Bible Translation Languages

An Old, Old Problem

Archaeologists have recently unearthed fragments of a prayer letter from the first Roman missionaries to England along with part of the a response from one of their supporters. You might find it interesting.

Dear Friends,

Well we’ve been in England for a year now and we are slowly getting used to life here. You wouldn’t believe the weather. The climate is no where near as comfortable as the weather back home in Rome, it is far too cold most of the time. You wouldn’t believe what the nationals call summer – it’s more like a cold spring. Please, no one mention the rain! We are also getting used to the local food, which isn’t very inspiring. The English boil everything till it has no flavour and have never heard of olive oil, garlic or herbs and, what is worse, an amphora of wine costs a whole week’s support. (editor’s note: this paragraph shows that central concerns of many missionary prayer letters have not changed much over the years.)

Of course, the nationals don’t speak Latin, so we’ve been learning the local language so that we can teach them about Jesus. It’s hard going, but we are slowly getting there. One of our concerns has been to find a way to communicate Christian truth in English. It takes time to think of how to express even the most basic ideas. For example, how should we say “Deus” in English. We could use the Latin word, but that would make Deus sound foreign, so we’ve decided to settle on the English word “God”. There are some more difficult questions still to come. 

Meanwhile, our…. (the fragment ends here.)

And here is what we know of the reply.

… What do you mean you are using the English word “God” to describe “Deus”. Don’t you know that the Northern European “Gods” are nothing like the God of the Bible. They drink, they fight, they kill people. What is worse there are lots of them. They are nothing like the “Deus” of the Bible. If you use the word “God” you will be changing Christianity entirely, it will be a false Gospel, heresy. The word “God” could simply never be used to describe the loving Triune Deus of the Christian faith. The Father, Son and Spirit are nothing like Odin, Thor or those odious “Gods” from the frozen north. I demand that you change…

OK, this isn’t entirely serious, but it does illustrate a serious point. Over the last few months, Bible translators have been criticised for using the word “Allah” to translate the Greek “θεὸς” in some contexts. We are told that “Allah” is not the same as “θεὸς” so we should find another word to use.

Of course, this issue is a lot more complex than the purveyors of sound-bite theology would have use believe.

The Canadian Bible Society helpfully comments:

… centers around the use of the term “Allah” for God. While there is some legitimate debate in some languages where Islam is the dominant religion about whether this is the best designation to use, it is commonly accepted as a general term for God in many, if not most, of these languages. Semitic languages such as Arabic commonly use “Allah” where English uses “God.” The word “Allah” does not belong to Islam, although Muslims do use it. The word is actually closely related to the Hebrew term “El” and “Elohim” used for God in the Hebrew Bible.

The Arabic language is closely related to Hebrew (south Semitic and north Semitic respectively) and the term “Allah” is the direct cognate of the corresponding Hebrew term. In a number of languages Christians have been using the term “Allah” for many generations. In fact, in one country Christians have actually gone to court to retain their right to use this term when a Muslim dominated government tried to restrict its use for Muslims only. Truthfully, if we compare the origins of words used for God, the English / German term is among the most pagan. “God / Gott” was originally the designation used by our pagan ancestors long before the introduction of Christianity in northern Europe.

Which takes us back to where I started.




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6 replies on “An Old, Old Problem”

Of course Latin deus and Greek theos originally meant “nothing like the God of the Bible. They drink, they fight, they kill people. What is worse there are lots of them.” Only later they were used of the God of the Bible. So by that argument we really should go back to the original older Hebrew word eloah, which would have sounded remarkably like “Allah”!

As for your “editor’s note”, can you really imagine any missionary today, in a prayer letter, daring to complain about the cost of wine?

Brilliant, Eddie! I read the CBS statement earlier and, had I not been engrossed in Kouya dedication photographs, might have penned something nowhere near as good as this. Maybe some people will read it and stop taking themselves quite so seriously.

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