The Meaning of Pneuma and Its Role In The Gospels

Continued from Part 31

Pneuma, spirit and parakletos, helper

The Greek word for spirit (pneuma) has many different meanings, the correct one being determined only from the context of each occurrence.  In Greek pneuma, is neuter, as are all pronouns referring to the spirit, making them necessarily impersonal.  Those New Testament translations which render the “spirit” as “He” instead of “it” do so because of trinitarian beliefs (e.g., John 14:17). 

If the translators had properly rendered the neuter pronouns of “the spirit of the truth” found in John 14 through 16 as “it,” “its,” “itself” and “which” instead of “He,” “His,” “Him,” “who,” and “whom,” (John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-8, 13-15) there would not be this false sense that there is personality attributed to the holy spirit.

In the Johannine Jesus’ last discourses to his disciples, he speaks of the “helper” who will come to encourage the faithful after he has gone to the Father.  Since “helper” (parakletos) is a masculine word in Greek, trinitarian translators render the following pronouns as “he” and “him.”  The same “helper” is, however, synonymous with “the spirit of the truth” and the texts should be rendered as follows:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father and He will give you another helper to remain with you until the [coming] age, the spirit of the truth, which the world cannot receive, because it does not see it or know it [auto, neuter agreeing with spirit].  But you know it [auto] because it remains with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you. . . .  But the helper, the holy spirit, which the Father will send in my name, it [ekeinos, masculine in Greek to agree with parakletos, but translated as “he” only if it is assumed a person is meant] will teach you all things and remind you of all things that I said to you.  (John 14:15-26) Since the “helper” may be distributed at the request of the “Son” and is subservient to the wishes of the “Father” it is not a person distinct from and equal to the Father or the Son.

So-called pathetic fallacies, attributing personal qualities, gender, feelings, and actions to things that have no real personal consciousness are common in the Jewish Scriptures.  For example, Wisdom is personified in Proverbs 8 and 9, yet no literal person named “Wisdom” was actually beside God as He created the world (Proverbs 8:30).  Similarly, in the Gospel of John the spirit of God is personified as a parakletos, “helper,” “advocate” (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).  The personal pronouns used agree grammatically with the nature of the figurative title.  But, the personification does not mean the subject has substance or is a person. The parakletos, as with the “spirit of the truth,” and “spirit” requires the neuter “it” to reflect the impersonal nature of what its referent is.  A writer or a poet can, however, employ a figurative expression in the use of pronouns.  When in the Gospel of John poetic personification is being employed with reference to the “helper” the reader needs to understand such usage to be a mere figure of speech.  It is implicit in the text of John 16:13 that this “helper” is “sent.”  It is explicit that it “does not speak on its [his] own initiative” and is instructed (“whatever it [or he] hears it [or he] will speak”).  Used in this context, it is supposedly the heaven sent insight taking the place of Jesus who is to go to the Father (John 14:12).  It is “another helper” in lieu of the departed Jesus who is to lead the disciples to a deeper knowledge of the gospel and enable them to undergo trials and persecution.  It is by no means meant by the author of the Fourth Gospel to be considered a personage coequal to the sender.  Parakletos is also applied to Jesus in the sense of him being a heavenly advocate or intercessor for his followers:  “If anyone sins, we have an advocate (parakletos) with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).  But, in this context it is not used as if it were a personification.

© Gerald Sigal