by Rick Brown
When witnessing to Muslims, it is crucial to take into account critical stumbling blocks, especially the use of the term “Son of God.”
A surprising number of Muslims are motivated to read the Injîl (lit. “Gospel,” i.e., the New Testament)1 or at least to listen to the story of Jesus. Besides having a spiritual hunger that they hope the Gospel will address, many believe it will please God if they read the Gospel and learn more about Jesus. The Qur’an asserts that Jesus is a unique individual, God’s Word, whom God cast into the virgin Mary, who was born to be the Messiah and whose earthly life God brought to an end, raising Jesus to himself in heaven (Al ‘Imran 3:45-55). The Qur’an also commands Muslims to profess faith in the scriptures that God revealed to Jesus and the prophets (Al ‘Imran 3:84; cf. Al-Baqara 2:285), and that those who reject the guidance and verses of the Torah and the Gospel will face the severest punishment (Al ‘Imran 3:3-4). All of these things motivate Muslims to read the Gospel.
So then, why do we not find more Muslims reading the New Testament, or more importantly, why do some go to the trouble to acquire a New Testament but then stop reading it? It is not, as some think, because of differences between the New Testament and the Qur’an. After all, Muslim readers of the Qur’an and the Hadith know that there are many contradictions in them, such that they need a commentary to tell them which sayings are considered valid and which ones are abrogated. So it does not concern Muslims much that the Christian Gospel presents Jesus in a different way from the Qur’an, as divine, as crucified and risen, as Lord of all and as the Savior of humanity. In fact, they find quite a bit of good news in the Gospel. What makes many of them stop reading is the use of the taboo term “Son of God.”
The Unbiblical Meanings of “Son of God” in Languages Spoken by Muslims
The author D. A. Chowdhury, a Muslim-background believer from Bangladesh, wrote about the problems that arise with literal translations of this term:
[These terms] have entirely different meanings when used by a Moslem. His knowledge of these terms is primarily derived from the Quran and it is a fact that almost every fact of Christianity has been perverted by Islam….As soon as it is said that Jesus is the Son of God, it raises in the Moslem mind the picture of God as husband and Mary as wife. The title thus, a Moslem thinks, at once destroys the unity of the Godhead. It never raises in his mind a noble and sublime thought but it has unpleasant associations which are quite repugnant to him. (1953, 26)
We could summarize Chowdhury’s observation in terms of modern semantics by saying that when the idioms “Son of God” and “sons of God” are translated literally into many of the languages spoken by Muslims, the resultant phrase carries the wrong semantic and affective meaning. In other words, the phrase evokes concepts and feelings quite different from those intended by the biblical authors. The literally translated phrase carries the semantic meaning of “God’s biological offspring” and an affective meaning that is “quite repugnant.” In fact, for many Muslims, the affective meaning is worse than repugnant; it is blasphemous and terrifying. So when they hear it asserted, almost all Muslims say in their minds, if not in their mouths, “astaghfirullâh” (“I ask God’s forgiveness”).
It is evident that Muslims understand the term in accord with what it means in their own languages rather than in accord with what it meant in the original languages. One might think that this problem could be resolved simply by explaining the original meanings of the divine sonship terms, as discussed in Brown (2000, 2005a). After all, one can explain to Muslims the concepts behind other biblical terms such as “Son of Man,” “Kingdom of God,” “Word of God,” “Messiah” (Christ) and “Holy Spirit,” so should not their fear and loathing of the term “Son of God” be alleviated simply by explaining it? Experience, however, has shown that explanation alone does not solve the problem for most Muslims. Ariel De Kuiper and Barclay Newman of the United Bible Societies summarized the problem noting, “With this [literal] translation, misunderstandings are so great that even continual explanations are of no use” (1977, 435).
THE TABOO NATURE OF THE TERM IN MUSLIM CULTURES
The reason for this entrenched resistance to the term is not simply that Muslims misunderstand it, nor even that they reject explanations of the term’s original meaning; rather, they regard the term itself to be an insult to God, and they fear that asserting it of Jesus or anyone else (cf. Al-Mâ’ida 5:18) will bring upon them God’s wrath and eternity in hell, no matter what the term means. In other words, the main problem with this term is not theological, as so many Christians suppose, and it is not simply a semantic difference, but rather it is an affective and cultural phenomenon: it is an utterly taboo term. The reason is that in most Muslim cultures, people are indoctrinated from childhood, on the basis of At-Tawba 9:30 in the Qur’an, that God will damn and destroy anyone who says that Jesus is “ibnullâh” (“a son of God”), regardless of what they mean by it. The Qur’an (Maryam 19:88-92) says this term is so insulting to the majesty of God that asserting it could cause the heavens to burst and the earth to split and the mountains to collapse! What the Muslim most fears, of course, is not that the mountains and stars will suffer if he or she assents to this term, but that his or her own soul will be damned to hell forever.2
A Christian may try to convince a Muslim that the Qur’an is wrong about this term, that it is not a blasphemy and that he or she will not incur God’s unrelenting wrath for agreeing to it. But a pious, unsaved Muslim is not inclined to believe an “infidel” against the Holy Qur’an. Pious Muslims believe it is damnable to doubt or even question the Qur’an, so they refuse to consider that the Qur’an could be wrong about the wrath of God that will fall on those who use this taboo term. A nominal Muslim might entertain such an idea, but pious Muslims are unwilling to doubt the eternal risk posed by this term until they have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ and have come to view the Qur’an in the light of the Bible.
THREE KINDS OF REACTIONS TO BREAKING THE TABOO
Experience gained from people testing sonship passages with Muslims around the world shows that reactions by Muslims to this taboo term fall into three basic categories: suspicious, alienated and terrified. The suspicious ones are concerned about the taboo term, but they are open to hearing its meaning explained and they remain cautiously receptive toward the scripture message itself. In general, they are nominal Muslims who already had doubts about the Qur’an or about traditional interpretations of the Qur’an. The alienated group consists of those who are alarmed by any assertion of the taboo term and are suspicious of the explanations; they continue listening and responding out of curiosity or politeness, but their receptivity is significantly blunted. Even if they had been receptive to the scriptures previously, upon hearing the taboo term asserted, they become guarded and unreceptive; their hearts are hardened and their minds become slow to understand. The third group consists of those who are quietly terrified at the assertion of the taboo term. Fearing the guilt of complicity with its assertion, they walk away, close the book, stop the tape, turn off the radio or just never come back. Some of them are afraid even to touch a book or tape in which these terms are asserted, and many of them refuse to have such materials in their home, fearing the taboo term will bring misfortune upon them.
A colleague of mine was once with a mission that engaged in public distribution of the Gospel. People were happy to take copies and began reading about Jesus, often aloud. But when they read the term “Son of God” and realized what they had done, they became so frightened and furious that a riot ensued. The police had to lock the team up in jail to keep the mob from killing them. The mob was understandably angry, but vengeance was not their main goal. Desperate for forgiveness from God, they wanted to demonstrate that they had read this term unwillingly and that they were as angry about it as God was. Of course, they destroyed all their copies of the Gospel.
In another case, the manager of a cable television company played the Jesus film on one of the channels at Easter without warning people. Viewers assumed it would be safe to view but were upset to hear the taboo term “Son of God” asserted. In a bid to express their anger, absolve their guilt and avoid future sins like this, over one-third of the subscribers cancelled their cable subscriptions. They did not re-subscribe until the manager had apologized to them personally and had assured them it would never happen again.
More common is the story which has recurred in history thousands of times in which a Christian develops a good relationship with a Muslim. They sometimes talk about spiritual things, and one day the Muslim asks the Christian for a Bible. The Christian lets his or her friend take a Bible home, and the Muslim reads it until he or she encounters the term “Son of God.” After that, he or she is no longer open to discussing Jesus with the Christian, and the relationship cools. In one case, an open-minded Muslim poet requested a Sharif Bible from a friend of mine. The poet read through the entire Bible, but afterward he returned it to my friend. His only reservation was with the term “Son of God.” It was evident that this term made the Bible seem both unholy and untrustworthy to him.
In all these cases, the Muslims were not reacting to the theological content of the Gospel, but to the occurrence of a literal translation of the terms “Son of God” and “sons/children of God.” It is the use of this taboo term in translations of the Gospel that presents the greatest stumbling block to Muslims, because it makes them unreceptive to the Gospel and keeps many of them from ever hearing it and believing it. It does this because it conveys the wrong semantic and affective meaning, and this fearful affective meaning is not generally overcome before people are born again. For most Muslims, it is only when they have read or heard the Gospel and been born again through faith in Christ that they can begin the spiritual journey that will enable them to reassess their fear of the divine sonship terms. So the question is how to enable pious Muslims to read or hear the Gospel in a way that allows them to hear it through, with a receptive heart, so that they can have an opportunity to believe in Jesus and receive him as their personal Lord and Savior.
