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Issues Facing Missions Today: 5. Some Reflections on Translation and Theology in the Case of the Phrase, ‘Son of God’

Issues Facing Missions Today: 5. Some Reflections on Translation and Theology in the Case of the Phrase, ‘Son of God’

How shall we translate the phrase ‘Son of God’ when hearers may read this literally, as though one is claiming that God had a literal son, instead of metaphorically?  The debate on this specific point raises not only questions about translation but also about the nature of theology and its translatability into other contexts.  I here argue that the interrelatedness of such issues makes translation difficult, if not impossible at times.  Indeed, readers of Scripture cannot be passive hearers but must become interpreters.

Christology: ‘Son of God’ as an Equivalent to ‘Messiah’?
The phrase ‘Son of God’ in Ps. 2.7 overlaps with what is meant by the term ‘Messiah’—God’s anointed king.  However, the terms are intentionally distinguished in Jesus’ ministry and should not be equated in Bible translation.  I will argue this point by looking only at Mark’s Gospel.
In Mark, Jesus rides into Jerusalem in such a way as to force on his audience a lens already offered by blind Bartimaeus in Jericho: Jesus is ‘Son of David,’ that is, Messiah (Mk. 10.46 and par.).  Everything that happens up through the end of ch. 12 is an evaluation of the ‘success’ of this identity for Markan Christology.  A narrative, not just titular, reading of the text is crucial to understand the Christology.  Obviously, Jesus is not literally David’s son, although several New Testament authors other than Mark state that Jesus’ genealogy reaches back to David.  ‘Son of David,’ however, is more importantly a messianic designation, and the question Jesus forces everyone—the crowds, the religious leaders, the Herodians, and ultimately the Romans—to answer as he arrives in Jerusalem as Messiah is whether he really has messianic authority.
Jesus’ subsequent dispute with religious leaders and the Herodians in Jerusalem in Mk. 10 – 12 is precisely over the matter of his authority as Messiah.  Each group steps forward to challenge Jesus’ authority as Son of David, Messiah, by trying to trap him with questions.  The process of overcoming the various groups of Judaism on this understanding of Jesus comes to a head with the final challenge in Mk. 12.28ff.  Once no group is left to challenge Jesus’ authority as Messiah through questions, Jesus challenges them all with a single question: ‘How can the Messiah be the Son of David?’ (Mk. 12.35ff). 
Once nobody could challenge his authority any further with a question, Jesus raised the controversy to a whole new level.  The disputes that arose from identifying Jesus as Messiah, son of David, were in regard to a far too inadequate a Christology.  The alternative is to call Jesus by the Divine name of the Septuagint, ‘Lord’.  ‘Son of God’ seems to offer more of a parallel to ‘Lord’ than to ‘Son of David’: Jesus is not (merely) ‘Son of David’ but one who shares the divine identity.
Mk. 15.39 has the centurion declare that Jesus is a son of God.  This last designation of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel forms an inclusio with Mk. 1.1, which states (following the likely textual reading) that Jesus is the Christ (= Messiah), the Son of God.  Is this a way of saying that ‘Christ’ is equivalent to ‘Son of God’ or that they convey two different identifications of Jesus?  Mk. 3.11 has unclean spirits ‘falling down’ and shouting that Jesus was ‘Son of God’.  This text suggests that there is something more to ‘Son of God’ than ‘Messiah’, and the Roman context for the term ‘son of god’ also states far more than what ‘Messiah’ does.  The Roman context is important: once the Roman senate declared that the deceased Julius Caesar was divine, his adopted son and heir, Augustus, became ‘son of god.’  For Christians in Rome in the 60’s to read in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus was ‘Christ, Son of God’ would mean that he was God’s person to bring ‘salvation’ to his people (=Messiah) and Son of God in the Roman, divine sense.  Appropriately, it is a Roman centurion who declares at the end of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is ‘son of God’.  Earlier mocking of Jesus by the soldiers was over his claims to be Messiah, i.e., ‘King of the Jews’ (Mk. 15.18).  The centurion’s declaration that he was ‘son of God’ (Mk. 15.39) functions, like Mk. 12.35ff, as a way of showing the irony of Jesus being attacked for making Messianic claims—claims that were not of divine identity.  How ironic for Jewish leaders or Roman soldiers to attack him for claims to messianic authority when in fact he had so much more authority.  ‘Son of God,’ like ‘lord,’ could mean a number of things, but Mark appears to use it as a way of pointing beyond messianic authority to divine identity and as a way of stating that Jesus not only had authority in regard to Israel as Messiah but also authority in regard to the evil spirits and Roman authorities.
Thus the problem of what to do with sonship language cannot be solved by replacing it with a term such as ‘Messiah’ for Mark.  The terms have some overlap in meaning, but they are by no means identical.  Only a narrative and contextual reading of the term ‘Son of God’ in Mark can bring that meaning out, and without understanding that meaning the narrative will not be appreciated.

