological content of Scripture or make it more palatable to the audience, but seeks rather to convey it as accurately as possible;
  • does not hinder the audience’s perception of Jesus’ deity but rather facilitates it;
  • does not stem from liberal or unorthodox theology on the part of translators or from a liberal view of Scripture, but from interaction with the interpretive and theological tradition of historic Christianity and the results of contemporary conservative scholarship, with the goal of communicating the verbally inspired message of the Bible as fully and accurately as possible.

Various Bible agencies are seeking to explain translation principles and dispel these misperceptions. Wycliffe Bible Translators (USA), for example, includes the following point in its statement of basic translation standards:

In particular regard to the translation of the familial titles of God we affirm fidelity in Scripture translation using terms that accurately express the familial relationship by which God has chosen to describe Himself as Father in relationship to the Son in the original languages.4

It is not accurate to use expressions which mean Jesus’ sonship consists of being the offspring of God’s procreation with a woman.


In order to accurately convey divine fatherhood and sonship, translators need to use expressions that are as equivalent in meaning as possible to the Greek and Hebrew terms for social son (huios and ben) and social father (patêr and âb) and to avoid biological expressions of the form God’s Offspring or the Procreator of our Lord Jesus Christ, because these are understood to signify biological relations generated through a sexual act of procreation. In this way translators can enable new audiences to understand the biblical sense in which God is our father and Christ is his son, as well as understand the relationship of Joseph to the boy Jesus.

Ultimately it is comprehension testing that plays the crucial role in the process of translation, because there is no other way to ascertain what a particular wording in the text and paratext actually communicates to the audience or to discover which wordings communicate most clearly and accurately. That is why translators and churches “test the translation as extensively as possible in the receptor community to ensure that it communicates accurately, clearly and naturally.”Across the world, this approach to first-time translations has been found repeatedly to offer the best success at enabling new audiences to comprehend the biblical message and to respond in faith, as God enables.

  1. We gratefully acknowledge the helpful input, feedback, and support we received from many translators and other interested parties, and from Bible scholars such as Prof. Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary and Roy Ciampa of Gordon-Conwell Seminary.

  2. See "A Brief Analysis of Familial Terms in the Bible" in The International Journal of Frontier Missiology 28:3 (2011).

  3. Forum of Bible Agencies International, Basic Principles and Procedures for Bible Translation, PDF.

  4. See  See also,, and

  5. FOBAI, Basic Principles.


Thank you for a comprehensive and balanced explanation of the issue.

Thank you to the authors and to MF for publishing this timely, balanced and very understandable article concerning a crucial topic in our day. I very much appreciated the excellent background information provided and the way that misperceptions were addressed. My family and I lived for more than twenty years in Muslim neighborhoods and often tried to read scripture with Muslim friends.  It was always difficult to find a way to translate or explain to them the term Son of God. This article provides an excellent framework from which to approach this tough translation question.

John Jay Travis, Ph.D.

Thank you for a very careful, thoughtful and helpful discussion of a very important and complex issue. If only Bible translation were as simple as so many people think it is! Your concern that the intended readers not be led to construe illegitimate and unhelpful meanings (ones that most of us would never consider due to our own linguistic and theological backgrounds) is certainly valid and your recommended approaches to avoiding that problem will be helpful to all who wrestle with this problem. Certainly your attention to the crucial role of informed leaders in the language community in making these decisions is an important corrective to past practices where all such decisions were made in a paternalistic manner by people outside those communities. Thanks again for your important work on this difficult issue! helpful to see such a careful thinking through of the issues involved in translation. Understanding meaning from another cultural framework is absolutely crucial in being faithful to the word of God while translating. Good communication is always the responsibility of the sender more than the hearer. This article really provokes us in taking responsibility and care for what is being communicated in our translation work. Having worked for over 12+ years in both Hindu and Muslim contexts has sensitized me all the more toward this issue, beyond the theory.

This is a very clear explanation of a complex issue that is often misunderstood by people who only work in one culture. After 40 years of working in the Hindu/Muslim/Buddhist and Shinto worlds, one becomes more sensitive to the dilemmas of translation work and the misunderstandings that take place. I strongly affirm Rick Brown’s efforts to help the layman understand what the issues are and to help us appreciate that the only goal in mind is to help the person from the Muslim community understand the Good News in a way that we have undestood it in the English speaking world.

In 35 years of working with Muslims, this is one of the clearest articles I have read that explains to those who have not had cross-cultural experience the cross-cultural issues involved in translation of familial terms. Thank you so much for clarifying the issues of Bible translation from a conservative, evangelical, Bible-honoring perspective.

I appreciate that this article is in print and available to help people wrestle with these issues in a deep and faithful way. Translation is rightly a matter of deep concern for all involved in the mission calling of the Church. God has given us the scriptures and continues to shape and correct and instruct His people through them. Making the meaning available and accessible to all people is a crucial task for mission and this article helps to shed light on that task. Kevin

Thanks for this patient and crystal-clear explanation, Rick. And of course the principles and methods you discuss here in reference to familial language, apply to a myriad of other issues in the translation of the Scriptures. Your opening example involving the ESV could be multiplied many times over! Great choice!

If the Father-Son language is so problematic for Muslims, then I guess the churches of the Muslim world are very glad with changing those terms in the Bible?

Here in Egypt, be assured, the churches are NOT happy. They fully r

If the Father-Son language is so problematic for Muslims, then I guess the churches of the Muslim world are very glad with changing those terms in the Bible?

Here in Egypt, be assured, the churches are NOT happy. They fully reject this as tampering with the Bible.  And they kindly ask organizations like wycliffe to respect the role of the national churches: we here are responsible for presenting the Gospel,and we are quite able to explain our Bible to anyone. We do not need foreign Bible translators to tell us what sort of adapted Bibletranslations we need.

And suggesting that in Arabic terms like Father and Son always have sexual connotations is untrue.  Arabic uses the terms in many situations without any sexual overtone.

And finally, Father-Son language in the Bible is used to suggest the most intimate link between the Creator God and the Word that was generated eternally from God.  The Bible uses those terms Father and Son to underline this most intimate link.

Why do Muslims reject Filial terms regarding God? Because their Koran and their theology rejects those terms.  A flimsy reason to tamper with the Bible, I’d say.

Thank you!

Mr. Brown.  If one thing is crystal clear it is your identification of the lady’s problem at the opening of your article. Her problem, according to you, is intellectual. Only so. To me it is crystal clear that your anthropology might be sub-Biblical. Ouch. How can I say that? You sketched out the fact that a “non-Christian” read a portion of the Bible and rejected it. This conforms exactly to a Biblical anthropology. We expect that the unspiritual person will reject spiritual truth according to the Bible. However, you state that her problem is not being dead in sin, hostile to God, at enmity with God, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness—all Biblical categories I might add—-but that if the text were made more user-friendly she would accept its content. Do I hear echoes of Pelagianism? Hate to say, but the data seems to suggest it. Mr. Brown, consider this. A dead person in a cemetery objects to the writing on a tomb-stone. Response. The cemetery keepers jump to change it. A group of bystanders applauds the change as making things “crystal clear.” Is there a problem here?

It appears to me that Salaam Corniche is responding to Mr. Brown on the basis of a false understanding of the woman’s response in Brown’s example. Can we all agree that, if a portion of translated Scripture is mistranslated, i.e., delivers the wrong message, then in fact that translation cannot properly be called a part of “the Bible” at all? Can we agree that the only valid “Bible” to which one might rightly respond (by acceptance or rejection of the message) is that Bible which delivers the message as God intended it?
We can have only four message-response possibilities:
1. True translation > Acceptance (Sparking faith unto salvation or spiritual growth)
2. True translation > Rejection (Dead in sin, hostile to God, etc.)
3. False translation > Acceptance (Faith on a false foundation resulting in cultism, etc.)
4. False translation > Rejection (Intellectually honest and possibly spiritually discerning)
Corniche seems to believe that the example is illustrating situation #2, when Brown was clearly describing an example of situation #4.

You hit a nail on the head. By your definition, the interpretive constructs that are being forced on the text, i.e. “beloved son from God”/ “offspring sent from God” to replace the name Son of God, constitutes a false translation. By your definition, one who would accept this construct would be led into cultism etc. Voila. You have clearly identified the logic chain. False translation—-leads to->>some kind of acceptance->>leads to cultism. Why are some so adamant against this type of theological experimentation? You answered the question yourself. 
  I do not think you responded to the presuppositions of Mr. Brown, however. This is really the critical area, as Mr. Brown will continue to pull more authorities out of his hat to defend his position. We need to get farther down in the basement and see where this is coming from.

The task of translators is undeniably difficult, one that the authors correctly recognize. It is indeed challenging, for example, to translate “snow” for a tropical language group that has no word for it. But translating Isaiah 1:18 with something like, “your sins shall be as white as coconut milk” at least retains the theological meaning of the verse.

However, translating the identity and nature of God himself is in a completely different category. Using terms other than “Father” or “Son” for God actually loses the theological meaning of God’s own Word. God eternally exists as Father, Son, and Spirit—and these terms reveal who God is in his person. As theologian John Murray says, these distinctions are “necessary, intrinsic, and eternal.” The eternal distinctions of the Godhead are “necessary” in that there is no Trinity without them. The terms thus are not mere metaphors, like “snow.” Father, Son and Spirit are who God is. Other terms simply do not capture God’s essence, and to use non-familial terms is to make God exactly that: non-familial. And despite what the article claims, my Arabic and Turkic (and Bengali) friends say that “Son of God” does not equal “Sex with God.”

The starting point for any translation is not “what does the audience understand?” but “what did the author say?” In that, God has clearly spoken, and we have no alternative than to be faithful to what he has said: “we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:14, 15). May the world indeed—Muslims included—know that God the Father sent God the Son.

The authors are imposing two categories on the use of “Son of God” and “Father” in the Scriptures and forcing the unaware reader to adopt one of either “biological” or “social” interpretations.  The reader should ask, “where did ‘Son’ and ‘Father’ originate?”  If the answer is that these originated with Adam and Eve’s experience as they became the first family . . . then fine.  You are then free to chose between one of these two categories and accept that the terms in Scripture are metaphors that God uses to help us to understand Trinity.  If, however, you believe as I do that they originated in God Himself and our human experience of ‘Son’ and ‘Father’ are derivatives of what existed in the Godhead prior to creation then . . . you should think twice.  Are these categories ones that we are taught to use in God’s self-revelation or are we imposing them on God based on our own experience as humanity of what it means to be ‘Son’ and ‘Father’?  Who gets to decide what ‘Son’ and ‘Father’ mean in the Godhead?  Reader, beware!

From ‘Redeeming Sociology’ by Vern Poythress (available online

Many people take their starting point from human personal relations. They reason that we first know about earthly fathers and earthly sons. Then, by some kind of leap or extension, we project the earthly personal relationship of father and son into the sky, and we talk in a metaphorical way about God as “Father.” . . . But we should rather think through our own human relationships with God as our starting point. After all, he is the original. We are derivative. The original father is God the Father. Any earthly father is “father” only by analogy to the ultimate Father. . . Human fathers and human sons exist and their family relations exist only because we are made in the image of God, who is the original Father.

If I might be so bold as to distill the article and all subsequent comments down, it seems there are two areas of emphasis. Either it is receptor sensitivity or Revealer sensitivity. The first, in the name of love and sensitivity to Harry and Mary and their over-inflated egos—as people who are dead and sin and outside of Christ are—-seems to have few theological controls to its perpetual appeal to pragmatism, and its praise of humans engendering quality of “look how clever we are.”

Love does care about the other, but to what degree? It is always subordinate to the second, namely Revealer sensitivity. The preoccupation of such is that the reputation, the honor, the portrayal of who He is on His terms,is the Biblical preoccupation and should be ours. We cannot and will not play around with the name of His Majesty, “The Son,” nor His Majesty “The Father.” These are not social relations in the first place, they are the titles of The God of Glory in all of His Majestic and awe inspiring Holiness. Maybe a recall of Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 etc would push us to ask His Holiness what He wants to be called.   

My position is that you cannot remove the terms God has chosen to use
without destroying the continuity of the biblical message. What is implicit
in the OT is made explicit in the NT. The removal of the terms Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit will essentially change the entire nature of the NT message
because it changes the definition/description of God. It removes the
structure (so to speak) in which the Son operates. It removes “God with us.”
It returns us to a strict monotheistic position without understanding the
nature of the one God. In effect, it takes us to a god of a different nature
who is not the God of the Bible.


