The Nature of God
Examination of archives on Bible translations into Mongolian dating from 1785 to the early twentieth century showed that there had been debate over which term in Mongolian accurately conveyed the nature of God. These attempts to translate the Bible concentrated on the more accessible Mongolian peoples of Russia and the Inner Mongolian area of northern China but largely left out people in Mongolia itself.
In 1971 before the translation work began the translator met a number of Mongolians from Mongolian Peoples’ Republic who were studying English in Britain. These Mongolians said that the Buddhist term Burhan could not possibly refer to the Biblical God, saying it was attached to Mongolian Buddhist concepts.
After that, in 1972, at an early stage of the translation, lecturers in Ulaanbaatar, at the Mongolian State University, were asked by the translator what Mongolians would call an entity which has the following attributes:
- Spirit with no physical body
- That Spirit with supreme intelligence, knowing all
- That Spirit alone existing
- That Spirit creating the whole universe and everything in it from nothing
- That Spirit being present everywhere at the same time.
- That Spirit having full personality
The lecturers were asked if Tenger, the shamanist pantheon of demigods venerated by Mongolians including the thirteenth century Khans of Mongolia would fit that. They were also asked if Burhan would fit. This latter, as found on birch bark documents dated at the end of the ninth century AD or earlier, refers explicitly to Buddha, and in those documents is shown to mean ‘Buddha King’. Throughout history, as noted by thirteenth century Marco Polo, Burhan referred to the Buddhist religion. Today Burhan is used for anything in connection with Buddhism, which meaning is common today in all Mongolian languages.
The university lecturers replied that both Tenger and Burhan are irrevocably connected with traditional Mongolian religion and that neither fitted the concept of the being Whom had been described. They concluded it was obvious that the term Burhan could not be used for God.
Following this discussion the term Yertöntsiin ezen (Lord of the universe) was discovered in the dictionary of Nyam-süren for “God”. The University lecturers concurred this fitted the attributes of God which had been described above.
In the early 1990s foreign missionaries who did not know Mongolian arrived and started using the Buddhist term Burhan for God, following Mongolians interpreters who knew little of the Bible and of the native languages of the missionaries. The missionaries concluded it was the right term for God in Mongolian. Even though the word Burhan is colloquially used to describe any religious idea, throughout Mongolia the prime meaning of this word for Mongolians today is strongly Buddhist, and very widely presented as such on Mongolian mass media by Buddhist monks and many others.
Since Buddhism has existed from the fourth century AD in what today is Mongolia, there are many specific words in Mongolian used by Buddhism for such as the Buddhist concepts of a temporary hell, the eternal emptiness of Nirvana, being ‘born again’ to another reincarnation on this earth, entreating a god by chanting, expressing to a god regret for continued human failure and so on. All these are part of Buddhist teaching, each holding very specific Buddhistic meanings, being still used in modern Buddhist teaching.
As is clear from the records of nineteenth century mission to Mongolians, Mongolians predominantly believe that all religions are merely different cultural expressions of the same root spirituality. This belief is still widely held today. Many missionaries were unaware of this underlying Mongolian belief and also did not know what the various religious terms meant or how they were used and understood. They did not realise that throughout, the terms have very specific meanings peculiar to Buddhism. This meant that although syncretism quickly spread in Mongolia, it was unidentified as such by missionaries. This lead to a movement against the work of Bible Society of Mongolia and the people attached to it.
In April 1993 a Translation Workshop was run in Ulaanbaatar by Wycliffe Bible Translators and United Bible Society Bible translation consultants. They showed what the Bible reveals about the attributes of God. The thirty plus Mongolians in attendance unanimously agreed that neither the Buddhist term Burhan nor the shamanist term Tenger fitted the Biblical attributes of God and that a term better than Yertöntsiin ezen could not be found. However that same year foreign missionaries with a very limited grasp of the Mongolian language decided to do another Bible translation using the term Burhan for God, recruiting Mongolians with nationalistic views of deity.
Nevertheless, Bible Society of Mongolia carried on with their work knowing that Holy, Holy, Holy God has nothing to do with human religious notions. They realised that man-orientated pagan religious language cannot accurately express the concept of God and his teaching given to humanity. Translation work continued and in 2015 Bible Society of Mongolia published the whole Bible in Mongolian and is now selling it in bookshops and online. The Bible produced by Bible Society of Mongolia uses Yertöntsiin ezen for the one God.