the Jews

The translation of the Greek οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (hoi Ioudaioi), traditionally “the Jews” in English, is used particularly often in the Gospel of John and has been receiving attention in the last 50 years. Below you’ll find an overview of how some English translators and translation have translated it, why they did so and the solutions some other languages have chosen.

Starting in the late 1960s, at the time the English Today’s English Version (Good News Bible) and respective translations in other languages (see below) were published, many translators started to question the translation of hoi Ioudaioi with “the Jews.”

Robert Bratcher, the translator of the Today’s English Version New Testament describes why his translation uses four different translations for the same Greek words (in The Bible Translator 1975, p. 401ff.): “Jewish people,” “Judeans,” “people hostile to Jesus,” and “the authorities in Jerusalem” (for more see here):

“In order to better understand the meaning of ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John, we must first look at the use and meaning of ‘the world’ in this Gospel. The author sees everything in terms of opposite forces: light and darkness, truth and error, life and death, God and the Devil. And he makes a sharp distinction between the world and Jesus and his followers, especially in the last half of the Gospel. Of course the world is the object of God’s love and of Christ’s saving mission (John 3:1617; 12:47; 17:21, 23), but it is not the object of the love of the followers of Jesus: they are not commanded to love the world. The disciples of Jesus are in the world (John 13:1), but they do not belong to it (John 15:19). The world hates Jesus and his disciples, because they do not belong to it (John 15:1819; 17:14, 15, 16). The world loves only those who belong to it (John 15:19). It does not know Jesus (John 1:10), or the Father (John 17:25), and cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). The world’s ruler is to be overthrown (John 12:31, 14:30; 16:11). When Jesus is parted from his disciples, they will be sad, but the world will be glad (John 16:20). Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33); his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). In the Gospel of John ‘the world’ stands in opposition to Jesus and his disciples.

“‘The Jews’ belong to ‘the world,’ as compared with Jesus and his followers. The Jews, like the world, do not know the Father. They have never heard his voice or seen his face, nor do they believe in the one whom he sent (John 5:37, 38). Jesus says to the Jews. ‘You come from this world, but I do not come from this world’ (John 8:23). (…)

“The author clearly places himself, and those whom he represents, as separate from the Jews. He speaks of ‘the Passover of the Jews’ (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55), the religious rules of the Jews about purification (John 2:6), a religious festival of the Jews (John 5:1), the Festival of Shelters of the Jews (John 7:2), the Day of Preparation of the Jews (John 19:42), and the way in which Jews prepare a body for burial (19:40).

“And quite as clearly he regards Jesus as not ‘a Jew’. In talking to the Jews. Jesus speaks of ‘your Law’ (John 7:19; 8:17; 10:34) and ‘your circumcision’ (John 7:22). Abraham is ‘your father’ (John 8:56). When the Jews say to him. ‘Our ancestors ate manna in the desert’ (John 6:31), Jesus replies, ‘What Moses gave you was not the bread from heaven’ (John 6:32), and later on says, ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert’ (John 6:49).

“It is true that twice Jesus is called a Jew: by the Samaritan woman (John 4:9) and by Pilate (John 18:35). But in both instances the term is used in its sense of ‘person of Judah’, contrasted with the Samaritan and the Roman. The same applies in John 4:22, where Jesus says to the Samaritan woman. ‘You (Samaritans) do not really know whom you worship; we (Jews) know whom we worship, for salvation comes from the Jews.’

“Apart from those two instances, it is only in John 1:11 that Jesus is identified as a Jew. in the statement that he came to ‘his own country’, but ‘his own people’ did not receive him. This passage, however, does not go against the Gospel as a whole, in which Jesus is shown as not being a part of ‘the Jews.’

“What accounts for this? It seems clear that the deep differences shown between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ of his time reflect the hostility between Church and Synagogue at the time the author wrote his Gospel. He has moved back the disputes and arguments of his own time into the time of Jesus, and they are represented as taking place between Jesus and the people of his time.

