The Holy Spirit and Translation Issues

As we approach the Scriptures to study any topic, and certainly as we approach the study of a topic as complex and controversial as the Holy Spirit we must keep in mind the difficulties that come with working from a translation.

Because the Scriptures were not written in modern English, the Bible that you hold in your hands is the product of a group of Greek and Hebrew scholars who laboriously translated it from the original languages into our native tongue.

Of course, one of the issues to consider is the humanity of the translators themselves. Despite their best efforts, the theology which they hold, right or wrong, will creep into their translation, and therefore, your Bible. This becomes apparent in some of the looser translations of Romans 10, for example.

That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: “God has set everything right between him and me!”

(Romans 10:9-10 The Message)

Then there are the technical issues that make any translation difficult. Just consider the challenges that Google’s translate program has with this song:

The Form of the Original Text

The original Bible manuscripts that translators work from are generally in a from called Uncial. This was a block of text that was written in all caps, with no spaces, and no punctuation.

BLESSEDARETHEPOORINSPIRITFORTHEIRSISTHEKINGDOMOFHEAVENBLESSEDARETHEYTHATMOURNFORTHEYSHALLBECOMFORTEDBLESSEDARETHEMEEKFORTHEYSHALLINHERITTHEEARTH

Matthew 5:3-5 written in the uncial style, but in English.

This creates three issues that need to be considered i properly translating and understanding a text: capitalization, punctuation, and supplied text. You don’t need to be a Greek scholar and make your own translation to consider these things. You just need to be aware of how these issues forced the men who translated your Bible to make decisions, and then consider those decisions for yourself. We need to trust the text, NOT the translators.

Capitalization Can Affect Meaning

To illustrate the significance that capitalization can have in translation, let’s consider a rather benign example in 2 John 1.

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth,

English Standard Version

My dear congregation, I, your pastor, love you in very truth. And I’m not alone – everyone who knows the Truth

The Message Bible

The Elder to the choice Kyria, and to her children, whom I love in truth, and not I only, but also all those having known the truth,

Young’s Literal Translation

Why do these three Bibles read so differently since they were all translating the same text? The first issue to deal with is the translators themselves. The Message Bible plays fast and loose with the text, and really doesn’t translate this verse at all, but instead interprets it. The translators of that particular Bible believe that John was writing to a congregation of the Lord’s church, calling that congregation “the elect lady”, in reference to the chosen bride of Christ. So, rather than translating it, they just inserted what they believed it to mean. That is one view of this verse that is held, but another equally valid interpretation is that this is an actual lady, who is a Christian, and her children.

Let’s consider then the difference between the English Standard Version and Young’s Literal Translation. Here, the Greek word “Kyria” literally translates to mean “lady”. However, it was also commonly used as a personal name during that time. So, if the word “Kyria” should be capitalized, then Young would be correct that this is the name of a lady. However, if it should not be capitalized, then the ESV is correct that this is simply the word “lady.” Because the original text that we have is an uncial, there is no way for us to know for sure which is correct, except by taking clues form the surrounding context.

In this instance, either understanding fits the context. The translators had a decision to make as to whether this word should be capitalized. Our job is to consider that decision and determine for ourselves whether we agree with that decision. In this case, it doesn’t make a lot of difference.

Let’s consider how this issue directly affects our study of the Holy Spirit.

Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?

James 4:5 NKJV

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?

James 4:5 KJV

Here the King James translators chose not to capitalize the word “spirit” while the New King James translators did capitalize it. Based on the understanding of the NKJV, James is saying that the Holy Spirit, which dwells within the Christian yearns jealously over our soul and our loyalty to God. These translators would look to the verses that follow to get context for that understanding. God wants us to serve Him faithfully, so His Holy Spirit will make it easy for us to do just that and will make things hard for us when we rebel.

Based on the understanding of the KJV, James is saying that our own spirit is full of lust and envy, looking to the context of the four verses that precede this one. Our lusts and our envy is the cause of wars, fights, and disagreements. We desire to have things for our own satisfaction rather than to serve God. James is saying that the Scriptures had already warned us of this exact tendancy.

So, which translator is right? Both understandings are accurate translations. The decision to capitalize this word or not has a significant impact on how we understand the passage. We have a decision to make.

He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit. 

1 Thessalonians 4:8 KJV

Here is an interesting example of this decision. Most modern translations choose to capitalize “Holy Spirit” The King James translation, along with a handful of other English versions seem to be unsure of what to do here. The word “Spirit” is capitalized, but the word “holy” is not. So, what’s the correct thing to do here?

In the context, Paul is calling for sexual purity, saying that God has not called us to uncleanness, but to holiness. If we don’t capitalize here, then we understand that in calling us to a holy lifestyle, God has given us His spirit of holiness. By keeping ourselves pure we partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), and the spirit of holiness that characterizes God should also characterize His people.

If we do capitalize “Holy Spirit”, then we understand that as God calls us to keep ourselves sexually pure He has also given us the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who helps us to that end or at least should serve as a motivation to purity. This raises some interesting questions when we come to places like 1 Corinthians 5:1. Why did the Holy Spirit not help this young Christian to remain pure? When he chose to defraud his brother (and father), what happened with the indwelling of the Spirit?

The issue of capitalization will loom large in our study of the Holy Spirit Every word, whether capitalized or not, represents a decision that the translators have made, and therefore, a decision that we as Bible students must make for ourselves, trusting the text, not the translators.

Punctuation Affects Meaning

This is another translation issue that needs to be kept in mind as we read our Bibles. Translators have added punctuation based on standard English conventions, which sure makes it much easier for us to deal with the text. Nevertheless, every punctuation mark reflects a choice that the translators made. Maybe Paul wasn’t quite so prone to run-on sentences, but rather the translators were.

While I have not run across a specific instance where this issue bears directly into the study of the Holy Spirit, that was my decision, and you should make your own conclusions. Here is an example where punctuation makes a significant difference in doctrine.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Luke 23:43 King James Version

And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:43 New World Translation

There are a number of issues with the New World Translation of the Bible, which is a product of the Watchtower Society and the Jehovah’s Witness religion. One of those issues is on full display here with a choice that those translators made.

If we agree with the punctuation supplied by the King James translators, then Jesus is declaring to the thief on the cross that the two of them would be together in Paradise that very day. This matches a literal understanding of the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.

If we agree with the punctuation supplied by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then Jesus is declaring this instant that at some indeterminate point in the future the two of them would be together in Paradise. This understanding fits with their doctrine of soul sleeping, and demands an allegorical understanding of the rich man and Lazarus.

Bother translators were required to make decisions as they inserted punctuation into a text that was completely devoid of such things. Generally speaking, that punctuation makes it easier for us to read and understand the text. However, there are instances where it can subtly bend the text toward one doctrine or another. Therefore, these are decisions that we must keep in mind as we study.

About Justin Hopkins

Justin is a Texas native, a coffee lover, and a Christian. He is the lucky husband of an amazing wife, and father to three growing boys.

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