God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Changing the Son of God for Muslims

An article in World Magazine discusses Wycliffe‘s recent debate about how to translate “Son of God” and “God the Father” into Arabic for Muslim audiences, noting that “in Muslim contexts,” a literal translation “implies that God had sexual relations with Mary” — at least according to some translators.

Therefore, Wycliffe’s translations have at times resorted to alternative wordings, causing more than a little debate.

It seems to me that there are two factual questions here.

The easy one (even though I don’t know enough Arabic to provide an answer) is whether the Arabic translation for “Son of God” that was rejected in fact implies sexual relations. My guess is that it does.

But the harder question is the more important one. Does the Arabic for “Son of God” imply sexual relations any more than the original Greek did? This is what the translator has to know.

By comparison, the English phrases “I’m a father now” and “I have a son” both imply sex, even though there are other ways of becoming a father, such as adoption. It’s hard for me to imagine that Greek didn’t work similarly. This makes “Son of God” in English a pretty good choice, even though sons generally come about through sex.

On the other hand, “love child” in English has a specific implication that doesn’t come directly from what “love” and “child” mean. (A “love child” is generally a child born out of wedlock.) So Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” NRSV) cannot become, in English, “Israel was my love child,” though in other languages that might be significantly better.

Similarly, the important question regarding Arabic is whether “Son of God” for Muslim audiences is like “love child” in English, pointing in a specific but wrong contextual direction, or whether it’s like “child” more generally, implying but not demanding the wrong interpretation.

I think the theoretical issues are interesting, but I’m also curious about the facts here. Does anyone know more?


October 12, 2011 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. Joel, perhaps it would be just as instructive to look at the Hebrew background of the phrase. And surely you are ideally suited to help here. Would you say that “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2-4, Job 1:6, 2:1 etc implies sexual relations? How would this phrase have been understood at the time when Jesus was first called Son of God? I’m not suggesting a direct correspondence between these titles, only that they form part of the background of the phrase.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 12, 2011

  2. Subscribing to comments…

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 12, 2011

  3. I am a student of Arabic, and also of the Middle East. I have read portions of the Quran, and I think part of the translation issues here is that Islam is so ingrained with Arabic, and in the Quran, this idea of Jesus being the son of God is addressed and attacked, and it IS taken literally. The idea is, that how could God have relations and produce a son? And how there be God in three persons, that would be three Gods. So, Muslims do think of Christians of being almost polytheistic, because of the belief in the Trinity. I think it is very wise to be cautious about translating the son of God into Arabic, because of you are using similar Arabic to what is in the Quran you are going to draw up all of the fallacious arguments against Christianity that are a part of the Muslim faith.

    Comment by Amy | October 12, 2011

    • Thanks, Amy.

      If I understand correctly, what you’re saying is that the usual language translators might choose for “Son of God” (and other phrases) mirrors language from the Quran, and Arabic speakers are likely to hear the phrases in the context of the Quran.

      I suppose this would be similar to calling Heracles the “Son of God,” rather than choosing language such as “one of Zeus’s children” or “the favorite son of Zeus.”

      Comment by Joel H. | October 12, 2011

      • Yes, that’s correct. I think it would be more valuable to find a different way of translating it, even if it isn’t exactly literal. I think in Arabic, one would get more mileage out of a functional translation (at least for these sections) than a literal one. Though I would be interested to see how the first part of John would be rendered in Wycliffe’s translations– how to get across Logos to an Arab Muslim audience.

        Comment by Amy | October 12, 2011

      • But that is exactly the problem: resorting to a “functional translation” for “Son of God” makes is harder, perhaps even impossible to understand how it is precisely these verses (John 1:1-14) that were so important for explaining what it means for Christ to be “THE Son of God”.

        Comment by Matt J. | November 10, 2011

  4. This is such a futile attempt by Wycliffe. I don’t think language is the barrier here, but rather religious doctrine as Amy alluded to.

    For example:
    “Son of God” in Arabic is “ابن الله” or “ibn Allah.”
    Jesus is referred to, in the Quran, as “ابن مريم” or “ibn Maryam.”

    Ibn literally means “son” or “son of”
    Allah literally means “the God.”
    Maryam is just the way you say Mary in Arabic.

    The Quran also states, explicitly, that Jesus was born to a virgin mother, Mary. I think you can connect the dots from here.

