The Greek that is translated as “King of the Jews” in most English translations is translated in Nyongar as Djelyib moortakang Judea-kang or “King of the people of Judea.” (Source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 27:37:
- Uma: “On his cross tree above his head they fastened a board [papan]. On that board was written what Yesus was accused of, like this its sound: THIS IS YESUS KING OF THE YAHUDI” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “Above Isa’s head there was his accusation written, it said, ‘This is Isa the king of the Yahudi.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And above his head they fastened a writing which was their accusation of him, which said,’This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “There was something-written that they fastened above-Jesus’ -head which said what he was accused of. It said, ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “There was what they attached above his head on which was written the charge against him, saying, ‘This is Jesus who is the King of the Judio.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “At the top part of the cross on which Jesus was, there was attached a sign on which was written the accusation. This sign said: ‘This man here is Jesus, the king of the Jews,’ said the sign.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
The Greek Iēsous is “only” a proper name but one with great importance. The following quote by John Ellington (in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 401ff. ) illustrates this:
“In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, Joseph is told that when Mary gives birth to a son ‘you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21). This name is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name [Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ) which is a short form of a name meaning] ‘the Lord [Yahweh] saves.’ The name is very significant and is in itself especially dear to Christians around the world. (…) Unquestionably great importance is attached to the name of Jesus by Christians of all persuasions and backgrounds.”
While Iēsous (pronounced: /i.ɛː.suːs/) is transliterated as “Jesus” (pronounced /ˈdʒiːzəs/) in English (but was translated as “Hælend” [the “healing one”] in Old English — see Swain 2019) it is transliterated and pronounced in a large variety of other ways as well, following the different rules of different languages’ orthographies, writing systems and rules of pronunciation. The following is a (partial) list of forms of Jesus in Latin characters: aYeso, Azezi, Cecoc, Chesús, Chi̍i̍sū, Ciisahs, Ciise, Ciisusu, Djesu, Ɛisa, Ƹisa, Eyesu, Gesù, Gesû, Gesü, Ġesù, Ghjesù, Giêsu, ꞌGiê‑ꞌsu, Giê-xu, Gyisɛse, Hesu, Hesús, Hisuw, Ià-sŭ, Ié:sos, Iesu, Iesui, Iesusɨn, Iesusiva, Ié:sos, Ihu, Iisus, Ijeesu, iJisọsị, Iji̍sɔ̄ɔsi, Iosa, Íosa, Ìosa, İsa, I’sa, Isiso, Ísu, Isus, Isusa, Iisussa, Isuthi, Itota, Îtu, Isuva, Izesu, Izesuq, Jasus, Jeeju, Jeesus, Jeesus, Jeezas, Jehu, Jeisu, Jeju, Jejus, Jeso, Jesoe, Jesosa, Jesoshi, Jesosy, Jesu, Jesû, Jesua, Jesuh, Jesús, Jésus, Jesúsu, Jethu, Jezed, Jezi, Jézi, Ježiš, Jezu, Jezus, Jézus, Jėzus, Jēzus, Jezusi, Jėzus, Jezuz, Jíísas, Jiizas, Jiijajju, Jisas, Jisase, Jisasi, Jisasɨ, Jisasɨ, Jisaso, Jisesi, Jisɛ̀, Jisos, Jisọs, Jisɔs, Jisu, Jiszs, Jizọs, Jizɔs, Jizọsi, Jizọsu, Jòso, Jusu, Jweesus, Ketsutsi, Njises, Sesi, Sisa, Sísa, Sisas, Sīsū, Sizi, Txesusu, uJesu, Ujísɔ̄si, ŵaYesu, Xesosi, ´Xesús, Xesús, Yasu, Ya:su, Ɣaysa, Yecu, Yeeb