translation of divine familial terms

C. S[tirling]. Bartholomew has referred to a critically important topic for Bible translation today, in the Share section of this blog. Feel free to read the article to which Stirling linked to see how intensely the issue of translation of divine familiar terms is discussed. There is a great deal of misunderstanding in that article and in the comments on it. I hope that the following statement from SIL, one of the Bible translation organizations mentioned in the article, can help clarify that the translations referred to do *not* take away the belief of Trinitarians (I am one) that God has revealed himself as Father and Son (as well as Holy Spirit). Intense discussions have been occurring among Bible translation organizations about how to translate the Fathership of God and the Sonship of the second person of the Trinity without at the same time communicating the idea that the Father must have had sexual intercourse with Mary to produce the Son. Such as idea is scandalous to intensely monotheistic Muslims (and Jews, and should be to monotheistic Christians, as well) and results in rejection of Christianity, unless there is adequate communication that while God has revealed himself as having a Father and Son relationship within the Trinity, this does not mean that God had sex with Mary. This, of course, is not an accurate understanding that should come from communicating biblical truth about the Fatherhood and Sonship of God.

This is not an issue of political correctness nor of accommodation to any other religion, including Islam. Instead, it is a matter of accuracy in translation when literal translation does not communicate the original biblical meaning accurately.

Ask yourself the difficult question: How might you translate the Fatherhood and Sonship of God without readers of your translation of the Bible understanding that to mean that God has sex with the mother of Jesus? This issue has confronted Christian-Muslim interaction for centuries.

Following is the article from SIL and I do have permission to share it with you all:

SIL International Statement of Best Practices for Bible Translation of Divine Familial Terms

Translation of the familial terms of God in Scripture has unfortunately generated considerable controversy. We want to clearly state our position on this important subject.

In SIL, we strongly affirm the eternal deity of Jesus Christ and require that it be preserved in all translations. Scripture translations must promote understanding of the term ‘the Son of God’ in all its richness, including Jesus’ relationship as Son with God the Father.

Without reservation, SIL’s Scripture translation practice is to use wording which accurately communicates to the intended audience the relationship of Father by which God chose to describe Himself in relationship to His Son, Jesus Christ, in the original languages of Scripture.

There are some cases in which it can be shown that a word-for-word translation of these familial terms would communicate an incorrect meaning (i.e. that God had physical, sexual relations with Mary, mother of Jesus; not only does this communicate obvious wrong meaning, but can also give readers the impression that the translation is corrupt). In these situations, the translations convey the accurate meaning by using terms that clearly have familial meaning but do not imply a procreative relationship. Where necessary, Scripture translations should include an explanation of the meaning of divine familial terms. This may be in an introduction, in one or more footnotes, or as a glossary entry, as seems appropriate to the situation.

Bible translation is complex work carried out by translation teams of highly skilled and dedicated people. In SIL, all personnel subscribe to a statement of faith which affirms the Trinity, Christ’s deity, and the inspiration of Scripture. SIL is committed to translating the Scriptures in the best way possible to preserve and not distort these truths. Respecting well-established Bible translation principles and practices, translation decisions are always made in consultation with other partners and the host communities, in order to achieve the best possible translation of God’s Word.

January 2012


UPDATE (February 6, 2012)

SIL announces additional dialogue with partners on translation practice

6 February 2012) In light of a number of questions raised about our Best Practices Statement on the translation of Divine Familial Terms, we recognize it is important to have a fuller dialogue with our many partners globally and benefit from their input to our approach in Scripture translation related to this issue. Since questions about our commitment to these translation principles have been raised, we will proactively engage to understand the concerns, clarify misunderstandings, and where indicated, adjust practice.

Therefore, SIL announces that as of today, February 6, 2012, in situations where we are involved and partnering with others in translation, and have the responsibility to do so, we will put on hold our approval of publication of translated Scripture around which this criticism is focused.

We expect this dialogue with partners, and the corresponding hold period, to commence immediately and run for an extended period.

Related links of interest

SIL International is a faith-based nonprofit organization committed to serving language communities worldwide as they build capacity for sustainable language development. SIL does this primarily through research, translation, training and materials development. SIL facilitates the translation of Scripture in contexts where such activity is within the scope of SIL’s working agreements and where translation of Scripture texts has been identified as a needed resource for spiritual development. The translation goals for each language are decided in close interaction with communities and partner agencies, thus Scripture translation is not always included in SIL’s language development services.

82 thoughts on “translation of divine familial terms

  1. CD-Host says:

    Bob —

    Can you give an example of a translation that is made without theological assumptions. I’ll bet you dimes to dollars I can find theological assumptions rather quickly in it.

    Most of the translations that even aim for this, like Ann Nyland’s Source New Testament or Price’s Pre-Nicene New Testament are considerer anti-religious don’t come from churches at all.

  2. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    Thank you Wayne,

    A friend from IBT, sent me the following list articles all available as pdfs on the web. I currently working on the long article by Abernathy on Word and Eternal Son christology. This is worthwhile reading.

    Brown, R. (2005). Explaining the Biblical Term “Sons(s) of God” in Muslim Contexts. International Journal of Frontier Missions, 22(4), 135-145.

    Brown, R., Penny, J., & Gray, L. (2009). Muslim-idiom Bible Translations: Claims and Facts. St. Francis Magazine, 5(6), 87-105.

    Abernathy, D. (2010). Translating “Son of God” in Missionary Bible Tranalstion: A Critique of “Muslim-idiom Biblie Translations’: Claims and facts.” St. Francis Magazine, 6(1).

    Horrell, J. S. (2010). Cautions Regarding “Son of God” in Muslim-idiom Translations of the Bible: Seeking Sensible Balance. St. Francis Magazine, 6(638-676.

    Abernathy, D. (2010). JESUS IS THE ETERNAL SON OF GOD St Francis Magazine 6:2 (April 2010).

  3. Doug Chaplin says:

    I note that far too much popular Christianity seems to defend the virginal conception in terms which are uncomfortably close to putting the Holy Spirit in a male role. That popularisation may be more of a problem than actual translations. But in terms of translation, “son” is on the one hand, the only literal translation of huios (which is itself metaphorical from the linguistic – as opposed to ontological – viewpoint) and on the other, in all our contemporary usage lacks the significant connotations of obedience, and in the phrase “son of God” the Davidic and Israelite ones also. In other words, it’s not just a problem from Muslim contexts, but it is, perhaps, an ongoing linguistic aspect of the scandal of particularity. I don’t think, however that we’re free to change the literal terms of the metaphor.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Stirling, you were given a good reading list. Those articles are at the core of the discussion.

    Ultimately, the question is, as it should always be:

    “What word (or words) most accurately convey to translation users the meaning of the original text?”

    I have found that field testing with the translation audience is the only sure way to determine if the original meaning has been accurately communicated by a translation. There is more than one way to communicate the idea of sonship and fatherhood. If any of those ways connote or denote inaccurate meanings, such as that sonship occurred through sexual intercourse, then those ways should be withheld until field testing can determine if other wordings do not communicate the unintended meaning.

  5. Tim Bulkeley says:

    And yet… no translation either is without cultural, gender, economic bias, this does not mean that translators should not seek to minimise the effects of this biases and translate as faithfully as possible the meanings and intentions of the author(s) of the work they are rendering.

    Why should theological biases be any different?

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Good points, Tim. And, also, no translation can be perfect because no two languages match exactly, either in their vocabularies or grammar. Translators must just try to do the best they can with God’s help and the help of the best available biblical and (socio)linguistic (for both the biblical languages as well as the target languages) scholarship.

  7. Stephen says:

    I haven’t read any of the articles C.S. mentioned above, but I am guessing that the root of the issue that the SIL is concerned is found in Luke 1:35 “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 called holy— the Son of God” (just for convenience, in ESV). A couple other places in the gospel infancy narratives make reference to the relationship between the non-Incarnate members of the Trinity and Mary (e.g., Matthew 1:20); I can’t recall other such places where the text would make such potentially obtuse remarks, yet the Pamela Geller hit piece and other articles I’ve seen before (I think there was a Christianity Today article about a year ago on the same issue) spend all their time talking about how Arab translations modify other passages such as the Great Commission in Matt 28 which emphasize the “divine family,” as it were, but make no mention of Jesus’ earthly family.

    So please, dear linguists with far better cultural acumen than I, can you help me see why the Muslim offense to the couple of references to Mary’s pregnancy is different than what every pre-teen kid obsesses over at Christmas, “so..did Mary and the Holy Spirit, you know??” My amateur response is generally that helping others to read the Bible requires some theological instruction in matters that the Bible is not as clear on every page as we would like, and the necessity of this instruction does not have to require the altering of some foundational theological language. But I know the active members of this blog have more astute answers than me.

  8. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    There is more than theology at stake in this dispute. Apparently in some cases the people taking issue with the new translations are members of the historical christian community within the target culture. This christian community has its own culture, having been isolated from the Islamic culture in the same region for eons. It has developed its own language in regard to the church and the bible. Now westerners come in and do a new translation which bends over backwards to be non-offensive to the Islamic culture, a translation which is unacceptable both theologically and liturgically to historical christian community. The promotion of this new translation effectively marginalizes and undermines the authority of the historical christian community.

    With this scenario you potentially end up with a group of new christians which are going to be alienated from the existing church, having a different bible and a different way of talking about their faith.

  9. CD-Host says:

    This christian community has its own culture, having been isolated from the Islamic culture in the same region for eons. It has developed its own language in regard to the church and the bible.

    No actually they Christians are fully part of the Islamic culture the same way minority religions in the United States have developed in ways to make themselves part of the Protestant culture here. American Judaism developed mostly in terms of Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox which all blended well with the Protestant culture. Catholic culture in the United States has been absorbing Protestant notions, to the point that objections are scriptural and not secular like they are in Catholic countries.

    Arabic Christians don’t live in isolation. They live in Arabic, speak arabic, participate in Arab events, hold political office. There are as many as 12 million Copts in Egypt. The Maronites last generation fought a war for control of Lebanon and still hold huge percentages of the government. In Syria they are about 10% and major players in the government.

    The indigent Christians are mainly Orthodox, the people who are doing evangelism are mainly Protestant. Pamela Geller may be upset the new translation is Islamic friendly. But as I mentioned before, the word choices that she is complaining about are the ones they used before there even was a Islam. The local Christians may very be upset about those bibles but if so I’d guess it is because those bibles because they are Protestant, not because they are “liberal”.

    With this scenario you potentially end up with a group of new christians which are going to be alienated from the existing church, having a different bible and a different way of talking about their faith.

