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Identity Theft: Retheologizing the Son of God

by Roger Dixon

In many “bibles,” the identity of Jesus is severly alienated by the change in two phrases: “Son of God” and “Lord.”

(Although the original article quotes real examples, the names have not been included here at the request of some of our readers.)

John Piper has correctly identified that the central issue in radical contextualization for Muslim groups is the theology of the person and work of Jesus (2006, 16-17). The Bible is written to reveal the identity of Jesus and the Church is founded on this truth alone.

JESUS’ IDENTITY
Concern with personal identity has been around for a long time. We know from extensive biblical references to genealogies that identity was important for people in Palestine. It seems conclusive that people wanted to have their families correctly identified. Matthew 1 shows that Jesus’ identity was very important to the biblical writers. Matthew gives a clear genealogy in which Jesus is identified through family, through his mother and by a title. This Jesus was born of Mary and his entire family lineage is given. He is then identified as the Christ (1:16), his name is given (1:18), an explanation of that name is noted (1:21) and a prophetic reference is cited (1:23). Another genealogy is given in Luke 3:23-38. The writers’ concerns with identity were not due to simple cultural preoccupation; instead, the genealogies were a critical part of their desire to clarify precisely who Jesus was.

We see the same careful scholarship in the way Matthew explained the Hebrew meaning of Jesus’ name in Greek. The name Yeshua becomes Yesous in the Greek language. Matthew leaves no doubt about this name: “He will save his people from their sins” (1:21). This reinforces verse 16 where Jesus is identified as the Christ. The meaning of these theological terms becomes clear as the gospel story unfolds.

The sacred writings are careful to record the conflict over Jesus’ identity. During his lifetime, people made many attacks on his identity as the Christ. We see this in Mark 2 where Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. The scribes question this in verse 7: “He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In John 5:18 we read that some of the leaders were trying to kill Jesus because he was making himself equal with God. As we read the gospel story, it is clear the writers were convinced that Jesus was the unique Son of God. Even at Jesus’ death, some leaders had Pontius Pilate seal the tomb because they were afraid that an empty tomb would prove Jesus’ claims true.

Explanations about the identity of Jesus are frequent throughout the New Testament. Biblical scholars describe how the writers were countering various theological misconceptions about the nature of Jesus. These conflicts did not disappear in the early Church and eventually resulted in the great councils of the third century in which Christology was canonized in creeds. But the existence of various deviations from Christian theology, such as the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, show us that some still question the biblical witness concerning Jesus.

CHANGING THE IDENTITY OF JESUS
When a sect or a cult seeks to deviate from normative Christian theology and to develop a new understanding of God, one of their first steps is to reinterpret the person and work of Jesus. As long as the biblical message about Jesus is retained, a new understanding is impossible to support. Therefore, it is critical for those trying to establish a new view to rewrite one’s “bible” in such a way that any new theology of Jesus seems to be scriptural. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a “bible” called The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Greek scholars tell us that this translation is slanted in many places. Since the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is not one with the Father, but rather just a “mighty god,” they change the translation of John 1:1 to read: “In the beginning was the word…and the word was a god.”

With only a slight change in translation, they have altered the identity of Jesus as the Son of God and thus his unity with the Father in the Godhead. With the changing of a few words, the doctrine of the Trinity disappears and the Sonship of Jesus is changed. We can read through their translation and study it carefully and we will only find small sections that are different from our historic Bible. However, its presentation of the identity of Jesus is completely different. Bible translations can indeed be manipulated to rephrase one’s concept of God.

In recent years, many church people in the West have begun to downplay the uniqueness of Jesus in order to avoid conflict with people of other ideologies. Will Herberg, a theology professor at my seminary forty years ago, spoke of this phenomenon and his observations have come to pass in many church circles. The problem is illuminated in 1 Peter 2:8. Jesus is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” Gene Edward Veith states it well: “And sometimes Christians think they can reach a broader audience—selling their products to Jews, Muslims and humanists—if they just leave Jesus out of it” (2005, 36). In the modern missionary movement we are seeing some cases where it is thought expedient just to change his identity.

ORIENTING BIBLE TRANSLATION TO ISLAMIC THEOLOGY
Islam has become a focal point in today’s world. Everyone is concerned about terrorists, but many are also burdened to share the gospel with Muslims. Over the centuries, there has been contact between Christians and Muslims; however, it has not been very fruitful for either side. This lack of openness on the part of Muslims has been worrisome to many missionaries. Some have become conflicted by it. The two main theological issues between Christians and Muslims are (1) the Trinity and (2) faith in Jesus as the Son of God. As long as Muslims maintain their basic theological position that the worst sin is to associate God with another reality (shirk), it is impossible to resolve these issues. Many different attempts have been made to reorganize or rephrase the theology of God’s Son so as to be palatable to Muslims.

