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Friday, March 21, 2008

Thy Holy Spirit

Further research on the "holy spirit" in Psalm 51:11 reveals that the first English Bibles, Wycliffe, Coverdale, Great, Bishops did not capitalize "holy spirit." However, the Geneva Bible 1560, and KJV 1611 have "holy Spirit" in verse 11 as well as "free Spirit" in verse 12.

In the 1769 edition of the KJV the capitalization was removed from "spirit" and the expression has remained without capitals in the KJV proper until today. However, in the 1873 Cambridge edition of the KJV, the American Standard Version 1901, the RSV 1952 and the NKJV, the capitalization has returned.

The first English Bible which I could find to capitalize both words as "Holy Spirit" was the Young's Literal Translation 1898 1862.

Among more recent Bibles, the NEB, JB, NEB and NRSV do not use capitals for either word, and the NASB, (T)NIV, ESV, CEV, NLT and HCSB capitalize both words.

In French the Louis Segond 1910, has "ton esprit saint" which is distinctly different from "Le Saint Esprit," the name of the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:35. However, la Bible du Semeur, 1999, has made the two correspond as "l'Esprit Saint".

Another tradition preserved the phrase "spirit of holiness" as in the Darby translation 1890.. The equivalent for this appears in the Elberfelder translation, 1871, "den Geist deiner Heiligkeit" and in the David Martin translation, 1744, "l'Esprit de Ta Sainteté." Today in English only the NLT offers the variation "your spirit of holiness" as a footnote.

Although exegesis and theological thinking is supposed to come from the original languages, it is virtually impossible not to be influenced by the version which one meets in one's own language first. Therefore, we see several distinct lines of interpretation for this verse. Psalm 51:11 can be used to illustrate the representation of the third person of the trinity in the Hebrew scriptures, or to teach that God can remove His indwelling Holy Spirit from an individual,
    Psalm51 says, “Take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” The Holy Spirit is the third person in the Triune God. The Holy Spirit is the sole giver of God-pleasing spiritual life. “No one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit." The psalm makes it pretty clear that the Holy Spirit can be taken from you and me.
The other interpretation leads to commentary such as that of Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)
    He gives the spirit of prophecy to the prophets,4 and renewal and sanctification and guidance to all of God’s children (Ps. 51:12-13 and 143:10).
and from Whitten, 2004, page 186,
    This is the plea by David for God to restore the condition of sanctification to his spirit.
Since there are no capital letters in Hebrew, one cannot say with certainty that "holy spirit" should appear in English capitalized or not. However, if the addition of capitals is going to cause people to fall into error and then preach that error from the pulpit, I feel that the publishers have a responsibility to add a footnote or reconsider the use of capital letters in this passage and others.


At Fri Mar 21, 01:20:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Robert Alter has "holy spirit" for Psalm 51. And in a fn at Psalm 31:6, Alter notes: "The spirit, ruah, is the life breath (like nefesh) and does not imply a "soul" distinct from the body."

Our English translations that use "spirit" or "ghost" might better use "breath" or "life breath" for the two Hebrew words, and for the Greek pneuma.

Jesus quotes David's Hebrew in Ps 31 (or translates it into his own Aramaic) when dying on the cross. Luke (23:46) translates Jesus's words into Greek this way:

καὶ φωνήσας φωνῇ μεγάλῃ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν πάτερ εἰς χεῖράς σου παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνεῦμά μου τοῦτο δὲ εἰπὼν ἐξέπνευσεν

There's a similar noun and verb repetition when John (20:22) translates Jesus breathing the holy breath on the disciples:

καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον

Most English translations now use different words for πνεῦμά (ἅγιον) [pneuma] and ἐξέπνευσεν [eks-e-pneu-sen] or ἐνεφύσησεν [en-e-phu-sEsen](usually making clear that it's physical life "breathing" for the verbs). But these are Greek translations of the Hebrew (רוח) ruah, as in Psalm 51. (Does anyone know the Aramaic for "spirit")?

At Fri Mar 21, 02:18:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Suzanne, I did mean to stay on topic here.

I meant to say that Alter makes it: “Your holy spirit” -- with the capital “Y.”

In addition, Alter does recognize the ambiguity of ruah in Psalms 104:29. He translates it as follows, with the following fn on “their breath”:

When You hide Your face, they panic,
You withdraw their breath and they perish,
and to the dust they return.

Alter's fn: “The Hebrew term equally means ‘spirit,’ but the background of Genesis argues for the sense of ‘breath’ because it is God’s breath there that brings life into being. The Septuagint reads, ‘Your breath.’ Either reading makes sense.”

Isn’t it the case that the Hebrew is either masculine or feminine, and that the Greek (pneuma) and Aramaic (does anyone know it?) are always only feminine?

So there’s a good bit of ambiguity: capital letter or lower case; “spirit” or “breath” or “ghost”; and, in Hebrew either feminine or masculine (although only feminine in Greek & Aramaic; only masculine in French “espirit,” German “Geist,” Latin “spiritus”; and always neuter in our three English words). How does a capital English letter help in the Bible?

At Fri Mar 21, 02:23:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Young's Literal Translation was published in 1862. 1898 is the date of the new Revised Edition, and postdates Young's death by a decade.

At Fri Mar 21, 02:41:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I have edited it.


Ruach is feminine, pneuma is neuter, and spiritus is masculine. I cannot perceive what relevance gender might have to this post.

I think pronoun references to God are always capitalized.

At Fri Mar 21, 03:06:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

pneuma is neuter

Of course.

Ruach is feminine...I cannot perceive what relevance gender might have to this post

Except in I Kings 19:11, where it's masculine? If so, then there's another dimension of ambiguity. The KJV translates the Hebrew word variously as "Spirit or spirit 232 times, wind 92, breath 27, side 6, mind 5, blast 4, vain 2, air 1, anger 1, cool 1, courage 1, misc 6"

I think pronoun references to God are always capitalized.

always? why?

At Fri Mar 21, 03:57:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

You'll have to ask a Hebrew specialist. I don't know.

At Fri Mar 21, 09:41:00 PM, Blogger Kevin A. Sam said...

Suzanne, it is interesting that you have questioned the words “holy spirit”, or the name “Holy Spirit.” I have also struggled with this in the past. About a year ago, I blogged about the name of Holy Spirit, and our depersonalization of the person of Holy Spirit. I have personally concluded that since Holy Spirit is not only the third person of the trinity, but is also a name, I would go with capitalization of Holy Spirit. However, I may be wrong if there is something that I have not learned yet.

An ancient creed called Faith of Damasus states: “The proper name for Father is Father, and the proper name for the Son is Son, and the proper name for the Holy Spirit is Holy Spirit.” Moreover, the Vatican also states: "Holy Spirit is the proper name of the one whom we adore and glorify with the Father and the Son.”

At Sat Mar 22, 08:33:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I think pronoun references to God are always capitalized.

Not in most modern Bibles version, nor in KJV. Nouns referring to God are regularly capitalised, but pronouns are not. Look at Genesis 1:27, one of the first places where such pronouns occur. NKJV and (to my surprise) NJPS Tanakh are the only Bibles on my shelf with capital letters for "He" and "His".

At Sat Mar 22, 09:04:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I had never really thought about this before. I don't think it causes a difference of meaning since we usually understand if God is the reference. I notice Robert Alter uses capitals for pronoun references to God.


I guess my point is that we don't know if Ps 51 is referring to the "Holy Spirit" or to an attitude of sanctification. The capitals affect the way one understands this.

At Sun Mar 23, 11:05:00 PM, Blogger Kevin A. Sam said...

okay, I'm slow but now I got it.
I also looked up Ps.51 in the Tanakh and it does not capitalize: "holy spirit" however, it does capitalize the pronoun "Your".

At Sun Mar 23, 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Jewish Bibles seem to capitalize pronouns for God but they would not recognize the spirit as a separate person but rather an emanation of God, (I believe.)


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