    Maybe… I’m sure that is what the Protestant missionaries aim to do, create Protestants that are not bound to any of the local Bishops but rather connected to US organizations. But lets be clear here, it ain’t the use of Arabic terms of God that is going to create this problem.

  10. CD-Host says:

    Stephen —

    It is hard to figure out how much of this is total fantasy. Pamela Geller in this article is quoting “Jihad Watch” which is Robert Spencer’s site. The article by Spencer makes no sense. An Arabic Christian calls God Allah. The word “Allah” came from the pagan religions that existed in that region long before there was a Christianity, and muslims would admit they picked up the word partially from Christians. As I mentioned in my last response for centuries “God the Father” is Allāh al-ibn.

    There is no complex linguistic issue going on here. This is a woman whose mission in life is to stir up trouble with fake issues, being successful on betterbibles. Robert Spencer is Jewish, he doesn’t give a damn about valid baptisms. But the church’s position on the validity of baptism has been the same for 1600 years. If the intent of anyone (even a heretic or a non Christian) is to perform a baptism as the church does; it is valid. Spencer is dead wrong, or lying, that specific wording is required for a valid baptism.


    In terms of cultural insight. I’m not really sure what they are doing, I’d like to hear a more clear explication from people whose don’t see their job as creating hostility. But taking a guess

    Islam likely evolved from Collyridian Christianity. The trinity in Collyridianism is the Allah the Father, Mary the Mother and Jesus the Son. Thus the Qu’ran when it talks about Christian trinitarianism is addressing a different family of Christianity than the Catholic one (BTW Muslim scholars agree with this, I’m not saying anything controversial here):

    example sura 5:73-5:
    [5.73] Certainly they disbelieve who say: Surely Allah is the third (person) of the three; and there is no god but the one God, and if they desist not from what they say, a painful chastisement shall befall those among them who disbelieve.
    [5.74] Will they not then turn to Allah and ask His forgiveness? And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
    [5.75] The Messiah, son of Marium is but an apostle; apostles before him have indeed passed away; and his mother was a truthful woman; they both used to eat food. See how We make the communications clear to them, then behold, how they are turned away.

    You can see this comment “they both used to eat food”. What is key here is that the Qu’ran is not deny the Orthodox trinity but rather the Collyridian one. You can also see the term “Messiah” being used for the Son. For Collyridians the relationship between Mary and God was marital. Given this culture the goal is to explicate the Catholic / Protestant trinity being very clear. The terms are confusing.

    The Christian sects that predate Islam probably use traditional terms but a new group of Protestant missionaries are likely using new terms that don’t create confusion. Because Protestants do want to assert that Jesus is a god besides Allah to some extent but there is nothing like this as a claim for Mary.

  11. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    I was paraphrasing the introduction to Rick Brown’s paper “MUSLIM-IDIOM BIBLE TRANSLATIONS:CLAIMS AND FACTS”. Perhaps he isn’t talking about the same cultures you are. Here it is verbatim:

    start quote:

    2 Cultural and linguistic gap
    Looking back into history, the cultural and linguistic gap between
    Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims was in most cases fairly
    small until the Crusades. They read the same books and engaged
    in debates about religion and philosophy. With the advent of the
    Crusades however, Christians retreated into separate subcultures.
    Even Christians who were mother-tongue Arabic speakers became
    isolated physically, culturally, and linguistically from Muslims.
    They developed separate customs and distinct dialects that used
    different names and terms from Muslims, and when they did use
    some of the same terms that Muslims did, they often used them
    with different meanings. Arab Christians, for example, chose to
    use the Aramaic word kâhin to denote a Jewish priest, whereas in
    standard Arabic this word meant sorcerer. They chose to use the
    Greek word nâmûs for law, whereas in ordinary Arabic it meant
    mosquitoes. They also used different names for famous prophets.
    This led to miscommunication between Muslims and Christians.
    The Christians came to reject any of their number who used distinctively
    Muslim expressions, and they abandoned older Bible
    translations that had used terms that now sounded Muslim. Even
    today one finds people who grew up as cultural Christians in Muslim
    countries who claim that everything distinctive about the language
    and culture of Muslim communities was inspired by Satan
    himself. Thus, a linguistic and cultural wall developed between
    Christians and Muslims that locked the Gospel into the Christian
    community and kept it from the Muslims, who in their turn came to
    despise the seemingly corrupted Christian dialects.
    In the 19th century, when Western missionaries fostered translations
    of the Bible into additional languages spoken by Muslims,
    they often used the terminology that was normal to each language.
    Later missionaries, however, changed these translations by importing
    new names and terms, thereby assuming a similar posture of rejection
    toward Muslim society. These missionaries fostered new
    Christian subcultures with new linguistic distinctives and a new rejection
    of the old ways. As might be expected, when the Good
    News is delivered to Muslims in language that shows disrespect for
    their mother tongue, it gets rejected. So over the centuries these
    Christian communities have had little spiritual impact on the majority
    cultures with which they tensely co-exist, and missionaries
    who adopted their attitudes have had poor results as well. Whenever
    some missionaries tried to produce Scriptures that respected
    Muslim ways of speaking, they found themselves under attack
    from local cultural Christians who abhor the thought of Scripture in
    a Muslim dialect.

    end quote

  12. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    I have now read Rick Brown’s article twice and David Abernathy’s long article once, and Abernathy’s shorter article twice. This is a fascinating controversy. What started out forty years ago as a pragmatic concern about how to produce a translation which would actually be read by Islamic peoples has in the last twelve years morphed into a theological dispute concerning the meaning of “Son of God.” This sounds to me like the tail wagging the dog. The need to defend a translation policy for some Islamic peoples became a project in revisionist christology. Brown’s reading of the “Son of God” as a metaphor coreferential with the Messiah/Christ is the focus of David Abernathy’s two papers. The long paper is an exercise in historical dogmantics and biblical theology. It is easy to lose sight of the question being addressed in such a long paper. The shorter paper spends more time engaging directly with Brown’s proposal.

    It would be easy to conclude by the weigh of evidence in David Abernathy’s two papers that Rick Brown and associates have been roundly refuted. But rereading this morning Brown, R., Penny, J., & Gray, L. (2009) this morning, I am still somewhat undecided. My instinctive predisposition makes me sympathetic to Abernathy’s critique so I am making an effort to give Brown, Penny and Gray a fair reading.

    Brown, R., Penny, J., & Gray, L. (2009). Muslim-idiom Bible Translations: Claims and Facts. St. Francis Magazine, 5(6), 87-105.

  13. CD-Host says:

    C.S. I gave an example of Lebanon. Lets take an example the Copts of Egypt which are about 11% of the population so roughly similar to blacks in the USA. All official discrimination ended under Muhammad Ali Pahsa (ruled 1805-1848). Since the 1880s there has always been at least one Copt in every cabinet. Boutros Ghali Pasha (1908-1910), and Yusef Wehbeh Pasha (1919-1920) were Coptic Prime Ministers.

    The Copts were on the losing side of the 1952 revolution so no coptic Prime Ministers since, and growing bad relations between Cops and the state. But the fact that they were a major part of a faction I think speaks to the fact they aren’t isolated. As a result there was discrimination under Nassar which has continued. So for example in the last parliament there were 10 Coptic MPs out of 518 seats.

    In terms of wealth, there are wealth and powerful coptic families: 75% of the means of transportation, 44% of the industry, 51% of the banks, and 34% of agricultural land are owned by Copts, which makes them proprietors of a quarter of the national wealth.

    Christian churches have full power of law on any sort of personal issue. So for example if two Christians kill each other they the church has actual legal authority. In mixed situations Muslim courts rule. Discrimination but clearly not isolation.

    Copt of course attend mostly Muslim universities and given that they are more educated than average all educated Muslims have spent considerable times with Copts.

    Currently the Salafists (fundamentalists) are highly anti-Copt while the secular parties (nationalists) which are mostly Muslim embrace Copts. So they use national unity imagery like pictures of various religious leaders embracing. The debate is somewhat analogous to the USA Republicans vs. Democrats with regard to Hispanics; urging expulsion, restrictions on employment….

    So no they are not isolated.


    You don’t really need broad conspiracies here. Evangelicals have different philosophy of missions towards every group than do Orthodox. Evangelicals tend to target disgruntled individuals and pull them into an evangelical culture. The Orthodox go for converting whole cultures without a focus on individuals. The idea for them is to create a permanent minority within the culture that acts as a bridge. They want converts to remain connected to the dominant faith.

  14. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    The is a well known tendency among evangelical bible students to import content from historical dogmatics back into the NT lexicon. Rick Brown[1] gives an example where hUIOS TOU THEOU “Son of God” is understood everywhere as meaning God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.

    Whereas Biblical scholars, both evangelical and Roman Catholic, see the term as highlighting the Messiah’s holiness, authority, and closeness to God, many lay Christians see only the ontological components of meaning and miss the term’s functional, ethical, and relational components. They equate ‘Son of God’ everywhere with ‘God the Son’, meaning the second person of the Trinity. This viewpoint can be seen in the Westminster Confession, which uses ‘Son of God’ for the second person of the Trinity, ‘Son of Man’ for Jesus’ human nature, ‘Word of God’ for the Bible, and ‘Christ’ as a mere name. The theology of the Westminster Confession may be consistent with Biblical truth, but no contemporary Bible scholar would consider its usage of these terms to be consistent with their usage in the Bible.
    :end quote

    Brown claims that hUIOS TOU THEOU “Son of God” is a metaphor with various meanings in different NT contexts where he cites Thayer in support, BDAG being unsuitable having only one gloss. “Son of God” as a metaphor is the primary point of contention in Abernathy’s critique. Do we find in Abernathy’s critique the same error noted above? What difference does it make that hUIOS TOU THEOU “Son of God” came to be an ontological issue during the christological controversies when we are trying to determine how a word is used in the NT? I am not sure Abernathy actually falls into this trap, probably not. But if not, the portion of his argument that touches on historical dogmatics is simply irrelevant.

    [1] Brown, R. (2005). Explaining the Biblical Term “Sons(s) of God” in Muslim Contexts. International Journal of Frontier Missions, 22(4), page 145.

  15. samuelclough says:

    The primary issue here is that Wycliffe should just translate the Bible and allow teachers and evangelists to explain the text as they have always had to do. Altering the Scripture to communicate meaning is far more dangerous than translating the text as it is and then giving the explanation that has been given since the first century.

    For anyone with interest in this subject, by far the best and most scholarly coverage of this entire debate, of which Bible translation is only a part, is found in the book Chrislam ( It is must reading for anyone with even a passing interest in current missiology, insider movements, and current translation trends.

