The Holy Spirit as “Restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2?

(In this post I had to go into the weeds a bit. My goal is to have trimmed them to a level the reader can see the path I made—to allow the reader to see the forest beyond the weeds. I hope I’ve achieved it.)

Quite a few issues hinder identifying “the restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2:6 and 2:7. A fair number of theologians argue for the Holy Spirit in these two verses. And some of these do so based on a questionable pronoun argument. From this shaky foundation the Holy Spirit is imported into the context. This then is used by some as support for the pre-tribulation “Rapture” doctrine.

One shaky foundation upon another.

The Dubious Pronoun Argument

I’ve touched on this dubious pronoun argument elsewhere (Misgendering the Spirit, which has a basis in Another Paraclete?). To briefly identify the issue:

The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is neuter in grammatical gender. Because the term is neuter, a literal English translation of the pronouns substituted for pneuma would be “it” or “which” (instead of the personal “whom”). For example, in Acts 5:32, we would translate “we are His witnesses of these words, and so is the Holy Spirit (pneuma), which God gave to those obeying Him [Jesus].” And some deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit simply because pneuma is neuter. But this erroneously imposes English grammar notions upon the Greek.

Some, accepting this error, attempt to counter it by construing (erroneously) a different way to promote the personhood of the Spirit. In John 14:16—16:15 the Holy Spirit is also called another “paraclete” (paraklētos), which is masculine in grammatical gender. In addition, there are a number of masculine pronouns throughout this section. Consequently, some have mistakenly assumed that at least some of these masculine pronouns refer back to pneuma instead of “paraclete”, thus (also erroneously) implying personhood. But it is context that establishes personhood—not pronouns. Moreover, these masculine pronouns all refer back to “paraclete” or to a masculine pronoun substituting for “paraclete”.

An analogy will illustrate the problem with this argument. The term logos, “word”, is a grammatically masculine noun. If we impose English grammar rules upon the Greek here, then every occurrence of logos, would be translated “he” or “him”. This works fine for “the Word” as the pre-incarnate Jesus in John 1:1-14. But it doesn’t work in Mark 4:16, which would be “…whenever they hear the word (ho logos) they immediately receive him (autos) with joy.” This context is about the Gospel message, which should more properly be “it” (not “him”) in English.

The 1977 movie The Car provides a different angle. While the noun “car” in English is “it”—a thing—The Car as portrayed in the movie is a sentient, willful being. So, does The Car have personhood? The Car, which self-drives, certainly has a mind of its own—even mockingly ‘laughing’ via the car horn.[1] Or should we instead say, ‘The Car, who self-drives, certainly has a mind of his own’? ‘A mind of her own’? Do pronouns—whichever we apply—affect the consciousness, the volition of The Car in the movie?

Also consider the many ships named after humans (Queen Elizabeth II; Edmund Fitzgerald). Though we may call them individually “she” or “he” according to name, each is still “it” in English. Unless fictionally personalized as in The Car, none are sentient beings.

Grammar Limits Importing the Holy Spirit into 2 Thessalonians

Those relying on the pronoun argument for 2 Thessalonians 2 do so because there are two different grammatical genders used for “the restrainer”. One is neuter (2:6: to katechon), the other masculine (2:7: ho katechōn). To account for this, Robert L. Thomas argues:

To one familiar with Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse, as Paul undoubtedly was, fluctuation between neuter and masculine recalls how the Holy Spirit is referred to. Either gender is appropriate, depending on whether the speaker (or writer) thinks of natural agreement (masculine because of the Spirit’s personality [Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13—14; cf. Robertson, Grammar of the New Testament, 708-9]) or grammatical (neuter because of the noun pneuma…). This identification of the restainer…is most appealing.[2]

To support his stance, Thomas sources Robertson’s respected grammar. We will critique Robertson’s argument—and by extension Thomas’—with respect to the verses in John after first defining and analyzing “natural [gender] agreement” elsewhere.

“Natural gender” is such that a word’s grammatical gender correlates to the sex/gender inherent in the person the word is referencing. For example, “he” is masculine in grammatical gender, correlating to a male. “Stewardess” implies a woman. Etc.

Below we will challenge the above claim that the Holy Spirit’s “natural” gender is “masculine because of the Spirit’s personality” (personhood).

Defining “Natural [Gender] Agreement”

“Natural [gender] agreement” occurs when a word’s gender correlates to the biological sex/gender of the person it directly refers to (“natural gender”) in distinction from the grammatical gender of its antecedent (preceding reference)—the word it refers back to. Stated another way, instead of agreeing in grammatical gender with its previous reference, the word agrees with the biological sex/gender of the person (“natural gender”) referred to.

An analogy from English should clarify:

A1: Though the player grew weary, the athlete was spurred on by the crowd.

B1: Though the player grew weary, she was spurred on by the crowd.

The antecedent (preceding reference) in each sentence is the player. In A1 the athlete is unspecified as to gender, just like its antecedent. For the sake of this example, we’ll call both neuter in grammatical gender.  In A1 there is the usual grammatical gender agreement (the playerthe athlete). In B1 the natural gender of the person (feminine, she) to whom the word refers is used instead of one matching the grammatical gender (neuter) of its antecedent. In Greek, this dissimilarity would be a case of applying natural gender agreement in place of grammatical gender agreement—a grammatical mismatch.

This sort of thing is also called “construction according to sense”, or constructio ad sensum.

From Mark’s Gospel, Robertson finds an example of natural gender agreement over the grammatical:

In Mk. 5:41 αὐτῇ [autē̦, her] follows the natural gender of παιδίον [paidion, child] rather than the grammatical.[3]  

The applicable portion of the verse is “Taking the child (paidion, neuter) by the hand, He said to her (autē̦, feminine)…” Alternatively, Mark could have chosen the neuter form of the pronoun (autō̦[4]) for grammatical gender agreement between the two words. By choosing “her” (autē̦), he followed “natural gender” instead. Mark went from the general “child” (paidion, neuter) to the more specific “her” (autē̦, feminine)—a grammatical mismatch.

Let’s look more closely at this. In the larger context, Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter. The feminine thygatēr, “daughter”, is used for her in 5:35. Thus, we already knew the child is female rather than male. But the intervening references, up to and including 5:41 (39, 40, 41), all use the more general neuter paidion, “child” as a synonym. Here is the chain of referents:

thygatēr (5:35) > paidion (5:39) > paidion, paidion (5:40) > paidion (5:41) > autē (5:41)

daughter (5:35) > child (5:39) > child, child (5:40) > child (5:41) > her (5:41)

Thus, while 5:41 clearly is an instance of “natural [gender] agreement” over grammatical agreement, the natural gender is determinable by the larger context by a preceding reference.[5]

An Evil Pneuma Has Masculine “Natural Gender”?

For our purposes here, Mark 9:20 provides a more fitting example. Its context contains “spirit”, pneuma. Robertson opines that this is another example of natural gender usage:

“…surely this is…treating πνεῦμα [pneuma] as masculine (natural gender).”[6]

But what makes a malevolent spirit inherently masculine in “natural gender”? Is a spirit male?[7] Let’s scrutinize.

In the larger context beginning at Mark 9:17, a particular pneuma possesses a man’s son, preventing him from speaking. In 9:18 a neuter pronoun appropriately correlates to pneuma, its antecedent: “…I asked your disciples to cast it (auto) out…”. Correspondingly, in 9:28 the disciples asked Jesus, “Why weren’t we able to cast it (auto) out?”

Yet 9:20 causes a bit of confusion. It contains four different uses of the masculine ‘personal’ pronoun (auton, “him”). Related to this is a grammatical anomaly: the masculine pronoun encoded in the participle “saw” (he). This will take a bit to sort out:

ēnegkan auton pros auton. kai idōn auton to pneuma euthys synesparaxen auton

They-brought him to Him. And [when] he-saw Him, the spirit immediately convulsed him…

They-brought the son to Jesus. And when he-saw Jesus, the spirit promptly convulsed the son…

The proper correspondent for the masculine “he-saw” in this sentence would be “the spirit” (to pneuma). But, of course, pneuma is neuter instead of masculine.[8] The late Rodney Decker explains: “As an adverbial participle idōn [he-saw] should agree [in gender] with the subject of the main verb (pneuma), but this is constructio ad sensum.”[9] Decker then refers to Ezra Gould, whom I’ll quote in larger context:

[S]ince the action of the verb [convulsed] belongs to the spirit, and is occasioned by the action denoted by the participle [saw], it would be the spirit which is described as having seen Jesus. But [the spirit] does this with the eyes of [the son], and hence the masculine form of the participle.

In all these stories [exorcisms], the man and the evil spirit get mixed up in this way. The outward acts belong to the man, but the informing spirit is sometimes that of the man, and sometimes the evil spirit.[10]

In other words, though there is a grammatical gender mismatch, Gould thinks this is due to the mixing of the spirit (neuter) and the boy (masculine). Since the spirit (pneuma, neuter) acts through the son (huios, masculine), a masculine-gendered participle represents the son as the spirit’s ocular vehicle here. The possessing spirit sees through the eyes of the possessed son.

Sometimes the person acts apart from the demon. Sometimes the demon acts through the person. From the evidence thus far, one could consider this a case of “natural gender” agreement (constructio ad sensum) correlated to the son (son/spirit), not the spirit.

Mark 1:23-26 provides a good comparison. The translation below is as ‘literal’ (formally equivalent) as possible. Subscripted brackets identify grammatical number (singular[sg] or plural[pl]) and gender (masculine[ms] or neuter[nt]) where necessary for analysis:

1:23 Suddenly, in their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit! He cried-out, 24 saying[ms sg], “What is it between You and us[pl], Jesus the Nazarene? Have You come to ruin us[pl]? I-know[sg] who You are: The Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him/it[ms/nt sg] [autō̦], saying, “You[sg] be-quiet and you[sg] come-out of-him [autou]!” 26 And the unclean spirit, [it-]violently-convulsing[nt sg] him and [it-]shouting[nt sg] with a loud voice, came-out of-him [autou].

Like 9:20 above, the possessing pneuma acts through its chosen vessel. This is grammatically shown by Mark’s use of the masculine singular “he”, instead of the neuter in 1:23/24. Note that the spirit self-references with the plural “us” once each in the two questions posed. Yet when the unclean spirit reveals that it knows Jesus’ identity, it reverts back to the singular (I-know)![11] In 1:25 Jesus addresses the pneuma either (a) through the man [him, ms], or (b) directly [it, nt], in commanding exorcism. The better of the two would be (b), for it makes the most sense in this context (see next paragraph). In this way, the pronoun refers to the spirit in distinction from its host.[12] And finally, in 1:26 the unclean spirit (nt sg) comes out of the man (autou), freeing him.[13]

Though there are a number of interpretive options, we should reject any notions that the plural indicates more than one spirit possessing the man.[14] Jesus specifically exorcised only one demon. In view of the grammatical evidence of 9:20, at minimum we should harmonize the plural (1:24) with the masculine singular “he”, such that we construe the plural “us” to include the possessed man along with the unclean spirit.[15] Thus, the “I” in 1:24 comes from the spirit, which Jesus rebukes in 1:25. Surely the possessing spirit is concerned Jesus has come to exorcise him from his chosen host.[16] And Jesus promptly does.

If we understand the grammatical anomaly of 9:20 through the contextual lens of the grammar in 1:23-26, Gould’s above comments fall right into line.

In the account of “Legion” in Mark 5 we find a similar thing. Once the man with an unclean spirit is introduced (5:2), there seems to be no differentiation between the acts of the man and the acts of the possessing spirit. These verses, again, appear to reflect the spirit’s actions through the man:

5:6 Seeing[ms sg] Jesus from afar, he-ran and bowed down to-him. 7 In a loud voice he-was-crying-out, saying[ms sg], “What is between me and You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore you by God: Don’t torment me!” 8 For [Jesus]-had-said to-him/it[ms/nt sg], “You-come-out[sg] of the man unclean spirit!” 9 And [Jesus]-had-asked him[ms sg], “What is your name?” He-replied[sg] to-Him[Jesus], “Legion is my[sg] name[sg], for we-are[pl] many.” 10 Then he/it-began-begging[sg] Him further that [Jesus] would not send them[nt pl] out of the region.

11 Nearby, on the hillside, was a large herd of pigs grazing. 12 So they-began-begging[pl] Him, saying[ms pl], “Send[pl] us[pl] into the pigs so that we-may-enter[pl] them!” 13 And [Jesus]-permitted them[nt pl]. So, after coming-out[nt pl], the unclean spirits entered[pl] into the pigs; and, the herd of pigs—about two-thousand—rushed down the steep bank into the lake. And they were drowned in the lake.

Though the actor in 5:6 is the man, in reality it is the possessing spirit acting through the man, as evidenced by its words in 5:7. In 5:8 where Jesus starts exorcising the spirit through the possessed man, the Gospel writer uses a pronoun (autō̦) that could be either masculine or neuter. We might expect neuter in order to grammatically agree with pneuma, as found at the end of this verse.[17] This would concur with the usage in 1:25-26. And this seems the best understanding here.

In 5:9 Mark records Jesus having asked his (auton, ms) name—apparently to the spirit through the man—and the unclean spirit replied, “My name is ’Legion’, for we are many.” This plurality of unclean spirits then (5:10) implores Jesus to not send them (auta, nt pl) away.[18] At first blush the masculine singular at the beginning of 5:10 appears to contradict the analysis above; however, the narrator is describing the singular possessed man’s actions spoken by the one spirit representing them all. It is paralleled with 5:9 in that the narrator records a singular spirit (through the man) explaining its collective existence in the man (“Legion”).

Next, in 5:12 Mark records things from the plurality of spirit’s perspective (“They began begging”). Once again the Gospel writer prefaces their statement with a masculine participle (“saying”), but this time he uses the plural to signify the plurality of demons speaking through the man.[19] Evidence to support this position finds itself in the next verse: “Jesus permits them” (nt pl). Further, we can deduce that when the spirit is self-referencing, the neuter should be understood (“me” and “I” in 5:7; “my” and “we” in 5:9; “us” and “we” in 5:12). This also assists in confirming the analysis above that the sequence “us”, “us”, “I” in 1:24 refers to the pneuma/possessed man in the “us” as compared to the pneuma only in the “I”.

When prefacing direct speech—except before words commanding exorcism—Mark uses the masculine to indicate pneuma/possessed person. By contrast, in narration describing the scene the Gospel writer uses, or implies, the neuter (5:10, 12, 13), to distinguish the spirit(s) from the possessed man.

Therefore, all the above best explains the example in 9:20 above. In narration, acts of the pneuma independent of the possessed person are expressed by the neuter. And the neuter is used when the spirit is referenced by another in distinction from the possessed person (9:18, 28). Therefore, it could well be argued that grammatical gender and “natural gender” are the same for pneumaneuter. Or, perhaps better, that a pneuma does not have “natural gender” at all. To add strength to this position, we’ll look at one final account of demon possession.

The possessed slave-girl in Acts 16:16-18 provides a great comparison and contrast.[20] Luke records the girl as speaking what are obviously words coming from the possessing spirit (16:17).[21] The gender of both the pronoun (hautē, “This one” [slave-girl]) and the participle preceding the speech (legousa, “[she]-was-saying”) is feminine, but the words certainly originate from the pneuma. In other words, the feminine grammatical gender is apparently due to the biological sex/gender of the spirit’s mouthpiece—its oracular vehicle.

Thus, harmonizing these accounts with respect to gender—and applying a bit of Occam’s razor—one can make a strong argument that none of these accounts of spirits/demons contain examples of “natural gender” as pertaining to pneuma. That is, pneuma remains neuter. When a masculine or feminine referent is seemingly used for pneuma this merely indicates the biological sex of the possessed person. These examples also cast doubt on any notions of “natural gender” for spirit beings generally. I think we must be very careful not to impose human gender ideas upon spirit beings.

The Holy Spirit Has Masculine “Natural Gender”?

Finally, we shall directly engage Robertson’s argument that the Holy Spirit has implied masculine “natural gender”. He asserts, “Two passages in John call for remark, inasmuch as they bear on the personality of the Holy Spirit.”[22] The first part refers to 14:26, the second 16:13. In the following we shall see that English grammar notions inform part of his argument on the Greek, which is then contended to indicate the Spirit’s personhood (“personality”).

This is the first part of the grammarian’s argument (Greek replaced with English transliteration):

In 14:26…ho de paraklētos, to pneuma to hagion, ho pempsei ho patēr en tō̧ onomati mou, ekeinos hymas didaxei, the relative [pronoun] ho follows the grammatical gender of pneuma. Ekeinos (“That One”), however, skips over pneuma and reverts to the gender of paraklētos.[23]

Essentially, he is correct, which I will unpack below. First, here’s biblical context for his argument:

14:26 But the paraklētos[ms]—the Holy Spirit[nt], Which[nt] the Father will send in My name—That One[ms] will teach you all things, and remind you of everything I told you.

