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  • « Two New Books by Nathan Pitchford | Main | Spurgeon On The Goal of Preaching »

    Bible Translation for a Muslim Audience

    Current Needs

    It is virtually indisputable that the last great frontier of the world missions movement involves the various unreached peoples of Islam. It is equally clear that a necessary part of the labor involved in reaching these Muslim peoples is the translation of the bible into their own languages, so that they may read and understand it. But this is a much more complicated task than it might appear at first glance; for a typical Muslim is so conditioned by his culture and worldview that the merest hint of a variety of seemingly innocuous terms will immediately prevent him from even opening a book in which they may be found, let alone giving it an unbiased reading. Unfortunately, many of these terms have a well-established tradition in the Christian history of the major languages used by Muslims; and even in the smaller languages, the task of finding an equivalent for the terms of the original languages of the scriptures that is not needlessly offensive, but nevertheless communicates the proper idea, is quite a difficult one. These problems may not just be ignored. If Christ is ever going to have his worshipers among those people groups that are even today almost entirely Muslim, they must have access to an accurate and understandable version of the Bible. This involves both the revision or retranslation of the bible for a specifically Muslim audience in the major languages, and entirely new translations in the smaller languages.

    Unique Problems

    The task of translating for a Muslim audience has unique difficulties, which other translators do not face, or at least not to the same extent. Not only are Muslims typically very antagonistic to Christianity and Christian doctrines and terms, but they also have very wrong conceptions about what Christians actually mean when they use certain terms and expressions. The point of a translation for a Muslim audience is not to eliminate the first type of opposition – it is to get to the place where that type of opposition can actually occur! In other words, as long as Muslims are objecting to their misunderstandings of Christian doctrine, they will not be able to object to the truth of the gospel itself. It is inevitable that, when the gospel is understood, there will be some who object. But it is nothing short of a tragedy when the typical objections are based on misconceptions, or when the gospel is never even given a reading because it is packaged in a way that needlessly provokes emotionally-charged reactions.

    In an area where Islam is largely nominal, 90% of these problems may be taken care of through superficial means. Putting a dark green cover with an Arabesque border on the translation (the Muslim’s holy color), instead of the traditional black (the typical color of Orthodox Christianity’s bible); calling it the “Holy Scriptures” instead of the “Bible”; using Arabic spellings of names familiar to Muslims (e.g. Ibrakhim instead of Abraham); and other similar, inconsequential concessions can make worlds of difference in how a translation is received. In other places, to the extent that Islam is more aggressively followed, these changes become less effective.

    Of course, these changes do not involve the actual translation of meaningful terms in the Bible. But in many contexts, some of the actual translation will have to be done with a Muslim audience in mind. This is the point at which many Evangelical Christians understandably become uneasy. They have grown to love the traditional terms and phrases, because they have associated them with the truths that they hold so dear; and they cannot help but think that a different translation involves a denial of truth, to some degree, for the sake of currying a wider readership. This is in fact a danger, but it is often misunderstood or exaggerated by well-meaning Christians. The point of a translation, after all, is not to follow tradition blindly (although tradition is not lightly to be dismissed, either), but rather to take the meaning which inhered in the original languages, and to make it understandable to a person who speaks a different language and has a different worldview. When tradition stands in the way of that goal, it cannot be followed with servile allegiance.

    An exemplary case involves the translation into a certain language of the Greek word “to baptize”. The traditional term in this language, which has been well accepted for hundreds of years, has the literal meaning “to genuflect” (i.e. “to cross oneself”), or “to christen”. It is also a term that Muslims despise. In a retranslation of the scriptures into this language, for a Muslim audience, this term will have to go, and a more literal, less offensive equivalent will have to be found. But the price is invariably some degree of skepticism from the national Christians who are well-established in traditional Christian terminology.

    The most infamous of this kind of problem, and no doubt the most difficult to find a workable solution to, is the translation of the Greek phrase, “the Son of God”. This is one of the most volatile Christian phrases to a typical Muslim, who has always adhered fervently to the non-negotiable tenet of Islam, that “Allah has no son,” and who has been taught by the Koran and the mullahs that when the Christians say, “Son of God,” they mean to say that God had physical relations with Mary. Furthermore, any attempt to translate this term in any way other than strictly literal is often met with stiff opposition from Christians. To them, the title is a clear testimony to Jesus’ deity, and any dynamic translation of it involves an implicit denial, or at least a minimization of Jesus’ nature as very God.