  16. Daniel Buck says:

    The discussion is going fairly well, but please allow me, as an Arabic linguist, to clear up a couple of misconceptions.
    1) ‘Allah’ is a specially constructed Arabic word, a contraction of ‘Al-ilah’ which literally translates O QEOS. We translate either as “God” in English. There is evidence that this word pre-dates Islam.
    2) al-ibn is Arabic for ‘the son,’ not ‘the father’ “Al-ab” is The Father.
    3) There is manuscript evidence (documented in detail by Hikmat Kachouh) that the Christian Arab community changed the way they spelled the names of prophets (including John the Baptist and Jesus) after they were published in the Qur’an. But they did not adopt the Islamic spellings; rather, they replaced their original unique spellings with what Christians have used ever since.

    I’ll respond to the original accusations in a later comment.

  17. Daniel Buck says:

    Okay, the accusations boil down as follows:

    Bible Translators are producing “Chrislamic” Bibles that replace “Father” with words meaning “Lord” or “Guardian,” “Son” with words meaning “Messiah,” and “baptism” with words meaning “wash with water.”

    Alas, we are now at the point that modern translation theory has nothing to say against such practices. If the goal of any new Bible translation is to appeal to unregenerate men, than each species of unregenerates needs its own least-offensive Bible Translation. Bravo for those who are doing their best to supply Muslims with Bibles that they can comfortably read! Now, let them apply their skills to producing a Qur’an that fails to offend Christians, and we will believe that they have truly mastered the art.

  18. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    Samuel Clough Wrote:
    “The primary issue here is that Wycliffe should just translate the Bible and allow teachers and evangelists to explain the text as they have always had to do. Altering the Scripture to communicate meaning is far more dangerous than translating the text as it is and then giving the explanation that has been given since the first century.”

    A text that will never be read or heard isn’t worth producing. If someone promoting atheism published a bible which rendered statements about Jesus which were outrageously blasphemous, would we all buy a copy and read it to your children? Rick Brown’s argument is for producing at text which will function in missionary context. He isn’t proposing that this text would serve as a pulpit bible or as liturgical language. The function of the text is to get Islamic people reading the christian canon. The testing he has done over a period of 35 years indicates that literal rendering of “Son of God” in some Islamic cultures makes the bible a dead letter. No one will touch it.

    Before wrighting him off, you should read him.

    Brown, Rick. 2000. The ‘Son of God’: Understanding the messianic titles
    of Jesus. International Journal of Frontier Missions. 17(1):
    ________. 2001. Presenting the deity of Christ from the Bible. International
    Journal of Frontier Missions. 19(1): 20-27.
    ________. 2004. Son of Man, Son of God, Word of God, Christ: An
    exegesis of major titles of Jesus, with suggestions for translation
    and explanatory notes. Unpublished monograph.
    ________. 2005a. Explaining the biblical term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim
    contexts. International Journal of Frontier Missions. 22(3):
    ________. 2005b. Translating the biblical term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim
    contexts. International Journal of Frontier Missions. 22(4):

    My initial reaction to Rick Brown’s thesis was extremely negative. But reading him carefully, multiple times. I am becoming more sympathetic to his project.

    C. Stirling Bartholomew

  19. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    Rick Brown’s argument has several different threads. The main thread is the propaganda war that Islam has been waging with Christianity from the beginning. According to Brown, the Islamic scriptures known as the Qu’ran promote a blasphemous misunderstanding of the expression “Son of God” and pronounce anathamas against anyone who uses the expression. This represents a pragmatic problem for christian missions among Islamic peoples. Brown claims that no amount of “explaining the meaning” will get one around the cultural taboo against “Son of God” language. Brown suggests that many Islamic people are willing to read the christian canon but retain a strong phobic reaction to the words “Son of God.” I detect in Brown’s reasoning a slight flavor of [semi]Pelagianism, his talking about “open minded Muslims” and their willingness to read our Bible if we will simply remove the point of offense. The cultural taboo seems like a refutation of the claim that they are open minded. Someone who persists in misreading what a text says even after it has been explained in notes and introduction, the victim of a cultural taboo, all of this indicates that a that point the propaganda war has been won by the Qu’ran. The existence of the cultural taboo is not an historical accident. It functions effectively as a wall between Islam and Christianity.

    The second part of Brown’s argument is an exercise in lexical semantics attempting to show that “Son of God” is a metaphor in the NT equivalent to Messiah. There is some evidence for this in the confessions of Peter, Nathaniel and the demons. In several places “Son of God” appears to be interpreted as Messiah within the immediate co-text. David Abernathy mounts a massive refutation of Brown’s lexical semantics. Abernathy’s project suffers from one major flaw. He appears to be reading back into the NT text later theological developments and investing “Son of God” language in the NT with technical precision of the early Christological controversies. What is at stake here is not NT Christology. No one is denying that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity. But the “Son of God” language of the NT is semantically complex, it doesn’t appear to function as a technical term for the second person of the Trinity.

    All things considered, after giving Rick Brown a fair hearing, I end up agreeing with Abernathy. The Father/Son language of the NT is too important, too pervasive and the attempt to do an end run around Islamic propaganda would entail too high a cost in terms of disrupting the NT teaching about Jesus Christ and his relationship to God the Father. On the other hand, modifications like “spiritual Son of God” seem to be rather innocent. Perhaps not.

    C. Stirling Bartholomew

  20. Wout says:

    CD-Host stated, “Robert Spencer is Jewish, he doesn’t give a damn about valid baptisms.” In actuality, Robert Spencer has indicated on his blog that he is a Melkite Catholic, therefore does care about valid baptism.

  21. CD-Host says:

    CS —

    What you wrote here in your last post which is a balanced discussion of one set of terms against another… outreach / seeker sensitive vs. in your face … seems fair.

    I think on balance these sorts of issues come down to whether you are Reformed or Arminian. If you are reformed ultimately the method of presentation doesn’t matter. If you are Arminians then you tend to believe that someone can get saved by faith in Jesus and coming to saving faith is key.

    As for your terms like “blasphemous misunderstanding of the expression ‘Son of God'” might I suggest it is you who is not being clear here. I don’t see any evidence that Islam is not correctly understanding what Collyridian Christianity meant by those terms.

    And BTW that idea is still present to some extent among Christians. To pick an American example from Brigham Young:

    “When the Virgin Mary conceived the child Jesus, the Father had begotten him in
    his own likeness. He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. And who is the
    Father? He is the first of the human family; and when he (Christ) took a
    tabernacle, it was begotten by his Father in Heaven, AFTER THE SAME MANNER as
    the tabernacles of Cain, Abel, and the rest of the sons and daughters of Adam
    and Eve. Jesus, our elder brother, was begotten in the flesh by the same
    character that was in the garden of Eden, and who is our Father in Heaven.”
    (JoD 1:50-51, vol. 5).

    Let me point out to you that many of the English language translations you use do essentially the same thing avoiding obvious translations into English because those terms are heavily used by Hinduism / Buddhism, Occultic Christianity, UFO religions… Do you actually apply those same standards to Evangelical English translations? For example Matt 11:14 “And if you are willing to accept it, John is the reincarnation of Elijah who was to come” . But we avoid the word reincarnation because of the theological baggage in our culture.

  22. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    CD host,

    Once again I am paraphrasing Rick Brown. Brown contends that the misunderstanding of divine paternity is built into the Q’ran. I assumed he knew what he was talking about. I don’t make any claim to know anything whatsoever about Islam. I am not an apologist. Don’t read the CRI Journal anymore. I was interested in the NT christological aspects of the discussion. Particularly the question about “Son of God” as messianic title. Brown has raised a question about the meaning of the term “Son of God” and David Abernathy has responded with a history of christian dogmatic discourse on christology. Very interesting content in Abernathy’s articles but not the way we should go about doing NT lexical semantics.

    I’m exploring this on my blog since it isn’t really a translation question.
    C. Stirling Bartholomew

  23. Peter Kirk says:

    CD-Host, is your information on Egypt up to date? A lot has changed there in the last year, and it has not all been to the benefit of Coptic Christians. I understand that they are being increasingly marginalised in the society, and no longer feel safe in their own country.

  24. CD-Host says:

    Peter yes my last paragraph is up to date. Absolutely they are on side of a political situation and if they lose they may very well get ethnically cleansed. I’m not saying they don’t have enemies, I’m saying they aren’t culturally isolated.

  25. Phil McCheddar says:

    I think it is a mistake to remove the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ from the Bible. I have read several testimonies of ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity solely as a result of reading the Bible without any teachers or commentaries to guide their interpretation, including one former Muslim who was particulary struck by reading John’s Gospel! Since conversion is a supernatural event, it does not surprise me that God can overcome people’s prejudices and misconceptions if/when He chooses. In the case of my own conversion to Christianity from a free-thinking background, I stumbled for many years over the concept of Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ because through my western eyes it seemed to imply Jesus is not God Himself but merely a separate being derived from God, just as my being the son of my earthly father means I am not my earthly father. But I was magnetised by Jesus and have now come to worship Him as my God, which I now see as perfectly compatible with His sonship.

    I have read several comments on the internet written by ex-Muslims now-Christians in the Middle East expressing their horror about what Wycliffe and SIL are doing, and protesting against it most strongly.

    When Jesus called God ‘My Father’ he caused great offense to many of the Jews of his day. Yet Jesus still deliberately used that expression, and God inspired the apostles to do so when evangelising Jews. And it still didn’t prevent explosive church growth among the Jews in the 1st century. Why should Muslims of today be any different?

    One more point, to change the biblical text in this way is surely going to reinforce Muslims in their belief that Christians feel free to tamper with God’s written revelation to suit their own whims.

  26. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    A question:

    John 1:49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

    Matt. 16:16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    Matt. 26:63 But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

    This is modeled after Hebrew parallelism, right? The second half is not simply a restatement of the first half, right? That is a point where Rick Brown’s argument that Son of God is a messianic synonym for Christ fails to convince. Clearly, Son of God! and King of Israel! are not synonyms.

  27. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’m not sure that “clearly” is so clear. The Caesars (that is, the “kings” of Rome) referred to themselves in certain contexts as “son of God.” I think you’re right that the terms are not synonymous; however, they are closely linked in the cognitive environment of the original audience. Little people would be thought irrational or just joking if they referred to themselves as “son of God.” But, the top dog; he gets to say it and people believed it [1]. When you move from the non-Jew world to the Jewish one, and you think as a mono-theistic Jew with the one true God being the God of your nation, then the terms as used by the non-Jew start to coalesce more closely for the Jew.

    Josephus tells a story of a prominent woman who “serviced” a ruling man (I can’t remember who) all night because he had made the pretence of being a god and she wanted to get benefit from that. She was furious the next morning when she learned the truth.