Robertson is right: “That One” skips over “the Holy Spirit” to agree in gender with paraklētos (advocate, counselor, helper, comforter). This is precisely why I prefer to separate the middle clause by em dashes (—). The neuter relative pronoun “Which” (hos) correlates to “Spirit” (pneuma), while the masculine demonstrative pronoun (ekeinos) “That One” refers to paraklētos. This is grammatical agreement. There is no reason to press this further. However, Robertson uses this as background for the second part of his argument:

In 16:13 a more striking example occurs, hotan de elthȩ̄ ekeinos, to pneuma tēs alētheias. Here one has to go back six lines to ekeinos again and seven to paraklētos. It is more evident therefore in this passage that John is insisting on the personality [personhood] of the Holy Spirit, when the grammatical gender so easily called for ekeino[nt] [ED: nt instead of ms].[24]

With respect to the gargantuan effort evident in Robertson’s mammoth grammar, his conclusion “when the grammatical gender so easily called for ekeino [nt]” is a non sequitur. The chain of referents follows:

paraklētos (16:7) > ekeinos (16:8) > ekeinos (16:13)

paraklētos (16:7) > That One (16:8) > That One (16:13)

After providing a brief synopsis of things to come (16:1-6), Jesus again mentions the paraklētos in this discourse (16:7). “That One” in 16:8 directly refers to paraklētos. The verses following this pronoun (16:9, 10, 11) detail functions of paraklētos; so, the same subject is assumed. 16:12 provides a transition to the next thought. There are neither intervening occurrences of pneuma nor intervening neuter pronouns. Thus, there is no basis to assume a neuter would have been “so easily called for” in place of “That One” in 16:13. In fact, the grammar is against it. Consequently, “That One” in 16:13 directly refers to “That One” in 16:8, which in turn directly refers to paraklētos. Therefore, this is not an implied instance of “natural gender” usage, which would somehow go towards supporting “the personality [personhood] of the Holy Spirit”.

Note that Thomas extends his argument a bit further (“Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13—14”). We’ll engage the last reference first, since it is a direct extension of Robertson’s with respect to 16:13. Here’s the text in English:

16:13 But when That One comes—the Spirit of truthHe/It-will-guide you into all truth, for He/It will not speak on His/Its own[ms/nt], but He/It-will-speak only what He/Ithears. And He/It-will disclose to you things yet to come. 14 That One[ms] will bring glory to Me[ms/nt], because He/Itwill receive from Me and disclose it to you.

Since Thomas does not develop his argument—in all fairness, his commentary is part of a larger volume, so was necessarily limited—I can only speculate. Thus, I don’t think it very profitable to ‘read his mind’, so to speak. However, to reduce this down to its simplest, there is ambiguity as to whether the verbiage after “the Spirit of truth” pertains to “the Spirit of truth” or, alternatively, to “That One” (paraklētos). If the former is assumed, then the second em dash should be placed at the end of 16:13. But this doesn’t seem to do justice to the context. In any case, with the presence of “That One” (ms) at the beginning of 16:14, it is clear this pronoun is intended to agree with “That One” in 16:13.

But surely if this were integral to Robinson’s argument above, the grammarian would have included it.

Thomas’ final reference is John 15:26. But this is much like 14:26 in which there is a split between paraklētos and “That One”. Thus, Thomas may include it as a parallel reference with Robertson’s 14:26. But I fail to perceive how this helps the cause:

5:26 “When the paraklētos[ms] comes, Whom[ms] I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth[nt], the One Which[nt] comes forth from the Father—That One[ms] will testify about Me.”

Daniel B. Wallace, in his grammar, engages this kind of argument.[25] After refuting it, he concludes (Greek transliterated):

Although one might argue that the Spirit’s personality [personhood] is in view in these passages, the view must be based on the nature of a paraklētos and the things said about the Comforter, not on any supposed grammatical subtleties. Indeed, it is difficult to find any text in which pneuma is grammatically referred to with the masculine gender.[26]

In a related footnote, Wallace makes a brief comment about 2 Thessalonians 2:6 and 2:7, noting that “Holy Spirit” is absent from the surrounding context.[27] Nevertheless, he does think the Spirit is a possible referent for these two verses, though any argument for this cannot rely on the erroneous claim that masculine is the “natural gender” of pneuma.[28]  

Concluding Thoughts

Pneuma is neuter, whether in reference to the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirit.

Yet, isn’t each individual pneuma in the Mark and Acts accounts above in actual fact a sentient, conscious being? Yes, of course. Though each demon (pneuma) uses its chosen vessel as its actor, each pneuma has its own thoughts and will in distinction from its possessed victim. Each is cast out against its will. And doesn’t such sentience necessarily indicate personhood? And shouldn’t this be somewhat analogous to the Holy Spirit? That is, if an unclean spirit is a person in and of itself, how much more should we consider the Holy Spirit to be a ‘Person’ in and of Itself/Himself, regardless of pronoun usage?

We might say “Sally discerned an evil spirt at that meeting” but we understand that it was the Holy Spirit working through her. The difference, of course, is that a Holy Spirit indwelt Christian is not possessed. While an unclean spirit imposes its own will upon its victim, the Holy Spirit allows the indwelt believer a choice. The believer retains complete control yet can allow the Spirit to work through by submitting to His/Its leading. A Holy Spirit indwelt person can choose either to be led by the flesh or led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:13-26).

Too many times it seems theological motives override grammar and context in a misguided effort to bolster a particular position. Sometimes it is needless, for the doctrine in question is secured by other means elsewhere in Scripture. I’m inclined to believe these are motivated by good intentions. I might call these ‘over-interpretations’ and ‘over-apologetics’.

There are other ways to argue for the Holy Spirit as “the restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2. From my own research thus far, however, I don’t find them persuasive. If the Holy Spirit is deemed not to be “the restrainer”, how might that impact the pre-tribulation “Rapture” doctrine? And how might that impact your day to day life?



[1] Trivia: the horn blast sequence is the same each time, which is intended to indicate “X” in Morse code: dash-dot-dot-dash. (Technically, the second “dash” is too long—should be the same length as the first—and the space between the first “dash” and the “dots” is a bit too long.)

[2] Robert L. Thomas, 2 Thessalonians, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Ephesians ~ Philemon; Rev. Ed., D. Garland & T. Longman, Gen. Eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), pp 470-71; underscore added. (A typographical error in the page number references to Robertson’s Grammar [“208-9”] was corrected.) The bracketed portion was moved from the second set of parentheses to the first, given that it seems to be more accurately apply there (“masculine because of the Spirit’s personality”), which becomes evident below when Robertson is critiqued on this.

[3] A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), p 684.

[4] But, then again, since the neuter is the same as the masculine in the dative (and genitive), this could possibly have caused confusion!

[5] The original reference to the girl comes in 5:23, in which she is introduced by thygatrion (little daughter)—the diminutive form of thygatēr—and this term is neuter though clearly referencing a little girl by its definition. This illustrates that even when the very definition of a term indicates the sex/gender of the person described by the term this does not necessarily mean it will also correlate to the person’s “natural gender”.

[6] Robertson, Grammar, p 436.

[7] Bear in mind that Robertson’s work was written in the early 1900s, well before any modern ideas of gender.

[8] On the surface, this is a grammatical error. A rough equivalent in English would be, “When the boy saw Jesus, the woman…” in which ‘the woman’ is the same person as ‘the boy’ at the beginning. But I think Mark was quite purposeful here. In light of his previous accounts (1:23-26; 5:2-13)—which we’ll investigate below—the Gospel writer intended to more sharply show the distinction between the possessing spirt and its host.

[9] Rodney J. Decker, Mark 9—16, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2014), p 17 (Greek transliterated). I very much respect the late Decker, recalling his words from the Introduction in the BHGNT here explaining his selection of commentaries sourced for his two-part volume: “My choice to engage these writers beginning with the old ICC volume by Gould (1896)…is an attempt to give writers their due. Sometimes more recent commentators are simply a collection of snippets from older works, with or without credit” (p xxiv).

[10] Ezra P. Gould, The Gospel According to St. Mark, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary; ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896), paragraph 5185 (at 9:20). Craig A. Evans, in his WBC (Mark 8:27—16:20, Word Biblical Commentary [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001]), disappointingly, at best merely indirectly addresses the grammatical issue, if at all: “The spirit is said to have seen Jesus, and it is the spirit that is said to have convulsed the boy. The symptoms may have been those usually associated with epilepsy, but the Markan evangelist makes it clear that it was an evil spirit, something distinct from the boy himself, that caused the illness” (p 52, emphasis added). But even this is better than the others consulted which didn’t mention the grammatical issue in any manner.

[11] Gender is not specifically expressed here, but neuter is implied from its use in both participles in 1:26.

[12] Interestingly, in my software the NA28 is tagged neuter, while the GNT is tagged masculine. There is no textual variant here.

[13] Though autou is ms/nt in both 1:25 and 1:26, these obviously refer to the man as distinct from the unclean spirit.

[14] Such a faulty notion can come from the plural “the unclean spirits” (to pneuma to akathartos) in 1:28, but this is unnecessary. An exclamation in the plural for one singular surprising action is not uncommon in English: Upon discovering your seemingly non-mechanically-inclined neighbor had replaced the brake pads on his car you respond, “I didn’t know you worked on cars!”

[15] Contra, e.g., Robert H. Stein (Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Greek New Testament {BECNT} [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008], who specifically asserts, “The ‘us’ refers not to the man and the unclean spirit, but to unclean spirits as a group” (p 87). Couldn’t it be both/and? See next note.

[16] This comports with the local context here. Thus, the verb “destroy” (apollumi)—rendered “ruin” here—in 1:24 is likely intended polysemy. On one level the possessing spirit is concerned Jesus will separate it from its host. This is reflected in the second entry in Frederick W. Danker’s The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 2009): “’experience disconnection or separation’—a. lose with focus on what one has or possesses” (p 47). Though Danker specifically places Mk 1:24 in his first entry (“’cause severe damage’—a. by making ineffective or incapable of functioning destroy”, p 47), I think both apply. More specifically, the latter (destroy) applies both singly to the possessing spirit here and collectively for all demons in the new eschatological age Jesus inaugurated. See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1—8:26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989), pp 58-60.

[17] Gould, St. Mark, states: “Only the man had been mentioned before, which would lead us to refer this [ambiguous ms/nt pronoun] to him. But the command is evidently addressed to the demon. This confusion is due to the identification of the two” (para 4631 [at 5:8]; emphasis added).

[18] The Textus Receptus has the masculine plural pronoun rather than the neuter. Gould thinks this is original (para 4640 [at 5:10]). In view of overall context (to include 9:20), I’m inclined to disagree with Gould, though the manuscript evidence is far from definitive—from what little I know, admittedly. Yet it’s curious that neither Metzger nor Comfort (New Testament Text and Translation Commentary) make note of this variant, for there seems legitimate cause to question the proper text. The NA28 (Holger Strutwolf, ed., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th, Accordance electronic ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012], p 119) lists the following in the apparatus:

αυτους αποστειλη D ƒ13 28. 565. 700. 1424. (ƒ1 2542) 𝔐 ¦ αποστειλη αυτους A 579. 1241. ℓ 2211 it ¦ αυτον αποστειλη ℵ L (⸉ K W 892) lat syp bo ¦ txt B C Δ (⸉ Θ).

It may not matter much in translation, but it might be worth discussion by specialists.

[19] The opinion of Gould, Mark, is nuanced somewhat differently, “Here the subject changes from the man speaking for the demons to the demons speaking through the man” (para 4646).

[20] See I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008), pp 285—87.

[21] F. F. Bruce (The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary; 3rd rev. ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990]) sources Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (9.414E) which “calls such soothsayers…ventriloquists who uttered words not only apparently, but really, beyond their own control” (p 360). Cf. Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Greek New Testament [BECNT] (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), pp 535 note 2, 535—37.

[22] Robertson, Grammar, pp 708-709. Here is the complete quote in its context, with transliterations in parentheses after the Greek: “Two passages in John call for remark, inasmuch as they bear on the personality of the Holy Spirit. In 14:26, ὁ δὲ παράκλητος, τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ὃ πέμψει ὁ πατὴρ ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί μου, ἐκεῖνος ὑμᾶς διδάξει (ho de paraklētos, to pneuma to hagion, ho pempsei ho patēr en tō̧ onomati mou, ekeinos hymas didaxei), the relative ὅ (ho) follows the grammatical gender of πνεῦμα (pneuma). Ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos), however, skips over πνεῦμα (pneuma) and reverts to the gender of παράκλητος (paraklētos). In 16:13 a more striking example occurs, ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας (hotan de elthȩ̄ ekeinos, to pneuma tēs alētheias). Here one has to go back six lines to ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos) again and seven to παράκλητος (paraklētos). It is more evident therefore in this passage that John is insisting on the personality of the Holy Spirit, when the grammatical gender so easily called for ἐκεῖνο (ekeino) [ED: neuter (instead of masculine)].”

[23] Robertson, Grammar, pp 708-709.

[24] Robertson, Grammar, p 709.

[25] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), pp 331, 332,

[26] Wallace, Grammar, p 332; cf. p 338.

[27] Wallace, Grammar, p 332, ftnt 44.

[28] Wallace, Grammar, p 332. Wallace does not, however, advance any sort of argument.

Misgendering the Spirit

Language learners should master the concept of grammatical gender. This is especially true for native English speakers. I’ve found many Christians, even some in scholarly circles, who are confused on this issue. As a consequence, the Holy Spirit is sometimes ‘misgendered’.

The problem is birthed from confusion between (and conflation of) grammatical gender and biological sex, as in male and female. From this confusion, faulty ideas arise as to what constitutes personhood.

To state simply: grammatical gender does not necessarily indicate biological sex. Most times there is no correlation whatsoever.

Grammatical Gender en Español

Since Greek has three grammatical genders, it may be helpful to first illustrate from a language with only two. Below are some examples in Spanish, the world’s fourth-most spoken language (after English, Mandarin Chinese, and Hindi).

the cat = el gato
the dog = el perro
the table = la mesa
the bank = el banco
the store = la tienda

Notice how “the” is spelled two different ways in Spanish. The words for “cat”, “dog”, and “bank” have el before them. These words (gato, perro, banco) are masculine in grammatical gender, so the corresponding word for “the” is also masculine (el). Comparatively, the Spanish words for “table” and “store” have la preceding them. These words (mesa, tienda) are feminine in grammatical gender and therefore have la to match.

This use of el in front of grammatically masculine nouns and la in front of grammatically feminine nouns must be maintained. You should never see ‘la gato’ or ‘el mesa’—these are grammatical mismatches, errors.

Now, we would hardly think any table or store is female. Nor would we think any bank is male. And, of course, we would hardly think all cats and all dogs are male.

In Spanish, there is a simple way for designating female cats and female dogs. An extra word is added to el perro and el gato to specify a male:

the female dog = la perra
the female cat = la gata
the male dog = el perro macho
the male cat = el gato macho

The astute student can readily see that the last letter of both perro and gato is changed from “o” to “a” to make it feminine in grammatical gender. This way, the grammatical gender also indicates the female sex of the dog and the cat. But since perro and gato mean “dog” or “cat” generically (without regard to biological sex), adding macho to the end indicates that the dog or the cat is male. In these examples grammatical gender correlates to biological sex.

Below are the final Spanish examples for our purposes:

the Father = el Padre
the Son = el Hijo
the mother = la madre
the spirit = el espíritu
the Holy Spirit = el Espíritu Santo

The only feminine grammatical gender above is found, appropriately, in “mother”. Similarly, both “Father” and “Son” are masculine. However, when referring to God biological sex is not to be understood, of course.

The word for “spirit” is masculine in grammatical gender. But this doesn’t mean that a spirit has biological sex. To specify “the Holy Spirit”, the word Santo follows el Espíritu. And since the Holy Spirit is part of the Triune God, once again, we don’t construe biological sex.

The Three Genders in the Greek

As noted earlier, Greek has three grammatical genders, adding neuter:

the sun = ho hēlios (masculine)
the earth/land = hē gē (feminine)
the water = to hudōr (neuter)

Like Spanish, the Greek word for “the” must match the grammatical gender of its associated noun. In the examples above, “sun” (hēlios) is masculine, “earth/land” (gē) is feminine, and “water” (hudōr) is neuter. So, correspondingly, the words for “the” are masculine (ho), feminine (hē), and neuter (to), respectively. Of course, none of the words in these examples indicate biological sex.

the world/universe = ho kosmos (masculine)
the land/region = hē chōra (feminine)
the lake = hē limnē (feminine)
the open/deep sea = to pelagos (neuter)
the deep sea = ho bythos (masculine)

In viewing the above, the reader may perceive a seeming randomness to the assignment of grammatical gender. The last three all relate to water, yet each one has a different grammatical gender! In fact, the last two are synonymous.

Once again, none of these can be construed as implying biological sex. And none of these are persons in any sense, of course.

the word/speech = ho logos (masculine)
the word/saying = to rhēma (neuter)

Despite what some Word of Faith (Word/Faith) teachers claim, these two words are essentially synonymous when referring to speech.1 And when referring to speech generally, we do not assume biological sex or personhood, of course.

In the case of ho logos the difference comes in the preexistent Jesus Christ, “the Word” (John 1:1—14). Certainly, we recognize the personalization—the ‘Personhood’2—of “the Word” here. However—and this is an important distinction—the masculine grammatical gender of ho logos does not indicate personhood in and of itself. Nor does it indicate biological sex—God is not intrinsically a sexual Being. It is the flesh (human) aspect of Word-become-flesh (Jesus the Christ) that indicates biological sex. Jesus is a biological male in virtue of His human nature, not His Divine nature. In His pre-earthly existence as “the Word” He was not even a biological being.

the Father = ho Patēr
the Son = ho Huios
the mother = hē mētēr
the spirit = to pneuma
the Holy Spirit = to Pneuma (to) Hagios

Not surprisingly, the first three above parallel the Spanish in terms of grammatical gender. The only feminine occurs, appropriately, in “mother”. Similarly, both “Father” and “Son” are masculine. And again, as in Spanish—or any translation of Scripture—when referring to God biological sex is not to be understood.

