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When explaining when "God" is capitalised and when it is not to people from a non-English-speaking background, I say that it's capitalised when it's referring to Christianity's god, because it's the given name (a proper noun) of that god. If someone were to name their kitten "God", it'd be capitalised as well. I explain that "god" is not capitalised when it's just talking about supernatural beings (for example, the Greek god Zeus). This answer in English.SE gives a similar explanation.

This sounds like a very logical explanation to me, but I don't know if it's correct or not. Is this rationale the real reason that "God" is capitalised as "God" in many English-language translations of the bible?

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    Its because in Christianity we're monotheistic. Only one God is real, and he gets to be God with a capital G, while idols since they are fake get a lowercase. Its not that God's name is God. – david brainerd Sep 21 '14 at 3:08
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    Hello Andrew. This is a good question; I think it may be better suited for Christianity SE though. Questions on Biblical Hermeneutics SE need to be based on a particular passage of Scripture. – user2027 Sep 21 '14 at 19:43
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    @Sarah I'm happy with this question being either on Hermeneutics or Christianity. – Andrew Grimm Sep 21 '14 at 22:58
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It’s capitalized in English for two primary reason: religious reverence, and tradition, but grammatically, there’s really no requirement to capitalize it.

The earliest Greek manuscripts were written in all uncials or majuscular letters, without any intervening spaces between letters.

For example, the following is John 1:1 as written in the Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Sinaiticus, John 1:1

The Hebrew language, both ancient and modern, also lacked miniscular letters.

In reality, the word “God” (with majuscular “G”) is shorthand for “the god.” The equivalent of “the god” (as well as “God”) in Greek is ὁ θεός.

Dr. Dale B. Martin wrote,1

People—even scholars—tend too quickly to forget that “god” in ancient Greek was not a proper name. This is easier to remember when we read the texts in Greek because they so often use the word θεός (“god”) wuth the definite article ὁ (“the”). When reading Greek, it is easier to read ὁ θεός as “the god” rather than “God.” Unfortunately, using God without the article makes it easier to take it mistakenly in English as a name, a tendency made even more tempting by the fact that it is almost always capitalized when referring to the god of Christianity. It would actually be better for an orthodox understanding of the nature of the Christian deity to leave it uncapitalized and with the article. Perhaps we should say “the god” when speaking of the Christian deity, just as we speak of “the” holy spirit.

The translators who produced the King James Version arbitraily translated ὁ θεός into English, sometimes as “the God”2 and other times as “God.”3 There are even some occasions where they translated as it as “the god.”4 But again, how did they know when to translate it as “the God” versus “God” versus “the god”? They couldn’t decide this from the Greek, as the original manuscripts lacked the distinction made possible by the combination of majusculars and minisculars.

It is understandably a matter of reverence for people who esteem the one true god to capitalize the first letter of a word that refers only to Him. This is also the case with the word “lord,” as in, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is also the case with pronouns used in reference to God, like the word “Him” above, and as you will often encounter in the Bible.

You wouldn’t be wrong if, every time you read ὁ θεός in the Greek NT, you translated it into English as “the god” as opposed to “God” or “the God.” The Jewish authors of the New Testament understood that there was only one true god by nature. So, whenever they read ὁ θεός, they would customarily think of him, i.e. Yahveh. However, there are many who are called ὁ θεός or “the god” on account of their office, such as human judges.5

The one true god only has one name, יהוה, referred to as the Tetragrammaton. The word “God” is technically not a proper noun (a name), but a common noun. “God” (or “the god” or “the God”) refers to what יהוה is.

Referring to the tradition of writing “G*d” or “G-d” instead of “God,” Dr. Martin also wrote,6

The substitution of these different spellings and symbols for “God” is even more seriously misleading, as I hinted above, because it actually implies that “God” is God’s proper name, in the same way that YHWH functions as the name of the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.

Consider the analogy:

name:nature :: Joe:human :: Yahveh:god

There is a slight disparity, as Joe is one among many humans, while Yahveh is the only true god. But, you understand the function of the word “god” now, as a common noun (a thing), rather than a proper noun (a name). That being said, because there is only one who is ὁ θεός by nature, i.e. Yahveh, the word θεός could sometimes function as a quasi-name, although it would be difficult to discern where this phenomenon occurs on account of the arbitrary nature of English translations.


References

Martin, Dale B. Biblical Truths: The Meaning of Scripture in the Twenty-first Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 2017.

Footnotes

1 p. 150
2 cp. Rom. 15:5
3 cp. Rom. 14:20
4 cp. 2 Cor. 4:4
5 Exo. 22:9
6 ibid.

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  • (1) Are you saying that translating ὁ θεὸς in 2Co.4:4 as "the god" (not capitalized) by the KJV translators reflect choices that were "simply arbitrary", meaning passage context was not taken in to account in any way? – cnaak Mar 7 '15 at 12:52
  • (2) Do you think this context: "In whom (ὁ θεὸς) of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them" of 2Co.4:4 allows for translating ὁ θεὸς as either "God" or "the God" (capitalized)? – cnaak Mar 7 '15 at 12:55
  • (3) Since 1Co.8:5 declares that are many who call themselves "gods"—in which occasion we see the plural θεοὶ being used in scripture—isn't this a strong, supported reason why capitalizing "God" (when the context indicates the text is making a reference to the true one God) in a translation is not merely an arbitrary decision? – cnaak Mar 7 '15 at 13:12
  • (4) Not making any distinction "god" vs. "God" in an English translation on the basis that the older manuscripts lack this distinction would only seem legitimate if the ENTIRE translation was also rendered in capitals only, in which case, 2Co.4:4 would read: "IN WHOM THE GOD OF THIS WORLD HATH BLINDED THE MINDS OF THEM WHICH BELIEVE NOT, LEST THE LIGHT OF THE GLORIOUS GOSPEL OF CHRIST, WHO IS THE IMAGE OF GOD, SHOULD SHINE UNTO THEM." – cnaak Mar 7 '15 at 13:23
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      As it is well known, in the original manuscripts there is no such distinction. Hebrew has no such thing as upper and lower case, and the original Greek manuscripts were written in all upper case letters.(1)

      One has to pay close attention to the context when translating the terms. Bible translators often capitalize the terms    when the take them to be referring to the deity    and do not capitalize them otherwise.(2)

      With respect to the term that refers to the deity, Robert Wright says:

According to Genesis, Jacob "erected an altar an called it El-Elohe-Israel." This could be translated as "god, the god of Israel," but if you don't capitalize the first "god" it doesn't make much sense. In other words, the first "god" has to be a specific god.(3)


Notes

  1. Preface to the World English Bible, http://ebible.org/web/FRT01.htm.
  2. Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, (Mercer University Press, 1990), 336
  3. Robert Wright, The Evolution of God: The origins of our beliefs, (Hachette UK, 2010)

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