In the 1970s when I was working in West Java, I went through a period of trying to find a substitute term to use for “Son of God.” It seemed to be the key issue that needed resolution. Muslims might be open if we could present Jesus in such a way that belief in him did not run afoul of what they considered the major sin. I spent months struggling with this issue. In the end, the Holy Spirit pointed me to the Greek scriptures. Through a detailed study of the first three and a half chapters in Luke, one can see the exposition of Messianic theology for a non-Jewish population. This is frequently overlooked because we tend to concentrate on the Christmas story.

SONSHIP IS PART OF THE NATURE OF GOD
One of the most important verses concerns Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:22 where the Father says, “You are my beloved Son.” This is also found in Psalm 2:7. I. Howard Marshall writes, “But the order has been changed to stress the fact that it is Jesus who is God’s Son, rather than that the dignity of Sonship has been conferred on the person addressed” (1978, 155). Luke’s intent is to establish the unique nature and character of Jesus as being God the Son. This is the critical point to understand. Gospel writers do not present Jesus simply as the Son of God; he is also God the Son.

Another important passage is John 1:1-18. Of particular interest are verses 14 and 18 where the Greek word monogenes is translated “only begotten” and Jesus is declared the “only begotten Son” in verse 14 and the “only begotten God” in verse 18. Scholars such as W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich tell us this can mean “unique in kind.” In John 3:16 monogenes is used to identify “the Son, the only begotten.” Again we have a reference to the unique one. Arndt and Gingrich also say that this word can be regarded as “analogous to prototokos” in Colossians 1:15 (1957, 529). In Colossians, prototokos is translated “firstborn.” According to Kenneth Wuest, the word implied “priority to all creation” (1940, 83).

Our hearts may break because the Muslim does not believe in Jesus as God’s Son. Although the Muslim may stumble on the Trinity and may not accept the deity of Christ, we must be faithful to what God says.

A NEW "BIBLE" FOR MUSLIMS
But for many workers in Muslim contexts, this reality has not set in. In 1987, a new alleged harmony of the gospels was produced for Muslim readers. It was published as a diglot (opposing pages printed in Arabic and English) several years later. It is an important example of the modern effort to retheologize the Son of God for the Muslim reader. We see this in the baptism story where the voice says, “This is the beloved and we are very pleased with him." In the Greek Bible, every Gospel account of the baptism uses the word "Son." Reworking the identity of Jesus seems to be the obvious intent of those who composed the book. It occurs consistently throughout their “gospel” story. In the temptation event, this record has the devil asking, “If you have come from the Spirit of Allah,” whereas the Greek Bible reports this as “If you are the Son of God.” When Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, “Safwan [Peter] said, ‘Surely you are the living Word of Allah and his salvation made manifest.’" In the Greek Bible, Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:17). Mark records, “You are the Christ” (8:29) and Luke renders it, “The Christ of God” (9:20). On the mount of transfiguration, this purported harmony has God saying, “This is the beloved whom I am pleased with." In any traditional translation from the Greek Bible God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:5), “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7) and “This is my Son, my chosen one, listen to him” (Luke 9:35).

LORDSHIP IS THE BASIS FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
When someone wants to change the identity of Jesus, the second factor he or she addresses is his Lordship or deity. The Sonship of Jesus conveys one aspect of his nature; his being Lord describes another. Some spurious translations of scripture seek to cover this truth. The word for Lord in Greek is "kurios" and it appears nearly 691 times in the New Testament. This Greek word was used in the Greek Old Testament translation (the Septuagint) to represent the Hebrew name of God—JHVH. In English translations, it is usually capitalized—LORD. For Greek-speaking believers, the word kurios (LORD) was the name of God. While kurios was also used in a common way to represent an honorific term such as our English word lord with a small “l,” early Christians would have understood the differences in the theological context of the word. As J. Y. Campbell points out, “Paul boldly applies to Christ OT passages in which ‘the Lord’ meant God” (1950, 131). The above mentioned harmony minimizes the Sonship and deity of Jesus.

Several years ago, one national publishing company (referred to here as NPC) published a fresh translation of the New Testament. It is similar to the 1987 harmony mentioned above, which was produced in another country. In this work, most references to Tuhan (the word for “Lord”) are changed to the Indonesian word junjungan. This is the same word that followers of the former president of Indonesia, Wahid Abdurahman, use as a sign of respect for him. When he was attacked politically his followers said, “We are ready to defend Gus Dur. Gus Dur is our junjungan (“Kita Siap Membela Gus Dur…” 2005). A reader would have to assume that the composers of this new "bible" feel that Jesus is on the same level as a former president of Indonesia.

