The Greek and Hebrew that is translated as “tribe” in English when referring to the “12 tribes of Israel” is translated in some East African languages, including Taita and Pökoot, with the equivalent of “clan” instead.

Aloo Mojola explains (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 208ff. ) (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“A number of Bible translation teams in East Africa have been baffled and intrigued by the use of the term ‘tribe’ in the English translations of the Bible. The usage employed in these translations does not reflect any of the popular meanings associated with the term ‘tribe’ in present-day English. Neither does it reflect popular conceptions of the meaning of this term in East Africa or in other parts of Africa and elsewhere. This raises the question: is the term tribe the best translation of the Hebrew terms shebeth and matteh or the Greek term phyle? What is a tribe anyway? Are the twelve tribes of Israel tribes in the sense this term is currently understood? How can this term be translated in East African languages?

“It is easy to see that there is no consistent definition of the term tribe which applies exclusively and consistently to the communities to which it is currently applied. Why, for example, are the Somali or the Baganda called a tribe, but not the Irish or the Italians? Why do the Yoruba or Hausa qualify, but not the Portuguese or the Russians? Why the Bakongo and the Oromo, but not the Germans or the Scots? Why the Eritreans, but not the French or Dutch-speaking Belgians? Why the Zulu or the Xhosa, but not the South African Boers (Afrikaners) or the South African English? The reason for the current prejudices, it would seem, has nothing to do with language, physical type, common territory, common cultural values, type of political and social organization or even population size. Ingrained prejudices and preconceived ideas about so-called “primitive” peoples have everything to do with it.

“The term ‘tribe’ is used to refer to a universal and world-wide phenomenon of ethnic identification which may draw on any of the following bases: identification in terms of one’s first or dominant language of communication (linguistic), in terms of one’s place of origin (regional), in terms of one’s presumed racial, biological or genetic type (racial), or in terms of one’s ideological or political commitments (ideological), and so on. Communities may choose one or more of these bases as criteria for membership. Any of these may change over time. Moreover forms of ethnic identification are dynamic or in a state of flux, changing in response to new environments and circumstances. Essentially forms of ethnic association reflect a people’s struggle for survival through adaptation to changing times. This is inextricably intertwined with the production and distribution of vital resources, goods and services as well as the distribution of power, class and status in society.

“At the base of any ethnic group is the nuclear family which expands to include the extended family. The extended family consists of more than two families related vertically and horizontally: parents and their offspring, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, and others, extending to more than two generations. A lineage is usually a larger group than an extended family. It includes a number of such families who trace descent through the male or female line to a common ancestor. A clan may be equivalent to or larger than a lineage. Where it is larger than a lineage, it brings together several lineages which may or may not know the precise nature of their relationships, but which nevertheless claim descent from a common ancestor. A clan is best thought of as a kind of sub-ethnic unit whose members have some unifying symbol such as totem, label, or myth. In most cases the clan is used to determine correct marriage lines, but this is not universally so. Above the clan is the ethnic group, usually referred to inconsistently as the tribe. Members of an ethnic group share feelings of belonging to a common group. The basis of ethnic identity is not always derived from a common descent, real or fictional; it may draw on any of the bases mentioned above.

“The Israelites identified themselves as one people sharing a common descent, a common religious and cultural heritage, a common language and history. There is no doubt that they constitute what would nowadays be called an ethnic group, or by some people a tribe. The twelve subunits of the Israelite ethnic group or tribe, (Hebrew shebeth or matteh, or Greek phyle) are clearly equivalent to clans. In fact this is what seems to make sense to most African Bible translators in the light of their understanding of these terms and the biblical account. Referring to a shebeth as a tribe or an ethnic group and to Israel as a collection of twelve tribes creates unnecessary confusion. Translating each of the terms shebeth, matteh, and phyle as clan seems to solve this problem and to be consistent with current usage in African languages.”

presentation in the temple (image)

This is a contemporary tempera/gouache on leather painting by an unknown Ethiopian artist. Source: Sacred Art Pilgrim website .

Following is a painting by Chen Yuandu 陳緣督 (1902–1967):

Housed in the Société des Auxiliaires des Missions Collection – Whitworth University.

Image taken from Chinese Christian Posters . For more information on the “Ars Sacra Pekinensis” school of art, see this article , for other artworks of that school in TIPs, see here.


The name that is transliterated as “Anna” in English is translated in Finnish Sign Language with the sign signifying “grace (the original meaning of the name “Anna”) + prophet.” (Source: Tarja Sandholm)

“Anna” in Finnish Sign Language (source )

See also Hannah.

complete verse (Luke 2:36)

Following are a number of back-translations of Luke 2:36:

  • Nyongar: (combined with verse 37) “Anna was an old widow, and she was a Prophet. She was the daughter of Phanuel, of the people of Asher. She was only married seven years and now she was 84 years old. She did not leave the Temple. Day and night, she praised God, not eating, and always talking with God.” (Source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Uma: “At the time of the arrival of Yusuf and Maria in the House of God, there was also there a female prophet who was very old. Her name was Hana, the child of Fanuel, from the family of Asyer. At that time, her age was eighty-four years. She had been married only seven years. From there, she was a widow, and she did not marry again. She stayed continually in the House of God, day and night continually praying and she fasted worshipping the Lord God.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “There was also a woman prophet there called Anna a daughter of Panuel of the line of Aser ley. She was already very old. She had lived with her husband only for seven years,” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And there in the church, the house of God, there was an old woman named Anna, who was a prophet of God. She was the child of Phanuel, a descendant of Asher. That woman was very old; when she was still young she was married but after seven years of her being married, she was widowed.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “There was also there a prophet who was a very old-woman. She was Anna the child of Fanuel the descendant of Aser. She had been married for seven years,” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “There was also there at the Templo a woman prophet who was Ana. She was the daughter of Fanuel, a descendant of Aser. She was really old now. Only seven years was how long she had been married, then she was widowed.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)


Eugene Nida wrote the following about the translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms that are typically translated with “prophet” in English:

“The tendency in many translations is to use ‘to foretell the future’ for ‘prophesy,’ and ‘one who foretells the future’ for ‘prophet.’ This is not always a recommended usage, particularly if such expressions denote certain special native practices of spirit contact and control. It is true, of course, that prophets of the Bible did foretell the future, but this was not always their principal function. One essential significance of the Greek word prophētēs is ‘one who speaks forth,’ principally, of course, as a forth-teller of the Divine will. A translation such as ‘spokesman for God’ may often be employed profitably.” (1947, p. 234f.)

Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages (click or tap for details):

  • San Blas Kuna: “one who speaks the voice of God”
  • Central Pame and Vai: “interpreter for God”
  • Kaqchikel, Navajo, Yaka: “one who speaks for God”
  • Northern Grebo: “God’s town crier” (see more about this below)
  • Sapo: “God’s sent-word person”
  • Shipibo-Conibo, Ngäbere: “one who speaks God’s word”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “one who speaks-opens” (a compound meaning “one who discloses or reveals”)
  • Sierra Totonac: “one who causes them to know” (in the sense of “revealer”)
  • Batak Toba: “foreteller” (this and all the above acc. to Nida 1961, p. 7)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “one who is inspired of God” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Alekano: “the true man who descended from heaven” (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation June 1986, p. 36ff.)
  • Aguaruna: “teller of God’s word” (source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125)
  • Ekari: “person who speaks under divine impulse”
  • Mandarin Chinese: 先知 xiānzhī — “one who foreknows” (or the 1946/1970 translation by Lü Zhenzhong: 神言人 shényánrén — “divine-word-man”)
  • Uab Meto: “holy spokesman” (source for this and two above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Kouya: Lagɔɔ gbʋgbanyɔ — “the one who seeks God’s affairs” (source: Saunders, p. 269)
  • Kafa: “decide for God only” (source: Loren Bliese)
  • Martu Wangka: “sit true to God’s talk” (source: Carl Gross)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “word passer” (source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22)
  • Obolo: ebi nriran: “one with power of divine revelation” (source: Enene Enene)
  • Mairasi: nonondoai nyan: “message proclaimer” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Highland Totonac: “speaker on God’s behalf”
  • Central Tarahumara: “God’s preacher” (source for this and above: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
  • Coatlán Mixe: “God’s word-thrower”
  • Ayutla Mixtec: “one who talks as God’s representative”
  • Isthmus Mixe: “speaker for God” (source for this and two above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
  • Mezquital Otomi: “God’s messenger” (source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
  • Nyongar: Warda Marridjiny or “News Traveling” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Kutu: mtula ndagu or “one who gives the prediction of the past and the future” (Source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
  • French 1985 translation by Chouraqui: inspiré or “inspired one” (“someone in whom God has breathed [Latin: in + spiro]) (source: Watson 2023, p. 45)

In Ixcatlán Mazatec a term is used that specifically includes women. (Source: Robert Bascom)

About the translation into Northern Grebo:

“In some instances these spiritual terms result from adaptations reflecting the native life and culture. Among the Northern Grebo people of Liberia, a missionary wanted some adequate term for ‘prophet,’ and she was fully aware that the native word for ‘soothsayer’ or ‘diviner’ was no equivalent for the Biblical prophet who spoke forth for God. Of course, much of what the prophets said referred to the future, and though this was an essential part of much of their ministry, it was by no means all. The right word for the Gbeapo people would have to include something which would not only mean the foretelling of important events but the proclamation of truth as God’s representative among the people. At last the right word came; it was ‘God’s town-crier.’ Every morning and evening the official representative of the chief goes through the village crying out the news, delivering the orders of the chief, and announcing important coming events. ‘God’s town-crier’ would be the official representative of God, announcing to the people God’s doings, His commands, and His pronouncements for their salvation and well-being. For the Northern Grebo people the prophet is no weird person from forgotten times; he is as real as the human, moving message of the plowman Amos, who became God’s town-crier to a calloused people.” (source: Nida 1952, p. 20)

In American Sign Language it is a person who sees into the future:

“Prophet” in American Sign Language (source )

In British Sign Language it is is translated with a sign that depicts a message coming from God to a person (the upright finger) and then being passed on to others. (Source: Anna Smith)

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

See also prophesy and prophesy / prophetic frenzy.

Translation commentary on Luke 2:36 – 2:37


kai ēn ‘and there was’ or, establishing a closer connexion with v. 25, “There was also” (New English Bible), preferably the latter.

Hanna prophētis ‘Anna, a prophetess,’ the apposition denotes the function or quality in which Anna acts. As such it is different from the two subsequent appositions which serve to identify Anna as to her lineage. prophētis.

In the clause which runs from hautē ‘she’ till tessarōn ‘four’ the main verb is probebēkuia ‘advanced,’ scil. ēn ‘was’ and the phrase hautē … pollais gives the central information, i.e. that Anna was very old, and the subsequent participial clause zēsasa … tessarōn is to be understood as a consistent whole which serves (1) to explain the preceding phrase ‘well advanced in years’ and (2) to inform the reader also in what status Anna had spent her long life.

hautē probebēkuia en hēmerais pollais scil. ēn, lit. ‘she was advanced in many days,’ cf. 1.7 and 18 ‘advanced in their (or, her) days.’ The addition here of pollais ‘many,’ which is idiomatically a pleonasm, conveys the idea that Anna is very old, cf. Translator’s New Testament.

zēsasa meta andros etē hepta apo tēs parthenias autēs ‘having lived with a husband seven years from the time of her virginity.’

zaō ‘to live’ here ‘to pass life,’ specified first as ‘married life’ by meta andros and subsequently as ‘widowed life’ by autē chēra ‘on her own as widow’ (v. 37a).

meta andros lit. ‘with a man,’ here ‘with a husband.’

parthenia ‘virginity,’ here to be understood as ‘time of her virginity’ and apo as temporal ‘from the end of’ or even ‘after.’ Hence the phrase indicates that this marriage had been her first.

(V. 37) heōs etōn ogdoēkonta tessarōn ‘until eighty-four years’ i.e. ‘until the age of eighty-four.’
hē ouk aphistato tou hierou ‘who did not depart from the temple,’ a relative clause which continues the introductory description of Anna and draws a picture of her religious life. The imperfect tense is durative and the clause suggests, with exaggeration, frequent attendance in the temple, not actual residence within the temple precincts, especially since autē tē hōra ‘at that very hour’ (v. 38) would be pointless if Anna was always in the temple.

aphistamai ‘to go away from,’ with genitive.

nēsteiais kai deēsesin latreuousa nukta kai hēmeran ‘with fasting and praying serving (God) night and day’; this participial phrase serves to describe how Anna spent her time in the temple.

nēsteia ‘fasting,’ here in the plural ‘times, or acts, of fasting.’

deēsis ‘prayer,’ cf. on 1.13.

latreuō ‘to serve,’ cf. on 1.74; the object, God, is here omitted.


Daughter of Phanuel. Probably Phanuel was Anna’s father, not her forefather of (or, belonging to/a member of/having-as-tribe) the tribe of Asher may syntactically go either with Anna or with Phanuel. This is immaterial where a daughter belongs to the tribe or clan of her father, as in Israel; in cultures where the genealogical system is different it is better to make clear that the phrase qualifies Anna, e.g. .’.., a woman of the tribe…,’ and/or to indicate that Phanuel is a man’s name. — Tribe, referring here to one of the twelve patrilineal tribes into which Israel was traditionally divided. The noun may have to be rendered by a descriptive phrase, e.g. ‘those who descended from the former Asher’ (Tboli), ‘those who have Asher as their ancestor.’

Of a great age, cf. on “advanced in years” in 1.7.

The participial phrase, having lived etc., is usually better rendered as a new sentence, e.g. .’..; (for) she had lived….’

Having lived with her husband refers to the period of Anna’s married life. The phrase has been rendered, ‘who had-a-husband’ (Batak Toba, where ‘husband’ is rendered ‘he for-whom-one-serves food’), ‘she was-together-with her-husband (lit. male)’ (Toraja-Sa’dan), ‘she had been married (lit. went with a male spouse)’ (Ekari).

From her virginity, i.e. since the end of her life as unmarried girl, or stated reversely, since the beginning of her life as married woman; hence such renderings as, “after her girlhood” (An American Translation), ‘as a girl she married’ (cf. Toraja-Sa’dan, Sranan Tongo), “after she was first married” (New English Bible), ‘since she entered married life (or, became a married woman/a wife)’; or, shifting to a relative clause going with ‘husband,’ ‘whom she had married in her girlhood’ (cf. Bible en français courant). — The rendering ‘since she became a virgin (i.e. reached the age of puberty)’ rests on an erroneous interpretation.

(V. 37) And, or, ‘after that time,’ ‘afterwards’ (Tagalog), ‘from then onward.’

As a widow, preferably, ‘on her own (or, by herself) as a widow.’ The translation must indicate that the phrase is dependent on ‘having lived’ (e.g. by repeating the verb here, or by other devices), and that it syntactically parallels ‘with a husband’; therefore, adaptations that were necessary in the lexical and/or syntactic form of the preceding phrase will usually lead to corresponding adaptations in this one. Tae’ distinguishes between a widow who still is under obligation of mourning, and one who is not and, therefore, may remarry, the latter term being, of course, required here. If a specific term does not exist in the receptor language, or if it can also mean ‘a divorced woman’ (as e.g. in Bahasa Indonesia), or has the connotation of promiscuity (as in a Chuj dialect) or grief verging on madness (Tboli), a descriptive phrase will have to be used, e.g. ‘a woman whose husband has died.’ Adjustments of this phrase to the present context may result in something like, ‘after her husband’s death she lived unmarried’ (Kituba), ‘but he died and she lived on’ (Vai).

Till she was eighty-four, or, “to the age of eighty-four” (New English Bible), ‘till her years (or, winters, or, seasons) were eighty-four.’ In some receptor languages a numeral like eighty-four has to be rendered by approximation, and/or by multiplication, e.g. ‘seven times twelve,’ ‘four scores,’ or addition, e.g. ‘sixty and twenty four’ (Ekari).

She did not depart from, or, with an equivalent English hyperbole “she spent her whole life” (Phillips); or less hyperbolically “never far from” (The Four Gospels – a New Translation). Sranan Tongo has a positive rendering, qualifying the following verb, ‘on and on she served God in God’s house.’

Worshipping … night and day. Several versions co-ordinate this clause with what precedes, ‘and she worshipped (there) …’; some reverse the pattern of subordination, see the above Sranan Tongo quotation. For to worship cf. on 4.7.

With fasting and prayer, or, ‘by means of/accompanied by (Balinese) / in the way of (Tae’) fasting and prayer,’ indicating the forms in which she expressed her worship. When the nouns have to be rendered as verbal clauses the three verbs often are best co-ordinated; in some cases ‘to worship’ has to be subordinated to the other two, e.g. ‘worshipping/when she worshipped she fasted and prayed’ (cf. Ekari, Kituba), ‘she fasted and prayed in order to (or, as a form of) worship.’ The context here is clearly referring to religious ritual; hence some of the proposed descriptive phrases may be shortened or expressed more generically.

Night and day, or, ‘day and night,’ where that is the normal sequence, or ‘continually.’

Quoted with permission from Reiling, J. and Swellengrebel, J.L. A Handbook on the Gospel of Luke. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1971. For this and other handbooks for translators see here . Make sure to also consult the Handbook on the Gospel of Mark for parallel or similar verses.