Being a former Muslim and now an Ordained minister of the Gospel and a missionary to Muslim for over 20 years, I have never heard of such a Satanic molastation of the Original language of ‘Father and Son’ in the Word of God. I was Baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Any translation that takes away from the ‘Father and Son’ BAPTISMAL LANGUAGE IS FROM THE DEVIL HIMSELF WHO TRIES TO CRAFT HIS OWN LANGUAGE.  Mr Brown is flirting with the Devil and he does not know it. You might as well remove the Holy Spirit in the trinity and put your name instead to help the dead in spirit understand the true meaning of the Inspired words ” Father and Son”
If you only know the true meaning of the first two words in the Lord’s Prayer” Our Ftaher” your whole life will change again and then you will learn to trust in the Power and leadership of the Holy Spirit and trust in the Original Words of the Trinity.

You are messing with the Devil and you don’t know it, but i will continue to pray for you son.

As I read many of the comments posted here I am am forced to wonder whether the critics of this article have actually read and carefully considered what the article actually says or whether they are simply reacting out of fear to a figment of what they think it is saying.

The authors of this article are simply advocating for translating the Scriptures into the words and phrases of other languages that most accurately communicate the original meaning of the words of the original Greek and Hebrew words. What may I ask is wrong with that. Is this not the job of the Bible translator regardless of what language the Scripture is being translated into. Translation is an essential and ongoing role for the church because every language is constantly changing. It requires the highest degree of academic professionalism and attention to detail. Wycliffe and other Bible translator organizations have demonstrated this over many generations. Instead of believing the worse of them and attacking them, the critics should study long and hard what they do and understand the complexities of translating across language barriers rather than jumping to conclusions.

So if carefully and accurately translating words from the original Greek and Hebrew is not an acceptable standard for the critics, what standard do they propose be used. The critics seem to assume that this article advocates for translating the original Greek and Hebrew words with meanings that are different from the original. This is not what the article says. Read it again.

Translation begins with reading what the author wrote, which is the Hebrew or Greek text. These are the words that God chose, Greek and Hebrew words, not English or Arabic words. Translation proceeds to what that text meant in the language and context. This is exegesis, to find the true meaning of the words, phrases, sentences, and overall message. Bible scholars write about this, and translators remain within the bounds of conservative biblical scholarship. The next task is to communicate the original meaning in the target language. This involves analysis of the target language and comprehension testing of draft wordings, to ascertain what they mean in that language and to ensure accuracy of meaning.

God has used familial terms, among others, to reveal his internal Trinitarian relations and his external relationships. The Greek and Hebrew terms that God used are generic or social kinship terms, meaning the relationships are not necessarily biological. That makes them very fitting to denote positive ongoing relationships and for eternal generation and adoption. (The Greek and Hebrew terms and the generative aspects are discussed in “A Brief Analysis of Filial and Paternal Terms in the Bible,” which will appear in the next issue (28/3) of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology.)

The most accurate translation is one that uses words and phrases with meanings as close in meaning and usage as possible to the originals. How do translators ascertain which phrases and sentences are closest in meaning? By observing their usage in speech and texts and by testing draft passages to find out what they actually mean in context. Since words and phrases can have different meanings in different contexts, it is essential to test whole passages. When testing alternative wordings for the phrase we know in English as “Our Father,” translators and their various church and mission partners discover that some expressions are closer in meaning than others, and so they use those. A translation that means “our Begetter in heaven” might not be the closest in meaning to the original, especially if it fails to convey an ongoing fatherly relationship.

These are normal principles and procedures. The Forum of Bible Agencies International provides a list of “Basic Principles and Procedures for Bible Translation” at Standards.pdf Readers might want to look at that.

There are Christians in some languages who have become accustomed to “our Begetter in heaven,” understand its intended meaning, and are strongly attached to it. That is fine for them, but there are other Christians who want something more accurate, especially for outreach. The wider audience of seekers might also be demanding a more accurate translation. So churches, missions, and Bible societies have been seeking to meet that need. This gives people the freedom and opportunity to choose which translation they prefer to use. Should they be denied that opportunity, just because some people prefer a traditional wording? There are people who prefer the King James Version, which is fine, but a few of them oppose the availability of all other translations and say they are of the devil. That is their opinion, but other people are entitled to have their own opinion and to have the freedom to choose the translation they regard as best.

Mr Brown, I appreciate the hard task of good translators.

But what gives translators of the bible the right to act against the expressed opinions of church leaders in the lands where translations are made? 

And can you for the sake of clarity explain why you continue to suggest that in many Muslim languages familial language about God as Father of the Son Jesus Christ has sexual overtones?  I know my Arabic quite well, and in Arabic it is certainly not the case.

I have heard the argument about the sexuality in the language of Father and Son so often now, but the repetition of an argument does not make it true. 

And even if the language has some sexual overtones, is that such a problem?  The task of the church is to explain the Gospel.  Please allow us to do this, you do not have to make it easy for us.

Muslims, by the way, usually misunderstand many other aspects of the Bible as well.  Why do many immoral stories? Let us translate them a bit nicer?  Why are the testimonies of the resurrection of Christ seemingly contradictory sometimes? Why not smooth this over?  Etc etc etc.

Number of people in the world with a father: 7 billion.

Number of people who refer to or think of their father as “my begetter”: 0

Value of knowing God as Father: Priceless

Let’s keep Father in the Bible, just like God said, who wants all of us to know him as Father.

Muslim theology rejects the fatherhood of God, the deity of Jesus Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit- each of which is an essential component of the Christian understanding of God.  Any Translation that changes the words “Father and Son” language in the Trinity corrupts the Saving and transforming work and power of the Christian God that I came to know litterly and spiritually in those two sweet words.  No devout Muslim can call the God of Muhamed ” Father” and Jesus ” His Son” apart from the Work of the Holy Spirit.  So leave it up to Him to do his work and get out of his way.
No faithful Christian can refuse to confess with joy and confidence, ” I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ His Son!”  As a former Muslim, apart from my Confession of the ” Father and Son in the incarnation, it was possible for me to know that God is but not who God is.  Is the Father of Jesus the God of Mohamed?

Referring to Dr. Brown’s comment above:

“There are Christians in some languages who have become accustomed to “our Begetter in heaven,” understand its intended meaning, and are strongly attached to it. That is fine for them, but there are other Christians who want something more accurate, especially for outreach.”

I believe that it is incumbent upon him to provide specific examples of existing Bible translations that use “our begetter in heaven.”

Mr Wood and Mr Brown
  Consistently your responses both defend the arduous work of translators which I can appreciate. However, I think you have brushed off your critics under the guise of professionalism, global use of new terms on the terms of receptors and an appeal to Hebrew and Greek, while attempting to make yourself smell like roses. No one is arguing about the Hebrew and Greek.  Like it or not translators come to the task as theologians who carry their presuppositions with them. This is the issue at hand. If you presuppose that novelty is most admirable, your translation will reflect it. If you presuppose that the receptor is king, your translation will reflect it. If you presuppose that you must help out the perspicuity of scripture by adding some of your great wisdom, then your translation will reflect it. If you presuppose that the church and the Holy Spirit needs a “little help from his friends”, then your translation will reflect it. If you presuppose that lack of information is the basic human problem, then your translation will reflect it. Please for the glory of God, subject your presuppositions to Biblical analysis.

Rick Brown,

I think the difficulty that most have with these new translations are that the linguistic basis for these translations has been continually asserted but never been demonstrably proven. Native Arabic speakers seem to be entirely unaware of the “sexual/biological” limits of ‘ibn’ whether they be Muslim or Christian.

When we deal with the very specific question about what Muslim’s believe that Christians teach regarding God’s relationship to Jesus then the misunderstanding you describe does present itself, but the basis for this misunderstanding is theological in nature and is the result of teaching within Islam related to this very specific topic; it does not appear to be a general misunderstanding of the term ‘ibn’ caused by the more narrow semantic range of meaning that is so often asserted. Muslim’s do not seem to have any difficulty understanding a broader semantic range when using this same vocabulary to refer to people in other cultures that have “sons” whom they have adopted, nor do they have difficulty understanding idiomatic usages that do not convey a “sexual/biological” relationship. Some older Islamic literature even refers to “Zayd ibn Mohammad” i.e. Mohammad’s adopted son and Muslims have no difficulty recognizing that Zayd is not biologically related to Mohammad. Before one can argue that a translation needs to change because of a linguistic misunderstanding of the langauge itself, one needs to first demonstrate that the linguistic misunderstanding actually exists.

The issue on Father and Son in what that woman cannot accept was not a problem at all for any preacher
of the gospel because it is NOT the gospel. Stick to your job preacher and leave others to the translators. In fact contextually speaking,Jesus corrected Mary in connecting him to Joseph as whether social nor step father as we may call it. That unbelieving lady need to read more so she can understand what the Spirit of God is saying. There are people for years been reading the bible yet never came to faith because they do not understand it. why ? ask the Holy Spirit.PREACH THE WORD!

I think if Mr. Brown wants to protect Muslims from “sexual” Biblical images, he should start with the term “Bride of Christ.” Should we obfuscate that image as well, or should we surrender to the divine wisdom that says the term “bride” (in every language) is merely the temporary allegory while the term “Bride of Christ” portrays the eternal reality?
I have been called “uncle” and “big brother” by many Turks, and I can assure you that none of them implied any sexual relations between our ancestors. I do not speak Arabic, but I cannot imagine that the use of “son” differs greatly from Hebrew. Did God not expect shock and awe among the Pharisees when Jesus referred to Him exclusively as “Father?”
An evangelist should attempt to remove stumbling blocks, but not the Stumblingblock.
If I am to believe that this is not “imposed by outsiders” as stated in the misperceptions, then I will need a link in the endnotes to statements of support by associations of Turkish churches, etc.

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”(Luke 1:35)

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father                             except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father too. ( John 14:6-7)

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already,                                because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God (John 3:16-17)

There will be no any possibility to avoid of giving of account to the Triune God – Father, Son and Holly Spirit, if anyone does change that concept in the Holly Bible! The concept is equal valid to any human being on the planet earth, including those for whom it might be seen as a stumbling block. We either accept the concept or reject it. There is no midle way! It is Him in fact, Who has decided it! We do not chose the concept but only if we do believe it or not!

Can someone answer whether these translators affirm the innerancy of the Scriptures? Is there any translation group that requires such a commitment from its translators? It is easier for those with a low view of Scripture to substitute words and phrases one hopes is cukturally sensitive.

[tired sarcasm follows]

.....I am so glad that God has Wycliffe’s dynamic equivalence theory and Rick Brown to correct His own clumsy inspired text, and I am glad that we are willing to change the standard of what constitutes a good translation from the old standard of accuracy with the original text to the new post-modern standard of acceptability by unbelievers in the name of “accessibility.”

The contemporary Wycliffe-sponsored Lives of the Prophets takes out “Son of God” and replaces it with other terms in a number of places which seem highly inappropriate:

From Lives of Prophets;

The Spirit of God will come down
upon you and this thing is the proof
that this child is the awaited Christ
who will rule forever.

Luk 4:3; If you are truly the Messiah of the Most High God, command these
stones to become bread.

Luk 4:9; Afterward, the Devil took Him to Jerusalem and stood Him on the edge
of the House of God. If you are truly the Messiah of God, throw yourself
down from up here

Luk 11:2; When you pray, say: Our loving, heavenly Lord

“Huios tou theou” - How does one get Messiah out of that?

Πάτερ, ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομα σου - How does one mistake Kurios for Pater and mistake “heavenly Father” for “Heavenly Lord?”


A common Muslim expression is “Ibn is Sabil” - or “son of the road.”  Despite this phrase occuring several times in the Qur’an itself(Surah 8:41; 9:60; 17:26; 30:38; and 59:7) and being in common usage among Muslims, I know of no Muslim who believes that someone had sex with a road and had baby roads. 

And yet Huis Tou Theou MUST be exchanged for another phrase lest people misunderstand who Jesus is?

Also, many Egyptians refer to themselves as “Ib in Nil” or a son of the Nile without any biological/sexual misunderstandings.

And yet Huis Tou Theou MUST be exchanged for another phrase other than the inspired original “Son of God” lest people misunderstand who Jesus is?

Amen to Pastor Seaton’s reminder: “The starting point for any translation is not “what does the audience understand?” but “what did the author say?”


Is this a case of “traduttore, traditore?”

I appreciate the thoroughness of the presentation yet is is flawed in in its basic conception.  I would point out that in English “son” refers only to a biological son.  We use modifiers to qualify the relationship:  “foster-son”, “step-son”, “adopted-son.”  Yet the scriptures themselves are faithfully rendered saying that Jesus is the son of God and it also refers to him as the son of Joseph.  While it requires some explanation yet faithfulness to the original languages demands it.