But when compared to the Spanish word for “S/spirit” grammatical gender differs. In Greek the word (pneuma) is neuter. Consequently, confusion results among many. To some apparently, the neuter grammatical gender necessarily construes a non-being, a thing. And from there it would follow that non-beings are non-persons. But this conflates distorted notions of grammatical gender with biological sex/gender in the English and imposes them upon the Greek.

Christendom, We Have a Problem

Confusion manifests in two ways, with one mistaken notion following the other. Because the word for “Spirit”, pneuma, is neuter in grammatical gender, some interpreters wrongly assume:

(a) this must mean that the Holy Spirit is not a ‘person’, since the Spirit is neither masculine (misconstrued as “male”?) in grammatical gender nor feminine (misconstrued as “female”?);

(b) however, because one section of Scripture (John 14:15—16:15) uses the grammatically masculine paraklētos (“counselor”, “advocate”, “comforter”) to refer to the Spirit, then this makes the Holy Spirit a person.

Now, to be clear, I absolutely affirm that Scripture declares the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit. But this is not due to the masculine grammatical gender of paraklētos. More on this further below.

Generally, the Got Questions site explains Christian concepts adequately (if a bit simplistically at times). But their page for the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit, Is the Holy Spirit a person?, contains the errors identified in this blog post. To unravel, I will analyze one sentence at a time. First the text, from the second paragraph at the preceding hyperlink:

The Bible provides many ways to help us understand that the Holy Spirit is truly a person—that is, He is a personal being, rather than an impersonal thing. First, every pronoun used in reference to the Spirit is “he” not “it.” The original Greek language of the New Testament is explicit in confirming the person of the Holy Spirit. The word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and would naturally take neuter pronouns to have grammatical agreement. Yet, in many cases, masculine pronouns are found (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14). Grammatically, there is no other way to understand the pronouns of the New Testament related to the Holy Spirit—He is referred to as a “He,” as a person.

Error begets error. Beginning with the first sentence:

The Bible provides many ways to help us understand that the Holy Spirit is truly a person—that is, He is a personal being, rather than an impersonal thing.

This is true.

First, every pronoun used in reference to the Spirit is “he” not “it.”

Though this may be true in English translations, this is absolutely untrue in the Greek New Testament. This will be clarified as we go.

The original Greek language of the New Testament is explicit in confirming the person of the Holy Spirit.

In the original Greek language the word for “S/spirit”, pneuma, is neuter, as stated earlier. But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not the Holy Spirit is an impersonal thing any more than the masculine kosmos (“world”) indicates that the world is a personal being. It’s not the Greek language that establishes personhood; it’s the contexts describing the Holy Spirit that establish it.

The word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter and would naturally take neuter pronouns to have grammatical agreement.

This is absolutely true. And it absolutely does in the Greek.

Yet, in many cases, masculine pronouns are found (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14).

Three masculine (demonstrative) pronouns are used in these cases (and one more each in 14:26 and 16:83) because they refer to the noun paraklētos, which is a masculine noun! Moreover, this is hardly “many cases”, as these are only found in the Farewell Discourse (John 14:16—16:15) when the pronoun refers to paraklētos. The Farewell Discourse is also interspersed with neuter pronouns in the Greek when referring to pneuma. For example, in John 14:17, the neuter relative pronoun hò is used once and the neuter ‘personal’ pronoun auto is used twice as substitutes for to pneuma at the very beginning of the verse—though all three are translated as the masculine “him” in English. This is to indicate personhood in English. To reiterate, these three neuter pronouns are translated as masculine pronouns in English solely to signify personhood for English readers. This is an issue in translation, not in Greek.

Grammatically, there is no other way to understand the pronouns of the New Testament related to the Holy Spirit—He is referred to as a “He,” as a person.

I cannot know if the author is being dishonest or is obtusely conflating issues. As noted just above, the English translations generally use “he” when a pronoun is substituted for the Holy Spirit. But the Greek pronouns here agree in grammatical gender with their antecedents, their referents. And in the Greek New Testament any pronoun which refers to pneuma is also neuter to match in grammatical gender.

So how do we Biblically establish the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit? Murray J. Harris in his exegetical commentary on John’s Gospel provides some helpful introductory apologetics here (the author translates paraklētos “Helper”):

The fact that the pronouns referring to the Spirit…are neuter no more establishes the impersonality of the Spirit than the masculine pronouns ekeinos in 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 13-14 and auton in 16:7 [ED: referring to paraklētos] prove the personality of the Spirit. In each case the gender of the pronouns is grammatically conditioned…The personality of the Spirit should be established without appeal to the masculine pronouns in the passages cited above. (One can argue, for example, that since Jesus as Helper [implied by allos, “another” in 14:16] is personal, one would assume that the Spirit as “another Helper” is also personal. And the other personal roles attributed to the Spirit, such as teaching and reminding [14:26], testifying [15:26], guiding [16:13], and informing [16:14-15], would certainly be strange if the Spirit were simply an impersonal force).4

In short, it’s not the Greek grammar that argues for the ‘Personhood’ of the Holy Spirit. It’s the contexts describing Him. A few other contexts in this regard:

  • The Holy Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30).
  • The Holy Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3), which is tantamount to lying to God (Acts 5:4).
  • The Holy Spirit is sent jointly by the Father (John 14:26) and the Son (John 15:26; 16:7) and is received by believers (1Cor 6:19, etc.), in whom the Spirit performs some of these personal functions.
  • The Spirit’s Deity finds affirmation in the sharing of the one Divine Name with the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19). If the Father and Son are ‘Persons’, then it most likely follows that the Holy Spirit is, as well. Though equality of ‘Personhood’ cannot definitively be established by this one verse, it’s this verse in concert with other verses that help make the case. As another example of such, Jesus is called paraklētos (1John 2:1), while Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘another paraklētos’ (John 14:16).

No Good Apologies for Bad Apologetics

Using bad apologetics can harm the Christian cause. Anyone who is against Trinitarianism specifically or Christianity generally can use that bad pronoun argument against the Christian faith. Such bad arguments can make us seem like the ignorant and unintelligent (or intellectually dishonest) people that many non-believers accuse Christians of being.

Such faulty arguments used in attempts to bolster a theological position undermine proper Christian apologetics. Let’s endeavor to do better. I know we can!


1 But logos has a more expansive range of meanings. For those unaware, many Word/Faith teachers assert (among other things) the false dichotomy that rhēma denotes the ‘higher’ word from God for believers only while logos indicates the written Scriptures as a whole for everyone, including non-believers. Not only is this reductionistic, it fails to account for the fact that the verbal form (legō) of logos is used quite often preceding speech (so-and-so said [legō], “…”). A good example to refute this dichotomy presents itself in Matthew 12:36: But I say (legō) to you that every idle word (rhēma) that men speak (legō) they will give account/reckoning (logos) for in the day of judgment. Moreover, rhēma is found in only 65 verses in the New Testament as compared to over 300 for logos, while the verbal form legō occurs over 2000 times.

2 I always place single quotes around ‘Person’ when referring to individual hypostases of the Father, Son, or Spirit in order to indicate a distinction between modern ideas of personhood and those of Trinitarianism. The Father, Son, and Spirit should not be reduced to such secular notions.

3 These five occurrences of the masculine demonstrative pronoun (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:8, 13, 14), plus one masculine personal pronoun, are the only stand-alone pronouns in this entire section referring to paraklētos. There are some others implied in verbs (all finite verbs encode person and number, but not gender), though some are ambiguous as to their intended referent (see previous article Another Paraclete?, especially endnote 10). There are also neuter pronouns—specific and implied—referencing either the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of truth in the Farewell Discourse.

4 John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), p 261 (Greek transliterated). And see note 3 above and my previous article related to this subject.

Another Paraclete?

John the Gospel writer records Jesus’ words describing “another paraclete” (14:16). Though typically spelled paraclete in English, the Greek is (transliterated) paraklētos. The curious reader might wonder, “If Jesus refers to another paraklētos, who is (are) the other(s)?”

Let’s investigate, focusing on the ‘another’ before we search for the ‘other(s)’.

First, we’ll define the term, a noun. A compound word, it combines the preposition para (beside, along, by, near) with the adjective klētos (summoned, called, invited, chosen). Thus, according to its etymology, paraklētos might mean something like “one summoned alongside”.

Seldom used in antiquity, in Demosthenes the term refers to a legal aid, an advocate. The word means intercessor in the works of Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus and the Apostles. These two points of reference lay out the background—not necessarily the impetus—for its usage in Scripture. Completely absent in the Old Testament, the word occurs a mere five times in the New Testament, all in the Johannine corpus (works attributed to John).

Revealing ‘Another’ Paraklētos

Jesus’ speech in the Farewell Discourse (John 14—17) contains all four instances of paraklētos in John’s Gospel. The portions below should provide adequate context for analysis. My commentary interjects. Though the primary intent here is to identify this ‘another’ paraklētos and his associated functions, other related data will also be addressed. All pronouns specifically referring to paraklētos are underlined in the Scripture translations (but not in the commentary).

14:15 “If you love Me, you will obey My commands. 16 Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another paraklētos, so that He may be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, Whom the world cannot receive, because it neither perceives Him nor recognizes Him. But you know Him, for He stays by you, and He will be in you. 18 I will not leave you abandoned; I will come to you. 19 Yet in a bit the world will no longer see Me. But you will see Me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day, you will realize that I am in my Father—and you [are] in Me, and I in you. 21 The one who has My commands and obeys them, that person loves me. And the one who loves Me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and reveal Myself to him.”1

First, observe the prerequisite for the Father to give this paraklētos: you must obey Jesus’ commands, thereby proving you really love Him (vv. 15—16). Reciprocity frames this entire section (vv. 15—16; v. 21). Jesus and the Father love those who love Jesus. The rewards for showing your love for Him are provided in the giving of this paraklētos and in Jesus’ promise to self-reveal.

Another moniker for this paraklētos is the Spirit of truth (v. 17). This Spirit of truth appears to function like the Holy Spirit. That is, the way this is laid out seems to indicate this paraklētos is indeed the Holy Spirit. For after providing a description of the Spirit’s then-current function (He stays by you), His future indwelling is foretold (He will be in you).

Jesus refers to His forthcoming Crucifixion: Yet in a bit the world will no longer see Me (v. 19). Jesus also predicts His Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances in I will come to you (v. 18). This is paralleled with and you [are] in Me, and I in you (v. 20) as well as reveal Myself to him (v. 21).

He will be in you surely refers to the Spirit’s indwelling at Pentecost in Acts 2, and it is possible that day (v. 20) does as well. Specifically, though in context In that day seems best understood as referring to the Resurrection and Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances, it may also be intended to encompass the Ascension and the subsequent giving of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost as well (v. 19: you will also live).

Should this analysis prevail, this paraklētos (aka the Spirit of truth) and Jesus appear to overlap in function to the extent the two ‘Persons’ seem entwined to a degree (reveal Myself to him). That is, the Spirit that will be in you (v. 17) may Himself act as Christ in some fashion (v. 20: and I in you). Stated another way, that day may refer to the day of Pentecost (He will be in you) when considered alongside the final clauses of v. 20 (and I [Jesus] in you) and v. 21 (reveal Myself to him2), signifying some sort of intertwining of the two. Assuming so, Jesus self-reveals in conjunction with or via the Spirit of truth. This overlap of ‘Persons’ and functions is borne out in other Scripture, such as Colossians 1:27 (Christ in you, the hope of glory) when viewed in conjunction with Ephesians 1:13—14. These connections will become clearer as we progress.3

And could the Spirit of truth refer back to Jesus’ previous declaration I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)?

Further Unveiling and Clarifications

At this juncture we might surmise that Jesus Himself is the other paraklētos. Let’s see how the rest unfolds.

Continuing on, we find Judas interrupting Jesus, seeking clarification:

22 Judas (not Iscariot) asked him, “Lord, how can it be that You are going to reveal Yourself to us, yet not to the world?”

In answering Judas’ question, Jesus sheds more light on this paraklētos’ function:

23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves Me, he will obey My word; then My Father will love him, and We will come to him and reside with him. 24 Anyone who does not love Me does not obey My word. Yet the word you hear is not from Me, but from the Father who sent Me. 25 These things I have spoken to you while remaining with you. 26 But the paraklētosthe Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My nameThat One will teach you all things, and remind you of everything I told you.

27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you—not as the world gives do I give you. Don’t allow your heart to be disturbed and don’t be afraid. 28 You heard Me tell you, ‘I am going away’, yet I will come back to you.”

Positively, Jesus reiterates that to love Him means to obey My word, which brings about the Father’s love. Negatively, in His somewhat indirect answer to Judas, He implies that those who don’t love Him—as indicated by their refusal to obey His word—are those of ‘the world’.

Apparently Judas assumed Jesus’ words reveal Myself to him (v. 21) were a reference to His Parousia, His return, the Advent. That is, it seems he rightly understood (v. 22) that Jesus’ Parousia would be seen by all (cf. Matthew 24:27); consequently, he couldn’t comprehend how Jesus would be revealing Himself to the Apostles yet not the world. However, Jesus was instead referring to His Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances (and likely beyond—see previous section). Judas’ apparent mistake was in interpreting all Jesus’ words above through the narrow lens of v. 19 (in a bit the world will no longer see Me. But you will see Me), thereby erroneously delimiting them. Because Judas didn’t foresee the Resurrection, he assumed a near-future Parousia.

Yet Jesus was also referring to the future up to and including His Parousia. How so? Jesus would reveal Himself (v. 21) through the functions of this paraklētos—now specifically identified as the Holy Spirit—Who will teach you all things and remind you of everything [Jesus] told you (v. 26). Though Jesus’ immediate audience was the Apostles, the enduring nature of the Scriptures indicates these functions would apply to subsequent believers. Thus, these operations of the Spirit-paraklētos continue all the way to the Advent. This will come into sharper focus as we continue.

The last sentence in v. 27 echoes 14:1 (Don’t allow your heart to be disturbed and don’t be afraid). Thus, in context with v. 28, this likely intends to allude to 13:33 (I will be with you only a bit longer; cf. 14:19) and 14:2—3 (many rooms…I will prepare a place for you…come back to you…so you may be where I am), which would then imply both the Parousia and post-Parousia (the afterlife).

In other words, though Jesus is referring to His Resurrection in v. 18 (I will come to you) and v. 19 (you will see Me), in the larger context the Resurrection itself should be seen as foreshadowing—or perhaps the first stage of—His Parousia. Moreover, though v. 23 (we will come to him and reside with him) surely refers to the initial Spirit indwelling,4 the post-Parousia (afterlife) could also be in view considering v. 19 (Because I live, you also will live).5 That is, these clauses may well refer to both the temporal and the eternal realms (and see Craig Keener’s blog post here). Assuming so, this would not be so much a case of collapsing eschatology (in some sort of over-realized sense6), but indicating the continuing multivalence of—the layers of meaning in—Jesus’ words here.

Christ also clarifies what He means by My word (vv. 23, 24), which is obviously a synonym for My commands (vv. 15, 21; cf. 8:31—32) here.  For, though it is Jesus’ word, its ultimate origin is from the Father who sent Him (v. 24).

The Spirit-paraklētos, aka the Holy Spirit, will be sent in the name of Jesus—in Jesus’ authority—by the Father (v. 26).

To recap, the Spirit-paraklētos that will be in you (v. 17) will function to teach you all things and remind you of everything [Jesus] told you (v. 26).

The Spirit-Paraklētos Testifies about Jesus through Disciples

Now moving to the next section describing the Spirit-paraklētos:

15:26 “When the paraklētos comes, Whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth, the One Who comes forth from the Father—That One will testify about Me. 27 And you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”

Somewhat paradoxically, in 14:26 it is the Father who sends the Holy Spirit (aka the Spirit-paraklētos) in Jesus’ name, whereas in 15:26 Jesus sends the Spirit-paraklētos to the Apostles, though this Spirit of truth comes forth from the Father. In the former (14:26) the Father performs the action (“will send”), in the latter (15:26) Jesus does (“will send”). Note also here in 15:26 Jesus specifies that it is the Spirit of truth that comes forth from the Father,7 while in 14:16 the Father gives the Spirit-paraklētos to the Apostles in response to Jesus’ petition. Thus, the Spirit-paraklētos’ point of departure (“comes forth”) is from the Father yet He is sent by both Father and Son. Once again, ‘Persons’ in the Trinity overlap functionally.8

Another function comes to light here. The Spirit-paraklētos will testify about Jesus (v. 26). In turn, the Apostles will testify about Jesus (v. 27). This implies that the Spirit-paraklētos’ testimony will come through the Apostles. This harmonizes with the activities sketched in 14:26: to teach the Apostles all things and to remind them of everything Jesus told them. The Spirit-paraklētos teaches the Apostles and reminds them of what Jesus told them so He can testify through them.

