The Greek that is translated as “mystery” in English is translated as “wisdom which was hidden” in Mezquital Otomi, as “that was not possible to be understood before” in Huehuetla Tepehua, and as “which was not known in time past” in Central Tarahumara. (Source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)


The Greek terms that are translated into English as “preach” or “proclaim” are regularly rendered into Aari as “speaking the word of salvation.” (Source: Loren Bliese)

Other languages (back-) translate it in the following manner:

  • Mandarin Chinese: chuándào/傳道 or “hand down the Way [or: the Logos]”)
  • Kekchí: “declare the word”
  • Kpelle: “speak God’s word”
  • Tzeltal: “he explains, they hear” (“the goal of all preachers”)
  • Copainalá Zoque: “a preacher is ‘one who speaks-scatters'” (a figure based on the scattering of seed in the process of sowing) (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Shilluk: “declare the word of of God” (source: Nida 1964, p. 237)

In Luang it is translated with different shades of meaning:

  • For Acts 9:20, 10:42: nakotnohora: “talk about” (“The generic term for preaching.”)
  • For Acts 8:4, 8:5, 8:25: rodkiota-ralde’etnohora — “bring words, give news about.” (“This term is used when the preacher is moving from place to place to preach.”)

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

justification, justify

The Greek that is translated as “justify” in English is translated into Tzotzil in two different ways. One of those is with Lec xij’ilatotic yu’un Dios ta sventa ti ta xc’ot ta o’ntonal ta xch’unel ti Jesucristoe (“we are seen well by God because of our faith in Jesus Christ”) (source: Aeilts, p. 118) and the other is “God sees as righteous” (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).

Other (back-) translations include:

throughout the world

The Greek that is translated as “throughout the world” in many English versions is translated into Tojolabal as “far and wide.”


The Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that is translated as “angel” in English versions is translated in many ways:

  • Pintupi-Luritja: ngaṉka ngurrara: “one who belongs in the sky” (source: Ken Hansen quoted in Steven 1984a, p. 116.)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “word-carrier from heaven”
  • Tetela, Kpelle, Balinese, and Mandarin Chinese: “heavenly messenger”
  • Shilluk / Igede: “spirit messenger”
  • Mashco Piro: “messenger of God”
  • Batak Toba: “envoy, messenger”
  • Navajo: “holy servant” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961; Igede: Andy Warren-Rothlin)
  • Central Mazahua: “God’s worker” (source: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.)
  • Saramaccan: basia u Masa Gaangadu köndë or “messenger from God’s country” (source: Jabini 2015, p. 86)
  • Mairasi: atatnyev nyaa or “sent-one” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “word bringer” (source: James Lauriault in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 32ff. )
  • Apali: “God’s one with talk from the head” (“basically God’s messenger since head refers to any leader’s talk”) (source: Martha Wade)
  • Michoacán Nahuatl: “clean helper of God” (source: B. Moore / G. Turner in Notes on Translation 1967, p. 1ff.)
  • Nyongar: Hdjin-djin-kwabba or “spirit good” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Wè Northern (Wɛɛ): Kea ‘a “sooa or “the Lord’s soldier” (also: “God’s soldier” or “his soldier”) (source: Drew Maust)
  • Iwaidja: “a man sent with a message” (Sam Freney explains the genesis of this term [in this article): “For example, in Darwin last year, as we were working on a new translation of Luke 2:6–12 in Iwaidja, a Northern Territory language, the translators had written ‘angel’ as ‘a man with eagle wings’. Even before getting to the question of whether this was an accurate term (or one that imported some other information in), the word for ‘eagle’ started getting discussed. One of the translators had her teenage granddaughter with her, and this word didn’t mean anything to her at all. She’d never heard of it, as it was an archaic term that younger people didn’t use anymore. They ended up changing the translation of ‘angel’ to something like ‘a man sent with a message’, which is both more accurate and clear.”)

See also angel (Acts 12:15) and this devotion on YouVersion .

complete verse (1 Timothy 3:16)

Following are a number of back-translations of 1 Timothy 3:16:

  • Uma: “No kidding the goodness of the teaching that we follow in our submitting to God. From long ago that teaching was not yet revealed to mankind, but now God has revealed it to us. For we believe in: God who became mankind. The Holy Spirit made-clear who he was, and he was seen by angels. His news was spread to people who did not yet know God. People all over the world believed in him. He was lifted him up to heaven and given bigness of life [glory].” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “Nobody can deny/state that the teaching of this our (incl.) religion is not deep, this is the true teaching not yet known as long as God had not yet made it known, that means the teaching about Isa Almasi: He was there in heaven but he came to earth to become man. The Holy Spirit testified that he was really straight/righteous. He was seen by the angels. It was proclaimed about him to all people/tribes. And he was believed by the people. So-then he was made-to-ascend/lifted-up to go again to heaven and there he rules.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And all of us (incl.) know that greater than everything is the doctrine which was revealed and which we believe. Christ became human; the Holy Spirit witnessed that he is righteous; he was seen by the angels of God; the news about Him was spread to the people who are not Jews; there are those who believe in him here in the whole earth; he was taken up to heaven.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “We all know indeed that what we believe concerning Cristo Jesus is greatly valuable. It wasn’t made-known previously but God has made-it-known to us now/today: He appeared as a person, and the Ispirito Santo (Holy Spirit) confirmed that he had absolutely no fault/lack. Angels also were-seeing him. That which is concerning him was preached in the collective-plural-towns/countries, and there were those on this earth who believed in him. He was also raised to heaven to be honored/praised.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Yes indeed, it is really well-known to us all that the truth is an amazement and praiseworthy which has been like hidden all this time but has now been made known concerning Cristo. For this Cristo, he became a man/human. His correctness/righteous-position that he really is the Son of God, it was testified to by the Espiritu Santo. He was seen by angels. And concerning him is now being taught in all different nations. Many now are those who have believed in him here under the heavens. And as for him, he ascended again to heaven/sky, there to his praiseworthiness/place-of-glory.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Very beautiful is the word which we believe. God caused that we understood this word, that Christ became a man. And the Holy Spirit made it known that Christ did not do any evil. And God’s angels look well upon him. And now, everywhere it is told about Christ. And he is believed all over the world. And God took him up to heaven.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

pronoun for "God"

God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).

Modern Mandarin Chinese, however, offers another possibility. Here, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.

In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.

While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, some Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. Among the translations that use 祂 to refer to “God” were early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970). R.P. Kramers (in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.) explains why later versions of Lü’s translation did not continue with this practice: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”

In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):

In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.

Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”

In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)

Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”

In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)

In Thai, the pronoun phra`ong (พระองค์) is used, a gender-neutral pronoun which must refer to a previously introduced royal or divine being. Similarly, in Northern Khmer, which is spoken in Thailand, “an honorific divine pronoun” is used for the pronoun referring to the persons of the Trinity (source: David Thomas in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 445). In Urak Lawoi’, another language spoken in Thailand, the translation often uses tuhat (ตูฮัด) — “God” — ”as a divine pronoun where Thai has phra’ong even though it’s actually a noun.” (Source for Thai and Urak Lawoi’: Stephen Pattemore)

The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “king,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs. “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.

Some Protestant English Bibles use a referential capitalized spelling when referring to the persons of the Trinity with “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself.” This includes for instance the New American Standard Bible, but most translations, especially those published in the 21st century, do not. Two other languages where this is also done (in most Bible translations) are the closely related Indonesian and Malay. In both languages this follows the language usage according to the Qur’an, which in turn predicts that usage (see Soesilo in The Bible Translator 1991, p. 442ff. and The Bible Translator 1997, p. 433ff. ).

See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong

Translation commentary on 1 Timothy 3:16

The chapter ends with a hymn, introduced by the expression Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion. The first four words of this introduction represent two Greek words, “great” and an adverb that is found only here in the whole New Testament. This adverb is one that can be literally rendered “confessedly,” with the idea that what follows is affirmed by the community as true and undisputed. Translations try to capture this sense in many ways; for example, New American Bible, Revised “Undeniably,” Revised English Bible “beyond all question,” New Revised Standard Version “without any doubt,” Translator’s New Testament “unquestionably.”