  28. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    Arabic isn’t the only language involved. David Abernathy points out that many languages are spoken in Islamic cultures. The current controversy is over Arabic and Turkish bibles but translating for Islamic people groups involves a multitude of languages and dialects.

  29. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    If I were an Islamic apologist seeking support for the notion that christianity teaches a pagan form of divine paternity I might start out with Psalm 2:7.

    Psalm 2:7 Son of God, Begotten of God

    I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
    He said to me, “You are my son,
    today I have begotten you.

    διαγγέλλων τὸ πρόσταγμα κυρίου
    Κύριος εἶπεν πρός με Υἱός μου εἶ σύ,
    ἐγὼ σήμερον γεγέννηκά σε·

    7 אספרה אל חק יהוה
    אמר אלי בני אתה אני
    היום ילדתיך

    J. A. Fitzmyer in his discussion of 4q246, the Aramaic “son of god” fragment, refers to ילדתיך in Psa 2:7 as a “graphic expression” and goes on to state “Commentators are usually hesitant to assert that this implies a physical divine sonship for the king, such as might be the connotation of similar expressions in the ancient myths of the eastern Mediterranean world.”[1]

    From there moving to the New Testament, I might focus on one particular reading of μονογενὴς, i.e., “only begotten” in the Johannine Prolog.

    John 1:14 Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.

    John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth

    John 1:18 Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

    John 1:18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

    There is no lack of material in the Christian canon for an Islamic apologist who is set on proving the that christianity teaches a pagan form of divine paternity. All these texts are read by orthodox christians in light of the doctrine of the trinity worked out in detail after the canon was complete. If the question is simply one about the language used in an **isolated text** like Psalm 2:7 or John1:18 then the Islamic apologist will be difficult to refute.

    [1]Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins, 2000, page 66.

  30. Wayne Leman says:

    Stirling, I was taught theology about the “eternal generation” of the Son by the Father. I still find it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of 3 “persons” in a single godhead. It’s no wonder that Jews and Muslims accuse Christians of being polytheists.

    We’re going to have to find better words to express what we mean if we intend to communicate as accurately as possible.

    And it seems to me that that is precisely what this translation debate is about. There is vocabulary in some languages which expresses the idea of a relationship between a father and son but does not communicate the idea that God had sex with a woman to produce a son.

  31. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    I think we are in agreement on the goals of translation. The results are a different issue. Here are the back translations from the New American article.

    • Frontiers published a Turkish translation of the gospel of Matthew that uses the word “guardian” for “Father” and “representative” or “proxy” for “Son.”

    • SIL consulted on a Bengali Scripture translation that changed “Son” to “Messiah” and “Son of God” to the cumbersome “God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One.”

    In regard to the SIL sample using Messiah for Son, this is addressed at great length by David Abernathy and I think he makes a solid case that Messiah doesn’t cut it for Son.

    C. Stirling Bartholomew

  32. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    This comment is a quotation from Appendix 1 of Biblical Missiology LostInTranslation-FactCheck.pdf, available in full on the web. Just the first two paragraphs of Appendix 1 are quoted:

    start quote:
    Appendix 1: Theological and Linguistic Reasons Why Wycliffe’s Muslim Idiom Translation Practices Are Not Valid

    One of the main teachings in the Qur’an and Islam is that God is one and cannot be divided in any way; any attack on that oneness (even implied) is blasphemy and ‘shirk’, an unforgivable sin. Muslims understand Father-Son terms in the NT to mean that Jesus is God’s actual Son, God incarnate, and that God is His actual Father, which is exactly the correct meaning according to the Scriptures. However, to them that is shirk and so, of course, they find it offensive and are afraid to believe such a thing because the Qur’an falsely teaches them that those who believe such things will be punished with eternal hellfire. Contrary to Wycliffe’s statement, any offense associated with the “traditional translations” of these terms also applies to the original Greek terms since they have exactly the same meaning.

    Assuming that by “traditional translations” Wycliffe/SIL is referring to the use of ‘ibn Allah’ in Arabic (and equivalent translations in other languages) to refer to Jesus as the Son of God, it is absolutely false for Wycliffe to say that these are “inaccurate” or that they “communicate the wrong meaning”. Since ‘ibn’ is the natural way that any father would refer to his son in Arabic, this is the accurate translation of the Greek, ‘huios’. As in all languages, the context in which ‘ibn’ is used determines whether or not it refers to a son that has resulted from a biological relationship. Native Arabic speakers insist that ‘ibn’ is the correct word to use when translating the phrase ‘huios tou theou’ and that the context clearly explains that no sexual meaning is implied.

    :end quote

  33. Wayne Leman says:

    a response from Richard (Rick) Brown:

    Thanks. Please refer your readers to the articles at

    These were carefully reviewed and approved by administrators and also reviewed by others.

    You might want to mention that the issue arises in large part from the different ways that languages assign kinship terms, whether on the basis of genetic relations alone or on the basis of actual familial relationships.

    Unlike Greek, Hebrew, and English, some languages rarely use a word for a father or son that is not strictly biological, and some have no such word. That is the main source of the problem. What makes it a problem for Muslims is calling God a father or saying he has sons implies he is a physical man who procreates with human women, or possibly that he procreates with goddesses. But they can’t get past the basic meaning of the term in their language: “biological son.” This is an example of the semantic mismatches that present such a challenge to translators.

    BTW, a book on that topic is Fox, J. Robin, Kinship and Marriage: An
    Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University
    Press, 1967).



  34. Peter Kirk says:

    Stirling, μονογενὴς monogenes doesn’t have anything to do with begetting or birth. The word simply means “unique”, “only one of its kind”. This accords with its etymology from genos “kind”, not from gennao “be born”. So monogenes huios simply means “only son”, and the implication of procreation comes only from the “son” part. The translation “only begotten” is a translation error.

  35. Daniel Buck says:

    The Islamic religion may have no place for a non-biological Son of God, but there’s nothing in the Arabic language itself to cause confusion. Hebrew, a cognate language of Arabic, is replete with “son of” and “Master of” metaphorical usages that have nothing to do with begetting or owning.

    Arabic has a genitive construct noun “thu” which carries the meaning of “being characterized by having.” If one truly want to cater to the idiosyncrasies of the Arabic language, then this is a construction that could and should be used to its maximum potential. And potentially, it could be used in straight substitution for “Son” in any references to Jesus’ divinity.

  36. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    RE: μονογενής unique, one of a kind, yes as any lexicon will tell you. Tyndale got it wrong and hundreds of years later ASV, NKJV and NASB (ca. 1969) with footnote noting alternate translation. Never the less, the word μονογενής is found with τέκνον and πατρί already in Aeschylus.

    μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί
    Aeschylus Line 898

    μ. αἷμα one and the same blood,
    dub. l. in E. Hel.1685.

    a similar word.
    ὁμογενής, ές,
    of the same race or family ζῷα Democr.164, cf. E.Or.244, Pl.Ti.18d ; ὁ. ψυχά E.Ph.1291 (lyr.) ; ὁ. μιάσματα, of bloodshed in a family, Id.Med.1268 (lyr.) :

  37. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    The citation from Aeschylus Line 898 μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί is found in a speech by Agamemnon’s treacherous wife who is laying on the irony, nothing should be taken at face value. Obviously Agamemnon is not an only child of his father. Herbert W. Smyth, the great classical greek grammarian translated the passage:

    “But now, having born all this, my heart freed from its anxiety, I would hail my husband here as the watchdog of the fold, the savior forestay of the ship, firm-based pillar of the lofty roof, only-begotten son of a father, or land glimpsed by common earth the foot, my King, that has trampled upon Ilium.”

    Note that “only-begotten son of a father” is still with us. Smyth, obviously hadn’t read the lexicons 🙂

  38. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    Peter Kirk wrote:

    “μονογενὴς monogenes doesn’t have anything to do with begetting or birth. The word simply means “unique”, “only one of its kind”. This accords with its etymology from genos “kind”, not from gennao “be born”. So monogenes huios simply means “only son”, and the implication of procreation comes only from the “son” part. The translation “only begotten” is a translation error.”


    I took the time to read the fine print in the major lexicons. Not a bad idea actually. The meaning of μονογενὴς in Johannine literature isn’t exactly a settled matter. The late F. Danker in both the second and third edition, look a the whole article. Also TDNT. YOur statement “The translation ‘only begotten’ is a translation error.” is certainly an oversimplification.

  39. Iver Larsen says:

    Having read the latest article from the fall of 2011 that Wayne referred to, I thought it worthwhile to quote a section from it. I would strongly encourage those who are interested to read the article in full. I think we can happily skip Abernathy now without losing anything of substance.

    They say on page 116:

    To avoid using procreative kinship
    terms for divine relations, producers
    of an audio Bible drama in the 1990s
    used expressions like “the Christ sent
    from God” in their story of Jesus.
    This was mentioned in the October
    2007 EMQ article, along with other
    approaches to solving the linguistic
    problem mentioned in section 1.
    On the other hand, although most
    Bible scholars agree there is often a
    Messianic meaning to expressions
    of divine sonship and that the Bible
    presents the Messiah as divine, there
    are other components of meaning as
    well, as listed in section 4. We now
    believe it is ideal to express the familial
    component of meaning in the text, for
    the reasons stated in section 6 above,
    and that terms like “Christ/Messiah”
    should be used only to translate
    Christos/Meshiach and should not be
    used to translate huios/ben. We would
    discourage anyone from doing this.

    Note that Rick Brown and his colleagues now discourage the use of Messiah to translate “Son of God”.

    It is a complex issue that should not be judged by how the English language works. In fact, we should be very hesitant to judge those who are trying their best to do an almost impossible job.

  40. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    I read latest article from the fall of 2011, and all the others. This is a lot of reading. I think the Rick Brown et al position in the 2011 paper has addressed at least one of the major issues, the Son/Messiah substitution is no longer promoted. If you are pressed on time you should read the 2011 paper first.

    I am now starting to read the statements by the signatories of the Biblical Missiology petition. Particularly interested in the statements from natives of Islamic cultures. Any notion that this is a squabble started by bible belt americans is quickly dispelled by reading these statements.

  41. Peter Kirk says:

    Any notion that this is a squabble started by bible belt americans is quickly dispelled by reading these statements.

    Stirling, I wouldn’t be too sure of that. From my limited experience of churches in Muslim majority countries, many of them have been planted or sponsored by Bible belt Americans, and those Americans have selected and trained their pastors. Or sometimes it is British or other Europeans involved. So these “natives of Islamic cultures” are advised by their Western mentors of what position they ought to take on controversial issues. I’m not saying their words are not genuine, but they can be coloured by theological tendencies which are by no means native to their culture.

    I am not claiming that any specific signatories of the petition are in this situation, but it is something I would want to check up on before allowing any notions to be dispelled.

