Depending on the phonetic system that one uses, in English we would spell the name of the town something like “Da Du.” That is simply an effort to use the English alphabet to come up with a word that resembles how a particular Taiwan region’s name is pronounced in Mandarin Chinese. The actual Chinese characters are “大肚” – literally, “big belly.” Unless a person knows the Chinese language, then the meaning of the town’s name is lost when it is simply spelled “Da Du.”
There are a number of Bible words like that, too. You see, many words in our English Bible are not translations at all. They are words that have been transliterated, sometimes called “Romanized.” That simply means that the Bible translators came up with a new word – they took the original word and came up with an English word that sounds similar to the pronunciation of the original word. That is not a complaint or criticism of the translators’ efforts: it is just a reality. Here are some examples of such words.
- “Bethel” – “Bethel” is the name that Jacob gave to the place where he had a dream in which he saw angels going up and down on a ladder (Genesis 28:19). The name “Bethel” is a combination of two Hebrew words, “Beth” (House) and “El” (God), and it literally means “house of God.”
- “Manna” – When the children of Israel journeyed in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, God “rained” bread from heaven – bread that the Bible calls “manna” (Exodus 16:4,35). When the Israelites first saw that food, which was small, white, and round, they said, “What is it?” (Exodus 16:15). In fact, the Hebrew word which is translated as “What is it” is the same word that is written in English as “manna.” “Manna” simply means “What is it?”
- “Sabbath” – Staying in the book of Exodus, we notice the command for the Israelites to remember and keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:11). The Hebrew word for “Sabbath” is “sabbat/shabbâth,” so we easily can see the origin of our English word “Sabbath.” The original word did not mean to worship; rather, it meant “a rest; cessation from work” [www.biblestudytools.com].
- And what about the names of Bible characters? Well, they often are transliterated, too. In some cases, the Bible explains the origin of a particular name. For instance, the name “Barnabas” is the letter-for-letter equivalent of the Greek word “BarnábaV/Barnabas.” Okay, but what does it mean? It means “son of encouragement/ consolation” (Acts 4:36). Then there is the name “Emmanuel,” which literally means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Even the name “Jesus” is transliterated from the Greek word “I̓hsou͂V/Iēsous.” Here again, we can learn the basic intent of that word by looking in the English text. Why was God’s Son given the name “Jesus?” Because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name Jesus literally means “Jehovah is salvation” or “Savior.” Whether people realize it or not, every time that a human pronounces the name “Jesus,” he is speaking about the salvation that God offers!
- “Apostle” – From His disciples, Jesus “chose twelve whom He also named apostles” (Luke 6:13). “Apostle” is from the Greek word “a̓póstoloV/ apostolos,” and it simply means one who is sent or commissioned to do something.
- “Baptism” – Now this is a word whose meaning is often missed because the original Greek word “báptisma/baptisma has been transliterated into most English Bible versions. If it actually were translated, how would it read? It means “immersion, submersion” [Thayer, word no. 908 via e-Sword]. There is no need to quibble or argue about it: the word’s meaning is an immersion.
- “Angel” – Did you know that this word is not a translation? It comes from the Greek word “a̓́ggeloV/aggelos” (when two “g” sounds are back to back, it is an “n” sound in Greek). The word means “a messenger, envoy, one who is sent, an angel, a messenger from God” [Thayer, word no. 32 via e-Sword]. So, the basic meaning of “angel” is not a heavenly being. It can refer to such beings, but it also can refer to earthly, human messengers. For example, in Mark 1:2 we read, “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,” a quotation from Malachi 3:1. The word “messenger” is from that word “a̓́ggeloV/aggelos,” and in this instance, it refers to John the Baptizer. Yes, in the strictest sense, John was God’s “angel.” Interesting, is it not?
- “Evangelist” – It is spelled in English similar to how the Greek word “eu̓aggelisth́V/euaggelistēs” sounds. But what does it mean? It is defined as “a person who is “a bringer of good tidings, an evangelist” [Thayer, word no. 2099 via e-Sword]. Remember that meaning when you read that Timothy was charged to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).
- “Deacon” – I hope I do not ruin your dream or fantasy when I tell you that “deacon” is another one of those transliterated words. We clearly see that when we look at the original Greek word “diákonoV/diakonos” – just “cut off” the letters “os” at the end and you have our word “deacon.” The word means a servant. Thus, the church’s “deacons” are its special servants (Philippians 1:1).
Yes, the list of transliterated words could go on and on. Let us be grateful that we have the Bible in our own language, let us study God’s Book diligently, and as we do, let us not assume anything.
— Roger D. Campbell