The problem Muslims have with word-for-word translations has been written about for many decades. Rick Brown, in his article “Why Muslims Are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God’”1 expresses it well:

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? … 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.2 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” 3

What does /huios theou/ really mean?

I am continually amazed as I listen to discussions about how /huios theou/ should be translated that no one seems to have done an exhaustive study of how the New Testament uses the phrase. Most seem to base their preferences for translation on what they have been taught that it means or what they assume it means, rather than how the New Testament uses it. So when the whole controversy started brewing, I did a study of all 377 uses of /huios/ in the New Testament, including all 41 uses of /ho huios tou theou/ or some variation of it. Rather than starting with some systematic theology and trying to find support for it, I looked at the verses inductively, in context, to see as much as I could what the original authors intended to convey by using this phrase.

The results of the study

/(ho) huios (tou) theou/ is used 41 times in the NT (Mt 4:3,6, 8:29, 14:33, 16:16, 26:63, 27:40,43,54, Mk 3:11, 15:39, Lk 1:35, 4:3,9,41, 22:70, Jn 1:49, 3:18, 5:25, 10:36, 11:4,27, 19:7, 20:31, Ac 9:20, Ro 1:4, 2 Co 1:19, Ga 2:20, Ep 4:13, He 4:14, 6:6, 7:3, 10:29, 1 Jn 3:8, 4:15, 5:5,10,12,13,20, Re 2:18. (The phrase in Mk 1:1, Jn 1:34, and Ac 8:37 is not in the oldest manuscripts). There does not seem to be a difference with and without the articles. Jesus uses it about himself clearly only 3 times, in Jn 5:25, 10:36, 11:4. In Jn 19:7 and Mt 27:43 others claim he had said this. Jn 3:18 is possibly a part of Jesus’ speech of Jn 3:10-16.

The primary meanings of /huios theou/ or a related form of the term above, from the context, are:

  1. “huios theou” is a synonym of Christ/Messiah: Mt 16:16, 26:63, Mk 14:61, Lk 4:41, 22:70, Jn 11:27, 20:31, Ac 9:20-22, Ro 1:4,8,9, 1 Co 1:9, 2 Co 1:19, Ga 1:12,16, 2:20, Ep 4:13, He 3:6, 1 Jn 1:3, 2:22, 3:23, 2 Jn 9, including the appointing/anointing of Christ in his three main roles:

    • messenger/prophet (sent from God/speak for God) Mt 21:37, Jn 3:16,17, 10:36, 11:27, Ro 8:3, Ga 4:4, He 1:2,5, 1 Jn 3:8, 4:9,10,14, 5:20
    • high priest (intercessor with God, mediator between man and God, cleanser/expiator) He 4:14 (great), 5:5, 7:3 (forever),28 (forever), 2 Co 1:19-20 (mediator), 1 Jn 1:7 (cleanser), 4:10 (expiator), Jn 3:16, Ro 8:3,32, Ga 2:20, He 6:6 (sacrifice)
    • one who has authority/King (rule on God’s behalf, to be obeyed) Mt 17:5, Mk 9:7, Lk 1:32, 9:35, 10:22, Jn 1:49, 3:35,36, Ro 1:3,4, Co 1:13, He 3:6, Re 1:5; appointed heir of all things He 1:2 He 1:5, Mt 21:38, Mk 12:17, Lk 20:14; responsible for God’s house He 3:6; feared/respected Mt 21:37, Mk 12:6, Lk 20:13
      • to judge Mt 8:29, Lk 22:70 (parallel in this to Son of Man, see Jn 5:26-27), Jn 3:18, 5:22,25, Re 2:18, 12:5
      • over nature Mt 4:3, 14:33, 27:54, Mk 15:39, Lk 4:3; over natural laws Mt 4:6, 27:40, Lk 4:9; over death Ro 1:3-4, Ac 13:33
      • to give (eternal) life Jn 3:36, 5:21,25, 6:40, 10:36, 20:31, 1 Jn 4:9, confirmed by God’s witness 5:10,11,12,13; the son truly sets free Jn 8:36; given life in himself by Father Jn 5:26
      • over demons Mk 3:11, 5:7, Lk 4:41, 8:28 and the devil 1 J 3:8
  2. “huios theou” is one with a unique relationship with God Jn 3:16,18, Ac 13:30-33, Ro 1:4, 8:32, Ep 4:13, He 1:5, 5:8, 1 Jn 4:9, 2 Jn 3