    Working Towards a Solution

    The tension between the adamant opposition of the largely Western Church to any non-literal translation of the term “Son of God” and the translator’s desire to see the title understood, and not merely rejected because of an immediate, visceral reaction of the intended audience, may be alleviated in part by a couple of considerations: first, this title is not actually the clearest ascription of deity to the Christ that may be found in the New Testament. Biblical-theological scholarship of late has done much to shed light on the typical usage of this term in Jesus’ day, as well as its Old Testament background. In many cases, it is the expected title of the heir of David, who would finally sit on his throne once again (cf., for example, Psalm 2:6-7; II Samuel 7:14); and hence, it has the basic semantical force of “Davidic (or Messianic) King”. Of course, this title also involved a subtle claim to deity, given what we know of the Messiah from the Old Testament, as Jesus himself hinted to the Pharisees (Matthew 22:41-46); but it was a claim that was too subtle for the clear majority of religious experts to realize. To them, Jesus’ preferred Messianic title, “Son of Man,” having clear roots in Daniel 7:13-14, was a more overt claim to deity, and that which finally got him condemned for blasphemy (Matthew 26:64-65). It must be admitted, however, that certain contexts, particularly in the Gospel of John, demand a greater significance to the title “Son of God” than simply “Messianic King,” pointing as they do to Jesus’ unique and eternal relationship with the Father. The second alleviating consideration is this: many of these translators are thoroughly Evangelical believers, holding firmly to such doctrines as the deity of Christ, and laboring, not to obscure this truth, but rather to proclaim it and make it understood by the people among whom they work. This in itself demands patience and understanding from the worldwide church.

    What then are some practical ways to attempt to solve the difficulty? A variety have been tried to varying degrees of success, and none without problems. These include: 1) a strictly literal translation philosophy, which has the advantage of being technically correct; but the dual disadvantage of not being understood, and of utterly destroying the willingness of the target audience to read the translation. 2) A simple, one-for-one substitution of the phrase with a different term (e.g. Messiah) has been tried. This has the advantage that the audience is more willing to read it, but the disadvantage that it does not communicate precisely what the original languages communicate. To eliminate the possibility of correctly understanding all the nuances of so widespread and significant a term seems too steep a price to pay for a willing audience. 3) Instead of a simple substitution, an exegetical approach, which seeks to understand the implications of the term in every context and translate accordingly, may be tried. While more satisfactory than the former, this approach attempts a basically impossible task: the reason that “Son of God,” and not another term, was used in each biblical context is that, for whatever reason, that precise term conveyed the exact intent of the author. “Son of God” certainly may have strong overtones of “Messianic King,” but it still has a familial connotation that the suggested substitution lacks. This approach, while it does have its strengths, is still not entirely optimum. 4) An added qualifier to the literally translated term, perhaps in parentheses or italics, with the intention of combating the common misconception, is another possible approach (for example, “spiritual Son of God”). This has the advantage of making the literal expression available, but has two possible disadvantages: first, it may not be a sufficient concession to make Muslims amenable to reading the translation – for some of them, qualified or not, the term itself is simply not acceptable; and second, it may cause other problems, for instance, a diminishing of the importance of what it means to be God’s Son in the Messianic sense (e.g., “He’s not really the Son of God, just a “spiritual” son like everyone else). However, in certain contexts, given a thorough knowledge of the culture and a meticulously chosen qualifier, this approach may have better results than any of the others. 5) The approach of either giving a literal translation in the text with footnotes and introductions which “exegete” the term, or a non-literal translation in the text with literal footnotes and introductions, is likewise a very valuable approach. Ideally, this will be used in conjunction with one of the approaches above (particularly in combination with number three, with which it gains an especial potency).


    None of these approaches is a perfect solution; but to govern which might actually be employed with the best success, the ultimate goals of the translation must be kept in mind, and their relative importance must be prioritized. There are several goals which must be given a high priority in any translation, including: 1) Accuracy. No matter how inoffesive or how widely read a translation is, to the degree that it is not accurate, it is not accomplishing anything helpful. This basic point must always be kept in mind. 2) Understandability. Even if the translation is accurate, if it is not understood by the target audience, again, it is not accomplishing anything helpful. 3) Discipleship. If basic evangelism were the only goal, a translation which simply glossed over the difficult or controversial terms and topics might have a place. But the fact is, Christians do not just need to be born; they need to grow afterwards. And if their only translation provides the milk but strains out all the meat, they will not ultimately be healthy and well-developed. In major languages, there is often a more literal translation that young converts may eventually “graduate” to; but especially in languages that do not yet have the scriptures, the need for a translation which is substantially accurate enough to provide discipleship for new believers is imperative. 4) Universality. Just knowing the right doctrine is the main priority; but if doctrine is learned in such new and revolutionary terms that the traditional church does not recognize it, a young and needy church may be cut off from its desperately needed support from the worldwide body, because of a mere misunderstanding. To the extent that traditional terms may be kept, therefore, without jeopardizing the understanding of the target audience, it would be wise to do so.


    The problem of bible translation for a Muslim audience, and in particular the difficulty which inheres in the phrase “Son of God,” is not a problem which has a simple answer. Nevertheless, the task is too vital not to engage in because it is not easy. None of these issues is ultimately insurmountable, as long as God is on his throne; and many servants have been raised up to labor in just such a difficult field. So how could the Western church come alongside these workers to assist and support them? I conclude with three suggestions.

    First, be much in prayer. In this field, as in all other varieties of Kingdom-work, the task is too great for any man: God himself must build the house, or they labor in vain that build it. It is both our privilege and responsibility to partner with our brothers and sisters across the sea, sharing the burden with them in fervent intercession.

    Second, the Eastern church needs doctrinal assistance from the West. The center of missional Christianity seems largely to have shifted to the far East – but the church in those regions has not had the long history of doctrinal formulation and biblically-grounded scholarship that the West has had. Translators who know the national culture and feelings of target audiences, and who speak the languages as their mother tongues, must co-operate with exegetes who are familiar with the original languages of the scriptures, and have access to the wealth of resources available today. Inevitably, this will often involve a coming together of East and West for a common cause.

    Third, do not immediately write off these translation teams as compromisers because they do not translate “Son of God” literally! Many of these teams are prayerfully seeking the best way to proclaim the same truths which you hold precious, and they need your assistance, not your reactionary critique. The reasons for how they are approaching their task are often too many and too subtle to be seen by a casual observer – but they do have reasons, and legitimate reasons, for much of what they are doing. Seek to understand before you critique. Labor to improve, and not just to point out problems without any alternatives or solutions. In this way, we may all rise up together for the sake of the cause that cannot be stopped, in the service of the King whose dominion will never end!

    P.S. I encourage any readers to follow the dialogue of the first several comments below. I would also like to clarify, first, that my own opinion is that the phrase "Son of God" should be translated literally, with explanatory footnotes, appendices, and other supplementary materials; and second, that my reason in publishing this article is to bring a difficult issue before the Reformed, Western church, so that they might be aware of the problems and give well thought-out suggestions. I would also like to confess that the article assumes too much with regard to the intended audience: the scriptures were written primarily for the people of God, and considerations of how the unevangelized may understand them, while not to be dismissed lightly, should in no way govern the way in which any part of them should be translated. Evangelism should be advanced through the explanations of the evangelist.

    Posted by Nathan on October 11, 2007 03:05 PM


    I hope this is supposed to be a satire.

    I'm waiting for the punchline.....

    I am amazed that someone here, on this blog, would try to discourage criticism of the elimination of the phrase "son of God" in a Bible version--as if such criticism could ever be dismissed as illegitimate or untimely, or as ignorant and 'reactionary' opinion.

    The author apparently supports the idea that translators should make such adjustments in new Arabic versions, as a "concession to make Muslims amenable to reading the translation."

    The whole article is based upon a fundamentally wrong view of the purpose and nature of Scripture. Scripture is verbally inspired, and it was written not for unbelievers, but for the people of God.


    1. I am not wanting to discourage criticism or critique of the ways in which "Son of God" has been translated, but I am trying to discourage reactionary critique, that has not been thought-through and is not acquainted with the issues facing translators. In virtually every discussion, even on the right side of the issue, there is a reasonable and informed way of arguing and a way of arguing that will not even be considered by the opposition because it so manifestly misunderstands their purpose and reasoning.

