Pneuma

When translating the letters of Paul, I had some tough decisions to make. I knew I needed to have consistency, and that meant going through and making sure I did that. One of the hardest decisions was to transliterate the Greek word pneuma (in English pronounced with a silent p). After all, I tend not to like translation choices that have simply transliterated the Greek word. For example, “baptize” and “baptism” represent a transliteration of the Greek words baptiz┼Ź and baptismos. If the Bible publisher wants all kinds of Christians to use their Bible, then the translation committee has to choose an English word that will work for everybody. You can’t “dip,” “dunk,” or “dribble” and expect for every denomination to be comfortable with your choice.

In some cases, the word choice in English stems back not to the Greek but to the Latin usage in the Vulgate translation. “Spirit” is one of those words. It’s the Latin of the Greek pneuma. For English speakers, however, the word “spirit” conjures up the image of a disembodied entity. How did we ever imagine God’s presence–God’s “Holy Ghost”–to be like spooky creatures floating around scaring people and leaving a trail of ectoplasm? But the word “spirit” doesn’t help us much either.

It happens that in both Hebrew and Greek the word used to refer to God’s presence in the world is a word associated with the movement of air (breath, wind), and air being a life-giving force. Likewise, the soul is the life-presence evident in the breathing of air. If I were a biblical literalist, I would not be against abortion because Genesis 2:7 says that humans become a “living being/soul” when they take their first breath of air. [I’m not suggesting anyone use the Bible in this way!]

When you look at the way the Bible refers to “the spirit of God,” you find that the idiom is used to represent God’s presence and activity in the world. Trinitarians will not like my translation because I think the Bible stresses the unitary nature of God. That’s not to say that someone in the first century who thought that God was a single and unitary being could not also regard other entities as divine. As I understand it, Paul’s starting point for God’s acceptance of the gentile peoples is that they experienced God’s “spirit”–the power and presence of God–in the same way that Jewish followers of Jesus experienced God in Jerusalem.

I contend that the phenomenon of Christianity came about through the blending of Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures. What we find in the Christian writings came about by viewing the Bible through a Greek lens, so to speak. In my research, time after time I found that the way early Christians thought about the Bible is because they have merged a Hebrew word or concept with a Greek word or concept. I have many examples of this and expect to be discussing them in future blogposts. Pneuma is one of these.

When philosophers talk about the Stoic concept related to the Greek word pneuma, they refer to Pneuma. Pneuma for Stoics is the active and organizing force of everything that is and is synonymous with Nature and the Cosmos; it is the World Soul. I decided to do the same thing with the Greek word pneuma rather than use traditional language. I have done the same thing with many other words such as “holy.” The Greek word hagios is not something that appears much in Greek literature. The usage of “holy Spirit” in the New Testament stems from the Greek translation of the Hebrew expression (Ps 51:13; Isa 63:10-11). I translate the idiom as “sacred Pneuma.” (As I recall, the capitalization of Pneuma when referring to God’s pneuma was one of the last changes I made.)

My purpose for using Pneuma then is to allow for the reader to feel the commonality when comparing the letters of Paul with Stoic and other philosophical texts. When Paul spoke Greek with Jews in Jerusalem or with Stoics in Athens, they would have recognized a commonality of language. To some degree both would have been able to say, “We’re using the same vocabulary but different dictionaries.” This is why Christians have been able to interpret the Greek text of the New Testament as referring to Jewish concepts in the Hebrew language–for the most part. My approach is to say that New Testament texts make use of the Greek translation(s) of the Bible at the time and apply a Greek understanding to it. Sometimes that may mean there’s a Greek “tinge” of color and other times a complete change of hue.

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