Following is a very well researched paper highlighting the full depth of the misconceptions presented by Andrea and Lea Gray, Rick Brown’s article:


Good day fellow truth lovers:
  As I was musing on things, it came to mind that there is an underlying assumption that if objections are removed, then people will come. Frankly this is more the language of marketing than of the Bible. Think about the verse from Acts 13:48   “...and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Now take the above Gray-Brown proposal to re-write the verse to say: “...and as many as had their objections removed believed.”
  In the first case, it is the Divine choice that precedes belief. In the second case, it is the human manipulation of the text that precedes belief.
  If you want a human-centered gospel, where humans get the glory for their work—which incidentally replaces the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit, where humans are credited for their wise choice for the gospel as objections are removed by other wise persons, and where the Almighty Father is reduced to a super-human ‘begetter’ and his Majestic Son reduced to a super-human ‘proxy’ then through the hallways of time the words J.B. Phillips will echo as your legacy: “Your God is too small!”
  I think of the writings of Arthur Pink as well:
“The “god” of this twentieth century no more resembles the Supreme Sovereign of Holy Writ than does the dim flickering of a candle the glory of the midday sun”.


Dear Brothers & Sisters,
I am sad at the way many misunderstand the issues, therefore criticize (not always kindly) others’ opinions. Many have said that based on their background and knowledge, there is no problem with saying “Son of God” in Muslim contexts. But none of the translators calling for Muslim-sensitive translations have said that this problem is found in every Muslim context, so they have not said it should be used in every context.

These translators are saying that if people MISunderstand the Gospel, they are NOT rejecting the Gospel itself. Rather, they are rejecting a perversion. We want people to listen/read long enough so that they can find out what the Gospel really is. We know the people in the Bible rejected Jesus, but we want to make sure that people are no simply rejecting our poor communication of who Jesus is.

The accuracy of our translations must be measured by people’s understanding, not by their acceptance of our theology.  Peace to all believers, and light to those who live in darkness.

Jim Lilly’s comment refers to how “son” is understood in English. But if we look at how “son” is used in Greek, the whole argument looks very different!
“Son of David”, “son of perdition”, “son of perdition”, “sons of thunder”, etc.

Can we agree that there is some degree of metaphor in some of these uses of “son”?  And if “son” has any degree of metaphor, then what are the implications for translation? Selah.

My criticisms, and many more, also apply to the link given.

Peace to all believers, light to those in darkness.

God chose to use the word huios. Huios means son. We should use huios. I for one need to find translators and organizations that will not compromise the Word of God. Can anyone point me to organizations that will not compromise the word of God like it appears Wycliffe and SIL are open to doing? I want to see the Word in every language as soon as possible. I do not support the translator’s theology in every language. Since this has come to light I have ceased supporting Wycliffe and SIL and Seed Company and reduced support for The Jesus Film Project because of it. I would like to get on with translation and if Wycliffe and SIL are unfaithful I can leave them. My loyalty is to God not Wycliffe or SIL. Who can I turn to that is staunch in their refusal to compromise the Word of God? Please help me make contact with them so I can get on with supporting translation.

Since I posted a comment on Oct. 29, I have investigated the theory of social & biological father as proposed by the authors.
I cannot find any Greek scholar who would make that distinction as the Greek word for father does not change in any context. There might be a rationale for defining a social or biological father but it is not defined by the Greek vocabulary or grammar. It would have to be defined by the context of the passage.
It is here that the authors are confused by the difference between the way some Muslim scholars have chosen to imply a biological context in passages of the Bible and the fact that the passages clearly show no biological context. Therefore, the author’s theory holds no value for Bible translation. Certainly, we do not translate the Bible based on erroneous interpretations of those who would distort the meaning of passages.

Dear Mr. Nowell:
  Thank you for your passion to see the Word of God go to all peoples. I think of my experience in West Africa where a large organization [not SIL or Wycliffe] pushed the nationals very hard to use the word ‘Isa for Jesus in translation. In the same country was a small translating group with New Tribes Mission who felt that doing so was more than being Muslim-sensitive, but rather that it was a step towards Islamizing the Bible, which is just the issue that is at hand. They preferred to use the word Yesua which was a transliteration of the Savior name in Hebrew and in Greek.
  The contextualists screamed when they did this. “You will never win a Muslim” “You will create a Christian ghetto.” “Ever since 1960 we have been pushing this new are going back to the dark ages.” New Tribes stood their ground and the Lord is giving fruit on their work.
  Hope this gives you a small picture of the issues right at the field level

Dear Mr Corniche,

The name of Jesus has been translated to different languages.And to stick in one language whether you use them for other nations or tongues is not a problem at all as long as people can understand them. The reason for contextualization is to make these people understand the gospel on the BIBLICAL terms.
“Whose ever believed in Him”, Believed in the person of Jesus or in what He is saying ? It would be so easy for un-believer to believe on Jesus identity but not on what He is saying. The message of Jesus the
Christ was for the future not for the past. The identity is not the message, the message is His WORD.
There will be so many who believed in His identity yet they are bound to hell(Matthew 7:21). My friends the issue of salvation is not on the titling but in OBEDIENCE to the WORD of God whom Jesus proclaimed.
Only Jesus is the perfect messenger but the message must be obeyed as the fruit of faith. Hence, knowing and following lies. There are millions of people KNOWS Jesus but few follows Him.
“God does not hit the target with a crooked stick”.


This is from Wycliffe and gives their “official” position on the use of familial language.

The same official Wycliffe USA policy is posted on their website at

“Wycliffe USA is grateful to all those who have expressed their questions and concerns regarding reports that we have been removing “Father” and “Son” from certain Bible translations, particularly in Muslim cultures. Wycliffe USA is absolutely committed to translating the divine familial terms (Father, Son, and Son of God) clearly and accurately. The eternal deity of Jesus Christ and the understanding of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father must be preserved in every translation.

While we have never intentionally sponsored a translation that neglects to properly communicate the divine familial terms, some observers have raised concerns about whether our methodology has consistently met our goal. We are listening to those concerns and are seeking God’s guidance as we re-evaluate our methodology and investigate to ensure that our commitment to accurate and clear translation is being reflected in every project. We are engaged in meaningful conversations with partner organizations, constituents, and church leaders to evaluate our standards, and expect to be prepared to issue a more complete statement soon. Thank you for your patience and prayer as we seek to fulfill our mission to make God’s Word accessible to all people.”

As a Muslim, I was not able to feel and know that I am a child of God, the God who loves us and gave himself for us through His only Son Jesus Christ. When I was a Muslim, I knew only that I am `slave’ of God nothing more than that.  Because of good news I have I accepted Christ and become the` children of God’. Why? Because Father gave His only son for us and we became His `children’. If you do not believe this truth then only are trying to omit `the unique relationship of the Father and Son’ from the Scripture through translation work. And I believe it is a work of devil. And devil is always trying to destroy the Church that Son has established through His blood.

Muslims wanting to be ChristiansAloso if muslims want to be Christians,leave thr Koran out of our religioon must be taught the meaing of the trinity and except it for what it is.The Holy Trinity is the whole basis of our religion.

The comment I posted earlier today was not what you printed.Pllease paost it as written.

This was posted at:

A Clarification on Translation of “Son” and “Father”
Mar. 1, 2012

Several people have contacted me, independent of one another, to point out that my name is being cited in various blogs, emails, and discussions having to do with Bible translations in Muslim contexts. These citations go back to two articles:1

In 2005, “Bible Translation and Contextualization: Theory and Practice in Bangladesh,” available at <> (accessed Feb. 23, 2012).

In 2011, “Bible Translations for Muslim Readers,” available at <> (accessed Feb. 23, 2012).

The second article is a response to Collin Hansen’s article, “The Son and the Crescent,” printed in Christianity Today,2 in which I endeavor to clarify the implications of my article in 2005.

In view of the continuation of controversies, I am having doubts as to whether my articles—which were intended to be a help—are in fact helping. So let me clarify my intentions.

In 2005, I criticized translations that remove language for sonship in translating “Son” (Greek huios) in the New Testament. Language that explicitly indicates a sonship relation between Jesus and God the Father needs to be present in translations, both for accuracy and for the spiritual health of the church. The same goes for translating the word “Father” (Greek pater). The Father-Son relation is an important aspect of Trinitarian teaching, which needs to be communicated clearly in translation. As a framework for translation, we need to recognize that human relationships between human fathers and sons are analogous to the original Trinitarian relationship. The Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son is foundational, rather than being, as some people allege, merely a culture-bound projection from human relationships.

I do not know details about particular languages or cultural situations, either in Bangladesh or in other countries where there may be translation difficulties. Nor do I know first-hand about the details in Bible translations that actually exist in the languages in question. How we may best preserve both accuracy and understandability in translation has to be determined by those with more knowledge than I concerning the languages in question. But it is worth emphasizing that, in all these endeavors, translators need to submit completely to Scripture, which is the word of God and therefore carries divine authority.

I am particularly distressed when I hear that people with first-hand knowledge of the languages and cultures disagree with one another over the value or danger of various Christian oral and written materials that are presently in circulation. These materials may include translations, paraphrases, or other representations of the biblical message. One of my concerns in my 2005 article was to encourage dialogue and consultation among those with first-hand knowledge, and to advise exercising care, so that we produce materials that adequately represent the full truth of the Bible and the Christian faith, and at the same time avoid dissension and division in the body of Christ.

Therefore, I apologize for any failings in my own writings that have hindered rather than helped, and I pray that those with better knowledge may be able to come together on these matters.


Vern S. Poythress


1In addition, Dr. Rick Brown asked for my input on articles that he and his colleagues wrote: Rick Brown, Leith Gray, and Andrea Gray, “Translating Familial Biblical Terms: An Overview of the Issue,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 28/3 (April-June, 2011), <> (accessed Feb. 23, 2012); and Rick Brown, Leith Gray, and Andrea Gray, “The Terms of Translation: A New Look at Translating Familial Biblical Terms,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 28/3 (April-June, 2011) <> (accessed Feb. 23, 2012). Quite properly, the articles courteously express thanks for my input, but my input was limited by my lack of direct knowledge concerning many of the linguistic details about particular languages that the articles discuss. Those limitations of mine are precisely what lead to this present statement.

2Christianity Today (February, 2011), <> (accessed Mar. 1, 2012).

I’ve noted in a lot of this discussion (in various spaces) that there is insistence that literal translations of huios tou theou do not convey a strong sexual meaning in particular languages and cultures. This is, of course, key to the whole conversation. Most of the reasoning, however, is prima facie fallacious. It is things like, “Native speakers tell me…” or “I’m a native speaker…” or “I know this language…”
However, there is a deeper problem with people trying to make this point (i.e., the point that there is no strong sexual meaning). They often indicate that they wouldn’t really care whether it did, if it did.. “Even if it did mean that to people…” If it really doesn’t matter what it means in receptor languages, what is the point in bringing it up and arguing against it?
So here is my challenge: If it were demonstrated that a substantial proportion of hearers/readers in some receptor audience found the phrase unavoidably conveyed a strongly sexual meaning—not that it does, but _if_ this could be demonstrated—would that make any difference to how it should be translated in your opinion?
If someone’s answer is, “No, in the end it wouldn’t matter how the receptor audience understands it, it still must be translated literally,” then it is disingenuous to keep appealing to “Native speakers tell me it doesn’t mean that,” or “I know that language, and it doesn’t mean that”. In fact your opinion on how it should be rendered has nothing to do with how people in the receptor group understand it. Right?

Dear Augustus

I think you are turning the issue upside down.  Those who argue that the words Father and Son has sexual overtones in certain languages, have to prove their point. They have thus far refused to even try.  So why come up with radically different translations if this point cannot be proven?

But imagine they can prove this.  Would that in itself be enough reason to come up with radically different translations?  Again, this is for those guys to argue.  Why should I defend my view?  They are the radicals who want to go against the historic viewpoints of the local churches and the MBBs in those lands. 

I think it is fair to conclude that as they do not prove either point, these matters are really not the heart of the reasons for those translators.  The heart of their reason is, I believe, their view of what they call ‘Insider Movements’. That idea informs their view of how to translate, and linguistic matters are, I believe, only secondary to them.

>But imagine they can prove this.  Would that in itself be enough reason to come up with radically different translations?  Again, this is for those guys to argue.  Why should I defend my view?  They are the radicals who want to go against the historic viewpoints of the local churches and the MBBs in those lands.

