The reformation process and protests against the excesses of the church appears not to have ended yet. An Oromo pastor has taken up the mantle by translating or changing biblical words that are deemed erroneous. The Evangelical Church of Germany recently unveiled a new version of the Bible as part of the 500 Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which run from October 2016 – October 2017.
Among the most notable changes or corrections in the new bible is the term Ethiopia, which was changed to Cush. Rev. Benti Ujulu Tesso is one of the scholars behind some of the latest changes. He argues that the old version of the Bible, which refers to ‘Ethiopia’ 45 times was erroneous.
He notes that when the Greeks first translated the Bible from Hebrew, they changed the word Cush — which refers to a black African civilization — to ‘Athiopius’—meaning the land of the burnt face people.
Rev. Benti adds that the Cush are not the ‘burnt face’ people, rather they are black African. Therefore, ‘Athiopius’ or ‘Ethiopia’ is a racial insult. To correct this historical error, the word ‘Ethiopia’ was removed from the new Bible and replaced with its original term, Cush.
Merga Yonas, a freelance journalist based in Germany, talked to Rev. Benti exclusively on the rationale behind the change, the research or enquires that informed the drastic changes and what impact the translation may have on the followers of the Christian faith, particularly the Cush people.
Merga Yonas: First, I would like to congratulate you on completing your decade-long PHD studies. I heard the topic of your thesis was, “Oromo Indigenous Religion and Oromo Christianity: Contradiction or Compatible.” What led you to choose such a topic? What are the contradictions and how are they compatible?
Rev. Benti: The reason behind this project is that many Christian missionaries, evangelists and pastors were assuming that the Oromo people had no idea of God, and their religion was an idol or belief of Satanism. This created a question in my mind after I started looking into Oromo indigenous religion prior to the arrival of Christianity and Islam in our sub region. So my dissertation…is a comparative religious study from theological perspective. I was looking at whether the Oromo indigenous religion is contradictory or compatible with Christianity.
During the research I found many similarities and very few differences between Christianity, as practiced by Oromo people, and Oromo’s indigenous religion – Waaqefannaa. It’s an interesting finding. Both the Christian and Islam missionaries were assuming that the Oromo indigenous religion is different from their faith. However, I found out that there is no difference in many ways. That can be seen from the very name of God. God in Oromo language is called Waaqa or Waaqayyoo, who created the heaven and the earth. That is what the Oromo people believed long before the advent of Christianity and Islam. The same name was used by those who translated the Bible to Afaan Oromo, essentially substituting God by Waaqa. So the name Waaqa was not originally from Christianity but taken from the Oromo indigenous religion. So if you go into the details, you will find many parallels or similarities with minor differences.
It took a lot of time to research and write. However, I have now finished the dissertation. It’s submitted to the University of Hildesheim in December 2016. I successfully defended the thesis on June 2, 2017. So I have completed this interesting work and I am very happy about it.
Merga: I look forward to reading it. I have also been informed that the church you are now serving – the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland – has published a new version of the Bible. And it corrects words and contexts that are deemed wrong and outdated in the former version. That includes changing the word ‘Ethiopia’ to ‘Cush’. What is the rationale behind these changes?
Rev. Benti: Well, you know Bible translation has been done since the middle Ages. An idea behind the translation is that there are certain deficits or shortcomings in the old Bible. Different Bible societies were busy translating it, so this is not the first time. The translation of languages and concepts was going on since the 16th century when Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin to German. There were errors in those translations. Some are linguistic errors. Others are conceptual. One of the reasons for ongoing translation is to correct past mistakes.
For example, when the Greeks translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, they made a mistake by changing the name Cush to Athiopius. Cush is the name of black African people. It was changed to Athiopius, meaning “people of the burnt face.” There is a big difference between being a ‘burnt face’ and being a Cush. Black people are not burnt, they are just black. This new 2017 translation – published by the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Germany – is meant to correct those mistakes.
In the old version of the Bible, there are 45 references to Ethiopia. These words were deemed as errors and changed to its original term, Cush. To be clear, the 2017 version of the Bible did not change the word Ethiopia alone, it corrected and translated many other wording and contextual errors.
I found the change from Ethiopia to Cush particularly interesting. That is because we, Ethiopians, were proud of the biblical references to Ethiopia. But in reality the Greek translators mistakenly thought it was the name of the people. Now we know that is not the case. It is a derogatory name given to the Cush people. I am very happy to see this being recognized by the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Germany.
Merga: You mentioned the church also made other changes. What are they?
Rev. Benti: If you go to Book of Psalms 68:31 in the new version, you read “Cush is extending her hands to God.” But in the former translation, it said, “Ethiopia is stretching her hands to God.” It is one of the 44 verses that were changed from Ethiopia to Cush.
The translators forgot one or two verses where the word Ethiopia remained unchanged. However, we have discussed this with them and it will be corrected as well.
For example, a word in Jeremiah 13:23 is one of those they forgot to translate. The German language version reads: ‘Kann wohl eine Mohr seine Haut verwandeln, oder ein Panther seine Flecken? And in the English translation, it says ‘Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Here the word ‘Mohr’ and ‘Ethiopia’ is an insult, which should have not been used at all.
The translation is not only about the word Ethiopia, but it consists of many changes in names, places and concepts, which I cannot tell you all now.
Merga: Whenever such changes are made, whether in theology or in any other scholarly endeavor, there should be some kind of research before reaching a conclusion. Did the Evangelical Church of Germany conduct sufficient research before changing the words or contexts?
Rev. Benti: Of course, the governing body of Evangelical Church of Germany assigned a group of scholars to make the translation. The taskforce composed of language experts and biblical scholars was formed in 2010. They were working on the translation since then and they submitted their final product to church leaders. Church leaders and conferences read the new translation. They gave their comment and suggestions.
So, for seven years, numerous experts and scholars took part in this translation. The new version of the Bible was published to mark the 500 years anniversary of Luther Reformation, an anniversary that runs from October 31, 2016 to October 31, 2017. The people involved in the research were highly qualified theologians, philosophers and linguists, who have knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, German, English and other languages.
Merga: Can you explain a bit the research process and to whom the scholars submitted their findings?
Rev. Benti: The researchers made the new translation based on the old version of the Bible. There are many steps through which the newly translated Bible passes before approval. Individual experts first conduct the translation and submit the new translation and old version of the Bible to a task force, which is made up of a team of experts and church leaders. After task force members made their suggestions and comments for adjustment, both the old and new version of the Bible was then submitted to the Bishop and Evangelical Church Assembly – composed of representatives of all Evangelical Churches in Germany. The Assembly and the Bishop is the highest body of the church, who then approved, published and distributed the new translation of the Bible.
Merga: How do you think will these changes or translations be seen among followers of the Evangelical church?
Rev. Benti: The protestant churches in Germany are happy with the new translation. Some errors were corrected. The church tried to make the Bible better by using a just language and tried to avoid discriminatory words. Protestant church followers are very happy and we are using it in congregations now.
This new Bible is the Bible of the Protestant church, not of the Catholic or the Orthodox churches. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have their own Bible. The Protestant have 66 books in the Bible, whereas the Catholic has 73 and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has 81. So, here I am only talking about the Protestant books, which all Christian churches around the world are using.
Merga: If the Protestant church found the term ‘Ethiopia’ erroneous and made changes to it, has there been any attempt to recommend the same to leaders of the Catholic or Orthodox churches, so that they too could take the same action?
Rev. Benti: Well, the Protestant church is part of the World Council of Churches. We believe this translation should be common for every Christians, because it does not deny the basic Christian doctrine. It is only fact finding – the truth is revealed and the truth is written. So, we believe the Catholic and Orthodox churches will accept as a true Bible translation because it is basic and common to all of us. I am not in a leadership position, but I hope the Protestant church leadership will make suggestions to other Christian churches, including the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
But it is up to the Orthodox and Catholic churches to decide for themselves whether to accept or reject this new translation. We use the Bible in a just language and that is why we are called Protestant.
We work with all Christian churches and respect each other. But in the case of Orthodox Church, for instance, if they want to work among the Cush people – the Oromo, Sidama, Kambata, Agaw, Hadiya, Somali and others, the church should accept this new translation. I hope the Orthodox Church will do that for two reasons: One, the true name was Cush not Ethiopia – the truth is revealed and Christian churches stand for truth. Second, if you work with a nation or a group of people, then, you have to respect the identity and culture of that nation. So it is the responsibility of the churches who are working within the Cush nations to recognize and correct these errors.
Merga: What theological impact will this change or translation have on the Cush nations themselves?
Rev. Benti: Well, it will have a great impact. People have to ask questions: Who is stretching its hand to God? Not Ethiopia, but Cush. It will be challenging to accept for those who blindly believe it is Ethiopia. Truth challenges and sets you free also. It can also have an impact on how Christian preachers interpret and use the words. If I, as a pastor, stand and say this is Cush, then those who don’t want to hear this might not accept it. But they have to produce evidence and reasoning as to why they won’t accept it. So it may take time for people to understand and accept it. It may confuse other people and it may liberate others. Some people may feel happy and enjoy the new translation and others may be unhappy. My hope is all Christian churches will accept the new version with joy. The hidden truth is revealed, so everybody should be happy.