    2. I am certainly not for eliminating the phrase "Son of God" from any translation, if that is what you are suggesting. I listed several ways in which the phrase has been dealt with, but my lisitng of solutions that have been tried does not constitute an endorsement of them. It is helpful to have all the thoughts concerning the subject on the table, so that an informed critique can occur. But for the record, I am strongly for the inclusion of the literally-translated phrase "Son of God" in any translation, but in Muslim contexts, I favor supplementary material that explains what Christians mean and do not mean by that term, through a combination of footnotes, appendices, and possibly inter-textual additions, provided it is made clear that they are in fact additions, and not God's Word.

    3. Nowhere in this article do I suggest that the Scriptures are not verbally inspired. They are, of course. Because of that, one should give much care to the process of translation, to make sure the originally inspired words are transferred to the receptor language in terms that convey the same understanding, to as great a degree as possible.

    4. The suggestion that scripture is for God's people, and not unbelievers, is a false dichotomy. It certainly is for God's people, but is intended to be used in bringing the gospel to all the nations of the world, as well. How do pagans become God's people anyway? What does Romans 10 say?

    5. I hope this clarifies where I'm coming from. I am not for "eliminating" the literal translation of "Son of God". I am not against the critique of various translation philosophies and ideas, and I welcome feedback. But I am against reactionary critique that does not deal with the issues and provides nothing substantive to help translators with a difficult task. I am against a cavalier writing-off of the Muslim peoples' need to hear the gospel. I am hoping that some solid, Reformed theologians in the West will be burdened enough with the desire to see the true and only Son of God worshiped across the world, that they will be helpful to those who are attempting to see that happen. Part of this help will include critique, but not reactionary critique.

    Let's rise up and labor together for the glory of the Son of God.


    P.S. Following is the address of an article by Vern Poythress on the topic, which I am sympathetic to:

    As for Reformed Theologians doing this work, I know a a very good one who has been ministering to Muslims for many years. his name is Bassam Madany, a graduate of WTS. Here are some of his essays on our site which cover some of these same issues:

    Nathan wrote, "for the record, I am strongly for the inclusion of the literally-translated phrase 'Son of God' in any translation, but in Muslim contexts, I favor supplementary material ..."

    Nathan, this statement is reassuring, as to your personal views, but my concern is with the article itself. As it now stands, it evidently fails to communicate your opinion in this matter. The article leaves the question open, and it urges others to leave it open also, in a sort of plea for tolerance. I suggest that you revise the article so as to indicate your opinion more truly and adequately. And I also think that the example you have focused on ("Son of God") was poorly chosen, if you wished to promote an open-minded attitude. Many readers will not read your clarifiying comments here, and will be left with a serious misimpression of your views.

    In your response you say that "the suggestion that scripture is for God's people, and not unbelievers, is a false dichotomy," and "it certainly is for God's people, but is intended to be used in bringing the gospel to all the nations of the world, as well." But it is simply a fact that Scripture is addressed to God's people, as distinguished from unbelievers. It is not oriented towards unbelievers. It takes many things for granted that an evangelist cannot take for granted. I do not deny that it should be used in evangelistic endeavors, in various ways; but considerations of evangelistic expediency cannot control the translation of the text without doing violence to it. In any case, evangelistic considerations like this have obviously gone beyond legitimate bounds when a translator would suppress the phrase "son of God" as being too offensive for his intended readers.

    Again, your personal beliefs are not the subject of this criticism. My concern is with the article.

    The purpose of the article was not to argue for my own philosophy of translation into the language of Muslim people groups, but to bring an overview of the issues confronting translators to the table, survey the possible approaches, lay out some considerations that must inform the choice of one of those approaches, and call for some assistance. I am not arguing for tolerance of any and all translation choices, or urging others to leave the question open; I am pleading for understanding of the issues, and calling for answers that are informed and pertinent to the dilemmas that many western theologians may not have considered.