Ouch! There are very different ways of construing matters that don’t so vilify your precious co-workers. There is a much simpler explanation of what happened for anyone familiar with the style of translation process that grew up in Wycliffe under John Beekman. You produce an initial draft and you do comprehension testing with people who do not know what to expect. Often the initial draft works fine, and their understanding is within acceptable bounds. At other times, you discover that what a portion of the translation means is not acceptable, and so you look for ways to modify it. And this can be horrendously challenging. I haven’t been in the translation scene for twenty-two year, and yet just the other day a mature MBB who didn’t even know about the controversy told me that the sort of phrase in question has a strong sexual meaning still for him in his own language, and he is very cautious about using such an expression, because it affects others the same way.  I’m quite sure that there are enough such people that we can know that Wycliffe didn’t make up the problem just to have it be a problem. They translated, tested, and to their dismay, the problem arose. And by the way, among mission organizations they have often been exemplary in working in partnership with the people whose translation it is. They are an organization of servants, going back to Uncle Cam, their founder.

As for IM (in the sense I assume you mean it—followers of Jesus still accepting the label Muslim), no, that isn’t a popular model in Wycliffe. You are wrong about that.

I’m delighted to engage with you, Jos. I’m as much of a nobody as one can be in this whole thing, but people started phoning me asking about what Jack Van Impe was saying, and soon I was around others who were attacking Wycliffe horribly, and it is all so cruel and unfair. I don’t see the translation issue as the central issue at this point. The central need is to recognize one another as team mates, and believe what one another says about what they are trying to do and why. The dissension is inexcusable. What is being done to Wycliffe is sin. Virutally nobody is speaking out and challenging it. Maybe I shouldn’t be either. I think I’m doing it for those who are so mistaken about Wycliffe, rather than for Wycliffe. Anyway, as I say, the problem came to me, I didn’t come to it.

Thanks for sending a comprehensive explanation on the lesson I read it’s exactly the same I would say as born again and trained minister of the gospe.  May God give you more inspirations on the written word of God.

God bless

REV.Simon Peter Kemboi

Dear Augustus Earl McTavish

You are overly critical of the anecdotal evidence people have provided against the idea that “literal translations of ‘huios tou theou’ do not convey a strong sexual meaning in particular languages and cultures” but seem to ignore the fact that those who have argued for non literal translations have so far provided nothing other than anecdotal evidence to support their position. If the Wycliffe translators had offered objective studies that showed that familial terms in some languages conveyed such strong sexual connotations then I expect that there would be less opposition to these translations. One of the significant reasons that the opposition has reached the point that it has is because Wycliffe has been unwilling to even address questions about how it was determined that these “sexual connotations” exits or even which languages they have determined that this misunderstanding exists. All of the articles that make the claim that non-literal translations of familial terms are needed begin with the assumption, without offering any support for that claim, that a “sexual” misunderstanding of familial terms exists.

Additionally, your description of how a translation is evaluated and refined fails to recognize how this process is impacted when the translation consultant involved in evaluating a translation begins with a belief that an “insider” methodology is the best approach to reaching Muslims. Maybe your position comes out of ignorance of how significant a factor support for the “c5/insider movement” ideology is in this debate. I first learned of this topic from “Joshua Massey” (a well known advocate of “insider missions”) about four years ago and through lengthy discussions with Joshua I learned of Rick Brown and his Muslim Idiomatic Translations. Joshua Massey told me that Rick Brown was a colleague of his and a strong supporter of the “Insider” methodology. I have made numerous inquiries to Wycliffe (and Rick Brown) over the years seeking confirmation of what I was told by Joshua, but Wycliffe has never once responded to any of those inquires. When I speak to others who have also made inquiries to Wycliffe their experiences regarding Wycliffe’s reluctance to answer questions about MIT’s or “insider” methodologies mirror my own. However, recent articles written by Rick Brown in the IJFM at the end of 2011 appear to confirm the statements made by those I know who have spoken with Rick Brown; in these articles Rick Brown presents a strong case for the “insider” methodology complete with the Kingdom Circles diagram so popular in the common ground training materials.

Here are some questions I think those proposing these Muslim Idiomatic Translations need to answer:

1) They need to tell us what objective evidence demonstrates a “sexualized” understanding of familial terms that is significantly greater than the sexual overtones in Hebrew, Greek, or even English? Every language recognizes a sexual/biological relationship conveyed in familial language, so the advocates of these MIT’s need to demonstrate that there exists a sexualized understanding within these contexts that is so much stronger that it obscures the meaning of the text.

2) They need to explain why Native speaking Christians and Muslims so frequently reject the idea that these familial words themselves convey an overly sexualized understanding, and they need to explain why dictionaries in languages like Arabic do not provide definitions that are as semantically narrow as they tell us these terms are ALWAYS understood.

3) They need to explain why Islamic literature uses these familial terms in ways that do not convey the sexual overtones they tell us are ALWAYS communicated. For example, why is it that every Muslim understands that “Zayd ibn Mohammad” is not Mohammad’s biological son?

4) They need to stop blurring the lines between theological misunderstanding and linguistic misunderstanding and explain why the answers to questions about the word “son” and the phrase “son of God” addressed to native speakers results in answers that are so significantly different. Native speakers when asked to explain how they understand the word “son” typically provide a response that mirrors the understanding of this word in most other cultures regardless of religious context, but Muslim speakers when asked to explain the phrase “son of God” often provide an understanding of THIS PHRASE that mirrors the teaching of Islam. While an argument may be made for a non-literal translation when one can demonstrate a true need to overcome a linguistic misunderstanding of the text, the same argument is not valid when one is trying to overcome a theological misunderstanding of a particular phrase used in a different religious context. Theological misunderstandings should be addressed in teaching, not by adjusting the translation.


Benelchi writes: “While an argument may be made for a non-literal translation when one can demonstrate a true need to overcome a linguistic misunderstanding of the text,”

I’m glad you acknowledge that there could be circumstances where a search for a non-literal (plus paratext) solution would indeed be a valid course for translators. It shows you are open to the possibility that the translation personnel are behaving in good faith, not out of wrong motives, such as a desire to make the actual message of Scripture less offensive.

“the same argument is not valid when one is trying to overcome a theological misunderstanding of a particular phrase used in a different religious context. Theological misunderstandings should be addressed in teaching, not by adjusting the translation.”

I agree with this too, except I would not say “theological misunderstanding” as much as “theological disagreement”. Indeed the translation should directly confront theological disagreements with the Bible, not avoid them.

Regarding the research that needs to be done, I think this is well-recognized by many. Maybe more has been done already than I am aware of. However, the anecdotal evidence comes in two flavours: Native-speakers who are already part of the argument and hold strong opinions, and native-speakers who have no awareness of the argument (less bias). Even with unbiased research participants, the bias of the researcher may have an effect. Some who have been attempting such research report a “clever Hans” effect: Research participants are able to sense what the researcher wants to hear, and that influences their responses.

As I mentioned, I personally have encountered very direct, relatively unbiased, and reasonably strong evidence that there is indeed a translation problem as described by the translation personnel. I would not, however, introduce such “witnesses” into the debate, as I feel they and their ministries could come under severe attack from anti-“Chrislam” activists. The battle has become sadly brutal. May God heal us!

Augustus Earl McTavish,

My own experience when speaking to native Arabic speakers about this issue was:

1) When speaking about the Arabic term for son I found that native Arabic speakers understood this term nearly identically with English speakers; this was true of both Christian and Muslim speakers. For example, Muslims understood the name “Zayd ibn Mohammad” to refer to Mohammad’s adopted son and recognized that this was the same person referred to as “Zayd ibn Harithah;” (The story of Zayd’s history is an interesting story in itself). They also understood that non-Muslims today adopt sons that are often referred to by the word ‘ibn’ in connection with their adopted father. Muslims recognize that this relationship is not biological. Muslims themselves never refer to “adopted” sons by the term ‘ibn’ because Islamic law prohibits adoption. However, this is a legal and theological issue, not a linguistic issue.

2) When I asked specifically about the phrase ‘son of God’ I got very mixed results i.e. some understood this phrase to have a “sexual” overtone but others did not.

3) When I asked what Muslims believed Christians taught about Jesus being the “son of God” I then began to get answers that are consistent with Rick Brown’s claims. The problem is that his claim involves the understanding of the term ‘ibn’ itself (i.e. choice 1), and not an understanding of what Muslims believe Christians teach (i.e choice 3).

When I presented my experiences and quotes from Islamic literature that showed a non biological understanding of familial langauge to the c5 missiologist with whom I was discussing this issue, the response was “those are very good questions?” Three years later there still has been no attempt to address those questions and the missiologist continues to teach that the term ‘ibn’ ALWAYS has a sexual overtone. I also sent this same information to Wycliffe and Rick Brown but have never even received a response. From my personal experiences, I would say that those advocating for these idiomatic translations have been unwilling to even address questions related to how the term ‘ibn’ is used in Arabic langauge Islamic contexts. My own research was limited to Arabic, but I don’t imagine that the issue is much different in the many other languages where these idiomatic translations are being produced. The misinformation about the langauge and the translations appears to be nearly identical, and the reports from native speakers appears to mirror my experience with native Arabic speakers.

O.K., Benelchi. Thank you for sharing your own findings. It is the sort of thing we need to see more of. Often the first research isn’t the best, and it is hard to tell much about your research approach from your comments here. It might be better if you were to just go ahead and publish your findings, say in IJFM, laying out information regarding your participants, instruments (such as the questions you used), procedure and results, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. It would be good if you could show that you took steps to insure that researcher bias didn’t affect responses and so on.

I’m already in over my head, linguistically, not being a Arabist. What is the issue about walad vs. ibn? Doesn’t one of the most controversial translations translate huios tou theou as ibn allah (plus a parenthetical elaboration, “Amplified Bible” style). The case I was referring to in my own recent experience was not Arabic.

My interest is not in working through the translations issues, but in pointing out that the “good-guys-versus-bad-guys” approach is a distraction.

Augustus Earl McTavish

I think that a formal study should have been done before these new translations were begun. My research was just enough to check the claims that were being made by the c5 missiologist with whom I was discussing the issue; however, it is insufficient for a published study because the sample size was too small (only a couple of dozen), the geographic dispersion was too small (limited to only Northern California), and the controls were not well defined. My research is sufficient to raise doubts about the claims that have been but insufficient to proved definitive answers.

What my study did was to show how quickly the boundaries moved in discussions with the c5 missiologist when information was obtained that contradicted the views.

I was first presented with the claim that “native speakers ALWAYS” understand the term ‘ibn’ to mean a biological offspring conceived through a sexual union. When I went to an Arabic speaking Christian church to get their input on this topic. The claim changed to limit the group to “non Christian native Arabic speaking people” because Christian theology had caused native speakers to understand the term differently. When I went to Arabic markets and restaurants and asked Muslims about these terms the claim then became “non Christian, native Arabic speakers in their countries of origin” understand the term differently. Coming to America has caused them to adopt our understanding of these terms (no matter how long or short they had been here). When I provided examples from Islamic literature where the term was used for non biological relationships I got “those are good questions” but there was no willingness by the c5 missiologist to engage in answering those questions. In other words, there was simply no information that I could find that would cause the c5 missiologist to reconsider the claims that were being made.

I would agree with you that the issue is not a “good guys versus bad guys” issue, but I do thing it is an issue of heresy versus orthodoxy. One of the leading advocates of C5 has been a long time friend of mine and I believe he is very sincere in his desire to reach Muslims, but I believe he is his seriously wrong in how he is choosing to pursue this. My heart hurts for him when I think of the path he has chosen because I believe this error is so serious. I simply do not understand how he has allowed himself to make the theological compromises that he has made. While I know that he is not a “bad guy,” I do recognize that he is promoting the bad theology of the insider movement. This translation issue follows the lines of the c5/insider movement debate and, and at this point, I have not seen any compelling linguistic reason for making these changes to Scripture. The driving factor for these new translations appears only to be to support the methodology of the c5 movement.

Note: ibn and walad are roughly the equivalent of the Hebrew terms “BeN” (son) and “YeLeD” (child). There is slightly stronger argument for a “sexualized” understanding of walad because its root means “to give birth.” A well know verse from the Hebrew Scriptures provides a good example of how this root is used i.e. “כי ילד ילד לנו” (that a child is born to us); the word ילד is vocalized slightly differently in the two instances but it is clearly the same root. The first instance is “a child” and the second instance is “is/was born.” This is the same root from which the Arabic “walad” is derived.


Benelchi, here is a bit of what I remember of how translation actually works. Say you are a newish translator and have translated, among other things, “gain the whole world but lose your own soul”. A translation checker comes along, and asks that you recruit a “unconditioned native speaker” for comprehension testing. The checker asks him “What happens if someone loses their soul?” He replies, “Well, it can happen. Our old people would always call out everyone’s names as we moved camp, or else someone might come along but leave their soul behind. If you lost your soul, you would have great difficulty sleeping”. Now you, the novice translator, have egg on your face. So you you start doing lots of comprehension checking yourself before the official checker has a go at your material. Through many, many months of repeatedly seeing people understand the translation in ways you didn’t anticipate—what John Beekman called zero meanings and wrong meanings—and working through the problems to find good solutions, you mature as a translator.

