Many languages in the world distinguish between plural and dual (and sometimes trial) pronouns (for instance, “you” specifically addressing many, two, or three people).
In Matt. 8:30 (“Now there was a herd of many swine feeding at a distance from them” in one English translation) it is left open whether “them” refers to the two demon-possessed men, to the men and Jesus or to the men, Jesus and the disciples?
One of the translators explains: “I would argue, however, for a plural rather than a dual or trial, since we were told in Matt. 9:28 that the two men had ‘come to’ Jesus (who was probably accompanied by his disciples). ‘Come to’ renders the Greek word hypantao, otherwise used by Matthew only in 28:9. It is used also in the Markan parallel, in Mark 5:2; here we see from 5:7 that the man came right up to Jesus, so I interpret the them as referring at least to Jesus and the demoniacs.”
Source: Ross McKerras in Notes on Translation 2/1 1988, p. 53-56.
Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 9:28:
- Uma: “When Yesus entered into a house, those two blind men followed to meet him. He asked them:: ‘Do you believe that I have the authority to heal you?’ They answered: ‘We believe, Lord!'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “So-then when Isa went into the/a house, those blind men came close to/approached Isa. Isa said to them, ‘Do you believe that I can heal you?’ ‘Yes, Sir,’ they said.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And when Jesus arrived at his house, the two blind men arrived also. And he said to them, ‘You believe that I can cure your eyes?’ And they answered,” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “Jesus continued to walk until he arrived at the house to which he was going and he entered. The two blind-ones also entered. Then he said to them, ‘Do you believe that I am able to remove your blindness?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ they said.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “Jesus arrived at the house where he was staying. When he went in, those two blind people went in also and approached him. Jesus questioned them saying, ‘Do you believe that I can do this which you are asking help for?’ ‘Yes, we’re certain, Lord,’ was their reply.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “When Jesus had entered his house, the blind men approached. Jesus said to them: ‘Do you believe that I can do what you ask me to do?’ The blind men then said to him: ‘Yes, Lord, we believe that you can do it,’ they said.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
Translations of the Greek pistis and its various forms that are typically translated as “faith” in English (itself deriving from Latin “fides,” meaning “trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence”) and “believe” (from Old English belyfan: “to have faith or confidence in a person”) cover a wide range of approaches.
Bratcher and Nida say this (1961, p. 38) (click or tap here to read more):
“Since belief or faith is so essentially an intimate psychological experience, it is not strange that so many terms denoting faith should be highly figurative and represent an almost unlimited range of emotional ‘centers’ and descriptions of relationships, e.g. ‘steadfast his heart’ (Chol), ‘to arrive on the inside’ (Chicahuaxtla Triqui), ‘to conform with the heart’ (Uab Meto), ‘to join the word to the body’ (Uduk), ‘to hear in the insides’ (or ‘to hear within one’s self and not let go’ – Nida 1952) (Laka), ‘to make the mind big for something’ (Sapo), ‘to make the heart straight about’ (Mitla Zapotec), ‘to cause a word to enter the insides’ (Lacandon), ‘to leave one’s heart with’ (Baniwa), ‘to catch in the mind’ (Ngäbere), ‘that which one leans on’ (Vai), ‘to be strong on’ (Shipibo-Conibo), ‘to have no doubts’ (San Blas Kuna), ‘to hear and take into the insides’ (Kare), ‘to accept’ (Pamona).”
Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages (click or tap here to read more):
- Western Kanjobal: “truth entering into one’s soul”
- Highland Puebla Nahuatl: “following close after”
- Huichol: “conform to the truth”
- Loma: “lay one’s hand on it”
- Mashco Piro: “obey-believe”
- Mossi: “leaning on God” (this and all the above acc. to Nida 1952, p. 119ff.)
- Tzeltal: “heart believe / heart obedience” (source: Marianna C. Slocum in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 49f. — see also wisdom (Proverbs))
- Thai: “place one’s heart in” (source: Bratcher / Hatton 2000, p. 37)
- Cameroon Pidgin: “to put one’s heart in God” (source: Jan Sterk)
- Kafa: “decide for God only” (source Loren Bliese)
- Martu Wangka: “sit true to God’s talk” (source: Carl Gross)
- Muna: kataino lalo or “stickiness of heart” (for “faithfulness”) (source: René van den Berg)
- Huehuetla Tepehua: “confidence” (source: Larson 1998, p. 279)
- Limos Kalinga: manuttuwa. Wiens (2013) explains: “It goes back to the word for ‘truth’ which is ‘tuttuwa.’ When used as a verb this term is commonly used to mean ‘believe’ as well as ‘obey.'”