    Yes, the scriptures are largely addressed to God's people (although perhaps not entirely -- John 20:31, regardless of the textual issue [present or aorist tense of "believe"] seems to indicate an evangelistic purpose and unregenerate audience, if not exclusively, at least to some extent), but it is also commanded that they be taken to the nations of the world. If that is to be done, they must be translated. And translation must enable the understanding. That is why it is necessary to take such pains to communicate the original words in an understandable way. That is why this is a valuable conversation to have. No translation should obscure the truth for the sake of being read, but neither should thoughtless translation obscure the truth by not taking pains to cut off any wrong way of understanding literally-rendered terms. And even within the church, there are verses that are commonly misunderstood because of a history of an ambiguous or misunderstood literal translation (e.g. "abstain from all appearance of evil"). When the issue is the misunderstanding of so important a term as the Son of God, it is vital that the problem be thoroughly considered, lest the Church in a remote people group be plunged into heresy through a linguistically-driven misunderstanding.

    I'm glad you recognize that there is a problem with trying to use John 20:31 as proof that the Bible was written to non-Christians. Of course many passages of the Bible do have an evangelistic purpose, or are easily turned to such a purpose. But that should not blind us to the fact that the Biblical authors always assume that their readers share some important presuppositions (e.g. the existence of God, the inspiration of the prophets ). They also assume that readers share much of their background knowledge. It is really quite impossible to produce a version of the Bible that eliminates all the problems an unbeliever or a novice might have in understanding it. The Bible was never meant to be used outside of the context of the total ministry of the church, which includes a ministry of interpretation. Any attempt to produce a Bible version which could be used like a catechism or an evangelical tract will fail. It was not designed for such a purpose. It can't be twisted into that shape without damage.

    If you've been in ministry long, I'm sure you know by now that most Christians don't do much Bible reading anyway. We see this as a bad thing now, but actually, in ancient times few people could read, and the communication of the Christian faith has never been primarily a matter of writing and reading Bibles. Ordinarily God has used the spoken word, in preaching and teaching. That is what we are supposed to be doing with our time, as ministers of the word. Evangelism and discipleship do not in fact rely upon the availability of easily-understood versions of the Bible.

    Just look at the history of Christianity, and of missions in particular, and you will see that preaching always precedes Bible versions, and in some settings there has been a gap of many generations between the planting of churches and the publication of vernacular translations. So where did the idea come from that the first order of business in a gospel mission is to produce a tailor-made Bible version for the "targeted" people? As if there were no preachers or teachers in the field, no gospel tracts, no catechisms, no ministry of any kind, and the message had to be conveyed by distributing copies of the Bible for people to read at home. I don't know where that idea came from. Probably it originated recently in the promotional literature of some parachurch Bible society (ABS? Gideons? Wycliffe?). There is something appealing about this idea on a superficial level, especially among individualistic Baptists who boast a creedless faith, but it doesn't really make sense, because missions can't be done that way.

    Nevertheless, we have all this weirdness now in the world of Bible publishing, with "Bible-zines," and "non sexist" translations, and whatnot. And around the corner, there are people who would suppress key phrases like "son of God" in a Bible version designed for Muslims. There is something deeply wrong in this picture. How did we get to this point? I think it's time to retire the idea that Bible versions need to be our primary means of introducing people to the Faith. Or at least we need to give it a rest, because this is getting out of hand. I've written an article on this subject, which you can read here, if you are interested.

    I am in favor of thoroughly considering problems like the ones you raise in your article, and of offering constructive advice (as opposed to kneejerk "reactions"). But in my experience, I have found that many people associated with Bible translation agencies (ABS, Wycliffe) tend to disregard any words of caution from people who are advocating the use of more literal renderings. There is, among them, a strong committment to paraphrastic methods, and an unwillingness to listen to criticism from people who do not share their whole ideology of language. This attitude seems to be an outcome of their training, which (in places like SIL) deliberately inculcates theories of communication which I think are very questionable. And I note that translators usually have little training in theology, and often little patience for it. Usually they have less training than the average pastor, which is not good. I suspect that the task of Bible translation in missionary contexts has mostly been given to people who are theologically unqualified and unaccountable. I know three men who were employed as "translation consultants" (i.e. translators) in the Wycliffe agency for more than twenty years, whom I would describe as theologically incompetent. It bothers me to think what they had been doing in the field for twenty years. This is no way to run a church!

    I think you were on the right track when you advocated a literal rendering in the text and an explanation in the notes. This is a proven method, which has always been used in the church. There is no end of the problems that begin when you start paraphrasing. Look at the confusion and the conflicts created by the makers of Bible versions in our language. Look at all the stuff that is presented as if it were the Word of God now. Is God pleased with it? We should have avoided this mess, and we should know better than to create another mess like it in Arabic. Be aware of the need to provide explanations as necessary, and offer them in the margin. It's the only practical way to go.

    Thanks for the interaction, and the cautions you have brought to the table, many of which have caused me to pause, and reconsider my purpose in the original article. I think you are dead on in many of your concerns. Just so you know, for clarity's sake, I am adding a brief addendum to the original article, in which I explain my own views a little more fully, and my purpose in writing what I did.

    Good to read this article. But I feel bad for the author who ignored 14 hundred years of interactions between Arab-Christians and Islam. Many great Bible translations have been produced since the year 800. And since the Holy Spirit did not depart he region, there have been great theologians, Sir.

    Please read history.

    Wageeh Mikhail
    Assistant Prof.
    Arab Christian Theology
    Cairo Seminary
    [email protected]

    Dear Wageeh Mikhail,

    I'm sorry to have offended you by my statement about the need for doctrinal growth in the Eastern Church: perhaps a couple of clarifications would make my points a little less offensive:

    First, I did not have Arabic Christianity (or the Near East at all) in mind. I was speaking primarily of people groups that have only recently heard the gospel (or some that had been influenced by Nestorian Christianity many centuries ago, and which have retained virtually no recollection of their distant Christian past). In fact, I made mention in the article of small languages that have had no translation of the scriptures as of yet, which should have made it clear that I was not speaking of Arabic (even though it was later brought up in the comments thread). I am glad to hear from a qualified Professor of Arabic Christian Theology, and I don't doubt that such exist; but as I said, that was not really within the scope of my article. I intentionally refrained from mentioning specific people groups so as not to stir up more political resistance than many of them are already facing, but I assure you, there are some Muslim people groups out there that have few or no theologians and no scriptures in their languages.

    Second, it may have come across as arrogant to frame my appeal for doctrinal assistance only to the Western Church, when there are perhaps Near Eastern theologians just as qualified as anyone in the West. I apologize for the slight; I directed my appeal that way simply because I was writing to a Western audience primarily, but I am happy to extend it to anyone across the world. If you are interested in working among some of the unreached peoples of Central Asia, contact me and I'll be glad to discuss the idea with you.

    In Christ,

    I tend to side with Mr. Wageeh Mikhail. and add that the bible has been translated many times into arabic, with emphasis on Ahmed Deedat's work. Not to mention that most arabs can read English and understand it with varying levels. ANOTHER translation isn't needed... and there are many. Of all versions of the bible. which brings me to my next point.

    Finally, what the author is suggesting, as i understand from what he has written. That he is NOT in fact trying to make another translation of the bible. when he says "translate the bible with a muslim audience in mind", I respectfully suggst that he rather means camouflaging the bible in a way that makes the "translation" seem more like the Quran than the bible, hence hoping that it finds its way into muslim minds and homes, eventually replacing the Quran, of which there is only one

    Dear Mr. Mohamed Salim Asar,

    Thanks for your comment. I'm sure you are right about the scriptures in Arabic, and I rejoice for that. But as I mentioned above, there are many Muslim people groups who speak languages that as yet have no scriptures at all. I am aware of dozens of translation projects attempting to translate the scriptures into the language of a Muslim people group for the very first time. This article primarily hopes to address how to go about those projects. So, respectfully, whether the scriptures have been translated into Arabic once or a thousand times has no bearing on the article.

    Second, your caution against "camouflaging" the translation to make it seem "more like the Quran than the bible" is a legitimate concern, and one that has to be weighed and considered in any project. If you speak to many of these translators, I think you will find that that is not their goal at all. With others, perhaps it is. But painting all translators with the same stroke is not helpful to those whose only goal is to make the scriptures understood as they were intended to be understood, regardless of what the reaction might be.

    Hi, I would like to find out who is working on a Punjabi Bible for Pakistan that would be appropriate for Muslims. Can you help? Or, if that's not in the works yet, if anybody can help me get a copy of the out of print Pakistan Bible Society version.


    [email protected]

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