Bible translation & Uncertainty

Why do translators not quantify the uncertainty in their work? I see that some bibles add additional interpretations and meanings, but there are preferred reads and little discussion of their decisions.

I see sections like the infamous 2 Timothy 2:12 - 15. Why not just put, we don’t know? Is that not the more honest approach?

I work in Bible translation. All of translation is subjective to some degree. How do you objectively quantify something subjective like uncertainty? If you want to read about translation decisions, you need to look at commentaries, because this isn’t something you can note in the translated text itself. Most versions give their translation philosophy in the front matter.

Where you see notes like “or this other meaning” it is not usually related to uncertainty in translation, it’s acknowledging the existence of a textual variant. Textual variants are rated by how disputed they are and usually notes only get added if there was a strong tradition with one variant, but the translators went with a different source text (lots of notes explain differences between the textus receptus which formed the source for the KJV and other translations and the Nestle-Aland which forms the source text for modern translations.) Even the Nestle-Aland notes some variants and if these are considered strong enough, modern translations note them with a footnote.

In general, it’s not considered best practice for translators to do more interpretation than is required to accurately translate. So they aren’t supposed to be telling you what the text means, they are supposed to be telling you what the text says. If it’s ambiguous and opaque in the original, you are supposed to keep the ambiguity in the translation. But it is often the case because languages are not one to one correspondents of one another, that the grammar or semantic range of available vocabulary don’t allow a translator to maintain all the ambiguity of the original and still have a grammatically correct, relatively concise sentence.


Fair enough, my apologies on this.

I just got frustrated groups not addressing the variability of a statement/passage/position and instead relying on x tradition as evidence of their correctness which is not the translator’s fault. (backstory on getting yelled at as a youth by questioning whether Paul meant gune as in wife or a specific woman rather than all and for all time)

I did not know that those were just textual variants, great to learn.


Oh, well that one you are right that translators have to guess because English doesn’t have a word that means both and in Greek it could be either. And you had a point that translators do make decisions sometimes that they should have been more upfront about. The ESV is in some hot water with people over gender bias and minimizing slavery.


What are your thoughts on John 14:17c, would you disagree with the NIV?

What are your thoughts on John using ‘he’ with the Holy Spirit?

Jesus used masculine pronouns for the Spirit in John 14:26 and 15:26, as he did consistently when speaking of God the Father. (ETA: Upon closer inspection, the pronouns in 14:17 aren’t masculine, they are neuter.)

When people say the Spirit is feminine, they are referring to the fact that the Hebrew word translated Spirit is grammatically feminine and the Greek word translated Spirit is grammatically neuter (The Greek word for comforter/helper, Παράκλητον used in John 14:16 is grammatically masculine.) This is an accident of language not an indication that Hebrews thought of the Spirit of God as a she or that Greeks thought of the Spirit of God as an it.

In languages with grammatical gender, some words that typically refer to gendered people have two forms, one used to refer to males and one used to refer to females. So for example in Spanish ‘hermano’ means brother and ‘hermana’ means sister. But not all words have two forms like this, and when you are using pronouns to refer to a gendered person you used the appropriate gendered pronoun, even if a word in an equative clause is grammatically the other gender. So in Spanish you can say ‘él es solo una persona’ (he [masc] is only one person [fem]) or ‘ella es solo un ser humano’ (she [fem] is only a human being [masc]) and there is no grammatical or conceptual problem.

The text of John 14:17 uses the neuter Greek pronoun, but in English we don’t have grammatical gender for all nouns that triggers agreement like Greek does, and we don’t typically use ‘it’ as a pronoun for animate personal entities. Using ‘she’ would be imposing a language choice on the text for the English-speaking audience and culture. That’s not always inexcusable, and I don’t have a huge problem with churches that have motivated reasons for de-gendering God language or using feminine pronouns with the Spirit or God. Personally though, I think there is theological significance in the fact that God revealed himself as Father and became incarnate as a male. It doesn’t make God male, but it carries meaning that is lost when God is the Heavenly Parent who sent God’s child.

I think it is a problem that exclusive use of male pronouns for God in our English tradition pushes people conceptually toward conceiving of God as male, which is wrong. Humans are gendered, the Trinity is not and the Persons of the Trinity are not. It is a limitation of most languages that you have to pick between he or she for persons. Churches that spend equal time meditating, preaching, and singing about the feminine imagery associated with God’s wisdom personified, and God’s motherly attributes, or God’s spirit embodied in the church as the bride can help shape less skewed concepts. But primarily I think of this as a teaching and church discourse issue, not a translation issue.


Have you heard of the view that this verse isn’t making the Spirit masculine but rather referring to an earlier masculine noun, Paraclete? It’s in this paper, but I don’t know if their argument holds up or not.

Andrew David Naselli and Philip R. Gons, “Prooftexting the Personality of the Holy Spirit: An Analysis of the Masculine Demonstrative Pronouns in John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:13–14,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 16 (2011): 65–89:

The argument goes like this: John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:13–14 prove (or at least suggest) that the Holy Spirit is a person because the antecedent of the masculine ἐκεῖνος is the neuter πνεῦμα. […] The masculine ἐκεῖνος is significant because we would expect the neuter ἐκεῖνο instead since that would agree grammatically with the neuter πνεῦμα, but these three passages (or at least one of them) break a grammatical rule to emphasize that the Holy Spirit is a person and not a thing. […]

Our counterargument is simple: The common argument is invalid because the antecedent of the masculine ἐκεῖνος is not the neuter πνεῦμα but the masculine παράκλητος. […] Of course, we agree that the Holy Spirit is a person, and the three passages in John 14–16 are good places to advance that argument. But the basis of that argument is not a grammatical-theological connection between ἐκεῖνος and πνεῦμα. Rather, its basis is contextual, including the nature of a παράκλητος and how Jesus speaks about the personal function of the πνεῦμα.


I looked at it more carefully after I responded and in the particular verses mentioned here, after neuter Πνεῦμα, John uses neuter αὐτὸ, which gets translated he in the NIV. There are no pronoun references to the masculine Paraclete that precedes the Spirit of Truth in 17. I don’t know that we can draw any conclusions about whether Jesus “conceived of” the Holy Spirt as gendered or not based on grammar. John may very well be reporting speech Jesus spoke in Aramaic. Koine Greek may not have been John’s first language and he may not have perfectly mastered its grammatical gender agreement system in writing or he may have been intentionally emphasizing the personal nature of the Holy Sprit like your quotes claim. I think we usually get into exegetical trouble when we make grammatical facets of single words carry great theological import. It’s standard Christian doctrine that God is spirit and doesn’t have a gendered body, and that all members of the Trinity are Persons, not impersonal forces that would properly be called ‘it’ in many languages, and that humanity as God’s image is male and female.


Thanks, that helps.

Just to clarify, the first paragraph I quoted was the authors giving the view they reject, the “common argument” that John uses masculine pronouns to refer to the Spirit. Their own view, in the second paragraph, is that the personal nature of the Spirit is shown by what is said, not by a switch to a masculine pronoun.

Yes, they make a valid point that when masculine pronoun ἐκεῖνος is used in John 14:26, the subject of the preceding sentence is masculine Παράκλητος and neuter Πνεῦμα appears in an appositive, so there would be no grammatical reason to demand a neuter pronoun.

Agreed. But the OP was asking about translating a neuter pronoun as he, as I understood the question. And it is still a fact that Jesus used masculine pronouns to refer to the Spirit when the grammar required it. That doesn’t really tell us anything about Jesus’ concept of the Spirit as gendered. Greek is clearly different from English in the way gendered pronouns are used because it has a grammatical gender system, and additionally it had three grammatical genders. So that will affect translation and there won’t be some perfectly overlapping option given the constraints of both languages.


Thank-you. John is quoting Jesus, and so I wonder why John would mangle the Greek to call the Holy Spirit he?

John14:17c is a slightly different question regarding the HS beside you and is with you or will be in you

What do you mean by this? In John 14:17, no masculine pronoun is used, both are neuter. In verses where John uses a masculine pronoun for the Spirit, the referent is the masculine word Παράκλητον, which would trigger a masculine pronoun.

I don’t think we are compelled to believe that John, writing in a lingua franca many years after Jesus’ death, is recording a verbatim transcription of the actual words Jesus used when speaking. He is recording the message.


I think they are saying “we don’t know for sure, and here are some options to consider”. Their first choice is in the text. If you want more, read commentaries and biographies of the authors/translators. The bible’s purpose is not to explain translators motives and thoughts. Your job is to pick one of their options.

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