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           God’s Name and the Royal Plural

You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were;
and I say “Why not?”—George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah

No discussion of God’s name is complete without explaining the royal plural.
This is a linguistic concept foreign to most native English speakers, but not to the English
language. As recently as the seventeenth century, the word thou was applied to
commoners while the word you, the Old English plural of respect, was reserved for
royalty and the social elite. Hence “your Highness” and “your Lordship,” rather than
“thou Highness” or “thou Lordship.” Hence also Queen Victoria’s “We are not amused”
and Margaret Thatcher’s “We are a grandmother.”

In sacred scripture (including the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Holy
Qur’an), God is sometimes referred to as “We” or “Us.” For example, Genesis 1:26 and
11:7 record God as having said, “Let Us make man …” and “Come, let Us go down …”

From the Muslim scripture, the name Allah, unlike the Hebrew Elohim, is singular
and cannot be made plural. Some Arabic terms (for example, pronouns and pronoun
suffixes) do describe Allah in the plural, but in what is known as the royal plural. This is
a plural not of numbers, but of respect. The royal plural is a literary device of Oriental
and Semitic languages that denotes majesty. In both Old and New Testaments, Elohim is
the plural form of Eloah (the closest name to “Allah” in transliteration and meaning). 40 In
the same way that expressions of the royal plural in the Qur’an denote the majesty of
God, so Elohim in the Old and New Testaments conveys the plural of respect. 41 42 The
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament comments, “Elohim is clearly a numerical
plural only in a very few instances (cf. Ex. 15:11). Even a single pagan god can be meant
by the word (e.g., 1 Kgs. 11:5). In the main, then, we have a plural of majesty.”

 

People may lob opinions on this subject back and forth from the respectful
distance of their individual faiths, but it is interesting to note the conclusion of at least
one scholar who spent time on both sides of the theological fence. David Benjamin
Keldani served for nineteen years as a Catholic priest of the Chaldean Rite in the diocese
of Uramiah (in what was then called Persia), before converting to Islam at the beginning
of the twentieth century. Known by the Islamic name of Abdul­Ahad Dawud, he authored
one of the earliest scholarly works in the English language on the subject of biblical
correlates with the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. In this work, he wrote,It would be a mere waste of time here to refute those who ignorantly or maliciously suppose the Allah of Islam to be different from
the true God and only a fictitious deity of Muhammad’s own creation.

If the Christian priests and theologians knew their Scriptures in the original Hebrew instead of in translations as the Muslims read their Qur’an in its Arabic text, they would clearly see that Allah is the same ancient Semitic name of the Supreme Being who revealed and spoke to Adam and all the prophets.

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