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"The Holy Spirit" - The Greek Words
Jesus refers to the Greek words that are translated as “the Holy Spirit” only twelve times, but in these verses he uses the two keywords in four different ways. We focus here on what Jesus said not the meaning or theology arising from his words. Since this is a big topic, let us begin by looking at the Greek words involved. And because this follows on a discussion of the definite article in other verses, we will discuss when Jesus uses the definite article with this phrase and when he does not.
The Greek Words
The phrase translated as “the Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost” always involves two Greek words. The first is pneuma (πνεῦμα), which is translated as “spirit” or “ghost” as “we discussed extensively in this article. Briefly, it means "blast", "wind", "breath", "the breath of life," and "divine inspiration." The Greek word translated as “holy” is hagios (ἁγίος), which means "devoted to the gods", "pure", "holy", and on the negative side "accursed."
Jesus used the word translated as “holy” to refer to many things other than “spirit.” He refers to holy things, which dogs cannot appreciate (Matthew 7:6), to holy places (Matthew 24:15), to holy angels/messengers (Matthew 25:31, etc.), and to the Father (John 17:11). The reference to animals is the most instructive to me. What separates humanity from animals are the values we appreciate that animals cannot. While some of these values arise from society, these holy or sacred values come from our sense of the Divine. I am currently reading a book on sociology that connects the emergence of this sense of the holy with the emergence of cities bigger than a related clan. It is the shared idea of what was holy that allowed human beings to live together without killing one another in clan battles.
However, the Greek hagios is used in the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew, qāḏôš (קָדוֹשׁ), from the root qāḏaš (קָדַשׁ) a word that indicates separateness, things set apart. Hagios is chosen because of one of its meanings, "dedicated to God". For Jews, that which was dedicated to God was separate and different from everyday things, or common things. A "holy" people were a separate people, set apart from other nations. A "holy" or pure item was separate from everyday items, having been purified by water and fire. It is not as if the everyday items were "impure" (as they are often translated in the Bible) but that they were common, everyday things with nothing special about them. Holy things are reserved for something higher. Therefore a "holy" spirit is a spirit dedicated to the Divine and separate from everyday life.
Old Testament Usage
In the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, the phrase “the spirit of God” appears hundreds of times (example, see Isaiah 61:1), but the phrase “the Holy Spirit” is used only three times. It appears in Psalms 51:11, Isaiah 63:10, and Isaiah 63:11. It is always in the same Greek phrase: τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον, which means, literally, “the spirit, the holy one.” Jesus uses this phrasing often, though not exclusively. Notice that in Greek, the definite article is used twice, once before “spirit” and again before “holy.” Since “holy” is a singular adjective, its sense is “the holy one.”
In Psalms 51:11, the phrase appears in a prayer of a contrite sinner:
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
In Isaiah 63:10, it appears in a rather prophetic section, where, after being redeemed, the savior in red reacts to his people:
But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them.
This is followed by Isaiah 63:11,
Then he remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people, saying, Where is he that brought them up out of the sea with the shepherd of his flock? where is he that put his holy Spirit within him?
These verses seem to refer to this spirit as something within a person. This is the basis for Jesus and his listeners to understand these words from their history.
Jesus uses four different phrases that are all translated as “the Holy Spirit” or, in the KJV, “the Holy Ghost.” All the verses below are quoted from the KJV translation.
Matthew 12:32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
In this verse, Jesus is defending himself from he attacks of others. We have already spent some time discussing the meaning of “the son of the man” in earlier articles (here, and here). Here he seems to refer to the “the spirit, the holy one” as something within him, which is consistent with the phrases use in the OT.
But the quote from John 14:26 describes it as something that works inside those other than Jesus.
But the Comforter, [which is] the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
This verse has a lot of issues with translation, but the sense is that “the spirit, the holy one” stimulates the memory as a gift of the Divine.
Jesus also commonly uses a form where the “holy” is emphasized by putting it first and more clearly modifies “spirit,” in τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος. Literally, “of the holy spirit,” in Matthew 28:19, Luke 12:10, Luke 12:12, and Acts 1:8. It is worth noticing that Luke 12:10 echoes the same ideas in the Matthew quote above, but uses a different phrase than that used in both Matthew and Mark. Three of these verses were written by Luke, including the one from Acts. Two of the other verses uses other phrases also come from Luke. He never uses the more common phrase above. So this may have indicated a preference on the part of this Gospel writer. This form seems to indicate a person receiving abilities much as the verse from John did. Acts 1:8 reads:
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.ll Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Another thing worth noticing is how often this spirit, this “breath,” (literally) are connected to speaking and words. A similar idea is seen in Luke 12:12:
For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.
Jesus also uses the form πνεῦμα ἅγιον, literally, “a holy spirit” in John 20:22, and Luke 11:13. This is a very uncommon way to say a proper name, if that is what the Holy Spirit was. Most proper names start with a definite article, “this Jesus” and “this John” to specify who is being referred to. There is no indefinate article (“a,” “an”) in Greek, but that is the sense when there is no definite article and the word is singular. Saying “a holy spirit” indicates that there is more than one. This is how Jesus refers to other spirits such as demons.
Mark 13:11 But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.
The ending is “a holy spirit” not “the holy spirit.” Notice again the connection to speaking words.
For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.
This translation has to move the word around to create and add “the” to create “the Holy Ghost” here. This phrasing is again written by Luke. The word “baptized” is an untranslated Greek verb, meaning “dunked.” The image is of being dunked into the breath of life and coming out “holy.” There is a sense of washing but more of being soaked in something until it penetrates.
Though I didn’t list every verse related to this phrase, my general feeling is that it refers to receiving special abilities from the Divine. These abilities are related to finding the right words to express higher, that is, divine ideas. The “breath” is divine words. This is a way of learning higher things, the things separate from everyday life. The general sense is of a teacher or knowledge directly from the Divine.