I reproduce the following article from The Bible Translator not because I approve of the views expressed in it, but because I think it illustrates very clearly the thinking of “dynamic equivalence” theorists when they are confronted with problems related to the “acceptability” of a Bible translation in some social context. In this article the authors advise translators to avoid literal renderings of υἱος θεου “Son of God” and similar expressions in the New Testament, so as to avoid offending Muslims. They suggest the use of renderings like “God’s Servant” instead.

Along the same lines, see also the articles by D. Richard Brown, “Explaining the Biblical Term ‘Sons(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 22/3 (Fall 2005), pp. 91-96; and “Translating the Biblical Term ‘Sons(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 22/4 (Winter 2005), pp. 135-45. See also D. Richard Brown, John Penny, and Leith Gray [pseudonym of Larry Ciccarelli], “Muslim-Idiom Bible Tanslations: Claims and Facts,” St Francis Magazine 5/6 (December 2009), pp. 87-105.

For a comprehensive refutation of the claims made in these articles see the two articles by David Abernathy: “Translating ‘Son of God’ in Missionary Bible Translation,” St. Francis Magazine 6/1 (February 2010), pp. 176-203; and “Jesus is the Eternal Son of God,” St Francis Magazine 6/2 (April 2010), pp. 327-94. —M.D.M.

Jesus, Son of God — a Translation Problem

by Arie de Kuiper and Barclay M. Newman Jr.

The Bible Translator 28/4 (October 1977), pp. 432-38.

All Bible translators realize that their translation work is never done in a vacuum, that language is colored and defined by its environment. This paper will attempt to deal in some measure with one problem of translation in a specific setting: “Jesus, Son of God” in an Islamic context.

It may well be that the phrase “Son of God,” as it applies to Jesus, is the most misunderstood term in the entire New Testament. It is misunderstood both by many pious Christians (for example, those who still quote the King James Version of John 3:16 “only begotten Son”) and by non-Christians alike. This misleading interpretation is at once what “turns on” many devout believers and at the same time “turns off” the potential convert from Islam.

A missionary and a Muslim gentleman were chatting together at a bus stop in Malaysia. The missionary was asked what business he was in, and he replied that he was a Christian missionary. In response, the Muslim said, “You Christians must remember that it is not very nice for you to tell a Muslim that Jesus is God’s Son!”

A professor of missions in a seminary once pointed out to his students that the most difficult person to confront with the Christian message was the educated Muslim, because he could argue down most Christians on the matter of God’s “oneness,” which to Muslims is denied by the statement that Jesus is the Son of God. It may well be that this is an insoluble problem, but be that as it may, there are certain considerations and implications related to this subject that make it well worth our time and thought.

When we first began to think in terms of this article, letters were sent out, requesting comments from persons we felt might be interested. One of the most helpful responses came from Matt Finlay, who formerly worked among the Malays for a number of years, and who has given much creative thought to the problem of communicating the Christian message to Muslims. We quote from his letter:

“... if devout Jews who lived in daily association with Jesus for years were slow to arrive at a decision which Christians now absorb in infancy, it is foolish to think that a Muslim, whose mental processes are dominated by the Unity and Transcendence of Allah, can suddenly accept Jesus as the Son of God with the full connotations of Deity which we associate with the Persons of the Trinity....”

A problem of interpretation

In Israel of the Old Testament the chosen king, the people, and even occasionally the Messiah, could be called the Son of God; and each became a son of God through the legal relation of adoption.

  1. In the OT ben, “son of,” very often means belonging to something or someone, for example ben-adam “man/human being,” ben-nekar “stranger,” ben-mawet “condemned to death.”
  2. Ben may be used especially to indicate the relation between God and divine beings, or between God and the king of Israel (Ps 2.7 “You are my son, today I have begotten you”; also 89.27-28; 2 Sam 7.14). In both cases a physical relation to God is excluded. The issue in the second case is to declare in the name of God that the person has the right to be king.

