The Holy Spirit and Translation Issues

Supplied Text Can Affect Meaning

As Malinda Kathleen Reese and Google Translate have learned, a direct word-for-word translation from one language to another can create sentences that are rough, incomplete, or even unintelligible. There are occasions when a single word in one language is accurately translated into multiple words in another and vice versa. For example, the Spanish phrase, “Vamos!” means “Let us go!”, or “Let’s go!” Just supplying the word “go” or the word “let’s” does not fully capture the meaning.

In many instances where Bible translators supply text they place the supplied word in italics so that we can be aware of their decision while we study. One classic example is found in Ecclesiastes 12:13

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

Ecclesiastes 12;13 King James Version

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 New King James Version

Here the King James translators felt like the sentence didn’t read quite right, and so they inserted the word “duty.” Here is the idea that our one and only job, and the entirety of all that we are obligated to do is to give God the respect that is due to His glorious name and render to Him our complete obedience. That understanding is certainly true.

However, the New King James translators dealt with the phrase a little differently. Rather than inserting a word to smooth out the sentence structure, they played with word order, and came up with the thought that giving God respect and obedience comprises all of our very being. Here is the idea that our entire existence drives at this singular function, and that in order for a person to be truly fulfilled, and to truly live out their purpose in life, this is the only way to do it. WOW! This understanding is much more demanding.

Both understandings are true to the text. Both understandings teach something that is true, and something that fits with all the rest of Scripture. Yet, the King James translators, by adding that one word, drastically affected the meaning and implications of the verse. Here is one instance where the text that was supplied to help with understanding actually stands in the way.

Supplying The Definite or Indefinite Article

In the English language we use the definite article, or the word “the”, and the indefinite article, or the word “a” or “an” to communicate differences in meaning. If I ask my son to give me A hammer, I don’t really care which hammer he gives me. I own several. I just need the first one he can find so that I can whack a nail. On the other hand, if I tell him to get into THE truck, I don’t expect him to go out to the parking lot and crawl into the first vehicle he sees. I expect him to find my truck and only my truck.

In the Greek language, there is no indefinite article. There is only the word “the.” What’s more, is that the Greek language makes use of the word “the” in ways that we do not. So, there are phrases in the Greek where the word “the” might occur two or three times, but we only insert it once. Let’s look at a few places where our treatment of the article can affect meaning.

Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law

Romans 3:31 King James Version

Do we then make void the law through the faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.  

Romans 3:31 Equally Valid Translation

Moving forward I will reference An equally valid translation, or an EVT. This is not some obscure English Bible, but another way of translating the text that follows all the rules of grammar and is just as valid as the more mainstream translation.

Here Paul does not include the word “the” before either occurrence of Law, but does include it before the word “faith.” Most translators have done just the opposite. By saying THE law, they are specifying that Paul is speaking about the Old Testament Law. This certainly fits the context. However, by leaving out the word “the”, as Paul does, we allow that he is speaking not just about the Law of Moses, but also of the principle of law. This could also include the Law of Christ.

On the other hand, by omitting the word “the” in front of “faith”, translators seem to imply that Paul is speaking of our own personal trust in Jesus Christ. If we keep the definite article in place, then this becomes the system of faith revealed in the New Testament. It moves beyond a personal conviction, and becomes something handed down by God.

by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love,  

2 Corinthians 6:6 New King James Version

by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by a holy spirit, by sincere love,  

2 Corinthians 6:6 Equally Valid Translation

In this text Paul is discussing the proof of his service to God. in verses four and five he mentions the suffering that he endured for the cause of Christ. In verses six and seven he talks about the way that he has conducted himself, which is in keeping with the principles of Christianity that he preaches.

If we capitalize Holy Spirit and add the word “the” as the NKJV translators have done, then we are to understand that the Holy Spirit has been proof of Paul’s service to Christ. Certainly, as an apostle this would be true. However, in what way would this be different from the power of God mentioned in the next verse? Also, this places the Holy Spirit in the midst of a list of his behavior. Why would that not be placed in verse seven with the power of God?

If we do not capitalize holy spirit, but instead of adding the word the (the definite article does not appear in the Greek text), we supply the word “a”, then we have something different. In this case, Paul explains that his long-suffering, his kindness, his holy attitude and conduct, and his genuine love are all evidence that he is serving Christ and not his own self interest. This reading certainly fits the context, and seems to maintain the flow of thought and topical organization that Paul gave to his list.

Both translations are valid in the way that they treat the text. The NKJV translators made a decision in how they understand that phrase, which is reflected in their translation. Yes, an alternative understanding exists. Which do you agree with?

for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  

Romans 14:17 NKJV

for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in a holy spirit.  

Romans 14:17 EVT

In Romans 14 Paul deals with matters of conscience. He teaches that if a certain thing violates your conscience, then for you it is wrong. Further, if a thing does not violate your conscience, but it does violate somebody else’s, that you need to be careful how you deal with that matter around that individual so as not to cause them to stumble.