Sub, Yeeh Suh, Yeesey, Yeeso, Yeesso, Yēēsu, Yēēsu, Yehsu, Yëësu, Yeisu, Yeisuw, Yeshu, Yeso, Yesò, Yëso, Yɛso, ye-su, Yésu, Yêsu, Yẹ́sụ̃, Yésʉs, Yeswa, Yet Sut, Yetut, Yexus, Yezo, Yezu, Yiisu, Yiitju, Yis, Yisɔs, Yisufa, Yitati, Yusu, ‑Yusu, :Yusu’, Zeezi, Zezi, Zezì, Zezwii, Ziizɛ, Zîsɛ, Zjezus, Zozi, Zozii, and this (much more incomplete) list with other writings systems: ᔩᓱᓯ, ᒋᓴᔅ, ᒌᓴᔅ᙮, Հիսուս, ᏥᏌ, ኢየሱስ, ያሱስ, ܝܫܘܥ, Ісус, Їисъ, 耶稣, იესო, ईसा, イエス, イイスス, イエスス, 예수, येशू, येशो, ਈਸਾ, ພຣະເຢຊູ, ජේසුස්, যীশু, ଯୀଶୁ, ཡེ་ཤུ་, ‘ঈছা, இயேசு, ಯೇಸು, ພຣະເຢຊູ, ព្រះយេស៊ូវ, ယေရှု, ઇસુ, जेजू, เยซู, យេស៊ូ, ᱡᱤᱥᱩ, ယေသှု, యేసు, ᤕᤧᤛᤢ᤺ᤴ, އީސާގެފާނު, ㄧㄝㄙㄨ, YE-SU, ਯਿਸੂ, ꕉꖷ ꔤꕢ ꕞ, ⵏ⵿ⵗⵢⵙⴰ, يَسُوعَ, ꑳꌠ, ᠶᠡᠰᠦᠰ (note that some of these might not display correctly if your device does not have the correct fonts installed).
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In some languages the different confessions have selected different transliterations, such as in Belarusian with Isus (Ісус) by the Orthodox and Protestant churches and Yezus (Езус) by the Catholic church, Japanese with Iesu (イエス) (Protestant and Catholic) and Iisusu (イイスス) (Orthodox), or Lingala with Yesu (Protestant) or Yezu (Catholic). These differences have come to the forefront especially during the work on interconfessional translations such as one in Lingala where “many hours were spent on a single letter difference” (source: Ellington, p. 401).
In Chinese where transliterations of proper names between the Catholic and Protestant versions typically differ vastly, the Chinese name of Jesus (Yēsū 耶稣) remarkably was never brought into question between and by those two confessions, likely due to its ingenious choice. (Click or tap here to see more).
The proper name of God in the Old Testament, Yahweh (YHWH), is rendered in most Chinese Bible translations as Yēhéhuá 耶和華 — Jehovah. According to Chinese naming conventions, Yēhéhuá could be interpreted as Yē Héhuá, in which Yē would be the family name and Héhuá — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, Yē 耶 would be the family name of Jesus and Sū 稣 would be his given name. Because in China the children inherit the family name from the father, the sonship of Jesus to God the Father, Jehovah, would be illustrated through this. Though this line of argumentation sounds theologically unsound, it is indeed used effectively in the Chinese church (see Wright 1953, p. 298).
Moreover, the “given name” of Sū 稣 carries the meaning ‘to revive, to rise again’ and seems to point to the resurrected Jesus. (Source: J. Zetzsche in Malek 2002, p. 141ff., see also tetragrammaton (YHWH))
There are different ways that Bible translators have chosen historically and today in how to translate the name of Jesus in predominantly Muslim areas: with a form of the Arabic Isa (عيسى) (which is used for “Jesus” in the Qur’an), the Greek Iēsous, or, like major 20th century Bible translations into Standard Arabic, the Aramaic Yēšūaʿ: Yasua (يَسُوعَ). (Click or tap here to see more.)