    • God is pleased with Mt 3:17, 17:5, 27:43, Mk 1:11, Lk 3:22, 2 P 1:17
    • beloved Mt 3:17, 17:5, Mk 1:11, 9:7, Lk 3:22, 20:13, Jn 3:35, 5:20, Ro 8:32, Co 1:13, 2 P 1:17
    • conceived by God’s Spirit Lk 1:35,
    • chosen Lk 9:35
    • replaces/fulfills Israel as chosen son Mt 2:15
    • the son has a permanent relationship Jn 8:35
    • uniquely appointed by God: by resurrection Ac 13:30-33, Ro 1:4; by decree He 1:5, 5:5
    • God conforms us to his image Ro 8:29
    • God calls us into fellowship with him 1 Co 1:9
    • mediator of prayers to God 2Co 1:19-20
    • God put the Spirit of his son in us Ga 4:6
    • uniquely reveals God 1 Jn 5:20
  3. “huios theou” implies inseparability (and mutuality) with God

    • inseparability:
      • one with God Jn 10:28-36, see Mt 28:19
      • deserves the same honor as the Father Jn 5:23, see He 6:6, 10:29
      • Father can’t be honored without honoring the Son Jn 5:23
      • glorified when God is glorified Jn 11:4, Jn 14:13, 17:1
      • fellowship with God is fellowship with him 1 Jn 1:3
      • denying the Son is also denying the Father 1 Jn 2:22,23
      • confessing the Son means confessing the Father 1 Jn 2:23
      • abiding in the son means abiding in the Father 1 Jn 2:24
      • being in God is being in him 1 Jn 5:20
      • having the Son means having the Father and vice versa 2 Jn 9
    • mutuality:
      • revealer of Father Mt 11:27, Lk 10:22 God reveals him Ga 1:16
      • unique mutual knowledge Mt 11:27, Lk 10:22
  4. “huios theou” is one who has character/attributes/nature of God Jn 19:7

    • great Lk 1:32
    • savior Jn 3:17,36, 20:31, Ro 5:10, Ga 2:20, 1 Jn 4:14-15
    • holy Jn 10:36
    • victor over Satan Ac 13:30-33, 1 Jn 3:8, 5:5
    • reconciler to God Ro 5:10
    • deliverer from wrath to come 1 Th 1:10
    • redeemer Co 1:13-14
    • forgiver Co 1:13-14
    • means of creating the world He 1:2
    • reflects God’s glory He 1:2
    • bears the stamp of God’s nature He 1:2
    • called God? (depending on whether theos is viewed as a vocative) He 1:8
    • eternal He 7:3
    • perfected He 7:28
    • sanctifier He 10:29
  5. “huios theou” is subordinate to God

    • limited in knowledge, though the highest one who is not the Father Mt 24:36, Mk 13:32, He 1:5
    • unable to do anything of himself, but only what the Father does Jn 5:19
    • shown what the Father does Jn 5:20
    • Father greater Jn 14:28
    • subject to God 1 Co 15:28
    • at the right hand of God He 1:2-3
    • cared for by God He 1:5

What does /huios theou/ NOT mean?

It is crucial to notice one aspect that is not in this list: deity. Most Christians would probably say that “Son of God” refers to Jesus’ deity and “Son of Man” refers to his humanity. I believe we have this backwards.

The Hebrew poetical devise of parallelism is found throughout the Bible. For instance, Ex 19:3: “Thus you will tell the house of Jacob, and declare to the people of Israel.”

