Translating the Title “God”
THE books of the Bible were written at a time when the majority of earth’s inhabitants did not know the true God. Instead, they worshiped many gods and goddesses. The apostle Paul well described the situation to fellow Christians in ancient Corinth: “Even though there are those who are called ‘gods,’ whether in heaven or on earth, just as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ there is actually to us one God the Father.”—1 Cor. 8:5.
In the original Greek used by Paul, the word for “God” is The·osʹ, a term that applied to any of the numerous gods worshiped by the ancient Greeks and other peoples. However, neither the apostle Paul nor other writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures nor the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, the first version of the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek, had any objection to using this term with reference to the true God.
Still, when speaking to those who did not know the Creator, first-century Christians used the term The·osʹ in such a way that no one could equate the true God with one of the many false gods. Addressing Athenians, the apostle Paul, for example, said: “While passing along and carefully observing your objects of veneration I also found an altar on which had been inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’ Therefore what you are unknowingly giving godly devotion to, this I am publishing to you. The God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples, neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives to all persons life and breath and all things.”—Acts 17:23-25.
With this explanation regarding the identity of the true God, the listeners would have had no problem in differentiating between the Creator and the many false gods worshiped in Athens. The fact that the title the·osʹ was also applied to false deities in no way obscured the identity of the Creator.
Translators today reasonably should allow themselves to be guided by the way first-century Christians used the term the·osʹ. The fact that a certain term for “God” is applied by native speakers to false gods need not make the word objectionable. Nevertheless, the term used to translate the word The·osʹ should be one that the reader or hearer can readily understand to mean the Almighty. It should not bring to his mind ideas that are contrary to the personality of the true God.
By way of illustration, the supreme deity of the ancient Greeks was Zeus. But that name would not have been appropriate in rendering the Hebrew word for God. The name “Zeus,” the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon, would have brought to mind the picture of a god in human form, and an immoral one at that.
A term of broader meaning is, therefore, usually better than one of narrower meaning. The context can then serve to restrict the word’s application to the true God.
There is, then, no reason for undue concern about the origin of a particular term for “God.” Even in the Bible the same word is applied to the true God as well as to false gods. In itself, the term is not sacred. So there is no objection to the use of a designation that referred exclusively to false gods before those speaking that language came to know the God of the Bible.
This is, in fact, what has happened in connection with many modern languages. The Japanese word for “God” can mean, literally, “a lot of little gods.” In Amharic and Tigrinya, two prominent languages of Ethiopia, a common designation for God is Egziabher. Literally, that expression means “Lord of the lands,” that is, ‘Lord of the Ethiopian lands.’ As to the English word “God,” The Century Dictionary and Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language (Vol. 3, p. 2561, 1899 edition) states that it was originally neuter, and “generally in the plural, being applied to the heathen deities, and elevated to the Christian sense upon the conversion of the Teutonic peoples.” The book Word Origins, by Wilfred Funk, says: “The central word of all faiths is God, and the history of the title God is a tangle of guesses. The word God itself is related to similar words in Danish, Saxon, Old High German, Scandinavian, and other languages, and may even be related to an ancient Lithuanian word that referred to someone who practiced magic.”—P. 279.
Today none of the terms for God in any of the aforementioned languages, despite their not having been originally applied to the Creator, put wrong ideas into the minds of the hearers or readers. So no objection can be raised about their being used in Bible translations.
As with everything else, a reasonable view must be taken when it comes to the use of a word designating the God of the Bible. In the final analysis, any term for “God” is but a title and not a proper name. What really distinguishes the true God from all others is his personal name, Jehovah.—Ps. 83:18.