So the Apostles—and subsequent Christian disciples—are the agents of the Spirit-paraklētos in this regard. And, perhaps, the Spirit-paraklētos is the agent of Jesus in the same: reveal Myself to him through the Spirit-paraklētos (see 2:22; 12:16). Assuming so, the Apostles and disciples act as agents of the Spirit-paraklētos, Who, in turn, performs as Jesus’ agent.

Actions of the Spirit-Paraklētos in the World

Paraklētos appears one last time in John’s Gospel—specifically in chapter 16:

16:5 “Yet now I withdraw to him who sent Me, and not one of you asks Me, ‘Where do you go?’ 6 But because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 But I tell you the truth: It benefits you that I depart. For if I do not depart, the paraklētos will not come to you; yet if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 When That One comes He will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment: 9 with regard to sin, because they do not believe; 10 but concerning righteousness, because I withdraw to the Father and you no longer see Me; 11 and, concerning judgment, that the ruler of this world has been judged.”

As with 15:26, in 16:7 Jesus is the One sending the Spirit-paraklētos.

The three listed functions of the Spirit-paraklētosconvict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (v. 8)—are not well-defined and open to a number of interpretive possibilities. Given this Gospel’s penchant for multivalence, these possibilities may all be true. It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to exhaustively detail these possibilities.9

Sin in v. 9 could mean He will correct those in the world of wrong ideas pertaining to what constitutes sin. It could mean convict of the sin they are engaging in towards their repentance. It could mean convict of unbelief in Christ.

As pertaining to righteousness (v. 10), the Spirit-paraklētos convicts because Jesus goes to the Father. This may be understood as a simple statement of fact: Now that Jesus is no longer here to point out unrighteousness, the Spirit-paraklētos takes over.  In other words, here “righteousness” may be meant to be understood in a negative sense. In this way, for example, the self-righteous Jewish leaders who coerced Pilate to crucify Jesus may be convicted—deemed unbelievers by the Spirit—because of their push to crucify Him. On the one hand, there are those who remain convicted of their self-righteousness in this regard (“Crucify Him!”). On the other hand, some may be driven to repent (after coming under conviction) from their role in Jesus’ death and thereby come to faith via the Spirit-paraklētos.

So, in regards to the world, the Spirit-paraklētos testifies about Jesus (15:26).

Because Christ has triumphed over the ‘ruler of this world’, the world stands condemned (v. 11). It follows then that those aligning with the ‘ruler of this world’ similarly stand condemned.

The Spirit-Paraklētos’ Future Role in the Disciples

One remaining portion of chapter 16 contains the Spirit-paraklētos, but it is via masculine pronouns referring to it rather than the term itself (as implied from 16:7 above).10

12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you aren’t able to bear them now. 13 But when That One comes—the Spirit of truthHe will guide you into all truth, for He will not speak on His own, but He will speak only what He hears. And He will disclose to you things yet to come. 14 That One will bring glory to Me, because He will receive from Me and disclose it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is Mine; therefore, I said this because He receives from Me and will disclose it to you.”

Potential information overload appears to be Jesus’ concern here (v. 12). So, Christ lays things out slowly, repeating a bit as He goes.

The Spirit-paraklētos, aka the Spirit of truth, will guide them (and future disciples) into all truth (v. 13). This seems to be a summation of all the functions outlined earlier, to include the statement that He will act as Jesus’ agent (vv. 13—15), thus solidifying earlier assumptions (in the conclusion of The Spirit-Paraklētos Testifies about Jesus through Disciples section above). But here also the Spirit-paraklētos has a future role, perhaps eschatological (things yet to come, v. 13).

The mutuality between Father and Son is restated, but this time much more strongly implying a Trinitarian relationship: Since the Father had given all things to Jesus (cf. 3:35; 5:20; 13:3), then Jesus can relay these same things to the Spirit-paraklētos, aka the Holy Spirit, aka the Spirit of truth (vv. 14—15).11 And the Spirit-paraklētos discloses these things to the Apostles and disciples.

Identifying the Other Paraklētos

In Scripture paraklētos finds itself one final time in the first epistle of John (1John 1:5—2:6):12

1:5 This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light and in him is no darkness—none. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we are lying and do not practice the truth. 7 If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, is cleansing us from all sin 8 If we claim that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim that we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.

2:1 My dear children, these things I write to you in order that you do not sin. Yet if anyone does sin, we have a paraklētos with the Father: Jesus Christ, the Righteous. 2 And He is propitiation for our sins, though not for ours only, but even the entire world.

3 By this we recognize that we have come to know Him: if we obey His commands. 4 The one who says, “I have come to know Him”, yet does not obey His commands is a liar, and in him there is no truth. 5 But whoever obeys His word, in this one the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know we are in Him: 6 The one who says he abides in Him must himself walk as Jesus walked.

Though tentatively deduced above, this text confirms Jesus is indeed the other paraklētos. Therefore, when Jesus told His disciples He would send “another paraklētos” (John 14:16) He meant one besides Himself.

This section begins (1:5) with Jesus as the one we have heard from. But then it quickly moves to God the Father as its subject, with all third person pronouns through v. 10 referring to God. Jesus, His Son in v. 7 provides the lone exception. The theme of God as light juxtaposed with darkness in vv. 5—7 may intentionally allude to John 1:4—5, with the Gospel’s the Word exchanged here for God. Bolstering this line of thought is the statement in v. 9 that God is faithful and righteous—two attributes applied to Jesus elsewhere, the latter attributed to Him in 2:1 here.

While the focal point is certainly in 2:1—2, note the verbal parallels and similarities in the surrounding context (1:6—1:10; 2:2b—2:5) with the passages in Jesus’ Farewell Discourse above. From John’s Gospel we know that only those who obey Jesus’ word/commands will receive the Spirit-paraklētos. Negatively stated, those who do not obey Jesus’ word/commands will not receive the Spirit-paraklētos. Thus, it follows that those who have come to know Him—as evidenced by obeying His commands—have the Spirit-paraklētos indwelling. This indwelling provides the privilege to petition Jesus, Who acts as paraklētos on our behalf to God the Father.

The referents for the pronouns Him and His throughout 2:3—6 are unclear, and this may well be the author’s intention. From John 14:24 we know that when Jesus referred to My word and My commands, their origin was actually from the Father. Thus, any such purposeful ambiguity would further blur the roles of the Trinitarian ‘Persons’.

Perhaps “intermediary” best defines paraklētos generally in Scripture. In the role of paraklētos the Spirit communicates Jesus’ words to the believer.  Similarly, Jesus communicates the petitions of the believer to the Father. The Holy Spirit acts as Jesus’ agent to the believer; Jesus acts as our agent to the Father.

And through the power and mediation of the Spirit we act as God’s agents in the world, testifying about Jesus. In this sense, each believer is a paraklētos. What a privilege—and responsibility—we have.


1 My translation, as is all here. The bracketed are in v. 20 is absent in the Greek, though added here for intelligibility.

2 See paraklētos’ function in this regard further below, especially in The Spirit-Paraklētos Testifies about Jesus through Disciples section.

3 While here we have overlap of Son and Spirit, later we will see overlap of Father and Son as well.

4 Thereby implying Trinitarianism: Father, Son and Spirit will come to live with the one who loves Jesus.

5 Cf. Rev 21:1—22:6; see “Looking Past the Future”.

6 By “over-realized” I mean an extreme interpretation such that the Parousia was to occur at the Resurrection or during the Apostolic era.

7 Regarding the use of the verb ekporeuesthai, “comes forth”, in 15:26, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974): This description made its way into 4th century creeds to describe the eternal procession of the Third Person of the Trinity from the Father…However…the coming forth is in parallelism with the “I shall send”…and refers to the mission of the Paraclete/Spirit to men…The writer is not speculating about the interior life of God; he is concerned with the disciples in the world (p 689). In other words, in its context here “comes forth” says nothing about what is known in some circles as the immanent Trinity in terms of the eternal genesis of the Spirit-paraklētos. Rather, it refers to the sending of the Spirit-paraklētos in salvation history.

8 See notes 3 and 5 and related text.

9 See, e.g., D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, D. A. Carson, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp 534—539.

10 This is in distinction from any referring to the Spirit of truth, which would require a neuter pronoun since the Greek word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is neuter. All the translated-to-English personal pronouns (He) in v. 13 are attached to verbs—which do not encode gender—and therefore could either be masculine referring to paraklētos or neuter referring to the Spirit [of truth]. Similarly, the reflexive His own (in the genitive, heautou) could be either masculine or neuter. Thus, I’ve made an exegetical decision in assigning these masculine, relating to the masculine demonstrative That One due to the presence of the masculine demonstrative yet again in v. 14, thereby assuming this intervening text also refers to paraklētos (v. 7) rather than the Spirit [of truth]. For all practical purposes it matters little for, as noted above, the Spirit of truth is an alternative moniker for this same Entity.

11 See notes 3, 5 and 8 and related text.

12 In 2:2 propitiation should be understood to include both expiation and propitiation. The personal pronoun He is uncertain as to its referent (paraklētos or Jesus), but I take it to be paraklētos in this context, given the mediatory function in forgiving sins.

Re-Assembly Required

What does “church” mean to you? Would it surprise you to learn that the underlying Greek term we translate “church” in most Bibles is much more accurately summoned assembly or congregation? The term in its original New Testament (NT) context referred strictly to persons called to a specific assembly (Christ-following)—not to a physical structure, much less to some hierarchical, institutional structure.

The word “church”—and the capitalized “Church”—is weighted down with too many misleading and negative connotations. Consequently, like an Olympic shot putter, it’s high time we hurl it into the field!

But how did “church” get applied if that’s not even what the word means?

What Do You Mean That’s Not What it Means?

The word translated “church” is the Greek ekklēsia. It is formed by the preposition ek, which means “from” or “out of”, plus klēsis, a noun. Klēsis means some sort of special call, calling, invitation.1 Thus, in a general sense, ekklēsia is defined as a group summoned from a larger group, an assembly called out of a larger people-group.

But does the word itself connote some special significance in the NT? More specifically, does the term refer exclusively to Christ-followers? To answer this, we’ll need to look at how this term and its cognates are used in the NT.

The NT records klēsis only eleven times. Each use refers to either the calling of Christ or a calling of God: Rom 11:29; 1Cor 1:26; 7:20; Eph 1:18; 4:1, 4; Phil 3:14; 2Th 1:11; 2Tim 1:9; Heb 3:1; 2 Pet 1:10. In this sense, it bears special significance.

Its adjectival form, klētos, is used ten times,2 in somewhat similar fashion: Matt 22:14 (in a parable); Rom 1:1, 6, 7; 8:28; 1Cor 1:1, 2, 24; Jude 1:1; Rev 17:14. Thus far, the evidence could go towards supporting Christians as exclusive ‘called-out’ ones.

Jesus summoned his first disciples (Matthew 4:21 [cf. Mark 1:20]) using the associated verb:

kai ekalesen autous
…and He-called them.
…and He [Jesus] called them.

The root of the verb used above is kaleō, which means to call, summon, invite, call by name. This is a very common verb, found 140 times (in its various forms) in the NT. Though it is used for the calling to Christian discipleship, this verb also applies to the naming of John the Baptizer (Luke 1:13), identifying the name of a city (Luke 7:11), etc. Thus the word is not purposed exclusively for summoning Christians.3

But maybe we should focus strictly on ekklēsia?

Calling the Ekklēsia

The LSJ, the most comprehensive lexicon for Ancient Greek literature, defines ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία) generally as an assembly duly summoned. The term is found in Homer and other ancient Greek writings well-predating the NT. It can refer to political, legislative bodies governing the populace for example (see Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 43.4). Though some have seized upon this latter meaning, attempting to apply it to Christianity, this is clearly not how the term is used in the NT. Scripture gives no indication that Christians are to rule over non-Christians. On the contrary, Christ-followers are to be servants. In any case, given the usage of the term pre-NT, the word clearly wasn’t coined specifically for Christians.

The term is used 93 times in the LXX (aka Septuagint)—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh, the Old Testament (OT). Though many times ekklēsia refers to Jews in religious contexts in the LXX, it is not used solely in this way. It also references: a group of Jews in a political sense (Deut 18:16), a specific assemblage of returned Jewish exiles in distinction from the larger group of Jews generally (Ezra 10:7-8), and even a pack of evildoers (Psalm 26:5 [LXX 25:5]).

The NT records the term 111 times. The very first usage is in Matthew 16:18, in Jesus’ words to Peter:

kai epi tautȩ̄ tȩ̄ petra̧ oikodomēsō mou tēn ekklēsian
…and upon this the rock I-shall-build my the ekklēsia
…and upon this rock I shall build my ekklēsia

Putting aside any discussion of the enigmatic “upon this rock”—which is beyond the scope of this present article4—what does ekklēsia mean here? [The extra ‘n’ at the end of ekklēsia in the Scripture is to denote the accusative form, direct object.] Might Jesus mean my ‘called-out’ ones? Let’s investigate further.

The Apostle Paul uses this term in the beginning of some of his epistles. An example is found in 1Thessalonians 1:1: …to the ekklēsia of the Thessalonians. The ekklēsia at Thessalonica. In Acts 8:1, which speaks of the aftermath following the stoning of Stephen, there was great persecution against the ekklēsia at Jerusalem—against the group of Christ-followers in Jerusalem. Yet, before this persecution, Stephen, in the midst of his speech to the Sanhedrin, recalls Moses who was in the ekklēsia in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38). This latter usage clearly refers to Jews in an OT context, not NT Christ-followers. But that’s not the only instance of the term referring to a group identifiably not Christian.

In Acts 19, three successive applications of this term clearly do not refer to followers of Christ: an assemblage of pagans brought together by Artemis the silversmith in opposition to Paul and “the Way” (19:32), some sort of official legislative body (19:39), and Artemis’ group once again (19:40). These three instances, plus Acts 7:38, indicate that this word in and of itself is not some special term used exclusively for Christians in the NT. As with most words, context determines meaning.

The final definition of the term in the LSJ lexicon well-explains its application in the NT as it relates to Christ-followers—as well as its later expanded usage:

in NT, the Church, as a body of Christians, Ev.Matt. 16.18, 1 Ep.Cor.11.22 ; ἡ κατ’ οἶκόν τινος ἐ[κκλησία] Ep.Rom.16.5 ; as a building, Cod.Just.1.1.5 Intr., etc.5

In other words, the LSJ indicates that the term is applied in the NT (except the four exceptions above) to “the Church” collectively as a body of Christians, using Matt 16:18 and 1Cor 11:22 as examples. However, the term was later used as a building, as in Codex Justinianeus (Code of Justinian), from circa early 6th century AD. To this latter meaning we will return further below.

Sandwiched between the two definitions in the LSJ (the Church, as a body of Christians; and, as a building) is a reference to the usage in Romans 16:5. Providing proper context for this verse, to include the two immediately preceding verses:

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus 4 —who, for my life, risked their own necks, for whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the ekklēsiai of the Gentiles 5 —and the ekklēsia in their house6

The basic sentence above is Greet Prisca and Aquila…and the ekklēsia in their house. Here the ekklēsia must be a particular group of Christians who gather at the house of Prisca and Aquila. Thus, a small subgroup of Christians. In verse 4 Paul pluralizes ekklēsia, indicated by the final iota (i): ekklēsiai. By its context, these multiple ekklēsiai are other individual gatherings of Gentile Christians meeting in individual homes in Rome.7 Considering the example of 1Thessalonians 1:1, we can infer that if “all the ekklēsiai of the Gentiles” (16:4) were to be combined with the one ekklēsia at Prisca and Aquila’s house (16:5) this would comprise one larger ekklēsia. In other words, each small subgroup (meeting in a home) is an ekklēsia, and the combination of these individual ekklēsiai (meetings in homes) logically would make up one larger ekklēsia. Every individual gathering of Christ-followers comprises an ekklēsia—no matter how small or large—and adding all these ekklēsiai together would constitute one ekklēsia in Rome.

And we can extrapolate further.

This all-inclusive ekklēsia is the meaning of the first definition in the LSJ above: the Church, as a body of Christians. In the context of 1Cor 11:22 Paul calls the ekklēsia at Corinth “the ekklēsia of God”. Note that, though Paul is writing to the Corinthians, this usage of ekklēsia is not specifically limited to those in Corinth. Like the implication in the opening of this epistle (1Cor 1:2), here in 11:22 (“Or do you despise the ekklēsia of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”) the phrase intends the entirety of the ekklēsia of God, to include Christ-followers outside Corinth. Stated another way, though Paul was addressing the ekklēsia in Corinth, he intends all Christ-followers in existence collectively—not strictly the Corinthians—evidenced by the additional modifier of God.

Thus, extrapolating even further, the one all-inclusive ekklēsia at Rome was to be included in the one all-inclusive ekklēsia at Corinth, both comprising a part of the one larger ekklēsia of God. And this should be expanded even more. Yet no matter how far geographically we broaden the scope, there is only one all-inclusive ekklēsia. Obviously, the larger we broaden it, the greater the number of people making up the ekklēsia. But, to reiterate, it is still one collective ekklēsia. This can even be expanded temporally to include all NT-era ekklēsiai (at Jerusalem, Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, etc.) in combination with all the ekklēsiai today (in North American, South America, Europe, Africa, Orient, etc.). All together these constitute the many-peopled one ekklēsia.

Now, in returning to Jesus’ words “my ekklēsia” in Matthew 16:18, we have a clearer idea of his intention. We would hardly think Jesus was referring to his ekklēsia as opposed to, say, Prisca and Aquila’s. Obviously—just like in 1Cor 11:22—Jesus was referring to all Christians collectively, rather than some group of Christians uniquely his own over against some other group or groups of Christians. An individual is either part of Jesus’ ekklēsia—the ekklēsia of God—or is not part of Jesus’ ekklēsia. And each and every ekklēsia individually is included in the one ekklēsia of Jesus—the entirety of Christ-followers collectively.

This collective, all-inclusive meaning stands behind the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 (Ni-Con). The Ni-Con updated the earlier Nicene Creed (325).8 More importantly, Ni-Con defined the ekklēsia. Following is the pertinent portion:

[Pisteuomen] eis mian, agian, katholikēn, and apolstolikēn ekklēsian
[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic ekklēsia.
We believe in one, holy, universal, and apostolic ekklēsia.

The word “apostolic” refers to the fact that the ekklēsia dates back to the first century Apostles. Even the first person plural “we” embeds the all-inclusive intent. The only caveat is that each individual in the group must follow the tenets of the Creed (Trinity; Incarnation; Virginal conception/birth; Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension; the Second Coming; one baptism).

The Ekklēsia Housed in Confusion

But somewhere along the way, post-NT era, ekklēsia shifted to “church”. This resulted in the understanding of the underlying NT word to mean “house” or “dwelling”, among other things. This conflation of ekklēsia as a body of Christians with its subsequent mutation as a building (for Christians)—or the fusing of the two—has created not a small amount of confusion. To illustrate the complexity of the issue, consider this meaning of ekklēsia as a building alongside the other multiple modern meanings of “church”.

In the 1983 unabridged Webster’s Dictionary definition for church is the following etymology:

Middle English chirche, cherche; Anglo-Saxon circe, cyrce; Late Greek kyriakon, a church, from Greek kyriakē (supply dōma, house), the Lord’s house, from kyriakos, belonging to the Lord or Master…9

In other words, “church” is not even derived from ekklēsia at all! It’s from kyriakos instead. Thus, this definition of “church” for ekklēsia is an anachronism by way of convoluted etymology. Stated another way, a word (“church”) from a much later time period, is transported to the NT era (via kyriakos) and applied to a completely different word (ekklēsia) cargoing its multiplicity of modern meanings, and these meanings are almost entirely foreign to the original contexts.

To put mathematically: ekklēsiachurch! And, kyriakēekklēsia.

Undoubtedly, this problem leads a reader to understand ekklēsia as any or all of the range of meanings found in “church” today (building, congregation, building with congregation, denomination, the entirety of Christians living and dead, clergy). In reading 1Cor 1:2 (to the church of God that is in Corinth), a modern reader might envision a large building on the corner of Main and 1st Streets with an accompanying marquee proclaiming “First Episcopal Church of Corinth”, where all Episcopalians living in Corinth would gather. But that’s far from historical accuracy.

If we go back to the NT usage of the relevant Greek words in the etymology above, we may be able to find the root of the problem. The Greek adjective kyriakos means something that pertains to the Lord (Jesus).10 It is used only twice in the NT. In the first instance (1Cor 11:20), the context specifically concerns the Lord’s Supper.11 In the second instance (Rev 1:10), the Lord’s Day,12 it refers to Sunday.13 The important thing to note is that the term kyriakos itself essentially means of the Lord, or the Lord’s.14 But the definition above uses the feminine form (kyriakē) rather than the masculine (kyriakos [also note: in the above etymology kyriakon is the neuter nominative form or masculine accusative form]). This use of the feminine form may relate to another possible connection just a bit below.

The parenthetical note in the etymology above (supply dōma, house) apparently indicates dōma is to be added to kyriakē in order to yield ~ the Lord’s house. But the word dōma means “housetop” or “roof” in the NT (Mt 24:17; Mk 13:15; Lk 5:19; Lk 17:31; Acts 10:9). Thus, it appears the two different meanings were fused together to form the one chirche, cherche, or “church”.

Another possible connection is the use of kyria—the feminine form of kyrios (Lord)—in 2 John 1:1 and 1:5. In the NT era, kyrios is used for a person having authority and would be rendered either “lord” or “master” (or, of course, “Lord” or “Master”). An equivalent for a female would be “lady”. In 2 John 1:1 the term is combined with eklektē—“chosen”, “elect”. In that context, it is to the elect lady and her children. It is possible (though impossible to confirm or disprove) to construe this as a figurative circumlocution for the bride of Christ.15 This may (or may not) go towards providing a basis for the etymology above in its use of kyriakē.

Even still, none of this answers why or how ekklēsia became “church” exactly. Like Darwinism, there’s something missing in the evolution.

There is one other possible connection. The Greek word for “a building”, “a structure” is domē.16 Though it does not occur in the NT, it is found in its verbal form in the compound word oikodomeō immediately preceding “my ekklēsia” in Matthew 16:18. This verb is a combination of the noun oikos (“house”, “dwelling”, “household”, “family”)  and the verb domeō (“to build”, “to construct”). But in the context of Jesus’ words, this surely refers to a metaphorical building/constructing, not the building of a physical structure. Jesus was declaring he would ‘build’ a people-group by summoning from the larger group of all people.

And Jesus is still building it!

Further evidence of the confusion finds itself in all the modern dictionary meanings of ecclesia, ecclesial and ecclesiastical. It’s past time we reclaim the proper NT meaning!


Given the enquiry here, how should we translate ekklēsia? Negatively, as noted in the beginning, I propose we heave “church” to the linguistic landfill. Positively, I suggest we substitute congregation in all places “church” is currently found in Scripture. The three Acts 19 occurrences could be assembly, in keeping with most versions’ current use of the term there.

Using congregation instead of “church” might go a long way toward alleviating both confusion and denominational divisions. True Christ-followers comprise one ekklēsia. Separate, individual congregations, but one universal (catholic) ekklēsia!

Just like we meet (verb) at our meeting (noun), we congregate at our congregation. And we are not a congregation unless we congregate. Assembly required!

We congregate when we attend services or when we attend Bible studies—whether at a ‘church’ building, in someone’s home, or any other place. It could possibly be understood that we assemble when speaking on the phone with a Christian brother or sister. Or maybe even when conversing via email.


I began writing this article well before the current health issue and the resulting socio-political environment surrounding it. Thus, I am not intending to make any sort of socio-political statement with this. However, in light of the current situation, I think it might be best that every individual ekklēsia proceed as led, considering local regulations and recommendations in balance with Hebrews 10:25, Romans 13:1—8 and 1Peter 2:13—17.



1 See “κλῆσις” in F. W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2009), p 202.

2 The Textus Receptus—the Greek text underlying the KJV and NKJV—includes the term at Matthew 20:16, appending the verbiage found in Matthew 22:14: πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσι κλητοί, ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί, polloi gar eisi klētoi, oligoi de eklektoi, for many are called but few are chosen.

3 Though the main reason for the title of this section is to refute “church” as a meaning for ekklēsia, a subsidiary reason is to debunk the notion that ekklēsia is some exclusive term made up of its prefix and the verb kaleō, as if the term were coined strictly for Christians. Such an understanding seems implied by R. C. Sproul, someone whose teachings I generally enjoy: Ekklesia: The Called-Out Ones. We must do better than this. Tangentially, in view of the contents at the link, I might have asked Sproul about Judas Iscariot: Was he not part of the Twelve? Does this not imply he was one of the called (klētos)? How do we square Sproul’s doctrine of ‘election’ with Matthew 22:14 (and Matthew 20:16 TR—see note 2 above)?

4 Though inferences can certainly be drawn from its conclusions.

5 The Greek of Romans 16:5 (the 2nd sub-definition) is actually τὴν κατ᾿ οἶκον αὐτῶν ἐκκλησίαν, tēn kat’ oikon autōn ekklēsian. In paraphrase, the LSJ changed it to the nominative instead of the accusative and the personal pronoun (αὐτῶν) to the indefinite (τινος).

6 My own translation, as all here.

7 Likely founded by Paul’s missionary efforts (cf. Romans 16:10-11).

8 To include a defining of the Holy Spirit, which had barely been mentioned in the 325 version.

9 Jean L. McKechnie, Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged,  2nd ed. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p 324. I am unfamiliar with Late Greek, but in the NT, kyriakon is the accusative form of kyriakos (as found in 1Cor 11:20; see below), but it’s also a neuter nominative form (not used in NT). Kyriakē is the feminine nominative form (again, not used in NT).

10 “κυριακός”, in W. Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd. ed. (Chicago, IL: Chicago, 2000), p 576.

11 In the accusative/direct object case: kyriakon deipnon.

12 In the dative/indirect object case: tȩ̄ kyriakȩ̄ hēmera̧.

13 David Aune, Revelation 1—5, Word Biblical Commentary, Gen. Eds. D. A. Hubbard, G. W. Barker (Dallas, TX: Word Books), pp 83—84.

14 “κυριακός” in Danker, p 210.

15 See “κυρία” in Danker, p 210; cf. Judith M. Lieu, I, II, & III John (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pp 240—42, 248—52.

16 Maybe the Webster’s “dōma” in the etymology above is in error?

Passing the Examination

In a bygone era, far removed from today, I served a brief stint in the US military. No regrets, but with the time to reenlist approaching, I had already made up my mind to separate from service rather than continue. It simply wasn’t the life and career for me.

With a few months remaining in my service commitment, I was also approaching the time to take a test for promotion to the next grade. This exam was scheduled before my upcoming separation. Passing the exam would provide a salary increase along with the promotion. A wage increase would be great; however, should I pass, the grade would not be awarded until after my intended separation from service. Thus, to my mind, it made little sense to take the test. So, I asked to be excused.

Yet I was told I must take the examination. “What if you pass?” I was asked. That would make no difference to me, for I was firm in my decision. I was definitely going to separate, no matter the outcome.

So, on the morning it was scheduled, I took the test. In record time. I simply took the Scantron and penciled in a next to the first question, b for the second, and so forth, till I got to the fifth question in which I penciled e. I repeated this pattern until I was finished. Then I handed it to the surprised facilitator and walked out of the room.

I had to sit for the test. But I didn’t have to test well. I didn’t have to pass the exam, but I couldn’t pass on sitting for the exam.

I have no idea how I scored. Given my methodology, it would have been pure luck had I actually qualified for the promotion.

Qualifying for a Higher Grade

Much later, after accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, I discovered that, as Christians, there’s an exam we must take. Similar to my earlier test, it is not optional. Yet the stakes are much higher. This is one we must pass. Continually:

2Corinthians 13:5—6:

5 Examine yourselves if you be in the faith. Approve yourselves! Or do you not discover for yourselves that Jesus Christ is in youunless you be unapproved? 6 Yet I trust that you will realize that we are not unapproved.1

For background, the Apostle Paul is frustrated with the ekklēsia (“church”) in Corinth. The words above should be seen as the culmination of what Paul stated in 2Corinthians 10:7. Paul implies that the congregation(s) had been seduced by other “super-apostles” (11:5) who had been preaching “another Jesus”, as received by “a different spirit”, and that they accepted this “different gospel” (11:4). Paul goes on to describe these seducers as “false apostles…disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13), suggesting they are servants of Satan himself (11:14—15). Apparently, these “super-apostles” spoke disparagingly about Paul (12:11), contributing to the Corinthians’ doubt about Paul’s Apostleship (13:3—4). And even doubting Paul’s own faith.2

In response, Paul instructed them to examine themselves to determine if they were really in the faith. In the first two sentences of verse 5 “yourselves” is italicized to match the emphasis implied in the Greek text. Paul truly is concerned that some had apostatized, that they had fallen away from the faith. So, his words are a call to repentance for those needing it. But he provides encouragement: surely they will find out they are true Christ-followers—or they will be convicted of their fallen state and repent. Yet at the same time they will realize that Paul really is in the faith and truly is an Apostle.

Paul’s concluding sentence (v 6) magnificently puts all his thoughts together. In it, he uses three different pronouns to great effect. The “I” speaks of his authority, yet the verb associated with it shows his empathy, his desire (“I trust”). The “you”, of course, is the Corinthians, who, after their individual self-investigations (v 5), should either: (a) be further encouraged in their faith, or (b) be persuaded to repent. His final “we” indicates both: (a) his desire for their further encouragement or their repentance (accordingly), and (b) his implied assertion of his own status in the faith, along with the newly-repentants’ realization of Paul’s true faith—“we” (the Corinthians and Paul) are “not unqualified”.

All this provides an object-lesson for subsequent readers, for us. Are we really in the faith? Continual self-assessment is not optional (Matthew 24:13).

Elsewhere Paul provides means for self-testing, using the example of Timothy:

2Timothy 2:15:

Strive to present yourself approved to God, an unashamed laborer correctly applying the word of truth.

The verb for “approved” here is the same as the one used in 2Corinthians 13:5. The only way you can know for certain you are in the faith is to have a good knowledge of the truths of the faith (John 8:31—32)! And this requires obedience, which is made evident by your fruit. A great self-check for fruit-bearing is found in Paul’s words to the Galatian ekklēsia. The passage compares living by the Spirit to living according to the flesh:

Galatians 5:16—25:

16 I say then, walk by the Spirit, so you shall not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh has desires contrary to the Spirit, the Spirit contrary to the flesh. For these oppose one another, so that you may not do as you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious, which are: sexual immorality, moral impurity, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, rivalries, dissensions, discriminations, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousals, and such things similar to these. All these I tell you to forewarn you as before: All those who engage in such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, goodness, faith, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such things, there is no law. 24 And those belonging to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, to the Spirit we should also conform.

We cannot just pass on this. Each must habitually ask himself or herself, “Am I really in the faith?”

Do I meet the qualifications? Am I approved?


1 In my translation here, I aimed for functional equivalency to the extent possible (nouns for nouns, similar verb types for similar verb types, etc.), leaving out as many English helping words as possible (e.g. “to see if you be in the faith”). With this goal in mind, I sought to retain Paul’s words as I think he intended to his original audience, thereby showing his exceptional rhetorical skills. All negatives are translated as per the Greek text, including words negated by an a– prefix. In this way, the reader can see his dichotomies, his juxtapositions, as well as his plays on words (“approve” > “unapproved” > “not unapproved”). Otherwise, in my opinion, his tone is smoothed over. This includes the italicizing of “unless” since εἰ μήτι is stronger than εἰ μή.  In similar fashion, “yourselves” is twice italicized, since it has emphatic placement in the Greek (first in the sentences). The overall intent is to make the parallels and contrasts a bit easier for the English reader to perceive.

2 Most of this entire paragraph sounds eerily similar to the leaders and individuals within the so-called New Apostolic Reformation.

Looking Past the Future

Looking at the present, the immediate future is uncertain. But of this I am sure: a much brighter future awaits us.

For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the arrival of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27).

And the culmination of this future may resemble our distant past. Our very beginning. Before we fell into darkness.

In the Apocalypse—the book of Revelation—John the revelator describes the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2, 10). A Throne is its centerpiece, its Sanctuary is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (21:22). Light radiating from them obviates the sun, eliminates the night (21:23, 22:5). A Tree of Life is flanked by a life-giving river and a golden street (21:21), one as transparent as the other:1

1 Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, springing forth from the Throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 In between the city’s great street and the river stands a Tree of Life2 producing twelve fruits, corresponding to each month of the year, yielding one fruit per month. The leaves of the Tree provide healing for the people. 3 No longer will any curse be. The Throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him. 4 They will see His face, and His Name will be on their foreheads. 5 Night will no longer exist: They will have no need of lamplight or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shed light upon them. And they will reign forevermore (Rev 22:1-5).

No curse! No night, no darkness! I have long championed the slogan “Water is life”, a maxim all the more true in the New Jerusalem.

May I endure to the end (Matthew 24:13), thereby finding my name included in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:27). I sure could use some of those healing leaves.

Behold! I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12).


1 What follows is my own translation.

2 This first part of the verse proved very difficult to translate. The Greek is:  ἐν μέσῳ τῆς πλατείας αὐτῆς καὶ τοῦ ποταμοῦ ἐντεῦθεν καὶ ἐκεῖθεν ξύλον ζωῆς, en mesō̧ tēs plateias autēs kai tou potamou enteuthen kai ekeithen xylon zōēs. Translating as literally as possible: in middle/midst of-the great-street of-it and the river from-here and from-there tree of-life. There is no finite verb in this entire verse—something not uncommon in Scripture. The first clause up to “of-it” is a dative, but does it go with the main verb of 22:1 (“springing forth”) or are we to assume—and thus add in—a verb in 22:2? For me, it seemed nonsensical to envision a river flowing down the middle of a street (and with a tree or trees in the middle of it), so I looked for other options. I found the International Standard Version’s translation to make the most sense: the dative clause was to be applied to verse 2 rather than 1. The key for me was understanding “from here and from there” as helping to explain—as a rephrasing of—“in the midst”. In this way, the verse is understood in the middle of the city’s great street and the river, from here [the river—the focus from v. 1] and from there [the great street] (stands) a Tree of Life. From this understanding, I decided to omit “from here and from there”, thus rendering the first two words “in between” as a compromise.

Reading Scripture—and Modern Times—through an Honor/Shame Culture Perspective

Many times I will go to bed with local Christian radio on. Perhaps this accounts, at least in part, for my occasional feeling of sleep debt.

Last night—I realize now this was at 4 AM!—I caught part of a very engaging monologue by Abdu Murray from RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries). In my semi-conscious state, I knew I had to investigate this further, later in the morning when I would be more lucid. The title of this podcast is “Evangelism in an Honor and Shame Culture, Part 1”. Below is the audio. I cannot recommend it enough:

[Side note: I am saddened by the recent death of Ravi Zacharias; I really enjoy/ed listening to him.]

One of the points Murray argues is that this cultural norm of honor versus shame in the Middle East and the East is becoming more commonplace in the West. He is absolutely correct! This can be found in the “virtue signaling” and social media tirades against those who dare disagree with the Leftist position on a given subject. From this perspective, a person adhering to a particular belief which is at odds with Leftist ideology does not merely render said person guilty of wrong-belief on this subject, but one who is inherently bad! This wrong-thought then not only deems the entire person malevolent, but extends to anyone who defends this particular belief of said person. Thus, the social media mobs not only attack the one person who subscribes to said belief, but to anyone who defends this person’s belief in any shape or form—including their free speech right—regardless of the rest of the defender’s worldviews. One strike, you’re out. You’re ostracized. Cancelled. You’re inherently bad, too.

Murray uses the account of the man born blind and subsequently healed by Jesus in John 9 as a base text. One of the main points he makes centers on a very astute observation regarding John 9:19 (~15 minutes into the podcast). Murray rightly emphasizes the “you”—something I’d not found in any of the numerous commentaries I consulted on this matter. Though he does not explain his reasoning for why he views this as emphatic, below I will illustrate how Murray is correct in his expression of this particular passage.

First, I must add the following related comment. While searching the RZIM site for this podcast, I came across a brief article by Margaret Manning Shull titled, “A Face for the Faceless”. In it, she covers some of the same territory as Murray. The following section merits inclusion here (emphasis added):

The story of the man born blind in John’s gospel is a fitting example of a more collective honor and shame culture: “Who sinned,” the disciples asked Jesus, “This man or his parents that he was born blind?” Here, the belief that someone else’s sins could be borne by another is striking. After Jesus healed this man’s blindness, the religious leaders question the blind man’s parents. His parents didn’t want to speak on his behalf “for fear of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus as Messiah, he was to be put out of the synagogue” (See John 9:20-23). To be put out of the synagogue was to be excommunicated from God, family, and society—and to bear the burden of collective shame and dishonor. The son was already in a dishonorable state because of his blindness. One false move by the parents and they would suffer the same fate.

Note that it’s not merely individual but collective shame.

“…whom you say…”

This section will necessarily be a bit technical—though I don’t think it is too much so. For those with limited time and/or shortened attention spans (a byproduct of our “social media” culture)—though this section is not very lengthy—please go to the final section for my important closing comments. With this brief preface out of the way, I shall proceed.

In Greek, all finite verbs encode both person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd person) and number (singular or plural), though not gender. (Stay with me!) Given this, in Greek a complete sentence can be made with just one verb, as Jesus does with his final word on the Cross (John 19:30): Tetelestai. The verb here is a 3rd person singular, which, on the surface, could be either masculine (he is finished), feminine (she is finished), or neuter (it is finished). But by the context we can clearly discern that it should be the neuter it is finished. Thus, adding a pronoun (or noun) is unnecessary in the Greek. Now, certainly, the question of just what was finished is a big one; however, the point here is that it wasn’t a “she” or a “he” that was finished in the context of John 19:30.

If this seems a bit confusing, don’t let this detain you just yet. I think any confusion will be quickly cleared up as I explain the specific clause in John 9:19. Below is the Greek text, under that its transliteration (substituting English letters for the Greek), a rough translation is beneath that, which is followed by my translation. I placed brackets [ ] around the implied pronouns encoded in the two finite verbs below:

ὃν ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι τυφλὸς ἐγεννήθη
hon hymeis legete hoti typhlos egennēthē
whom you [you-]say that blind [he-]was-born
whom you say {that} was born blind

Beginning our discussion with the last word, the verb “was-born” (egennēthē), the encoded person/number is 3rd person singular. Since the context makes it clear that the referent is the man born blind, we know that “he” is the implied pronoun, not “it” or “she”. Thus, adding a pronoun is unnecessary in the Greek. (And in English it would be improper to translate the implied “he”.)

The third word, the verb “say” (legete), has the 2nd person plural encoded. This is in reference to the parents of the now-healed man. Since the context makes the referent clear, then, once again, adding a pronoun is unnecessary in the Greek. (Of course this “you” must be translated into English in order to make sense of the passage.) However, the Greek text also includes the 2nd person plural pronoun hymeis (“you”), even though, as we just noted, this pronoun is unnecessary to convey what was meant. Thus, this is not a redundancy; this is to make the “you” emphatic.

So here [some of] “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) were trying to shame the parents of the man born blind by implicitly accusing them of lying about the blindness of their son—since these Jews assumed the formerly-blind-but-now-healed man had been lying all this time about his own blindness. The other option—that Jesus, that “sinner”, healed him—was beyond the realm of possibility in their figuratively blinded eyes. But this was also a set-up. If the parents were to affirm his blindness from birth, then, in “the Jews” darkened eyes, they would also be an implied party to his “purported” healing by Jesus. This is why the parents claimed ignorance of just how their son was healed and then deferred to their son—to let him speak on his own, thus making him the sole one ‘guilty’ of this—so that they would not face expulsion from the synagogue. Better to let the son face the dishonor and shame by himself. They didn’t wish to share it with him.

Take a listen to the podcast to hear the other (explicit) points the speaker makes.

Concluding Near-Field Digression

I must end this blog post with somewhat of a digression, though not far at all from where I started. I count myself as blessed to live in a place—namely San Antonio, Texas—that has excellent programming (largely so, but discernment required) on Christian radio. This includes both KDRY (AM 1100) and KSLR (AM 630). Programs include both internationally recognized voices and local pastors/teachers. For those in the local area, I suggest you check them out. For non-locals, there may be programming available in your area. Moreover, I’m aware that KDRY can be listened to online or through a mobile app. For those with the financial wherewithal, donations are appreciated, of course.

A Proper Understanding of the New Testament Text

What the authors of Myths and Mistakes insist on is that it is neither necessary nor even possible to demonstrate that we can recover the exact wording of the New Testament. But what we have is good enough.

The above words by Daniel B. Wallace are the final sentences in his Foreword to the new multi-author volume Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, eds. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019], pp xix-xx). I received a copy a few days ago, and I may provide a more comprehensive review of it at some point (beyond what I’ve written here), once I’ve read through all its contents.

I think all Christians, most especially those involved in any sort of apologetics, should at least be somewhat acquainted with the topic of New Testament (NT) textual criticism. This is the discipline of attempting to determine the original Greek text (aka the autographs) of the NT, from which we translate to English and other languages. And it’s important that claims regarding the authenticity of the NT text are not exaggerated, for this will only serve to damage the cause of Christian apologetics and Christianity at large. Some who are openly hostile to the Christian faith well-know there are extant Greek NT texts that do not agree with each other, and attempts to quell this fact will only lead to charges of a lack of integrity and/or intelligence among Christians.

The cult-like fervor of King James Version-onlyists (KJVO) is particularly damaging to the Christian faith. These KJVOs stubbornly cling to either a claim of the supremacy of the Greek text underlying the KJV (the so-called Textus Receptus [TR]) and/or the supposed superiority of the King James English contained in the KJV over against all modern English (and other language) versions.1 Adherents appear to be sincere in their desire to believe that God has preserved His words in a particular manner, but in their zeal and shortsightedness they take things too far.

Such an extreme view can be misconstrued as not unlike what we would find in the ‘automatic’ writings of occult works, such as those by Alice A. Bailey, in which she openly states she was the conduit by which an entity identifying himself as Djwal Khul (aka Djwhal Khul, The Tibetan, Master D. K.) channeled his words. Hopefully, no one in Christianity/Christendom believes God provided His words in such a manner. According to the Apostle Paul, “all Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos: from theos = God; pneustos = breath, breathe)” (2 Tim 3:16);2 moreover, according to Simon Peter, “men, borne by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21) and even Paul’s epistles are identified as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). That is, Scripture is understood to be written by men under inspiration from God, as opposed to God dictating His words to these men verbatim. In other words, these men were active participants in the writing of the Christian Holy Scriptures, as opposed to passive recipients, mere conduits. Thus, it is not imperative that we have the exact words of the NT in order to understand what God had conveyed via His messengers.

In Hixson and Gurry’s Introduction is a salient point regarding the reliability of the Greek text we do have:

…Simply put, we believe the textual evidence we have is sufficient to reconstruct, in most cases, what the authors of the New Testament wrote. We cannot do this with equal certainty, of course, and the following chapters will discuss places where doubt remains significant…Nevertheless, we do think that even the most textually corrupted of our manuscripts and editions still convey the central truths of the Christian faith with clarity and power. In every age, God has given his people a text that is more than reliable enough to know the saving work he has accomplished through Jesus Christ.3

To that I can only add, “Amen!”


1 The Achilles’ heel of the KJVO stance is the Johannine Comma (Latin Comma Johanneum)—interpolated verbiage found in the TR of 1 John 5:7-8 and in the corresponding English of the KJV/NKJV. See Daniel B. Wallace’s refutation of this as inspired Scripture here and here.

2 For an in-depth analysis on this one-time occurrence of this word (hapax legomenon), see George W. Knight III’s Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), pp 444-450.

3 Hixson & Gurry, Myths and Mistakes, p 20. The accompanying footnote to this passage is worth presenting here (in part): In this we agree with influential English reformer William Whitaker, who could readily concede to his Roman Catholic opponents that “the fundamental points of the faith are preserved intact in this Latin edition, if not everywhere, yet in very many places.” This despite his opponents’ claims that the Latin text had final authority, a claim Whitaker vigorously opposed.

What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion

[See part I]

In the conclusion here I shall more closely explore the three verses leading up to Pontius Pilate’s pithy phrase in 19:22. Some necessary background in John’s Gospel will be provided first.

Events Leading Up to Jesus’ Arrest

In reaction to Jesus’ increasing popularity following the miracle of Lazarus’ revivification (11:38-45; 12:9-11), some of ‘the Jews’8 conferred with the chief priests and the Pharisees who then summoned the Sanhedrin (11:46-47). They were concerned they would eventually lose their “place and nation” (11:48). While “place” in its Scriptural context may refer to the Temple, it may well (also) mean the leaders’ privileged positions, which were granted by, yet subject to, Roman authority.

At this meeting Caiaphas, the High Priest (11:49) said, “…it is better that one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish” (11:50; cf. 18:14). The narrator of the Gospel adds:

51 He did not say this of himself but, as High Priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not only the nation, but also that He would unite into one the children of God who are dispersed.9

The Greek words for “children of God” above are found only here and in 1:12 in John’s Gospel. Thus, ironically, the fulfillment of Caiaphas’ words would have different consequences than he likely assumed (cf. 7:35), and would result in the inclusion of Gentile believers as children of God on equal footing (12:32; cf. 4:42; Rom 2:28-29).

They then plotted Christ’s death (11:53), apparently conspiring to arrest Him at the next available opportunity toward that end (11:55-57).

In the meantime, the Devil cast into the heart of Judas Iscariot the desire to betray Jesus (13:2; cf. 13:18, 21). Shortly thereafter, at the Last Supper, “Satan entered into him” (13:27), and then Judas left to carry out his betrayal (13:30). Soon after that he went to an olive grove where he knew Jesus often met with his disciples, bringing with him “a detachment of soldiers and some officers of the chief priests and the Pharisees” (18:1-3).

Jesus’ Arrest and Trials

Jesus was subsequently arrested and brought before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (18:12-14), who questioned Him (18:19-23) before sending him on to Caiaphas (18:24). Then Christ was led to Governor Pilate’s palace (18:28).

Pilate enquired about the charges levied against Jesus (18:29), and with no direct answer given (18:30) he instructed them to “judge him by your own law” (18:31).10 ‘The Jews’ replied, “We are not authorized to execute anyone” (18:31). This was to fulfill the kind of death Jesus would suffer (18:32; cf. 12:33), as He indicated earlier—being “lifted up”, i.e., crucified (12:32).

Yet the fact that Roman soldiers (18:3) were employed in Jesus’ capture indicates Pilate may well have been apprised of the charges before Christ was presented to him. This would account for his first question to Jesus: “Are you ‘the king of the Jews’?” (18:33). Pilate’s words here could be intended, alternatively, as showing incredulity (cf. Isa 53:2): “You are ‘the king of the Jews’?”11 After Jesus informed him that His kingdom is not of this world (18:36, 37), Pilate found him without guilt, then asked the Jews if they would agree to release Him as per the annual tradition of freeing one prisoner at Passover (18:38-39). The Jews chose Barabbas instead (18:40).

With that, Pilate had Jesus flogged (19:1). The soldiers, mocking Jesus’ ‘purported’ kingship, put a crown of thorns on His head and clad Him in a purple robe (19:2-3).

After this, still unconvinced of Christ’s guilt, Pilate tried once more to persuade them to reconsider (19:4). When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said (19:5), “Behold, the man!” This is probably Pilate’s way of challenging their charge of his alleged claim of political kingship.

In response, the chief priests and their officials shouted out (19:6): “Crucify! Crucify!” In return, Pilate told them to crucify Him—knowing they couldn’t of course—again stating he found the charges to be without foundation (19:6). ‘The Jews’ countered, using a different tact, “We have a law, and according to this law He must die, for He made Himself God’s Son” (19:7; cf. 5:18; 10:33). They were likely appealing to Leviticus 24:16, accusing Jesus of blasphemy.

Upon hearing their new allegation Pilate grew more afraid (19:8). Having been immersed in Greco-Roman polytheism, Pilate may have thought Jesus a ‘divine man’. Whatever the case, this new claim prompted him to ask Jesus, “Where are you from?” (19:9). As Christ remained silent Pilate apparently grew agitated, adding, “Don’t you know I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?” (19:10). Jesus responded, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above; therefore, the one who has delivered me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (19:11; cf. 10:17-18).

From this point forward Pilate kept seeking to release Him. But, in persistence, ‘the Jews’ shouted, “If you release this fellow, you are no friend of Caesar’s—anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (19:12). Note the verbal connection between “makes himself a king” and “made Himself God’s Son” (cf. 5:18, 10:33) above.

It was around the “sixth hour” (noon) on the Day of Preparation for Passover week (19:14; cf. 13:1). With this time marker we know that Jesus’ impending death, only a short time away, would be around the same time when priests would begin slaughtering paschal lambs (Exo 12).12 Now the “Lamb of God” (1:29; cf. 1 Cor 5:7; Heb 9:11-15; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6) is about to meet a similar fate at about the same hour (cf. Exo 12:46; John 19:33, 36).

In response to their last statement (19:12), Pilate brought Jesus out and said (19:13-14), “Here is your king!” To that they shouted: “Take that man away! Take away! Crucify him!”13

Pilate answered (19:15), “Shall I crucify your king?”

The chief priests, in feigned allegiance to Caesar for the sake of expediency, answered (19:15), “We have no king but Caesar!” Their claim could be understood as a denial of their own God, their King (Jdg 8:23; 1 Sam 8:7; Psa 136:3)—at Passover, no less.

Their response was intended to dissuade Pilate from releasing Jesus, as doing so would make it appear he recognized Him as a rival to Caesar’s kingship. And thus Pilate failed in his efforts to free Jesus. ‘The Jews’ and the chief priests forced his hand, and so he handed Jesus over to them for crucifixion. Obviously unhappy with this turn of events, Pilate would exact revenge against them.

The Crucifixion and Pilate’s Enduring Statement

With Jesus formally sentenced, the soldiers took charge (19:16). After carrying His cross, He was ‘lifted up’, placed between two others (19:17-18).

Below is the brief section leading up to and including Pilate’s final statement in John’s Gospel. Each occurrence of the Greek verb root “write” (graphō) is bolded. In addition, titlos is left untranslated, for it is difficult to provide a suitable one-word substitute. An exploration of these terms will commence further below.

19 Yet Pilate also wrote a titlos and fastened it to the cross. It had been inscribed: JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews thus read this titlos, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it had been written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’, but that man, ‘SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS.’”14

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

Pilate’s inscription was intended as an insult to the Jews. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword here—in more than one way.

Since first century Greek texts lacked punctuation (and spacing between words!), there is some ambiguity as to the exact request of “the chief priests of the Jews” and how they wished to amend Pilate’s original words. I interpret their intention was to replace ‘…THE KING OF THE JEWS’ in the inscription with ‘…SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS’, resulting in their proposed verbiage JESUS THE NAZARENE SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS. They wanted the words to reflect a claim of Jesus, not a claim of the Jewish nation. From their perspective, the inscription as it stood may “appear to be a formal declaration of Jesus’ identity rather than a charge against Him.”15

Pilate was well aware their charges had been trumped up, so he was undoubtedly taking much pleasure in making a mockery of them in response to their mocked allegiance to Caesar at Jesus’ expense. They may have forced his hand, but he showed them who ultimately had the upper hand.

But Pilate’s vindication would have other ramifications. While we understand the theological implication in Pilate’s inscription—as it stands it makes a true statement of Jesus’ Kingship—taking a closer look at the context while investigating related historical background provides a stronger foundation upon which to construe it this way.

Other Signs

It was not uncommon in first century Rome for a criminal on his way to execution to be accompanied by a sign stating both his name and the offense for which He was condemned. It was either (a) carried by an official walking in front of him16 or (b) hung around his own neck.17 But there is not much historical evidence for placing this same sign on the criminal’s cross, and what is available is ambiguous.18 We must note that none of the Gospels mention anyone carrying a sign of this sort during the Via Dolorosa. This is not to definitively claim someone had not, however. We merely have no explicit evidence. What we know for certain is that a sign was placed onto Jesus’ cross indicating His supposed crime.19

In the previous paragraph, the word used referring to the sign accompanying condemned criminals in both instances is the Latin titulus. John’s titlos—found only here in 19:19 and 19:20 in all Scripture (and seems to be first used by John)—is a ‘loanword’ from this Latin term. Titulus had rather broad applications in first century Latin texts. In addition to the two examples previously cited, the word was used by Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61—113) for a notice to rent20 and by Roman poet Ovid (BC 43—AD 17/18) for a notice of public sale.21 It was also used to signify a grave marker.22 As can be deduced, the term applied to both the inscription and the object on which it was inscribed in these instances. However, more importantly, at times titulus was used solely for the writing itself.23

The term can refer to epitaphs (i.e., the inscriptions) as distinct from grave markers.24 Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (ca. BC 64/59—AD 12/17) applied it to Hannibal’s self-inscription on an altar in which he glowingly described his own achievements.25 Columella (ca. AD 4—70), a writer on agricultural concerns, used the word to reference titles of books.26 Ovid, in the very same work referred to in the previous paragraph, used titulus to signify the title of a pamphlet.27 And most pertinent for our purposes here, in a work written around the time Christ was born Ovid employed the term in reference to honorific titles, as applied to Augustus Caesar, for example.28 In similar fashion, in one context Ovid used it as a title acquired by assuming it from those conquered or from some heroic event, yet also in synonymity with “name” (Latin: nomen).29 Yet, given that Pilate’s purpose with the inscription was to antagonize ‘the Jews’, can we rightly apply any of the latter two meanings (title, name) to John 19:19?

The text in 19:19 states that Pilate wrote the titlos (titulus) and affixed it to the cross. The task of placing the titlos onto the beam, however, was almost certainly delegated. Yet given the preceding historical investigation—illustrating titulus could refer to either the inscribed object and its inscription or the inscription only—there are a number of possible scenarios with regard to the writing of the words. Perhaps Pilate dictated the desired text to a scribe for inscribing.30 Or maybe he himself penned the words on a papyrus (titlos) and then gave this document to a scribe for inscribing onto the (presumed) board of the titlos.31 It could be that he inscribed the titlos in Latin and then gave it to a secretary to translate and write the Aramaic and the Greek. Whatever the case, in some manner, Pilate wrote the titlos.

Textual Clues and Syntactical Pointers

There’s a grammatical issue in the latter part of v. 19 that may well have a bearing here. The words preceding the inscription—“It had been inscribed” in the translation above (akin to the English past perfect)—are translated from a participle reflecting a neuter subject, while titlos is masculine. In other words, it does not refer to titlos. This exact syntax is found again in 19:20. So, to what or who does it refer? This is typically translated impersonally: “There was written” (~ “It [the inscription] read”).32 However, as Keener notes, each and every time this syntactical structure with this verb is used up to this point in John it references Scripture (it is written; it had been written).33 Keener concludes, “Thus John may ironically suggest that Pilate, as God’s unwitting agent (19:11), may carry out God’s will in the Scriptures.”34 Could God’s Spirit have superintended the writing of the inscription, despite Pilate’s vindictive purpose?

The words it is written in the verses prefacing Scripture (2:17; 6:31, 45; 10:34; 12:14; 15:25; cf. 5:46; 8:17) are in the perfect tense-form, while 12:16 contains a pluperfect, the same form as 19:19 and 19:20. Though all these are important to my argument here, key is the usage of 12:16, best rendered these things had been written.35 In that context, the narrator notes that the disciples recalled earlier events but only fully understood how they fulfilled Scripture from their post-glorification perspective (after Jesus’ resurrection). Before considering this line of inquiry further, how might 19:11 (which Keener references above) impact the interpretation in 19:19?

While the authority Pilate possessed in a general sense was certainly “from above” (anōthen), as it is for all rulers and authorities, this was not Jesus’ point here. Similar to v. 19, there is a mismatch in gender in v. 11. Just as the participle in 19:19 is neuter, so it had [not] been given is in 19:11. The Greek word for authority, however, is feminine.36 Thus, if it had not been given to you from above does not refer to Pilate’s general conferred authority but to his specific role in the events unfolding at the time: “the fact that Jesus has been given into his hands has been determined by God”.37

19:11 ouk eiches exousian kat’ emou oudemian ei mē ēn dedomenon soi anōthen
not you have authority over me nothing if not was it having been given you from-above
“You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

This same syntactical format (‘not this’ if it has/had not been given from God) is first found in John the Baptizer’s response to those who mentioned Jesus’ baptizing and the increasing numbers going to Him (3:26): 

3:27 ou dynatai anthrōpos lambanein oude hen ean mē ȩ̄ dedomenon autō̧ ek tou ouranou38
not s/he be able person to receive and-not one if not may-be it having been given him from heaven
A person is not able to receive not one thing if not it may be given to him/her from heaven
“A person is not able to receive anything if it has not been given to them from heaven.”

Though the Baptizer’s statement serves a particular purpose in its context, it should also be seen as a maxim, a general statement.39 These words of the Baptizer are the first with this syntactical structure, while Jesus’ words to Pilate are the last. In my opinion these form bookends, one opening and the other closing an inclusio. The Baptizer’s maxim then relates to some intervening uses of “give” (didōmi) such as parts of the Bread of Life discourse (e.g. 6:37, 39), Jesus’ Prayer (17:7, 11, 12, 22), and Jesus’ cup (18:11).40 Of course, it also relates to Jesus’ statement in 19:11. The remaining verse fitting this grammatical structure (6:65) is thematically relevant:

6:65 oudeis dynatai elthein pros me ean mē ȩ̄ dedomenon autō̧ ek tou patros
no one is able to come to me if not may-be it having been given him/her of the Father
“No one is able to come to Me if it has not been given to them by the Father.”

The point here is that while God places individuals in certain positions he also orchestrates specific events, using certain individuals to accomplish specific tasks in these events. Thus, understanding Pilate’s unique role in the Passion per Jesus’ phraseology in 19:11, we might be able to assume that this circumscribed, God-given authority extends to the inscription, especially when we consider the syntax in 19:19 and 19:20 (it had been inscribed) and how that relates to other uses of this same structure. Even still, can we make the leap that his words on the inscription are tantamount to writing Scripture? If so, what Scripture is referenced?

Crucial to understanding the Gospel of John is to grasp that the author is writing from a post-resurrection perspective, with the Spirit bringing to remembrance past events, further illuminating them (14:26; 16:12-15). At various points the narrator implies this by calling attention to some of Jesus’ previous statements (12:32 via 12:33 and 18:32 || 6:39 via 17:12 and 18:9). In 2:22 the narrator remarks that after “He was raised” the disciples ‘remembered’ His words and “they believed the Scripture (graphē, noun form of graphō) and the word that Jesus spoke” (in 2:19).  But what “Scripture” is ‘remembered’ here? It cannot be the one referenced in 2:16, for 2:17 specifically states they remembered it. By the context the intended referent appears to be the OT (Tanakh) in a general sense, as it relates to the resurrection.41

Somewhat similar to 2:22 is 12:16. Here the narrator states that the disciples fully realized that these things had been written about Him only “after Jesus was glorified”. “These things” refers to the Scripture referenced in 12:13 and 12:15. Yet in this same context the narrator relates it was not only the things that had been written but also these things done to Him. We can construe that this refers to the events acted out in fulfillment of those two Scriptures. However, oddly, if at the time of Jesus’ ministry the disciples didn’t understand that He was being proclaimed king, why did the crowd say these things? The seeming contradiction is reconciled if we understand it more broadly (similar to 2:22 above) to mean Jesus’ Kingship in the post-glorification sense.42 In other words, their initial interpretation of “king” was in a political sense, then after they ‘remembered’ “these things”, God’s Spirit provided further illumination, as in 2:22.

Tying It All Together

Considering the immediately preceding regarding 2:22 and 12:16, and adding in the syntactical connection between 12:16 and 19:19-20, we have a point of contact. One may argue that the grammatical relationship (these things had been written > it had been written/inscribed) is a bit tenuous, but the thematic one certainly applies. Yet the strength of the thematic link should bolster the grammatical. If the narrator relates how the disciples’ remembrance was further illuminated (implying by virtue of the Spirit: 14:26; 16:12-15), then how much more would the narrator/writer himself be likewise illumined?43 When we factor in the syntactical relationship between 19:19-20 and all other uses of it is written and it had been written (as pertaining to Scripture) in conjunction with Pilate’s unique authority in the Passion as revealed in Jesus’ words in 19:11 (and this grammatical and thematic link to 3:27), we have a stronger case for tying all this together.

Therefore, my contention is that John wrote this with the understanding of a dual purpose for the inscription: one for Pilate’s vengeance, and one for the Spirit to make a true identity statement. In other words, John himself recognized that the words Pilate wrote had influence from the Spirit, so he chose (under influence of the Spirit) it had been inscribed/written as a way to make this connection. I further contend this is why John borrowed the Latin titulus in his use of titlos. Assuming my argument here, one can see it is certainly no leap to enlarge the definition of John’s titlos to include “title” (THE KING OF THE JEWS) and/or “name” (JESUS THE NAZARENE) or both/and (JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS). Thus, rather than merely considering the wording on the inscription as an implication, we have grammatical and contextual reasons to assert with confidence that JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS is indeed written as a Messianic title, and/or a name, a proclamation in a literal sense—in addition to Pilate’s vindication. And the prefatory it had been inscribed designates that the words following, similar to the meaning in 12:16, refer to the OT (Tanakh) generally, rather than one specific verse or section.

Given all this, Pilate’s inscription, with the assistance of God’s Spirit, could be perceived as the climactic contravening of two statements by ‘the Jews’: Jesus “made Himself God’s Son” in 19:7 (cf. 5:18; 10:33) and “makes Himself King” in 19:12 (cf. 1:49; 12:13; 18:38), both encapsulated in Nathaniel’s proclamation in 1:49 “you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (cf. 12:13).

If all this prevails, then the chief priests of the Jews’ plea to Pilate to amend the title may be interpreted as an indirect attempt at usurping God’s authority by unknowingly trying to change Scripture. Interestingly, the narrator does not record that they ‘wanted to change’ (using allassō, e.g.) or something to that effect; instead they say to Pilate “do not write” (using graphō). This is yet another grammatical and thematic link further cohering the four verses (19:19-22).

Yet Pilate refused to alter the altar: What I have written, I have written. What I have written, I stand by. The irony then is that Pilate, a pagan and acting as God’s unwitting agent, stood by God’s words, while the opposing Jews, who had just executed their Messiah, wanted to amend them.

So, what did Pilate “state”? His final words “What I have written, I have written” affirm his inscription, and by doing so, those words remain in Scripture in a state of having been written. And, if the analysis here is accepted, with God’s ‘hand’ on Pilate’s ‘pen’, Pilate ‘wrote’ New Testament Scripture, words that endure to this very day.44


8 I place ‘the Jews’ in single quotes when the text uses οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (hoi Ioudaioi), since this is the manner in which the Gospel of John chooses to identify this sub-group. Note, however, that while John’s characterization is mostly negative in the text here, there are quite a few times in the Gospel when the term is used in positive (2:6; 4:22; 8:31; 11:19, 31, 33, 36, 45; 12:9, 11; 19:31) or neutral (1:19; 2:13; 3:1, 22; 5:1, 15; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55; 13:33; 18:20; 19:20, 40, 42) settings (such as in describing a certain festival “of the Jews”), or times in which the group is perhaps understandably perplexed (2:20; 6:41, 52; 7:15; 7:35; 8:57; 10:19). The term’s meaning in John is a bit ambiguous and remains an enigma. Even the designation the Pharisees is sometimes used positively or neutrally (e.g. 9:16). However in this section of John’s Gospel ‘the Jews’ are Jesus’ adversaries.

9 My translation, as are all Scripture quotations in this article. The Latin is also my translation, assisted by online sources and, at times, by others’ English translations. My goal is to adhere closer to a formal equivalence than a dynamic or functional one. To that end, I endeavor to translate nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, etc.

10 The words of Pilate here may well be an example of artistic license on the part of John the Evangelist. These may have been meant to be ironical in that, according to Mosaic Law—and in truth, of course—Jesus was not guilty of any crime.

11 Since Greek finite verbs encode person and number, a pronoun is not necessary unless the subject is ambiguous; thus, the presence of the pronoun “you” (συ) here is not necessary, and may be used for emphasis.

12 Here I’m following John’s intent in his presentation of events without trying to reconcile them with the Synoptic accounts. See Thompson, John: A Commentary, pp 388-390. Thompson presents a synopsis of (1) the difference between the Synoptic Gospel’s accounts regarding the timing of Jesus’ death as compared to John’s, (2) the problem of associating Jesus’ death with the “sixth hour” (noon) and how this does not seem to correlate with the timing of the slaughtering of Passover lambs.  However, John’s chronology indicates Jesus will be crucified later than noon (he had to first take up his own cross and then walk to the crucifixion site), and so her observations regarding the typical time range for sacrificing Paschal lambs (beginning a bit after 1:30 in the afternoon at the earliest) do not necessarily contradict this. Those attempting to reconcile John with the Synoptics employ various measures. See, e.g. Andreas J. Köstenberger’s contribution in G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), p 500.

13 The twice-used verb for “take away” (αἴρω, airō) has a somewhat broad semantic range that can mean take up as in to raise up to a higher position, move to another place, carry away. It seems likely a double meaning is intended here. That is, ‘lift that man up’ may be understood as the additional meaning, in irony.

14 The word translated “Aramaic” is Hebraisti, which some English versions render “Hebrew”. Following Harris (Murray J. Harris, John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, Andreas J. Köstenberger & Robert W. Yarbrough, gen. eds. [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015], p 314), I construe the periphrastic ἦν + γεγραμμένον in v. 19 and v. 20 as akin to the pluperfect of γράφω (cf. 12:16), though I prefer to translate as an English past perfect rather than a simple past.

15 Thompson, John: A Commentary, p 398.

16 In Roman historian Suetonius’ (c. AD 69—122) Caligula—Emperor from AD 37 to 41—an account of a slave sentenced to execution by the Emperor for stealing silver (32.2) was “preceded by a sign indicating the cause for his punishment” (Latin: praecedente titulo qui causam poenae indicaret). Cf. for a similar account in the 2nd century (AD 177) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.1.44, in which someone carried a board (πίναξ, pinax) in front of Attalus with the inscription THIS IS ATTALUS THE CHRISTIAN.

17 In Suetonius’ Domitianus (10.2-3)—Domitian was Roman Emperor from AD 81 to 96—the sign describing the charge was placed upon the accused gladiator himself (cum hoc titulo: Impie locutus parmularius; “with this sign [upon him]: ‘A Parmularian [gladiator] impiously spoke’”).

18 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, two volumes (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003) p 2.1137. “The posting of the accusation on the cross is not well attested, either because those describing the crucifixion had already mentioned it being carried out . . . or because the practice was not in fact standard although, given the variations among executions, in no way improbable . . . (p 2.1137, n 608).

19 Although only Matthew (27:37) and Mark (15:26) specifically refer to a sign stating the cause (aitia) for which Jesus was crucified, this does not mean we cannot infer this from the other Gospels (cf. John 19:6).

20 Letters, 7.27 (“To Sura”): Athenodorus legit titulum: “Athenodorus read the notice (to rent the haunted mansion)”.

21 In Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love), for the notice of sale (Latin: sub titulum, “‘under’ the notice”, i.e., “using the notice”) for the household items the unscrupulous girl had plundered (302). Cf. the oft-neglected Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), p II.283. Cf. Tibellus (c. BC 55-BC 19), Elegiae, 2.4.54: ite sub imperium sub titulumque; “you go under her command and under the notice.”

22 Pliny the Younger: Letters, 6.10.3: post decimum mortis annum reliquias neglectumque cinerem sine titulo sine nomine iacere: “ten years postmortem his remains have been cast down and neglected, without a grave marker and without a name.” That titulus in this context does not mean “epitaph” (the inscription itself as distinct from the marker) is evident by the next line of the epistle, in which the author specifies the words the deceased wanted inscribed (inscriberetur) as his epitaph. Also see Ovid, Fasti, Book IV.23, 44, in which titulus refers to a scroll and the writing upon it (longum scriberet annum vidit  . . . proximus est titulis Epytus: “to see what he might have engraved on the roll . . . next on the scroll is Egyptus”).

23 See F. R. Montgomery Hitchcock, “The Use of γράφειν,” Journal of Theological Studies old series 31 (1930), pp 272-273.

24 Martial (ca. AD 38/41—102/104), Epigrammata (published between AD 86 and 103), I.93.4: Plus tamen est, titulo quod breviore legis: ‘Iunctus uterque sacro laudatae foedere vitae, famaque quod raro novit, amicus erat’: “Yet more is what you glean from this brief epitaph: ‘Knit in the sacred bond of life with an honored reputation rarely known: they were friends’.” Cf. Ovid, Epistulae: Sappho Phaoni, 15.190-195; cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters, 9.19.3: . . . si immortalitatem quam meruere sectantur, victurique nominis famam supremis etiam titulis prorogare nituntur: “ . . . if they now seek immortalization, and the names they have so greatly earned in glory and fame to secure, and to perpetuate themselves by epitaphs.” By the context it seems possible that both the inscription and the grave marker are included in titulus here, but the primary meaning is certainly the epitaph/inscription itself.

25 Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita (The History of Rome), 28.46.16 aram condidit dedicavitque cum . . . titulo: “he erected and dedicated an altar with . . . an inscription.”

26 De De Rustica, Book IX, preface: tituli, quern prae-scripsimus huic disputationi: “the title, which we have prefixed to this discourse.” Cf. De De Rustica, Book VIII, preface; cf. Quintilian (ca. AD 35—100), Institutio Oratoria, Book 2.14.4: quos hac de re primum scripserat, titulis Graeco nomine utatur: “from earlier [works] which he had written, Greek name titles were used.” In other words, he used Greek names as titles in earlier works.

27 Remedia Amoris, in the very first line of the poem (1): titulum nomenque libelli, “name and title of this little book”. I interpret this as epexegetical such that “name” further defines titulus. In other words, “name” refers to the title (and ‘title’ refers to the name) on the book’s title page, in order to differentiate it from the other meaning of titulus as both inscription and inscribed object (title page). Alternatively, the terms titulus and nomen could be synonymous here. See note 29.

28 Fasti, Book III.419-420: Caesaris innumeris . . . accessit titulis pontificalis honor; “To Caesar’s innumerable . . .  titles the honor of Pontificate was added.” Cf. M. Tullius Cicero (BC 106—BC43), Against Piso, 9.19: posset sustinere tamen titulum consulatus: “might have the power to sustain the title of consulate.”

29 Fasti, Book I.599-604: si a victis, tot sumat nomina Caesar, quot numero gentes maximus orbis habet, ex uno quidam celebres aut torquis adempti aut corvi  titulos auxiliaris habent. Magne, tuum nomen rerum est mensura tuarum; sed qui te vicit, nomine maior erat: “If Caesar claims names from those conquered, let him take as many as the mighty globe has nations! From one event some celebrate—either from a neck-chain won or allied ravens—the titles they possess. O great one [Pompey the Great], your name is the measure of your deeds, but he who conquered you was greater in name.” Cf. Ovid, Fasti, Book IV.115, in which the goddess Venus is referred to as the titulus of a calendar month. See note 27 for another possibility.

30 See Hitchcock, “The Use of γράφειν,” pp 271-273.

31 Ibid.

32 E.g., Harris, John, p 314. See note 14 above.

33 Keener, Gospel of John, p 2.1138. All but one of the Scripture verses Keener cites here are perfects (as the periphrastic ἔστιν γεγραμμένον: 2:17; 6:31, 45; 10:34; 12:14; 15:25), the lone exception being 12:16, a pluperfect (the periphrastic ἦν + γεγραμμένα). While the perfects are important, it is this exception in the pluperfect that provides the primary link for the argument I shall put forth here.

34 Keener, Gospel of John, p 2.1138. The author understands Pilate’s conferred authority in 19:11 in a general sense (pp 2.1126-27) rather than in the more circumscribed view I shall pursue below.

35 It is actually a periphrastic, an equivalent to the pluperfect—see note 33.

36 More specifically, the participle δεδομένον is neuter. It would have to be the feminine δεδομένη to agree with the feminine ἐξουσίαν (authority) here. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) p 543. In addition, it may be that Jesus’ answer here includes a roundabout answer to the question Pilate posed in 19:9: “Where are you from?” Answer: ἄνωθεν, “from above”.

37 Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, transl. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed., R. W. N. Hoare & J. K. Riches (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971), p 662. Cf. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary, D. Hubbard, G. Barker, gen. eds. (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), pp 339-340; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, D. A. Carson, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp 601-602

38 There is a difference here in that a neuter subject is found in ἕν, hen (one) from the apodosis.

39 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, p 222.

40 This does mean to imply, of course, that 3:27 (and 6:65 just below) is no longer applicable as a general maxim.

41 See C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, p 201.

42 See Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp 433-434.

43 See Jörg Frey, Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), pp 151-154.

44 Alternatively, John the Gospel writer took certain liberties in fashioning his Gospel, and in so doing, re-formed some words to make his theological and christological points.

What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?

In reading any common English translation of John 19:22, one finds Pilate saying, “What I have written, I have written.” This is certainly not incorrect, yet I have a feeling some readers may not quite comprehend the significance of this statement, in part, because they are unaware of distinctions in English verb tenses.1 Some may erroneously think “What I wrote, I wrote” conveys the same meaning. In addition, there is a theologically important connotation in the larger context that readers of the English versions would most likely not perceive.

Below is the Greek of Pilates’s quote, under that is its transliteration (exchanging each Greek letter for English equivalents), and underneath that is a corresponding working English translation:

ὃ γέγραφα γέγραφα
ho gegrapha gegrapha
What I have written I have written

The first word is the relative pronoun who/which/what, appropriately translated “what” in this context. Following that are two verbs, the second an exact duplicate of the first. We’ll reserve the final translation until after our investigation. All Greek finite verbs encode person and number (1st person singular, I; 2nd person singular, you; 3rd person singular, he/she/it; etc.), though not gender (male, female, or neuter). In the above, each verb is 1st person singular, and they obviously refer to Pilate. Because every finite verb encodes person and number, each may form a subject-verb sentence, depending on context. For instance, Jesus’ final word on the cross is tetelestai (John 19:30), translated “It is finished.”

The verb gegrapha is in the perfect tense-form (of graphō) in the active voice and the indicative mood. The indicative is the most common mood, expressing facts, false statements assumed to be true, false statements as if true, opinions, or questions. The active voice presents the subject performing the action (Jon ate lunch)—the passive voice is used when the subject receives the action (Lunch was eaten by Jon).

The precise meaning indicated by the Greek perfect tense-form is in dispute, though there are a number of theories proposed in recent scholarly literature. Specific discussion of any of these theories is not necessary, however, as some of the older Greek grammars address the issues relative to Pilate’s statement, and we can apply them here. While the Greek perfect tense-form has a wide range of applications, for our purposes it is easiest to conceive it as similar to the English present perfect tense. This is what is reflected in all the English translations at the above hyperlink (have written). It may be helpful to briefly explain/review the English present perfect as well as a few other English tenses.

Some Tense Explanations in English

Verbs in the English present perfect tense express past verbal actions that retain some sort of connection to the present. If I were to state I have written over 100 blog posts, you would rightly infer that all 100+ posts are still available for reading on this blog. They are all in a state of having been written, a state of ‘written-ness’, and available for viewing.

Alternatively, had I constructed the same sentence but in the English simple past tenseI wrote over 100 blog posts—you might infer that the posts were written at some point in the past yet are no longer available for viewing. The difference between these two English tenses can be found in their respective names. The simple past refers to verbal actions in the past with no further implication of present relevance. The “perfect” in present perfect means “complete”, denoting the past (completed, perfected) portion of the verbal action, while “present” in present perfect indicates the verb’s relevance in the present. The “present” portion of the present perfect tense is formed by using the appropriate auxiliary verb for the present tense, matched by person and number: I have (1st person singular), you have (2nd person singular), she/he/it has (3rd person singular). The “perfect” (past) portion is formed by using the appropriate past participle of the main verb (I have written, you have written, she/he/it has written).

Though the simple past tense does not imply continuing relevance, this does not necessarily mean there is no connection to the present. The simple past is merely silent regarding current relevance. Comparatively, a verb in the English present perfect always implies something about the present. Thus, the context will determine which one is more suitable. Let’s make a comparison:

I lost my marbles yesterday.
I have lost my marbles! (and I am frantically trying to find them)

In the first instance, reflecting the simple past tense, this is a simple narrative statement, implying no continuing relevance. The second instance reflects the present perfect tense, of course. If it took ten minutes to find my marbles, then that would have been ten minutes I was in a state of having lost my marbles, frantically trying to find them. Upon finding the marbles I would be in a new, much happier (and more lucid) state of having found my marbles. At that point I could exclaim—again using the present perfect tense—“I have found my marbles!”, illustrating this new state.

I could recount the episode by using the past perfect tense: “I had lost my marbles yesterday”. The past perfect indicates a past action that had subsequent relevance in the past following that action (without commenting on present relevance). After finding my marbles yesterday I could have put the two sentences together, stating: “I had lost my marbles, but after a frantic search I have found them!”. Thus, had lost (past perfect) reflects the past action + its subsequent past relevance, while have found reflects a past action + present relevance.

Context will determine which verb tense is best to use:

Francois made dinner last Thursday. He might even make dinner again next month.
Mom has made dinner. (and dinner is now ready to eat)
Myrna has watched all the Die Hard movies three times, and she plans to watch them all again.
Jacob had washed the towels. He has now placed them into the dryer. (they are currently drying)
Johnny has listened to the train coming into the station every day for the past three years.

While the simple past tense of  Francois’ dinner in this context implies this was a one-time only or rare occurrence, the present perfect tense of Mom’s dinner implies that dinner is now ready to eat. As for Myrna, the present relevance of the present perfect tense is the fact that this apparent Bruce Willis fan enjoys these movies so much she wishes to watch them all yet again. The past perfect tense had washed represents the necessary prerequisite for Jacob’s currently drying towels, the latter implied by the present perfect has placed and the adverb “now”. In the final example, it is reasonable to infer that Johnny will listen to the trains yet again tomorrow, given the daily recurring (“every day”) has listened, i.e., present perfect tense.

With this brief review of a few English verb tenses completed, we are ready to proceed to the Greek.

Some Tense Explanations in Koine  (New Testament) Greek

This idea of a past action with continuing relevance in the present in the English present perfect tense is the primary thrust of the Greek perfect tense-form. Smyth provides a basic definition: “a completed action the effects of which still continue in the present”.2 Dana and Mantey use a broader outline:

The significance of the [Ancient Greek] perfect tense in presenting action as having reached its termination and existing in its finished results lies at the basis of its uses. Emphasis, as indicated by context or the meaning of the verb root, may be on either the completion of the action or on its finished results. This possible difference in emphasis lies at the basis of the variation in the uses of the perfect tense.3

Going back to the previously mentioned tetelestai, “it is finished” in John 19:30, like the twinned verbs in 19:22 this one is in the perfect tense-form. Yet here the verb is in the 3rd person singular and the passive voice. Note that, with the exception of Young’s Literal Translation, common English versions do not read it has been finished. This is because, though the larger context implies completed actions leading up to the culmination point, translators deem that it is the state of completion that is the emphasis in the immediate context: It is finished.4

Similarly, in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, He answers the Devil’s commands/temptations with gegraptai, “it is written” (Matthew 4:4,7,10, and parallels)—the “it” referring to Scripture. This verb has the same root (graphō) as our subject verse John 19:22, and it is in the same perfect tense-form. The only difference is that here it is a 3rd person singular in the passive voice. The common rendering “it is written” reflects the primary focus on its state of having been written, not on the fact that Scripture was written. As A. T. Robertson comments on its usage in these contexts, “It was written . . . and still is on record.”5 Just like my example of the blog, both the past action and the present results are encoded, but here it is the latter that is understood as the main point: It is written.

Now going back to English for a few moments, let’s say you have a report that needs to be written by 5 o’clock today. At 4:15 your nosy coworker asks if you will meet the deadline. Given that you typically set out to finish a task at least an hour before the deadline (you do, right?), if you express your answer with the verb finish or write, you could say:

I have written the report. (active voice, present perfect)
I have finished the report. (active voice, present perfect)
The report has been written. (passive voice, present perfect)
The report has been finished. (passive voice, present perfect)
The report is written. (passive voice, ___________?)
The report is finished. (passive voice, ___________?)

Though the last two are unquestioningly passive, there is cause to question whether these convey the same meaning as the middle two sentences. To better illustrate, below is a new sentence, stating it in the English present perfect, first in the active voice, then in the passive, followed by a sentence in the same format as the last two above.

Sally has written the book.
The book has been written by Sally.
The book is written by Sally. (?)

To alleviate any possible confusion, observe that the second sentence contains the same exact verb form (has been written) as the passive example further above regarding the report that was due at work. Note the difference between “has written the book” here and “have written the report” above. The different auxiliary verb (has vs. have) reflects the difference between the 3rd person (Sally has) and the 1st person (I have). With this clarified, we’ll resume.

Recall that the English present perfect reflects a completed (perfected) action with relevance in the present. The first two sentences certainly are present perfects. But the third one is an attempt at illustrating the state following the verbal action, in order to focus on the result over against the past action. But is this an accurate way to convey this? Let’s take the same basic sentence just above and put it into the English simple past tense, then the simple present tense, both in answer to the question “Who is the author of this book?”

Sally wrote this book. (active) >> This book was written by Sally. (passive)
Sally writes this book. (active) >> This book is written by Sally. (passive)

Notice how the bolded sentence above is identical to the third one in the previous set. Thus, that sentence, like this one, is in the simple present. Speaking on this specific issue, Smyth writes, “When the [Greek] perfect marks the enduring result rather than the completed act, it may often be translated by the [English] present.”6 Did you notice what I did in the previous sentence? I prefaced the Smyth quotation with writes, the English simple present, mirroring the first of the second pair of sentences just above (Sally writes the book.). My objective was to signify the enduring words in Smyth’s grammar book. This is typical English convention—that is, substituting the English simple present for the English present perfect when the verb’s enduring result is the emphasis in a given context as opposed to the verb’s completed action.

Yet this convention does not work as well in the 1st and 2nd person for the English present perfect in the active voice. We can quickly deduce that each sentence on the right below cannot be understood to say the same thing as the one on its left:

I have written the document. >> I write the document. (?)
I think you have written this note! >> I think you write this note! (?)

With all the foregoing, we are prepared (finally!) to get back to Pilate’s statement. The first instance of gegrapha is best rendered “I have written”, just like the typical English translation.7 This reflects the past action of inscribing JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS (19:19) as well as the present results reflected in those words as they appear on the sign. We could paraphrase this first part of Pilate’s statement (ho gegrapha):

“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign…”

The enduring relevance of this first verb began at the point at which the inscribing of the inscription had been completed (19:19) and continued until the time Pilate responded to the chief priests (19:21-22). In other words, the duration was relatively short.

But what does the second occurrence of gegrapha mean and how should it be translated? The Jews were unhappy with Pilate’s phrasing of the sign, strongly suggesting he amend it. But Pilate was resolute—he wasn’t going to change it. So, what is the best way to translate this second Greek perfect-tense verb? Strictly speaking, “I have written” is correct, and we may well leave it that way. Yet this second gegrapha focuses on the then-present enduring result of the sign’s ‘written-ness’. Since we cannot use the passive voice (“it is written”, “it stands written”) because this verb is in the active voice, and we have determined that the active voice in the English simple present (“I write”) does not adequately convey the results of a present perfect (“I write”), we may phrase it something like:

“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I shall keep recorded.” (I shall not change)
“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I shall retain.” (I shall not change)
“What I wrote and currently appears on the sign, I stand by.” (I shall not change)

The last sentence above may be the best, since it does not use a future auxiliary verb (shall) as do the others. To be sure, the future enduring results are implied, but it’s the present enduring results that are specifically encoded by the Greek perfect tense-form here. Then again, the state of ‘written-ness’ should be understood as remaining unless and until some further action brings about a new state. With none specified in the larger context, it is safe to assume this state will continue on.

Thus, to capture the overall meaning here—though it’s not as pithy and as catchy as “What I have written, I have written”—I might render John 19:22:

Pilate replied, “What I have written, I stand by.”

Pilate’s inscription JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS remains written. What does this signify theologically in its context? The next part will elucidate.


1 I am taking the words in the Greek text of John as the words of Pilate, whether or not these reflect his very utterance. The words may well be John’s own rendering in service of a larger theological motif. More on this later.

2 Herbert W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, Gordon M. Messing, rev. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956 [1920]), p 434, § 1945.

3 H. E. Dana & Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (NY: Macmillan, 1955), p 201 § 184.

4 Of course, one must concede that because of the verb root itself—complete, finish—the past necessarily recedes in favor of the state of completion. In other words, it cannot be ‘unfinished’. Note Marianne Meye Thompson’s objection to this rendering (John: A Commentary, New Testament Library, C. Clifton Black, et al eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015]), “…Jesus’ last words from the cross, tetelestai, ‘It is finished!’ (19:30) surely means ‘it has been accomplished’ or ‘it has been completed’ with reference to completing God’s mission and work” (p 395). I have to agree.

5 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), p 895.

6 Smyth, Grammar, p 434, § 1946.

7 Some grammars and commentaries claim this first γέγραφα is “aoristic”, functioning as if an aorist tense, akin to the English simple past wrote. Entailed in this position is that the second γέγραφα is construed as an English present perfect have written, with a focus on the enduring result. Robertson makes a strong case that the perfect never functions ‘aoristically’ in the NT, though it does later (A Grammar of the GNT, pp 898-902; cf. 895 [β]).

%d bloggers like this: