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Names of God and Words for God:
Thoughts on Beliefs and Usages

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I've been reading with great interest your web article "The Linguistic Names of God."  Could you send me some more information about this related to historical facts?  Right now I'm having discussions with some Christian people whether "God" and "Allah" are two different gods.

Ihave collected some resources easily accessible on the Internet that might be of help to you.  See links at the end of this article.  You can find many more in a search on any of the key terms.

Levels of Discussion
This is not a simple matter at all.  This matter involves linguistic factors your disputants are not likely aware of.

Just as a basic frame for the discussion let me just mention that Arab Christians were using the word allah for the God of the Bible for centuries before Islam ever existed!

Let's step back from the cultural emotion of the topic and see what the language of this question really means.  This is not a question about one god or another god, as though the name-word itself was all you needed.

The question here is, "What does a speaker in a particular language and religion mean by use of a certain term?"

You can see this involves not just simple word meanings, or names for objects (be they "gods" or whatever else).  This involves cultural and individual worldviews and the relation of language to the thought of the speaker.

Names or Words?
And, by the way, are they talking about the name of God, or the word for God in a particular language?  What is the "name" of the biblical God?

And what about belief in God?  Do we believe in God, or in a particular name of God from a particular language?  Is one's belief about God determined simply by a particular word or name they use?  Hardly.

Divine Language Names?
Ask your friends what name they commonly call God in Norwegian or English.  Where did they get the name for God they commonly use in their language!  Do they know it is the same word our pagan ancestors used when they spoke of the various gods of Valhalla!?

So do they believe in Yahweh, or in "god"?  Do they believe in Elohim, El or Yah (Jah), other "names" for God in the Bible?  Which one is the "real" God?  Which name of God do they believe in as Christians?

Further, meanings of words arise out of the usage of a community of speakers.  Thus we have another level of complication in considering the meaning of a particular word in use of a particular speaker.

Individual Beliefs
And what about differences between individuals in our own culture? Do all people who use one language's word for God believe the same thing about God?  Do all English speakers mean the same thing when they use the word "god?"

What is this speaker's understanding in using this word for what he intends to say, in comparison to the basic or standard meaning this word has in the community as a whole.

Specifically here, we would ask, "What does an individual using that word certain word for God believe about God?"

Technical or Popular Usage
Then you have the further technical level of academic usage and technical definition of words in the academic disciplines of each society.

And in the European languages what about the difference between "god" and "God," "dieu" and "Dieu?"   How do you pronounce capitalizations?

Your friends are likely thinking several cultural and philosophical stages away from the actual realities of language and cultural worldview we are dealing with here.

The Same Word
It is a fairly well-accepted and well-attested fact of language, culture and history that Allah (Ilah), El, Elohim, Eloh, and various other Semitic dialectic variations are forms of the same word.  The form in Aramaic which Jesus may have used in his teaching was Allaha.

Or perhaps the word in his form of Aramaic was still the older form used in the Hebrew Bible, Elah (feminine) or Eloh (masculine).  The Old Testament form Elohim is the old Aramaic plural – the Hebrew form Eloah had already dropped out of use by time the Hebrew Tanakh (called "Old Testament" by Christians) had been written in the later block script of all our Hebrew biblical manuscripts.

In all the volumes I have read, archaeological articles, linguistic analyses, etc., the meaning of the word that these all represent is the name or word for the High God (Creator God, Father of the Gods, One True God, etc., depending on the particular beliefs of each Semitic people).

Canaanite Biblical Name
The Canaanite form of the name, El, is the most common name used for "God" in the Bible.  This word was used by Hebrew writers to refer to the True God of Hebrew faith.  This word is used by all the peoples in ancient Canaan for the High God.  Even the Hebrews used it.

Jewish translators before the time of Christ used the common and general Greek word "theos" – the same word used by the pagan Greeks – to translate the name of God from the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the LXX, Septuagint).  Christians writings in Greek that became the Christian New Testament used this same Greek word for the Creator God who revealed himself in Jesus.

New Testament Quotations from the Old Testament translate El (or the extended form Elohim) with "theos" (either quoting directly from the Greek Septuagint, or from the Hebrew text.

Some few writers I have seen recently who dispute this broad consensus do not argue the matter on the basis of word meaning and usage.  They lift the question out of its setting, and seem to speak from a pseudo-theological or pseudo-exegetical context, not as serious historical and linguistic scholars.

The assumptions brought to the question in these cases is usually a cultural worldview masquerading as a theological system, that leads to arguments attempting to prove a difference between the entities referred to.

