Pentecost reveals a God who understands that language is more than communication.
Just days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit arrives, and with him, the apostles’ ability to speak in other languages. Diasporic visitors from as far away as today’s Iraq, Libya, and Italy suddenly can hear the gospel in their mother tongues. Hearing about Jesus in this intimate way surprises and amazes the listeners in Jerusalem and viscerally reinforces the personal nature of Jesus’ mission. (The fact that these visitors likely understood Jerusalem’s prevailing languages of Greek or Aramaic further underscores this.)
Yet the church was slow to adopt this message of Pentecost when it came to translating Scripture. Yes, they translated the Bible, but predominantly into Latin, Koine Greek, Ge'ez, Coptic, or Church Slavonic—languages that, over time, became the domain of just a few.
This first changed during the Reformation, and then again with the advent of Bible societies in the 19th century and with translation organizations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators in the 20th century. Today, more than 3,500 languages have at least a portion of the Bible translated into their language (a huge jump from about 2,000 languages just 20 years ago!).
The explosion of modern Bible translations amplifies the ongoing story of Pentecost, a grace that becomes most apparent when we’re able to unearth the riches of these translations and share their treasures beyond their original target audiences.
A couple of those gems can be found in Acts 2:4, the verse that reports on the lifting of that language barrier: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they began to speak in other languages which the Holy Spirit made them able to speak” (NLV).
Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost?
Since 1885, the year of the first major revision of the King James Version, all major English Bible translations have used the term “Holy Spirit,” and yet the older “Holy Ghost” has maintained its enormous staying power. Practical reasons include the continued use of the original King James Version (KJV) and the use of “Holy Ghost” in nonbiblical texts, including “The Doxology.” But it also reveals the stubbornness of language—and language speakers.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with “Holy Ghost” as a term—which brings us to a second insight. English has built its vocabulary by rather unashamedly borrowing from many languages, creating sometimes fascinating constellations of synonyms. Ghost comes from the Old English gāst, which originally meant “breath” or “good or bad spirit,” and spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which means “breath” or “supernatural immaterial creature.”
So why did the 19th-century revisers of the KJV change “ghost” to “spirit” when they used to mean essentially the same thing? In the revisers’ opinion, “ghost” had transitioned to refer too strongly to the spirit of a dead person—perhaps in response to the popularity of Victorian mediums and seances—thus running the risk of implying that the Holy Spirit was the haunting ghost of a deceased god.
If language changes over time and you have a treasure chest like English, why not adjust? Other languages with more limited vocabularies didn’t have that same freedom, so German, Dutch, and Afrikaans, for instance, still use a form of ghost today (Geist, Geest, and Gees, respectively).
Holy Spirit: he, she, or …?
Many languages use grammatical genders that should not be confused with biological genders, especially because the genders for identical terms can vary so much from one language to another (like the word sun, which has the grammatically feminine gender in German and the male in Spanish, and the word moon, which is the opposite in the respective languages).
But if the biological gender is inherently necessary for a noun (man, woman, bull), in most cases it matches the grammatical gender. This becomes complicated with Spirit, however, where the original languages use the neuter term Pneûma in Greek and the feminine word ruach in Hebrew.
Before A.D. 400, Classical Syriac (also known as Syrian Aramaic), a language related to Hebrew, used a term—Ruhä—that required a feminine grammatical gender. Around 400, however, a change started to emerge. When referring to the Holy Spirit, Spirit was now construed as masculine, even though it was contrary to the rules of the language (wind or lower-cased spirit continued to require a feminine gender). In this case, the language speakers seemed to have complied with the grammatical violation.
Other language speakers were not as compliant. In Asháninka, for example, a language spoken in Brazil and Peru, the term for spirit began as feminine and was artificially changed to masculine for the Holy Spirit. Asháninka speakers simply refused to accept the change in practice, however, and the Bible translators were eventually forced to change it back to its true grammatical gender. Upon further research, though, the translation team failed to detect any perceptible difference in the speakers’ understanding of the nature of the Holy Spirit.
For some languages, the classification of nouns goes beyond gender. In Bantu languages—a very large language family spoken in Central and South Africa—nouns belong to between 15 and 18 different classes. In Swahili, the word Roho for “Spirit” should have been in the noun class for loan words (traveling to Swahili via Arabic), but early translators felt it was too risky to have Spirit be misunderstood as an inanimate object. So although it was grammatically incorrect, they placed Roho in the first class of nouns specifically reserved for people—and Swahili speakers accepted it.
In the case of Lamba, another Bantu language, the translators did not want to take any such liberties. Umupasi Uswetelele, Lamba’s term for “Holy Spirit,” belonged linguistically to the noun class also used for trees and plants, making it a non-person, grammatically speaking. And that's where it remains today. But its meaning is apparently unambiguous because, according to linguist C. M. Doke, “numerous references in the Scriptures … establish that the Holy Spirit is a person, the third person of the Trinity.”
A recent example of the intersection between language and theology is in a language with a long tradition in Bible translation. Swedish used to have three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), but modern Swedish uses only two genders (common [utrum] and neuter). Until the Bibel 2000, “Holy Spirit” was translated as helige Ande, which is masculine. With the merging of the masculine and feminine genders into the common gender, it is now translated as the common-gendered heliga ande, matching the more widely used gender-equal-language practice in Sweden.
So what’s the bottom line with Holy Spirit and gender? Certainly, the Holy Spirit transcends our distinctions of male, female, or whatever other kind of classification a language might offer.
Translating ‘Holy Spirit’ in traditionally non-Christian cultures
The late Eugene Nida—a towering figure in the history of Bible translation and linguistics who was highly respected in secular academia—said in regard to languages without any Christian tradition, “Undoubtedly no word has given quite so much trouble to the Bible translator as spirit.” Although this quote dates back to 1961, the difficulties in finding the right term continue in the ongoing encounter between Christianity and new cultures.
Myriad stories exist where these translation struggles and successes are the direct result of initial failures. One such was the translation of Holy Spirit into Ditammari of Togo as “pure air”—a term Christian translators used to delineate from “impure air,” which in traditional beliefs referred to unclean spirits. Early Bible readers misunderstood this as the air that we breathe, so translators eventually changed it to “air of God.”
Another wonderful translation is Biyax Utux Baraw or “Power of God” in Seediq (spoken in Taiwan). I especially like the translation choice made in Western Highland Chatino (spoken in the Mexican state of Oaxaca). Here, Holy Spirit is rendered as Tyi'i Ndiose or “God’s perfect heart,” a description that touches my heart (imperfect as it may be).
When examining linguistic choices like this, it’s important to keep in mind that they were not made by the translation team because they had the most exotic and exciting ring to them. Rather, their research showed that other word choices, even those that seemed to be more immediate matches, had connotations that would be confusing at best or misleading at worst.
‘Filled’ with the Holy Spirit
The first sentence of Acts 2:4 includes these words in most English translations: “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I have spoken to fellow Christians who confided in me that they don't really know what this means. Yes, they believe in God the Father. They believe that he sent Jesus, his Son, to die on the cross for our sins, and that by believing in him they can have everlasting life.
But the Holy Spirit? They believe in him as far as Scripture testifies about him, but they haven’t experienced the Spirit’s presence in their lives. They’re not even talking about ecstatic experiences—simply the assurance that the Holy Spirit lives within them, or that they are “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Words are keys to defining our world. Especially with something as intangible and yet experiential as “being filled with the Spirit,” it might be of tremendous help to those who are not sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives to use a different metaphor. While all languages are completely capable, they describe perceptions of reality in slightly different ways.
And what may seem to be a limitation may open unique opportunities. For example, as Nida attests in the 1972 Handbook on the Acts of the Apostles: “In many languages people are not regarded as ‘empty,’ [and can therefore not] be filled.”
Bible translations in languages with this “limitation” have discovered a treasure trove of alternative descriptions for the Spirit’s activity in human beings (as you can see here)— including “the Spirit filling one’s heart” (Yamba, spoken in Cameroon) or “the Spirit filling one’s head and heart” (Isthmus Mixe), “the Holy Spirit coming to be completely with one” (Rincón Zapotec, which with Isthmus Mixe are spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico), and “walking with the Holy Spirit” (Eastern Highland Otomi, spoken in central Mexico).
My favorites come from two unrelated languages in Peru. The Shipibo-Conibo translators chose “the Holy Spirit permeates one” (as medicine), and the Yanesha ’ translators employed “wear the Holy Spirit,” because for them “filling” didn’t make sense. “Wearing” fit better in their traditional belief system.
What should our response be to alternate translations like these? We can either examine them as linguistic curiosities, or we can allow them to probe our own imperfect hearts—to see whether they can help us grow. We may recognize that we might very well “wear” the Holy Spirit, that we might “walk” with the Spirit, that the Holy Spirit “comes to be completely with us,” that the Spirit “permeates” us as much as a medicine that dissolves in our bloodstream and enters every nook and cranny of our body.
God’s cup of grace overflows in his continuation of the Pentecost miracle through Bible translations in thousands of languages. And when reverse-translated into English, these versions have the power to open our eyes and astonish us, much like those first listeners in Jerusalem.
Jost Zetzsche is a professional translator who lives on the Oregon coast. Since 2016 he has been curating United Bible Society’s Translation Insights and Perspectives (TIPs) tool. His latest book is Encountering Bare-Bones Christianity.