This approach of drafting, comprehension checking and revising existed independently of the “Son of God” translation problem. It isn’t a “new way of translating”. It wasn’t invented for these particular Muslim situations. But it runs head on into them, and translators’ efforts to grapple with them seem to go back to at least the 1960s.

With all this in mind, suppose you translate huios tou theou “literally”, and in comprehension testing you find that many people react to it with profound discomfort. As you explore more deeply you find that the discomfort is coming from a profoundly wrong meaning that the phrase conveys for them. What has happened is that normal translation principles and practices have met a genuine translation problem. No one was hoping for this to happen. It would be great if people said, “It sounds like Jesus and His Father are eternally one, and that is false.” There are many other ways people might object that would show that the translation gets it right and contradict the hearers wrong beliefs. Great! That would be wonderful. But if the response is that, “It is shocking to think of God doing that with a woman,” then it is another matter. It is not just that the listeners don’t agree with the teaching. Rather, they are hearing a teaching that is flat-out wrong. So far, I’ve treated this as a standard translation problem. It is special, of course, in that it involves what is arguably the most important phrase in all of Scripture. However, that doesn’t mean you get to sweep the problem under the rug and ignore it.

Note that I’m not saying how the translation problem must be solved. You’ve agreed that it is not a “good guys versus bad guys” issue. The translation personnel have behaved responsibly, professionally, in good faith.

Your own approach to investigating the issue from the standpoint of comprehension by Arabs may have had some weaknesses. The way you describe your efforts, it sounds as though you set out to disprove a hypothesis that a particular word had a particular fixed meaning 100% of the time in all contexts and for all segments of the Arab society. In the end, you found lots of disconfirmation for this hypothesis involving multiple people in different segments of the society.

I’ve been in field situations in recent years, using translations done for Muslim audiences. Yeah, some people (especially expats) grumbled a bit about some things (including the handling of “Son of God” in one of the translations), but not to the extent of angry protest. In the one case, it is the only translation, and there is overwhelming rejoicing in its existence. In the other case, it is a newer “Muslim-friendly” option where there were other existing options, and reactions vary, but I would say at least 75% positive. And I’ve observed discussions of these issues for many years. So I’ve wondered why the discussion recently turned so contentious. I hear some people say, “We’ve tried to tell those translators for years, but they wouldn’t listen to us, and so now we must use other means.” Well, as you point out, this debate is (unfortunately, in my opinion) happening in the context of another debate, which itself has turned from respectful dialogue to accusations of heresy.

Perhaps what happens is that respectful differences of opinions turn into interpersonal clashes between Joe and Bill, and then into strife within organisations, and then into strife within fields, and then into widespread strife in the Church. God will have to Romans 8:28 this one!

Augustus Earl McTavish,

I agree with you about how the translation process works and understand why this approach has been chosen and why it is needed. I think the biggest disagreement we is in our understanding of how theological differences can affect the outcome of this process. If I had been the one advocating new and untested translation choices, your criticism of my methods would be valid; however, it is not I but c5 missiologists who are advocating a change to the historical traditional practices for these terms. These c5 missiologists are no more immune to bias that could affect how they have interpreted the response they have heard, that are the bias of those, like me, who oppose their translation choices. When these translation issues first came to light, a controlled study should have been done before anyone should have accepted these claims and the resulting translation choices. Asking for controlled studies before rejecting these translation choices is approaching this issue entirely backwards. 

In the example you cited, no one denies that many native speaking Muslims have strong reaction to the phrase “son of God;” the disagreement is about WHY these native speaking Muslims have a negative reaction and what is the solution to that problem. If it is simply a linguistic misunderstanding of the terms then the solutions proposed are possible solutions (but maybe not the best solution), and your approach to this topic is entirely reasonable. However, if the reaction is not the result of linguistic misunderstanding, but a theological disagreement between Islamic theology and Christian theology then these translation choices and your approach to this problem are unreasonable.

So far, the only people I have heard that present the linguistic arguments are those also proposing new theological positions that I believe are heretical, and these same people have been, so far, unwilling to even discuss the linguistic issue or provide evidence from studies that support the claims they are making. These are very significant changes to the historical translation practices, and IF there is a valid linguistic reason for making these changes then their should be hard evidence presented to support these changes, and when questions that challenge those ideas are raised, there should be a willingness to address those questions and at least make a reasonable attempt to answer those objections. Over the years this debate has been brewing, those making these claims have frankly been unwilling to even discuss the issues at all. The tell us (and other native speakers) how these terms are understood by native speakers and then simply ignore all questions about this issue.

For example:

Why are there so many examples of the term ‘ibn’ being used in a non-sexual/biological ways in Arabic speech and literature?

Why are there so many vocal objections by native speakers to the definition Brown provides?

Why can’t c5 missiologists provide examples of non c5 supports that substantiated the linguistic claims they make?

Why don’t Arabic dictionaries limit the definition of the word ‘ibn’ to same the semantic range of understanding that Rick Brown says defines this word?


When these questions are raised and then simply ignored, it does not leave much confidence that reasons for these new translation choices are based in linguistic misunderstandings. In my own involvement over the last four years, I have yet to see a single attempt made to address any of the linguistic questions raised about the claims Rick Brown has made. All of his articles begin with the assumption that this claim is valid and then build on that unqualified assumption. Other c5 missiologists often support this same claim by referencing articles written by Rick Brown. In other words, the whole entire argument for these translations is built on a premise that not one supporter has been willing to substantiate with the kind of evidence you wanted to see provided by those who have opposed these practices.

Part of your reasoning, Benlechi, depends on your idea of “linguistic arguments,” “linguistic issue,” “linguistic misunderstandings,” “linguistic questions.” One anthropologist wrote disapprovingly of the attempt of linguists to draw a circle around certain aspects of culture and call them “linguistic”. During my latter years as a translation consultant, there was a guy making a big splash in Wycliffe who talked as though texts have a “linguistic meaning” which is what you were supposed to translate, and nothing else. People who take such a view might see “meaning” in either “externalist” ways (the meaning of “dog” being the set of dogs in the world) or in “internalist” ways (the meaning of “dog” being a set of semantic features drawn from a universal set that all languages share).

I don’t think the attempts to separate “linguistic meaning” from culture in general are at all viable. Another way of looking at it is that, language has “form and meaning”. The “form” part is phonetic or graphemic and perhaps “structural” in some sense. The “meaning” part is basically another way to say “culture”! Some discourse analysts argue, correctly, I think, that the meanings of a word aren’t something that can be enumerated neatly in a dictionary, but rather they are created “online” drawing on much wider areas of life that those words tie into. Meanings are said to be “situated”. So “dog” is understood differently in “Do you think that is dog or wolf?” where “dog” refers to the animal tracks, or “Do you think that is dog or bear” where “dog” refers to the droppings. The dynamic, contextual nature of word meaning is thus encountered well before you get to metaphorical and idiomatic uses of words (“that dirty, mangy dog that named me ‘Sue’),” and phraseological issues, (“a dog’s life; dog daze; sick as a dog; treat someone like a dog,” or in our discussion “huios” in “huios tou theou”) and true homonyms (perhaps “dogs” in “sun dogs” is a homonym now). Word meaning is alive and dynamic, and all about context. Think of a mom hearing her teen-age daughter say, “I slept with my boyfriend yesterday afternoon” versus “I slept with Joanie last time I stayed over at Aunt Mary’s” (Joanie being her preschool cousin). You wouldn’t want to say that if “slept” ever has the first meaning, it must never have the second.

In popular preaching, we often act as though meaning is etymology. “Sincere” “means” “without wax” according to the preacher. However, etymology and other aspects of a word’s history is one thing that meaning is not. In fact, Islamic teaching probably is a major historical factor in why members of so many Muslim people groups find that literal translations of “Son of God” evokes shocking imagery of God having physically begetting. But that aspect of the meaning of the phrase is now a reality, regardless of its historical origin.

Again, I’m not saying what the solution is for any given people group, but only that the problem is a genuine one, and the translators are behaving with professionalism (and theological orthodoxy). I don’t know many of those people personally, but I think you will find there is not a one-to-one relationship between promoting C5 and believing it is O.K. to use a nonliteral rendering plus the “paratext” to convey the meaning of huios tou theou. These are independent issues.

Benelchi writes of “...the kind of evidence you wanted to see provided by those who have opposed these practices.”

I think lots of people would like better data, whoever does the research. I mentioned the “clever Hans” effect (participants picking up cues regarding what the researcher hopes to hear, and complying) as a problem for everybody, not just for those who have “opposed these practices”. If both sides agree on the variety of responses that would be appropriate to the variety of findings that are possible, then they ought to do the research together! Normally, however, large-scale carefully designed and executed studies are not done on translation issues. If routine comprehension testing turns up a problem, and an exegetically viable solution is found, that is considered adequate.

Auggie McTavish said:

“I don’t think the attempts to separate “linguistic meaning” from culture in general are at all viable. Another way of looking at it is that, language has “form and meaning”. The “form” part is phonetic or graphemic and perhaps “structural” in some sense. The “meaning” part is basically another way to say “culture”! Some discourse analysts argue, correctly, I think, that the meanings of a word aren’t something that can be enumerated neatly in a dictionary, but rather they are created “online” drawing on much wider areas of life that those words tie into. Meanings are said to be “situated”.”

This is where I think we most strongly disagree. While it is fair to recognize that culture strongly influences how language is understood, there remains a valid distinction between culture and language. What you have presented is an argument on the philosophy of language very similar to that advocated by Jacques Derrida and the conclusions the he reaches are that ideas cannot be communicated between cultures at all i.e. that an author is unable to communicate any ideology that transcends his culture, and readers are unable to understand any ideology that exists outside their culture. Derrida even challenges the idea that authorial intent can even exists. These are postmodern ideas as applied to the philosophy of language and these ideas form the foundation for the c5/insider movement ideology. This is not to say that postmoderns have not raised some good questions that deserve thoughtful consideration; the problem is not with the questions that have been raised but in how they have been answered in postmodern circles i.e. there is a sense of an all or nothing epistemology within postmodern circles that leads to erroneous conclusions.

Auggie McTavish said:

“Think of a mom hearing her teen-age daughter say, “I slept with my boyfriend yesterday afternoon” versus “I slept with Joanie last time I stayed over at Aunt Mary’s” (Joanie being her preschool cousin). You wouldn’t want to say that if “slept” ever has the first meaning, it must never have the second.”

Your example here is a very poor one i.e this is an example an idiomatic usage of a term and idioms are very well understood within the field of linguistics. Brown is not arguing that there are instances where the term ‘ibn’ is understood idiomatically, he is arguing that the term ‘ibn’ always has a far more narrow semantic range of understanding than is indicated in Arabic dictionaries and he never addresses examples in Arabic where common usage appears to demonstrate a broader semantic range of understanding than he is willing to acknowledge exits. The only issue of idiom in this discussion is that Brown has sought to invent new idioms for ideas that he says cannot be directly communicated in Arabic.

Auggie McTavish said:

“Again, I’m not saying what the solution is for any given people group, but only that the problem is a genuine one, and the translators are behaving with professionalism (and theological orthodoxy). I don’t know many of those people personally, but I think you will find there is not a one-to-one relationship between promoting C5 and believing it is O.K. to use a nonliteral rendering plus the “paratext” to convey the meaning of huios tou theou. These are independent issues.”

This has not been my experience. What I have found is that those supporting these translation choices that also have a background in the native languages in which these translations are being produced have unanimously been advocates of c5 contextualization. I have known a few men who have a background in translation, but not in the native languages involved in these translation, that have been very cautiously accepting of these translation choices because they have simply accepted the (unverified) claims made by Brown about how Arabic speakers understand these terms; a number of these men have later distanced themselves from any support after making inquires (that have gone unanswered) to Brown about questions that have arisen that appear to strongly contradict the claims Brown has made. My own feelings when first hearing about these translation choices four years ago were very similar to some of yours; however, when I began making inquires about the basis for the assertions made, all of the information I received was anecdotal in nature. When I raised questions about usage that appeared to contradict the claims being made, the response was simply to ignore those questions. As I indicated in an earlier post, the legitimacy of these translation choices is contingent on the accuracy of Brown’s assertions and so far Brown has not once attempted to provide support for these foundational assertions, he simply makes these assertions and then builds his entire argument on top of them.

