Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Thursday, November 10

Did Jesus give up “the” or “his” spirit on the cross (John 19:30)

Why do translations all say that Jesus gave up “his” spirit when the Greek behind “his” is the definite article, “the”? This is a good example of why knowing a little Greek may not always be helpful and why I wrote Greek for the Rest of Us.


¶ I disagree. This is another case of translators (including yourself) using English as the master language by which other languages must conform; put another way, reading the Greek as if they all thought like Englishmen from a language perspective! The correct translation is "the spirit." It is the definite article in Greek, which does indeed function like our definite article in English, "the," and not as a personal, possessive pronoun. Evidence that you are projecting English back onto the Greek is also in the way you describe it, such as saying that "the article can function as a personal pronoun." Now, if you had said that "the article needs to be translated using an English personal pronoun for it to read properly in English," then I might still disagree with your translation, but you would then be doing the Greek justice. That would have been a more accurate statement for you to make because, as you pointed out, translating it as "the spirit" may cause English speakers to ask, "whose spirit?" So, you opt for English style and convention so as to preclude that question being asked in the English reader's mind. But, when you think about it, it should not cause confusion, actually. If the reader asks "what spirit?" then what choice would the reader have? Would the reader's mind actually venture to some idea that Jesus was possessed by an unclean spirit, i.e. a demon? I don't think so. There is only one "spirit" to consider, and that is, as we would say in English, "his spirit." ¶ There are many examples similar to this in the Greek. For example, when the Greek puts the definite article in front of "Jesus" or "God," (i.e. "the jesus," or "the god") this is no mistake. It is not as if the Greek writers had bad English grammar, as if they neglected to conform to English usage of proper nouns (names, e.g. "Jesus"), or to the English tradition of creating the proper noun "God" as a name, whereas θεος is a common noun, not a proper noun, not a name. ¶ Let me drive this point home even more and challenge your select choice of example translations. You said, "every single translation says 'his'..." and then you hand-picked seven translations to show on your screen. Why did you leave out the KJV? That is still the most popular and most read translation, despite of how much some of us don't like it. The KJV says "gave up the ghost." Now we have only turned back the clock two and a half centuries (1769 Oxford revision), and the definite article is back. Now, I realize that "give up the ghost" is is an English idiom. But it serves to underscore that evidently no one had a problem through a few centuries understanding that the definite article, in English now, referred to "his" spirit, and the King James translators evidently did not think that anyone would misread it to suppose that Jesus had a "ghost" that he "gave up."

But the definite article can show possession. If that's part of the nature of the language, there's no imposing of the English language. Mounce is just following the rules of Koine Greek; the rules which we know allow for using the definite article to show possession. So το πνεῦμα could very well mean "his spirit".

Young's Literal Translation also says "the spirit", as does the Literal Standard version and the Louis Segond and Augustin Crampon. The question for me is should we capitalise "the spirit" i.e. "the Spirit". Jesus had received the Spirit at the start of His ministry and would not have died with the Spirit remaining inside Him. I therefore believe it was the Spirit that Jesus gave up at His death.