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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Holy Spirit: it or he?

What is the best translation of τὸ πνεῦμα?


At Mon Oct 06, 02:51:00 AM, Blogger Sylvanus said...

How about the feminine of the Hebrew?
I'd rather say 'It' from the Greek, just as in current English :)

At Mon Oct 06, 06:53:00 AM, Blogger David Ker said...

In Nyungwe there is no he/she pronominal distinction but there is an "it." Mzimu for "spirit" comes from a different class than people and it is given the standard verbal agreement and pronominal reference for that class. Angels are another story. Angel as a noun is in the "animal" class but people often times give it the verbal agreement markers for people.

In English, there seems to be a long tradition of referring to the Holy Spirit with a masculine pronoun (verbal agreement isn't an issue in English) See for example John 16, "When *he* comes." Ostensibly this could be agreeing with "the counselor." But in many other cases "he" is used despite this being a neuter noun.

At Mon Oct 06, 08:29:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say:

"Within Christianity, for example, there is metonymy DOVE FOR HOLY SPIRIT. As is typical with metonymies, this symbolism is not arbitrary. It is grounded in the conception of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. There is a reason why the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit and not, say, the chicken, the vulture, or the ostrich. The dove is conceived of as beautiful, friendly, gentle, and, above all, peaceful. As a bird, its natural habitat is the sky, which metonymically stands for heaven, the natural habitat of the Holy Spirit. The dove is a bird that flies gracefully, glides silently, and is typically seen coming out of the sky and landing among people"
(Metaphors We Live By p 40).

Solomon sings:

"I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night."

"My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her. "
(Song of Solomon 5:2, 6:9 KJV)

Mark testifies:

" καὶ εὐθὺς ἀναβαίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον εἰς αὐτόν"
(Mark 1:10)

The Greek grammar prof only adds:

"περιστερὰν = Noun Accusative Singular Feminine"
(more textbooks)

At Mon Oct 06, 09:20:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

With my comment above, I'm not just trying to be coy.

It's just a bit troubling to limit translation options to the mere binary: "Holy Spirit: it or he?"

It's tougher to limit translation options to "a long tradition" that tends to mark the feminine and women and females in general as second class to the masculine (or even the neuter) and to men and males in general.

That tradition, in English, derives from a longer one in Greek. Aristotle, for example, propagated the idea that male seed (or semen) was a combination of water and πνεῦμα, which he thought was the source of heat and therefore life of the soul. The female did not have this seed, and did not have this "hot living air plus water" combination; the male had to give the female "soul" by his movements, his form, and his seed. The woman is the passive recipient; and even the embryo depends on the fathering male. Aristotle also wrote, in the same book, that females are botched or mutilated males, and the blame for all deformed babies goes to the mother, in these cases bad recipients of the pneuma containing seed. This "science" is all very well documented in Aristotle's treatise the Generation of Animals (see 2.2, 2.3, 2.6, 3.11).

There are good alternatives to this long tradition. Why not look more to them when deciding the best translation?

At Mon Oct 06, 10:08:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

How about the feminine of the Hebrew?

Sylvanus, Your proposal is helpful.

The trouble with πνεῦμα as only either "it" or as "he" in Greek is there are plenty of examples that suggest, rather, a feminine meaning, as Hebrew tends to do.

(And Greek readers who follow only the Aristotelian tradition want to make the Holy Spirit the male-god impregnating the virgin Mary with His seed.)

Here's one alternative to that limited metonymy of Aristotle:

It's from Euripides's play, where the protagonist Hippolytus addresses the virgin goddess Artemis, who clearly possesses her own πνεῦμα, which he does not have; ("Hippolytus," lines 1390-93):

ὦ θεῖον ὀδμῆς πνεῦμα· καὶ γὰρ ἐν κακοῖς
ὢν ᾐσθόμην σου κἀνεκουφίσθην δέμας·
ἔστ’ ἐν τόποισι τοισίδ’ Ἄρτεμις θεά.

But what is this? O breath of divine fragrance! Though I am in misfortune I sense you and my body's pain is lightened. The goddess Artemis is in this place!

At Mon Oct 06, 10:49:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

See what I wrote on another point of similarity between the Holy Spirit and a dove.

At Mon Oct 06, 12:45:00 PM, Blogger Dru said...

Thank you for that Peter. As a bird watcher I found your reference a very stimulating idea, even though eagles aren't quite as lumbering as albatrosses - or for that matter swans which require a watery runway to achieve lift off.

On David's original question, for a long time I've heard exhortations and thoroughly agreed with them that the Holy Spirit is a person, and so should be he, and never, never, it.

Like J K, I've also from time to time wondered about whether it could be legitimate to follow Hebrew and use 'she', even though that is no more than grammatical gender. I must admit, though, it's never occurred to me to link that to the nature of doves. As a bird watcher, I know they come in both sexes - otherwise they would have gone the way of the Passenger Pigeon. It would also seems to me that choosing she because doves look peaceful to human beings is serious stereotyping.

On balance I suspect my view would be that it is so important to make the statement that the Holy Spirit is a person not a thing that it is better not to go on and make another statement as well, that is a lot less certain. So, for me, as long as 'he' retains any vestige of its traditional (i.e. pre 1985) role as being the more neutral of the two person pronouns, it is better to stick to it.

Besides, one can't really say of the Holy Spirit, 'he or she'. The Dawkins tendency would leap on that with the words. 'see these Christians don't even know'.

At Mon Oct 06, 02:55:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

My first interest in asking had to do with the "person" of the Holy Spirit and how that gets reflected in our translations.