One additional issue that I believe has played a large part in allowing this issue to grow to the place that it has today is that within postmodern circles theological terms are often given new meanings that differ significantly from how these terms have been traditionally understood. Using these new definitions, postmodern can make statements that communicate ideas to those asking questions that are far different those accepted by the postmodern speaker and the postmodern speaker will rarely make any qualifications that allow their audience to understand the new definitions they are using; in my opinion this aspect is deceitful i.e. they have not “lied” but they have knowingly withheld information that they knew would leave their audience with an impression that was very different from what they were actually communicating. Some examples of these redefinitions: “Absolute truth” exits but no one can understand any aspect of it with any certainty at all; “heresy” is no longer defined as a serious error in doctrine, but simply ANY error in doctrine; “essential beliefs” are beliefs that are essential within my social/religious context and they can differ in other social/religious contexts; “omniscience” is no longer all knowing, but only knowing all that is knowable and the postmodern has decided that a great deal is unknowable (for example the future), etc…. These redefinitions are why a postmodern can make statements like “I believe that God’s absolute truth exists and is communicated to us through Scripture; I affirm that believing that Jesus is truly God is essential for salvation; I recognize that believing that the Qua’ran is the inspired word of God is a heretical belief” while holding beliefs that are very contradictory to views most understand when they hear these statements. Most who make inquires walk away believing they have heard commitments to orthodox doctrine that were never actually made. I know this was my own experience and it took some time to figure out how to ask questions that would elicit the answers reflective of what was actually being said. Those I have discussed this issue will not blatantly lie about their beliefs, but they are very skilled at evading answers that reveal their beliefs to those they know will not be accepting of those beliefs.

Thank you, Benelchi. Well, every time I’m involved in such an interchange, I believe I get a little more insight into what is going on in the world of missions to Muslims, though I end up with more puzzles than clarity.

I think you, Benelchi, represent a small but slowly growing number that I have the greatest difficulty understanding. I personally am convinced that most—nearly all—of those whom you suspect of being “postmodernist” and redefining terms are in fact in complete theological agreement with you on the issues represented, say, in the Lausanne Covenant. But here we go again on another season of great divisiveness. Lord spare us!

About 48 years ago I started a prayer meeting at the flagpole of my high school. We had about seven regulars, and other occasionals. One of the regulars suddenly started a separate prayer meeting, and took three other regulars with him. I asked why, and he replied, “You won’t renounce Billy Graham.” I’m thinking of another story too, involving Presbyterians in South Asia in those days and a guy named Carl McIntire. I think of other divisive issues that became less important to people over time. In some cases, though, it took centuries, I realise.

In the two Muslim homelands where I have the most experience there has been much joyful unity up until now among workers. I understand that in another populous Muslim homeland in particular, this has been far from the case for some time. I also sense that some of those most involved in stirring up dissension are not field-based. I sense many streams feeding into the current situation, but it is complex, and I don’t claim to see anything like an entire picture. Not even close. Bible translation practices have been a useful rallying point, but you and others, Benelchi, see it as a sub-part of what you take to be the real issue.

In all of this, I know God is saying, “Trust me.”

Auggie McTavish,

I don’t think you understand at all. You do realize that the gospel writers themselves were divisive when they were confronting serious doctrinal errors, right? Do you believe that we can really teach that it is ok to believe that Jesus Christ is a prophet of God (but not God), Mohammad was a prophet of God, and the Qa’ran is the inspired word of God, or do you believe these are serious doctrinal errors? An “insider” missiologist might tell you that these are “heretical” beliefs, but if you ask more questions you will find that these same missiologists believe that these are “heresies” that are no worse than the “heresies” held by the western church and these are “heresies” which he believes WOULD BE WRONG TO CONFRONT when ministering to the “believers” who hold these views. THIS IS THE VIEW THAT WAS EXPRESSED DIRECTLY TO ME by a leading “insider” missiologist i.e. the missiologist from whom I first learned about the existence of these Muslim Idiomatic translations and why they are being produced. I spent many hours in conversation with him (and others) before coming to the conclusions I presented here.

The redefinitions of theological terms I provided in my previous post were those given to me several years ago by a c5 missiologist with whom I was sharing an office. He is one of the leading advocates of the “insider movement” methodology and has been published multiple times in many missiological journals.  This was a person I had known for many years and at the point I began these discussions with him, I had no knowledge of c5 contextualization or his involvement with this issue. However, I had read extensively on postmodern influences within evangelicalism and had read many of the books by McLaren, Bell, etc… so one of the first alarm bells went off when I found out that Brian McLaren was helping establish his new ministry; we had many discussions about McClaren and I expressed my concerns about the positions McClaren held (McClaren clearly holds a postmodern position), and listened to my missionary friend advocate for McClaren’s position. It was through these discussions that I first learned about Rick Brown and his Muslim idiomatic translations. I was told that Rick Brown had been a former colleague and was in full agreement with the postmodern positions that my missionary friend now held. At that time I made several inquiries to Wycliffe/SIL (and Brown) asking whether my friend’s characterizations of Brown’s position were accurate but neither Wycliffe nor Brown has ever responded to any inquiry. Although it would be nice to see a formal response from Wycliffe/SIL on this issue, more recent publications by Brown about theology (not translation) have begun to bring clarity about what Brown believes and these articles strongly appear to show that the characterization of Brown’s views that my friend had given several years ago were accurate. 


Time tells a lot.

Someone accused “the other side” of the divide represented at the Houghton meeting of “extreme differences in theolgoy and doctrine” and “fundamental differences in biblical understanding, theology, and key doctrine,” on Warren Larson’s blog. Larson replied saying, “The bottom line is that the accusation is not true; rather it is a misrepresentation by someone who chose not to attend the consultation. What we’re saying with one voice is that there was agreement on the essentials of ‘theology and doctrine.’” I don’t doubt, Benelchi, that you know a McClaren enthusiast who is also a “C5 missiologist”. That’s too bad. Worse things happen. T.D. Jakes just finally abandoned serious heresy (denying the Trinity) within the past month or so. John McCarther, I understand, went through a clearly heretical phase lasting several years (“Incarnational Sonship”). A lot of people don’t seem to know the difference between error, false teaching and heresy, do they?

In any case, how heated a particular debate becomes seems to have a lot to do with personal and interpersonal factors. We generally do badly when we persecute one another. We are not the gospel writers themselves. I want to err on the side of being devoted to one another in brotherly love.

You said some interesting things that were on topic (regarding translation) and then deleted them.

Auggie McTavish said:

“You said some interesting things that were on topic (regarding translation) and then deleted them.”

I didn’t delete them, I assume the admins did. Why? I have no idea, I never even saw them post and I have no feedback from the admins.

I recognize that other teachers have also held heretical positions, and while I do agree that we need to err on the side of being devoted to one another in brotherly love, I think it is a mistake to assume that it is being loving to not address the error being taught, whether that error is taught by T.D. Jakes, McCarther, or c5 advocates.

In my experience, c5 missiologists are often seen as espousing orthodox theology because they see orthodox theology as “essential” within their own social/religious context. However, they do not believe these same beliefs are “essential” within other social/religious contexts. The c5 missiologists I have met see no conflict when they say that they believe that affirming a belief in the divinity of Christ is essential for them, and then say that they believe that same affirmation is unimportant for Muslim followers of Jesus. At issue is their rejection of a true meta-narrative, and the acceptance of the idea that different truths exist in different narratives.

It may be that the different perspective about the theological views of the c5 missiologists is a result of different people asking different questions. I know that when I began asking questions about what my friend believed I received very different answers than I did when I began asking about what he thought were essential beliefs for Muslim followers of Jesus. When the questions I was asking were focused on his own narrative the answers sounded very orthodox, but when the questions were focused on the narrative of the Muslim followers of Jesus, the answers were very unorthodox. The c5 missiologists I have spoken with see no conflict in these very contradictory answers; they answer in a way that sounds like they are making a universal (meta-narrative) statement when they are really only making statements that applies to “their own narrative.” They honestly do not believe it is dishonest or misleading to answer in this way; I would disagree with them on that point as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken to people who had not believed my assessment of what our friend was teaching but were later shocked when we all sat down together and they listened to the answer he gave to the questions I asked. They did not understand how similar questions could elicit such divergent answers until they heard it for themselves.

Well, Benelchi, and here’s another thing. There are also theological liberals. They say that Islam and Christianity are two equally valid paths to God, and that we should leave Muslims alone. They say, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life for me as a Christian, but not for everyone.” One of them, when asked whether Jesus is the only way, replied that to say that is to “put God in a pretty small box”. I wrote to her and said that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” and I added sarcastically, “Pretty small box, eh?” I don’t imagine she ever saw my message, though.

Repost of my earlier comments:

Auggie McTavish said:

“I don’t think the attempts to separate “linguistic meaning” from culture in general are at all viable. Another way of looking at it is that, language has “form and meaning”. The “form” part is phonetic or graphemic and perhaps “structural” in some sense. The “meaning” part is basically another way to say “culture”! Some discourse analysts argue, correctly, I think, that the meanings of a word aren’t something that can be enumerated neatly in a dictionary, but rather they are created “online” drawing on much wider areas of life that those words tie into. Meanings are said to be “situated”.”

This is where I think we most strongly disagree. While it is fair to recognize that culture strongly influences how language is understood, there remains a valid distinction between culture and language. What you have presented is an argument on the philosophy of language very similar to that advocated by Jacques Derrida and the conclusions the he reaches are that ideas cannot be communicated between cultures at all i.e. that an author is unable to communicate any ideology that transcends his culture, and readers are unable to understand any ideology that exists outside their culture. Derrida even challenges the idea that authorial intent can even exists. These are postmodern ideas as applied to the philosophy of language and these ideas form the foundation for the c5/insider movement ideology. This is not to say that postmoderns have not raised some good questions that deserve thoughtful consideration; the problem is not with the questions that have been raised but in how they have been answered in postmodern circles i.e. there is a sense of an all or nothing epistemology within postmodern circles that leads to erroneous conclusions.

Auggie McTavish said:

“Think of a mom hearing her teen-age daughter say, “I slept with my boyfriend yesterday afternoon” versus “I slept with Joanie last time I stayed over at Aunt Mary’s” (Joanie being her preschool cousin). You wouldn’t want to say that if “slept” ever has the first meaning, it must never have the second.”

Your example here is a very poor one i.e this is an example an idiomatic usage of a term and idioms are very well understood within the field of linguistics. Brown is not arguing that there are instances where the term ‘ibn’ is understood idiomatically, he is arguing that the term ‘ibn’ always has a far more narrow semantic range of understanding than is indicated in Arabic dictionaries and he never addresses examples in Arabic where common usage appears to demonstrate a broader semantic range of understanding than he is willing to acknowledge exits. The only issue of idiom in this discussion is that Brown has sought to invent new idioms for ideas that he says cannot be directly communicated in Arabic.

“Again, I’m not saying what the solution is for any given people group, but only that the problem is a genuine one, and the translators are behaving with professionalism (and theological orthodoxy). I don’t know many of those people personally, but I think you will find there is not a one-to-one relationship between promoting C5 and believing it is O.K. to use a nonliteral rendering plus the “paratext” to convey the meaning of huios tou theou. These are independent issues.”

This has not been my experience. What I have found is that those supporting these translation choices that also have a background in the native languages in which these translations are being produced have unanimously been advocates of c5 contextualization. I have known a few men who have a background in translation, but not in the native languages involved in these translation, that have been very cautiously accepting of these translation choices because they have simply accepted the (unverified) claims made by Brown about how Arabic speakers understand these terms; a number of these men have later distanced themselves from any support after making inquires (that have gone unanswered) to Brown about questions that have arisen that appear to strongly contradict the claims Brown has made. My own feelings when first hearing about these translation choices four years ago were very similar to some of yours; however, when I began making inquires about the basis for the assertions made, all of the information I received was anecdotal in nature. When I raised questions about usage that appeared to contradict the claims being made, the response was simply to ignore those questions. As I indicated in an earlier post, the legitimacy of these translation choices is contingent on the accuracy of Brown’s assertions and so far Brown has not attempted to provide support for these foundational assertions, he simply makes these assertions and then builds his entire argument on top of them.

No, not Derrida, Benelchi. There are influences. As an “undergraduate” I had four years of little other than Bible. I won’t bore readers with the later influences, but they always had that Rock to build upon.

I don’t doubt that Rick Brown’s approach to semantics is different from mine. The bottom line, though, would have been that I wouldn’t have approved his translation if people in the intended audience tended to severely misunderstand key bits. I’m not saying there is nothing to his explanation of why they misunderstand in the case at hand, but just that I’d have been more concerned about the word in specific discourse contexts, not out-of-context word meaning, which in fact, never occurs.