NPC’s New Testament often will not use the term “Lord” when they are quoting the gospel writer himself. For example, in Luke 7:13, the writer is speaking of Jesus as Lord of life; that is, he can raise the dead because he is the creator of all things (as Paul points out in Col. 1:15ff). In the Greek, Luke records it this way: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.” However, the NPC translation puts it another way: “When Jesus, the Junjungan, saw the woman, he had compassion on her.” By minimizing Jesus’ identity, this rendition changes Luke’s presentation of Jesus. In his confession in Matthew 16:16, Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The NPC work translates this to be, “Yes, Junjungan, you are the Messiah, the Son who comes from the living God.” The Son who comes from God is quite different from the Son of God. Junjungan is the word they use in place of Lord; however, there is no “Lord” in Matthew 16:16. They seek to legitimize the use of Junjungan by inserting it where it does not translate anything. Another example is the way they change the Messianic quote in Luke 20:42, “The Lord said to my Lord” to read, “The Lord said to my Junjungan” (398). In the letters of Paul the term Lord is frequently translated “Divine Junjungan” (Junjungan yang Ilahi), illustrating the effort to give the word junjungan a context it does not have in normal use.

We can see this same masking of meaning by the NPC translation in the other New Testament writings. An example is the dropping of the Greek word for “own” (idios). This word is used about one hundred times in the NT and expresses particular belonging or possession. In some cases it can be translated as meaning “private or apart.” In Romans 8:3, Paul writes, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Paul uses the word idios to mean peculiar, private possession. Jesus is God’s own Son. In verse 32, Paul uses it again. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.” NPC’s translation changes both of these passages to read: “The honored Son who came from him.”

By depicting Jesus as just an “honored Son who came from God,” NPC’s translation is more palatable to Muslims. Jesus is not the Son of God and therefore not the Lord of life. And because he is not the Lord, he cannot forgive sins. When one of my American colleagues was baptizing converts who had never heard that Isa Al Masih was the Son of God, my question concerned the theological basis on which their sins were forgiven. Many young workers do not take time to think through the theological ramifications involved in changing the Holy Scripture. When the Egyptian writer Bat Ye’or was asked about this kind of contextualization, she replied,

There are many processes of Islamization. One of them is through theology and the adoption of the Muslim replacement theology, whereby the biblical figures from Adam—Abraham, Moses, down to Mary and Jesus—are all considered as “Muslim prophets.” Hence, Israel’s history is transferred to the Muslim Palestinians, and it is easy to see from there the final transition to Islam where the Jewish Jesus becomes an Arab-Palestinian-Muslim prophet. (2005, 18)

In a short paper, it is impossible to give all the references involved in these two translations. However, it does not take many examples to show that the identity of Jesus is severely altered by the change in just two phrases, “Son of God” and “Lord.” Recently, news came that an effort is being made in one predominantly Muslim nation to create another example of identity change for the Lord Jesus. All of these books are nothing short of identity theft and many who are taught with these false “bibles” will be the poorer for it spiritually because they will not have the opportunity to meet the true God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the inspired word. They are being given part of the truth and it is not certain they will ever understand the entire truth. This is why John wrote in Revelation 22:19, “If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” Let us all be careful to teach the truth of who Jesus is in a way that clearly reflects God’s word.

References
Arndt, W. F. and F. W. Gingrich. 1978. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Campbell, J. Y. 1950. “LORD.” A Theological Wordbook of the Bible. New York: The Macmillan Company, 130-131.

gusdur.net. 2005. “Kita Siap Membela Gus Dur. Gus Dur Adalah Junjungan Kita.”August. Retrieved August 8, 2005 from http://www.gusdur.net.

Marshall, I. Howard. 1978. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Piper, John. 2006. “Minimizing the Bible: Seeker-Driven Pastors and Radical Contextualization in Missions.” In Frontier Missions. January-February: 16-17.

Veith, Gene Edward. 2005. “Silent Witnesses.” World. December 3:36.

Wuest, Kenneth. 1940. Golden Nuggets: From the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Ye’or, Bat. 2005. “No ‘Cheap Souk.’” World. November 19:18.

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Roger Dixon was a missionary for thirty-four years in Asia, mostly among the Muslim Sundanese of West Java, Indonesia. He received his doctorate from Biola’s School of Intercultural Studies. He is currently a consultant with Pioneers.

Copyright © 2007 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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