- Ngiemboon: “turn one’s back on someone” (and trusting one won’t be taken advantage of) (source: Stephen Anderson in Holzhausen 1991, p. 42)
- Mwera uses the same word for “hope” and “faith”: ngulupai (source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
- Kwang: “put one’s chest” (Source: Mark Vanderkooi right here )
Awabakal: ngurruliko: “to know, to perceive by the ear” (as distinct from knowing by sight or by touch — source: Lake, p. 70) (click or tap here to read more)
“[The missionary translator] Lancelot Threlkeld learned that Awabakal, like many Australian languages, made no distinction between knowing and believing. Of course the distinction only needs to be made where there are rival systems of knowing. The Awabakal language expressed a seamless world. But as the stress on ‘belief’ itself suggests, Christianity has always existed in pluralist settings. Conversion involves deep conviction, not just intellectual assent or understanding. (…) Translating such texts posed a great challenge in Australia. Threlkeld and [his indigenous colleague] Biraban debated the possibilities at length. In the end they opted not to introduce a new term for belief, but to use the Awabakal ngurruliko, meaning ‘to know, to perceive by the ear,’ as distinct from knowing by sight or by touch.”
Language in southern Nigeria: a word based on the idiom “lose feathers.” Randy Groff in Wycliffe Bible Translators 2016, p. 65 explains (click or tap here to read more):
What does losing feathers have to do with faith? [The translator] explained that there is a species of bird in his area that, upon hatching its eggs, loses its feathers. During this molting phase, the mother bird is no longer able to fly away from the nest and look for food for her hungry hatchlings. She has to remain in the nest where she and her babies are completely dependent upon the male bird to bring them food. Without the diligent, dependable work of the male bird, the mother and babies would all die. This scenario was the basis for the word for faith in his language.
- Teribe: mär: “pick one thing and one thing only” (source: Andy Keener)
Luba-Katanga: Twi tabilo: “echo” (click or tap here to read more)
“Luba-Katanga word for ‘Faith’ in its New Testament connotation is Twi tabilo. This word means ‘echo,’ and the way in which it came to be adapted to the New Testament meaning gives a very good idea of the way in which the translator goes to work. One day a missionary was on a journey through wild and mountainous country. At midday he called his African porters to halt, and as they lay resting in the shade from the merciless heat of the sun. an African picked up a stone and sent it ricocheting down the mountain-side into the ravine below. After some seconds the hollow silence was broken by a plunging, splashing sound from the depths of the dark river-bed. As the echo died away the African said in a wondering whisper ‘Twi tabilo, listen to it.’ So was a precious word captured for the service of the Gospel in its Luba Christian form. Twi tabilo — ‘faith which is the echo of God’s voice in the depths of human sinful hearts, awakened by God Himself, the answer to his own importunate call.’ The faith that is called into being by the divine initiative, God’s own gift to the responsive heart! (Source: Wilfred Bradnock in The Bible Translator 1953, p. 49ff. )
J.A. van Roy (in The Bible Translator 1972, p. 418ff. ) discusses how a translation of “faith” in a an earlier translation into Venda created difficult perceptions of the concept of faith (click or tap here):
The Venda term u tenda, lutendo. This term corresponds to the terms ho dumela (Southern Sotho), and ku pfumela (Tsonga) that have been used in these translations of the Bible, and means “to assent,” “to agree to a suggestion.” It is important to understand this term in the context of the character of the people who use it.
The way in which the Venda use this term reveals much about the priority of interpersonal relationships among them. They place a much higher priority on responding in the way they think they are expected to respond than on telling the truth. Smooth interpersonal relationships, especially with a dominant individual or group, take precedence over everything else.
It is therefore regarded as bad form to refuse directly when asked for something one does not in fact intend to give. The correct way is to agree, u tenda, and then forget about it or find some excuse for not keeping to the agreement. Thus u tenda does not necessarily convey the information that one means what one says. One can tenda verbally while heartily disagreeing with the statement made or having no intention whatsoever to carry out what one has just promised to do. This is not regarded as dishonesty, but is a matter of politeness.