As for my current understanding of the nature of translation, I no longer see it as a process of text-to-text, but rather of people-to-people. The family tree of the Body of Christ has many big branchings at which living bilingual people played/play an essential role. There is an unbroken, living, ongoing discourse. The (plenary-verbally inspired, inerrant) written discourse of Scripture is crucial, as it feeds and directs that living discourse of walking, breathing people, being in fact one of its main centre pieces, and the written discourse strongly constrains the living discourse from going too far astray for too long (especially with people like you and me participating in the living discourse!), but the living discourse of people is every bit as crucial as the written one, because without both, we’d be quite a ways up a creek for various reasons.  (But see Jude 3)

p.s., when I speak of “living” I am thinking of regenerate life in community! I didn’t make that clear enough. It is the Spirit who give life, continuously, and that in the community of the living.

Auggie McTavish, I think that there is a whole lot we agree on, and I especially like your explanation of the “living discourse.” However, I still think it is important to make a distinction between a people and the message given to us in their langauge. While you may define translating “people-to-people” differently, that phrase elicits in my mind Charles Kraft’s “transculteralization” ideas and I think that he clearly went too far with his contextualization of the text. While I think most would agree that it is absolutely necessary to understand the culture and langauge of both the receptor and the transmitting languages well in order to effectively communicate a message from one culture into another, one must also be willing to recognize when an idea in one langauge cannot itself be translated into another culture and should be explained instead. For example, we should not impose on other social groups the identity of the Pharisee or Samaritans, we should not try to equate the Temple with a church (or mosque), etc… In some cases, it is important to transliterate (so to speak) an idea and then allow teaching and discourse to give those ideas meaning.

This are complex issues, Benelchi. Someone said, “A translation can never be completed, only abandoned”. As I searched for that quote, I couldn’t find it (though one retired MIT professor told me he used to know who said it!) What I found was “Art can never be completed, only abandoned.” I like that because it is often said that translation is more art than science.

For adults, translating is a _skill_ that is acquired with much difficulty. Yet five-year-olds sometimes do it without obvious effort. A five-year-old may translate quite nonchalantly what a salesman at the door is trying to say to his monolingual immigrant grandma. That phenomenon raises interesting questions about how a single bilingual brain (let’s say an Inuktitut-Cree bilingual brain)  differs from two monolingual brains (one a monolingual Inuktitut brain and the other a monolingual Cree brain), as the two social worlds that have embraced the child interact so that vocal noise in one is able to cause vocal noise in another such that other bilingual eavesdroppers would assent to it. But in any case, the _words_ don’t seem to get in the way for the five-year-old translator as they do for an adult learning the skill of translating. In order to “learn to translate” an adult is trying to get back to doing what the five-year-old does, not allowing the words to keep getting in the way and messing everything up.

I observed a situation where a country that had been “closed” opened up to missions big time. Massive translation of Christian books was suddenly being churned out, and Christian T.V. broadcasts and movies were being dubbed, and sermons were interpreted sequentially on the spot, right left and centre. Well, little if any of that early Christian translating was done by skilled translators, and it was a mess. Some professional translators got fed up with the mess and produced a dictionary for Christian translators (_not_ for Bible translators). That dictionary was organised alphabetically by English (source language) words. Next to many of those words there is a little “bomb” icon (the kind that is a ball with a wick), indicating that untrained translators are constantly messing up by attempting to translate those particular words by particular target-language words. The solution typically requires looking at each entire sentence in which such a “bomb” word occurs, understanding the sentence as a whole, and then forgetting what exact words occurred in it and saying (as best one can) what it said—like the five-year-old.

That’s what professional translation is like—the words don’t get in the way and tangle everything up. Someone very close to me is a professional translator, recently certified, but with years of experience. Someone once quipped, “Words are the translator’s stock-in-trade, but it is not words that the translator translates.” I think that sums it up well. I recall leading a woman to Christ using a translated tract. It worked. She wept as she thanked Jesus for dying for her sins. She showed the signs of new life. I then proposed we used discipleship materials from the same organisation—part of the mass of rapidly translated Christian literature that I mentioned. Well, she protested, “Can’t we just read the Bible together and you explain it to me. That book is not our language.” Well, the _words_ in that book were in fact _all_ in her language, but unfortunately, they had got in the way of the translation process.

Anyway, there is what we can call “normal professional translating”. The certified translator I mentioned translates environmental impact studies, but also translated the tax code of the country. He has to come up with English that sounds pretty normal, and also expresses what it needs to express in ways that other bilinguals would assent to (and perhaps occasionally exclaim, “Cool!”). So, as complex as the process is, people learn to do it, with training and experience, and they get back a lot of the five-year-old’s ability, but also add a lot of adult tricks to their bags as well.

People like you and I however, have a lot of trouble accepting such “normal professional translation” practices when it comes to Bible translation. Well we cherish the details so much. But on the whole, Bible translation is probably better off if we just followed normal translation practices (recognising the greater cultural and historical distance involved). Those practices don’t include “imposing on other social drops the identity of the Pharisee or Samritan.” There should be some place for borrowing source words (like Pharisee) but not just all over the place—the fact that you borrow a word and teach a concept means it’s right near the top of the heap in importance.

And apologies to John MacArthur for misspelling his name. I guess I was influenced by the idea circulating of “Bible translation McCarthyism”.

Auggie McTavish said:

“Bible translation is probably better off if we just followed normal translation practices (recognising the greater cultural and historical distance involved).”

I agree with everything you said except for this one point. One of the advantages the modern professional translator has over the bible translator is that the modern translator has his feet firmly planted into both of the cultures for which they are producing translations and when he mistranslate a text there is usually someone around to catch the mistake. The bible translator can never truly plant a foot in the culture which produced the bible because that culture no longer exists. Often a translator can make very good educated guesses about the text but too often there remains a sense of ambiguity that cannot be completely resolved by the translator. For example, the Hebrew word חשמל, found only in the book of Ezekiel is poorly understood and “glowing metal” is simply a best guess at a meaning. We don’t well understand the word תרפים i.e. is it an “idol” or is it an “appearance of a god” that can apply to both idols or the one true God of Israel? The LXX translation of Ho. 3:4 seems to suggest the latter, most English translations have chosen the former. There are many, many examples of texts in Scripture that are not fully understood by the translators who are doing the translation work. The vast majority are inconsequential but the interpretation of some passages have significant theological implications and good scholars are divided about how these passages should be translated. One of the difficulties of completely embracing modern translation methodologies for bible translation is that the translator MUST decide on one interpretation for the passage he is trying to translate and sometimes there are significant disagreements between scholars about the “correct” interpretation of the biblical text. This is one of the reasons that the cultural distance from the text has long been recognized as one a possible source of sectarian bias in translation. Modern translation committees have often used more formal equivalent approaches to translating difficult passages in order to, if possible, leave the same ambiguity in the translated text as there is in the original text. Clearly, no translation has succeeded perfectly in avoiding sectarian biases but they have made a reasonable attempt. This is one of the issues that is unique to translating ancient texts that the translator of a modern text does not face, and this is one of the biggest failings of the Muslim Idiomatic Translations i.e. they haven’t tried to avoid sectarian bias, they have embraced it.

A little fun trivia: The modern Hebrew meaning of “electricity” was given to the word חשמל after the Hebrew langauge was made the langauge of Modern Israel when the Hebrew langauge board needed to find a new word for “electricity” and someone remembered that this NEVER used word was thought to mean “glowing metal” and since electricity causes the metal of an incandescent light to “glow” this ancient word was given a brand new meaning.

Yes, Benelchi, you do show a professional grasp of Bible translation! That helps to know whom I’m talking to! There are points we could discuss further and clarify more, but for the most part I accept your points. That is, until you get to the “Failings” of “Muslim Idiom Translations”. In fact, I don’t think many or any of the translation personnel involved in Muslim-majority people groups would take great issue with your points, though some might, like I, elaborate on some matters. Those translation personnel aren’t bogeymen! A certain segment of the worker world has lately fallen into error in the way they misrepresent their coworkers with whom they disagree, as syncritisers, for example. They are in fact scholarly, godly people seeking to do the right thing, as much as you.

Recently I met someone who is involved in producing translations in a language that is often said to be common to Hindus and Muslims. They are producing parallel versions in both speech varieties at the same time. (There isn’t a longstanding Christian community in either group.) I am guessing you would be comfortable with this. The language of the two groups is the same in many ways, but so much of speech (example: greetings) has spiritual overtones, and there is also speech about clearly religious acts (example: pray), and so on. Presumably you would not insist that Muslims start learning the Bible using the vocabulary of the Hindus or vice versa. These two communities meet and interact in everyday life, but really the lives of the two communities are segregated worlds, and they are decidedly odd to one another. Well you get the point. The case isn’t to different when there is a historic “Christian” way of talking. Should Central Asians have to sound like Russians to follow Jesus?

So let’s acknowledge the common problems all workers face who struggle to express ancient, hard-to-precisely-determine, meanings into the life of Muslim groups, or whoever.

Auggie McTavish,

One of the biggest struggles I have with this whole issue is because I believe that most (if not all) of the men and women involved with the MIT’s are sincere men and women who desire to do the right thing out of their love for the Muslim people. That being said, I do think that some truly have crossed the line into syncritism. Some of the concerns I have is that in some MIT’s terms like kurios are not consistently translated when referring to the Father and when Referring to the Son and similar inconsistencies exist for the name Allah. Titles being used to replace the phrase “son of God” can (and have been) used to refer to Mohammad, etc… And then there are omissions in passages that talk about the “cross,” “baptism,” etc…

Recently I saw a suggested translation of the phrase “ידו בכל ויד כל בו” Ge. 16:12 as (translated into English) “Ishmael is with everyone, and everyone is with Ishmael”. The argument for this translation is that the preposition ב is sometimes translated as “with.” There are two significant problems with this suggestion i.e. in Biblical Hebrew (and grammatically proper modern Hebrew)there are two different ways in which to convey the idea of “with.” If I want to convey the relational idea of “with” as in the translation offered above, the preposition “עם” would be used. If I want to convey the idea of “with” as “by means of” I would use the preposition ב. For example I can say “I wrote with a pencil” the following two ways:

כתבתי בעיפרון
כתבתי עם עיפרון

The first example conveys exactly what we all expect, but the latter one really conveys the idea that “I wrote (something) and Iparon who was with me also wrote (something).” In most languages (including English) we communicate both ideas of “with” using a single word, but Biblical Hebrew uses two different words to convey these ideas. So the MIT translation offered above not only demonstrates a concession to Islamic doctrine, but it also demonstrates a very poor translation i.e. it is trying to communicate an aspect of “with” that should have been conveyed by the preposition “עם”

When a translators provides unusual translations around a number of different ideas i.e. “son of God”, “Father”, “Lord”, “Baptism”, “Ishmael”, etc… that all just happen to show syncritism with Islamic doctrine I find it difficult to believe that these are all instances where langauge itself was the primary factor affecting their translation choices.

Well, Benelchi, I don’t actually know many of the translation personnel, but 1) based on those I do know and 2) based on what I know about their organisations (e.g., people espousing acceptance of heterodox Christologies would have to resign), and 3) based on what I know about the challenges of communicating the Good News to Muslims in many places, I just can’t jump to conclusions that they are intent on promoting syncretism. Of course, syncretism can happen, no matter how good or poor the translation.

Many of the areas you allude to may have a common thread related to Islam that you could take to be a sign of embracing un-Biblical Islamic beliefs as part of a syncretised, non-Christian belief system, or you could take them as efforts to overcome widespread and longstanding misunderstandings of the Bible of Christian beliefs in many Muslim people groups. You can also, of course, legitimately take issue in any particular rendering on exegetical grounds or translation grounds, which is a positive contribution on your part. Your example of ב vs. עם suggests the individual is perhaps not too sophisticated linguistically (if your facts are correct). Cross-linguistic expression of thematic roles, and functions of adpositions, is pretty much Linguistics 101, certainly Syntax 101. Perhaps this person was trying to improve the reputation of Ishmael and his descendants, feeling we tend, especially in view of contemporary Middle East politics, to read things related to Arabs in the most unsympathetic light possible. Nice motive guy, and “nice try,” but the exegesis has to work to count.

I’d like to hear other opinions, though, not knowing Hebrew myself. In any case, the idea of someone’s “hand” being “against” someone else is not English. That isn’t a valid translation into English in any case.