    The fact that Jesus can be called “son of” whomever does not imply sexual relations at all. If this was the case, (1) Jesus wouldn’t be called “the son of Mary” in the Quran because that would imply that Mary had sexual relations and (2) what would Arab-speaking Christians call Jesus!? Arab-speaking Christians call Jesus “ibn Allah” and this does not automatically make the Christian community believe that there’s some type of sexual connotation behind it the phrase.

    In conclusion: these translators are wasting their time.

    Comment by Omar Orestes | October 16, 2011

    • Despite not liking your tone (people are never wasting their time when they try to avoid miscommunicating God’s Word), I do think you raise one very good point, and that is to consider how Arab-speaking Christians handle this issue. I get the (occasional) sense that Bible translators are trying to reach nonChristians all by themselves–rather than primarily existing to help the local Christians to reach their own neighbors. Of course, it may be the case that some Arab-speaking Christians are on one side of this issue and other Arab-speaking Christians are on the other side.

      Comment by Jonathan | October 17, 2011

      • But you completely ignored my other point. Why would “Son of God” have a sexual connotation and not “Son of Mary”?

        Again, the issue here isn’t language but religious doctrine. Muslims don’t believe Jesus is the son of God because their holy book tells them so. They also don’t believe that Jesus was crucified. It is true that Arabic is deeply ingrained with the Quran (as Amy said). The Quran standardized Arabic and gave it all of its grammatical rules. This was done because the Arabic language began to evolve in a way that did not resemble the Quran due to nature of the Islamic conquests. However, Arabic also existed before Islam.

        The Ghassanids and Lakhmids were two Arab tribes that adopted the Christian faith. What did they call Jesus? I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I can’t think of anything else but “ibn Allah.” We would have to consult scholars who have access to documents and writings of those two Arab tribes. But what I do know for a fact is that Arab-speaking Christians today call Jesus “ibn Allah.” Finding an alternative translation for “Son of God” in Arabic would completely change how they experience, and possibly the meaning and the literary makeup, of their Bibles. Think about what kind of implications that could potentially carry.

        Comment by Omar Orestes | October 19, 2011

  5. Both the original World article and this blog post ignore the existence of Arabic translations of the New Testament, translations that have already addressed the issues brought up.

    In fact, it is these translations, not Islam, that really determine whether or not “Son of God’ can be translated into Arabic without carnal implications. And in fact, they answer the question: of course it can. Of course it carries no such carnal implication. That implication is not any expression in the Arabic language, it is in the minds of Muslims, because of their long acquaintance with the Muslim dogma that denies the Trinity.

    Comment by Matt J.t | October 21, 2011

  6. At the time of the writing of the NT, the term “Son of God” was becoming, if it had not already become, a technical term used by the Caesar to refer to himself. The term was used by Caesar, and others, within the context of the rapidly growing Caesar worship cult. This religion was in direct confrontation with both Judaism and the infant Christianity launched by Jesus. See N.T. Wright for fuller detail.

    Secondly, I’ve had conversations with Arabic speaking people regarding this very term. Bottom line: “Son of” implies sex. You can’t get a son otherwise. One person I spoke to was honestly incredulous at how I could possible believe that God had sex with Mary. Well, if I believed that, I’d be incredulous about me, too!!! The point I’m making is language is so much a part of how we think about the world and think about the myriad pieces of the world, that translation must use the language as it is given. We can’t hammer it into the form we want. For the Arab I was speaking to, from his perspective, if I didn’t believe God had sex with Mary, than why would I say that he did?

    Comment by Mike Sangrey | November 5, 2011

    • “Son of” implies sex [for Arabic speaking people]

      I think it does in English, too. (Just to be clear — and this should be easy to find out, though I don’t happen to know for sure — adopted children in Arabic are called “son of…,” right?)

      My question is whether the implication is stronger in Arabic than in English.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 5, 2011

  7. My *personallly* preferred way of dealing with a “text versus context” issue is to accurately reflect the text, and explain the context. The alternative, only slightly less objectionable, is to have the translation be amended for context, but *still explain the adjustments that were made*… that way, or either way, we’re all on the same page… but to adjust and not disclose?? Not MY style, anyway…

    Comment by bibleshockers | November 10, 2011

  8. From what I understand of the post, the translation into Arabic is for Arab MUSLIM audiences. I do think a it’s necessary to change the delivery of your content (not the content itself) depending on who are you are talking to. I’m all for a literal translation, but there is a time and a place for functional translations, and I stand by that this might be one of them. Would you take the KJV into a ghetto in order to reach an audience there? Or would you use something like the NLT?

