doves or pigeons?

A commenter from The Wuggy Chronicles just asked in our Share section:

I have been wondering why in many translations, “peristera” is translated as “dove” in John 1:32, but rendered “pigeon” in 2:14,16. An important layer of poetry is lost by using a different word there, so I’m curious about what tradeoffs motivated that (pretty common) decision.

I enjoy answering this kind of question since it involves looking at a number of different English Bible versions which I like doing.

First, I can’t speak to tradeoffs that motivated the decision not to use the same bird name in the two passages in John. I seldom have any idea what motivates a translation team to translate as they have unless they explicitly say what their motivation is. I agree with you: I see no reason to use a different bird name in the two passages. I believe that the versions that use the same English bird name to translate the same Greek New Testament bird name are clearer for English readers that the same bird is referred to.

Now, to the first part of your comment, the versions I have viewed which use the words “dove” and “pigeons” in the two passages are RSV, ESV (essentially the RSV with doctrinal revisions of a few verses), REB, GNT, and GW.  I cannot think of anything these versions have in common that are different from other versions.

Versions which use “dove” and “doves” are: KJV, Douay-Rheims, NASB, NWT, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, CEV, NJB, NAB, NLT, NCV, TM, NET, HCSB, ISV, and CEB.

By my count, the score is 4 versions (5 if ESV is counted as a different version from RSV) that use “dove” and “pigeons” and 17 versions which use “dove” and “doves.”

13 thoughts on “doves or pigeons?

  1. Iver Larsen says:

    A book about animals in the Bible, published by the United Bible Societies, states in part:

    “In the fifteenth century the English word “pigeon” meant a young dove, the word “dove” being reserved for the adult birds. In modern English the words are used almost interchangeably. As a general rule, “pigeon” is used for domesticated forms of these birds, and for the larger variety of wild forms, while “dove” is used mainly for wild varieties.”

    In John 1:32, the context suggests a wild/undomesticated dove and the other two references refer to domesticated pigeons.

    NIV translates the same Greek word as pigeons in Luke 2:24 and as dove in Luke 3:22. The bird that descended on Jesus is called a dove, also in John 1:32. The pigeons used for sacrifices NIV calls pigeons in Luke 2:24, but doves in John 2:14,16, even though it is the same Greek word. So, NIV is “inconsistent” when we look only at the two places in Luke, but there is a good reason to be inconsistent. It is always a challenge when one word in the original can be translated by two more or less synonymous words in the new language. In that case, accuracy of meaning is more important than consistency in terms of word-for-word substitution. What NIV did correctly in Luke (i.e. being “inconsistent”), they failed to do in John.

    I do not see consistency of translation as related to poetry. No layer of poetry is lost by using different words, but clarity and small nuances of meaning may be lost by using the same word. English happens to have two words for pigeon/doves. Pigeon is from the Latin/French stock, dove is from the Germanic stock. I cannot say whether English speakers generally take the two words as synonymous, but I assume that some translation teams tried to indicate the difference between domesticated pigeons and non-domesticated doves. Another aspect is the kind of turtledoves (mourning doves in America?) and pigeons used for sacrifices. Two different words are used in Hebrew, but the meaning differences are not very clear. Usually, the two words are translated into English as turtle doves and young pigeons.

    However, the connotations of words are important. I think doves are normally considered mild, innocent and friendly, but also a bit shy? Pigeons may be obnoxious, I am not sure? In my language we only have the Germanic word, and I am not qualified to gauge English usage.

    As an aside, we do have the word pigeon in Danish meaning a specific kind of small apple, It comes from French pigeon, short for pomme de pigeon (pigeon apple).

  2. Daniel Buck says:

    Iver, you are right. ‘Pigeon’ tends to have a negative connotation in English, while ‘dove’ carries a connotation of purity. It would be bad English to say that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a pigeon; the first picture that would come to mind would be one of Jesus getting bird droppings on his head. ‘Doves,’ on the other hand, are only seen briefly at magic shows or released at peace ceremonies, and are not thought to have such body functions.

    As far as wild vs domestic, ‘dove’ is a white domestic bird; it is only a game bird when used as part of a compound such as Rock Dove or Mourning Dove. ‘Pigeon’ on the other hand is a semi-wild bird that is considered a pest species in the cities it inhabits.

  3. Dannii says:

    I am really no expert at all on birds, but that probably just makes me part of the target demographic!

    For me, doves are white birds, and pigeons are grey/blue. To be honest, until reading this I had no idea that they were basically the same.

  4. bobmacdonald says:

    Iver writes: No layer of poetry is lost by using different words, but clarity and small nuances of meaning may be lost by using the same word.

    I think I prefer the reader to insert the nuance of meaning rather than the translator. A note would be good if the translator wants to insert a nuance of meaning. If the writer of the foreign text used recurring words as a poetic or structural signal, then a layer of poetry is lost. If the writer didn’t care about recurring words then the translator is free of such obligation.

  5. Iver Larsen says:


    My question to you – if you were a translator – would be: Would you always use the same word in English to translate the Greek word peristera? And if so, which word would you choose, pigeon or dove?

  6. bobmacdonald says:

    “Would you always use the same word in English to translate the Greek word peristera? And if so, which word would you choose, pigeon or dove?”

    In general, I would tend to using the same word. In some cases I would. In other cases I would not. Where the words are used close together or in significant structural positions – like beginning and end – I would try to find a way to make the same sound at these points.

    My translations tend to sound foreign to the native speaker’s ear. It is deliberate on my part. But people get used to the style anyway. Re the general issue of concordance, it is impossible to be rigid. You are right – there are nuances. I would not necessarily call them nuances of ‘meaning’. That potentially domineering word should remain sub-dominant. Meaning represents a choice (heresy) for the translator. I would rather engage the perplexity of the reader and let the choice be in the ‘reading’.

    I have summed up my ‘rules’ for concordance with difficulty. They are in tension with each other. There are trade-offs.

    Here for example, there is tension in the sacrificial metaphor represented by the dove. I would use dove if I had used dove in the Torah sections on the nature of the sacrifice for the poor. But it goes deeper into sacrifice for the image of the beloved as turtledove is in the Song and in the Torah.

    I would also be constrained to distinguish as in Leviticus 14:22, and I recall to mind the Psalm 74 and the lament of the 19th verse.

    do not give to animals the throat of your turtledove
    the life of your poor do not forget in perpetuity

    LXX appears to be inconsistent in the choices of gloss for the beloved turtledove תור between these verses – but Psalm 74 (73) maybe a different Hebrew vorlage. The NETS ‘a soul that acknowledges you’ would suggest a different reading of the Hebrew, perhaps a daleth for a resh. Lev 14:22 is in agreement with Luke 2:24 – and here the second gloss is important from a rhythmic point of view. Dove and pigeon may seem a better parallel to dove and turtledove – but I need help from a Greek-reading birder.

    What we have in the baptism is not only the Spirit at rest or at peace, but also the Spirit as sacrificial love in the midst of a rebellious and disobedient world. The sacrificial aspect should not be minimized. It reminds me of the appointment of the king expressed in sacrificial terms in Psalm 2:6

    I myself have offered as libation my own king
    on Zion, my holy hill

    Now there is a can of worms for the pigeon.

  7. Egad says:

    It might be worthwhile to check with ornithologists and perhaps archaeologists to see what pigeon/dove-like birds were around in Palestine two thousand years ago. For what it’s worth, here in 21st Century CE Texas, “pigeon” and “dove” refer to similar but definitely distinct birds. Pigeons are the larger and somewhat obnoxious ones, doves are the smaller and less conspicuous ones that Dick Cheney likes to kill.

  8. Kirsty says:

    Apparently doves are only white when bred to be white by humans – not in the wild. So when I’m illustrating Noah I have a coloured dove, e.g. a stock dove or rock dove. It was a real bird being used for a practical purpose, not a symbolic bird. For Jesus’ baptism, however, I’m happy to draw a white dove.

  9. Mike Tisdell says:

    There are several issues here, first in English the word “dove” originally had a much broader understanding than it does in Modern American English where there is a clear distinction between a “dove” and a “pigeon.” The original understanding of “dove” in English was understood similar to how we understand “duck” in American English today i.e. it describes a class of birds, and not a specific bird.

    Here is the definition of “dove” from UM’s middle English Dictionary.

    douve (n.) Also doufe, douife, duve, dofe & dove, dofe & duf(fe, dof(fe & d u(e, dowe. [OE *dofe; cp. OS duva, OI dufa, etc.]

    1.(a) A pigeon or dove; also, a young pigeon or squab, esp. in the phr. turtle or ~; (b) the image of a dove; (c) as a term of endearment: darling; (d) flight (slight) of douves, a flock of pigeons.

    2.(a) douve-bird, -brid, a young dove, squab; (b) ~ cote, dovecote; ~ cote garth; ~ cote makere; ~ hous, q.v.; (c) douve(s drit (dong), droppings of pigeons; ~ egge, egg of a pigeon; douve(s fot, wild geranium, dovesfoot; ~ hole, dovecote; (d) turtle ~, wode ~, q.v.

    Second, words in the biblical languages (especially) Hebrew, often described whole classes of animals (like “fowl” does in English; this is more the rule than the exception in the biblical languages. In this aspect the original understanding of “dove” in English mirrors the understanding of περιστερά or יונה in biblical Hebrew and Greek.

    When translating περιστερά or יונה, the translator is faced with translating a term that has a broader understanding in the original langauge than do the equivalent terms in Modern English. It would be like trying to translate the word “duck” in English into a language that only had specific words for specific species of “ducks” i.e. “Mallard,” “Rouen,” “Pikin,” etc… but had no general word to describe the entire class. The translator is required to identify the kind of “duck” in the translation when the original English text did not make this distinction. This requires the translator to know something about what breeds were likely present in a particular geography, what characteristics were typically associated with different breeds, etc…

    Unfortunately, there is little information given by the translators about why they chose the particular English words they used in each of these verses so it is difficult to know what the basis was for each choice but it is clear that they did have to make a choice each time they translated these words because the περιστερά encompassed both breeds but the equivalent words in modern American English have a much more narrow semantic range of meaning; a choice had to be made in the translation that was not made in the original text. The difficulty the translators faced when making this choice can be seen in the significant variances found in different English translations.

  10. Mike Tisdell says:


    While I tend to lean towards more formal equivalent translations because they limit the interpretive choices a translator makes, it is important to realize that every good translation requires the translator to make some interpretive choices; there is no such thing as a “word for word” translation. We must remember that words in different languages have overlapping meaning but never identical meaning. For example, זמן means “to invite” and “to order” as in “I invited a friend home for dinner” or “I ordered Pizza” In English, we cannot use the same word to translate both ideas even though the same word is used in Hebrew. Similarly in English the word “order” can mean “to purchase something” or “to command” but in Hebrew these ideas are conveyed by two separate words i.e. זמן(above) and צוה. The translation of “I ordered a book from Amazon” and “I ordered him to clean his room” would require different words in Hebrew to translate the same English word.

    A translation that tries too hard to use a “word for word” translation methodology sounds foreign to us, not because it conveys the thoughts of the original better, but because it demonstrates a poor grasp of the language. In much the same way as we can often identify the country of a foreign speaker (with a poor grasp of the English language) because of the types of mistakes they make when trying to express ideas in English, a translation that is too “word for word” only displays the incompetence of the translator. It does not give us any better insight in to the thoughts of the original author.

  11. bobmacdonald says:

    @Mike – Your last paragraph is too definitive for me to agree with. I may be guilty of the same fault. Competence is a complex problem and as you demonstrated in your research on dove/pigeon, and ‘translation’ goes well beyond selecting a gloss as if meaning were contained in a word or as if ‘good’ (or evil) could be contained in one adjective. Part of the problem is ‘who is the audience’ and ‘how long will a translation live’ (not very long these days).

    I am currently wrestling with Deuteronomy 8:7-18 to sing it next Sunday to the music implied by the te’amim. I may sing it in Hebrew or English or both. But my first task is to translate it, my second to compare the te’amim of my 1896 Letteris edition to online versions and restore the missing notes and ornaments. My audience is the congregation, many of whom I know well. How will I ‘read’ this lesson for them? A lesson they could read for themselves – but some will and some won’t. And who knows the emotional state of the individual with respect to the faith – or the devotional state of a congregation?

    I need to be aware of rhythm, pulse, stress as implied by the music which is possibly 2000+ years old (the te’amim being an abbreviation for chironomic signs, a compact score), and for me – the importance of the sound of word repetition, a feature of Hebrew both in prose and poetry that is usually lost in translations that smooth out the foreignness. I am not in favour of dynamic equivalence most of the time. The Hebrew rhythms, repetitions, and pulses have a drama all their own and I want to express this in English. Gloss choices are only part of the problem.

    Choice number 1: use thee/thou to show that this passage is in the singular. no – the singular is not important here. The many – the congregation – are addressed as one. This is a frequent aspect of Hebrew thought – e.g. Psalms 42-44 and Lamentations 1-3. In Psalms 42-43 and Lam 3, an individual speaks as if representing the congregation.

    Choice 2 – what about those ‘torrents’ in the land (verse 7) – or are they babbling brooks (NJPS, KJV) or gently flowing streams (REB)? Torrents and depths imply a certain danger, the danger of the power of the created order. (A third homonym for you for ‘order’).

    Choice 3 – these are among dozens of examples, do I repeat ‘command’ (mitsvah) in verse 11 as it is in the Hebrew, or soften the second use to ‘give’ (REB)? Or ‘taking care’ (shmr) in the same verse (REB has see / keep, KJV has beware/keep)? I choose ‘care’: Take care lest you forget יהוה your God, not caring for his commandments or his judgments or his statutes which I have commanded you today.

    Choice 4 – how much Hebrew thought sequence will I keep if I decide to sing in English? I must keep as much as possible to match the musical emphasis in the Hebrew – e.g. verse 9. a land in which you, without scarcity, will eat bread. You will not lack any thing in it…

    This last one is curious – there is a run-on sentence in the Hebrew – a quick check of Letteris shows that the music returns to the tonic (silluq) briefly so perhaps it is reasonable to have two separate breaths here (it is almost like a sentence in parentheses) rather than the REB which puts everything in one thought sequence.

    I think I’d stay away from pigeons.

  12. Mike Tisdell says:


    While I would agree with you that defining what is competency in translation is a complex problem, I don’t think that defining incompetency is nearly so difficult. To be clear, I don’t believe you are arguing that the same Hebrew word should always be translated by the same English word (I think we both agree that context is critical in determining the correct word in an English translation), I do think that those who do argue for ALWAYS using the same English word to translate the same Hebrew (or Greek) word are unquestionably demonstrating incompetence. In my experience, the only ones who make this claim are those who cannot even read the text in the original languages. My initial response was because it seemed as if you were linking the foreign sounding translation to the use of the same words in translation, I am assuming that was my misunderstanding of what you were saying.

    You have a lot of interesting insights on the Duet. 8 passage, thanks for sharing.

  13. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Sorry to join this thread late. This is an ornithological take on the subject.

    1. ‘Pigeon’ and ‘dove’ are largely interchangeable, except that pigeons tend to be larger. The biggest one found in the UK is usually known as the Wood Pigeon, Columba Palumbus, but is also known as a Ring Dove. In the UK it is very common. I think that in Israel, it is only a winter visitor.

    2. Domestic pigeons/doves are all domesticated versions of the Rock Dove, Columba Livia. They have been domesticated for c 5,000 years. In their natural condition they are grey, but many domestic ones are white. They are used as food, for racing, and as messengers. They coo. The ones that infest the world’s cities are escaped members of this species. The young of this species are called squabs.

    3. As a domestic bird, one would assume that the pigeons that are sacrificed in Leviticus are this species, EXCEPT THAT.

    4. ‘Tor’ seems in the dictionaries to mean Turtledove, Streptopelia Turtur, which is a wild bird, not a domesticated one. It is migratory, Song of Songs 2:12, Jer 8:7. Since a person is not supposed to offer a wild animal, which would cost them nothing, if ‘tor’ is specifically a turtle dove, that is inconsistent. ‘Tor’ though does sound like its call.

    5. There are other species, e.g. there’s a Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto which over the last 100 years or so has spread north westward across Europe. I’ve no idea whether that was present in Biblical Israel.

    6. It’s probably fair to say that a ‘Columba’ species can be either a pigeon or a dove, but a ‘Streptopelia’ one is normally a dove.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s