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the terms “Allah” and “TUHAN” in our Bible Print E-mail
Friday, 15 May 2009

Why are the terms “Allah” and “TUHAN” used in our Bible?

The use of the term “Allah” is still being called into question by some users of the Bible published by The Indonesian Bible Society (Lembaga Alkitab Indonesia--LAI). This problem has surfaced because there are some groups who refuse to use the term “Allah” and want to revive the use of the name Yahweh or Yahwe. As a matter of fact, in the Hebrew text the name Yahweh or Yahwe is writen with just four consonants (YOD-HE-WAW-HE, “YHWH”) without any vowels. But there are those who insist that these four letters must be pronounced/expressed. They believe that the Indonesian Bible Society translation is deviant and even leads the Christian public astray here in Indonesia. Is it possible that the Indonesian Bible Society, which has been entrusted by the churches with the task of translating the Bible, has made such a basic mistake? Where in fact does the problem lie? The following explanation is meant to set forth briefly the considerations that underlie the Indonesian Bible Society’s policy with regard to this issue.

Why does the Indonesian Bible Society use the term “Allah”?
In the TB version (so-called “New Translation”) of the Bible (1974), which is being used widely throughout the archepelago by both Catholics and Protestants, the term “Allah” is being used as the equivalent of ’ELOHIM, ’ELOAH  and ’EL in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Gen 1:1 “Pada mulanya Allah (’ELOHIM) menciptakan langit dan bumi.”
  • Deut. 32:17 “Mereka mempersembahkan kurban kepada roh-roh jahat yang bukan Allah (’ELOAH).
  • Ps 22:1 (v.2 in TB) “Allahku (EL), Allahku, mengapa Engkau meninggalkan aku?”

From the linguistic perspective, one cannot deny that the terms ’ELOHIM, ’ELOAH  dan ’EL are connected with the root ’L, the god who was worshipped in the ancient Semitic world. EL, ILU or ILAH are related general forms that were used to refer to the highest god.  The ancient Israelites apparently used the term that was used by the nations around them. Does this mean that they were followers of polytheism? Of course not! The ancient Israelite people had a new understanding of these words. The one they worshipped was the one and only Creator of heaven and earth. This very same process is still going on whenever the Word of the Lord reaches various tribes and cultures all over the world.

Some groups who reject the term “Allah”, in fact, are of the opinion that the term “Allah” should not be found at all in the Bible used by Christians. Some give the reason that “Allah” is the name of the Lord worshipped by Muslims. There are also those who connect the term with the gods of the Arab people. If this position were correct, then certainly ’EL, ’ELOAH and also ’ELOHIM would have to be removed from the Hebrew Bible! In addition, some inscriptions that were found in the sixth century show that the word “Allah” was used by Orthodox Christians before the birth of Islam. Up to the present time, Christians in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Jordan and Lebanon still use the term “Allah” in their Bibles. So  the word “Allah” cannot be claimed to be the property of only one religion.

The Indonesian Bible Society’s policy for translating  ’ELOHIM, ’ELOAH  dan ’EL is not a new policy at all. The first translation of the Bible, which was done into Greek around the 3rd Century B.C. is the oldest example that we have. The translation which is known by the name of “Septuagint” was done in Alexandria, Egypt and intended for Jewish people who spoke Greek. In Genesis 1:1, for example, the Septuagint uses the term THEOS which normally was used for Greek gods. Evidently, the New Testament also uses the same word as in the following example: ”Terpujilah Allah (THEOS), Bapa Tuhan kita Yesus Kristus” (2 Cor 1:3). Certainly THEOS in this quote was not understood as involving polytheistic worship.

The term “Allah” in the history of Bible translation in the archipelago
Before the “TB”(New Translation) was published by the Indonesian Bible Society in 1974, there had already been several Bibles in the Malay language which was the precursor of the Indonesian language. The Gospel of Matthew translated by A. C. Ruyl (1629) was the first attempt at Bible translation in the archipelago. Interestingly, in this very first Malay translation, the term “Allah” was already being used as in the following example: “maka angkou memerin’ja nama Emanuel artin’ja Allahu (THEOS) ſerta ſegala kita.” (Mat 1:23)  The translations that followed also retained the term “Allah”, among these were:

  • Translation of Genesis by D. Brouwerius (1662): “Lagi trang itou Alla ſouda bernamma ſeang” (Gen 1:5) 
  • M. Leijdecker’s translation (1733): “Pada mulanja dedjadikanlah Allah akan ſwarga dan dunja” (Gen 1:1)
  • H.C. Klinkert’s translation (1879): “Bahwa-sanja Allah djoega salamatkoe” (Isaiah 12:2).
  • W.A. Bode’s translation (1938): “Maka pada awal pertama adalah Firman, dan Firman itu bersama-sama dengan Allah” (John 1:1).

As is evident from the examples above, the term “Allah”, which only recently has been called into question by a portion of the Christian community, has already been in use for hundreds of years in translations of the Bible which have been circulating throughout the archipelago. In short, when they continued to use the term “Allah”, the team of translators from the Indonesian Bible Society (LAI) considered the weight of history as well as the process of translating cross-culturally which has already been evident in the Bible itself.

What is the basis for the Indonesian Bible’s Society’s policy with regard to the problem of “YHWH”?

Admittedly, the orgin of the name YHWH is not an easy one to trace. From a linguistic point of view, YHWH is often linked with the word HAYAH ‘be, become’, as is expressed in Exodus 3:14: “Firman Allah (’ELOHIM) kepada Musa: ‘AKU ADALAH AKU.’ (’EHYEH ’ASHER ’EHYEH). Lagi firman-Nya: ‘Beginilah kaukatakan kepada orang Israel itu: AKULAH AKU (’EHYEH) telah mengutus aku kepadamu.’” The exact meaning of this expression is not known anymore, but some understand it to refer to the Lord’s presence who always exist in the middle of His people.

On what basis does the Indonesian Bible Society use “TUHAN” (LORD) (all in capital letters) as an equivalent for YHWH? To answer this question, we need to pay attention to  the history of the Jewish community after the period of captivity when they were very wary of expressing the holy name YHWH directly  because out of a feeling of deep reverence. In addition, the exact pronunciation of YHWH is/was no longer known. Each time that the word YHWH was encountered in the Hebrew Bible, they would say, ’ADONAY which means ‘Tuhan’ (‘Lord’). This pronunciation tradition was also clearly evident in the Septuagint which uses the word KYRIOS (‘Tuhan’ “Lord”) for YHWH, as in the following example: ”KYRIOS menggembala¬kan aku, dan aku tidak kekurangan apa pun” (Ps. 23:1).

Apparently, Jesus and the apostles followed the same tradition! For example, in the temptation in the wilderness, Yesus answers the temptations of the Devil by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Ada pula tertulis: Janganlah engkau mencobai Tuhan (KYRIOS), Allahmu” (Mat 4:7) In this quote the name YHWH is not used but rather KYRIOS (LORD). If the name YHWH has to be written as in the Hebrew text why didn’t the writer of the Gospel of Matthew retain the original name? Similarly, in the letters of the apostle Paul, the name YHWH is never used. For example in Romans 10:13, Paul quotes Joel 2:32: “Barangsiapa yang berseru kepada nama Tuhan (KYRIOS) akan diselamatkan”. It is evident that the word that is used here is KYRIOS (LORD) not YHWH.

Is it possible that Jesus and the apostles are following a tradition that is wrong? Of course not! On the contrary, the writers of the New Testament  were following the tradition of the Jewish people who said ’ADONAY (‘TUHAN’) each time they encountered the name YHWH. Because the New Testament was written in Greek, the word KYRIOS was used as the equivalent of ’ADONAY which reflected the tradition for the pronunciation of YHWH.

In short, the Indonesian Bible Society is following the example of Jesus and the earliest Christians with regard to the pronunciation of YHWH. In the TB (‘New Translation’) version of the Bible, the Indonesian Bible Society’s term “TUHAN” is written with all capital letters as an equivalent of ’ADONAY which  reminds us of that pronunciation tradition.  This spelling, in fact, intentionally differentiates between “Tuhan” (“Lord”) (with only the first letter being capitalized) which is the equivalent of the word ’ADONAY when it does not represent YHWH. Note the following example: “Sion berkata: ‘TUHAN (YHWH) telah mening¬gal¬kan aku dan Tuhanku (’ADONAY) telah melupakan aku.’” (Yes 49:14). This distinction, of course, is not relevant for the New Testament, which does not retain the spelling YHWH.
Various modern translations follow the same tradition, for example in English: “the LORD” (New Jewish Publication Society Version; New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, New King James Version, Today’s English Version); German: “der HERR” (Einheits¬übersetzung; the Bible according to the translation of Martin Luther); Dutch: “de HEER” (Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling); French: “le SEIGNEUR” (Traduction Oecumé¬ni¬que de la Bible). 

The policy of the Indonesian Bible Society with regard to the divine names has not been made lightly or simplistically. Various aspects have been thoroughly considered, among others:

  • The original texts (Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament; Greek for the New Testament) and their interpretations
  • The traditions of the Lord’s people in the Old and New Testaments.
  • The history of the use of the divine names in the translation of the Bible in a variety of languages and cultures from age to age.
  • The policy that teams of Bible translators have used around the world, especially those associated with the United Bible Societies.

 There has been agreement among churches, both Catholic and Protestant who have been using the Bible published by the Indonesian Bible Society up until the present time. For example, as the translation of the TB version of the Bible by the Indonesian Bible Society was being finalized in 1968, a consultation was held in Cipayung with leaders and representatives of churches from a variety of denominations. At this consultation, among other things, it was agreed that “Allah” would continue to be used as in the previous translations.
The Indonesian Bible Society has never operated under the pretense that their translations were perfect and would never need to be improved. However, considering the lengthy and painstaking process which was followed in order to publish the Alkitab (Indonesian Bible), the demands of some groups who would like to remove or restore certain names, cannot be met without deliberation. In every decision-making process related to the translation of the Bible, various factors have to be carefully considered with regard to the original texts, interpretations, translation traditions as well as their impact on the fellowship and witness of the Lord’s people as a whole, especially in our own country.
Finally, fully conscious of our human limitations in God’s presence, we offer to Him our praise and thanksgiving who has expressed his revealed Word to train people in righteousness and equip His people for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17). He is the one who has prepared people to incarnate the Word of His truth in a variety of languages and cultures from age to age. Everything is from Him and through Him and to Him. To Him be the glory forever and ever.

Jakarta, May 2009
Indonesian Bible Society

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