  42. TL Adamson says:

    “The Word of God provides the content of faith, it tells one what to believe, in order to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s conviction means to place the Gospel in such a clear light that the unbeliever understands what the Gospel is and acknowledges it as true regardless of whether or not he accepts it personally.” Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum “The Ministries of the Holy Spirit” Manuscript MBS 066, pp 10-11.

    As we all know, indigenous missionaries are generally the most effective in communicating the truth of the Gospel and God’s Word. Even then, there will always be some gap between the written and spoken Word. So,the goal remains, to present the Gospel written and oral in all its truth, even when it costs degrees of communication and understanding. With continual prayer, the Holy Spirit is faithful to move the human spirit without forcing it.

  43. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    After reading a few hundred of them, sounds like most of the noise is coming from the western world and a lot of it from the USA. The people from Islamic cultures probably don’t all have wifi and laptops. It looks to me like the PCA — why do they always crop up in these bible disputes? — Vern Poythress, a name associated with WTS Philadelphia.

    I have been tempted to send a very specific question to people I know doing translation in several different Islamic locations. I have resisted the temptation since I am sure they are sick of this squabble which has been going on for ever and ever.

  44. Wayne Leman says:

    Today SIL announced a major decision in response to debate about translation of divine familial terms. See the UPDATE I just posted to the original post on this blog.

  45. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I have to admit I’ve never encountered this one before. But.

    First of all, fatherhood and motherhood in the normal sense that we understand by them, are, so far as I am aware, a human universal. I’d be surprised if they are not in the Brown/Pinker list of universals. I don’t know Arabic but I’d be even more surprised if it doesn’t have a normal word for both. However one interprets the fatherhood of God, it seems to me that is part of his own self revelation. We are obliged to to translate this into the normal word for father in its normal sense. Where, as is often the case (e.g. in English), there is more than one word in a language meaning ‘father in its normal sense’, with, say, a different register, we have to choose the appropriate one for context. Most of us will have heard sermons turning on this very point. I don’t think, though, we can ‘break the metaphor’ just because it might upset people.

    Second, if there already is a Christian sub-community within a language community, which has its own normal Christian vocabulary in that language, it seems to me to be crass stupidity, callous disrespect and asking for trouble, not to use their existing terms when one translates new material.

    There are Arabic speaking Christians and there have been since the earliest years of the faith. This is not my world and I’m not familiar with it. Nevertheless, even a brief search of Youtube demonstrates that it is a culture that is not stuck in the C5, and is fully able to express itself in localised ‘modern’ terms with guitars etc, even if, I suspect, because of the culture of the Middle East, it probably finds it difficult for that to have much impact outside its own youngsters. Whatever the problems may be for potential Moslem converts, and however seriously one considers this, it seems to me that one is obliged to use whatever words they normally use for God, Father, Son etc.

  46. Dannii says:

    I don’t think that “fatherhood” and “motherhood” are universal concepts. In some Australian Aboriginal societies the important male in a family is the mother’s brother, although everyone knows who their biological father is too. So what is the normal sense of father in such a culture? Not an easy question…

    I agree with your second point. It’s the Acceptability criteria of translation.

  47. Donna says:

    Dru: Certainly the concepts represented by our English terms “mother” and “father” are not universal. Many languages understand them differently. Across cultures, there are differences in the range of who these words might refer to, the roles they are expected to do, the emotions invoked by these terms, the significance of the term for the person etc…

    Joel: Clearly the Greek words do not imply sex as much as the Arabic terms do. The Greek speaking Jews were comfortable with language of “son of God” to refer to a leader (like King David) and they didn’t think it means that God had sex with a woman and produced David. Apparently this IS implied when the terms are literally translated into some languages in the Arabic family.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with people accusing others of “removing” terms like “father” and “son” from the Bible. The terms “father” and “son” were never in the original Bible, and this point is not simply a semantic one – huios DOES mean different things than the English word “son” in certain contexts. If so, an accurate meaning based translation will translate according to what it means in that context, not what the world most often means in a dictionary. Often this difference is overlooked by English speakers who are familiar with their literal Bibles and traditional Biblical language and have learned what these terms mean in different contexts. A good meaning based translation will translate the meaning in the text, and will give the literal phrase in a footnote so that people can see the connections throughout the Bible.

  48. CD-Host says:

    Second, if there already is a Christian sub-community within a language community, which has its own normal Christian vocabulary in that language, it seems to me to be crass stupidity, callous disrespect and asking for trouble, not to use their existing terms when one translates new material.

    And assuming you are Protestant there are many terms in your bible which were changed out of a callous disrespect for the “church of Charles’ puppet”, like perdition to destruction. Are those changes illegitimate and if so why not change them back? Every religious culture starts changing the bible to meet their new theology. That happens in all cultures.

    And so the disrespect is essentially intentional. The existing community is Orthodox the new community is Protestant. This is no different than what happens in Latin America when Protestants come into Catholic communities today. Protestantism is a rejection of some of the key claims of Catholicism with many key theological differences that get reflected in translation.

    In terms of familial names, Conservative Christians like to freak out about new Christian bibles. Those same Conservative Christians would be equally freaked out about the existing bibles since they are part of the Orthodox church and likely embed all sorts of Catholic theology the same way the NJB, NAB… do today in English. Also remember who was spreading this story to begin with, a group of people whose primary interest is not theology but politics.


    Donna —

    Terrific comment. Couldn’t agree more.

  49. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    Rom. 1:4 τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν, Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν,

    ESV Rom. 1:4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

    The phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ is rendered “Son of God” in a dozen of the most commonly cited English versions. But what is the relationship [syntax] between υἱοῦ and θεοῦ? Is θεοῦ in apposition or is it a genitive with a head noun? The English translations support the latter but there isn’t an English equivalent for the former. Assuming we read υἱοῦ θεοῦ as a genitive with a head noun, in a recent book (2009) addressing the current iteration of the πίστις Χριστοῦ debate, Porter & Pitts[1] argue that the meaning of the head noun, in a noun +genitive construction is restricted by not changed by the genitive. In other words, the meaning of πίστις can be determined independent of the genitive, i.e., the decision to read πίστις as faith or faithfulness is independent of the genitive construction. I am not convinced by Porter & Pitts’ argument.

    In Romans 1:4 I would argue that the meaning of υἱοῦ is substantially altered by colocation with θεοῦ and any attempt to do lexical semantic analysis of υἱοῦ without consideration of its colocation with θεοῦ would be pointless. It is quite possible that I am missing the point with Porter & Pitts. The article is classic Porter, maximal obfuscation.

    [1] Porter, S.E., and A.W. Pitts 2009 ‘Πíστiς with a Preposition and Genitive Modifier: Lexical, Semantic, and Syntactic Considerations in the πίστις Χριστοῦ Discussion’, in Bird and Sprinkle (eds.) 2009: 33-53

  50. Peter Kirk says:

    Stirling, are you suggesting a sense like “declared God the Son”, in a flash-forward to Trinitarian theology? I suppose this might be grammatically possible, but seems unlikely in the context of the previous verse where he is described as the descendant of David, although interestingly huios is not used when the focus is on physical descent.

  51. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    Not suggesting any such thing. I am only questioning Porter & Pitts claim that the genitive doesn’t affect the lexical semantics of the head noun. A very narrow focus, nothing to do with Trinitarian theology. Even in pagan sources the colocation of υἱοῦ θεοῦ alters the meaning of υἱοῦ.

    C. Stirling Bartholomew

  52. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    Porter & Pitts[1] page 47 “… the lexis of the head term should be disambiguated before asking how the genitive modifies the head term.” In their article, πίστις should be disambiguated independent of Χριστοῦ. I don’t buy that. Χριστοῦ is indispensable for the disambiguation of Πíστiς.

    Re: υἱοῦ θεοῦ in Rom 1:4, υἱοῦ has a semantic range in Hellenistic Greek, but when collocated with θεοῦ in light of the NT & LXX use of θεοῦ, the semantic range shrinks. We could say that θεοῦ places semantic constraints on υἱοῦ, restricts its meaning but it also disambiguates. But we would never attempt to determine the lexical contribution of υἱοῦ independent of θεοῦ, that just doesn’t make sense.

    [1] Porter, S.E., and A.W. Pitts 2009 ‘Πíστiς with a Preposition and Genitive Modifier: Lexical, Semantic, and Syntactic Considerations in the πίστις Χριστοῦ Discussion’, in Bird and Sprinkle (eds.) 2009: 33-53

  53. Iver Larsen says:

    The claim by Porter and Pitts does look rather strange based on this short quote.

    Any word in any language has a semantic range, some words have a large range with many senses, others a small range with only one or a couple of senses.
    When a word is used in context, one needs to study the whole context in order to understand which particular sense is in focus, and this is not always clear. A genitive construction only serves to tie two words together in a relationship so that they need to be understood together, but it indicates nothing about the nature of that relationship. It is not enough to look at the two words that are part of the genitive, but one needs to look at the whole context. The common descriptions “subjective” and “objective” genitives do not really describe the genitives, but the context in which they are used.

    For Rom 1:1-4, the main topic is the Christ=Messiah. The good news for Paul is that the promise God made long ago through the prophets has now been fulfilled, i.e. the sending of the Messiah. The human origin of this Messiah, who is also called the “son of God”, is King David. But his spiritual origin was God, and this was determined or proven when he was so powerfully raised from the dead and returned to his former position at the right hand of God in Heaven.

    The word “son” in Hebrew (and Biblical) Greek has a much wider semantic range than in normal English. Because of the influence of centuries of literal translations, the semantic range of “son” in Biblical English is wider than in normal English. Christians are used to understanding this wider sense which non-Christians would find difficult to grasp without teaching or further reading of the Bible, precisely because it is not normal English.

    In the original Biblical languages “son of” basically means “belong to” in some sense. Which sense depends on context. Sometimes it can also mean “originates from” or “represents” or “is characterized by”. Several of these can apply in a given context, since they overlap. So when Jesus is called “son of God” it may include in some degree all of these: He belongs to God, he came from God, he represents God and he is like God, the Father, in character. When people are called “sons of God” the first sense of belonging to is in focus, although to a certain degree they are also meant to represent God and be like him in character, although not in status.