In later Judaism there was a certain fear of using the title “son of God” as a Messianic title, just because of the dangerous associations which were so obvious in the Greek-speaking world of the day.

In Greek thought Son of God is not a legal, but a “physical” title, indicating an actual physical relation to the deity. The Son of God possesses a “divine nature,” received either through the direct act of procreation between a god and a human mother or through the deity’s spirit without a human father. For a Jew this would be unthinkable, because it brings God down to human level.

The Gospels themselves give us at least three different interpretations of Jesus as the Son of God. According to Mark 1.11 he is adopted as the Son of God at his baptism: “You are my own dear Son. I am well pleased with you”: a combination of Psalm 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1. Matthew and Luke take the origin of Jesus’ sonship back to the time of his conception through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1.18-20; Luke 1.32, 35). In comparing these two approaches, it could be said that Mark addresses himself primarily to the question of when Jesus was adopted as Son of God; while Matthew and Luke are more concerned with the question of how Jesus became God’s Son, in line with the OT idea of “belonging to God,” “specially chosen by God,” “servant of the Lord.” John goes beyond the first three Gospels in affirming that Jesus is eternally the Son of God, and he even has Jesus using this term of himself from the beginning of his ministry (John 1.50; and see also 1.34). So then, we find ourselves in a difficult position, as far as a solution to the problem of interpretation is concerned.

“When the question is then asked whether Jesus was the Son of God, it cannot be answered until we know what is to be understood by the term Son of God. It is of no help to turn to the New Testament because both thoughts cancel out each other. Therefore we have to indicate clearly what viewpoint we have in mind: Is it the reference to the Jewish attitude, the Hellenistic, or something else? ...

“Let me also stress this ... The affirmations about Jesus are statements about the activity of God through him, and are legitimate only to the extent that they express such activity through him. The concept Son of God, then, as it occurs in the post-Easter Christ-kerugma and as applied to Jesus, must be interpreted from the viewpoint of what happened through Jesus.” (Willi Marxsen, The New Testament as the Church’s Book, page 117.)

In other words, we must not force upon the term Son of God more than it is intended to have in its context, and the meaning varies within the New Testament itself. Outside the New Testament, both in Jewish thought and in Greek thought, this term includes a good many other ideas that cannot be read into any of the interpretations that are found in the New Testament. If we read the New Testament closely, we discover that the real focus of meaning is neither on adoption nor on procreation, but rather on the fact that “the event accomplished by Jesus brought men into contact with God. The purpose of the term Son of God is to declare that he who accomplished it was extremely close to God” (Marxsen, pages 117-118).

A problem of theology

How much does a person have to know or believe in order to become a Christian? Must one believe in the virgin birth, or in the “bodily” resurrection? Must one affirm that Jesus is the Son of God in the full sense of the later Christian confessions and creeds? Jesus himself certainly did not call upon the people of his day to believe in him as the Son of God — his message was the proclamation of God’s Rule, not of himself as the Son of God.

A few observations about the content and the original setting of Mark will illustrate what we are trying to say. Although Mark does refer to Jesus as the Son of God, the meaning that he gives to this term is far different from what John calls upon his readers to believe about Jesus’ sonship. One of the difficulties that we face is that Mark’s context, for example, is changed as soon as we place it side by side with another Gospel. We immediately understand Son of God in Mark in the light of the meaning that it has in the other Gospel(s) to which it is joined in the NT collection. This is just as serious an error as taking a verse out of its context and interpreting it freely, without regard for its original contextual setting. It is in fact almost the same as the translator who wanted to remove a verse from Romans and place it in the Gospel of John, where he thought it was more fitting. Mark’s own context is not the NT setting, but its historical context in the life of the Christian community to which Mark wrote, long before it became a part of the sacred collection. So then, if on the basis of Mark’s Gospel we say that a person must believe in Jesus as the Son of God in the sense of any of the other Gospels, we are demanding of that person a faith that Mark’s own readers were not expected to have.