So I studied the phrase /huios theou/ to find out what other terms or phrases it was connected with. This should also give further insight into the meanings intended by the NT authors.

Here are all the places /huios theou/ is paired with another term:

  • Jn 1:49: “Then Nathanael declared: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

  • Mt 16:16: “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

  • Lk 4:41 “And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.”

  • Mk 14:61: “But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”

  • Mt 26:63: “But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

  • Lk 22:67-70: “and said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” …So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” He answered them, “You say that I am.”

  • Jn 19:7-12: “The Jews replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!” … “Everyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!”

  • Jn 11:27 says “Martha said to him: Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

  • Jn 20:31 says “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

  • Ro 1:8-9 I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, …For God, whom I serve in my spirit by preaching the gospelof his Son, is my witness thatI continually remember you

  • Ac 9:20-22 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,saying, “This man is the Son of God.” …But Saul became more and more capable,and was causing consternationamong the Jews who lived in Damascus by provingthat Jesusis the Christ.

  • Ro 1:4 who was appointed the Son-of-God-in-poweraccording to the Holy Spiritby the resurrectionfrom the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • 1 Co 1:9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • 2 Co 1:19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.

  • Ga 1:12-16 For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. …was pleased to reveal his Son to me,

  • Ga 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ,and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. Sothe life I now live in the body,I live because of the faithful-ness of the Son of God,who loved me and gave himself for me.

  • Ep 4:13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;

  • He 3:6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’shouse.

  • 1 Jn 1:3 and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

  • 1 Jn 2:22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

  • 1 Jn 3:23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

  • 2 Jn 9 Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.

So “Son of God” is paired with Christ and with King as synonyms.

In contrast, let us now examine how “Son of Man” is used.

  • The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath (Mt 12:8 and parallels)

  • The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom everything that causes sin as well as all lawbreakers. (Mt 13:41)

  • For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done…they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Mt 16:27-28)

  • when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne (Mt 19:28)

  • and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. (Mt 24:30 and parallels)

  • When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. (Mt 25:31)

  • The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk 2:10 and parallels.)

  • The Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. (Mk 8:38, etc.)

  • Whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before God’s angels. (Lk 12:8)

  • And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? (Mk 14:62-63)

  • Jesus said to him, “You said it. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy (Mt 26:64-65)

This accusation of blasphemy would have been based on Jesus’ implicit claim to divine nature, as he alluded to Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man refers to:

  • The one who came with the clouds of heaven, who is presented to God Almighty and
  • Given authority, glory, and sovereign power
  • Over all peoples, nations, and languages
  • As King and Sovereign
  • Forever and ever.

In summary, the Son of Man has divine qualities: He is Lord of the Sabbath (above the law), he has angels, he has God’s glory, he is the judge and the king over everyone forever, he forgives sins, and the high priest took Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man to be blasphemy.

So the common assignation of deity to the phrase “Son of God” does not seem to be valid from the Biblical use of the term.

How well do our translations communicate the meaning?

I assume that the whole purpose of translation is that the reader would understand the meaning intended in the original text, in this case /huios theou/. Whether translation tends more to literal or dynamic is not really the point. The point is what the reader understands from the translation.

In the following tables, I have listed the five meaning fields and assigned one point maximum per field. To be strictly accurate, the five fields are not of equal value. Christ/king, with the meaning that the Son of God has God’s authority, would need to have a much higher weight than the others, as it is the most common usage, and unique relationship and shared nature would be more than inseparability and submission. But since my purpose is demonstrative and not an exact, scientific evaluation, I will content myself with 1 point maximum per field.

Let us start with how much of the intended meaning is conveyed by the translation of /huios theou/ as “Son of God” in English. The numerical evaluations are mine. Feel free to make your own evaluations for your own purposes and for your own particular audience.

Translation Christ / King Unique Relationship Inseparability Shared Nature Submission Total
Son of God 0 0.5 1 1 0 2.5

As mentioned before, most Christians would misunderstand the unique relationship intended by /huios theou/, and very few, when they read the phrase “Son of God”, would understand Christ/king. Almost none would hear the submission of the Son to the Father.