    BDAG lists the following senses:

    ① a male who is in a kinship relationship either biologically or by legal action, son, offspring, descendant
    ⓐ the direct male issue of a person, son
    ⓑ the immediate male offspring of an animal
    ⓒ human offspring in an extended line of descent, descendant
    ⓓ one who is accepted or legally adopted as a son
    ② a pers. related or closely associated as if by ties of sonship
    ⓐ of a pupil, follower, or one who is otherw. a spiritual son
    ⓑ of the individual members of a large and coherent group
    ⓒ of one whose identity is defined in terms of a relationship with a person or thing
    ⓓ in various combinations as a designation of the Messiah and a self-designation of Jesus
    α. υἱὸς Δαυίδ son of David of the Messiah
    β. ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, υἱὸς θεοῦ (the) Son of God … Also, persons who were active at that time as prophets and wonder-workers laid claim to the title υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ

    How many of these senses would apply to “son” in normal English? How many would apply in Biblical English?

  54. Peter Kirk says:

    Stirling, you did suggest that θεοῦ might be “in apposition” with υἱοῦ, which would imply that they have the same referent, and so that the Son is being identified as God, or at least as a god. In the NT we quite often see “God” and “Father” in apposition, but I don’t think anywhere “God” and “Son”. However, I don’t see any sign of that idea in your extract from Porter & Pitts. So perhaps you didn’t really mean “apposition”.

  55. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    I was just eliminating one possible reading of two collocated anarthrous nouns in the genitive case. I haven’t found any exegete of Rom. 1:4 suggesting we read θεοῦ in apposition to υἱοῦ, “Son, who is God.” Apposition seems improbable in light of περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ in Rom. 1:3. I had in the back of my mind Murray J. Harris[1] who reads μονογενὴς θεὸς appositon in John 1:18.

    I did a search of TLG for υἱὸς θεοῦ in various permutations. Outside of Philo and LXX, it is rare. Found υἱοὶ θεῶν in Pindar.

    Pindarus Lyr., Pythia (0033: 002)
    “Pindari carmina cum fragmentis, pt. 1, 5th edn.”, Ed. Maehler, H. (post B. Snell)
    Leipzig: Teubner, 1971.
    Ode 11, line 62

    ⸏εὐώνυμον κτεάνων κρατίσταν χάριν πορών·
    ἅ τε τὸν Ἰφικλείδαν
    διαφέρει Ἰόλαον
    ὑμνητὸν ἐόντα, καὶ Κάστορος βίαν,
    σέ τε, ἄναξ Πολύδευκες, υἱοὶ θεῶν,
    τὸ μὲν παρ’ ἆμαρ ἕδˈραισι Θεράπνας,
    τὸ δ’ οἰκέοντας ἔνδον Ὀλύμπου.
    Αʹ Αἰτ σε, φιλάγˈλαε, καλλίστα βροτεᾶν πολίων,
    Φερσεφόνας ἕδος, ἅ τ’ ὄχθαις ἔπι μηλοβότου
    ναίεις Ἀκράγαντος ἐΰδˈματον κολώναν, ὦ ἄνα,

    Scholia In Pindarum, Scholia in Pindarum (scholia vetera) (5034: 001)
    “Scholia vetera in Pindari carmina, 3 vols.”, Ed. Drachmann, A.B.
    Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1903; 2:1910; 3:1927, Repr. 1:1969; 2:1967; 3:1966.
    Ode P 11, scholion 91, line 4

    EGQ τὴν ἐν τοῖς κτήμασι κρατι-
    στεύουσαν εὐφημίαν· ταύτην γὰρ λέγει χάριν. 92E
    BDEGQ ἥτις εὐδοξία ἔνδοξον ὄντα
    καὶ τὸν Ἰφικλέους παῖδα Ἰόλαον πανταχοῦ διάγει καὶ ἐπί-
    σημον ποιεῖ, καὶ τὸν Κάστορα καὶ σὲ, ὦ δέσποτα Πολύδευ-
    κες, υἱοὶ θεῶν, καὶ ἀπὸ κοινοῦ τὸ διάγει ἡ εὐφημία, ποτὲ
    μὲν παρ’ ἡμέραν ἐν ταῖς Λακωνικαῖς ὄντας καθέδραις, ποτὲ
    δὲ ἐν τοῖς τοῦ Διὸς οἰκοῦντας. (fin. sch. E)
    DEGQ πανταχοῦ διάγει καὶ ἐπίσημον ποιεῖ καὶ διαστέλλει. 91E
    BDGQ τὸ τοῦ Ὁμήρου παραφράζει τὸ
    (λ 302)·

    C. Stirling Bartholomew

    [1]Murray J. Harris, “Jesus as God”, Baker Book House, 1992

  56. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    There are several other reasons for NOT reading θεοῦ in apposition to υἱοῦ in Rom. 1:4. The genitive case is commonly used for paternity for example οἱ τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου “the sons of Zebedee.”

    John 21:2 ἦσαν ὁμοῦ Σίμων Πέτρος καὶ Θωμᾶς ὁ λεγόμενος Δίδυμος καὶ Ναθαναὴλ ὁ ἀπὸ Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ οἱ τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου καὶ ἄλλοι ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ δύο.

    John 21:2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathana-el of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.

    Paul uses similar language elsewhere,

    Rom. 8:14 ὅσοι γὰρ πνεύματι θεοῦ ἄγονται, οὗτοι υἱοὶ θεοῦ εἰσιν.
    Rom. 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

    Rom. 8:19 ἡ γὰρ ἀποκαραδοκία τῆς κτίσεως τὴν ἀποκάλυψιν τῶν υἱῶν τοῦ θεοῦ ἀπεκδέχεται.
    Rom. 8:19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;

    Rom. 9:26 καὶ ἔσται ἐν τῷ τόπῳ οὗ ἐρρέθη αὐτοῖς· οὐ λαός μου ὑμεῖς, ἐκεῖ κληθήσονται υἱοὶ θεοῦ ζῶντος.
    Rom. 9:26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”

    2Cor. 1:19 ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ γὰρ υἱὸς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς ὁ ἐν ὑμῖν δι᾿ ἡμῶν κηρυχθείς, δι᾿ ἐμοῦ καὶ Σιλουανοῦ καὶ Τιμοθέου, οὐκ ἐγένετο ναὶ καὶ οὒ ἀλλὰ ναὶ ἐν αὐτῷ γέγονεν.
    2Cor. 1:19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.

    Gal. 2:20 ζῶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χριστός· ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, ἐν πίστει ζῶ τῇ τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀγαπήσαντός με καὶ παραδόντος ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ.
    Gal. 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me

    Gal. 3:26 Πάντες γὰρ υἱοὶ θεοῦ ἐστε διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ·
    Gal. 3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

    Eph. 4:13 μέχρι καταντήσωμεν οἱ πάντες εἰς τὴν ἑνότητα τῆς πίστεως καὶ τῆς ἐπιγνώσεως τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ, εἰς ἄνδρα τέλειον, εἰς μέτρον ἡλικίας τοῦ πληρώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ,
    Eph. 4:13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;

    On the other hand, it is curious that no one seems to have even made the attempt to read θεοῦ in apposition to υἱοῦ in Rom. 1:4. I could not find anyone, perhaps someone else can cite a scholar ancient or recent that suggests this reading.

    Switching topics:

    One reason we don’t see lots of examples of υἱὸς/υἱοῦ/… [τοῦ] θεοῦ in pagan literature, in polytheistic frameworks designating divine paternity would normally use the proper name or an epitaph for the deity.

    C. Stirling Bartholomew

  57. C. S. Bartholomew says:


    “How many of these senses would apply to “son” in normal English? How many would apply in Biblical English?”

    The distinction between normal and biblical English is new to me. If we start with Tyndale the biblical vocabulary and idioms have been a part of the English language for half a millennium. Most contemporary speakers of English don’t even know when they are using Biblical language. The current generation, 40 years and under are (as a group) biblically illiterate but the language of the bible is embedded in their culture.

    To answer your question, I have negated the definitions that don’t apply to English on the left coast of the USA.

    ① a male who is in a kinship relationship either biologically or by legal action, son, offspring, descendant
    ⓐ the direct male issue of a person, son
    NOT ⓑ the immediate male offspring of an animal
    Marginal ⓒ human offspring in an extended line of descent, descendant
    ⓓ one who is accepted or legally adopted as a son
    Metaphor ② a pers. related or closely associated as if by ties of sonship
    NOT ⓐ of a pupil, follower, or one who is otherw. a spiritual son
    NOT ⓑ of the individual members of a large and coherent group
    Marginal ⓒ of one whose identity is defined in terms of a relationship with a person or thing
    NOT ⓓ in various combinations as a designation of the Messiah and a self-designation of Jesus

    The messianic notion of sonship is too theological for the vast majority of Evangelicals. When I studied dogmatics in grad school, the messianic notion of sonship was given very little attention. Sonship of Jesus Christ was primarily metaphysical and I suspect the metaphysical aspect of Sonship is what comes to mind first and foremost among biblically and theologically literate Evangelicals. The apologetics battles are almost always fought over the metaphysical aspect of Sonship. This is why Peter jumped to the conclusion I was “fast forwarding” to the Trinitarian councils of the forth century.

  58. Peter Kirk says:

    Stirling, I can agree that “The apologetics battles are almost always fought over the metaphysical aspect of Sonship.” But the reason why I suggested that you were suggesting that “Son” might be in apposition to “God” was simply because you asked “Is θεοῦ in apposition or is it a genitive with a head noun?” And I mentioned Trinitarian theology (but not Trinitarian councils) because identifying God with the Son is part of that theology.

  59. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    I have neglected the most obvious reason for NOT reading θεοῦ in apposition to υἱοῦ in Rom. 1:4. Paul is setting up a contrast between κατὰ σάρκα “according to the flesh” and κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης “according to the Spirit of holiness” and also between messianic sonship ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ “descended from David” and metaphysical sonship υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει “the Son of God in power” … that is the general idea, James Dunn wrote an article on this in 1973[1] which is at times hard to understand since Dunn’s christology is a little strange from my perspective.

    Rom. 1:1 Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, κλητὸς ἀπόστολος ἀφωρισμένος εἰς εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ, 2 ὃ προεπηγγείλατο διὰ τῶν προφητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν γραφαῖς ἁγίαις 3 περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα, 4 τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν, Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν,

    ESV Rom. 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

    [1]James DG Dunn, “Jesus-Flesh and Spirit: An Exposition of Romans 1: 3-4,” JTS 24 (1973)

  60. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I don’t have the knowledge to comment on genitives, but I feel obliged to come back on some of the points people have made on my previous post.

    Dannii I can’t comment on Australian Aboriginal societies, but would guess from what you say that they are matrilineal. In the matrilineal societies I have encountered, the relationship, father-son/daughter was recognised with the same core sense as ours but did not necessarily have the same property and inheritance consequences.

    I imagine, Donna, that is what you are drawing attention to.

    The real question at issue here, though seems to be Arabic speaking or Arabic influenced societies. I suspect most (but I accept not all) of those are patrilineal, and most of them are in countries where there already is a Christian minority with an existing native language vocabulary.