We must not forget that Son of God is merely a predication, or description of Jesus, the subject.

“The purpose of the predicates of Jesus is to elucidate who it is who makes the presence of God so real; but if I reverse the direction, I turn that interpretation into a description and I make something absolute that the reflection has utilized for its interpretation. It is no longer then a question of whether or to what degree the interpretation still sheds some light on the event, since the interpretation itself is now considered to be a valid description of Jesus, from which one immediately reaches the event through deduction. The presentation of the birth stories in the Gospels is an example of this. They have been written in the form of historical accounts, given an absolute quality that makes them appear as valid descriptions, and placed at the beginning. Not until much later in the sequence of descriptions does the event accomplished by Jesus appear.” (Marxsen, page 120).

A translation problem
(with specific concern for the Islamic context)

It is common knowledge that the Quran says: “He Allah is one, Allah the Eternal; He did not beget nor was He begotten” (Sura 112). Much of the Muslim opposition to Christianity is focused on the NT title “Son of God” for Jesus. In the Indonesian missionary history it has happened that a Gospel of Mark was thrown away immediately after the first verse had been read. (Yet according to the UBS Greek New Testament there is now a “considerable degree of doubt” with regard to the authenticity of the phrase “Son of God” in this verse!)

Traditionally the title Son of God has been translated by anak Allah in Indonesian, but this presented a double problem: to begin with the close link with Allah which looks like being opposed to the statement from the Quran quoted above, and then the fact that anak means child in the sense of a very immediate physical relation to the parents. [sic] Moreover this word cannot very well be used as a metaphor. And to bring out the meaning “son” the indication “male” would have to be added. With this translation misunderstandings are so great that even continual explanations are of no use.

Once more we quote from Matt Finlay’s letter:

“This has been a problem to me for years in the Muslim context. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that it is folly to present John’s Gospel to the Muslim in evangelism. For that reason, Sam and I began our pilot translation with Luke.

“My reasons were: When Jesus began His public ministry there was nothing to indicate that He was more than a man. His disciples were drawn to Him by the dynamic of His personality and the dynamism of His words and works. As they grew to know Him more intimately they were perplexed and at times disturbed by words and deeds which indicated more than human knowledge and power. Yet they did not come to a full awareness of the meaning of Son of God until after the resurrection. Thus, if devout Jews who lived in daily association with Jesus for years were slow to arrive at a decision which Christians now absorb in infancy, it is foolish to think that a Muslim whose mental processes are dominated by the Unity and Transcendence of Allah, can suddenly accept Jesus as Son of God with the full connotations of Deity which we associate with the Persons of the Trinity. With these thoughts in mind, about 15 years ago, I prepared a manuscript of New Testament Selections, called, ‘What manner of Man is this?’ I began in very low key, with nothing controversial, and then slowly built up to the climax, with the refrain running at the end of each selection, ‘What manner of Man is this?’ In this way I hoped to make the Muslim ask himself the question and grope for an adequate answer. Unfortunately, it was never printed, as my colleagues at that time felt the need was for shorter tracts which involved less finance. Luke appeals to me as an ideal introduction to the Muslim. It is a straight narrative, with the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, and builds up to a tremendous climax in the Resurrection story.

“I will never forget the thrill, one night when, with a Muslim friend, I was going over our Luke manuscript. We had reached the point in the narrative where Jewish hostility was reaching its climax. Suddenly my Muslim friend leaned back in his chair, stared at the ceiling for a few moments, then burst out, ‘What a man! What a personality! The Jews simply couldn’t leave him alone — they either loved him or hated him.’ Yet had I tried to take him through John’s Gospel he would have come up against the problem of Son of God so early that he would have lost interest and thus never felt the impact of the uniqueness of Christ.”