Why did those who translated the Bible from Hebrew to Greek call us Athiopius—people with burnt face? The ‘burnt face’ reference is derogatory and insulting. Our face is not burnt, it is just a black and there is nothing wrong with being black. We are created by God, we are blacks and we accept ourselves as black. If any church insults me, I cannot call it my church. This is a matter of identity: If the name your father gave you is changed by foreigners, it upsets you and it destroys your identity and culture. That is precisely what happened here. The Cush people don’t call themselves “burnt face.”
History tells us that the Oromo, Somali, Afar and others are the Cushitic people. No enlightened Cushite is happy with this derogatory name given to us by the Greeks. We are happy to reclaim our Original name – Cush. So the impact is this can actually change the whole history of the Cush people. Cushites have languages and their geography is well known. But there is no geography, nation or language related to the word Ethiopia. I hear in some universities that there is ‘Ethiopic’ study. This too will change eventually, because, it raises a question: Who is Ethiopia and what is Ethiopia?
Merga: There have been heated discourse on identity among elites and other people from different walks of life in Ethiopia. There are those who argue that our sole identity should be Ethiopian. On the other hand, there are those who argue ethnic identity comes first and Ethiopia is secondary. There are even others who totally refuse to recognize Ethiopia as their identity. How do you think the new translation will contribute to this discourse about identity?
Rev. Benti: I think, the truth will set you free. As long as there is evidence that the original name is Cush, there is no reason to argue that the word is Ethiopia. They may not find scientific evidence for calling us Ethiopia. When I say scientific, it includes linguistic, archeological and historical evidence. Let me tell you about the history of the current Ethiopia, there is no geography of today Ethiopia until 1900 or 1908. Before that the people were called Oromo, Sidama, Afar, Amhara, Tigre and so forth.
But today’s Ethiopian boundary was established by Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia, who colonized the southern Cushitic and other people and formed the territory now known as Ethiopia. Even the word Ethiopia did not get official recognition until 1931. Before 1931, the country was called Abyssinia. And Abyssinians referred to themselves as Semitic people. So it was Emperor Haile Selassie, who in his first 1931 constitution dropped the name Abyssinia and adopted Ethiopia.
As such, the question is how come one country will be totally renamed Ethiopia, when the Cush and others have lived in this region of Africa for thousands of years. Well, the Greeks named Athiopius because people were talking about legends of Ethiopian empire, which is actually the Cushitic empire. They speak of Queen Sheba, who was Cush not Sem. Her empire was Cushitic, not Ethiopian empire. Academicians, historians and theologians should understand this very well. The politicians should also live with the fact and correct past mistakes. It is an important matter. My name is Benti, so I am not happy if my name is changed all of a sudden to James.
Any racial, sexual and other discrimination must be corrected. For example, ‘Slave, Obey your Masters’ must be changed. There is a concept that Ham and his generation were cursed, which gave intent that blacks were cursed. Therefore, all the problems of black people are to do with their curse from God. That must be totally changed or eliminated. Because, I don’t believe God cursed the Black people. Rather, it is a mistaken bias by the translators when they referred to the father of black, Ham, as cursed one. I believe that the God that cursed Ham cannot be the God of Christians. These mistakes, intentional or otherwise, do not disqualify the Bible from being Holy. But correcting the errors and presenting it in a positive and factual way will further enrich the Bible.
Merga: That’s all the questions I had. Is there anything you want to add?
Rev. Benti: Thank you for your questions. I am glad to tell the truth and I ask all the people who will read about the new change not to be shocked, since it is the truth. We should try to engage in constructive dialogue and use the new translation to promote peaceful coexistence among people. I hope the change will be seen as a positive action and used among all Christians.
I also hope the Bible translating society around the world will work to correct these and other errors and avoid discriminatory words in future translations. I urge them to be inclusive because, our God is God of love, who loves everyone he created. There is no reason why he creates distinction between His own creatures.
Believers should also be open to change and discuss it openly. I know religion is very sensitive. But it is part of human culture to engage in dialogue, promote positive thinking and understanding for peaceful coexistence of all religions around the world. That is my wish and my pray.
*Rev. Benti Ujulu Tesso was born in Western part of Oromia, Ethiopia. From 1978-1982, he studied theology at Evangelical Theological College in Finfinne. Upon graduating, he served on different pastoral position in Western Oromia, including as the head of Bethel Synods Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus in Dembi Dollo. From 1998 to 2000, he studied African Theology and obtained a Masters of Theology degree from Natal University Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. And since 2002, he has been working as a Pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hannover, Germany. Besides his pastoral works, he did his PhD on Oromo Indigenous Religion and Christianity. Rev. Benti can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited for length, clarity and to avoid repetition.