The term u sokou tenda, “to consent reluctantly,” is often used for expressing the fatalistic attitude of the Venda in the face of misfortune or force which he is unable to resist.
The form lutendo was introduced by missionaries to express “faith.”
According to the rules of derivations and their meanings in the lu-class, it should mean “the habit of readily consenting to everything.” But since it is a coined word which does not have a clearly defined set of meanings in everyday speech, it has acquired in church language a meaning of “steadfastness in the Christian life.” Una lutendo means something like “he is steadfast in the face of persecution.” It is quite clear that the term u tenda has no element of “trust” in it. (…)
In “The Christian Minister” of July 1969 we find the following statement about faith by Albert N. Martin: “We must never forget that one of the great issues which the Reformers brought into focus was that faith was something more than an ‘assensus,’ a mere nodding of the head to the body of truth presented by the church as ‘the faith.’ The Reformers set forth the biblical concept that faith was ‘fiducia.’ They made plain that saving faith involved trust, commitment, a trust and commitment involving the whole man with the truth which was believed and with the Christ who was the focus of that truth. The time has come when we need to spell this out clearly in categorical statements so that people will realize that a mere nodding of assent to the doctrines that they are exposed to is not the essence of saving faith. They need to be brought to the understanding that saving faith involves the commitment of the whole man to the whole Christ, as Prophet, Priest and King as he is set forth in the gospel.”
We quote at length from this article because what Martin says of the current concept of faith in the Church is even to a greater extent true of the Venda Church, and because the terms used for communicating that concept in the Venda Bible cannot be expected to communicate anything more than “a mere nodding of assent”. I have during many years of evangelistic work hardly ever come across a Venda who, when confronted with the gospel, would not say, Ndi khou tenda, “I admit the truth of what you say.” What they really mean when saying this amounts to, “I believe that God exists, and I have no objection to the fact that he exists. I suppose that the rest of what you are talking about is also true.” They would often add, Ndi sa tendi hani-hani? “Just imagine my not believing such an obvious fact!” To the experienced evangelist this is a clear indication that his message is rejected in so far as it has been understood at all! To get a negative answer, one would have to press on for a promise that the “convert” will attend the baptism class and come to church on Sundays, and even then he will most probably just tenda in order to get rid of the evangelist, whether he intends to come or not. Isn’t that what u tenda means? So when an inexperienced and gullible white man ventures out on an evangelistic campaign with great enthusiasm, and with great rejoicing returns with a list of hundreds of names of persons who “believed”, he should not afterwards blame the Venda when only one tenth of those who were supposed to be converts actually turn up for baptismal instruction.
Moreover, it is not surprising at all that one often comes across church members of many years’ standing who do not have any assurance of their salvation or even realise that it is possible to have that assurance. They are vhatendi, “consenters.” They have consented to a new way of life, to abandoning (some of) the old customs. Lutendo means to them at most some steadfastness in that new way of life.
The concept of faith in religion is strange to Africa. It is an essential part of a religion of revelation such as Christianity or Islam, but not of a naturalistic religion such as Venda religion, in which not faith and belief are important, but ritual, and not so much the content of the word as the power of it.
The terms employed in the Venda Bible for this vital Christian concept have done nothing to effect a change in the approach of the Venda to religion.
It is a pity that not only in the Venda translation has this been the case, but in all the other Southern Bantu languages. In the Nguni languages the term ukukholwa, “to believe a fact,” has been used for pisteuo, and ukholo, the deverbative of ukukholwa, for pistis. In some of the older Protestant translations in Zulu, but not in the new translation, the term ithemba, “trust”, has been used.
Some languages, including Santali, have two terms — like English (see above) — to differentiate a noun from a verb form. Biswạs is used for faith, whereas pạtiạu for “believe.” R.M. Macphail (in The Bible Translator 1961, p. 36ff. ) explains this choice: “While there is little difference between the meaning and use of the two in everyday Santali, in which any word may be used as a verb, we felt that in this way we enriched the translation while making a useful distinction, roughly corresponding to that between ‘faith’ and ‘to believe’ in English.”
Likewise, in Nyongar, koort-karni or “heart truth” is used for the noun (“faith”) and djinang-karni or “see true” for the verb (“believe”) (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang).