Hermeneutics: Titles, Narratives, and Metaphors in Christology
Translation is a process of substituting terms, ideas, metaphors, ideas and so forth for different audiences.  The assumption is that this can be done, and on this point there is a significant philosophical debate between Muslims and Christians.  Christians, with their doctrine of the incarnation, their claims that Scripture can be God’s Word without it being literally dictated directly by a divine being, and their belief that Scripture can be translated into other languages have a very different hermeneutic from Muslims.  Even the Muslim understanding that ‘sonship’ language must communicate physical begetting fits into a certain, larger rigidity that poses problems for Christian dialogue.  The Qur’an itself, moreover, lacks narrative (although Muslims do work with narrative in other writings such as the Old Testament, their own versions of Old Testament stories, and the Hadith).  The lack of narrative in the Qur’an produces an abstractness (contextlessness) and rigidity in theological thinking, as in Christian systematic theologies.  On the contrary, Christians appreciate that divinely inspired, Biblical books such as Paul’s epistles are written to specific contexts and need to be interpreted within the original context.
That Arabic lacks an understanding of a metaphorical understanding of ‘son’ or ‘father’ does not, however, suggest that Arabs have an inability to think with narratives and metaphors.  They have a rich cultural history of narrative and metaphor.  Even the term ‘mother’ (cf. ‘father’ and ‘son’) is used metaphorically: such and such is said to be the ‘mother of all …,’ meaning the source and greatest of whatever is being discussed (‘the mother of all evil,’ e.g.).  As I do not know Arabic, I cannot comment on the specifics of ‘son/father’ language.  Yet it seems to me that there is more going on than just a question of the meaning of Arabic words.  There is indeed a question of theologizing with metaphors, narratives, and contextually that seems to engage this discussion at a higher level than issues of translation alone.
The Bible is full of metaphors, narratives, and contextual issues.  Statements such as ‘God is merciful’ are shared between Christians and Muslims, but they mean very different things when one sets them within the narrative of Scripture.  For God to show his mercy and love in the cross means that this is to be understood quintessentially for Christians as a statement about God’s self-sacrificing love.  An Islamic understanding of ‘God is merciful’—frequently found in the Qur’an—lacks not only the narrative of the cross but any narrative to help unpack the meaning of such a statement.  Instead, a more likely understanding of the statement would be the context of a sheik with personal power who can use that power to show someone mercy.  These are different understandings, even if there is an overlap in the idea of ‘mercy’.  The overall point to note, though, is that narratives and contexts are necessary in theology just as it is the case that words only have meaning in how they are actually used (as J. Barr famously argued).  This raises the question whether we can just substitute terms, given their thick setting in contexts and narratives, in the way that some suggest in the case of ‘Son of God.’

Evangelistic and Apologetic Dialogue
Finally, translation of ‘Son of God’ in some other way has been suggested for apologetic reasons—cannot a misunderstanding of what ‘Son of God’ means be removed by translating the term in some other way?  Yet one must ask what is lost or even miscommunicated when a ‘thick’ phrase—one with a variety of levels of meaning and imbedded in numerous texts—is replaced by some other term.  One must also ask what is to be gained apologetically when a change is made to a text in order to remove objections at the level of interpretation.  A missionary to the Middle East once attempted to solve the problem Muslims have with four Gospels by returning to Tatian’s approach to the Gospels.  He harmonized the Gospels and then translated his harmony as a substitute for the canonical Gospels.  This was another attempt to remove a perceived problem in Scripture by changing Scripture. 

Surely a Muslim would object that the interpreter is trying to trick the audience in such a case.    The solution has to be at the level of teaching and dialogue about the meaning of Scriptures, not at the level of the text itself.