    CD-Host, I’d hope modern translations are not as ostentatiously Protestant or Catholic as in former times. It isn’t usually so in modern English ones in the way Douai was. There is an issue for Orthodox translations of the Old Testament as to who would normally prefer to use the LXX as their basis for the Old Testament. However, my understanding is that they currently in English prefer either the AV or a slightly ‘Orthodoxised’ version of the NKJV. In none of these is the translation of Father and Son into English an issue.

    I’d hope also, we’d all agree that it is better that translations should aspire not be slanted either denominationally or for or against ours or other peoples’ theological preferences.

    Where one is producing a new translation of the bible into a language which already has a native speaking Christian community, with familiar Christian terms, I still think the only defensible view is that prima facie one uses the normal Christian language of the indigenous Christians.

    I also think that if one is going to do something different, one should only do so with their explicit permission.

    Iver Larsen, I take your point. However, as far as we know, whatever other semantic range ‘son’ has in biblical languages, C17 English, modern English and a large number of other languages, it is derivative from meaning (a). Other meanings don’t stand independently of meaning (a). They get their flavour from the meaning (a). ‘Son of Adam’ means what it does because the basic meaning of ‘son of Adam’ is Seth.

    By analogy, when a trade unionist starts a speech with a roaring ‘brothers’, he means, ‘fellow trade unionists’. But that meaning is derivative. It only has that meaning because he wants to link it to the underlying meaning, which is ‘male persons who have the same parents as I do’. He is saying, ‘I identify with you and invite you to identify with me, as though we were all one family’.

  61. C. S. Bartholomew says:

    RE: υἱοῦ θεοῦ Son of God syntax

    H. W. Smyth’s Greek Grammer, page 314, #1301 Smyth explains how the genitive is used for relations between persons, not just family relations; also relations between a superior and a subordinate.

    θύγατερ Διός daughter of Zeus

    Sophocles Trag., Oedipus tyrannus
    Line 158

    ἀμφὶ σοὶ ἁζόμενος τί μοι ἢ νέον
    ἢ περιτελλομέναις ὥραις πάλιν
    ἐξανύσεις χρέος·
    εἰπέ μοι, ὦ χρυσέας τέκνον Ἐλπίδος,
    ἄμβροτε Φάμα.
    Πρῶτά σε κεκλόμενος, θύγατερ Διός, {Ant. 1.}
    ἄμβροτ’ Ἀθάνα,
    γαιάοχόν τ’ ἀδελφεὰν
    Ἄρτεμιν, ἃ κυκλόεντ’ ἀγορᾶς θρόνον
    εὐκλέα θάσσει,
    καὶ Φοῖβον ἑκαβόλον, ἰώ,

    παῖς Διός child of Zeus

    Sophocles Trag., Trachiniae
    Line 513

    Ὁ μὲν ἦν ποταμοῦ σθένος, ὑψίκερω τετραόρου {Ant.}
    φάσμα ταύρου,
    Ἀχελῷος ἀπ’ Οἰνιαδᾶν, ὁ δὲ Βακχίας ἄπο
    ἦλθε παλίντονα Θήβας
    τόξα καὶ λόγχας ῥόπαλόν τε τινάσσων,
    παῖς Διός· οἳ τότ’ ἀολλεῖς
    ἴσαν ἐς μέσον ἱέμενοι λεχέων·
    μόνα δ’ εὔλεκτρος ἐν μέσῳ Κύπρις
    ῥαβδονόμει ξυνοῦσα.

    Διὸς Ἄρτεμις Artemis, daughter of Zeus

    Sophocles Trag., Ajax
    Line 172

    Ἦ ῥά σε Ταυροπόλα Διὸς Ἄρτεμις – {Str.}
    ὦ μεγάλα φάτις, ὦ
    μᾶτερ αἰσχύνας ἐμᾶς –
    ὥρμασε πανδάμους ἐπὶ βοῦς ἀγελαίας,
    ἤ πού τινος νίκας ἀκάρπωτον χάριν,
    ἤ ῥα κλυτῶν ἐνάρων

  62. Iver Larsen says:

    Thanks to Wayne and Stirling for clarifying for me which of the Greek senses of υἱός would be covered by English “son”. When Stirling says marginal, I take it to mean that it is not common, but may be used in certain contexts. For instance, if a famous person is referred to by the mayor of a small town where he grew up, the mayor may say with pride that he is “a son of this town”. That could come under 2c. The marginal 1c for descendant may be limited to translations of the Bible, I am not sure. Did C. S. Lewis invent “son of Adam” or was it used before? From your answers, it appears to me that “Son of God” as a reference to Jesus does not fall within the normal senses of “son” in English. So, when it is used anyway, the usage creates a new sense in the English language as used in Bible translations and theology. Since this new sense is entrenched and accepted, it is not advisable to alter it, and I would be hard pressed to find an alternative.

    In a discussion list for currecnt, active Bible translators who work in languages where the Bible is being translated for the first time the question was asked how they would translate “Son of God”. In very many cases, the Christians in those languages have already decided what to use. Again, in many cases, they do not say “Son of God”. A common way is to say “child of God”. In some languages, there are no single terms for son or daughter, but there is a term for child. To say “son”, they would have to say “male child of God”, but that is apparently rejected by the Christians in these languages. Sometimes they can say “son of God”, but it has the wrong connotations, either being a literal, biological son or a young boy. Therefore, “child of God” is used instead.

    In some languages, the word for “father” can also refer to the father’s brothers just like “mother” can refer to the mother’s sisters. One way of clarifying the reference is to say “Father God”.

    So, it is too narrowminded to suggest that a language must always use the term “son of God”. However, “child of God” keeps the familial relationship, although in an extended sense, and it is SIL (and Wycliffe) policy to keep this familial, extended relationship in agreement with and depending on what local Christians are already doing.

    As Richard Brown has pointed out there were some limited experiments many years ago with using “Messiah” to overcome some of the problems with misunderstandings arising from the literal “Son of God”. However this is no longer being done, because it was realized that somehow keeping the extended familial metaphors is important.

  63. Brother Ben says:

    The Turkish use of “proxy” sounds decent. The idea is that the Son of God is the embodiment of God, who exists without body. I don’t know what range the word “proxy” in Turkish carries but in English it has a somewhat cold and limited range, reminiscent of a tool.

    As we see “Son of God” often stated alongside “Messiah” in parallel, I went to see what “Messiah” was listed alongside in the OT, outside of its Greek usage. In Daniel 9:25 it is listed next to “Prince.” “Prince” carries the warm, human aspects that “Son” connotes and that “proxy” may (in Turkish or Arabic) lack; but it also suggests the extension of power and authority which “Son” no longer carries in English and avoids the Muslim anathema “Son of God.”

    As a side, it seems the image of Christ in American culture rarely draws upon this idea that it is he who actually judges. Could “Messiah, Prince of God” work? Conversely, if this phrase does convey the desired intent, there is the question of why it was not used in the Greek.

  64. Peter Kirk says:

    Ben, your comment illustrates well the difficulties we English speakers have in understanding the issues here. Unless we have studied Turkish for many years, we cannot know the connotations of the word rendered “proxy”. It may well be a warm family word, not at all like the English word. But the best that can be done by people preparing a petition in English is to choose one possible gloss (one word near equivalent), or a short definition like “God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One”. But exactly the same applies for foreign language words usually glossed “father” and “son”, which may have very different connotations from the English and Greek words.

  65. Lars Huttar says:

    Peter, I understand that you’re trying to give the benefit of the doubt where you do not yet know all the details. But many more details *are* available, to the point that the discussion can be much more focused. Native Turkish pastor Fikret Bocek, a trained seminarian and Bible translator ( – see Appendix 2; also says that ‘velkili’ does not denote sonship, and says that other Turkish pastors agree with him. If we don’t sit up and take notice at that, what standard of evidence are we looking for?

    Not even the defenders of this translation have claimed that ‘Allah’ın Vekili’ communicates sonship or any sort of familial relationship. Rather, an explanation of familial relationship is relegated to footnotes or interlinear text. Even those are often difficult to find (see “Allah’ın Vekili” in Matt. 4:3 at and find the paratext).

    I often hear people accusing the petition preparers of kneejerk reactions and of not doing their research (though I don’t think you necessarily meant that). But examination seems to show a different story: they document many of their claims extensively, and many of their sources are very credible.

    I would recommend reading Bocek’s testimony (linked above), and ask, on what basis can we dismiss his claim? Here’s a man who has endured torture in prison for his faith, and whose church is impacted by the translated Turkish scripture. Yes, he may be wrong, but what evidence do we have that he is? Here is concrete documentation from a highly-educated native speaker. What concrete documentation is on the other side? (a question not directed at you personally, Peter) If he is right that these translations are causing harm, what recourse does he have?

  66. Peter Kirk says:

    Lars, I was speaking more hypothetically, and responding to Ben’s apparent attempt to judge the suitability of the Turkish word from the connotations of its gloss. Pastor Bocek, as a Turk who grew up as a Muslim, surely knows well the connotations of the word glossed as “proxy”, as well as of the regular word for “son”. But I fear that his opinions may have been unduly influenced by the theological framework which he has picked up at Westminster Theological Seminary. However, having looked at the range of glosses in my Turkish-English dictionary, I would not quarrel with his basic contention that vekil is not a suitable word to render “son” in the Greek version of the expression “son of God”.

  67. Jason Leonard says:

    Sorry to be late to the topic here. It seems everyone involved, while generating some stimulating debate points, is missing an important aspect of the Bible’s use of father/son language. I get that some aspects of the problem stem from how the Qmran was written/translated. And it appears cultural issues in Arabic have been considered when it comes to father/son language. But I still get the impression that everyone is assuming father/son language refers only to physical (or metaphysical) aspects of the relationship. (though I may have not grasped all nuances of what people have argued here)

    My take on things is that the words carry another aspect to their dimension that is not considered by any reader, because of how most people process information that they read. Rather than translation being at fault, I think we have a general failure of people to grasp this fact: father/son can carry more than just a biological (physical) dimension to it. Familial understanding has been forced on the words because of the implications in the language. But what if the intended use was not biological, but social? That is, the authors intended to imply meaning associated with the social roles? And familial language was all that was available (as social roles were strongly embedded in such words)?

    Social science commentators on the Bible have made a similar point. Such language almost can’t refer to biological aspects or the implications are often absurd (as in how people misunderstand Jesus’ parables, or concepts of trinity). As an example of how social roles affect the meaning from the usual biological, God “the father” implies patronage in the ancient patron-client system. We get the English “father” from the same root, the latin pater. In this sense he is more aking to an OT patriarch caring for his land and servants, not an everyday father taking his kid to school each day. And Jesus, who primarily serves the role of a broker in this system, has some aspects of his position that are only explained if he is also a “son”. Some of his authority and behavior is only available if he holds this dual-role (inheritance, perfect obedience, giving honor to the father, etc.) Bruce Malina’s work in this area is helpful.

