Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, November 10, 2022

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".

By what standard, or language, or context, do you claim that "the definite article can show possession"? It certainly doesn't in English. First dictionary definition on Google: "a determiner ( the in English) that introduces a noun phrase and implies that the thing mentioned has already been mentioned, or is common knowledge, or is about to be defined (as in the book on the table ; the art of government ; the famous poet and short story writer )."

Good evening, Mr. Wiebe. I don’t want to sound nitpicky, but in your first comment you accused Mounce of using the English language as the master language by which other languages must conform. Now, in your second comment replying to me, you compare the Greek definite article to the English when you said “it certainly doesn’t in English”, using English as the master language. And, as I am still a student in Koine Greek (I can read it pretty well, but only two years into it so far so I'm still a bit rusty), I trust the scholars who have devoted their lives to learning more about the ancient language; this being said, many scholars on Koine Greek, including Mounce, have said that the Greek definite article can function possessively, so I believe them. When using Accordance to translate passages, there have been a couple of times where I translate a definite article as “the”, but when I check the NASB (which is the translation I always use to compare with my translation), they will have “his”. Cordially, Eleazar

Yes, what I said may sound contradictory at first, since "the" is not possessive in English, but my point was more about how English style and usage is read back into the Greek. In other words, if we would say "his spirit" then that's what we think they meant to say; therefore, they must have meant "the" to be possessive, so the thinking process goes. A similar situation occurs with αυτος. The word αυτος means "same." Why complicate it? But the various Greek professors construct paradigm tables that populate a table of third person pronouns in Greek with the various inflections of αυτος. But Greek has no third person personal pronoun. There should be no third person pronoun paradigm table in Greek. We say "he/she/it." They would say "same." We would say, "If a man studies the Greek, he will be blessed." They would have said, "If a man studies the Greek, same will be blessed." Don't like how that sounds? Well, you're an Englishman. But because that does not sound right in English, it is supposed that it wouldn't to an ancient Greek guy either. The big difference between me and you is that you "trust the scholars who have devoted their lives" to it whereas I do not accept everything they say without question solely based on academic credential and years in the business. I have seen enough translation traditions that are wrong, and tested them by consistently applying whatever I suspect to be wrong in translation and have found that a number of simple things have been made more complicated because of English translation mindsets. It doesn't help that English is terribly complicated and convoluted, full of inconsistencies, whereas Koine Greek is very simple and straightforward in comparison.

Good evening again, Mr. Wiebe. I do think you have some good points…but I never said I take everything the scholars say to be gospel. Man is not God, and God is the only being we can be confident in never doubting. I just choose to agree with the more learned than I when it comes to simple matters. For instance, if I am taking a Koine Greek course and Mounce tells me that Omega is the final letter in the alphabet, I’m not going to go and spend hours researching to make sure he’s correct on that. No, the scholar and the course get good, reputable reviews, so I trust him on very basic matters such the letters of the alphabet. Same thing with the definite article. If Mounce definitively tells me that the definite article can function possessively, I have no reason to believe he’s lying to me, so I will believe him. Cordially, Eleazar

On one hand, none of us learned ancient Greek from a Rosetta Stone we dug up out of the ground, so we are indebted to the scholars, their learning, and the academic research that preceded us, and must give credit where it is due. On other other hand, remember that you did not learn your strongest language from a degreed doctorate who spent his life learning and teaching the language; in fact, you learned most of it as an infant child before you even attended kindergarten. Also keep in mind that men learn from men who learn from men who all already had read an English translation cover to cover and assumed its meaning was correct before beginning to translate. Finally, keep in mind the systemic syndromes of the process of translation from one translation to the next generation of translations, where things like academic peer pressure, tradition, copyright rules, and now even social/political ideologies (e.g. gender neutrality, etc.) come into play. Perhaps I should say that you trust the academics on "basic matters," whereas I question everything and don't assume anything. "If Mounce definitively tells me that the definite article can function possessively," I will check that out for myself. "I have no reason to believe he's lying to me," but he and others could well be mistaken. I have found this to be the case with even a variety of "basic matters" and the common thread was maintaining the status quo, keeping to a translation dogma, and/or assuming that the ancient Greek speaker/writer had the mindset of an Englishman.

Good morning, Mr. Wiebe. Thank you for the reply, and I'll mull over what you have said. In the meantime, I have to study some Greek. :) Cordially, Eleazar

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.