    Yes, Arab Christians use Ibn Allah, and yes there are already translations of the Bible into Arabic, though who uses what depends on denomination, reading level, etc. But, to rely on someone else’s scholarship:

    “Perhaps no concept in all of Christian terminology receives such a violent reaction from Muslims as Jesus is the “only begotten” son of God. This raises red flags immediately in the Islamic mind. Indeed, as we shall see, they understand it in a grossly anthropomorphic manner. Clearing away this misunderstanding is necessary to open the Muslim mind to the concept of the Trinity.

    “The Bible refers to Christ as the “only begotten” Son of God. However, Muslim scholars often misconstrue this in a fleshly, carnal sense of someone literally begetting children. For them, to beget implies a physical act. This they believe is absurd, since God is a spirit with no body. As the noted Muslim apologist Deedat noted, “He [God] does not beget because begetting is an animal act. It belongs to the lower animal act of sex. We do not attribute such an act to God.” For the Islamic mind, begetting is creating and “God cannot create another God… he cannot create the uncreated.” The foregoing statements reveal the degree to which the biblical concept of Christ’s sonship is misunderstood by Muslim scholars. For no orthodox Christian believes that begat is to be equated with made or create. No wonder Dawud concludes that from “a Muslim point of belief the Christian dogma concerning the eternal birth or generation of the Son is blasphemy.””

    “….Misunderstanding of Christ’s sonship reaches an apex when some Muslim scholars confuse it with his virgin Birth. Nazir-Ali notes that “in the Muslim mind the generation of the Son often means his birth of the Virgin Mary.” As Shorrosh notes, many Muslims believes Christians have “made Mary a goddess, Jesus her son, and God almighty her husband.” With such carnal misrepresentation of a spiritual reality, little wonder Muslims reject the Christian concept of eternal Father and Son.”
    “Islamic misunderstanding of the Trinity is encouraged by the words of Muhammad who said, “O Jesus, son of Mary! didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah?”

    All of this complications and what is written about Christianity in the Quran is further complicated by the fact that Muslim scholars believe that the Bible had divine origins but has been corrupted by Christians, and of course have done their own translations according to their mental framework:

    “Another text often distorted by Muslim scholars is this great passage proclaiming Christ’s deity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Without any textual support in the thousands of Greek manuscripts, they render the last phrase: “and the Word was God’s.” Muslim scholar Dawud declares, without any warrant whatsoever, “the Greek form of the genitive case ‘Theou’, i.e., ‘God’s’ was corrupted into ‘Theos’; that is, ‘God’ in the nominative form of the name!””

    So, when addressing a Muslim Arab audience with an Arabic translation you are dealing with:

    1) Arabic used in the Quran in suras regarding Jesus
    2) Islamic misconceptions (in their mind, utter blasphemies) regarding Jesus and the nature of the Trinity– not only regarding the implications by saying the Jesus in the Son of God but the Islamic sin of “shirk”– assigning partners to God
    3) Previous language and translations used by Muslim scholars to refute the Bible and Jesus’s personhood within the Trinity

    That’s a lot to overcome. Yes, it’s possible to be as literal as possible and then explain it, but it’s also very possible that struggling against the list above means a translator won’t even get around to the chance of explaining.

    By the way, I quoted from “Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross” by Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb. In that same chapter, it is said: “”Son” should be understood in a figurative sense (like the Arabic word, ibn), not in a physical sense (as in the Arabic word, walad).” Except that I don’t think this is true. Ibn does imply in a physical sense, since they both mean son, or in the case of walad, son or also a boy. They are extremely similar synonyms, often used interchangeably. and whatever distinction was there previously I think is entirely washed away.

    This is a complex issue linguistically and culturally. It deserves attention.

    Comment by Amy | November 22, 2011

    • Amy, I have to respectfully disagree with your premise. I do agree with the notion that Muslims have a negative reaction to the concept of the Trinity, but, as a I said, this is because of doctrinal reasons and not simply a case of language.

