Do You Know What These 35 Religious Words Mean?


By: Torrance Grey

7 Min Quiz

Image: NiseriN/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

About This Quiz

The religions of the world have given us a rich vocabulary. Religious words are often pleasing to our ears because unlike the terse, time-saving words we often use in everyday conversation, religious words are frequently polysyllabic, taken from diverse world languages like Sanskrit, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. "Maranatha," though only used once in the Christian Bible, has proven so enchanting that Christians have adopted it for use in hymns, church decorations and more. The word "parable" has proven to have equal staying power. 

Some words, though, have been watered down by popular use. Consider the Buddhist word "nirvana" and the Jewish term "kosher," both of which have casual everyday meanings pretty far from their traditional religious sense. But it's the Hindu word "avatar" that has taken on a life of its own in the modern world! It has been the name of a blockbuster movie (and two less successful ones), and has also, of course, become the common term for a profile icon on social media. 

What about you? Are you confident in your ability to understand religious terminology? We've got a quiz to help you find out — and being a regular church- or temple-goer won't necessarily help, as we've chosen words from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Wicca as well. You'll also find some terms that aren't exclusive to any one faith. Are you ready to wade into this welter of words? Good luck!

Specific to no one religion, "fasting" usually means doing what?

Many religions have a tradition of fasting, which is usually going without food, but in strict cases can mean going without water as well. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting in Judaism, while Islam's Ramadan requires no-food, no-water fasting for about a month. Christian saints fasted regularly, but not in accordance with any particular calendar. Christians still follow this practice.


If you are invited to a "bar mitzvah," what will you be attending?

In Judaism, a bar mitzvah is held when a boy turns 13; this represents the age when he is held responsible for observing the law (or failing to do so). For girls, the term is "bat mitzvah" and is traditionally held at age 12, though Reform Jews (who believe in the evolution of the faith) have made this 13, like the boys.


Strictly speaking, what is an "apostle"?

Taken from the Greek language, "apostle" simply means "one who is sent off." Christians commonly refer to Jesus' Twelve Disciples as the Twelve Apostles because that was their role after Jesus's ascension. However, the gospel of Mark also refers to "the Seventy-Two Apostles," (in Eastern Christian traditions) whom Jesus sent out to preach before his death and resurrection.


Not strictly a religious word, to what does "celibacy" refer?

You're probably most familiar with celibacy as it pertains to the Catholic Church, in which priests, nuns and monks must all remain both unmarried and chaste. Other religions put very little stock in celibacy. Judaism, for example, encourages people to marry and have children, both considered a "mitzvah" (commandment).


In present day language​, we throw the word "kosher" around fairly lightly. But what does it actually mean?

Here are some interesting facts about the term "kosher." It isn't just applied to food. Sex is also considered kosher when it is performed within marriage and according to Torah. When the word is applied to food, the rules are somewhat flexible. If you are allergic to a particular food, it is no longer kosher for you, even if most other Jews can eat it. This is because that food is no longer healthful for you.


Is "Armageddon" a real religious word, or was it just the name of a movie?

Fun fact: the name "Armageddon" (Greek) comes from the plain of Megiddo in the book of Revelation, where "they will gather the kings together" for battle. Megiddo is also mentioned several times in the Old Testament but without any apocalyptic associations.


What does the word "Allah" mean?

A common misconception among non-Muslims is that "Allah" is a name, similar to "Zeus" in the Greek pantheon. But Islam, like Christianity, simply refers to God as "God." It's a concept, title and name all in once.


What is the meaning of "gospel"?

This is a term with a variety of meanings. The Bible has four books that are called gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But "the gospel" is the story of Jesus and salvation, in its entirety, and, of course, there's a sub-genre of Christian music also called "gospel." Outside of Christianity, "gospel" can be a term that means "the unadulterated truth."


Other than a name adopted by a chain of Christian bookstores, what is a "parable"?

Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds, often explaining their true meaning to his disciples in private. He told them, "The kingdom of God has been given to you, not to them (the masses)." While this seems counter to the idea that the gospels should be spread, remember that ​Jesus later authorized his apostles to go out and preach to the world.


Which of these is the best definition of the word "incarnation"?

This concept is found in more than one religion. Christians might be most familiar with Jesus becoming a man on earth, but in Hinduism, the gods also take on human forms and mix with mortals on earth. (There's a name for a Hindu god in human form; you'll find it elsewhere in this quiz).


Who is an "imam" in the Muslim faith?

In Arabic, imam generally means "leader." However, it has come to mean someone who leads a religious community, usually by administering a mosque. The term is roughly equivalent to "rabbi" in Judaism, or "pastor" or "priest" in Christianity.


What do "animists" believe?

It's possible that some animists believe that crystals have powers; we wouldn't rule this out. But the overall belief of animism is that things in nature all have spiritual essences. Some animist religions extend this to manmade objects, like a house. Marie Kondo, the Japanese "tidying lady," is known to ask clients to give thanks to their house for sheltering them.


What does a "nativity" scene depict?

A nativity scene depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a stable, with background decorations that include animals, the shepherds and the three wise men (the Magi, who brought gifts to Jesus). Side note: Even if you're of an artistic bent, we don't recommend creating any kind of art involving the prophet Mohammed. In Islam, it's considered disrespectful.


If a Jew calls a non-Jew a "goy," should that person take offense?

"Goy" or the plural term, "goyim," simply means a non-Jew, a member of one of the nations other than Israel. The idea that it's insulting probably comes from 20th-century "Borscht Belt" comedy, in which "goys" are usually clueless or dim compared to their Jewish counterparts.


In Judaism, what is the "kabbalah"?

Kabbalah went platinum in the 2000s when celebrities like Madonna began to study it. And, yes, we know that there's no such thing as a "sacred tattoo" in Judaism. In fact, both Orthodox and conservative Judaism forbid tattooing, making it ironic that some celebrities got Hebrew-lettering tattoos to commemorate their studies.


What does the doctrine of "transubstantiation" teach?

Transubstantiation is probably most important in the Catholic faith. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth I -- the second Protestant monarch of England after her father, Henry VIII -- outlawed the doctrine of transubstantiation for the Church of England.


In the Muslim faith, what is Ramadan?

Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and prohibits eating or drinking during daylight hours. It ends on a date called Eid al-Fitr, which is traditionally announced by an imam who spots the new moon from a mosque tower and declares the end of a month of fasting.


"Eschatology" is the study of what?

This term can either refer to the study of, or the lore of, the end times or the end of the world. In the Bible, Matthew 24 is considered eschatological content, as it recounts Jesus' teachings about the last days. The entire book of Revelation is also eschatological.


What is the Jewish ritual known as a "seder"?

The seder recalls the night the "angel of death" passed over the homes of the Hebrews in Egypt on the night the firstborn of the Egyptians died. More broadly, it recalls God bringing his people up out of Egypt. Interesting sidenote: Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples was a seder.


In Islam, what is "hajj"?

Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, the duty of every Muslim. A version of the same word (spelled the same in English, that is, but with a slight variation in Arabic) refers to a person who has made hajj; it means, essentially, "pilgrim."


When you have reached "nirvana" in Buddhism, what has happened?

"Nirvana," like "kosher," has made its way into secular speech and become diluted in meaning. People often use it to mean "extreme happiness." But in Buddhism, it is the end goal: breaking the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that often keeps us in suffering.


Something that is "paschal" is related to what?

You might have noticed the similarity of the words "paschal" and "Passover." "Pasche" was the Old English word for Passover. But because Easter is so closely linked to Passover, the term eventually came to describe things related to the latter holiday as well.


The "Eucharist​" is another word for which of these?

​This is a more formal term for communion, which some Christian denominations use. Through the term might seem to be derived from "Christ," it's not. It's from the Greek "eu" + "charis," and means "thankful" or "grateful."


If you have become "apostate," what have you done?

​"Apostasy" is a term that can be used about many religions, though we suspect laid-back modern religions, like Wicca, would reject the whole concept: "Hey, he went off to do his own thing; it's all good." (Sidebar: Don't @ us about calling Wicca "modern." It really does trace its roots to the mid-20th century. Claims of a widespread nature religion in Europe before that time are notional at best).


Which holy text has chapters called "suras"?

Whether "suras" should be likened to chapters or books is open to debate. These divisions of the Q'uran are shorter than the books of the Jewish or Christian Bible. They also aren't as strictly focused on one topic, either; the suras tend to mix history and teachings freely.


"Handfasting" is a Wiccan type of ______.

Although handfasting is now associated with neopaganism, it has ancient roots in the British Isles. The hands of the bride and groom are wrapped with a ribbon and a knot is loosely tied. When they pull their hands out, the knot is pulled tight. It's not hard to see which casual term for getting married came from this tradition!


What is the meaning of "Abba," a word that Jesus used?

"Abba" was the Chaldean (a form of Catholicism) word for "father." It is so warm and familiar, some Bible scholars translate it as "daddy," although we might find it odd for Jesus to address God in quite this way. Fun fact: The word survives in English as "abbot," meaning the head monk in a monastery.


In Buddhism, "samsara" refers to _______.

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the need to break the cycle of samsara, which isn't "evil," per se, but persists because of our unwillingness to let go of worldly desires. Fun fact: "Samsara" became a popular name for girls in the counterculture of the 1960s.


Before it was adopted by the world of social media, what did (and does) "avatar" mean in Hinduism?

The god Vishnu has had many avatars on earth, though other gods have likewise had human incarnations. The term has been adopted by technology to mean the image a person uses to represent himself or herself online.


Some of the New Testament's books are "epistles." What does this mean?

"Epistle" is simply an old-fashioned word for "letter." It is rarely used anymore, except to describe the books written by Paul, Peter, James and John. This is why these books often open with a salutation and close with greetings to various people in the town to which the author was writing.


When someone is "ordained," what has happened?

When a student graduates from seminary, he or she (if the denomination allows female clergy) is ordained. This is also referred to as "taking orders," a phrase heard most often in Catholicism.


What does the word "maranatha" mean?

Maranatha appears only in 1 Corinthians. However, Christians have taken a liking to this Aramaic word and use it on church bulletins, banners at the front of a sanctuary and so on.


What does the word "Islam" mean?

While names like "Christianity" and "Judaism" don't have a direct meaning, "Islam" means "submission" and underscores the importance of obedience to God's will.


If a piece of writing is "apocryphal," what is it?

You might own a Bible that includes "the Apocrypha." This means it includes books of Jewish scripture that weren't included in the Old Testament. This includes the books of the Maccabees and the wisdom of Ben Sira (the latter is highly recommended if you enjoy Ecclesiastes or Job).


"Yeshivas" and "madrassas" are essentially the same thing in different religions. What are they?

The first is an Orthodox Jewish school; the second is Muslim. Both put a strong emphasis on the learning of religious precepts, although other subjects may be taught.


Explore More Quizzes

About HowStuffWorks Play

How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!