Flaw of Logic
The problem is, there is a flaw in this reasoning, that is, the assumption that the name specifically can have only one meaning.

To be consistent, the argument should compare the actual concepts of God held by ordinary church members in today's "Christian" societies compared with the high academic and theological concepts of God from biblical exegesis.  You will see there is a great discrepancy there.

Varying Concepts
Thus using the reasoning of your friends, it would be easy to say that since the concept of God held by the ordinary church member does not match the biblical concept, then the name by which they refer to that concept ("God," "Gott," "Gud," or whatever Germanic word, for instance) must not be the name of the biblical God.

Likewise, you can argue that the French must not believe in the God of the Bible, since they call him "Dieu," and the Bible [always in English, of course, in these simplistic arguments I have seen] always calls him God.  Since they use a different word, and their beliefs seem different from mine in many ways, they must be referring to a different God.

When your Norwegian friends speak French, do they insist on using only the Norwegian name for God?  Or do they use the name for the Creator God used by the French?

European Names for God
These arguments always seem to conveniently overlook that no language of any European people (as far as I know) has changed the name for divinity just because they became Christian.  They always continued using the old Latin or German or Slavic pagan name, but vested it with new meaning as the concepts of the biblical God became known.

This type of argument starts with a word form, assumes a word can have only one meaning, and that it cannot change or be used differently, then argues by word form.  This is not consistent with how we know language to work.

What I see here is that we must distinguish between the real referent (in the case, the ultimate entity of the "One True God") that a word or name attempts to refer to, and some particular concept a speaker or community might have about that entity.  Each individual's ideas would differ from any other individual's ideas.

Likewise each community's common concept would differ from any other community's.  Even within the so-called "Christian" context.  Which of them qualifies?

One True God
Consider rather this line of reasoning on this question:
1. Christians claim to believe in the One True God, they call him by whatever word is used in any particular language (including Arabic-speaking Christians).

2. The Jews claim to believe in the One True God, calling him by various Hebrew, Yiddish, or other language words, as they speak their native language also (including Arabic-speaking Jews

3. The Muslims claim to believe in the One True God, calling him by the common word in their various languages (including the Quranic form of the name for the One True God, and that used by Arabic speakers).

In all these three cases, it turns out that the form of the name in their particular Semitic dialect is the same for all Arabic speakers, because they speak Arabic.  Similarly, in the Bantu languages, we used the traditional Bantu names for the Creator God in the Bible.

Concluding Question
The concluding question is:  How many One True Gods are there?  The point is not what name/word you use, but what you think of him.  Anyone's concept of God may be deficient.  The word they use is not the point.  To be honest, we would say, every person's concept of God is deficient.

From a biblical point of view, it is sin to claim we understand God or know enough about God.  We honor, worship, serve, and follow to the extent we understand.

Faith or Knowledge
A guiding point for me, also, is that we are saved by faith (a Pauline, Reformation and Jansenist approach) not by knowledge (a Gnostic approach, similar also to the Enlightenment or a New Age approach).  When do I know enough and know it correctly enough to qualify?  Never.

As a human, it is arrogant of me to assume I can attain to absolute knowledge to know as God knows.  This was the "original sin" of Adam.  I am speaking here from a biblical perspective, so this may not carry any weight with some of your disputants.

Comparing Concepts
Personally, I have talked at length with various Muslims whose concept of God was more like mine than many Christians I have known, and whose apparent relationship to God was more like mine than that of some people who are practicing Christians.

The name or word we used in various languages was not even a factor in our discussions.  Personal and community beliefs were behind the discussions.

Maybe this perspective will be helpful.  I hope the specific resources referenced below will also be of help.  These are only a sampling of many similar discussions from various religious and academic sources.

Related Articles:
[TXT]The Holy Name
[TXT]Jesus in the Qur'an
[TXT]The Linguistic Names of God
[TXT]The "True Name" of the Father:  Phonetics and Covenants

Other Internet Resources
Arabic Bible excerpts
Allah is Elohim
Who is Allah?
Allah Does Not Belong to Islam
Allah and Eloh from a Jewish View
Allah and Eloh
Allah and the Moon-God Myth
Various links on the meaning and use of the name "Allah"
Christian, Jewish use of "Allah" before Islam


First written 21 October 2003 in answer to an email query from a website reader in Norway
Finalized as an article and Posted on Thoughts and Resources 31 January 2006
Last edited 20 May 2012

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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