Matt Finlay has gone directly to the heart of the issue. In our usual approach to the Muslim, we expect of him from the very beginning a confession of faith in Christ which contains the full implications of the term Son of God as developed by Christian theologians over the centuries. Would it not be more in keeping with the example set by the writers of the Gospels, if we were to publish a series of selections illustrating various aspects of Jesus’ personality (for example his love and his power), so that the readers themselves could draw their own conclusions regarding who he is? It seems that this would be a much more satisfactory approach than that of trying to impose on the Muslim reader from the beginning a complete Gospel where the problem of Jesus’ Sonship immediately confronts him. The Muslim reader would then be free to use some other description of Jesus, and one just as real to him as is the term Son of God to other communities of believers. To be sure, sooner or later, he will run head-on into this problem, but hopefully by that time he will have reached a more mature level of belief, where such issues can be discussed within the context of faith, and answers found that will not turn him away. We realize that what we are suggesting has wide implications, and would ultimately mean cooperation between the Bible Societies and all other groups concerned with the problem of communicating the Christian message to the Muslim. But something needs to be done, and it needs to be done on a large scale, seeking the cooperation of Christian bodies throughout the world. We know of no other organization better suited to initiate such a program than the United Bible Societies. Now, to return to the more sticky aspect of this question. Is “Jesus, Son of God” a translation problem, or is it merely a problem of distribution? We think it is primarily a translation problem, from at least two angles.

First, translators could consider (against the lines of interpretation given earlier) using a functional translation, like “God’s Servant” (Abdi Allah or Abdullah in Arabic!). There are certainly some arguments for such a functional translation:

  1. The ’Ebed- or Servant-title (see Isa 53 and other places) has come into use in a more direct way. The Greek translation pais may cover the two components of “son” and “servant” (compare the quotations of Isaiah 42.1 in Matthew 3.17 and 12.18!). In Palestine Christianity the oldest Messianic title for Jesus was pais theou “son/servant of God” (Acts). Among the gentile Christians the position of servant was regarded as too lowly, and the sonship of Jesus, his divinity, gradually received more emphasis, and more and more this was expressed by a term which was current in the hellenistic world: huios tou theou, “Son of God.”
  2. In Muslim countries it may be advisable to go back to the original understanding of Christ as servant which is reflected in such passages as Phil 2. This type of understanding of who Christ is could then be centred around the title Abdi Allah.

Secondly, it may be possible to include footnotes, or to translate the expression in a way that is in keeping with sound interpretation but at the same time does not immediately mislead the Muslim. Many of us have tried to deal with Son of Man in one of these two ways. Why not with Son of God? If we are following sound interpretation, why not give a footnote to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, explaining the contextual setting and historical background of the term Son of God? And why not do the same at Mark’s account of the baptism, making clear the different components of meaning in the term as used by Mark and by the other two Gospel writers? A passage like Mark 1.11 could perhaps be rendered, “You are like a son to me,” which would be more in keeping with both the Old Testament background and Mark’s perspective than the way that it is usually interpreted in the light of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Or, the passage could be rendered as in TEV, “You are my own dear Son,” with a footnote: “The voice from heaven quotes from Psalm 2, a psalm used in ancient times when the king ascended the throne and God acknowledged him with the words, ‘Today you have become my Son’.” Is it not possible even in some contexts to translate “Son of God” as “the One whom God has sent” or as “the One who is like God,” with a footnote giving the literal rendering and an explanation of the reason for the rendering in the text? Sometimes, of course, there may be reasons of tradition and church policy to retain the literal rendering of “Son of God.” In such cases a helpful note might be introduced explaining that the focus of meaning is not upon a biological descent but upon identity of nature.

Although this presentation has been brief with many issues not touched, we hope, nevertheless, that some readers will have sufficient interest in this problem to respond to what has been said. In this way perhaps something concrete will develop that will help us all in coming to grips with this most complex and challenging issue.

Dr. Arie de Kuiper is Secretary for Bible Use (Bijbelbemiddeling), Netherlands Bible Society.
Dr. Barclay Newman is a UBS Translations Consultant based in Malaysia.