Holy Spirit

In English, the Greek term Pneûma tò Hagion is translated as “Holy Ghost” or “Holy Spirit.” The English terms referring to Pneûma are synonyms: “ghost” is derived from Old English gast (“breath” or “good or bad spirit”) and “spirit” from Latin spiritus (“breath” or “supernatural immaterial creature”). Until the late 19th century, English translators of all traditions used “Holy Ghost” (or “holy Ghost”) but generally switched to “Holy Spirit” (or “holy Spirit”) thereafter, likely because the meaning of “ghost” had transitioned to predominantly refer to the spirit of a dead person.

Other languages with a long tradition in Bible translation translate Pneûma (for “holy” see holy) as follows (click or tap here to see more):

  • While a few Germanic languages still use terms derived from gast (see above) including German and Dutch (Geist and Geest respectively), the majority use forms of Proto*-Germanic anadô (“breath,” “spirit,” “zeal” — used in Latin as anima), including Danish (Ånden), Swedish (Ande), Icelandic (Andi), and Norwegian (Ånd). (*”Proto” refers to the most recent common, often hypothetical language ancestor).
  • The majority of Romance languages use a form of the Latin Spiritus (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan among others).
  • Slavic languages derive their translation from the Proto-Slavic dȗxъ (“breath,” “wind,” “spirit”), including Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian (all: Дух)
  • Most Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, Chaldean — with the exception of Maltese which uses the Latin-based l-Ispirtu s-Santu), Iranian languages (Urdu, Tajik, Dari, Persian, Pashto), Turkic languages (Uzbek, Turkish), Malayic languages (Indonesian, Balinese, Sangir, and Malay — for further information on Malay, see below) use a derivative of the Proto-Semitic rūḥ- (“to blow,” “breathe”). Compare the Hebrew term ruach (רוּחַ: “breath,” “wind,” “spirit”) in the Old Testament. (For the use of Roho in Swahili, see below)
  • Many Indo-Aryan languages have chosen translations derived from Sanskrit आत्मन् ātman, meaning “soul,” “life,” “self,” including Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Panjabi, Santali, and Telugu — source: Hooper, p. 176f.

Bratcher / Nida say this about the translation into languages that do not have an existing Bible translation (click or tap here to see more):

“Undoubtedly no word has given quite so much trouble to the Bible translator as spirit, for (1) it includes such a wide range of meaning, from ‘evil spirit’ to ‘poor in spirit’ to ‘Holy Spirit’ and (2) it touches so vitally the crucial comparison and contrast between Christianity and so-called ‘animism.’

“There are four principal dangers in the choice of a word for Holy Spirit: (1) the term may identify an essential malevolent spirit, and no mere addition of the word ‘holy’ or ‘good’ is likely to change the basic connotation of the word, (2) the word may mean primarily the spirit of a deceased person (hence God must have died — a not infrequent error in Bible translations), (3) the expression used to mean ‘spirit’ may denote only an impersonal life force, a sort of soul-stuff which may be conceived as indwelling all plant, animal, and human substances (therefore, to say that ‘God is spirit’ is to deny His essential personality), and (4) a borrowed term may signify next to nothing to the people, and can only be explained by another term or terms, which, if they are adequate to explain the borrowing, should have been used in the first place. It is true that in some instances a borrowed word has seemed to be the only alternative, but it should be chosen only as a last resort.

“There is no easy formula to be employed in finding an adequate equivalent for Holy Spirit, for what seems to work quite well in one area may not serve in another. One thing, however, is certain: one should not select a term before making a comprehensive study of all kinds of words for spirits and for parts or aspects of personality and thus having as complete a view as possible of all indigenous beliefs about supernatural beings.”

Following are ways that languages without a long tradition Bible translation have translated Pneûma (click or tap here to see more):

  • Western Highland Chatino: “God’s perfect heart” J. Hefley (1968, p. 210) tells this story (click or tap here to read more):

    “Ninu [a Chatino translation assistant] told his translator that the word ‘holy’ could be used to modify an idol, a household god, the witch doctor, an altar, a lion, the sea which had caused a flood and disaster, a sacred mushroom, and several other things. The translator and his consultant deduced that holy had two main components of meanings for Chatinos. It referred to persons purported to hold supernatural powers, and to objects which, if not properly respected, would bring evil upon one. With this and other information, they agreed that they could not use the Chatino word for ‘holy’ and ‘spirit’ in defining the third person of the Trinity. Their approved translation for Holy Spirit became ‘God’s perfect heart’ (referring primarily to the life principles of one who is living).”

  • Malay (Today’s Malay Version, publ. 1987): Roh Allah: “Spirit of God.” Barclay Newman (in The Bible Translator 1974, p. 432ff.) explains this as follows (click or tap here to see more):

    “A third difficult phrase that had to be dealt with was ‘Holy Spirit,’ since in popular Islamic theology there are many ‘holy spirits.’ In order to overcome this problem it was decided that ‘the Holy Spirit’ would always be rendered ‘God’s Spirit,’ and that wherever ‘Spirit’ or ‘the Spirit’ was used as a reference to God’s Spirit this would be clearly marked.

    “Other illustrations could be given of the clearing up of ambiguous and difficult phrases, but only one more will be selected, and it will serve as a transition to the next major section of this article. In John 6:63 the phrase ‘Spirit and life’ (in the expression ‘the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life’) is taken to refer to one thing not two. That is, even though the words are connected by the conjunction ‘and’ they are not in the relationship to one another that ‘and’ normally suggests. Moreover, ‘spirit’ in John’s Gospel, unless otherwise indicated, always refers to God’s Spirit. So then, the Common Malay has translated with the meaning, ‘the words which I speak come from God’s Spirit and bring life.’ This exegesis also has the advantage of tying in the meaning closely to the previous verse.

    “As previously indicated, except in the passages where the context clearly indicates otherwise (John 11:33; John 13:21; John 19:30), it was assumed that ‘spirit’ or ‘the spirit’ refer to God’s Spirit, and so the translator always made this information explicit. For example, John the Baptist’s words in John 1:32 become ‘I saw God’s Spirit come down like a dove from heaven.’ The one exception to this rule is in 3:8a, where there is a play on words. In Greek, as in Hebrew, the same word may mean either ‘wind’ or ‘spirit.’ In this context most translations take ‘wind’ to be the basic comparison, and so have translated in this way; and some have even provided a footnote, indicating the play on words. Since the basic comparison here is seen to be ‘wind,’ the Malay New Testament translated the text in this way.”

  • Shipibo-Conibo: translated with “a word designating one of the larger entities of human personality, the one which includes most of the others and which is always used of a live person.” James Lauriault (in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 56ff) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “The Shipibo consider all spirits evil, with the exception of certain entities making up a human personality. It would be a manifest contradiction to say ‘Good Evil-Spirit’ for ‘Holy Spirit,’ and it would be completely misinterpreted if one should say that Jesus perceived in his evil-spirit that some of the scribes thus questioned within their hearts (Mark 2:8).

    “For these reasons we have translated this word (…) when it unmistakably refers to a disembodied evil personality yoshin ‘demon.’ (‘Unclean spirit’ we have translated ‘harmful demon.’)

    “When it refers to the ‘Holy Spirit,’ we have finally translated it ‘Spotless Spirit,’ using for ‘Spirit’ a word designating one of the larger entities of human personality, the one which includes most of the others and which is always used of a live person.”

  • Sranan Tongo: Santa Yeye (from previously Santa Winti). Marlon Winedt explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “One of the translators in Sranan Tongo followed the historically and scientifically correct analysis that the word for Holy Spirit should be ‘Santa Winti.’ However, the churches had traditionally used ‘Santa Yeye.’ Although in the spiritual world-mapping of the afro-descendants of the country Santa Yeye refers to a more limited spirit, it was the most acceptable choice because ‘winti’ besides meaning ‘spirit, wind’ also refers to the afro-Caribbean religion /spiritual practice ‘winti’ which can be compared to voodoo or other forms in the Caribbean. The Catholic lectionary used this translation (Santa Winti) though there was a heated debate about the use. The then-bishop of Paramaribo advised the faithful to choose whether they wanted to say Santa Winti or Santa Yeye when reading the text. In the interior of Suriname, Catholic catechists actually burned the lectionary because they found the term Santa Winti to be blasphemous.