    People will still have an issue with Matthew 1:20 (“what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”). Theologically, of course, this passage speaks more of God being active in the creative process (the Holy Spirit representing God’s activity in the universe). It has little to do with any kind of sex that might be involved. But I don’t know how this can be translated without literal readings implying sex to most interpreters. The closest I can come is “What is conceived in her is God’s doing”. (or God’s creation). Combine that with replacing “father” by “patron” and there may be a few steps forward…

    Jesus, as a “son”, or being “born of God” will always sound biological to a literal interpreter, no matter what explanations are given (social science included). Literal interpretation is then at play here as much as any other issue, and that cannot be remedied by translation.

    I of course recognize the points made about the issue being that Arabic people also have ingrained in themselves a natural rejection of the concept at hearing the words. That means they will, of course, not likely make an effort to find what the full meaning might be. In that sense, though, the problem is universal in all cultures and little different from what causes our own culture’s Biblical illiteracy. This also will not be fixed by translators.

    Working at uncovering theological meaning is rarely front on most people’s minds, since few teaching methods encourage critical thought. We have to reform this as much as we might want to reform translations. We can’t help people who don’t want to “seek” in the first place. There needs to be some universal shift in encouraging everyone to become betters learners. And in that case, I’ll keep waiting for the Geico piggie to grow wings…

  68. Wayne Leman says:

    Jason, your point is reasonable. But taken to its logical conclusion, we can have all kinds of disconnects between “literal” meaning and intended meaning. We could, for instance, say that when the biblical words say that Jesus died, we don’t expect people to really believe that he died, but that something else happened to him that was similar to death. Until I can see sufficient evidence to the contrary, I still think that meaning in determined by social agreements. When enough people agree among themselves that a sequence of sounds means a certain thing, then it does. If we want people to have a different meaning for that sequence of sounds we either have to do some social engineering, that is, teach the group a new meaning long enough that their brains actually understand that new meaning, at least in an appropriate context, or wait long enough and hope that common sense will reveal the intended meaning to them. Church history is full of examples where common sense has not prevailed when it comes to meanings of words in the Bible. We still fight about whether the meanings of some biblical words are to be understood literally or not. Sometimes the fights get very intense.

    I guess I find it difficult to understand how we can expect people who hear or read words in a translation of the Bible to somehow come to understand that those words really don’t have the meaning they usually do. I have read serious theologians essentially claim that God is the father of Jesus in the most literal sense of the word. I think what they mean is that God’s relationship to Jesus has the quality of fatherhood, par excellence. But I think they also mean that there is some kind of eternal procreation of the Son by the Father, with typical theological wordings such as “eternally proceeding from the Father.” Such theological explanations reinforce the understanding of Muslims that Jesus must be a literal son of God, literally born from the procreative process in the way that any other son is.

    I think that it is more likely that the social meaning of the relationship between Father and Son can be best understood by those people who speak languages where there are different words for social fathers than for biological fathers or where a social father meaning comes to mind as easily as a biological father meaning. I think that some of what Rick Brown has written (cited in previous discussion in this thread) claims that some languages actually do have different words differentiating social from biological fathers. Then we have to make a choice between which of the father terms to use. It’s not an easy choice. I think that we would all do well to pray for those who translate into languages spoken by Muslims, rather than too quickly assuming that when translators try to avoid wrong meanings in their translations they are translating wrongly. (You haven’t claimed that, but the vocal critics have.)

    Thanks for presenting your ideas. They are definitely worth chewing on. And it doesn’t matter that some time has passed since most of the discussion here too place. This debate will not be settled easily. Some Bible translation debates have continued for hundreds of years.

  69. Mike Tisdell says:

    My introduction to the translations issues in regards to familial terms was a little different than many because I was first introduced to IM and then introduced to these new translations. About four years ago I was sharing office space with a friend, who unknown to me at the time, was one of the leading advocates of IM (Insider Movement). We began a long series of discussions around his belief (newly revealed to me at that time) that Christian missionaries were wrong to convert Muslims to Christianity and that those Muslims who come into the kingdom of God should be taught to remain Muslims and remain in the Islamic Mosque. During the months we engaged in discussions about IM I was introduced to these new translations that at that time were using an Arabic equivalent of “Messiah of God” for “Son of God.” I was given the explanation about the sexual connotations of the Arabic term ‘ibn’ (son) and why it was necessary to change the phrase. Because of many other theological concerns raised during our discussions, I had some serious misgivings about these translation choices and began about a two year long investigation of the linguistic claims made in some of the articles I had been given. Note: none of the articles I have read ever provide any objective evidence supporting the linguistic claims about how ‘ibn’ is understood in Arabic, it is always stated as a “fact” that we are just to accept. The rest of the argument is built on this unsubstantiated “fact.”

    In my first attempt to verify the linguistic claim, I drove about 60 miles to an Arabic speaking church and spoke to a number of native Arabic speaking Christian immigrants and asked them how they understood the term ‘ibn’; no one that I spoke with agreed with the IM assessment about how ‘ibn’ is understood in Arabic. When I reported this back to my IM friend, his response was “of course, those are Christians. They don’t properly understand Arabic like Muslims do.”

    In my second attempt, I visited a number of Halal restaurants and markets in my area and spoke with native Arabic speaking Muslim immigrants and unsurprisingly they understood ‘ibn’ in Arabic exactly as the Christians had. There was no automatic sexual connotation understood by the Muslims. When I reported this back to my IM friend, his response was “of course, those Muslims have been exposed to American culture and no longer understand Arabic like Muslims in the middle east understand Arabic.” It seemed as if no matter what I found the bar was always raised so that it was impossible to find any evidence that was contradictory.

    In my third attempt, I began searching through Islamic Arabic literature for non sexual/biological uses of ‘ibn’ and I found a number of examples. One of the strongest examples I found was a reference to ‘Zayd ibn Mohammad’ in an Islamic commentary. The reason this was interesting was because this was a reference to the prophet Mohammad’s adopted son and no Muslim makes the mistake of assuming that Zayd is Mohammad’s biological son even when the term ‘ibn’ is used. When I reported my findings to my IM friend his answers was “that is a good question?” a question that has remained unanswered over the last several years even though he still teaches today in his seminars that ‘ibn’ ALWAYS has a sexual/biological understanding.

    Over the last four years, I have also posed these same questions to the organizations and authors of articles that present the sexual/biological argument for the understanding of ‘ibn’ in Arabic in an attempted to get further clarification about any studies or other objective information that may support the claims being made about how these familial terms are understood and as of today I have not received a single reply to any inquiry I have made from any of those promoting the idea that ‘ibn’ always conveys sexual/biological overtones to Arabic speaking Muslims. While I hear more and more reports from native Arabic speakers everyday that dispute the linguistic claims about how the term ‘ibn’ is understood in Arabic, I have yet to meet any native Arabic speaker who supports these claims.

    From my own experiences, the closest I was able to come to the sexual/biological meaning that is claimed was when I asked Muslims what they believed CHRISTIANS TAUGHT about the “Son of God.” There does appear to be a huge misunderstanding within Muslim communities about WHAT CHRISTIANS TEACH about the “Son of God” but I could find no evidence that this misunderstanding was based on a misunderstanding of the term ‘ibn’ itself.

    Additionally, I believe it would help those on the outside trying to weigh the arguments to understand IM and the translator’s perspective on IM and whether these new translations are being used primarily in IM ministries. We all know that every translator brings their own theological biases to translation so understanding the biases that may affect a particular translator’s choices is important. Understanding the theological viewpoints of each translator on a translation committee is always important when forming a new translation committee and it should be no less important when we are seeking to create translations in Islamic contexts; it should not continue to be a point of secrecy.

    The biggest concern I have about the replacement of familial language in some translations is that the arguments about the misunderstanding familial language appear to be over exaggerated but the misunderstandings caused by using non-familial substitutions are hardly addressed by those who propose the use of non-familial language. Many of the options suggested for as substitutions for familial language are similar to or identical to phrases used in Islamic literature that refer to Mohammad. While I have not yet seen any study that documents the claimed misunderstanding of familial terms, I have seen studies that do document the real misunderstandings that many MBB’s (within IM) have about Christ’s divinity i.e. they largely reject the divinity of Christ and see him as another prophet of God. That misunderstanding seems to me to be far more serious than the one the translators were supposedly trying to avoid and much harder to address when trying to explain the issue through teaching. Even more troubling is that IM advocates believe that one shouldn’t even provided an explanation to an MBB who misunderstands Christ’s divinity because that, they say, is solely the job of the Holy Spirit and if we say anything we are trespassing on an area reserved only for the Holy Spirit. If, in reading these translations, an MBB misunderstands who Christ is, we are to let them misunderstand until the Holy Spirit reveals it to them according the IM advocates.

    Ref: Source: Phil Parshall, “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, vol. 34:4 (October 1998)

  70. Dannii says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for that comment. While I think that the Bible can be legitimately translated by anyone, including non-Christians, most of the time it is translated for mission-related purposes. If there are indeed Insider Movement Bible translators that is a serious problem, and might amount to an Islamic version of the New World Translation.

  71. Peter Kirk says:

    Mike, thanks for your comment. Your remarks here make sense. I have always suspected that the problem with “son” is really only when it is coupled with “God”, because in Muslims that immediately brings to mind Islamic teaching rejecting the very biological misunderstanding of what is intended.

    While we don’t want Muslim background believers to reject the divinity of Christ, we also don’t want them to think he is a demigod, the partly divine and partly human offspring of a divine father and a human mother.

    While we don’t want to change the message of the Bible to reflect theological preferences, we must also be careful not to insist on writing into translations our own theological positions, such as a developed doctrine of the Trinity. That should be left to teachers or to the Holy Spirit. Even the divinity of Christ is left implicit or veiled in Scripture, so we should not insist on making it explicit.

  72. Dru says:

    Thank you Mike for that. As far as I am concerned, this confirms me in the views I expressed on 8th and 12th February. There have probably been Arabic speaking Christians longer than there have been English ones. My view is that we should use the terms they use. They know what they mean and how Arabic is spoken.

    Besides, haven’t our brothers and sisters worked through these issues before? I’d have though using any other term for fear of offending Muslims or making it harder for them to accept Christianity, if it converts anyone at all, is more likely to convert them to one of the various heresies that the rest of us were turned aside from in the years before the last of the great Councils in 787.

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