Following are languages and language groups that use a form of Isa include the following (note that this list is not complete):
- Indo-Iranian languages: Persian, Dari, Central Pashto, Southern Pashto all use Eysa (عيسی or عيسىٰ for Southern Pashto), Sindhi uses Eysey (عيسيٰ), Southern Balochi Issa (ایسّا), Central Kurdish (Sorani) and Northern Kurdish (Kurmanji) use Îsa (عیسای and Иса respectively), Turkmen has Isa, and Tajik Isoi (Исои — compare Iso/Исо in the Tajik Qur’an)
- Turkic languages: Turkish uses İsa, Kazakh, Kumyk, Nogai, Crimean Tatar all have Isa (Иса), Kirghiz has Iysa (Ыйса), Uzbek has Iso (Исо — compare Iiso/Ийсо in the Uzbek Qur’an), Bashkir uses Aaisa (Ғайса), North Azerbaijani İsa, Uighur uses Eysa (ئەيسا), and Kara-Kalpak İysa (Ийса)
- Caucasian languages: Bezhta and Lezghian use Isa (Иса), Avaric has Aisa (ГІиса), and Chechen Iza (Иза)
- Various African languages: Somali, a Cushitic language, has Ciise, Kabyle has Ɛisa and Tahaggart Tamahaq has Yeswa (both Berber languages), the Saharan languages Central Kanuri, Manga Kanuri have Isa, the Atlantic-Congo languages Dagbani, Mampruli, and Bimoba use Yisa, and the Chadian Arabic Bible has Isa (عِيسَى)
- Some languages have additional “TAZI” editions (TAZI stands for “Tawrat, Anbiya, Zabur, and Injil” the “Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel”) of the New Testament that are geared towards Muslim readers where there is also a translation in the same language for non-Muslims. In those editions, Isa is typically used as well (for example, the Khmer TAZI edition uses Isa (អ៊ីសា) rather than the commonly used Yesaou (យេស៊ូ), the Thai edition uses Isa (อีซา) rather than Yesu (เยซู), the Chinese edition uses Ěrsā (尔撒) vs. Yēsū (耶稣), and the English edition also has Isa rather than Jesus.)
In German the name Jesus (pronounced: /ˈjeːzʊs/) is distinguished by its grammatical forms. Into the 20th century the grammatical rules prescribed a unique Greek-Latin declination: Jesus (nominative), Jesu (genitive, dative, vocative), Jesum (accusative), from which today only the genitive case “Jesu” is still in active use. Likewise, in Seediq (Taroko), the morphological treatment of “Jesus” also occupies a special category by not falling under the normal rule of experiencing a vowel reduction when the object-specific suffix an is added “since it was felt that the readers might resent that the name has been changed that drastically.” (Compare Msian for “Moses” (Mosi) as an object, but Yisuan for “Jesus” (Yisu).) (Source: Covell 1998. p. 249)
In Lamba the name ŵaYesu consists of a transliteration Yesu and the prefix ŵa, a plural form for “proper names when addressing and referring to persons in any position of seniority or honor.” While this was avoided in early translations to avoid possible misunderstandings of more than one Jesus, once the church was established it was felt that it was both “safe” and respectful to use the honorific (pl.) prefix. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff. )
In sign languages, including American Sign Language, Costa Rican Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, Auslan (Australian Sign Language), Brazilian Sign Language, British Sign Language, and German Sign Language “Jesus” is signed with the middle finger of each hand pointing to the palm (or wrist) of the other in succession (signing the nails of the cross). In the context of Bible translation this has been pointed out as theologically problematic since the “semantic connections of the original name Jesus do point towards ‘salvation,’ they do not naturally lead to crucifixion.” (Source: Phil King in Journal of Translation 1 (2020), p. 33ff.)
“Jesus” in German Sign Language (source )
The style of the following drawing of Jesus by Annie Vallotton is described by the artist as this: “By using few lines the readers fill in the outlines with their imagination and freedom. That is when the drawings begin to communicate.” (see here )
Illustration by Annie Vallotton, copyright by Donald and Patricia Griggs of Griggs Educational Service.
Following is the oldest remaining Ethiopian Orthodox icon of Jesus from the 14th or possibly 13th century (found in the Church of the Saviour of the World in Gurji, Ethiopia). As in many Orthodox icons, Jesus’ right hand forms the Greek letters I-C-X-C for IHCOYC XPICTOC or “Jesus Christ.”
Orthodox Icons are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are in fact writings of things not of this world. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They can also represent the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and even events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic. This is done so that we can look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event. (Source )
See also this devotion on YouVersion .
Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:
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- Piro: “a great one”
- Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
- Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
- Una: weik sienyi: “big headman” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 407)
- Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)
- Ninia Yali: “big brother with the uplifted name” (source: Daud Soesilio in Noss 2007, p. 175)
- Nyamwezi: mutemi: generic word for ruler, by specifying the city or nation it becomes clear what kind of ruler (source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
- Ghomála’: Fo (“The word Fo refers to the paramount ruler in the kingdoms of West Cameroon. He holds administrative, political, and religious power over his own people, who are divided into two categories: princes (descendants of royalty) and servants (everyone else).” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn))
Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:
“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”
(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff. )
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 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.
Translator: Simon Wong