    “When the Sranan Tongo New Testament translation project was underway an attempt to merge two teams did not succeed partially based on this issue. Ultimately the remaining SIL/Bible Society of Suriname team did not chose to use Santa Winti but the accepted Santa Yeye. [This version was published in 2002.]”

  • Anuak: with a term that means ‘that which comes from God’ Eugene Nida (in The Bible Translator 1955, p. 63) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “In Anuak there is no term for ‘spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit.

    “There is a word (ywey) which may be used to translate human soul or spirit, but which is essentially the ‘life principle.’ One cannot speak of the ywey of God, for the Anuaks insist that God does not have a ywey and that He is not a ywey. It is God who has given ywey to all people, animals and plants, but He Himself is of a different order of existence.

    “To speak of the ywey of God would be to equate him with earthly creation. There seems to be no easy solution to this problem, but for the time being ‘Spirit’ is to be translated as ‘that which comes from God’, in the sense of that which emanates from or has its origin in God.”

  • Kaingang: Topẽ kuprĩg (God’s Spirit — kuprĩg is often to the spirit of a dead person). Ursula Wiesemann (in Notes on Translation June 1978, p. 32ff.) explains how the translation team reached that conclusion (click or tap here to see more):

    “All human beings have a kãnhvég which has as an outward manifestation the shadow or the reflection of that person. It is closely linked to the body and cannot leave it. It is an indication of life in the body. According to one language helper, it lives in our chest (that is, heart), but this may be a carry-over from his Christian teaching.

    “The kãnhvég at death becomes vẽnh kuprĩg. Vẽnh is a pronoun meaning ‘someone’s’. The vẽnh kuprĩg seem to live in groups and can be heard at night making a peculiar humming noise. They may do mischievous things like throwing dirt on the house which scares the inhabitants. A vẽnh kuprĩg may also appear to an individual, be recognized by him for whose spirit he is, speak kindly to him, and even touch him. The purpose is to take the living person along to the place where the dead live. It is reported that in this way the vẽnh kuprĩg cause death, or that they might even choke babies to death during the night. In describing an encounter with a vẽnh kuprĩg, the Indians say: ‘I saw a vẽnh kuprĩg It was so-and-so.’ Whereas kãnhvég collocates with all pronouns and names (that is, can be directly identified as belonging to a specific person), kuprĩg collocates most naturally with vẽnh when it refers to the spirit of a dead person.

    “Such conflicting reports on the meaning of the terms is difficult to choose the right terms for the Spirit of God. In Rio das Cobras and in Guarita, God is said to have a kuprĩg and a kãnhvég, but it is His kuprĩg who has a life of his own without being tied to God’s body. In both localities (and some others, where, however, the question was not looked into in detail as in the three areas identified), the definite and unquestioned choice of all people asked was to identify the ‘Holy Spirit’ as Topẽ kuprĩg ‘Spirit of God’. In Nonoai (same dialect area as Guarita but different dialect area from Rio das Cobras), however, the definite and unquestioned choice is Topẽ kãnhvég ‘because kuprĩg refers to the spirit of one who died.’ So it will be necessary to use both terms in a paraphrase to satisfy everyone. The objection to kãnhvég is its close tie to a body, and only in Nonoai this connection seems to be broken.

    “Postscript: Since writing the above, several years have passed, and the New Testament has been completed, and the revision committee, composed of three Indians from as many dialect areas, unanimously chose Topẽ kuprĩg for ‘Spirit of God,’ rejecting the word kãnhvég as being ‘too weak and not meaningful’ — that is, the kãnhvég is not a spirit at all but just a sign of life, so it has been dropped in the last revision, as well as the reference to the ‘kãnhvég not dying’ as eternal life.”

  • Papiamento: Spiritu. Since the term on its own means “bad spirit,” in any case that no modifier is used (such as “Holy” or “of truth”), the translators used Spiritu di Dios (“Spirit of God”) to differentiate it from the negative connotation (source: Marlon Winedt).
  • Ditammari: “air of God.” Loewen (in The Bible Translator 1983, p. 213ff.) explains that a search for the term “spirit” was conducted (especially as in “Holy Spirit”). Since faith healers often avoided using the name of unclean spirits by saying “impure air” a suggestion was made to call Holy Spirit “clean/pure air”. This was accepted but changed to “air of God” to avoid ambiguity with air that we breath.
  • Warlpiri: Pirlirrpa Kaatu-kurlangu: “God’s Eternal Spirit,” since “holy’ carries the meaning of taboo and cannot be used (source: Stephen Swartz (SIL) in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: God’s Good Spirit (source: John Beekham in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22.)
  • Kahua: the term for “Spirit” is a generic term for a spirit which never had a body (i.e., not the spirit of a dead ancestor). (Source: David Clark)
  • Keapara: Vea’a Palaguna (“Holy Spirit” but can also be “Holy God” or “angels” — “there is not a strong contrast between the meaning of God and Holy Spirit” since “God” is translated with “Palagu”) (source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 222f.)
  • Naro: Tc’ẽe: a word that refers to the “thinking/willing part” of one’s personality. (Source: van Steenbergen)
  • Many Bantu languages translate Pneûma with a word that originally means “soul,” including Ganda and Haya (both: mwoyo), Ndebele (uMoya), Nyanja (mzimu), Sotho (Moya). Fang uses Nsísim: “shadow” or “separate soul” (anima separata) (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176)

The grammatical gender of the Greek Pneûma is neuter (and the Hebrew ruach has a feminine gender). While many languages either do not have a grammatical gender or have a word for Pneûma that grammatically is masculine, other languages found various ways of dealing with this. (Click or tap here to read more):

The earliest example is Classical Syriac which, like Hebrew, used a term — Ruhä — that was of feminine gender. According to Ashbrook (1993), in early documents the feminine gender was not only used in a grammatical sense but the Spirit was often described with feminine imagery as well. “Around the year 400 [though], a change emerges in our texts. Starting in the fifth century, and almost universally by the sixth, the Spirit is masculine in Syriac writers. Ruhä when referring to wind or spirit continues to follow rules of grammar and to be construed in the feminine; but when referring to the Holy Spirit, it is now construed as masculine, although this does violence to the fabric of the language.” (Source: Ashbrook 1993)

A similar process of ungrammatical usage was attempted in Asháninka. The “Good Spirit of God” required a feminine, inanimate pronoun which was artificially changed to masculine. After a while this was changed back to its true grammatical form with no perceptible difference in the understanding of the Trinity. Will Kindberg (in The Bible Translator 1964, 197f.) tells that story (click or tap here to read more):

“For the past several years Mr Sylvester Dirks of the Mennonite Brethren Mission and I have been engaged in missionary work with the Asháninka sub-group of the Campa tribe in Peru, and have collaborated on Christian vocabulary items and translation as well as other phases of our missionary activities. For the ‘Holy Spirit’ we are using ‘the Good Spirit of God’. The normal pronominal reference for spirit, whether it be a human spirit or the spirit of a god, is third person feminine inanimate. Long ago, Sylvester and I agreed that we would force the use of the third person masculine animate pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit, although we recognized it was contrary to the grammatical system of Asháninka. We did this because of a theological bias: the Holy Spirit is referred to in English as masculine, and we think of the Spirit as a masculine member of the Godhead. We ignored the fact that it has a neuter reference in Greek.

“In the Gospel of Mark and also in the book of Acts, my translation consistently uses the third person masculine pronoun to refer to the feminine inanimate spirit. There has been a reaction against this by the people as they hear or read these portions of Scripture, though some of the believers have accepted it when it was explained to them why it had been done.

“This past year while I was continuing working on other portions of Scripture, I was again troubled by the non-grammatical use of the pronominal referent.

“I checked again with some of my colleagues here in Peru and they agreed with me that it might be wise to switch back to the correct grammatical usage. So I checked with Mr Dirks and he did not object to the change.