These are references in the NT for "spirit of God":

MAT 3:16; 12:28; ROM 8:9,14; 1CO 2:11,14; 7:40; 12:3; EPH 4:30; PHP 3:3; 1JN 4:2

It seems strange to talk about the personhood of the Spirit in this context. The Spirit is a component of the person God.

Natural English would seem to require "it." So my suspicion is that by saying "He" we are forcing a theological supposition on the grammar much in the way I mentioned above about angels being given human verbal agreement in Nyungwe.

At Mon Oct 06, 03:41:00 PM, Blogger Dru said...

I hardly dare ask the price of a loaf or enquire if my bath is ready, or perhaps it is me that is the baker or the bath attendant.

I'm admitting my own denominational affiliation but our formulations state,
"And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity ....."

and elsewhere

"neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost."

I can see the argument that it might be odd grammar to attribute natural rather than grammatical gender to the Holy Spirit. But we were exhorted not to use 'it' as the Spirit's personal pronoun. 'It' encouraged the habit of thought that the Spirit is less fully a person than the Father or the Son, or that all three members of the Trinity are not equal, consubstantial, coeternal etc with each other.

So although natural English might require 'it' as the personal pronoun for a spirit or a ghost, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, he is not just a spirit, but a person. I think it is important therefore to use 'he' unless there were to be justifiable reasons to elect for 'she' - which I can see but have reservations about. But not 'it'. That is comparable to telling a mother of a new born baby how bright and healthy 'it' looks.

At Mon Oct 06, 04:54:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

Dru, I've had that same idea driven into my head. How many times have I said, "It, I mean, he fills us with power..." or whatever?!? What you are saying, if I hear you correctly is that the theological construct kind of blankets the text and takes precedence over the original language and also modern natural communication.

At Mon Oct 06, 06:16:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I hardly dare ask the price of a loaf or enquire if my bath is ready, or perhaps it is me that is the baker or the bath attendant.

:) funny, Dru.

the theological construct kind of blankets the text and takes precedence over the original language and also modern natural communication.

Sounds to me like there's this deep need in us to have one "construct" or "original" or "modern" thing "take THE precedence." (The text should trump the theology, Rich Rhodes has insisted because theologians make for some strange language, not real language at all).

Why does this have to be so stiff, so hierarchical? It's the real problem of the mysterious Trinity for so many. It's the real problem of the mysterious incarnation--a human, that ugly-ish one who must sleep, who falls asleep inconveniently, and who must eat, who gets hungry and tired, and bathe, who insists on ritual baptism despite those claims about him, God Himself?

Yes, I know there's the practical issue of publishing a Bible translation. How must it be said in Nyungwe? REALLY: "Natural English would seem to require 'it'." Really?

Then it can't be "it" because of X, Y, and Z. But "he" for a thing like a breath? And, yet, how very unlikely and mysterious and uncomfortable we'd all be if "he" or "it" were a "she." Surely not! Ever!

What are all these possibilities (not laws!)? Here are some BBB posts that are worth a review and study:

Old Testament Saints? Ps. 51:11
Shaddai - reflections
Psalm 68: Breasts and Mountains
From Sappho
From Sappho 2
From Sappho 3

(Again, I'm not trying to be coy. These are astute observations and challenging comments that Suzanne McCarthy has made at this blog. The effort is to try to open up options. Not ridiculous options. Not absolutely relative options. But options based on God's revelation in the Bible, on his interactions with our mothers and fathers, on his dealings with you and me. The analogy, I think, is Law to love. You can conveniently bottle and control the one. The other is more powerful with much better pay off if we have to be mercenary about it.)

At Tue Oct 07, 07:19:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Hmmm. My comment above sounds now kind of ranty.

So this morning I'm wondering whether the Holy Spirit is a spirit in the same way unholy spirits are spirits. Is He like those fallen angels He made? Is He more like those humans made a little lower than the angels, but "in Our image according to Our likeness;. . . male and female He made them"?

Why did the Greeks call their spirits demons ("daimonia")? And why did they think of them as male and female, as were their gods and goddesses? What's the best English translation of that? He, she, it? How does that work best in Nyungwe for those who want to translate Greek mythology and religion and poetry? Would these "angels" or "spirits" be classed with "animals"?

So how, after Babel, can the classification distinctions be equalized across languages? Are Hebrew and Greek and English and Nyungwe required respectively to have different metonymies? Can doves in any of these languages be always neuter, or perpetually male and female, or constantly more like one gender in the different cultures than the other?

Why have we abandoned ghosts and the Holy Ghost? Were they more "it" and "It" than "he" and "He"? Were they ever "she"?

Spirit in English? Doesn't that make Paul's point so much better, in English anyway, to the Ephesians (not to get drunk with those spirits but to be filled with the Holy Spirit)? Clearly not ghosts, or fallen angels, but spirits, and It?

And why does John have Jesus saying to the loose Samaritan woman that those who worship God anywhere must worship Him "in spirit"? because God "is spirit"?

These are just some questions you've made me think to ask. Have you decided the answer to your question, David?

At Tue Oct 07, 09:38:00 AM, Blogger David Ker said...

I favor "it" except for when "spirit" is a synecdoche for God or counselor, advocate, etc. then I would choose "he."

"She" is way too controversial for me and in fact I don't think it is really addressing the "genderlessness" of the spirit as a component of a person. Are my feet feminine and my arms masculine if I am a speaker of Spanish? Is my soul feminine but my spirit masculine?

At Wed Oct 08, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger healtheland said...



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