See also this devotion on YouVersion .
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).
Click or tap here to read more.
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 .
The Hebrew adonai in the Old Testament typically refers to God. The shorter adon (and in two cases in the book of Daniel the Aramaic mare [מָרֵא]) is also used to refer to God but more often for concepts like “master,” “owner,” etc. In English Bible translations all of those are translated with “Lord” if they refer to God.
In English Old Testament translations, as in Old Testament translations in many other languages, the use of Lord (or an equivalent term in other languages) is not to be confused with Lord (or the equivalent term with a different typographical display for other languages). While the former translates adonai, adon and mare, the latter is a translation for the tetragrammaton (YHWH) or the Name of God. See tetragrammaton (YHWH) and the article by Andy Warren-Rothlin in Noss / Houser, p. 618ff. for more information.
In the New Testament, the Greek term kurios has at least four different kinds of use:
- referring to “God,” especially in Old Testament quotations,
- meaning “master” or “owner,” especially in parables, etc.,
- as a form of address (see for instance John 4:11: “Sir, you have no bucket”),
- or, most often, referring to Jesus
In the first and fourth case, it is also translated as “Lord” in English.
Most languages naturally don’t have one word that covers all these meanings. According to Bratcher / Nida, “the alternatives are usually (1) a term which is an honorific title of respect for a high-ranking person and (2) a word meaning ‘boss’, ‘master’, or ‘chief.’ (…) and on the whole it has generally seemed better to employ a word of the second category, in order to emphasize the immediate personal relationship, and then by context to build into the word the prestigeful character, since its very association with Jesus Christ will tend to accomplish this purpose.”
When looking at the following list of back-translations of the terms that translators in the different languages have used for both kurios and adonai to refer to God and Jesus respectively, it might be helpful for English readers to recall the etymology of the English “Lord.” While this term might have gained an exalted meaning in the understanding of many, it actually comes from hlaford or “loaf-ward,” referring to the lord of the castle who was the keeper of the bread (source: Rosin 1956, p. 121).
Click or tap here to see the rest of this insight
Following are some of the solutions that don’t rely on a different typographical display (see above):
- Navajo: “the one who has charge”
- Mossi: “the one who has the head” (the leader)
- Uduk: “chief”
- Guerrero Amuzgo: “the one who commands”
- Kpelle: “person-owner” (a term which may be applied to a chief)
- Central Pame: “the one who owns us” (or “commands us”)
- Piro: “the big one” (used commonly of one in authority)
- San Blas Kuna: “the great one over all” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Guhu-Samane: Soopara (“our Supervisor”) (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)
- Balinese: “Venerated-one” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
- Yanesha’: “the one who carries us” (source: Nida 1952, p. 159)
- Northern Emberá: Dadjirã Boro (“our Head”)
- Rarotongan: Atu (“master or owner of a property”)
- Gilbertese: Uea (“a person of high status invested with authority to rule the people”)
- Rotuman: Gagaja (“village chief”)
- Samoan: Ali’i (“an important word in the native culture, it derives from the Samoan understanding of lordship based on the local traditions”)
- Tahitian: Fatu (“owner,” “master”)
- Tuvalu: Te Aliki (“chief”)
- Fijian: Liuliu (“leader”) (source for this and six above: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff. )
- Bacama: Həmə miye: “owner of people” (source: David Frank in this blog post )
- Hopi: “Controller” (source: Walls 2000, p. 139)
- Iyansi: Mwol. Mwol is traditionally used for the “chief of a group of communities and villages” with legal, temporal, and spiritual authority (versus the “mfum [the term used in other Bantu languages] which is used for the chief of one community of people in one village”). Mwol is also used for twins who are “treated as special children, highly honored, and taken care of like kings and queens.” (Source: Kividi Kikama in Greed / Kruger, p. 396ff.)
