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When words are the masters

02 September 2016

Multiple meanings can affect religious history, says William Whyte

Translated: “by a great miracle”, this image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was imprinted on the garment of Juan Diego, the first Nahuatl (Aztec) convert to Christianity. An illustration from Passwords to Paradise, in which the encounter between the Spanish and Nahuatl languages and cultures is discussed

Translated: “by a great miracle”, this image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was imprinted on the garment of Juan Diego, the first Nahuatl (Azt...

Passwords to Paradise: How languages have re-invented world religions
Nicholas Ostler
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop £18



IN THE beginning was the Word. But what word? In the Greek of St John’s Gospel, it is logos, a term meaning computation, proportion, explanation, inward debate, nar­rative, utterance, saying, subject-matter, wording, and divine wisdom.

When Latin writers came to translate logos, they found them­selves stumped. Should they write sermo (or discourse)? Should they use ratio (or reason)? Or would verbum — the word for word — do the job? As late as the 16th century, theologians were still puzzling over the problem. Erasmus proposed oratio — speech — as the more adequate translation, before reject­ing it because it was a noun of feminine gender.

As Dr Nicholas Ostler points out in his rich, dense, and recondite new book, these debates matter. They matter because these words matter. Options are both opened and closed by the choice of term we make. If logos is translated as debate, then this gives a very different sense from a logos that is a story, or one that is understood as reason, or yet another that means wisdom. In each case, a different word offers a different idea.

These words also matter, Ostler argues, because they tell us something about religion more generally — and especially about what he calls the missionary religions, Buddhism and Christianity in particular. Each began in a specific linguistic com­munity, but, as the faith spread, so its tenets had to be translated.

Chinese Buddhism, he shows, owes much to basic misunder­standings of Sanskrit. Christianity in colonial South America likewise struggled with languages that had no word for evil and seemed to use unfortunate, even indelicate, terms to describe Jesus’s relationship to his mother. In the Brazilian indigenous language of Tupi, he was Mary’s membrya — a word that meant son, but was also dangerously close to the term for testicles, semen, or even masturbation. Little wonder mis­sion­aries worried about using it.

Written as a series of essays, covering thousands of years of history, Passwords to Paradise is filled with a remarkable collection of similar examples, often explored in unremitting detail. To be sure, not all of the stories are as new: the material on the Early Church — and especially on its debates about the Creed — will be familiar to most of us. The account of the great Renaissance translators is equally orthodox, and ignores some earlier experiments in comparative theo­logy.

Oddly enough, some telling examples have been omitted or ignored, not least the great 19th-­century controversy caused by Bishop Colenso’s experience of translation in South Africa — a debate that provoked the first-ever Lambeth Conference.

This is, then, hardly the last word on the subject. But is a remarkable achievement, none the less: one that offers insights into language and faith, and should encourage us all to think harder about what we say and why. Above all, it is a celebration of the human mind and the poss­ibilities that different languages offer us: the chance that they provide to think in new different ways, and to explore the many worlds that words open up.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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