“The prominent part played by the Pharisees in the opposition to Jesus is worthy of note here. The High Priest and the chief priests are mentioned often, especially in chapters 18-19, as we would expect. They were, after all, the religious authorities responsible for arresting Jesus and turning hint over to Pilate. What is surprising is that the Pharisees appear so often in the Gospel (see John 1:24; 4:1; 7:32, 47, 48; 8:13; 9:13, 15, 16, 40; 11:46; 12:19, 42), and are at times identified as ‘the Jews’, that is, the authorities. Their part in relation to Jesus in the Gospel of John is different from the part they play in the other Gospels. In John it is their refusal to believe in Jesus and his claims that brings them into conflict with him. They are not, as in the other Gospels, condemned by Jesus because of their hypocrisy or their understanding of the Law. (…)

“The translator is bound to represent faithfully the way in which the author describes the ministry of Jesus. But the way in which he will translate the Greek hoi loudaioi every time it appears in the Gospel is not an easy matter to decide. (1) Should he not, always and everywhere, translate it by ‘the Jews’? This certainly may be argued, since the author does not use the expression in a precise national or racial sense of the people of Israel in the years A.D. 30-33, but of the opponents of his own time who denied the claims the Church makes about Jesus the Messiah. If the translator did this, however, he would almost be forced to use quotation marks — ‘the Jews’ — to show the strangeness of the phrase. (2) But since the author has placed these disputes in the time of Jesus, it is at this level that the translation must take place, so that ‘the Jews’ must be identified in terms of the people of Jesus’ own time. But as a matter of fact Jesus was a Jew, and to translate a passage, for example. ‘Jesus, in Jerusalem, said to the Jews’, is as unnatural as to say, ‘The President, in Washington, said to the Americans’, or, ‘The Queen, in London, said to the British.’

“In translating on this ‘historical’ level, however, does not the translator somehow distort the meaning of the text? The answer depends on whether we believe that the author intended his readers to understand his Gospel as reporting historical events which took place in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the early part of the first century. Assuming that he did, it seems to me that the translator does not have much of a choice, unless he says something like ‘the enemies of Jesus’, or ‘the unbelievers’ every time ‘the Jews’ is used of the opponents of Jesus.

“Consequently, in following the course which I think is the only right one to take, the translator must carefully observe the different senses in which ‘the Jews’ is used in the Gospel of John—and this is what will be done in this study, with an examination of every occurrence of the phrase and its meaning in the ‘historical’ setting of the Gospel. (…)

“According to this review, ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John may have four different meanings:

  • its natural sense, meaning simply Jewish people
  • Judeans, people who live in and near Jerusalem
  • people hostile to Jesus
  • the authorities in Jerusalem

For the Contemporary English Version in the 1990s, similar translation strategies were taken, as explained by David Burke, a member of the translation team (see the reprint from an original article in TIC TALK 24, 1993, right here). Other English translations that use varied translations for hoi Ioudaioi include the Living Bible, New International Version, Common English Bible, New Living Translation, The Inclusive New Testament, and others.

For a recent translation of the New Testament, its translator and Eastern Orthodox scholar David B. Hart (2017) explains why he chose to use ‘Judaean’ for every occurrence of the singular Ioudaios or the plural Ioudaioi throughout the New Testament (for more see here):

“The next term is Ioudaios — or Ioudaioi in the plural — which is usually rendered ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews,’ except in places where ‘Judaean’ or ‘Judaeans’ seems better to fit the context: again a perfectly justifiable practice, but also one that inadvertently introduces a distinction into the text that would not have been entirely intended by the authors. The books of the New Testament were written in an age in which national, ethnic, religious, and racial identities were not arranged in the often pernicious categories that came to hold sway in subsequent centuries; and it would be a severe distortion of the texts of the New Testament to allow these later developments to cast a shadow backward onto a time innocent of the evils of mediaeval or modern history. For example—and the most striking example -— the Gospel of John has often been accused of anti-Semitism, despite the anachronism of the very concept. Where English readers are accustomed to reading the Gospel as referring, often opprobriously, to ‘the Jews,’ the original text is usually referring to the indigenous Temple and synagogue authorities of Judaea, or to Judaeans living outside Judaea, or even to ‘Judaeans’ as opposed to ‘Galileans’ (see, for instance, John 7:1). The Gospel definitely reflects the disenchantment of Jewish Christians in Asia Minor with those they saw as having expelled them from the synagogue, and later Christian culture certainly often took this as an excuse for anti-Jewish violence and injustice, but it would be absurd to impute to the Gospel the sort of religious prejudices born in later generations, or certainly the racial ideologies that are so much a part of the special legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. I have rendered the word as ‘Judaean’ or ‘Judaeans’ throughout, even where that sounds somewhat awkward, and even in places where ‘Jew’ or ‘Jews’ would be an utterly anodyne or bracingly affirmative translation. After all, the general extension of the term ‘Jews’ to all who worshipped Israel’s God meant principally that their cultic life was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. Again, my rationale for doing this, and for ignoring my own twinge of reluctance whenever it produced a somewhat inept construction, is that I thought it better to preserve the unity of the word and the concept in the language of the ancient authors than to impose distinctions that would make the texts conform more readily to our cultural categories (and historical sins). (source: Hart 2017, p. 548f.)