Auggie McTavish,

I think that one of the big issues surrounding these translations is that those involved with these translations simply do not engage in the kind of dialog we have been having here. When issues are raised, they are simply dismissed by those advocating these views, even when they themselves do not have the background necessary to evaluate the claims that have been made. Often in discussions with c5 advocates it appears that we have come to an agreement when no agreement had actually been reached i.e. I used to think that when I heard someone tell me that “I have asked a good question” that it meant that the question was worthy of further evaluation before reaching a conclusion on the topic, but I now recognize that within postmodern circles that this statement means nothing more than “I have asked a good question” period. That is because there is a belief within postmodern circles that all questions are “good” but answers cannot ever be truly known. A postmodern belief in the egalitarianism of ideas combined with the acceptance of a postmodern view of epistemology makes discussions like the one we are now having nearly impossible with many c5 advocates. For example, a few years ago c5 missiologist informed me that I could not understand the Gospels because I did not understand the Hebraic nature of the gospels; he gave me a small book by an obscure author (whose name I no longer remember) that presented the idea that the entire NT was first written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek, and that the primary language of the 1st century Palestinian Jews was Hebrew (not Aramaic or Greek). Based on this discovery, the author then preceded to give new meanings to dozens of NT passages because he had recognized “Hebrew idioms” that all scholars before him had missed; most were “idioms” which I have never seen used in Hebrew literature. The c5 missiologist who was “correcting” my misunderstanding of the Hebraic nature of the NT could not read a word of Hebrew himself. After I finished reading his book, I provided my opinion and the opinions of well respected Hebrew scholars and pointed out that the claims made in this book would not stand up to peer review. He was not dissuaded from his view nor did he believe it was necessary to find support from respected Hebrew scholars for the views he was advocating. Like almost every other question I raised, the answer was the same: “you have asked good questions,” but these “good questions” were questions that needed no answer. 

I think you have painted the best possible light for the motives of those involved in this kind of contextualization and it is possible that some may approach this issue from the perspective you presented but based on my own experience, I do not think it is the norm. What seems to be the norm for those advocating c5 contextualization is that they hold reasonably orthodox view for themselves personally (i.e. within their own narrative) but reject the idea that their “truths” apply to other narratives. Some that I have met, take this even a step further i.e. they have declared themselves to be both Muslim and Christian and see no conflict between either faith. I have also heard others involved in this issue tell me that some c5 advocates have even “converted” to Islam and no longer even identify themselves as Christians (but I personally have not met anyone who has taken this issue that far). As far as syncretism is concerned, I think the norm is to not personally profess a syncretistic faith, but to accept the validity of a syncretistic faith within MBB communities. However, some c5 advocates truly do demonstrate a personal syncretistic faith; I know because I have met them.

Side note: The example of “I wrote with a pencil” I provided to you is not my own. This was the example my Hebrew professor in college drilled into us as students (decades before I had ever heard of c5 contextualization), and she told us this was the same example used by her Hebrew professor to drill this aspect of grammar into her. As she told the story, her Hebrew professor, when hearing a student make this mistake in class (in the late 1930’s), called the student to the table at the front of the class and then asked him to invite “Mr. Pencil (Iparon)” to come to the table to write with him.” She was born and raised in Israel (during the British Mandate) and studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and later at U.C. Berkley (under Robert Alter) here in the states.

Now you are taking me back. Fillmore presented his “prepositions” paper at the Georgetown Round Table in 1966, and my best friend read it and told me all about it in 67, and he published an article in Notes on Translation soon after that, contrasting “I ate ice cream with my wife,” “I ate ice cream with my spoon,” and “I ate ice cream with pie”—three very different constructions in his field language. Your friend who made that exegetical argument must have missed that issue of Notes on Translation in the late 1960s. Well, after that Langendoen wrote about the same topic in the missionary journal _Practical Anthroplogy_ in an article called “Getting at the deep structure of language,” and I literally got goose bumps when that issue arrived in our rickety old Bible school library and I saw the article with that title. A few months later, my mom took me to UCLA and gave me some money, and I got the book containing Fillmore’s Case for Case. A decade later Chomsky was stealing Fillmore’s ideas as his Theta Theory. When was your teacher using that example? Sounds like her professor was decades ahead of Fillmore, too, but maybe she was aware of this literature.

One point I forgot to address.  Hebrew uses an idiomatic understanding of “hand” and “arm” to express the idea of a person’s power.  This idiom is seen repeatedly in the descriptions of God’s, especially when describing his dealings in the Exodus. Phrases like “with a outstretched arm and a strong hand” are often used to describe the power and might of God as he led the nation of Israel to freedom. This idiom does exhibit itself in English in expressions like “don’t raise a hand against him”, so a more formal equivalent translation is not without merit. It is this idea of “power” conveyed in the idiomatic usage of “hand” in this verse that leads translators to translate the preposition as “against” in this verse. Some of the reasons that many translations do not use a more functional equivalent phrase of this verse is because the idiom is understood in English and because there is some disagreement about how much hostility was being described i.e. was this a description of the descendants of Ishmael quarreling like two siblings that just rub each other the wrong way or was this a description of something much stronger i.e. a description of a nation that would be continually at war with those around them.  If one chooses to translate this passage in a more functional equivalent way, then one must decide what level of hostility is being described.

PS. My Hebrew professor was using that example long before I was in her class, I was taking Hebrew in the early 90’s. Her teacher (the one who first communicated that example) would have been teaching in the late 1930’s in Israel.

Benelchi, your mention of the NT being first written in Hebrew reminded me of a guy named Blizzard, who spoke at my childhood church when I was visiting back there in the early 1970s. Very early in the talk, I turned and whispered in my wife’s ear, “This guy is a crackpot”. Later a Wycliffe colleague (who subsequently switched to UBS) told me that there was a good case for Blizzard’s ideas, but because of the way he presented them shockingly to people, he had warned Blizzard that he would be judged a crackpot. Catcha later.

Auggie McTavish,

Blizzard is the author whose name I couldn’t remember, and I still do think he is a crackpot. Blizzard takes wild and unjustified leaps to reach the conclusions he makes. While I do not think everything he says in the book is wrong, I would say that nearly every conclusion he makes is wrong. With knowledge of his name I was able to find an email I had written back in 2009 after reading this book. Here is the response I had given:

I finished the book and was very disappointed. I agree strongly with the initial premise of this book i.e that understanding the first century Hebrew culture is imperative to understanding the New Testament; however, the author of this book is so consistently inaccurate as he relates facts that nothing should be trusted without collaboration from other sources. Here are a few examples:

1) He repeatedly suggests that the use of “Hebrew Letters” in the first century demonstrates that Hebrew, not Aramaic was the dominate language among the first century Judean Jews; however, he either doesn’t understand (or has deliberately chosen to ignore) the fact that both the Hebrew and Aramaic used the same alphabet in the first century. Additionally, this alphabet was first used to write Aramaic (not Hebrew). The Jewish people adopted this alphabet after being taken into captivity. Hebrew was originally written in a paleo-Hebraic alphabet that is quite different from the Aramaic square script in use today.

2) He references the name “Shimon ben Kosiba” as proof that Hebrew was in wide use in the 2nd century; however, he fails to mention that this reference comes from the “Bar Kochba” letters (most of which were written in Aramaic) and that this is a derogative name for the man known primarily as “Bar Kochba” i.e. an Aramaic name. Additionally, he fails to mention that it is widely known that Bar Kochba tried to reinstitute the ancient Hebrew language (he even used the paleo-Hebraic alphabet that had not been used in over 300 years, rather than the Hebrew/Aramaic square script that was in common use during his lifetime). This Hebrew script used by Bar Kochba was used only in the very oldest of the dead sea scrolls (250 BC), and in stone inscriptions that dated much earlier. The examples of Hebrew among the Bar Kochba letters shows an almost nostalgic reverence for the 2nd Temple Hebrew, not an indication of its wide spread contemporary use. 

3) He fails to acknowledge the significance of the Aramaic quote of Jesus’ words on the cross ie. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”. The idea that Hebrew had adopted the verb שבק is just not supportable. And the suggestion that eli/eloi refers to Elijah doesn’t work either becasuse Elijah is spelled אליהו and not just אלי There is simply no justification for treating this as a shortened form of the prophets name especially when the biblical text itself gives us the translation.

4) He fails to recognize that almost every Hebrew/Jewish cultural group has adopted large parts of religious Hebrew vocabulary into their everyday language. This is a common feature of almost every Hebrew/Jewish cultural group in almost every age. A dramatic example of this can be seen in the Yiddish language of the Eastern European Jews. It contains a large amount of Hebrew vocabulary and is written in Hebrew letters; however, the language is not Semitic in nature, but rather a form of transliterated German. Despite its Hebrew look, a German speaking person will be far better equipped to understand the language than would a Hebrew speaking person. Similar examples of Aramaic with mixed in Hebrew vocabulary can be seen in the writings of the 1st and 2nd century Jewish people. 

Understanding the cultural influences of the Hebrew people on the New Testament is a topic that deserves much better treatment than is found in this particular book.

In the pro and con discussion I have seen about Mr. Brown’s article the only aspect that I have not seen addressed is the impact that these Bibles, which use alternate language for Father and Son, will have on those who depend on the Bible to direct their walk and understanding of God.

In the “Disciple Making Movement”/“Church Planting Movement” the expectation is that by examining the Bible beginning in Genesis, small groups of inquirers working together will, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, be able to come to an accurate understanding of God’s purposes for humanity and the offer that has been made to us in Jesus.  From this they should be able to form “churches” that are reasonably theologically sound.

This approach of “discipling to Christ” using “discovery Bible Studies” and “obedience based discipleship” popularized by David and Paul Watson, has had significant success in many parts of the world where family based cultures exist.  It the context of these movements, the test of any translation is, ‘will people using it to seek God’s purposes and directions be led to a true understanding of the nature and intent of God.’

The question of heresy verses proper cultural accommodation really revolves around this practical issue.  This one question should drive all Bible translations.  Short term cultural accommodation that will result in spontaneous church formation that deviates from the truth of God’s revealed Word is short sighted and destructive to the purpose that we have been sent into the world. Conversely cultural accommodation that doesn’t obstruct this ultimate purpose should be acceptable.

Benelchi, thanks for your careful challenges to Blizzard’s eccentric arguments. In my day there was Matthew Black’s Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts which, though ultimately speculative, was at least interesting.

There is something that linguists call a “substratum” (or “substrate influence”). When a population shifts from one language to another, the final generation of the heritage language often has an “accent” in its pronunciation, but also in its grammar and at the conceptual level, and mixes its heritage lexicon into the new language as well. That “accent” can be attributed to native language influence in that terminal generation, but the new generation, which no longer knows the heritage language, may still carry on the “accent” into the future for many generations. Their variety of the new language will then be different from other varieties in ways that show the ongoing marks of the ancestral language (as is said to be the case with the New York city English of Irish vs. Italian descendants). It may be that the differences between French and Spanish in part reflect the differences in the languages that Latin replaced in France and Spain respectively. This is a well-documented aspect of historical linguistics. As Jacob’s children adopted Hebrew from the Canaanites and abandoned their ancestral Chaldean Aramaic, their Hebrew may have had a Chaldean Aramaic substratum that differentiated it from Canaanite Hebrew. Later, when exiled Jews in Babylon adopted Aramaic, that new Jewish Aramaic may have had a Hebrew substratum. In Hellenistic times, as many Jews adopted Greek, I think it is obvious that their variety of Greek had a Jewish Aramaic substratum, while their Greek religious language would have been strongly influenced by liturgical Hebrew. So Jewish Greek in the first century was Greek “with a heavy Semitic accent”. Some New Testament writings would affect this new variety of Jewish Greek, while other New Testament writings may in fact exhibit a genuine non-native Greek, by authors who learned Greek only as a second language.

Auggie McTavish, I completely agree with your description of “substrate influence” and believe that this is much more pronounced in some religious contexts (like Judaism) where religious reverence for original langauge itself causes the culture to intentionally maintain the use of a significant portion of the original langauge vocabulary as it relates to religious observance. It is these “substrate influences” seen in the new testament writings that Blizzard completely ignores.

I noticed that there were so much argument and discussion on the issue of Father and Son. If the purpose in defining it is for theological aerobics, you are missing the line guys. Father and Son issue wont change any person moral life so much so with his spiritual condition unless he believes on what Jesus did on the cross for him and the effect of it if he obey the Messiah. Salvation is not by becoming a theologian but,by FAITH. As an insider, God works in our strategy marvelously but we don’t hang on it as the way for them to be saved. Only by the name of Jesus, the son of man not of God. It won’t save anyone even if they believed that Jesus is the Son of God. WRONG ENTRY POINT. Discipleship is a PROCESS not an overnight dream. lastly, NEVER TRY TO REACH THE PEOPLE WHOSE FAITH AND DOCTRINE IS UNKNOWN TO YOU. YOU MAY BE ABLE TO BRING HIM TO YOUR DINING ROOM BUT HE WILL NEVER BRING YOU TO HIS LIVING ROOM. 
So lets keep aside these exercise and change the subject.

Read James.

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