The Son and the Crescent
Muslims so commonly misunderstand the phrase "Son of God" that many evangelists and missionaries refrain from using it. Bible translators, however, cannot avoid it. They must make a decision about how to render the phrase in a way that faithfully reflects the original Greek or Hebrew text and also makes sense to readers. And this phrase is anything but clear to Muslim readers. The Qur'an explicitly states that God could not have a son. In Arabic, the word ibn ("son of") carries biological connotations. Muslims reject the possibility that God could have produced a son through sexual relations with Mary. Christians confess that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. But this distinction is lost on many Muslims who lack the theological context for understanding nuanced Christian teaching on the Trinity.
The problem, however, far surpasses a theological argument between Muslims and Christians. In fact, the Qur'an (At-Tawba 9:30) says God curses anyone who would utter the ridiculous blasphemy that Jesus could be ibnullâh ("a son of God"). Not only do Muslims disagree with Christians about the identity and nature of Jesus, they also incur a curse for even mentioning the phrase "Son of God."
Rick Brown, a Bible scholar and missiologist, has been involved in outreach in Africa and Asia since 1977 and regularly consults on language development and linguistics, including Bible translations. He says pious Muslims would sooner leave the presence of someone who utters the phrase than risk judgment in hell for hearing it. Even those who lack such devout scruples think hearing or reading "Son of God" will bring bad luck. Many avoid associating with Westerners altogether, regarding them as polytheists who harbor strange views about God's family.
"Missionaries can live in a Muslim culture for decades, blaming Muslims for being 'resistant' to the gospel, when the problem actually lies with linguistic and cultural stumbling blocks," Brown told Christianity Today. "Once these are removed, many Muslims are quite open and interested in knowing more about Jesus.
Brown says Muslims have less trouble believing that Jesus is divine and that he was crucified and resurrected than they do with hearing or saying "Son of God." So what can translators do to overcome this particular stumbling block? One option is to stick with "Son of God" and deal directly with the objection—if Muslims overcome their fears to begin with. Alternatively, translators may find a word for son in the native language that carries metaphorical connotations. (Translations that opt for a phrase other than the literal "Son of God" commonly include it in the footnotes to preserve connection to the biblical authors' word choice.) Or, they can nuance it with a more descriptive phrase, such as "spiritual Son of God" or "beloved Son who comes from God." These phrases have been shown to clear up the biological misconceptions.