Other English translations that use Judeans in most passages in John for Ioudaioi include N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament (in the UK: New Testament for Everyone), the Messianic Jewish Bible Project’s Tree of Life translation, and David Stern’s Jewish New Testament.

In The Jewish Gospel of John its translator explains why he chose to not translate but instead transliterate virtually ever occurrence of Ioudaioi (for more see here):

“The Gospel of John was initially written for a particular audience consisting of a variety of intra-Israelite groups, one of the main ones being the Samaritan Israelites. To them, unlike for us today, the word Ioudaioi did not mean ‘the People of Israel,’ i.e. ‘the Jewish people’ as we call them today. For these people, the people I propose are one of the main audiences for the Gospel of John, the Ioudaioi, meant something different.

“One modern example that illustrates this ancient dynamic comes from an Eastern European setting. The Ukrainians often called Russians, with whom they had an uneasy relationship to say the least, ‘Maskali.’ The Ukrainian word ‘Maskal’ comes from the name of the Russian Imperial Capital — Moscow. Those who were either of Russian ethnic descent, or who even as much as acknowledged Moscow’s authority or leading role in the region, could be referred to as ‘Maskal.’ In fact, the Maskal did not have to be from Moscow or be ethnically Russian at all. The individual simply needed to be (or be perceived to be) a supporter of a Moscow-led political agenda. Other peoples outside of the Russian-Ukrainian political conflict, who were familiar with the issues, never used the designation ‘Maskali’ themselves, knowing that it was a Ukrainian term for the Russians and Russia’s affiliates.

“Therefore, using a similar analogy, those who acknowledged the Jerusalem-approved authorities in Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) and Cana, which were far from Jerusalem, were also referred to by the principal name for the Jerusalemite formal rulers and leading sect — the Ioudaioi. All members of the Jerusalem-led system became the Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John. This is very similar to the way ‘Russians’ became ‘Maskali’ to Ukrainians and to others who witnessed their polemic. So when the audience for John’s Gospel heard these anti-Ioudaioi statements (like John 7:1-2), whom did they think the author/s had in mind? This is the key question.

“To Samaritan Israelites, whatever else the Ioudaioi may have been, they were certainly Judeans –- members of the former Southern Kingdom of Israel who had adopted a wide variety of innovations that were contrary to the Torah as Samaritans understood it. Judging from this Gospel, the original audience understood that, as well as simply being Judeans, the Ioudaioi were: i) Judean authorities, and (ii) affiliated members of this authority structure living outside of Judea.

“These affiliates were located both in the territories of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel (Galilee) and in the large Israelite diaspora outside the Land of Israel, both in the Roman Empire and beyond. In this way, the Gospel of John, like the other Gospels, portrayed Jesus’ antagonists as representatives of sub-groups within Israel, and not the people of Israel as a whole. In other words Ioudaioi (‘the Jews’ in most translations) in this Gospel are not ‘the Jewish People’ in the modern sense of the word.

“The translation of Ioudaioi always and only as ‘Jews’ sends the reader in the opposite direction from what the author intended. While the translation of this word simply as ‘Judeans,’ is a more accurate choice than ‘Jews,’ it is still not fully adequate –- for three reasons that come to mind:

  • The English word Jews evokes, in the minds of modern peoples, the idea of Jewish religion (i.e. Jews are people who profess a religion called Judaism) and therefore cannot be used indiscriminately to translate the term Ioudaioi, since, in the first century, there was no separate category for religion (Judaism, when it was used, meant something much more all-encompassing than what it means to us today). In a sense, it was only when non-Israelite Christ-followers, in an attempt to self-establish and self-define, created the category called Christianity, that the category called Judaism, as we know it today, was also born. Since then most Christian theologians and most Jewish theologians after them project our modern definition of Judaism back into the New Testament.
  • On the other hand, the English word Judean evokes in the minds of modern people, oftentimes, an almost exclusively geographical definition (a Judean is the person who lives in Judea or used to live in Judea) and hence cannot be used indiscriminately either, since today it does not imply everything it intended to imply in late antiquity.
  • The word Judean, without clarification and nuancing, does not account for the complex relationship of the outside-of-Judea affiliates with the Jerusalem authorities either.

“Because of the lack of a perfect word to describe what was meant by Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John, I suggest that the word is best left untranslated.” (source: Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 2015, p. XIff.)

In other languages, many common language versions (approximate equivalents to the English Today’s English Version / Good News Bible) or other simplified translations (as well as non-simplified versions) use varied translations for Ioudaioi in John as well. Below are some examples of translations of hoi Ioudaioi in John 1:19:

  • Portuguese: líderes judeus (Jewish leaders) (in Nova Tradução na Linguagem de Hoje (New Translation in Today’s Language))
  • French: autórités juives (Jewish authorities) (in Bible en français courant (Bible in Modern French) or chefs juifs (Jewish leaders) (in Parole de Vie (Word of Life))
  • Spanish: autiridades des judias (Jewish authorities) (in Dios Habla Hoy (God Speaks Today))
  • Italian: autorità ebraiche ((Jewish authorities) (in Traduzione Interconfessionale in Lingua Corrente (Interconfessional Translation into Modern Language))
  • Dutch: Joodse leiders (Jewish leaders) (in BasisBijbel (Basic Bible))
  • German: führende Männer (leading men) (in Die Gute Nachricht: Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch (Good News: The Bible in Today’s German)), führende Männer des jüdischen Volkes (leading men of the Jewish people) (in Neue Genfer Übersetzung (New Geneva Translation)), or jüdische Behörden (Jewish authorities) (in BasisBibel (Basic Bible))
  • Indonesian: penguasa Yahudi (Jewish authorities) (in Alkitab dalam Bahasa Indonesia Masa Kini (The Bible in Today’s Indonesian))
  • Hindi: यहूदी धर्म-गुरुओं ने Yahūdī dharma-guruoan ne(Jewish religious leaders (in पवित्र बाइबिल CL (Holy Bible CL))
  • Nepali: यहूदी अगुवाहरूले Yahūdī aguvāharūlē (Jewish leaders) (in सरल नेपाली पवित्र बाइबल (Simple Nepali Holy Bible))
  • Hebrew: רָאשֵׁי הַיְּהוּדִים rashei hayehudim (heads of the Jews) (Modern Hebrew New Testament)

Holy Spirit

In English, the Greek term Pneûma tò Hagion is translated as “Holy Ghost” or “Holy Spirit.” The English terms referring to Pneûma are synonyms: “ghost” is derived from Old English gast (“breath” or “good or bad spirit”) and “spirit” from Latin spiritus (“breath” or “supernatural immaterial creature”). Until the late 19th century, English translators of all traditions used “Holy Ghost” (or “holy Ghost”) but generally switched to “Holy Spirit” (or “holy Spirit”) thereafter, likely because the meaning of “ghost” had transitioned to predominantly refer to the spirit of a dead person.

Other languages with a long tradition in Bible translation translate Pneûma (for “holy” see holy) as follows (click or tap here to see more):

  • While a few Germanic languages still use terms derived from gast (see above) including German and Dutch (Geist and Geest respectively), the majority use forms of Proto*-Germanic anadô (“breath,” “spirit,” “zeal” — used in Latin as anima), including Danish (Ånden), Swedish (Ande), Icelandic (Andi), and Norwegian (Ånd). (*”Proto” refers to the most recent common, often hypothetical language ancestor).
  • The majority of Romance languages use a form of the Latin Spiritus (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan among others).
  • Slavic languages derive their translation from the Proto-Slavic dȗxъ (“breath,” “wind,” “spirit”), including Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian (all: Дух)
  • Most Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, Chaldean — with the exception of Maltese which uses the Latin-based l-Ispirtu s-Santu), Iranian languages (Urdu, Tajik, Dari, Persian, Pashto), Turkic languages (Uzbek, Turkish), Malayic languages (Indonesian, Balinese, Sangir, and Malay — for further information on Malay, see below) use a derivative of the Proto-Semitic rūḥ- (“to blow,” “breathe”). Compare the Hebrew term ruach (רוּחַ: “breath,” “wind,” “spirit”) in the Old Testament. (For the use of Roho in Swahili, see below)
  • Many Indo-Aryan languages have chosen translations derived from Sanskrit आत्मन् ātman, meaning “soul,” “life,” “self,” including Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Panjabi, Santali, and Telugu — source: Hooper, p. 176f.

Bratcher / Nida say this about the translation into languages that do not have an existing Bible translation (click or tap here to see more):

“Undoubtedly no word has given quite so much trouble to the Bible translator as spirit, for (1) it includes such a wide range of meaning, from ‘evil spirit’ to ‘poor in spirit’ to ‘Holy Spirit’ and (2) it touches so vitally the crucial comparison and contrast between Christianity and so-called ‘animism.’

“There are four principal dangers in the choice of a word for Holy Spirit: (1) the term may identify an essential malevolent spirit, and no mere addition of the word ‘holy’ or ‘good’ is likely to change the basic connotation of the word, (2) the word may mean primarily the spirit of a deceased person (hence God must have died — a not infrequent error in Bible translations), (3) the expression used to mean ‘spirit’ may denote only an impersonal life force, a sort of soul-stuff which may be conceived as indwelling all plant, animal, and human substances (therefore, to say that ‘God is spirit’ is to deny His essential personality), and (4) a borrowed term may signify next to nothing to the people, and can only be explained by another term or terms, which, if they are adequate to explain the borrowing, should have been used in the first place. It is true that in some instances a borrowed word has seemed to be the only alternative, but it should be chosen only as a last resort.

“There is no easy formula to be employed in finding an adequate equivalent for Holy Spirit, for what seems to work quite well in one area may not serve in another. One thing, however, is certain: one should not select a term before making a comprehensive study of all kinds of words for spirits and for parts or aspects of personality and thus having as complete a view as possible of all indigenous beliefs about supernatural beings.”

Following are ways that languages without a long tradition Bible translation have translated Pneûma (click or tap here to see more):

  • Western Highland Chatino: “God’s perfect heart” J. Hefley (1968, p. 210) tells this story (click or tap here to read more):

    “Ninu [a Chatino translation assistant] told his translator that the word ‘holy’ could be used to modify an idol, a household god, the witch doctor, an altar, a lion, the sea which had caused a flood and disaster, a sacred mushroom, and several other things. The translator and his consultant deduced that holy had two main components of meanings for Chatinos. It referred to persons purported to hold supernatural powers, and to objects which, if not properly respected, would bring evil upon one. With this and other information, they agreed that they could not use the Chatino word for ‘holy’ and ‘spirit’ in defining the third person of the Trinity. Their approved translation for Holy Spirit became ‘God’s perfect heart’ (referring primarily to the life principles of one who is living).”

  • Malay (Today’s Malay Version, publ. 1987): Roh Allah: “Spirit of God.” Barclay Newman (in The Bible Translator 1974, p. 432ff.) explains this as follows (click or tap here to see more):

    “A third difficult phrase that had to be dealt with was ‘Holy Spirit,’ since in popular Islamic theology there are many ‘holy spirits.’ In order to overcome this problem it was decided that ‘the Holy Spirit’ would always be rendered ‘God’s Spirit,’ and that wherever ‘Spirit’ or ‘the Spirit’ was used as a reference to God’s Spirit this would be clearly marked.

    “Other illustrations could be given of the clearing up of ambiguous and difficult phrases, but only one more will be selected, and it will serve as a transition to the next major section of this article. In John 6:63 the phrase ‘Spirit and life’ (in the expression ‘the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life’) is taken to refer to one thing not two. That is, even though the words are connected by the conjunction ‘and’ they are not in the relationship to one another that ‘and’ normally suggests. Moreover, ‘spirit’ in John’s Gospel, unless otherwise indicated, always refers to God’s Spirit. So then, the Common Malay has translated with the meaning, ‘the words which I speak come from God’s Spirit and bring life.’ This exegesis also has the advantage of tying in the meaning closely to the previous verse.

    “As previously indicated, except in the passages where the context clearly indicates otherwise (John 11:33; John 13:21; John 19:30), it was assumed that ‘spirit’ or ‘the spirit’ refer to God’s Spirit, and so the translator always made this information explicit. For example, John the Baptist’s words in John 1:32 become ‘I saw God’s Spirit come down like a dove from heaven.’ The one exception to this rule is in 3:8a, where there is a play on words. In Greek, as in Hebrew, the same word may mean either ‘wind’ or ‘spirit.’ In this context most translations take ‘wind’ to be the basic comparison, and so have translated in this way; and some have even provided a footnote, indicating the play on words. Since the basic comparison here is seen to be ‘wind,’ the Malay New Testament translated the text in this way.”

  • Shipibo-Conibo: translated with “a word designating one of the larger entities of human personality, the one which includes most of the others and which is always used of a live person.” James Lauriault (in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 56ff) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “The Shipibo consider all spirits evil, with the exception of certain entities making up a human personality. It would be a manifest contradiction to say ‘Good Evil-Spirit’ for ‘Holy Spirit,’ and it would be completely misinterpreted if one should say that Jesus perceived in his evil-spirit that some of the scribes thus questioned within their hearts (Mark 2:8).

    “For these reasons we have translated this word (…) when it unmistakably refers to a disembodied evil personality yoshin ‘demon.’ (‘Unclean spirit’ we have translated ‘harmful demon.’)

    “When it refers to the ‘Holy Spirit,’ we have finally translated it ‘Spotless Spirit,’ using for ‘Spirit’ a word designating one of the larger entities of human personality, the one which includes most of the others and which is always used of a live person.”

  • Sranan Tongo: Santa Yeye (from previously Santa Winti). Marlon Winedt explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “One of the translators in Sranan Tongo followed the historically and scientifically correct analysis that the word for Holy Spirit should be ‘Santa Winti.’ However, the churches had traditionally used ‘Santa Yeye.’ Although in the spiritual world-mapping of the afro-descendants of the country Santa Yeye refers to a more limited spirit, it was the most acceptable choice because ‘winti’ besides meaning ‘spirit, wind’ also refers to the afro-Caribbean religion /spiritual practice ‘winti’ which can be compared to voodoo or other forms in the Caribbean. The Catholic lectionary used this translation (Santa Winti) though there was a heated debate about the use. The then-bishop of Paramaribo advised the faithful to choose whether they wanted to say Santa Winti or Santa Yeye when reading the text. In the interior of Suriname, Catholic catechists actually burned the lectionary because they found the term Santa Winti to be blasphemous.

    “When the Sranan Tongo New Testament translation project was underway an attempt to merge two teams did not succeed partially based on this issue. Ultimately the remaining SIL/Bible Society of Suriname team did not chose to use Santa Winti but the accepted Santa Yeye. [This version was published in 2002.]”

  • Anuak: with a term that means ‘that which comes from God’ Eugene Nida (in The Bible Translator 1955, p. 63) explains (click or tap here to see more):

    “In Anuak there is no term for ‘spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit.

    “There is a word (ywey) which may be used to translate human soul or spirit, but which is essentially the ‘life principle.’ One cannot speak of the ywey of God, for the Anuaks insist that God does not have a ywey and that He is not a ywey. It is God who has given ywey to all people, animals and plants, but He Himself is of a different order of existence.

    “To speak of the ywey of God would be to equate him with earthly creation. There seems to be no easy solution to this problem, but for the time being ‘Spirit’ is to be translated as ‘that which comes from God’, in the sense of that which emanates from or has its origin in God.”

  • Kaingang: Topẽ kuprĩg (God’s Spirit — kuprĩg is often to the spirit of a dead person). Ursula Wiesemann (in Notes on Translation June 1978, p. 32ff.) explains how the translation team reached that conclusion (click or tap here to see more):

    “All human beings have a kãnhvég which has as an outward manifestation the shadow or the reflection of that person. It is closely linked to the body and cannot leave it. It is an indication of life in the body. According to one language helper, it lives in our chest (that is, heart), but this may be a carry-over from his Christian teaching.

    “The kãnhvég at death becomes vẽnh kuprĩg. Vẽnh is a pronoun meaning ‘someone’s’. The vẽnh kuprĩg seem to live in groups and can be heard at night making a peculiar humming noise. They may do mischievous things like throwing dirt on the house which scares the inhabitants. A vẽnh kuprĩg may also appear to an individual, be recognized by him for whose spirit he is, speak kindly to him, and even touch him. The purpose is to take the living person along to the place where the dead live. It is reported that in this way the vẽnh kuprĩg cause death, or that they might even choke babies to death during the night. In describing an encounter with a vẽnh kuprĩg, the Indians say: ‘I saw a vẽnh kuprĩg It was so-and-so.’ Whereas kãnhvég collocates with all pronouns and names (that is, can be directly identified as belonging to a specific person), kuprĩg collocates most naturally with vẽnh when it refers to the spirit of a dead person.

    “Such conflicting reports on the meaning of the terms is difficult to choose the right terms for the Spirit of God. In Rio das Cobras and in Guarita, God is said to have a kuprĩg and a kãnhvég, but it is His kuprĩg who has a life of his own without being tied to God’s body. In both localities (and some others, where, however, the question was not looked into in detail as in the three areas identified), the definite and unquestioned choice of all people asked was to identify the ‘Holy Spirit’ as Topẽ kuprĩg ‘Spirit of God’. In Nonoai (same dialect area as Guarita but different dialect area from Rio das Cobras), however, the definite and unquestioned choice is Topẽ kãnhvég ‘because kuprĩg refers to the spirit of one who died.’ So it will be necessary to use both terms in a paraphrase to satisfy everyone. The objection to kãnhvég is its close tie to a body, and only in Nonoai this connection seems to be broken.

    “Postscript: Since writing the above, several years have passed, and the New Testament has been completed, and the revision committee, composed of three Indians from as many dialect areas, unanimously chose Topẽ kuprĩg for ‘Spirit of God,’ rejecting the word kãnhvég as being ‘too weak and not meaningful’ — that is, the kãnhvég is not a spirit at all but just a sign of life, so it has been dropped in the last revision, as well as the reference to the ‘kãnhvég not dying’ as eternal life.”

  • Papiamento: Spiritu. Since the term on its own means “bad spirit,” in any case that no modifier is used (such as “Holy” or “of truth”), the translators used Spiritu di Dios (“Spirit of God”) to differentiate it from the negative connotation (source: Marlon Winedt).
  • Ditammari: “air of God.” Loewen (in The Bible Translator 1983, p. 213ff.) explains that a search for the term “spirit” was conducted (especially as in “Holy Spirit”). Since faith healers often avoided using the name of unclean spirits by saying “impure air” a suggestion was made to call Holy Spirit “clean/pure air”. This was accepted but changed to “air of God” to avoid ambiguity with air that we breath.
  • Warlpiri: Pirlirrpa Kaatu-kurlangu: “God’s Eternal Spirit,” since “holy’ carries the meaning of taboo and cannot be used (source: Stephen Swartz (SIL) in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: God’s Good Spirit (source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22.)
  • Kahua: the term for “Spirit” is a generic term for a spirit which never had a body (i.e., not the spirit of a dead ancestor). (Source: David Clark)
  • Keapara: Vea’a Palaguna (“Holy Spirit” but can also be “Holy God” or “angels” — “there is not a strong contrast between the meaning of God and Holy Spirit” since “God” is translated with “Palagu”) (source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 222f.)
  • Naro: Tc’ẽe: a word that refers to the “thinking/willing part” of one’s personality. (Source: van Steenbergen)
  • Mairasi: Janav Enggwarjer Nanen Oroug (“Great Above One’s Clean Spirit”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Many Bantu languages translate Pneûma with a word that originally means “soul,” including Ganda and Haya (both: mwoyo), Ndebele (uMoya), Nyanja (mzimu), Sotho (Moya). Fang uses Nsísim: “shadow” or “separate soul” (anima separata) (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176)

The grammatical gender of the Greek Pneûma is neuter (and the Hebrew ruach has a feminine gender). While many languages either do not have a grammatical gender or have a word for Pneûma that grammatically is masculine, other languages found various ways of dealing with this. (Click or tap here to read more):

The earliest example is Classical Syriac which, like Hebrew, used a term — Ruhä — that was of feminine gender. According to Ashbrook (1993), in early documents the feminine gender was not only used in a grammatical sense but the Spirit was often described with feminine imagery as well. “Around the year 400 [though], a change emerges in our texts. Starting in the fifth century, and almost universally by the sixth, the Spirit is masculine in Syriac writers. Ruhä when referring to wind or spirit continues to follow rules of grammar and to be construed in the feminine; but when referring to the Holy Spirit, it is now construed as masculine, although this does violence to the fabric of the language.” (Source: Ashbrook 1993)

A similar process of ungrammatical usage was attempted in Asháninka. The “Good Spirit of God” required a feminine, inanimate pronoun which was artificially changed to masculine. After a while this was changed back to its true grammatical form with no perceptible difference in the understanding of the Trinity. Will Kindberg (in The Bible Translator 1964, 197f.) tells that story (click or tap here to read more):

“For the past several years Mr Sylvester Dirks of the Mennonite Brethren Mission and I have been engaged in missionary work with the Asháninka sub-group of the Campa tribe in Peru, and have collaborated on Christian vocabulary items and translation as well as other phases of our missionary activities. For the ‘Holy Spirit’ we are using ‘the Good Spirit of God’. The normal pronominal reference for spirit, whether it be a human spirit or the spirit of a god, is third person feminine inanimate. Long ago, Sylvester and I agreed that we would force the use of the third person masculine animate pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit, although we recognized it was contrary to the grammatical system of Asháninka. We did this because of a theological bias: the Holy Spirit is referred to in English as masculine, and we think of the Spirit as a masculine member of the Godhead. We ignored the fact that it has a neuter reference in Greek.

“In the Gospel of Mark and also in the book of Acts, my translation consistently uses the third person masculine pronoun to refer to the feminine inanimate spirit. There has been a reaction against this by the people as they hear or read these portions of Scripture, though some of the believers have accepted it when it was explained to them why it had been done.

“This past year while I was continuing working on other portions of Scripture, I was again troubled by the non-grammatical use of the pronominal referent.

“I checked again with some of my colleagues here in Peru and they agreed with me that it might be wise to switch back to the correct grammatical usage. So I checked with Mr Dirks and he did not object to the change.

“Because of the importance of the issue, I also wrote to Dr Eugene Nida and Dr John Beekman for their opinions. They both suggested the use of the grammatically correct forms. The following is a quote from Dr Beekman’s letter :

“‘There is a distinction between animate and inanimate reference in one of the Zapoteco dialects of Mexico. All spirits fall into the inanimate class. The weight of theological considerations led the translators to use the animate form contrary to usage. In consultation, however, it was agreed that it would be preferable not to violate the grammatical pattern especially since the informants felt that the use of the inanimate form did not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit was not a person. The translators are now using the inanimate form to the satisfaction of all of the believers.’
“I have switched the pronominal reference throughout John and it has just been printed. The reaction of the few people with whom I have checked this has been good. The question has been asked: ‘How does having two masculine members and a feminine-inanimate member affect the Asháninka’s idea of a triune God?’

“One day I was talking to my informant (still a relatively untrained believer) about the different gods in which his fellow tribesmen believe. And I said, ‘What does the Bible teach about God? How many are there?’ (Note that I used the unmarked form that might be either singular or plural.) He answered, ‘There is one God’. Then after thinking a minute, he said, ‘There are two—there’s Jesus. Then afterwards he said, ‘There are three— there’s God’s Spirit’. It seems to me he has understood the doctrine of the Trinity about as well as most Christians. For the last few months we have been using a feminine inanimate referent for the Holy Spirit and this has not seemed to hinder his understanding of the Trinity. Time will tell the reaction of the rest of the people.”

In Swahili, the translation of Pneûma tò Hagion is Roho Mtakatifu. Roho, derived from the Semitic / Arabic Rūḥ, should be in the noun class for loan words but to prevent the misunderstanding of Roho as an inanimate object, it is (grammatically incorrectly) used in the first class of nouns which is specifically reserved for people (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176). While some Bantu languages use similar strategies, Lamba left Umupasi Uswetelele in the third noun class that is also used for trees and plants, making a grammatically a non-person. But, as C. M. Doke (in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.) remarks, “it is [left] to numerous references in the Scriptures to establish that the Holy Spirit us a person, the third person of the Trinity.”

See also “God’s Gender” under God.