      But let’s break this down from a semantic point of view. You quote Ahmed Deedat, who is of Indian origin, and – as far as I know – doesn’t speak Arabic. So his whole analysis of “begotten” being an “animalistic sexual act” is pointless because the word simply does not exist in Arabic. He is arguing this under the framework of modern Christian conceptions expressed in English. For example, I did a quick search through the Quran and came across about a dozen or so passages that uses the word “beget” or “begotten” as part of their English translation. So I chose two passages to analyze. And for the sake of length purposes, I’m not going to quote the verses in length and just point out the word that is translated as begotten.

      The first is 17:111. It is translated as “… God, who has not begotten a son.” If you look at the Arabic text, the operational word (or phrase) “yatakhidh.”

      The second is 2:16. It is translated as “God has begotten a son.” And again, the operational phrase here is “At-takhadh Allah.”

      Now, if you’re a student of classical Arabic then you should already know that the language is heavily dependent on the root of a word. Here we have two words (phrases) – yatakhidh and at-takhadh – and the root of both of these words are أَ-خ-ذ (a-kh-dh). The meaning of this is “to take,” “to seize,” or “to catch.”

      So in 17:111 “yatakhidh” means “he took.” So the translation of “begotten” is not adequate because – according to dictionary.com – begotten/beget means “to procreate” or “to cause.”

      In 2:16, “at-takhadh Allah” translates as “Allah took.” Again, the translation is inadequate.

      The overall point I’m trying to make is that the concept of beget or begotten does not exist in Arabic and those who have chosen to translate it as such has done a great disservice to the translation of the original Arabic text. So all these Muslim scholars (like Deedat, who I’m not even sure speaks Arabic) who have argued the concept of God begetting a son has wasted their time because (a) the term simply doesn’t exist and (b) if it does exist, it is not what the text says. This is the problem that arises when scholars are relied upon to explain things.

      The barrier is, again, religious doctrine. It says plainly that God has not taken a son, that God was not born, and that’s it. That is why the Trinity is combated. People are making this way too complicated. I would love to see, if it exists, pre-advent-of-Islam Bibles in Arabic and see their word choice. And I’d also like to know what the original Greek for “begotten” is.

      Comment by Omar | November 23, 2011

  9. I believe that this decision by Wycliffe was not made due to any linguistic reason, but actually due to theological reasons. Why do I believe this? Well, because Christianity has a longstanding Arabic tradition. What this means is that Christians have been stating that Jesus is indeed the son of God, in Arabic, long before Wycliffe (and Islam for that matter). Consequently this tells us that Arabic-speaking Christians were never faced with a linguistic problem in affirming that Jesus is the son of God, or use of God the Father. In fact, if you look into early translations of the New Testament in Semitic languages, Ge’ez and Syriac (not just the Peshitta, but also the Diatessaron which was translated into Arabic much later) you’ll notice that they all maintained the Christian dogma that Jesus is the son of God.

    “Son of” in Arabic does not necessarily imply sexual relations.

    In the Quran, chapter 5 verse 18 states that Jews and Christians refer to themselves as abnaaʔo allah – that is, children of God. Are we to take this to mean that the Quran teaches that Jews and Christians believed themselves to be the biological offspring of God? Of course not. Another example in Arabic is that an Egyptian may be referred to as ibn/bint alnīl, that is, “child of the Nile.” Does this mean that the Nile river physically begot? No. Much like bar mitzvah in Hebrew does not mean that one is the biological offspring of the Torah.

    So why do I say that Wycliffe’s decision was due to theological reasons? Because as I’ve pointed out there is no linguistic issue with saying Jesus is ibn allah. There isn’t a necessary sexual connotation. Arab Christians have never had issues saying bismi alabi walibni walruḥi alqudus (in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). I also demonstrated that the Quran uses the term children of God in a metaphorical way. That should dispel the idea that “son o God” can’t be used metaphorically, (that is, no sexual connotation) even in an Islamic context. I’m left to conclude that the reasons behind this decision were theological, they were to try and appease popular Muslim theology. The Quran says that it is blasphemous to say that Jesus is the son of God (9:31 in the Quran) and so as to not offend Muslims, I imagine, they decided not to use this term. Of course this isn’t a perfect theory. The Bible also says many other things that are at odds with popular Muslim beliefs, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus. But, I can’t think of any other reason as to why they would not include son of God, or God the Father in their translations.


    9 7 2.

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