WAYS OF CIRCUMVENTING THE TABOO
Chowdhury, De Kuiper and Newman wrote that the solution is to avoid using the taboo term in translations of the Gospel that are intended for unsaved Muslim audiences, since it conveys the wrong meaning, and since explanations to the contrary fail to resolve this. They recommend translating the original-language terms in ways that avoid the literal form of the term. This is not a new idea. As discussed in Brown (2005b), the ancient Aramaic Bible translations did this, as did some of the ancient Arabic translations, and several modern translations have avoided it as well, particularly in portions like a Gospel or Gospel paraphrase intended for Muslims. Such translations have usually employed one or more of the following approaches:
1. Some translations use an expression in each context that communicates as nearly as possible the principal meaning the term originally had in that context. Depending on the passage, this could be something like “God’s beloved people,” “God’s Beloved Christ,” “God’s Beloved” or “God’s Eternal Word.” A literal translation of the original-language term is then presented and explained in a footnote, the glossary and the introduction.
2. Some translations retain the sonship image in the text but change the metaphor into a simile to avoid using the taboo term. This is common in the Aramaic Targums but is used rather sparingly in other translations. Examples include “the people whom God loves as (a father loves) his children” and “the Christ whom God loves as a Father loves his Son.” John uses a simile in John 1:14 (in the Greek) to introduce divine sonship terminology (i.e., “glory like that of a father’s only son”). Most English translations change this to definite references, but if the simile is retained, then the taboo term can be avoided. Similarly, the use of sonship terms in parables is acceptable to Muslims. In the parable of the tenants, for example, it is clear to Muslims that the owner of the vineyard represents God and that the owner’s son is Jesus, but this does not present a problem for them because the taboo term is not used.
3. Some translations retain the sonship image but use a wording that is not a simile but differs enough in other ways from the taboo term that it is not regarded as a blasphemy. Examples include “spiritual son(s) of God,” “the Spiritual Son of God,” “the Son from God,” “the Prince of God” and “the Beloved Son who comes from God.” These expressions have proven to be acceptable to some Muslim communities, particularly ones with less history of indoctrination against the term; however, other Muslim communities have rejected these phrases because they seem too similar to “son of God.”
4. A few translations have used the original Hebrew phrase, ben elohim (“son of God”), either in one or two passages or as the normal translation of the term. The meaning is then explained separately.
It is important to note that the taboo is against asserting that someone is a “son of God”; there is no proscription against talking about the term. After all, Muslim missionaries, teachers and imams often talk about the term when they are criticizing Christianity. So most Muslims feel free to read or discuss the meaning of the taboo term, as long as they do not read it being asserted or consent to hearing it asserted of someone. That is why Muslims are willing to read or hear an explanation of the taboo term in a footnote or glossary, even though they are reticent to read it or hear it asserted in the text itself. (Note that most translators also include a glossary, in which they explain the original form and meaning of these terms, and that is not a problem either.)
Another approach that has been acceptable is to provide a diglot text, where the even pages have a sensitive translation and the odd pages that face them have the Greek or Hebrew text with an interlinear translation. In one case, the sensitive translation used a term like “the Beloved of God,” while the interlinear translation used “the Son of God.” Readers seem to treat the interlinear as a series of glossary entries, so they do not object to it.
A few years ago the Bible Society in an Asian country published a revision of one of its versions of the New Testament to make it more sensitive to the needs of Muslims who want to read it. Formerly, this version had used a term which means, quite simply, “God’s offspring.” Since the language lacks a definite article, this same phrase was used wherever divine sonship terms occurred in the original text, whether they applied to Jesus or to others. Since the phrase lacked a definite article to indicate uniqueness, as in “the Son of God,” it failed to differentiate places where the Greek text had used the article of uniqueness to indicate a usage that applies to the Christ alone. Thus, it failed to set the divine sonship of Jesus apart from the divine sonship of many others who are called “son(s) of God” in the Bible. The translators, however, found that they could make the expression unique by using a relative pronoun, so they did this, using a construction corresponding to “the Offspring who.” The translators also added a term meaning “honored,” “most important” and “revered” to further specify Jesus’ uniqueness. In addition, they wanted to communicate that Jesus proceeded from God (John 8:42; 13:3; 16:27, 28, 30) rather than being procreated, so they included the words “comes from.” The inclusion of this phrase also expresses the divine pre-existence of Jesus more explicitly. What resulted was an expression like “the Honored Offspring who comes from God.” This differed enough from the taboo term, “offspring of God,” that most of the Muslims who speak that language do not consider the expression taboo and so they are able to read it without fear.
A few missionaries, however, made the mistaken assumption that any change in wording of the term must be intended as a theological compromise of some sort, and they jumped to the false (and rather slanderous) conclusion that the translators of the Asian translation used this phrase because they wanted to substitute an Islamic concept of Jesus in place of the biblical concept. It should be evident, however, from the discussion above that these accusations are not true, and that the opposite is the case. It was the traditional, literal translation that communicated to Muslims the meaning “God’s offspring.” Like Chowdhury said, this is the meaning of the term in Islamic teaching about Christianity, and the use of this term in the traditional translation simply reinforced this erroneous teaching. The newer translation, in contrast, avoids the “Islamic” biological meaning that was carried by the phrase “God’s offspring” and it highlights the relational and divine aspects of meaning. It also avoids the taboo form and thereby enables Muslims to read the good news of Jesus Christ with an open heart, freed from the fear and suspicion that the taboo term used to evoke in them.
The two main evangelical studies of the deity of Jesus are Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified and Millard Erickson’s The Word Became Flesh. Both of these works support their argument for the deity of Jesus with extensive biblical evidence. If one lists the passages cited by these two authors and then looks them up in this Asian translation or any other like it, one finds that all of these passages have been translated clearly and accurately, with no attempt to water down the person and identity of Jesus Christ. It is clear that there was no attempt at all to “re-theologize” Jesus or to misrepresent his identity.
It might be noted that neither Bauckham nor Erickson cite as evidence for the deity of Jesus the fact that he is called “the Son of God,” even though this is a popular assumption among Christians. (For the biblical meanings of divine sonship metaphors, consult any recent academic Bible dictionary.) And contrary to what some missionaries seem to think, the fear and loathing that Muslims feel toward the term “Son(s) of God” has nothing to do with any reservations they might have with regard to the deity of Jesus. It stems from the inaccurate semantic and affective meanings that this term already has in their own languages, and in particular from their fear of offending God by consenting to this term. It is a culturally entrenched emotional response, based on their fear of insulting God. So when people who understand this produce Bible stories for interested Muslims or translate portions of the Bible for them, they often translate the divine sonship terms in ways that express the original semantic and affective meanings of this metaphor more clearly and accurately than do the traditional literal translations of this metaphor in the languages concerned.4
Muslims are not closed to the Gospel, as is so often said. They respect the uniqueness of Jesus and the divine origin of the Injîl, and many of them are open to knowing more about both. But there are stumbling blocks that discourage them from reading and accepting the Gospel. The greatest of these is their fear and misunderstanding of terms that seem to mean “offspring of God.” In a number of Muslim communities, this fear has been overcome with a two-fold approach: (1) translate the divine sonship terms in non-literal ways that avoid the taboo phrase and (2) explain their original forms and meanings in the footnotes, glossary and introduction. This approach has been used successfully both in translations of scripture and in paraphrased Bible stories.
1. The term Injil is derived from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good news, gospel.” For Muslims, it is the title of a book of God that came through Jesus. In that sense, it can be translated as “the Gospel.” It is often identified with the New Testament. In this article, “Gospel” will refer to this book.
2. It is difficult for Christians to grasp the concept of a taboo or the depth of fear that Muslims have in the absence of a trust in God’s love and salvation, but imagine that you are worried that God is displeased with you and wants to send you to hell and then someone asks you to blaspheme the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29) or to say “Jesus is accursed” (1 Cor. 12:3). That is the kind of fear that Muslims have when asked to say that God has children.
3. An example of such criticism is Roger Dixon’s article, “Identity Theft: Retheologizing the Son of God,” which appeared in the April 2007 issue of EMQ, p. 220-226.
4. It is sometimes argued that because the Jews were offended by the term “son of God,” and Jesus used it anyway, so it should be used with Muslims, too, even if it offends them. The situations, however, are not analogous. First-century Jews used the term “son of God” in their literature and there is no evidence that they considered it to be a taboo term. It was their own idiom, and so they knew its meanings. Muslims, however, do not understand the meanings this term had in Hebrew and Judeo-Greek, and they consider it to be a taboo term that insults God and incurs his wrath.
Chowdhury, D. A. 1953. “Should We Use the Terms ‘Isa’ and ‘Beta’?” The Bible Translator. 4(1): 26-27.
Bauckham, Richard. 1998. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. Exeter, U. K.: Paternoster.
Brown, Rick. 2000. “The ‘Son of God’: Understanding the Messianic Titles of Jesus.” International Journal of Frontier Missions. 17(1): 41-52.
________. 2005a. “Explaining the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions. 22(3): 91-96.
________. 2005b. “Translating the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions. 22(4): 135-145.
De Kuiper, Ariel D. and Barclay Newman, Jr. 1977. “Jesus, Son of God—a Translation Problem.” The Bible Translator. 28(4): 432-38.
Erickson, Millard J. 1991. The Word Became Flesh. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Rick Brown is a Bible scholar, a mission strategist and a consulting editor for the International Journal of Frontier Missiology. He has been involved in outreach to the Muslim world since 1977.
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