I would now like to examine other proposed translations in Arabic and evaluate how well they convey the five meanings above. I will limit this discussion to Arabic since I do not know other Muslim languages well enough to give the “feel” of the meaning that Muslim speakers of those languages would get. Before we start, though, let us evaluate how well this the normal translation used is understood by Arab Christians.

Translation Christ / King Unique Relationship Inseparability Shared Nature Submission Total
/ibn allah/ 0 0.5 1 1 0 2.5

Arab Christians, at least Protestants, have a very similar theology to Western Protestant Christians, and as might be expected, the same rough meanings are communicated.

Now let us look at how Arab Muslims would score this same translation on the same scale. All the following charts are estimations of how well Arab Muslims would understand the meaning. I have intentionally not translated the Arabic terms because their English “equivalents” are not really equivalent.

Translation Christ / King Unique Relationship Inseparability Shared Nature Submission Total
/ibn allah/ 0 -1 0 0 0 -1

With this translation, which is used in almost all Arabic translations, Muslims not only do not understand any of the 5 meanings, but they badly misunderstand the kind of relationship between Jesus and God (sexual procreation). So they end up worse than they would have if a nonsense term were used in the translation.

Now let us examine how other proposed translations might fare on the same scale. Let us start with the translation used in the True Meaning translation.

Translation Christ / King Unique Relationship Inseparability Shared Nature Submission Total
/ibn allah (habib allah)/ 0.75 0.75 0.5 0 1 3

This translation, which has borne the brunt of a lot of the criticism in the last few years, actually communicates better than the phrase “Son of God” in English.

Another translation, called simply “Al-Injil” fares this way:

Translation Christ / King Unique Relationship Inseparability Shared Nature Submission Total
/amir allah al-habib/ 1 1 0.5 1 1 4.5

Other terms that have been suggested:

Translation Christ / King Unique Relationship Inseparability Shared Nature Submission Total
/khalifat allah/ 1 0 0 0 1 2
/amir allah/ 1 0.5 0 1 1 3.5
/al-masih/ 1 0.25 0 0 1 2.25
/habib allah/ 1 0.75 0.75 0 1 3.5
/al-masih habib allah/ 1 0.75 0.25 0 1 3
/al-ibn al-habib al-ati min allah/ 0 0.25 0.25 0.5 1 2
/kalimat allah/ 0.5 0.75 1 1 1 4.25
/kalimat allah al-azaliya/ 0.5 1 1 1 1 4.5
/al-mustafa/ 1 0.75 0 0 1 2.75
/al-waheed/ 0 1 0.5 0 0.5 2
/al-qudus al-mustafa habib allah/ 1 1 1 0.5 0.5 4
/al-qudus ‘ind allah/ 1 0.75 0.5 0.5 1 3.75
/al-ibn al-ruhi/ 0 1 1 0.25 0.5 2.75
/al-ibn al-ruhi al-azali/ 0 1 1 0.5 0.5 3
/wali allah/ 1 0.75 0 0 1 2.75
/wakil allah/ 1 0.25 0 0 1 2.25

Conclusions

I do not presume that these evaluations or totals accurately represent every Arab country or culture. The specific numbers I gave are my estimation only.

However, I believe we can conclude the following:

  • Any one of the translations used or suggested above are better (the meaning is more clearly understood) than the word-for-word translation /ibn allah/.

  • Most of the translations suggested above are give a clearer understanding of the meaning of /huios theou/ than “Son of God” does in English.


  1. Rick Brown, “Why Muslims Are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God’,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly (October 2007) [return]
  2. Chowdhury, D. A. 1953. “Should we use the Terms ‘Isa’ and ‘Beta’ ”? The Bible Translator. 4(1): 26. [return]
  3. De Kuiper, Ariel D. and Barclay Newman, Jr. 1977. “Jesus, Son of God – a Translation Problem.” The Bible Translator. 28(4): 435. [return]