“Because of the importance of the issue, I also wrote to Dr Eugene Nida and Dr John Beekman for their opinions. They both suggested the use of the grammatically correct forms. The following is a quote from Dr Beekman’s letter :

“‘There is a distinction between animate and inanimate reference in one of the Zapoteco dialects of Mexico. All spirits fall into the inanimate class. The weight of theological considerations led the translators to use the animate form contrary to usage. In consultation, however, it was agreed that it would be preferable not to violate the grammatical pattern especially since the informants felt that the use of the inanimate form did not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit was not a person. The translators are now using the inanimate form to the satisfaction of all of the believers.’
“I have switched the pronominal reference throughout John and it has just been printed. The reaction of the few people with whom I have checked this has been good. The question has been asked: ‘How does having two masculine members and a feminine-inanimate member affect the Asháninka’s idea of a triune God?’

“One day I was talking to my informant (still a relatively untrained believer) about the different gods in which his fellow tribesmen believe. And I said, ‘What does the Bible teach about God? How many are there?’ (Note that I used the unmarked form that might be either singular or plural.) He answered, ‘There is one God’. Then after thinking a minute, he said, ‘There are two—there’s Jesus. Then afterwards he said, ‘There are three— there’s God’s Spirit’. It seems to me he has understood the doctrine of the Trinity about as well as most Christians. For the last few months we have been using a feminine inanimate referent for the Holy Spirit and this has not seemed to hinder his understanding of the Trinity. Time will tell the reaction of the rest of the people.”

In Swahili, the translation of Pneûma tò Hagion is Roho Mtakatifu. Roho, derived from the Semitic / Arabic Rūḥ, should be in the noun class for loan words but to prevent the misunderstanding of Roho as an inanimate object, it is (grammatically incorrectly) used in the first class of nouns which is specifically reserved for people. Other Bantu languages use similar strategies. (Source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176)

sky

Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic all have one term only that refers to what can be expressed in English as “sky” or “heaven(s)” (as a physical and spiritual entity). While there is a slight overlap between the meaning of the two English terms, “sky” (from Old Norse sky meaning “cloud”) typically refers to the physical entity, and “heaven” (from Old English heofon meaning “home of God”) typically refers to the spiritual entity. While this enriches the English lexicon, it also forces English Bible translators to make decisions that can be found only in the context in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts. Most versions tend to use “heaven(s)” even if the meaning is likely “sky,” but the Contemporary English Version (NT: 1991, OT: 1995, DC: 1999) is an English translation that attempted to be more specific in the separation of the two meanings and was used as the basis for the links to verses used for this and this story (“heaven”).

Norm Mundhenk (in The Bible Translator 2006, pp. 92-95) describes the difficulty that English translations face (click here to see more):

“A number of years ago an old lady asked me a question. What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’? I do not remember what answer I gave, but I was surprised at how concerned she seemed to be about the verse. It was only later, after I had left her, that I suddenly realized what it was that she was so concerned about. She knew that death could not be far away, and all her life she had looked forward to being with God in heaven. But this verse said that ‘heaven will pass away’! What did that mean for her hopes? In fact, of course, in this verse Jesus was talking about the skies or the heavens, not about Heaven as the place of God’s presence. If I had realized the problem in time, I could easily have set the lady’s mind at rest on this question that was troubling her so much. However, I suspect that she is not the only person to be misled by the wording of this verse. Therefore, it is very surprising to find that even today many English versions (including the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, Good News Translation) still say ‘heaven and earth’ in verses like Matt 24:35 and its parallels (Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33). The Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Phillips’ translation seem to be aware of the problem, and in Mark 13:31 both of these have ‘earth and sky’ instead of ‘heaven and earth.’ But in some other passages (such as Matt 5:18) the traditional wording is still found in both of those translations. The New Century Version (NCV) does have ‘earth and sky’ more consistently, and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) has ‘sky and earth’ in these passages. (Although ‘sky and earth’ is closer to the Greek, it seems more natural in English to say ‘earth and sky’; but either way, at least the meaning is correct.)

“Louw and Nida’s Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament (publ. 1992) suggests that the Greek expression being translated here, ho ouranos kai he ge is ‘a more or less fixed phrase equivalent to a single lexical unit’ and that it means everything that God created, that is, the universe. They then quote Mark 13:31 as an example, using ‘heaven and earth’ in their translation of it. However, they go on to say that there ‘may be certain complications involved in rendering ho ouranos kai he ge as ‘heaven and earth,’ since ‘heaven’ might be interpreted in some languages as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself. The referents in this passage are ‘the sky and the earth,’ in other words, all of physical existence, but not the dwelling place of God, for the latter would not be included in what is destined to pass away.’ In my opinion, English itself is one of the languages where the word ‘heaven’ will be interpreted as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself, and translations into English should not use ‘heaven’ in these passages. It is probably because these passages are so very familiar that translators do not realize the meaning they are giving their readers when they use the expression ‘heaven and earth’ here. In modern English we might talk about a rocket ‘soaring into the heavens,’ but we would certainly not describe it as ‘soaring into heaven,’ because ‘heaven’ is not another way of referring to the sky or to outer space.

“In fact, it is surely important in all languages to have some way of distinguishing the concept of ‘sky’ from the concept of ‘dwelling place of God.’ In these passages translators should never use a term meaning ‘the dwelling place of God.’ It may not be necessary to use a term meaning ‘sky’ either, if there is some other expression in the language which gives the correct meaning of ‘everything that has been created’ or ‘the universe.’ There are of course places in the New Testament where Heaven, as the place where God lives, is contrasted with the earth. In these passages, translators should be careful to give the correct meaning. A good example of this is in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matt 6:10: ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Similarly, 1 Cor 15:47 says that ‘the first man [a reference to Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ Passages like these are referring to Heaven, not to the sky. Other NT passages where heaven refers to God’s dwelling place, in contrast with earth, are Matt 5:34-35, 16:19, 18:18, Acts 7:49, James 5:12, and Rev 5:3.
“Sometimes in the New Testament, the word ‘heaven’ is used because of the Jewish reluctance to use the name of God. ‘Heaven’ in these cases is used in place of ‘God’ and refers to God himself. This is the case in the many references in Matthew to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ where other gospels have ‘the kingdom of God’ (e.g., compare Matt 4:17 with its parallels in Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9). It is also most likely the case in references like Matt 16:1, Luke 20:4, 5, John 3:27, and even perhaps Col 1:5.

“There are some places, such as Matt 11:25, where God is called ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’ Since God is of course the Lord of Heaven as well as of the universe, it may not matter so much which interpretation is given in these passages (others are Luke 10:21 and Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, the intended meaning here is likely to be ‘the universe.’ This is because this expression in Greek, as Louw and Nida say, is a set expression referring to everything that has been created. Acts 17:24 in fact combines the idea of the creation of the universe with the idea of God as Master or Lord of the universe. (…)

“Old Testament background The use of ‘heaven and earth’ in the New Testament is very similar to what we find in the Old Testament, because it is largely based on the Old Testament.

“The Old Testament begins with the story of creation, which is presented as the creation of the heavens and the earth, with lights to shine in the heavens and give light to the earth. Birds are created to live in the heavens, animals to live on earth, and fish to live in the sea (Gen 1:1-2:4).

“As we can see from the way the creation story is told, it is meant to be understood as the creation of the universe. Although in English the regions above the earth have traditionally been called ‘the heavens’ in the story of creation, they cannot be called ‘Heaven,’ in the sense of the place where God dwells. In terms of modern English, it would probably be better to say ‘the sky and the earth’ or ‘the earth and the sky.’ The story of creation then becomes an important theme throughout the Old Testament. (…)

“In most passages, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, when ‘heaven and earth’ or ‘the heavens and the earth’ are mentioned, the meaning is the created universe. It is not a reference to Heaven, as the dwelling place of God. In English, translators have not been careful to keep this distinction clear, and this is probably true in many other languages as well. However, as we have seen, this can lead to real confusion for ordinary Bible readers. It is better if translators find ways to make the meaning clear in these passages. ‘Heaven’ should be mentioned only in passages which clearly mean the dwelling place of God. In other passages, an expression should be used which means only ‘sky.’ Or else, the whole expression ‘heaven and earth’ can be translated in a way to show that the whole universe is meant.”

Other languages that have a semantic distinction similar to English include:

  • Hungarian: ég — “sky”; menny — “heaven”
  • Tagalog: kalawakan — “sky”; langit/kalangitan — “heaven”
  • Swedish: sky — “sky”; Himmel — “heaven”
  • Loma: “up” — “sky”; “God’s place” — heaven”
  • Mossi: saase — “sky”; nyingeri — “the up above”(source for Loma and Mossi: Bratcher/Nida)
  • Roviana: mamaṉa — “sly”; maṉauru — “heaven” (an old word, meaning “empty, open space of the sky”) (source: Carl Gross)
  • Kayaw: mô̄la or “canopy-under”/mô̄khû̄la or “canopy-above-under” — “sky” (atmosphere where there is just air); mô̄khû̄ or “canopy-on/above” — “heaven” (invisible abode of God and angels)
  • Burmese: မိုး ကောင်း ကင်/moe kaungg kain — “sky”; ကောင်း ကင်/kaungg kain — “sky” or “heaven”; ကောင်း ကင်ဗုံ/kaungg kain bone — “heaven”
  • Mairasi: Sinyavi — an indigenous term that is used for both “sky” and heaven”; Surga — loanword from Sanskrit via Indonesian referring to “heaven” (source: Enggavoter 2004)

Many languages follow the original biblical languages in not making that distinction, such as:

God

There are various approaches to the translation of the Greek theos and Hebrew elohim or el that are translated as “God” in English. Click or tap here to see more.

While some of the main language groups of European languages have the origin of their translations go back to somewhat nebulous sources (see below), many other languages use a translation that can be more easily traced back to its original meaning.

Click or tap here to see the translations by many Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages.

Eugene Nida (1947, p. 204ff.) provided a theoretical framework for ways to select a translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)

“The name for God in an aboriginal language is one of the keystones to the entire theological structure and Bible teaching. The problem is by no means as simple as it may at first appear. Some translators, not finding in the pagan religious system, exactly the word which they think appropriate, have introduced a foreign name for God, e.g. Spanish Dios or English God. They have thought that such a word would have prestige because it comes from the language of a culturally dominant group. The fact that such a borrowed word seems to have no bad connotations appears to justify its use. It is assumed that the native people will automatically come to understand by the borrowed word for ‘God’ exactly what we understand by the same term. The translator has counted upon taking a word with zero meaning and giving it the proper content. This is not so easily done as imagined. In almost every case the native will immediately try to equate this new name of God with one of the gods of his own religious system. Since all people attempt to understand the unknown in terms of the known, it will not be very long before the natives will have worked out what seems to them a perfectly consistent equivalent for the new term.

“On the other hand, the translator may attempt to use some native word for ‘God’ which seems applicable. A further investigation may reveal that there are many characteristics which are given to this god in native legend which are quite inconsistent with Biblical truth. The translator’s examination must be thorough, for he does not want to run the risk of using a term which does not contain at least the central core of meaning which is essential.

“The translator should not be fearful of using a native word for ‘God.’ He should remember that in terms of the native culture the Greek word theos, the Latin deus, and the Gothic guþ could hardly be termed exact equivalents to the concept of God as taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, these terms did possess the essential core of meaning. It is interesting to note that they are generic terms. In no case were they the names of one particular god. The use of names such as Zeus, Jupiter, or Woden would not have been wise, for these specific names included a great deal of legend as to the individual peculiarities, excesses, and immoral actions of the particular gods. In the generic terms, however, there existed enough of the fundamental core of religious significance that they have been used successfully. In Greek, theos designated any god. In the plural it could be used to include all the gods. In the Bible this generic term is used and made to apply specifically to only one God. The Christians took a term which designated any important supernatural entity and by context and teaching made it apply to only one such entity. Where this same situation exists in another culture, there is no reason for believing that this process could not be repeated, and with good results.

“In choosing the name for God it is important to consider the usage of the trade language. Very frequently the native church is assimilated into the church group speaking the trade language or the national language. The native church also draws much of its leadership from among those who speak the trade language. A similar name for God is valuable, but it is not absolutely essential.”

Indigenous terms

Following are examples of what Nida above considers “native words.” (Click or tap here to see)

  • Lakota: Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka (“the universal spiritual power” — source: Steve Berneking in Beerle-Moor / Voinov, p. 119 — click or tap here to see more)

    “The Lakota translators have intentionally chosen to use the traditional Lakota name of the Deity instead of the name ‘God.’ Past missionary movements across North America have colonized Indian people to assume that the word ‘God’ is the appropriate gloss for traditional understandings of the Deity. Even more troubling, the waves of violence — physical, social, and psychological — were more often than not carried out in the name of ‘God.’ In an intentional strike against this violence (…) these Lakota translators are using the name Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is the universal spiritual power, sometimes wrongly rendered in English ‘Creator’ or ‘Great Spirit.’ In Lakota spirituality, however, Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is not personified with any name. What Christians would refer to as ‘God’ is understood as a spiritual force or energy that permeates all of creation and is manifest in numerous ways in the world around us at any given moment and in any given place. So, to assume that the name ‘God’ is an appropriate gloss to translate Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka fully and culturally not only reflects some latent ‘imperial’ attitude, it also negates and oppresses the deep understanding of Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka for the Lakota people. Therefore, the choice of the Lakota translators to bring Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka into the biblical text is an attempt to heal and to reconcile the brokenness in the history of their people.”

  • Ap Ma: Yamom (“the creator” — click or tap here to see more)

    Yamom is the creator. He made the trees and everything else we see in the world around us. There is no tradition as to where Yamom lives, and he is never seen. ‘We do not know him directly. We know only that he was in his own place and at his word everything was created. A person might sit somewhere and reflect, ‘How could such a thing as a coconut tree grow out of that nut?’ The answer is that these things that people could never do could only have been done by Yamom. Yamom is sometimes referred to as Yadima, which means ‘word’ or ‘story.’ It is a kind of euphemism so that one doesn’t have to say the real name. There is a feeling that if the name is used carelessly, the person may experience some kinds of problems. According to the traditional culture, Yamom himself never gave anyone direct messages. However, the konim ‘spirits,’ would sometimes mention him: ‘Yamom says the rains are coming,’ or ‘Yamom says the eels are coming.'”

  • Keapara: palagu (“God” or “spirit of humanness” — click or tap here to see more)

    “Apart from the meaning ‘God,’ palagu is used in ordinary speech to mean something like ‘spirit of humanness.’ Each person is born with their own palagu, and this is what makes them able to become mature human beings. If the palagu leaves a person, then that person will begin to act in strange ways. In this way it is rather like the English word ‘mind.’ There is a special concern for babies, because the palagu of a baby is easily separated from the baby. When preparing to give a baby a bath, or if a person is carrying a baby under big trees, or at night, people are often encouraged to call out Kivani palaguna O, onove rake kaumai — ‘Baby’s spirit, come after us.’ If the baby’s palagu does not come, then the baby will become very fussy and difficult. The family must then try to figure out how to get the palagu to come back. Perhaps they will pray. There is often a feeling that something has gone wrong within the family, and this must be straightened out before the baby’s palagu will return.”

  • Mbandja: Chuchu (the traditional maker of world and mankind — click or tap here to see more)

    “People claim that he made the world and mankind. What is more, he likes mankind. But his people did not like him. To escape from him, they ran away and have practically forgotten about him, though he has never forgotten about them. Here, embedded in the legends of the people, lies the truth which the missionary may use. He may show the people how far they have wandered from God and how He has not forgotten about them. In fact, He sent His Son in order that He might reconcile them to Himself.”

  • Kovai: Yoba Maro (variant of Molo, a traditional cultural hero)
  • Waskia: Kaem (general word for revered spirit)
  • Misima-Panaeati: Yabowaine (traditional god who lives in the sky and helps with journeys or fights)
  • Zimakani: ‘Bi’bukia’mene (“True supernatural being” — source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff. — click or tap here to see more)

    In Zimakani there were supernatural beings called ‘bi’buki. The stars are among the ‘bi’buki, as are the sun and moon. Kau was the traditional god of the Zimakani, their ancestral folk hero. They would say Kau is our ‘bi’buki. Using this term as a base, a form ‘Bi’bukia’mene was developed. It means ‘The True (masculine, singular) ‘bi’buki‘ This is the term being used for ‘God.'”

  • Ajië: Bao (“a spirit,” “an ancestor,” or “a corpse” — source: Clifford, p. 79-91 — click or tap here to see more)

    Maurice Leenhardt, the missionary and translator in charge of the first and only Ajië translation “believed at first that the Melanesian experience of Divinity could be brought directly over into Christianity. In 1905 he began experimenting with using bao (a spirit, an ancestor, or corpse) to clarify in the native language the ‘visions’ spoken of in the Gospels. (…) The Christian God had to appropriate the essence of Melanesian spirits by taking possession of their generic name, Bao. (…) [Leenhardt wrote to his father in 1913:] If Jehovah is really that which is visible since the creation then the pagans must have an obscure revelation of God at the heart of their beliefs. This is a minimum of experiences upon which the preaching of the Gospel can be based, And this we shouldn’t reject the entire jumble of their gods in order to give them a new god with a foreign name; rather we should search for the word in their language, even the strangest word, into which can be translated the visible experience of God. (…) The bao concept would have to be reunderstood, not as a generic term but capitalized, as a personal name. (…) Leenhardt was encouraged by his discovery that bao had always been a highly adaptable concept. It could apply not merely to a corpse, recent ancestor, or magical divinity, but its masculine ‘power’ could sometimes fuse spontaneously with feminine-totemic principle of life. (…) In adopting the language of totemic myth to evoke the Christian Bao (…) Leenhardt in effect broadened the God of European orthodoxy in two crucial ways. In translating his deity, the missionary made ‘Him’ more androgynous, a totem-bao of feminine ‘life’ as well as of masculine power.”

  • Ngäbere: Ngöbö (source: Nida 152, p. 37f. — click or tap here to see more)

    Nida tells this story: “Frequently the translator is indebted to pagan shamans for some of the most important terms. For years Efrain Alphonse tried to find the Ngäbere name for ‘God.’ Many of the people did not know the word, and others refused to give it. Though there was a belief in a beneficent Creator, His name was too sacred to be known by the uninitiated. On one occasion, Mr. Alphonse went with some of his Ngäbe helpers to visit an old medicine woman back in the recesses of the tropical forest of Bocas del Toro. After being ushered into the presence of this greatly revered (…) woman, they answered at length the many questions she asked. Finally she began to chant and sing and as her voice rose higher and higher, she shouted out in trance-like ecstacy so that all could hear, ‘These men are talking about Ngöbö, the God of heaven and earth, Listen to them!’ There was the name ‘Ngöbö,’ the very word which Mr. Alphonse had been seeking for so many years. It came from the lips of a native diviner and sorceress, but all agreed that this was the name of God, and throughout the years it has been used by the Ngäbe Christians.”

  • Gbaya: (originally: “to ooze; to anoint, to rub on” also “spirit” later “god” and finally a proper name for “God” — source: Noss, Current Tends 2002, p. 157ff. — click or tap here to see more)

    “When the Gbaya translator of the Bible, like the Protestant and Catholic missionaries who first translated Scripture texts into Gbaya, adopts the traditional term for God, what does this mean theologically? The issue is not whether this term fits into the broad sweep of African Traditional Religion as it is referred to by modem African theologians, but what kind of God is this? The noun may be derived from the verb so which means ‘to ooze; to anoint, to rub on.’ This term, which may have a basic meaning similar to ‘spirit,’ has come to be used as the equivalent of ‘god’ and as a proper name for ‘God.’ Folk etymology explains that this word depicts the unique power of God in that he created himself like sap oozing from the trunk of a tree. This God is the Creator God who created Adam and Eve and who also created the Gbaya ancestors. To the Gbaya this is YHWH of the Old Testament. (…) The theological implications of this practice are two-fold. First, the use of a vernacular term offers legitimacy to traditional beliefs. Secondly, there may appear to be a clash between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the translated text if the traditional term is retained (…) Lamin Sanneh observes two possible explanations with regard to this issue (1988:18). The first is that what any one language may say may not totally describe God; the second is that all languages may be inherently inadequate with regard to religious truth. Gbaya readers interpret the translated text in the light of tradition and transmitted knowledge. Adam and Eve are seen against the backdrop of the folklore heroes, Wanto and his wife Laaiso. Like Adam and Eve, Wanto and Laaiso are archetypes of humankind whose descendants pay the price of their misdeeds in those ancient times of the beginning. Just as Adam and Eve suffer the consequences of their deeds and are deprived of their pristine garden, so also Wanto and Laaiso lose the paradise that is created for them by an unknown benefactor of Gbaya myth.”

  • Khmer: Preah Chea Mchas (“Illustrious one who is master” — “Because a concept for ‘God’ does not exist in Buddhism” (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, 233ff.)
  • Wayuu: Maleiwa (“Wayuus had automatically made the correspondence between the Christian God and their own Maleiwa. They considered them identical” — source: Nida 1947, p. 207)
  • Akan: Onyame or Onyankopon (“the supreme God” — source: J. Loewen in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 201ff.click or tap here to see more)

    “If we take an African example and consider the Akan of Ghana we see that they recognize Onyame or Onyankopon as the supreme God. Both of these names are personal and cannot be pluralized, but they also recognize the abosom, called idols or fetishes in the earlier dictionaries, but now called god/gods by Akan scholars. A is the prefix which pluralizes a root, bo means ‘stone’ or rock’ and som means ‘to worship.’ Thus the word as a whole literally means ‘rock things people worship.’ While the above example is from a single tribal society, the model it presents is duplicated in many, if not most West African societies. In such situations, the local word ‘gods’ will probably cover the domain of two Hebrew words gods and idols.”

  • Northern Indian languages including Hindi, Nepali, Assamese, and Bengali use “Ishwar (Assamese: ঈশ্বৰ, Bengali: ঈশ্বর) or Param-Ishwar (“Supreme Ishwar”) (Hindi and Bengali: परमेश्वर). “This is a term used widely in Hindu scriptures in different senses. It is mainly used as a title, usually associated with the Hindu god ‘Siva.’ But there are passages in some scriptures where Ishwar is used as a name of a personal god who is the maker or master of the universe.”
  • Southern Indian languages tend to use Deva, “another term tor a divine being. But this is not a personal name: it is a term to refer to any divine being, of which there are plenty in the Hindu pantheon. The term means ‘respectable or glorious being,’ so it has a positive sense.” Languages include Gujarati: દેવ, Kannada: ದೇವರ, Marathi: देव, Malayalam: ദൈവം, Tamil தேவன், Telugu దేవుడు (source for this and above: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Hooper, p. 86f.). This term is also used in some Indonesian languages: Sangir and Batak Toba: Debata (source: Rosin, p. 200)
  • Many Bantu languages use Mungu (or a form thereof), the “traditional creator and sustainer of the world and of all life in it,” including Swahili, Nyanja, Digo, Bena, Pokomo, Gogo, Pogolo, Sanga, Rundi, Kinyarwanda, Bemba, Chuwabu, Ngungwel (sources: Bühlmann, p. 146 and E. Wendland in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 430ff.)
  • Most Polynesian languages use Atua, the traditional concept for “spirit” or “god,” including Gilbertese, Māori, Tuvalu, Rarotongan, Tahitian, Samoan (Atua), Rotuman (‘Ạitu), or Tonga (‘Otuá) (Source J. Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.; click or tap here to see more)

    “The word is Polynesian, although it has long been used in parts of Melanesia too. In Polynesia, it originally had various meanings, many of which were very distant from the Christian meaning. In the first place there are countless atuas, while the Christian God is one only, even though He be a Trinity in Unity — and that difficulty would have to be faced later. But at bottom an atua is only a spirit, not necessarily masculine, or good or powerful, and certainly a very poor foundation for conveying the Christian concept of God. The term atua is applied to gods possessing personal names, as well as to ancestral spirits and even to dead chiefs. In many ways its coverage corresponds to that of kami in Japanese. In Samoa one could even speak of an atua of war, thunder, etc. Yet this term atua has been employed everywhere in Polynesia by all the missions, from the first efforts of the London Missionary Society up to the present time.” (Source: A. Capell in The Bible Translator 1969, 154ff.

    The Indonesian “Tuhan,” which is also used in Malay, Una, and Urak Lawoi’ (as Tuhat) possibly derives from atua as well (source: Stephen Pattemore)

Adoptions of terms from other languages

Translations of God with loan words (what Nida above styles as “introduction of a foreign name for God”) include the following. (Click or tap here to see)

  • The term used for God is Allah or some variation of this word in most predominantly Muslim regions in the Middle East (Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, etc.), but also in other Muslim parts of the world as a loan word from Arabic, including in Wolof (Yàlla), Kpelle (Ɣâla), Hausa and Pulaar (Allah), Malay and Indonesian (Allah — depending on the version sometimes for YHWH and in exchange with Tuhan — see Atua above — click or tap here to see more)

    Reasons for using Allah include that “the loan word Allah is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew names of God El, Elohim, Eloah in the Hebrew Old Testament;” that “Arab Christians from before the dawn of Islam have been praying to Allah, and Allah was used by Christian theologians writing in Arabic. So the Christian usage of Allah is actually older than Islam;” “Allah is the word used for ‘God’ in all Arabic versions of the Bible;” “Christians in countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and other places in Asia and Africa where the languages are in contact with Arabic, have almost all been using the word Allah as the Creator God and the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Source: D. Soesilo in The Bible Translator 2001: p. 414ff., reproduced online here.)

  • A number of languages in predominantly Spanish-speaking areas are using forms of Spanish Dios, including Tojolabal (Dyosi), Poqomchi’ (Tiox), Chol (Dios), Quetzaltepec Mixe (Tios), Kekchí, K’iche’ (all: Dios) (Source: Robert Bascom).
    Ottman (p. 130) shows that in the 16th century the use of Dios in materials for Classical Nahuatl equated with a proper name for “God”: “The new God not only has the proper name of ‘Dios,’ rather than ‘God,’ in accordance with the almost universal practice of the Church in the Spanish Indies, but is not always referred to as a ‘god’ at all, as if the word were irretrievably contaminated by its association with the old deities.”
  • A number of languages in Papua New Guinea use the English “God” and the German “Gott” (dating back to the German occupation of PNG in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), including Tok Pisin / Waboda / Mussau-Emira: God, West Kewa: Gote, Goto, Onobasulu: Gode, Bamu: Godi, and Yagaria (Source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.). Other languages with Bible translations that use the German “Gott” under the influence of German missionaries include Arawak in Suriname (source: Jabini 2015, p. 21).
  • The traditional Kâte term Anutu was adopted by a number of other languages in Papua New Guinea: Adzera: Anutu; Dedua: Anutu; Nukna: Ánutu — source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.) — click or tap here to see more)

    “‘Anutu’ — despite his apparent insignificance in the mythological system — could not be placated by humans. ….Thus, although the … name Anutu had several variations and was understood in several ways, it was apparently for the Kâte people, living in the cradle of the Lutheran Mission, the most acceptable translation for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God.’ (…) Kâte was selected by the early Lutheran missionaries working in the area to serve as a church lingua franca. As the Lutheran church spread through the Finisterre Mountains and on into the Highlands, the Kâte language went along. God therefore became known in all of these areas as Anutu. In areas where the Lutherans remain strong, the name Anutu tends to be used even today. In other areas, such as among the Melpa speakers around Mount Hagen, many Lutherans continue to use Anutu, but this name has not been acceptable to Christians of other denominations. On the other hand, Anutu is still used in the Baiyer River area, north of Mount Hagen, even though most Christians in the area are now Baptist rather than Lutheran.”

Translations of Attributes of God for a translation of “God”

A translation principle not described by Nida is the translation of “God” with descriptive terms. Following are some examples. (Click or tap here to see)
  • Mazahua: “the Great Spirit”
  • Navajo: “the Eternal Spirit” (Navajo also uses the English borrowing “God” in the combination Diyin God: “Holy God”)
  • San Blas Kuna: “the Great Father”
  • Kipsigis: Jehoba (“the great ruler” — which accidentally resembles Jehovah)
  • Northwestern Dinka: Nhialich (“one in the above”) (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961)
  • Banaro: Nor Mik (“the Great Father”)
  • Imbongu: Gote Pulu iye (lit. “root man”); Ola iye (lit. “above man”)
  • Gwahatike: baraŋ al (“creator”); tikula al (“creator”)
  • Bola: Vuri (“super being”)
  • Guhu-Samane: Ohonga (“Someone who is permanently sitting on a chair. The word for ‘king’ is derived from the same word.” — source for this above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
  • Aja: Mawu (“there is nothing greater”) (source: Joshua Ham)
  • Una: Er Imtamnyi: “He heaven-One” (source: Dick Kroneman)
  • Mairasi: Janav Enggwar Nyan (“Great Above One”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)

Translations of “God” in maturing contexts

In some cases it took failed attempts before finding the “right” translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)

“When the first missionaries, teachers, and catechists came to the Huli country in the 1950s, they may have done some investigation of the Huli worldview before they began to preach.

“But they apparently did not find any obvious local word for ‘God,’ and they began teaching the people about ‘Ngode,’ a Huli-ized form of the English name. In recent years some Huli people have suggested that in fact the Huli did have their own name for God: ‘Datagaliwabe.’

“This led the missionaries of both the Evangelical Church of Papua and of the Roman Catholic Church to investigate the matter more carefully. It soon became clear that there was a traditional figure with the name Datagaliwabe who was still talked about by the Huli people.

“According to traditional Huli belief, Datagaliwabe lives up above the clouds in a place called Dahuliya andaga. This is in fact the term which has been used to translate ‘heaven’ in the Huli Bible. Datagaliwabe is very concerned about how people act. People know what is right, but they often act in ways that they know are not right. When they do this, Datagaliwabe may punish them. He is able to know what people are doing wherever they are. It is not possible to hide one’s actions from him or to deceive him. If a person wants to get away from one of the evil spirits, one can always run away to another area. One cannot run away from Datagaliwabe.

Before Huli people became Christian, they were very much afraid of powerful spirits who could do much to harm them, such as causing sickness. It was important to make offerings to appease these spirits and to keep them on one’s good side.

Datagaliwabe was not like these evil spirits who had to be ‘paid’ in order to get their help. One never made offerings to him. Therefore he must be God.

“In times of sickness or trouble, people would sometimes call out, ‘Father Datagaliwabe, help me.’ All of these traditional beliefs certainly supported the possible connection of Datagaliwabe with God. On the other hand, there was at least one problem. For the Huli, Datagaliwabe was not the creator. The old Huli stories said that it was the Sun (Ni) who created the world. This seemed to be a relatively small point that could easily be dealt with. The most serious problem seemed in fact to be that Christians were used to calling God Ngode.

“Would they be willing to change? The translation of the Old Testament was in process while this investigation was going on, so the matter was discussed in detail by the checking team, which included representatives of almost all of the major churches working in the area. Most of the group felt that it was willing to give Datagaliwabe a chance. As books were being completed, it was the policy of the team to publish trial editions. So for several years an experiment was conducted, using both Ngode and Datagaliwabe together in the text. Readers were told that they were not supposed to read both names, but to choose whichever one they preferred.

“In the meantime, a more serious problem surfaced. Representatives from one of the churches on the edge of the language argued that in their area Datagaliwabe has other characteristics different from those described above, which make it inappropriate to use this name as a name for God. As the time for publication of the Bible neared, it was clearly necessary to make a choice. At first, different churches made different choices, and it looked as though the Bible Society might be put in the unhappy position of having to publish separate editions with different names for God. However, as the Huli people thought about the implications of this decision, they themselves realized that some other solution must be found. Representatives from the different churches were invited to another series of meetings, where they were apparently convinced of the importance of finding a single solution that everyone could accept.

“The eventual decision was to continue the practice of the various trial editions, printing both names together in the text, as ‘Ngode Datagaliwabe.'”

“Missionaries working in the Pawaia language reported that the local people had originally been using the word “Got.” However, this name had been confused by the people with “an unsavory character in a legend.” Because of this the missionaries decided to try an expression meaning “The Powerful One.” They say that the term chosen has been accepted by the people.” (Source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)

The Chinese and the Korean “Term Question”

The translation of the Greek theos and the Hebrew elohim (or in the case of early Catholics, the Latin deus) into Chinese was easily the most passionately discussed translation in the history of Bible translation. (Click or tap here to see)

Jesuit missionaries that had come to China in the late 16th century had to find a Chinese term for “God.” An early Chinese term for “God” was dousi 陡斯, a mere transliteration of the Latin deus, but from 1583 on tianzhu — “Lord of Heaven” — was used. It was seen to be of no or little previous religious coinage. Very soon, though, the leader of the Jesuit mission Matteo Ricci, embraced the terms tian 天 — “heaven” — and shangdi 上帝 he had found the Christian God in Chinese literature. After Ricci’s death this caused conflict in the Catholic mission, because Franciscan and Dominican missionaries understood these terms as too pre-occupied by Chinese notions of religion. The question was eventually brought to Rome during the 1630s. In 1705 and again in 1742 the Vatican forbade the use of these terms. The whole episode is known as one part of the “Question of Rites.” The Catholic church in China today still employs tianzhu 天主for the translation of “God,” clearly shown in the Chinese term for “Catholicism” — tianzhujiao 天主教.

Protestants who arrived much later started to have a similar argument in in 1847, when missionaries of various nationalities and Protestant denominations attempted to have a common Bible version for China. This lead to the greatest controversy of the Protestant mission in China, the “Term Question.”

For them, the most important terms in question were shen 神 and shangdi 上帝.

“The side supporting shen held that it was the only true translation for the biblical ‘God,’ even though it never had had this meaning historically because of the absence of a Chinese monotheistic faith. However, it was comparable to the Greek θεός and the Latin deus in its being a generic term describing the highest class of Chinese gods, including shangdi. This also made it possible to use this term in the plural. For these reasons, shen was held to be the term which could best be adapted to the meaning of the Christian God. Shangdi, on the other hand, was understood as a name rather than a generic term, which could not be used in the plural.

“The other side maintained that the Christian God had revealed himself in ancient China, especially during the time of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1122-255 BC). Belief in him had been set forth even in the Confucian classics, where shangdi was described as the highest deity. Shangdi was regarded in Chinese mythology as the creator of all things, including shen, which in most cases meant ‘spirit’ and in only very rare cases ‘deity,’ although it was used for ‘false gods.’ Shen could not be used for ‘God’ but only for another person of the Trinity, namely the ‘Spirit.’ This final point complicated the matter immensely, and made a compromise much more difficult because the shen advocates had determined ling 灵 to be the right term for Spirit.’

“These few examples only touch the surface of the numerous arguments that were raised from either side. The reasons behind the arguments were of an ideological nature and basic for the understanding of mission work in China. Those who argued for shen were convinced that the Chinese had never known the Christian God, and had therefore no equivalent term to describe him; they believed, however, that shen could grow into a suitable term. The other side represented an Old Testament belief that God had revealed himself even in China, and had been to some extent known throughout Chinese history. They believed that it was only necessary to ‘reawaken’ the Chinese knowledge of Christianity, whereas the other side had to introduce a whole new concept. In addition, the conflict often also had the appearance of a national struggle, because to a high degree the lines were drawn between British (and German) (pro-shangdi) and American missionaries (pro-shen).

“This conflict resulted in various editions of Bibles being published by the different sides with their respective preferred terminology. A modern analysis of the conflict even reveals a positive aspect of the use of two terms. According to at least one view, one of the terms represents a concept of divine immanence (shen), while the other one represents transcendence (shangdi) which gives the Chinese church an advantage that other churches don’t have.

“The same kind of pragmatism can be found in the fact that the (one character term) shen is typically preceded by a ‘reverential’ space which allowed the printing plates to be used twice by accommodating the (two character term shangdi.” (Source: Zetzsche 1999, p. 83f., 90, 275).

While the Korean translation of God did not develop into as full-blown a conflict as the one in China, it’s still interesting to follow. (Click or tap here to see)

The Protestant translation of elohim and theos in Korean is ha-na-nim 하나님, the supreme deity revered and worshiped by most of the Korean people even when their national religions were Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism.” (Source: Min Suk Kee in The Bible Translator 2013, p. 332ff.)

According to Ahn (2011, p. iif.) there “was a significant theological continuity between the Chinese and Korean Term Questions. The Term Question in both China and Korea proceeded on a similar pattern; it was a terminological controversy between an indigenous theistic term (Chinese Shangdi and Korean Ha-na-nim) on the one hand and a neologism (Chinese Tianzhu and the corresponding Korean Ch’on-zhu) or a generic term (Chinese Shen and the corresponding Korean Shin) on the other hand. Central to both Term Questions was the theological issue of whether a primitive monotheism, congruent with Christian belief, had existed among the Chinese and Koreans. It will suggest that whilst those who adhered to a degeneration theory of the history of religions used either Shangti or Ha-na-nim as the name of the God of the Bible, those who rejected the existence of primitive monotheism preferred to use the neologism or the generic term.

“[However], a significant divergence between the Term Question in China and that in Korea. Whereas the Term Question in China became polarized for over three centuries between two equal and opposite parties — between the Jesuits (Shangdi) and the Dominicans-Franciscans (Tianzhu), and later between the Shangdi party and the Shen party in Protestant missions, in Korea it was a short-term argument for three decades between a vast majority (of the Ha-na-nim party) and a small minority (the opponents of Ha-na-nim). (…) The disproportion in Korea in favor of Ha-na-nim was due to the much closer analogy between Ha-na-nim and the Christian trinity, as seen in the Dan-Gun myth [of Ha-na-nim sending his son to earth], than was the case with Shangdi in Chinese religion. For this reason, the thesis concludes by suggesting that the adoption of the indigenous monotheistic term, Ha-na-nim, in a Christian form contributed to the higher rate of growth of the Korean church compared to that of the church in China.”

Kee agrees: “(…) Such a rapid growth of Christianity in Korea should be ascribed to ha-na-nim, the indigenous god deeply rooted and long revered in the hearts of Koreans. Surely, as some evangelists have claimed, the Israelite god was incarnated as ha-na-nim in Korea. Or, to put it the other way round, ‘ha-na-nim was baptized to be born again,’ as Sung Deuk Ok has wittily observed.”

The popularity of ha-na-nim is maybe even more surprising since, unlike the similar Catholic term ha-neu-nim 하느님 for God, it is ungrammatical in Korean. Kee says:

“Reviewing the history of the survival of the name is truly intriguing. We may enjoy the irony which is evident when a logical absurdity no longer matters in the face of purely practical considerations. Ha-na-nim is composed of ha-na and nim. While the latter means ‘dear one’ or ‘lord,’ the tricky problem lies with the first part, ha-na. The earliest form of this is ha-nă or ha-nal meaning ‘heaven,’ which orthographically developed into both ha-nal and ha-neul. When the suffix nim is added, they are spelled, respectively, ha-na-nim (하나님) and ha-neu-nim (하느님), with the phoneme /l/ (ㄹ) omitted, as is common in Korean orthography. Though both mean the same, ‘heavenly lord,’ ha-na-nim was much preferred to ha-neu-nim. This is partly due to a wordplay on ha-na. While it is a shortened form of ha-năl (“heaven”), ha-na by itself, independent of ha-năl, signifies the number ‘one.’ Consequently ha-na-nim, regardless of its original meaning ‘heavenly lord,’ sounds like a proud reference to ‘One Lord.’

“Could the spelling ha-neu-nim possibly challenge ha-na-nim again in the future? I would answer that this is very unlikely and unnecessary. The name ha-na-nim may be absurd, but ironically its inherent weakness may turn to great advantage in situations where it is challenged. The proud oneness of the Christian God implied and applied in the name must be left untouched.”

For further reading on the translation of “God,” see Rosin 1956.

heaven

Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic all have one term only that refers to what can be expressed in English as “sky” or “heaven(s)” (as a physical and spiritual entity). While there is a slight overlap between the meaning of the two English terms, “sky” (from Old Norse sky meaning “cloud”) typically refers to the physical entity, and “heaven” (from Old English heofon meaning “home of God”) typically refers to the spiritual entity. While this enriches the English lexicon, it also forces English Bible translators to make decisions that can be found only in the context in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts. Most versions tend to use “heaven(s)” even if the meaning is likely “sky,” but the Contemporary English Version (NT: 1991, OT: 1995, DC: 1999) is an English translation that attempted to be more specific in the separation of the two meanings and was used as the basis for the links to verses used for this and this story (“sky”).

Norm Mundhenk (in The Bible Translator 2006, pp. 92-95) describes the difficulty that English translations face (click here to see more):

“A number of years ago an old lady asked me a question. What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’? I do not remember what answer I gave, but I was surprised at how concerned she seemed to be about the verse. It was only later, after I had left her, that I suddenly realized what it was that she was so concerned about. She knew that death could not be far away, and all her life she had looked forward to being with God in heaven. But this verse said that ‘heaven will pass away’! What did that mean for her hopes? In fact, of course, in this verse Jesus was talking about the skies or the heavens, not about Heaven as the place of God’s presence. If I had realized the problem in time, I could easily have set the lady’s mind at rest on this question that was troubling her so much. However, I suspect that she is not the only person to be misled by the wording of this verse. Therefore, it is very surprising to find that even today many English versions (including the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, Good News Translation) still say ‘heaven and earth’ in verses like Matt 24:35 and its parallels (Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33). The Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Phillips’ translation seem to be aware of the problem, and in Mark 13:31 both of these have ‘earth and sky’ instead of ‘heaven and earth.’ But in some other passages (such as Matt 5:18) the traditional wording is still found in both of those translations. The New Century Version (NCV) does have ‘earth and sky’ more consistently, and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) has ‘sky and earth’ in these passages. (Although ‘sky and earth’ is closer to the Greek, it seems more natural in English to say ‘earth and sky’; but either way, at least the meaning is correct.)

“Louw and Nida’s Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament (publ. 1992) suggests that the Greek expression being translated here, ho ouranos kai he ge is ‘a more or less fixed phrase equivalent to a single lexical unit’ and that it means everything that God created, that is, the universe. They then quote Mark 13:31 as an example, using ‘heaven and earth’ in their translation of it. However, they go on to say that there ‘may be certain complications involved in rendering ho ouranos kai he ge as ‘heaven and earth,’ since ‘heaven’ might be interpreted in some languages as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself. The referents in this passage are ‘the sky and the earth,’ in other words, all of physical existence, but not the dwelling place of God, for the latter would not be included in what is destined to pass away.’ In my opinion, English itself is one of the languages where the word ‘heaven’ will be interpreted as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself, and translations into English should not use ‘heaven’ in these passages. It is probably because these passages are so very familiar that translators do not realize the meaning they are giving their readers when they use the expression ‘heaven and earth’ here. In modern English we might talk about a rocket ‘soaring into the heavens,’ but we would certainly not describe it as ‘soaring into heaven,’ because ‘heaven’ is not another way of referring to the sky or to outer space.

“In fact, it is surely important in all languages to have some way of distinguishing the concept of ‘sky’ from the concept of ‘dwelling place of God.’ In these passages translators should never use a term meaning ‘the dwelling place of God.’ It may not be necessary to use a term meaning ‘sky’ either, if there is some other expression in the language which gives the correct meaning of ‘everything that has been created’ or ‘the universe.’ There are of course places in the New Testament where Heaven, as the place where God lives, is contrasted with the earth. In these passages, translators should be careful to give the correct meaning. A good example of this is in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matt 6:10: ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Similarly, 1 Cor 15:47 says that ‘the first man [a reference to Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ Passages like these are referring to Heaven, not to the sky. Other NT passages where heaven refers to God’s dwelling place, in contrast with earth, are Matt 5:34-35, 16:19, 18:18, Acts 7:49, James 5:12, and Rev 5:3.
“Sometimes in the New Testament, the word ‘heaven’ is used because of the Jewish reluctance to use the name of God. ‘Heaven’ in these cases is used in place of ‘God’ and refers to God himself. This is the case in the many references in Matthew to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ where other gospels have ‘the kingdom of God’ (e.g., compare Matt 4:17 with its parallels in Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9). It is also most likely the case in references like Matt 16:1, Luke 20:4, 5, John 3:27, and even perhaps Col 1:5.

“There are some places, such as Matt 11:25, where God is called ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’ Since God is of course the Lord of Heaven as well as of the universe, it may not matter so much which interpretation is given in these passages (others are Luke 10:21 and Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, the intended meaning here is likely to be ‘the universe.’ This is because this expression in Greek, as Louw and Nida say, is a set expression referring to everything that has been created. Acts 17:24 in fact combines the idea of the creation of the universe with the idea of God as Master or Lord of the universe. (…)

“Old Testament background The use of ‘heaven and earth’ in the New Testament is very similar to what we find in the Old Testament, because it is largely based on the Old Testament.

“The Old Testament begins with the story of creation, which is presented as the creation of the heavens and the earth, with lights to shine in the heavens and give light to the earth. Birds are created to live in the heavens, animals to live on earth, and fish to live in the sea (Gen 1:1-2:4).

“As we can see from the way the creation story is told, it is meant to be understood as the creation of the universe. Although in English the regions above the earth have traditionally been called ‘the heavens’ in the story of creation, they cannot be called ‘Heaven,’ in the sense of the place where God dwells. In terms of modern English, it would probably be better to say ‘the sky and the earth’ or ‘the earth and the sky.’ The story of creation then becomes an important theme throughout the Old Testament. (…)

“In most passages, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, when ‘heaven and earth’ or ‘the heavens and the earth’ are mentioned, the meaning is the created universe. It is not a reference to Heaven, as the dwelling place of God. In English, translators have not been careful to keep this distinction clear, and this is probably true in many other languages as well. However, as we have seen, this can lead to real confusion for ordinary Bible readers. It is better if translators find ways to make the meaning clear in these passages. ‘Heaven’ should be mentioned only in passages which clearly mean the dwelling place of God. In other passages, an expression should be used which means only ‘sky.’ Or else, the whole expression ‘heaven and earth’ can be translated in a way to show that the whole universe is meant.”

Other languages that have a semantic distinction similar to English include:

  • Hungarian: ég — “sky”; menny — “heaven”
  • Tagalog: kalawakan — “sky”; langit/kalangitan — “heaven”
  • Swedish: sky — “sky”; Himmel — “heaven”
  • Loma: “up” — “sky”; “God’s place” — heaven”
  • Mossi: saase — “sky”; nyingeri — “the up above”(source for Loma and Mossi: Bratcher/Nida)
  • Roviana: mamaṉa — “sly”; maṉauru — “heaven” (an old word, meaning “empty, open space of the sky”) (source: Carl Gross)
  • Kayaw: mô̄la or “canopy-under”/mô̄khû̄la or “canopy-above-under” — “sky” (atmosphere where there is just air); mô̄khû̄ or “canopy-on/above” — “heaven” (invisible abode of God and angels)
  • Burmese: မိုး ကောင်း ကင်/moe kaungg kain — “sky”; ကောင်း ကင်/kaungg kain — “sky” or “heaven”; ကောင်း ကင်ဗုံ/kaungg kain bone — “heaven”
  • Mairasi: Sinyavi — an indigenous term that is used for both “sky” and heaven”; Surga — loanword from Sanskrit via Indonesian referring to “heaven” (source: Enggavoter 2004)

Many languages follow the original biblical languages in not making that distinction, such as: