holy

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is translated in English as “holy” has many translations that often only cover one aspect of its meaning. (Note that “holy” as well as related words in other Germanic languages originally meant “whole, uninjure.d)”

In an article from 2017, Andrew Case (in: The Bible Translator 2017, p. 269ff.) describes some of the problems of the concept of “holiness” in English as well as in translation in other languages and asks for “a creative effort to turn the tide toward a more biblical understanding. He challenges the standard understanding of God’s holiness as “separation,” “transcendence,” or “infinite purity,” and suggests that in certain contexts it also carries the meaning of “totally devoted.”

(Click here to read more of his article.)

“For a long time there has been considerable confusion regarding the meaning of the word ‘holy’. For the limited scope of this paper, we will focus on this confusion and its development within the English-speaking world, which has a widespread influence in other countries. The word for holy in English can be traced back at least to the eleventh century (although there is evidence of its use in Old Norse around A.D. 825). The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of holy as applied to deities, stating:

“‘the development of meaning has probably been: held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement; (hence) of a character that evokes human veneration and reverence; (and thus, in Christian use) free from all contamination of sin and evil, morally and spiritually perfect and unsullied, possessing the infinite moral perfection which Christianity attributes to the Divine character.’

“Thus ‘infinite moral perfection’ persists as an understood meaning by many in the English-speaking world today. Others gloss this as ‘purity’ or ‘cleanness,’ and the effects of this interpretation can be seen in residual missionary influence in different parts of the world. These effects manifest themselves in people groups who have long-standing traditions of referring to the Holy Spirit as the ‘clean’ Spirit or the ‘pure’ Spirit. And subsequently, their idea of what it means for God to be holy remains limited by a concept of high sinlessness or perfection. After years of this mentality embedding itself into a culture’s fabric, it turns out to be extremely difficult to translate the Bible into their language using any terminology that might differ from the ingrained tradition handed down to them by missionaries who had a faulty understanding of the word holy. One of the purposes of this paper is to offer persuasive biblical evidence that translations and traditions like those mentioned may be limited in what they convey and may often be unhelpful.

“The persistence of this confusion around the word ‘holy’ in our present day stems from various factors, of which two will be mentioned. First, English translations of the Bible have insisted on retaining the term ‘holy’ even though few modern people intuitively understand the meaning of the term. This phenomenon is similar to the use of the word hosts in phrases like ‘LORD of hosts’ or ‘heavenly hosts,’ which most modern people do not know refers to armies. Within much of the English-speaking church there is an assumption that Christians understand the word ‘holy’, yet at the same time authors continue to write books to help explain the term. These varied explanations have contributed to a conceptual muddiness, which is related to the second primary factor: the promotion and proliferation of an etymological fallacy. This etymological fallacy’s roots can be traced back to the influence of W. W. Baudissin, who published The Concept of Holiness in the Old Testament in 1878. In this work he proposed that the Hebrew קדשׁ originally came from קד, which meant ‘to cut’ (Baudissin 1878). This led to the widespread notion that the primary or essential meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘apart, separate.’ This meaning of holy has been further engrafted into the culture and tradition of evangelicals by influential authors and speakers like R. C. Sproul. His book The Holiness of God, which has sold almost 200,000 copies since it was first released in the 1980s, tends to be a staple volume on every pastor’s shelf, and became an immensely popular video series. In it he writes,

“‘The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word meaning ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase ‘a cut apart.’ . . . God’s holiness is more than just separateness. His holiness is also transcendent. . . . When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. . . . Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature.’ (Sproul 1985, 37)

“J. I. Packer also contributes to the spread of this idea in his book Rediscovering Holiness: ‘Holy in both biblical languages means separated and set apart for God, consecrated and made over to Him’ (Packer 2009, 18).

“Widely influential author A. W. Tozer also offers a definition:

“‘What does this word holiness really mean? . . . Holiness in the Bible means moral wholeness — a positive quality which actually includes kindness, mercy, purity, moral blamelessness and godliness. It is always to be thought of in a positive, white intensity of degree.’ (Tozer 1991, 34)

“Thus one can imagine the average Christian trying to juggle this hazy collection of abstractions: infinite moral purity and wholeness, kindness, mercy, blamelessness, godliness, transcendence, exalted loftiness, and separateness. Trying to apply such a vast definition to one’s reading of Scripture can be baffling. (. . .)

“In the levitical and priestly tradition of the Pentateuch, the term ‘holy’ is applied to people (priests, Nazirites, the congregation), places (especially the sanctuary), gifts and offerings, occasions (all the feasts), as well as to Yahweh. While we cannot assume that the meaning is totally different when applied to these different categories, neither should we assume that it is the same. This paper does not propose to address the meaning of holy when referring to things. The purpose is to explore how holy should be understood when applied mainly to persons. It is common for a word to carry a different meaning when applied to a human being than when applied to a thing. In English, for example, a person can be ‘tender’ in a way a steak cannot. Context is king. Also, it should be understood that the semantic range of a word is not permanently fixed and may shift considerably over time. It would be linguistically disingenuous to say that a word always means ‘such and such.’ As Nida explains, a word’s meaning is a ‘set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign’ (Nida 1975, 14). Words are not infinitely malleable, but they are also not completely static or inextricably bound by their root or history. Thus this paper acknowledges that ‘holy’ may connote other things such as ‘purity, separate, set apart,’ depending on the context. In summary, this paper should be considered a simple beginning to a discussion that may help stir up others to develop the idea further. (…)

“As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, translations that gloss ‘holy’ as ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ in reference to God or the Spirit are limited and potentially misleading. Therefore, what is the alternative way forward? Obviously, when considering the issue of perceived authenticity, many will not be able to change decades or even centuries of tradition within their communities. Once the translation of a name is established, especially a name so pervasive and primal as Holy Spirit, it is exceedingly difficult to reverse the decision. As in all cases with translation of key terms, best practice involves letting the community make an informed decision and test it amongst themselves.

“In all probability, communities who already use terms such as ‘Clean/Pure Spirit’ will opt to maintain them, even after gaining a better understanding as presented in this paper. In those cases it may be helpful to encourage them to include a clarifying discussion of what it means for God to be holy, in a glossary or a footnote.

“In cultures that have assimilated a loan word from English or some other language, there must be corrective teaching on the term, since it will be impossible to change. We are forever stuck with holy in the English-speaking world, but pastors, leaders, and writers can begin to turn the tide towards a better understanding of the term. Likewise, other cultures can begin to resurrect the biblical meaning through offering wise guidance to their congregations.

“In pioneering contexts where no church or Christian terminology has been established, translators have a unique opportunity to create translations that communicate more accurately what Scripture says about God’s holiness. The equivalent of a single abstract term ‘devoted’ or ‘dedicated’ may often be lacking in other languages, but there are always creative and compelling ways to communicate the concept. Even the translation ‘Faithful Spirit’ would be closer to the meaning than ‘pure.’ ‘Committed’ would be better than ‘separate’ or ‘blameless.’ Nevertheless, it should be clearly understood that finding a viable alternative for translation will be a difficult challenge in many languages.

“Although our devotion to God will involve separating ourselves from certain things and striving to be blameless, they are not equal concepts, just as loving one’s wife is not the same as avoiding pornography (even though it should include that). The one is positive and the other negative. What we want to communicate is the positive and fundamental aspect of holiness, wherein God pours himself out for the good of his people, and people offer their hands and hearts to God and his glory.

“A helpful tool for eliciting a proper translation would be to tell a story of a father (or a mother in some cultures) who was totally devoted to the well-being of his children, or of a husband who was totally devoted to the welfare of his wife. After choosing culturally appropriate examples of how the man went above and beyond the normal call of duty because of his devotion, ask, ‘What would you call this man? What was he like?’ This would open up a potentially valuable discussion that may unveil the right word or phrase.

“Ultimately God’s manifestation of his covenantal character in action towards humanity (his people in particular) and his people manifesting the covenantal character of God in their lives — that is, holiness — complements our understanding of the gospel. God poured out the life of his Son as a demonstration not only of his righteousness (Rom 3:25), but also to show his holiness. Jesus himself was obedient unto death for his Father’s chosen ones, and thus it is no surprise that he is referred to by the quaking demons as ‘the Holy One of God’ (Mark 1:24). And it is the Holy Spirit who manifests God’s holiness through the gospel, enabling people to understand it, bringing them to embrace it, and empowering them to live it.

In the 1960s Bratcher / Nida described the difficulty of translation the concept (in connection with “Holy Spirit”) like this:

“An almost equally difficult element in the phrase Holy Spirit is the unit meaning ‘holy,’ which in the Biblical languages involves a concept of separation (i.e. unto God or for His service). In general, however, it is difficult to employ a term meaning primarily ‘separated’, for this often leads to the idea of ‘cast out’. One must make sure that the concept of ‘separated’ implies not merely ‘separated from’ (hence, often culturally ostracized), but ‘separated to’ (in the idea of consecrated, dedicated, or ‘taboo’ — in its proper technical sense). Perhaps the most naive mistakes in rendering Holy have been to assume that this word can be translated as ‘white’ or ‘clean’, for we assume that “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” a belief which is quite foreign to most peoples in the world. Holy may, however, be rendered in some languages as ‘clear’, ‘pure’ (in Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona and Javanese ‘clean’ or ‘pure’), ‘shining’, or ‘brilliant’ (with the connotation of awesomeness), concepts which are generally much more closely related to ‘holiness’ than is ‘whiteness’ or ‘cleanness’.”

Other translations include:

  • Southern Bobo Madaré: “good”
  • Huichol: “without sin”
  • Vai: “uncontaminated” (source for this and two above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Balinese: “purety”
  • Tae’ (1933 translation): “roundness of heart” (=”perfection”)
  • Kituba: “being-sufficient” (=”complete, perfect, acceptable”)
  • Tboli: “unreserved obedience” (“using a noun built on the expression ‘his breath/soul is conformed'”) (source for this and three above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Folopa: “separate (from sin) / pure / distinct” (source: Anderson / Moore 2006, p. 202)
  • Khmer: visoth — “unmixed, exceptional” (rather than Buddhist concept of purity) (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 233ff.)
  • Warlpiri: “God-possessive” (in connection with “Holy Spirit) (source: Stephen Swartz in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “great and shiny” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Lama: “belonging especially to God” or “set apart for God’s purposes” (source: Joshua Ham)
  • Naro: tcom-tcomsam — “lucky” (“the concept of holiness is unknown”) (source: van Steenbergen)
  • Aguaruna: “blameless” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation 1970, p. 1ff.)
  • Mandara: tamat (“In the Mandara culture, there is a place where only the traditional leaders of high standing can enter, and only during special feasts. This place is tamat, meaning set apart, sacred.” (source: Karen Weaver)
  • Awabakal: yirri yirri Lake (2018, p. 71) describes that choice: “As language historian Anne Keary has explained, yirri yirri meant ‘sacred, reverend, holy, not to be regarded but with awe’. It also had the more concrete meaning of an initiation site, ‘the place marked out for mystic rites, not to be profaned by common use’. As such, yirri yirri was not a generic term for ‘holy’: it invoked a specifically male spiritual domain.

The use of the word “tapu” (from which the English word “taboo” derives) in translations of various languages in the South Pacific is noteworthy. The English term “taboo” was first used by Captain Cook in 1785. It does not only mean “forbidden, prohibited, untouchable,” but also “sacred, holy.” This concept is attested in almost all South Pacific islands (see this listing for the use of forms of “tapu” in many of the languages — for a modern-day definition of tapu, according to Māori usage, see here).

While some Bible translators working in South Pacific languages did not use “tapu” for the Hebrew Old Testament term קֹדֶשׁ (“holy” in English translation), many did, including in Tongan (“tapuha”), Gilbertese (“tabu”), Tuvalu (“tapu”), Rarotongan (“tapu”), and Māori (“tapu”). (See: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)

In some of those languages, for instance in the Kiribati (Gilbertese) New Version Bible of 2016, other Old (and New) Testament terms that don’t contain a “Holy” marker in the source language, use “tabu” as a modifier for terms that are rendered in English as “Bread of Presence (shewbread),” “Sabbath,” or “Temple.”

Some South Pacific languages also use forms of “tapu” in translation of the “Holy” (Ἅγιον) in “Holy Spirit.”

Other languages that use “taboo” for a translation of “holy” include the Bantu languages Luvale and Lunda (source: A.E. Horton in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 122ff.).

The Hebraist Franz Steiner gave a series of lectures on the topic of “taboo” and the Old Testament idea of “holy” or “sacred” that are now considered classic. Steiner died shortly after giving the lectures and they were published posthumously. While he never actually arrives at an actual definition of “taboo” in his lectures the following excerpts show something of the difficult relationship between “taboo” and “קֹדֶשׁ” (Click or tap here):

“The most common form of the word is tapu. That is the Maori, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Mangarevan and Paumotan pronunciation, which in some cases sounds more like tafu. The Hawaiian form is kapu, the Tongan tabu. Forms like tambu and tampu are not unknown, particularly in the mixed linguistic area or in the Polynesian periphery. The word is used extensively outside Polynesia proper. Thus in Fiji tabu means unlawful, sacred, and superlatively good; in Malagassy, tabaka, profaned, polluted. The New English Dictionary remarks: ‘The accentuation taboó, and the use of the word as substantive and verb, are English; in all the native languages the word is stressed on the first syllable, and is used only as an adjective, the substantive and verb being expressed by derivative words and phrases.’

“Up to this point my report is straightforward, and I only wish I could continue, as so many have done, with the following words: ‘A brief glance at any compilation of the forms and meanings of this word in the various Polynesian languages shows that in all of them the word has two main meanings from which the others derive, and these meanings are: prohibited and sacred.’ The comparison of these data, however, suggests something rather different to me; namely, (i) that the same kind of people have compiled all these dictionaries, assessing the meaning of words in European terms, and (a) that, with few exceptions, there are no Polynesian words meaning approximately what the word ‘holy’ means in contemporary usage without concomitantly meaning ‘forbidden’. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness cannot be expressed in Polynesian terms. Modern European languages on the other hand lack a word with the Polynesian range of meaning; hence Europeans discovered that taboo means both prohibition and sacredness. Once this distinction has been discovered, it can be conveyed within the Polynesian cultural idiom by the citation of examples in which only one of the two European translations would be appropriate. I have no wish to labour this point, but I do want to stress a difficulty all too seldom realized. It is for this reason that it is so hard to accept uncritically the vocabulary-list classifications of meanings on which so much of the interpretation of taboo has been based. Tregear’s (Tregear Edward: “The Maoris of New Zealand,” 1890) definition of the Maori tapu is an example: ‘Under restriction, prohibited. Used in two senses: (i) sacred, holy, hedged with religious sanctity; (2) to be defiled, as a common person who touches some chief or tapued property; entering a prohibited dwelling; handling a corpse or human bones . . .’ and so forth.

“This sort of classification almost suggests that there was in Polynesian life a time in which, or a group of objects and situations in relation to which, the notion of prohibition was employed while the society did not yet know, or related to a different group of objects and situations, the notion of sacredness. This is not so. Taboo is a single, not an ‘undifferentiated’, concept. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness is artificially introduced by us and has no bearing on the concept we are discussing. (…)

“Before we go on to the meaning of impurity in taboo, I should like to mention the exceptions I alluded to before: when, according to dictionary evidence, taboo means only ‘sacred’ and not ‘prohibited’. As translations of tapu Tregear gives for the island of Fotuna ‘sacred’, and for the island of Aniwan, ‘sacred, hallowed’. There they are, but I think one is entitled to be suspicious of such cases, since they are not accompanied by any examples of non-Christian, non-translatory use, for the word taboo was widely used by missionaries in the translation of the Bible: in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘hallowed’, ‘sacred’, and as an adjective for words like Sabbath. On the other hand, Tregear’s second point is plausible: that the notion of impurity is derived from that of prohibition (or, as one should rather say, prohibition and sacredness). A mere glance into Polynesian dictionaries reaffirms this statement, for while there is no use of a word — with, as I said, a few exceptions — which connotes sacredness without implying prohibition, there are many words meaning dirty, filthy, not nice, putrid, impure, defiled, etc. Thus it was possible to convey a notion of an object’s unfitness for consumption, or unsatisfactory surface or state of preservation, without any reference to sacredness and prohibition. Only some of the notions of impurity were connected with taboo notions. (p. 33-34)

(…)

“Qodesh [קדש] is, for the man of the Pentateuch, unthinkable without manifestation. Furthermore, it is a relation, and what is related to God becomes separated from other things, and separation implies taboo behaviour. According to taboo concepts, man must behave in a certain way once the relationship has been established, whether or not he is part of the qodesh relationship. For it does not follow from either the behavioural or the doctrinal element of qodesh that (1) in the establishment of the relationship the incipient part must be God, or that (2) man must be the other part.

“The full relationship, including the ritual behaviour which it to some extent explains, is basically a triangular one, but two corners of the tri¬angle may coincide. Thus the Pentateuch tells us of qodesh, holiness: (1) when God manifests Himself, then the spot is qodesh for it has been related to Him. Here the notion of contagion operates. (2) When some thing, animal, or human being has been dedicated to Him, then it is qodesh and hence taboo. Contagion, however, is in no way involved in this case. (3) The baruch relationship, the so-called blessing, also establishes holiness. God himself — this comes as a shock to most superficial Bible readers — is never called holy, qodesh, unless and in so far as He is related to something else. He is holy in His capacity as Lord of Hosts, though He is not here related to man. Very often the Bible says. The Holy One, blessed be He, or blessed be His name. The name is, in the framework of the doctrinal logic of the Pentateuch, always qodesh because it establishes a relationship: it has, so we primitives think, to be pronounced in order to exist.” (p. 85-86)

See also consecrate / consecration and complete verse (Exod. 3:14-15).

complete verse (Hebrews 9:8)

Following are a number of back-translations of Hebrews 9:8:

  • Uma: “With this custom, the Holy Spirit teaches us like this: if the first room still is/exists, man(kind) is not yet permitted to enter into the More Holy Room in order to approach God.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “Because of this the teaching of the Holy Spirit to us (incl.) is clear that no person can enter the Most Holy Room as long as there is yet the room that is first entered.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “This is what the priests did in the church and by means of this, the Holy Spirit teaches us that while it is still necessary to use that first room called the ‘Precious Room’, ordinary people cannot yet enter into the ‘Very Precious Room.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “By-means-of all those-things, the Holy Spirit makes-known that it was not possible for people to enter the exact place of God if the original commands concerning the Holy and Holiest Room were still being followed.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “In/through an arrangement like that, it is really clear what the Espiritu Santo is saying that in the past, as long as they were still under-the-jurisdiction-of the laws of the first initiated-agreement, it really wasn’t possible for a person to enter the presence of God. For in that worshipping-place of theirs in the past, the people could not go in to the Exceedingly Far-from-ordinary Room.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Concerning this matter here, the Holy Spirit wants that we know about the old agreement which was before. During the time in which the priests worshipped in the first room, there was not permission for anyone to enter into the room which was overflowingly holy.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

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)
  • Seediq: Biyax Utux Baraw (“Power of God”)
  • Paiwan: “Most Excellent Spirit” (source for this and above: Covell 1998, p. 246f.)
  • 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.