As he begins to wind up to a conclusion he discusses the nature of the Kingdom, the church. He concludes that Christianity is not about physical things like food and drink. Rather, it is about the spiritual. It is about righteousness. It is about peace. It is about joy. Then he describes how we have that righteousness, peace, and joy.

The NKJV translators supplied the word “the” and capitalized “Holy Spirit.” Based on that understanding, we are to have joy in or through the Holy Spirit. How exactly do we get joy from the Holy Spirit? Is this something that He does to or for us? Is it something that we pray for? How is this joy different from the normal joy that we have as humans?

An equally valid translation renders this as joy in a holy spirit. In this case, this is joy that is derived from and characterized by a spirit of holiness. By living a lifestyle that is holy, and having a spirit or attitude that is holy, we find joy, peace, and righteousness. This becomes something that strengthens the command, and provides for us clear instructions of how we are to think and behave as citizens of the kingdom.

But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit,  

Jude 20, NKJV

But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in a holy spirit

Jude 20 EVT

Here again, the word “the” does not occur in the Greek text. It seems to me that most English translations have a bias to capitalize “Spirit” everywhere it is found, and to apply it to the third person of the Godhead everywhere that they can. According to the NKJV translators we are commanded here to pray in THE Holy Spirit. Is this a command only for the miraculous age? Did the Holy Spirit help first-century Christians in their prayers? If so, why do we not find prayer listed among the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12? If this is for all Christians of all time, how exactly do you pray in the Holy Spirit? How do you pray, but not in the Holy Spirit?

An equally valid way to translate this sees this as a command to approach God’s throne in prayer with a spirit and attitude that is characterized by holiness and reverence. That command is simple enough to understand, and simple enough to obey.

These are just a few examples of passages where the presence or lack of the definite article can make a significant difference in our understanding of a passage as it relates to the Holy Spirit. In each of these places the translators made a decision. We, as Bible students, need to be aware of those decisions and then make an informed decision of our own.

Be Aware of Who Is Speaking, and Who They Are Speaking To.

As we read any passage of Scripture, it is easy to view it through our twenty-first century American eyes. If we are not careful we can impose on a text a meaning that the first century readers living in the Roman Empire could never have assigned to it. Yet, they were the primary audience. We must always seek to see the text through their eyes as best as we are able.

One key consideration in doing this is paying close attention to personal pronouns within a passage. It is important to track who is doing the talking and who they are talking to. It is important to understand the distinction between the two as we move through a passage. Consider 2 Corinthians 1.

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia:  

2 Corinthians 1:1 NKJV

Here we see that Paul, as an Apostle, and Timothy are writing. They are speaking specifically to the Christians who are in Achaia or a region of southern Greece.

Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.  

2 Corinthians 1:6 NKJV

Paul and Timothy endured suffering and persecution for the benefit of the Christians at Corinth In Acts 18:12 the Jews there took Paul to court because he was preaching the Gospel.

For we are not writing any other things to you than what you read or understand. Now I trust you will understand, even to the end…

But as God is faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes.   

2 Corinthians 1:13, 18-19 NKJV

Paul goes on to remind them that he was not writing anything to them that they had not already understood from their teachings. Their words were clear when they were there in Corinth teaching and preaching.

Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God,  who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.  

2 Corinthians 1:21-22 NKJV

Paul then reminds the Christians at Corinth that it is God that sent him to preach and gave him the message that he proclaimed. Notice who it is that was anointed. It was not all Christians of all time, or even the first century Christians at Corinth. It was us, that is, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. It was also those same individuals who were sealed and given the spirit in their hearts as a guarantee.

One quick side note here: the NKJV translators chose to capitalize the word “Spirit” here. The definite article does occur in the original text. Just as the translators decided that this was THE Holy Spirit, we also have a decision to make. Incidentally, I would agree with their decision here.

Many times I have been directed to this passage by well-meaning brethren to prove that all Christians of all time are promised the anointing, seal, and guarantee of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Yet, if we stay true to the context, this passage does not even make that promise to the first century Christians at Corinth, much less all Christians of all time. Is there another passage that makes that promise? Perhaps.

One additional consideration that bears stating is simple. When we are trying to learn what is meant by a certain word or phrase, one of the best tools at our disposal is the Bible itself. How is that word or phrase used elsewhere in Scripture? In particular, if we can find that same word or phrase being used by the same writer, the same speaker, or being addressed to the same audience this can give us deeper insight into how the original writers, speakers, and readers would have understood that phrase. Better still is when we can find the same phrase being used by the same writer AND the same speaker, for example, Luke quoting Peter on different occasions.

In every case, the careful Bible student must be careful to stay true to who is speaking, who they are speaking to, and who they are speaking about. We must be determined to make only those conclusions that are warranted by the evidence.

We must be aware of translation issues and difficulties, and trust the text, not the translators.

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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