gospel

In choosing a word for the Greek that is typically translated as “gospel” in English, a number of languages construct a phrase meaning “good news,” “joyful report” or “happiness-bringing words.” In some instances such a phrase may be slightly expanded in order to convey the proper meaning, e.g. “new good word” (Tzotzil), or it may involve some special local usage:

  • “good story” (Navajo)
  • “joyful telling” (Tausug)
  • “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • cohuen ñoñets or “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237)
  • “good news” (Yanesha’) (source: Martha Duff in Holzhausen 1991, p. 11)
  • “voice of good spirit” (San Blas Kuna)(source: Claudio Iglesias [Mr. and Mrs.] in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 85ff. )
  • suviśēṣattinṟe (0സുവിശേഷം) or “good narrative” (Malayalam)
  • susmachar (ସୁସମାଚାର) or “good matter” (Odia)
  • suvārteya (ಸುವಾರ್ತೆಯ) or “good word” (Kannada) (source for this and two above: Y.D. Tiwari in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 132ff. )
  • the German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) translates as “all-transformative good news” (alles verändernde gute Botschaft), also “good news”
Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“In Rutul, it was only during the most recent consultant checking session that I realized that the Rutul word for Gospel – Incir (from Arabic إنجيل — Injil) — sounds and looks exactly like the word that means ‘fig’ in Rutul. This is a case of homonymy, in which two completely non-related words from differing historical sources have come to sound exactly alike. Most Rutul speakers know that incir means ‘fig’ because they grow this fruit in their yard or buy it at the market every week. However, because the religious sphere of discourse was heavily disparaged during the Soviet era, most people simply never encountered Incir with the meaning of ‘Gospel.’ This meaning of the word, which Rutuls of the pre-Soviet era knew from the Koran, simply fell into disuse and never had much reason for returning into contemporary Rutul since there is no Christian church established among the people. So if the translator continues to use the term Incir as the rendering for ‘Gospel,’ he runs the risk that most readers will, at best, read the word with a smile because they know that it also means ‘fig,’ and, at worst, will completely misunderstand the word. The seemingly ‘easy’ solution in this case is for the translator to use a Rutul neologism meaning ‘Joyful Message’ or ‘Good News,’ [see above] instead of Incir; but in fact it is not all that easy to make this change if the translator himself insists on using the historical word because at least some Rutuls still understand it as meaning ‘Gospel.’ This is a situation in which the translation team has to gradually grow into the understanding that a fully intelligible translation of Scripture is preferable to one that maintains old words at the cost of alienating much of the readership.”

For “good news,” see also Isaiah 52:7.

elder (of the church)

The Greek that is translated as “elder” in most English versions (“presbyter” in The Orthodox New Testament, 2000) is translated as “Old-Man Leader” in Eastern Highland Otomi (source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22) and in Bacama as mi kpan-kpani vɨnə hiutə: “big/old person of house of prayer” (source: David Frank in this blog post ).

Other translations include:

  • “the people who command among the people of Jesus” in Lalana Chinantec
  • “the old men who watched over the believers” in Morelos Nahuatl
  • “the ones guarding the brethren” in Isthmus Mixe (source for this and two above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
  • “the old men who believe” in Sayula Popoluca
  • “those who care for the assembly of Christ” in Rincón Zapotec
  • “those in authority among the brothers” in Central Mazahua
  • “the supervisors of the creed” in Guhu-Samane (source for this and three above: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)
  • “those who have taken on responsibilities in the congregation” in German (das Buch translation by Roland Werner, publ. 2009-2022)

See also elder (of the community).

elder (of the community)

The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is typically translated as “elders” in English is translated in the Danish Bibelen 2020 as folkets ledere or “leaders of the people.”

Martin Ehrensvärd, one of the translators, explains: “The term ‘elder’ turned out to pose a particularly thorny problem. In traditional bibles, you can find elders all of over the place and they never pose a problem for a translator, they are just always elders. But how to find a contemporary term for this semi-official, complex position? This may have been our longest-standing problem. A couple of times we thought we had the solution, and then implemented it throughout the texts, only to find out that it didn’t work. Like when we used city council or village council, depending on the context. In the end we felt that the texts didn’t work with such official terms, and throughout the years in the desert, these terms didn’t make much sense. Other suggestions were ‘the eldest and wisest’, ‘the respected citizens’, ‘the Israelites with a certain position in society’, ‘the elder council’ –- and let me point out that these terms sound better in Danish than in English (‘de fremtrædende borgere,’ ‘de mest fremtrædende israelitter,’ ‘alle israelitter med en vis position,’ ‘de ældste og de klogeste,’ ‘ældsterådet’). In the end we just said ‘leaders of the people.’ After a lot of hand-wringing, it turned out that we actually found a term that worked well. So, we had to give up conveying the fact that they were old, but the most important point is that they were community leaders.” (Source: Ehrensvärd in HIPHIL Novum 8/2023, p. 81ff. )

The German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) translates likewise as “leader of the people” (Anführer des Volkes).

grace

“The Greek word charis, usually translated by English ‘grace,’ is one of the desperations of translators. The area of meaning is exceptionally extensive. Note the following possible meanings for this word in various contexts of the New Testament: ‘sweetness,’ ‘charm,’ ‘loveliness,’ ‘good-will,’ ‘loving-kindness,’ ‘favor,’ ‘merciful kindness,’ ‘benefit,’ ‘gift,’ ‘benefaction,’ ‘bounty,’ and ‘thanks.’ The theological definition of ‘unmerited favor’ (some translators have attempted to employ this throughout) is applicable to only certain contexts. Moreover, it is quite a task to find some native expression which will represent the meaning of ‘unmerited favor.’ In some languages it is impossible to differentiate between ‘grace’ and ‘kindness.’ In fact, the translation ‘kindness’ is in some cases quite applicable. In other languages, a translation of ‘grace’ is inseparable from ‘goodness.’ In San Miguel El Grande Mixtec a very remarkable word has been used for ‘grace.’ It is made up of three elements. The first of these is a prefixial abstractor. The second is the stem for ‘beauty.’ The third is a suffix which indicates that the preceding elements are psychologically significant. The resultant word may be approximately defined as ‘the abstract quality of beauty of personality.’” (Source: Nida 1947, p. 223)

Other translations include (click or tap here to see more):

  • Inuktitut: “God’s kindness that enables us” (source: Andrew Atagotaaluk)
  • Kwara’ae: kwae ofe’ana (“kindness to one who deserves the opposite”) (source: Norman Deck in The Bible Translator 1963, 34ff. )
  • Chichewa: “being favored in the heart by God” (Source: Ernst Wendland)
  • Sayula Popoluca: “God’s favor” (source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
  • Caribbean Javanese: kabetyikané (“goodness”)
  • Saramaccan: bunhati (“good heart”)
  • Sranan Tongo: bun ati (“good heart”) or gadobun (“God’s goodness”)
  • Eastern Maroon Creole: (gaan) bun ati (“(big) good heart”) (source for this and three above: Jabini 2015)
  • Fasu: “free big help”
  • Wahgi: “save without reward” (source for this and the one above: Deibler / Taylor 1977)
  • Warao: “goodness of his obojona.” Obojona is a term that “includes the concepts of consciousness, will, attitude, attention and a few other miscellaneous notions” (source: Henry Osborn in The Bible Translator 1969, p. 74ff. ) — see other occurrences of Obojona in the Warao New Testament.
  • Nukna: “God gave his insides to one.” (“The ‘insides’ are the seat of emotion in Nukna, like the heart in the English language. To give your insides to someone is to feel love toward them, to want what is best for them, and to do good things for them.” (Source: Matt Taylor in The PNG Experience )
  • Uma: “(God’s) white insides” (source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Hindi, Bengali: anugraha (Hindi: अनुग्रह, Bengali: অনুগ্রহ) from graha: “grasp, a reaching out after, with gracious intent” (source: R.M. Clark in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 81ff. )
  • the German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) uses a large variety of translations, including “undeserved friendliness,” “wonderful work of God,” “loving attention,” “generous,” but also “undeserved grace” (using the traditional German term Gnade)

In Latvian the term žēlastība is used both for “grace” and “mercy.” (Source: Katie Roth)

For Muna, René van den Berg explains the process how the translation team arrived at a satisfactory solution: “Initial translation drafts in Muna tended to (…) use the single word kadawu ‘part, (given) share, gift,’ but this word is really too generic. It lacks the meaning component of mercy and kindness and also seems to imply that the gift is part of a larger whole. Consequently we now [translate] according to context. In wishes and prayers such as ‘Grace to you and peace from God’ we translate ‘grace’ as kabarakati ‘blessing’ (e.g. Gal 1:3). In many places we use kataano lalo ‘goodness of heart’ (e.g. Gal 1:15 ‘because of the goodness of his heart God chose me’) as well as the loan rahamati ‘mercy’ (e.g. ‘you have-turned-your-backs-on the mercy of God’ for ‘you have fallen away from grace’; Gal 5:4). In one case where the unmerited nature of ‘grace’ is in focus, we have also employed katohai ‘a free gift’ (typically food offered to one’s neighbo-1urs) in the same verse. ‘The reason-you-have-been-saved is because of the goodness of God’s heart (Greek charis, Muna kataano lalo), going-through your belief in Kristus. That salvation is not the result of your own work, but really a free-gift (Greek dooron ‘gift’; Muna katohai) of God.’ (Eph 2:8).

In Burmese, it is translated with the Buddhist term kyeh’jooh’tau (ကျေး​ဇူး​တော်). LaSeng Dingrin (in Missiology 37/4, 2009, p. 485ff.) explains: “As regards the Christian term ‘grace,’ Judson [the first translator of the Bible into Burmese] could not have brought the Burmese Buddhists the good news about the redeeming work of Jesus Christ and its benefits (i.e., forgiveness and salvation), without employing the Burmese Buddhist term kyeh’jooh’tau (‘grace’). Deriving from Pali kataññuta (“gratefulness”), kyeh’jooh’tau denotes ‘good deeds for others or benefits,’ which occur among humans. (…) When Christianized, kyeh’jooh’tau also refers to the atoning work of Jesus and its benefits, and can occur between humans and God. The word kyeh’jooh’tau looks very Burmese Buddhist, but it is Christian, too, and conveys the core of the Christian proclamation. Furthermore, kyeh’jooh’tau itself shows that translatability of Christianity cannot be imagined without reliance on Buddhism.” (See also the Burmese entry for God)

In American Sign Language it is translated with a sign that combines “compassion” and “giving out.” (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)


“Grace” in American Sign Language, source: Deaf Harbor

See also grace to you and grace (of God) (Japanese honorifics).

Translation: Eastern Canadian Inuktitut

ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ ᒍᕇᑭᒃᑯᑦ ᐅᖃᐅᓯᖅᑕᖓᑦ ᑐᑭᓕᐅᔾᔭᐅᓯᒪᔪᖅ ᐃᒫᒃ “ᓴᐃᒪᓂᖅ” ᖃᓪᓗᓈᑎᑐᓪᓕ ᑐᑭᓕᐅᔾᔭᐅᓯᒪᒻᒪᑦ ᐃᒫᒃ “ᒎᑎᐅᑉ ᑐᙵᓇᕐᓂᖓᓂ ᐅᕙᑦᑎᓐᓂᒃ ᐱᔪᓐᓇᑎᑦᑎᕙᑦᑐᖅ.”

(Translator: Julia Demcheson)

scribe

The Greek that is usually translated as “scribe” in English “were more than mere writers of the law. They were the trained interpreters of the law and expounders of tradition.”

Here are a number of its (back-) translations:

  • Yaka: “clerk in God’s house”
  • Amganad Ifugao: “man who wrote and taught in the synagogue”
  • Navajo: “teaching-writer” (“an attempt to emphasize their dual function”)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “book-wise person”
  • San Blas Kuna: “one who knew the Jews’ ways”
  • Loma: “educated one”
  • San Mateo del Mar Huave: “one knowing holy paper”
  • Central Mazahua: “writer of holy words”
  • Indonesian: “expert in the Torah”
  • Pamona: “man skilled in the ordinances” (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Sinhala: “bearer-of-the-law”
  • Marathi: “one-learned-in-the-Scriptures”
  • Shona (1966): “expert of the law”
  • Balinese: “expert of the books of Torah”
  • Ekari: “one knowing paper/book”
  • Tboli: “one who taught the law God before caused Moses to write” (or “one who taught the law of Moses”) (source for this and 5 above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Noongar: Mammarapa-Warrinyang or “law man” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Mairasi: “one who writes and explains Great Above One’s (=God’s) prohibitions” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Chichewa: “teacher of Laws” (source: Ernst Wendland)
  • North Alaskan Inupiatun: “teachers of law”
  • Huehuetla Tepehua: “writer”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “person who teaches the law which Moses wrote”
  • Alekano: “man who knows wisdom” (source for this and four above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Saint Lucian Creole French: titcha lwa sé Jwif-la (“teacher of the law of the Jews”) (source: David Frank in Lexical Challenges in the St. Lucian Creole Bible Translation Project, 1998)
  • Chichimeca-Jonaz: “one who teaches the holy writings”
  • Atatláhuca Mixtec: “teacher of the words of the law”
  • Coatlán Mixe: “teacher of the religious law”
  • Lalana Chinantec: “one who is a teacher of the law which God gave to Moses back then”
  • Tepeuxila Cuicatec: “one who know well the law” (Source for this and four above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
  • Huixtán Tzotzil: “one who mistakenly thought he was teaching God’s commandments”(Huixtán Tzotzil frequently uses the verb -cuy to express “to mistakenly think something” from the point of view of the speaker; source: Marion M. Cowan in Notes on Translation 20/1966, pp. 6ff.)
  • German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022): “theologian”
  • English translation by Scot McKnight (in The Second Testament, publ. 2023): Covenant Code scholar

In British Sign Language it is translated with a sign that combines the signs for “expert” and “law.” (Source: Anna Smith)


“Scribe” in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)

kingdom (of God / heaven) (God's new world)

In the German Gute Nachricht (Good News) translation of 1982, this occurrence of the Greek term which is translated in most English versions of “kingdom (of God or heaven)” is translated with “God’s new world” (Gottes neue Welt). The das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022), also in German, translates these occurrences as “God’s new reality” (about Werner’s translation, see here .

For an explanation of the differentiated translation in German as well as translation choices in a number of languages, see Kingdom (of God / heaven).

synagogue, temple (inner), temple (outer)

In many English translations the Greek terms “hieron” (the whole “temple” in Jerusalem or specifically the outer courts open to worshippers) and “naos” (the inner “shrine” or “sanctuary”) are translated with only one word: “temple” (see also for instance “Tempel” in German [for exception see below] and “tempel” in Dutch, Danish, or Afrikaans).

Other languages make a distinction: (Click or tap here to see more)

  • Navajo: “house in which worship is carried out” (for naos)
  • Balinese: “inner part of the Great Temple” (“the term ‘inner part’ denoting the hindmost and holiest of the two or three courts that temples on Bali usually possess”) vs. “Great Temple”
  • Telugu: “womb (i.e. interior)-of-the-abode” vs. “abode”
  • Thai: a term denoting the main audience hall of a Buddhist temple compound vs. “environs-of-the-main-audience-hall”
  • Kituba: “place of holiness of house-God Lord” vs. “house-God Lord”
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “deep in God’s house” vs. “God’s house” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022): “inner court of the temple” (Tempelinnenhof) vs. “temple”

Languages that, like English, German, Dutch, Danish, or Afrikaans don’t make that distinction include:

  • Mandarin Chinese: “聖殿 Shèng diàn” (“holy palace”)
  • Loma: “the holy place”
  • Pular: “the sacred house” (source for this and the one above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Zarma: “God’s compound”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “big church of the Jews”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “big house on top (i.e. most important)”
  • Toraja-Sa’dan: “house that is looked upon as holy, that is sacred, that is taboo and where one may not set foot” (lit. “house where-the-belly-gets-swollen” — because taboo is violated — using a term that is also applied to a Muslim mosque) (source for this and the three above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Mairasi: Janav Enggwarjer Weso: “Great Above One’s (God’s) House” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Noongar: Maya-maya-Kooranyi: “Sacred House” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Huehuetla Tepehua: “the big church of the Israelites”
  • Aguaruna: “the house for talking to God” (source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Guhu-Samane: “festival longhouse of God” (“The biiri, ‘festival longhouse’, being the religious and social center of the community, is a possible term for ‘temple’. It is not the ‘poro house’ as such. That would be too closely identified with the cult of poro. The physical features of the building, huge and sub-divided, lend it further favor for this consideration. By qualifying it as ‘God’s biiri’ the term has become meaningful and appropriate in the context of the Scriptures.”) (Source: Ernest Richert in The Bible Translator, 1965, p. 81ff. )
  • Enga: “God’s restricted access house” (source: Adam Boyd on his blog)

Another distinction that tends to be overlooked in translations is that between hieron (“temple” in English) and sunagógé (“synagogue” in English). Euan Fry (in The Bible Translator 1987, p. 213ff. ) reports on this:

“Many older translations have simply used transliterations of ‘temple’ and ‘synagogue’ rather than trying to find equivalent terms or meaningful expressions in their own languages. This approach does keep the two terms separate; but it makes the readers depend on explanations given by pastors or teachers for their understanding of the text.

“Translators who have tried to find meaningful equivalents, for the two terms ‘temple’ and ‘synagogue’ have usually made a distinction between them in one of two ways (which focus on the contrasting components of meaning). One way takes the size and importance of the Temple to make a contrast, so that expressions such as ‘sacred meeting/ worship house of the Jews’ and ‘big sacred meeting/worship house of the Jews’ are used. The other way focuses on the different nature of the religious activity at each of the places, so that expressions such as ‘meeting/worship house of the Jews’ and ‘sacrifice/ceremony place of the Jews’ are used.

“It is not my purpose in this article to discuss how to arrive at the most precise equivalent to cover all the components of meaning of ‘temple’. That is something that each translator really has to work through for himself in the light of the present usage and possibilities in his own language. My chief concern here is that the basic term or terms chosen for ‘temple’ should give the reader of a translation a clear and correct picture of the location referred to in each passage. And I am afraid that in many cases where an equivalent like ‘house of God’ or ‘worship house’ has been chosen, the readers have quite the wrong picture of what going to the Temple or being in the Temple means. (This may be the case for the word ‘temple’ in English too, for many readers.)”

Here are some examples:

  • Bambara: “house of God” (or: “big house of worship”) vs. “worship house” (or: “small houses of worship”)
  • Toraja-Sa’dan: “house where-the-belly-gets-swollen” (see above) vs. “meeting house for discussing matters concerning religious customs” (and “church” is “house where one meets on Sunday”)
  • Navajo: “house in which worship is carried out” vs. “house of gathering” (source for all above: Bratcher / Nida)
Click or tap here to see a short video clip about Herod’s temple (source: Bible Lands 2012)

Click or tap here to see a short video clip showing synagogues in New Testament times (source: Bible Lands 2012)

See also this devotion on YouVersion .

disciple

The Greek that is often translated as “disciple” in English typically follows three types of translation: (1) those which employ a verb ‘to learn’ or ‘to be taught’, (2) those which involve an additional factor of following, or accompaniment, often in the sense of apprenticeship, and (3) those which imply imitation of the teacher.

Following are some examples (click or tap for details):

  • Ngäbere: “word searcher”
  • Yaka: “one who learned from Jesus”
  • Navajo, Western Highland Purepecha, Tepeuxila Cuicatec, Lacandon: “one who learned”
  • San Miguel El Grande Mixtec: “one who studied with Jesus”
  • Northern Grebo: “one Jesus taught”
  • Toraja-Sa’dan: “child (i.e., follower) of the master”
  • Indonesian: “pupil”
  • Central Mazahua: “companion whom Jesus taught”
  • Kipsigis, Loma, Copainalá Zoque: “apprentice” (implying continued association and learning)
  • Cashibo-Cacataibo: “one who followed Jesus”
  • Huautla Mazatec: “his people” (essentially his followers and is the political adherents of a leader)
  • Highland Puebla Nahuatl: based on the root of “to imitate” (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Chol: “learner” (source: Larson 1998, p. 107)
  • Waorani: “one who lives following Jesus” (source: Wallis 1973, p. 39)
  • Ojitlán Chinantec: “learner” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Javanese: “pupil” or “companion” (“a borrowing from Arabic that is a technical term for Mohammed’s close associates”)
  • German: Jünger or “younger one” (source for this and one above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022). “student” or “special student” (using the traditional German term Gnade)
  • Noongar: ngooldjara-kambarna or “friend-follow” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • French 1985 translation by Chouraqui: adept or “adept” (as in a person who is skilled or proficient at something). Watson (2023, p. 48ff.) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    [Chouraqui] uses the noun “adept,” which is as uncommon in French as it is in English. It’s an evocative choice on several levels. First, linguistically, it derives — via the term adeptus — from the Latin verb adipiscor, “to arrive at; to reach; to attain something by effort or striving.” It suggests those who have successfully reached the goal of their searching, and implies a certain struggle or process of learning that has been gradually overcome. But it’s also a term with a very particular history: in the Middle Ages, “adept” was used in the world of alchemy, to describe those who, after years of labor and intensive study, claimed to have discovered the Great Secret (how to turn base metals like lead into gold); it thus had the somewhat softened meaning of “someone who is completely skilled in all the secrets of their field.”

    Historians of religion often use the term adept with reference to the ancient mystery religions that were so prevalent in the Mediterranean in the centuries around the time of Jesus. An adept was someone who, through a series of initiatory stages, had penetrated into the inner, hidden mysteries of the religion, who understood its rituals, symbols, and their meaning. To be an adept implied a lengthy and intensive master-disciple relationship, gradually being led further and further into the secrets of the god or goddess (Isis-Osiris, Mithras, Serapis, Hermes, etc.) — secrets that were never to be revealed to an outsider.

    Is “adept” a suitable category in which to consider discipleship as we see it described in the Gospels? On some levels, the link is an attractive one, drawing both upon the social-religious framework of the ancient Mediterranean, and upon certain aspects of intimacy and obscurity/secrecy that we see in the relationship of Jesus and those who followed him. The idea that disciples are “learners” — people who are “on the way” — and that Jesus is portrayed as (and addressed as) their Master/Teacher is accurate. But the comparison is unsatisfactory on several other levels.

    First, the Gospels portray Jesus’s ministry as a largely public matter — there is relatively little of the secrecy and exclusiveness that is normally associated with both the mystery cults and medieval alchemy. Jesus’s primary message is not destined for a small, elite circle of “initiates” — although the Twelve are privy to explanations, experiences and teachings that are not provided to “the crowds.” For example, in Matthew 13:10-13:

    Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to [the crowds] in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”

    Etymologically, adeptus suggests someone who “has arrived,” who has attained a superior level of understanding reserved for very few. However, what we see in the Gospels, repeatedly, is a general lack of comprehension of many of Jesus’s key teachings by many of those who hear him. Many of his more cryptic sayings would have been virtually incomprehensible in their original context, and would only make sense in retrospect, in the wake of the events of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. The intense master-student relationship is also lacking: the Gospels largely portray “the disciples” as a loose (and probably fluctuating) body of individuals, with minimal structure or cohesion. Finally, there seems to be little scholarly consensus about the degree to which the mystery cults had made inroads in Roman-ruled Palestine during the decades of Jesus’s life. According to Everett Ferguson in his Backgrounds of Early Christianity.

    Although Christianity had points of contact with Stoicism, the mysteries, the Qumran community, and so on, the total worldview was often quite different….So far as we can tell, Christianity represented a new combination for its time…. At the beginning of the Christian era a number of local mysteries, some of great antiquity, flourished in Greece and Asia Minor. In the first century A.D. the vonly mysteries whose extension may be called universal were the mysteries of Dionysus and those of the eastern gods, especially Isis.

    And Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling note, in their book The New Testament:

    Examples of such mystery religions could be found in Greece… Asia Minor… Syria-Palestine… Persia… and Egypt. Though the mysteries had sacred shrines in these regions, many of them spread to other parts of the empire, including Rome. There is no clearly direct influence of the mysteries on early Christianity, but they shared a common environment and many non-Christians would have perceived Christians as members of an oriental Jewish mystery cult.56

    Given the sparse archaeological and literary evidence from this period regarding mystery cults in Roman Palestine, and the apparent resistance of many Palestinian Jews to religious syncretism, Chouraqui’s use of the noun adept implies a comparison between the historical Jesus and mystery cults that is doubtful, on both the levels of chronology and religious culture. Personally, I believe this choice suggests a vision of Jesus that distances him from the religious world of ancient Judaism, thus creating a distorted view of what spiritually inspired him. But the idea of the disciples as “learners” on a journey (as the Greek term suggests) is a striking one to consider; certainly, the Gospels show us the Twelve as people who are growing, learning, and developing…but who have not yet “arrived” at the fullness of their vocation.

Scot McKnight (in The Second Testament, publ. 2023) translates it into English as apprentice.

In Luang several terms with different shades of meaning are being used.

  • For Mark 2:23 and 3:7: maka nwatutu-nwaye’a re — “those that are taught” (“This is the term used for ‘disciples’ before the resurrection, while Jesus was still on earth teaching them.”)
  • For Acts 9:1 and 9:10: makpesiay — “those who believe.” (“This is the term used for believers and occasionally for the church, but also for referring to the disciples when tracking participants with a view to keeping them clear for the Luang readers. Although Greek has different terms for ‘believers’, ‘brothers’, and ‘church’, only one Luang word can be used in a given episode to avoid confusion. Using three different terms would imply three different sets of participants.”)
  • For Acts 6:1: mak lernohora Yesus wniatutunu-wniaye’eni — “those who follow Jesus’ teaching.” (“This is the term used for ‘disciples’ after Jesus returned to heaven.”)

Source: Kathy Taber in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 9-16.

In American Sign Language it is translated with a combination of the signs for “following” plus the sign for “group.” (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)


“disciples” in American Sign Language, source: Deaf Harbor

In British Sign Language a sign is used that depicts a group of people following one person (the finger in the middle, signifying Jesus). Note that this sign is only used while Jesus is still physically present with his disciples. (Source: Anna Smith)


“Disciple in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)

See also disciples (Japanese honorifics).