- Ghomala’: Cyəpɔ (“he who is above everyone,” consisting of the verb cyə — to surpass or go beyond — and pɔ — referring to people. No human can claim this attribute, no matter what his or her social status or prestige.” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn )
- Binumarien: Karaambaia: “fight-leader” (Source: Oates 1995, p. 255)
Warlpiri: Warlaljamarri (owner or possessor of something — for more information tap or click here)
We have come to rely on another term which emphasizes God’s essential nature as YHWH, namely jukurrarnu (see tetragrammaton (YHWH)). This word is built on the same root jukurr– as is jukurrpa, ‘dreaming.’ Its basic meaning is ‘timelessness’ and it is used to describe physical features of the land which are viewed as always being there. Some speakers view jukurrarnu in terms of ‘history.’ In all Genesis references to YHWH we have used Kaatu Jukurrarnu. In all Mark passages where kurios refers to God and not specifically to Christ we have also used Kaatu Jukurrarnu.
New Testament references to Christ as kurios are handled differently. At one stage we experimented with the term Watirirririrri which refers to a ceremonial boss of highest rank who has the authority to instigate ceremonies. While adequately conveying the sense of Christ’s authority, there remained potential negative connotations relating to Warlpiri ceremonial life of which we might be unaware.
Here it is that the Holy Spirit led us to make a chance discovery. Transcribing the personal testimony of the local Warlpiri pastor, I noticed that he described how ‘my Warlaljamarri called and embraced me (to the faith)’. Warlaljamarri is based on the root warlalja which means variously ‘family, possessions, belongingness’. A warlaljamarri is the ‘owner’ or ‘possessor’ of something. While previously being aware of the ‘ownership’ aspect of warlaljamarri, this was the first time I had heard it applied spontaneously and naturally in a fashion which did justice to the entire concept of ‘Lordship’. Thus references to Christ as kurios are now being handled by Warlaljamarri.” (Source: Stephen Swartz, The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff. )
- Mairasi: Onggoao Nem (“Throated One” — “Leader,” “Elder”) or Enggavot Nan (“Above-One”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)
- Obolo: Okaan̄-ene (“Owner of person(s)”) (source: Enene Enene)
- Angami Naga: Niepu (“master,” “owner”)
- Lotha Naga: Opvui (“owner of house / field / cattle”) — since both “Lord” and YHWH are translated as Opvui there is an understanding that “Opvui Jesus is the same as the Opvui of the Old Testament”
- Ao Naga: Kibuba (“human master,” “teacher,” “owner of property,” etc.) (source for this and two above: Nitoy Achumi in The Bible Translator 1992 p. 438ff. )
- Seediq: Tholang, loan word from Min Nan Chinese (the majority language in Taiwan) thâu-lâng (頭儂): “Master” (source: Covell 1998, p. 248)
- Thai: phra’ phu pen cao (พระผู้เป็นเจ้า) (divine person who is lord) or ong(kh) cao nay (องค์เจ้านาย) (<divine classifier>-lord-boss) (source: Stephen Pattemore)
- Arabic often uses different terms for adonai or kurios referring to God (al-rabb الرب) and kurios referring to Jesus (al-sayyid الـسـيـد). Al-rabb is also the term traditionally used in Arabic Christian-idiom translations for YHWH, and al-sayyid is an honorary term, similar to English “lord” or “sir” (source: Andy Warren-Rothlin).
- Tamil also uses different terms for adonai/kurios when referring to God and kurios when referring to Jesus. The former is Karttar கர்த்தர், a Sanskrit-derived term with the original meaning of “creator,” and the latter in Āṇṭavar ஆண்டவர், a Tamil term originally meaning “govern” or “reign” (source: Natarajan Subramani).
- Burunge: Looimoo: “owner who owns everything” (in the Burunge Bible translation, this term is only used as a reference to Jesus and was originally used to refer to the traditional highest deity — source: Michael Endl in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 48)
- Aguacateco: Ajcaw ske’j: “the one to whom we belong and who is above us” (source: Rita Peterson in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 49)
- Konkomba: Tidindaan: “He who is the owner of the land and reigns over the people” (source: Lidorio 2007, p. 66)
Law (2013, p. 97) writes about how the Ancient Greek Septuagint‘s translation of the Hebrew adonai was used by the New Testament writers as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments: “Another case is the use of kurios referring to Jesus. For Yahweh (in English Bibles: ‘the Lord‘), the Septuagint uses kurios. Although the term kurios usually has to do with one’s authority over others, when the New Testament authors use this word from the Septuagint to refer to Jesus, they are making an extraordinary claim: Jesus of Nazareth is to be identified with Yahweh.”
See also Father / Lord.
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