The mystery of our religion is literally “the mystery of godliness.” The term mystery appears in 1 Tim. 3.9 (see the discussion there). The term for religion is translated as “godly” in 2.2 (Greek “in all godliness”), and in that context refers primarily to a person’s devotion and “reverence for God” (compare Good News Translation on 2.2). In this context the meaning is similar to “the mystery of the faith” or “the revealed truth of the faith” in verse 9 of this chapter. Clearly the Christian faith as a religious movement is meant, and many translations reflect this understanding (for example, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, Translator’s New Testament, Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible). The expression “mystery of godliness” is used only here in the whole letter and in fact in the whole New Testament. Other ways of expressing this first sentence are “We can affirm that the teachings that God has revealed are undeniably true” or “We can affirm, ‘The teachings that God has revealed are completely true’ ”

The hymn that follows is one of the main contents of the “secret” or “revealed truths” of the Christian faith. That this is a hymn is signaled in many translations by the way the whole passage is indented. However, translators need to be warned that simply formatting this supposed hymn in a special way does not make it poetry. All it does is indicate to readers that the passage may have been poetry in the original. If formatting it in this way seems unnatural in a receptor language, it will be better to translate it as prose in the normal prose format. However, if a translator decides that this is indeed a hymn, and hymns normally appear in poetic form in the receptor language, the translator should make every effort to have this passage translated as poetry. If the translator is not a poet, the translation committee should find some person who is a skilled poet to translate this hymn and other poetic passages. Sometimes it is helpful for the main translator to put the passage into prose first as a good model for the poet to use in the poetic translation. See the introductions to A Handbook on Psalms, A Handbook on The Book of Amos, or A Handbook on The Book of Revelation for further discussions on translating into poetry.

The hymn is not without difficulty. As if to signal this, a textual problem occurs right at the beginning of the hymn. The pronoun He translates a Greek word composed of two letters, o and s (which when taken together means “who”). In many manuscripts the first letter o (Ο) has become th (θ), thus making it possible for the word to be read theos, which is the Greek word for “God.” Actually, beginning the hymn with the word “God” has its advantages in that the problem of ambiguity is eliminated. However, it is clear from the manuscript evidence that the original beginning of the hymn was “Who” rather than “God,” and this is what most translations follow. The pronoun “Who” is of course ambiguous, since it can refer either to God or more likely to Christ, as the content of the hymn indicates. Many translations retain the ambiguity here, perhaps because of the desire to retain the option of God becoming incarnate.

The hymn proper consists of six lines, with each line consisting of a third person singular aorist passive verb (ending in the rhythmic -thē) and a prepositional phrase using the Greek preposition for “in” in all but the third line, which uses an instrumental dative, “(by) angels.” Various translations depict different structures of this short hymn. Some suggest that the hymn consists of three stanzas, each consisting of two lines; others divide the hymn into two three-line stanzas; while for still others the hymn consists of six single lines. There are some translations that do not even format it as a hymn!

The lines are related to each other in various ways. One way is to define the relationships in terms of the categories of earthly and heavenly, in which case we have the following construction:

manifested in the flesh (line 1) – earthly
vindicated in the Spirit (line 2) – heavenly

seen by angels (line 3) – heavenly
preached among the nations (line 4) – earthly

believed in the world (line 5) – earthly
taken up in glory (line 6) – heavenly

This kind of construction contrasts the earthly and the heavenly; it relates line 1 with line 2, line 3 with line 4, and line 5 with line 6. In addition the same kind of contrast relates line 1 with line 6, line 2 with line 5, and line 3 with line 4, thus coming out with the following chiastic structure as shown by the lines on the right: (see structure|fig:Table_1TI3-16.jpg)

The above structure also has what is known as a double chiasmus, since there are two chiasmi in the structure: lines 1 through 4 (A-B-B′-A′), and lines 3 through 6 (B′-A′-A′′-B′′). These are shown by the lines on the left, in which the A group represents the earthly, and the B group the heavenly.

The above structure is not without problems, however. We cannot be all that sure as to whether lines 2 and 3 can be restricted to the heavenly sphere; line 2 can in fact be interpreted as an earthly phenomenon. A further problem is that it is very difficult to be certain that this double chiastic structure was intended by the author of the hymn.

Another structure suggested for this hymn is that these lines present a short summary of great events that are related to Christ and the community of faith that came to being through faith in him. In this way of looking at this hymn, line 1 refers to Christ’s incarnation, line 2 to his resurrection and exaltation, line 3 to his heavenly reign, line 4 to his being proclaimed, line 5 to the emergence of a community of faith, and line 6 to Christ’s final triumph and sharing in the glory of God. This last line also serves as a concluding doxology, which is common in New Testament hymns (as, for example, Phil 2.5-11), benedictions, and prayers.

The lines will now be considered separately. The first line obviously refers to the incarnation event. Was manifested is the passive form of the verb that means “to reveal,” and what is usually made known is one’s true character. Here, however, the passive form simply means “to be seen,” “to appear” (as in Good News Translation). Flesh translates one of those biblical terms with a variety of meanings; here it refers to humanity, hence Good News Translation “human form.” In languages that do not use the passive voice, one may restructure was manifested in the flesh as “He [Christ] appeared as a human being” or “People saw him as a human being (or, in human form).”

The second line is a little more complicated. What does vindicated (literally “justified”) mean? What does Spirit refer to? And what does the whole expression mean? There are at least three ways of interpreting this line.

First, Spirit may be taken as referring to the Holy Spirit. The prepositional phrase in the Spirit can then be equivalent to “by the Spirit,” indicating that the Holy Spirit was the agent of Christ’s vindication (so Contemporary English Version “The Spirit proved that he pleased God”). The line then refers to Christ’s exaltation and is paralleled by the first line, where the focus is on Christ’s taking on the lowly form of a human being. There are, however, some problems with this position. First, the Greek preposition en is found in both lines 1 and 2, and one would expect the same meaning in both cases. In line 1 en clearly means “in the realm of,” in which case the same meaning should be expected in line 2. A second problem may be mentioned, and that is, in line 3, “he was seen by angels,” no preposition is used in the Greek text; if the same meaning were intended for line 2, then probably a preposition would not be used here either.

A second possibility is that Spirit could be taken as referring to Christ’s divine nature, in contrast to his human nature in the first line. A similar reference is in Rom 1.4. This would also contrast Christ’s humanity with his divinity. The sense of the line would then be that it was through the resurrection that Christ’s divine nature was vindicated.

Thirdly, Spirit could refer to Christ’s human spirit in contrast to his physical nature that is mentioned in the first line; hence “as far as Christ’s physical nature is concerned,” and “as far as Christ’s spiritual nature is concerned.”

As already indicated, the word translated vindicated is a Greek word that is usually rendered literally as “justified,” which in the present context most probably means “proved to be right” (hence Good News Translation “shown to be right”). If “spirit” is here taken to refer to the Holy Spirit, then Good News Bible makes a good model. The Holy Spirit in fact is present as a vindicating power in many important events of Christ’s earthly life, as, for instance, at his baptism (see Matt 3.16-17 and parallels). If, however, “spirit” is taken to refer either to Christ’s divine nature or to Christ’s spiritual nature, then one will have to translate “shown to be divine” or “proved to be right spiritually.”

This Handbook recommends that translators follow the first interpretation, namely God’s Spirit.

It is very likely that some translators have already decided on a term for Spirit or God’s Spirit. However, if in a certain culture a translator or translation team is still searching for a term for God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit, it is important to avoid a word that indicates a ghost, or an evil (or malevolent) spirit, or the human spirit that survives a person’s death, or even “the soul stuff (or, vital force)” that is understood in certain cultures to inhabit plants, animals, or even humans. It is also important not to borrow a term from some other language that will be practically meaningless to the reader or even give the wrong meaning. Simply capitalizing a term for Spirit, as is done in Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation, and many other translations, without indicating that it is God’s Spirit, does not ensure that listeners will understand the term to mean God’s Spirit when the scripture is read aloud in church services. So in many languages it will be better to translate as “God’s spirit” or “the Holy Spirit,” so that there will be no confusion in the listener’s mind as to whose spirit is being referred to.

Care should also be taken in picking a term for “holy” in reference to God’s Spirit. One should avoid the use of words for “holy” that mean “taboo,” or words which were often used in the past in translation, such as “pure,” “clean,” “white,” and so on. These do not adequately convey the idea of belonging to God. See also A Handbook on The Gospel of Mark, page 25, for a further detailed discussion on the translation of “spirit” and “holy.” Vindicated in the Spirit (Good News Translation “was shown to be right by the Spirit”) may be also rendered as “God’s Spirit showed that he was right” or “God’s Spirit confirmed that the things which he did were correct.”

The third line (seen by angels) presents little difficulty in translation. It is, however, difficult to be certain as to when this happened or what it is referring to. There are a few possibilities:
(1) This refers to the resurrection of Christ. In the Gospel resurrection accounts angels play a very prominent part (see, for example, Matt 28.2-7; Mark 16.5-8; Luke 24.4-7; John 20.12, 13). Furthermore, the Greek form of the line (passive “he was seen” or “he appeared” plus dative case without an explicit preposition) occurs frequently in the passages referring to the appearances of the risen Christ, as, for example, Acts 9.17 “the Lord Jesus who appeared to you”; 1 Cor 15.5 “he appeared to Cephas”; also 1 Cor 15.6, 7, and 8.
(2) This refers to the Ascension. As Jesus sat on the heavenly throne beside his heavenly Father, he would of course be surrounded by the heavenly angelic court. An advantage of this position is that this third line could then be connected with the first two lines to form a stanza about Christ: his incarnation, his resurrection, and his ascension.
(3) This refers to Jesus’ ruling over angels and other spirits in the heavenly realm. See, for example, Col 2.10, 15; 1 Peter 3.22; Heb 1.4-6; and elsewhere.
(4) This refers to the place of angels in the various stages in the life of Christ, from the announcement of his birth, to his birth, temptation, and so on.

It may not perhaps be necessary to say more in the translation than what the text actually says. Where notes are used in the translation (as, for example, in Study Bibles), the various possibilities may be presented to help the readers understand more fully the meaning of the text.

Angels will be translated in certain languages as “heavenly messengers,” “God’s messengers,” and so on. Seen by angels may be translated in languages that do not use the passive voice as “Angels saw him,” “He appeared to angels,” or “He showed himself to angels.”

The fourth and fifth lines deal with the proclamation of Christ and the result of such proclamation. Preached can also be rendered as “proclaimed” (New English Bible); see discussion on “preacher” in 2.7. Nations translates a Greek word that usually means “Gentiles” or non-Jews, and which sometimes is translated as “pagans” (Jerusalem Bible), or “heathen,” or “nonbelievers.” Here perhaps the more generic meaning of nations is what is intended, and most translations take it in this sense. However, if this fourth line is contrasted with line 3, then a translation like “pagans” would be appropriate, since this would accent the contrast between the two lines. Angels are very close to God, whereas pagans don’t know God at all. Angels see Christ directly, whereas the pagans only hear about him. Other ways of expressing preached among the nations are “People preached about him to the nations,” “People proclaimed him among those who do not believe in God.”

Believed is used here in the sense of having trust, confidence, and commitment to Christ. World may refer to the physical world, that is, the entire created universe (as, for example, Phillips “believed in throughout the world”), or to the people who inhabit the earth. The text literally says in the world; some understand the Greek preposition en to mean “by” (as, for example, Jerusalem Bible “believed in by the world”), in which case one can translate “believed in by people of the world.” Others understand the preposition en to mean “in the sphere of,” that is, in the physical or earthly area or realm, as contrasted to the last line that deals with heavenly glory. The first interpretation seems the most likely one, and this Handbook urges translators to follow it. Good News Translation‘s “believed in throughout the world” is a good model. One may also say “People all over the world believed in him.”

Finally the last line speaks about Christ’s final triumph and exaltation. The verb taken up is used also in Acts 1.2 and Mark 16.19 to refer to the ascension of Christ into heaven, there to reign with God his Father. His ascension is into glory; that is, at the ascension Christ was given the privilege of sharing in the very nature and greatness of God himself, so that he, Christ, is also worthy of praise and adoration. Other ways of expressing this clause are “and God took him up to Heaven” or “and God took him up to be with himself.”

Quoted with permission from Arichea, Daniel C. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Paul’s First Letter to Timothy. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1995. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .