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“Paraclete” in Ancient Secular, Jewish, and Christian Texts

Introduction

Something that came to my attention this week is that a number of Christians think the Greek word paraklētos, a term used for Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, is used with a military sense. Numerous blog posts mention this idea. I went looking for this military sense, and this is what I found.

Paraclete in Secular Greek Literature

In his commentary Letters of John and Jude, William Barclay discusses the Greek word paraklētos which occurs in 1 John 2:1 for Jesus as the Paraclete or Advocate.[1]

My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate (paraklētos) with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one. 1 John 2:1-2

Barclay observes that “paraclete” was a common word in secular ancient Greek and gives four examples[2] demonstrating its meaning as “advocate.” (His use of italics.)

Demosthenes (De Fals. Leg. 1 [The False Embassy]) speaks of the importunities and the party spirit of advocates (paraklētoi [τῶν παρακλήτων]) serving the ends of private ambition instead of public good.

Diogenes Laertius ([Lives of Eminent Philisophers] 4:50) tells of a caustic saying of the philosopher Bion. A very talkative person sought his help in some matter. Bion said, “I will do what you want, if you will only send someone [παρακλήτους] to me to plead your case (i.e., send a paraklētos), and stay away yourself.”

When Philo is telling the story of Joseph and his brethren, he says that, when Joseph forgave them for the wrong that they had done him, he said, “I offer you an amnesty for all that you did to me; you need no other paraklētos” (Life of Joseph 40).

Philo tells how the Jews of Alexandria were being oppressed by a certain governor and determined to take their case to the emperor. “We must find,” they said, “a more powerful paraklētos, advocate, by whom the Emperor Gaius will be brought to a favourable disposition towards us” (Leg. in Flacc. 968 B [Flaccus 4.22-23).

In his entry on paraklētos in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Johannes Behm writes that “the history of the term of the whole sphere of known Greek and Hellenistic usage outside of the New Testament yields a clear picture of a legal adviser or helper or advocate in the relevant court.”[3]

Paraclete in Early Rabbinic Literature

Apart from Job 16:2 in a couple of recensions, paraklētos does not occur in the Septuagint, but it is used in early rabbinic literature. Behm writes that in the Hebrew and Aramaic of the ancient Rabbis, “paraclete” [Behm renders this word in Hebrew letters]  became a common loan word and was part of their religious vocabulary in the sense of advocate. It was related in meaning  to “counsel” and “defender.” Behm notes that “It always denoted an advocate before God.”

Barclay likewise states that Jewish people “adopted the word and used it in the sense of advocates.”

So common was this word that it came into other languages just as it stood. In the New Testament itself the Syriac, Egyptian, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions all keep the word paraklētos just as it stands. The Jews especially adopted the word and used it in this sense of advocate, someone to plead one’s cause. They used it as the opposite of the word accuser and the Rabbis had this saying about what would happen in the day of God’s judgment: “The man who keeps one commandment of the Law has gotten to himself one paraklētos; the man who breaks one commandment of the Law has gotten to himself one accuser.” They said, “If a man is summoned to court on a capital charge, he needs powerful paraklētoi (the plural of the word) to save him; repentance and good works are his paraklētoi in the judgment of God.” “All the righteousness and mercy which an Israelite does in this world are great peace and great paraklētoi between him and his father in heaven.” They said that the sin-offering is a man’s paraklētos before God.

Paraclete in Early Christian Literature

The word was used by early Christian authors other than John, and not only to refer to Jesus or the Holy Spirit as Paraclete or Advocate. Behm states that in early Christian literature not influenced by the New Testament “paraclete” passages, the word was used and understood in “just the same way” as in Judaism.

Following Behm’s work, Barclay gives these examples.

In the days of the persecutions and the martyrs, a Christian pleader called Vettius Epagathos ably pled the case of those who were accused of being Christians. “He was an advocate (paraklētos) for the Christians, for he had the Advocate within himself, even the Spirit” (Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 5: 1.10). The Letter of Barnabas (20:2) speaks of evil men who are the advocates of the wealthy and the unjust judges of the poor. The writer of Second Clement asks: “Who shall be your paraklētos if it be not clear that your works are righteous and holy?” (2 Clement 6:9).

Paraclete in Dictionaries and Databases

In their exhaustive lexicon of ancient Greek (LSJ), Liddell, Scott and Jones write that paraklētos refers to someone who is “called to one’s aid, in a court of justice.” As a substantive (a word that functions as a noun) it means a legal assistant or advocate. It can also mean intercessor and they cite John’s Gospel and First John as having this meaning. (LSJ: Perseus) The closely related verb paraklēteuō means “act as advocate or intercessor.” (LSJ: Perseus)

Other lexicons of ancient Greek give similar definitions and don’t mention warriors or a military sense. See, for example, Thayer’s entry on paraklētos, here.

Moreover, a search of the word paraklētos in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG), an online database of all known literary texts in Greek from Homer to AD 600, does not show any instance of the word being used with a military sense. A search on papyri.info, which hosts a collection of well over 50,000 documentary papyri texts, dating from the 6th century BC to the 8th century AD, likewise showed no military usage.[4]

Was Paraclete a Military Term?

I’ve not found an occurrence in ancient sources where “paraclete” refers to paired Greek soldiers as some have claimed. Nevertheless Gordon Dalbey, as one example, states that it was a military term. He writes,

Greek soldiers went into battle in pairs, so when the enemy attacked, they could draw together, back-to-back, covering each other’s blind side. One’s battle partner was the paraclete.
Dalbey, Healing the Masculine Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 124-125 (Google Books)[5]

A military sense, however, does not help us to understand how “paraclete” is used in the New Testament. This is some of what Behm says about the word’s New Testament usage.

In 1 John 2:1, where Jesus Christ is called the paraklētos of sinning Christians before the Father, the meaning is obviously “advocate” and the image of a trial before God determines the meaning. In John 16:7-11 (cf. 15:26) we again find the idea of a trial in which the Paraclete, the Spirit, appears (16:8-11). The Spirit, however, is not the defender of the disciples before God, but their counsel in relation to the world. Nor is the legal metaphor adhered to strictly. … Paraklētos seems to have the broad and general sense of helper.

The idea that “paraclete” had a military sense seems to be completely false and misleading.[6]

Paraclete in John’s Writings

The author of 1 John and John’s Gospel did not intend readers to understand the role of the Paracletes Jesus and the Holy Spirit as having a military sense or nuance. The legal sense in 1 John 2:1 is reasonably obvious, and the CSB translates paraklētos as “advocate” here. There may also be a legal sense in the three passages in John’s Gospel which contain the word paraklētos even if, as Behm says, “the legal metaphor is not strictly adhered to.”

The Christian Standard Bible translates paraklētos in John’s Gospel as “Counselor” which has a broader sense than advocate. This is a helpful translation of paraklētos in these verses.

A legal sense is not obvious in John 14:15-17.

“If you love me, you will keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth. …”

However, there is a legal nuance in John 15:26-27.

“When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father —the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. You also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”

A legal sense is clearer in John 16:7-11.

“Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment: About sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.”

Conclusion

It is a concern that some people are redefining Greek words used in the New Testament to give them a military or battle spin. I previously explored the equally doubtful claim that the Greek word praus (“meek, gentle”) was a military word associated with Greek warhorses.

What is telling is that the people making and repeating these ideas about “paraclete” and praus do not cite ancient texts, at least not in the numerous examples I’ve seen. I’ve looked hard for ancient evidence that agrees with their statements and, so far, have found none. If I find such a source, I will add it to my articles. However, even if such sources exist, neither “paraclete” nor praus were ordinarily used in a military sense.


Footnotes

[1] The three excerpts from William Barclay are taken from his comments on “Jesus Christ the Paraclete” (1 John 2:1) in Letters of John and Jude (The Daily Study Bible; Edinburgh: St Andrews Press, 1958) pp. 43-45. (I’ve slightly edited the citations to make them easier to find in the online sources I’ve linked to.)

[2] These four examples cover several centuries. Demosthenes gave his speech in 343 BC. Diogenes Laertius wrote his biographies in the first half of the 200s AD. Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher, wrote in the mid-first century BC, about 140 years before John’s Gospel and John’s letters were written.

[3] The quotations from Johannes Behm are from his entry on παράκλητος in volume 5 of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Friedrich and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 800-814. (I’ve expanded abbreviations and transliterated or removed words written in Greek or Hebrew letters.)

[4] Thank you to Dr Gary Manning, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University), who did these database searches.

[5] Dalbey doesn’t cite an ancient source to support his statement. Instead, he cites an audio cassette recorded by John and Paula Sandford entitled “Intercessory Prayer” (Elijah House Ministries). I’ve not been able to track down this recording.
On page 125, Dalbey also claims that the early church’s understanding of the sacraments, especially communion, was “war-related, based on the original meaning of the Latin sacramentum …” He supports his claim by quoting the first definition of sacramentum on page 1593 in Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language: “in ancient Rome; the military oath taken by every Roman soldier, pledging him to obey his commander, and not to desert his standard.” Dalbey fails to mention any of the six other definitions in the same dictionary entry, even though definitions 2, 3 and 4 of sacramentum mention the Eucharist. (The dictionary can be read on Internet Archive, here.)

[6] Perhaps the military-warrior idea comes from a use, or uses, of a related, and very common, verb parakaleō, rather than the noun “paraclete.” Behm quotes Mowinckel in a footnote (on page 803) who cautions, “It is philologically unjustifiable to define the living sense of a current word by the customary [or] … etymological meaning of the underlying verb; in innumerable cases, verbs and nouns have gone their separate ways.”
Then again, maybe the “military paraclete” idea was simply made up because it made sense to someone, much like the “bald prostitutes in Corinth” idea.

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4 thoughts on ““Paraclete” in Ancient Secular, Jewish, and Christian Texts

  1. Excellent article! thank you.

    1. Thanks, Robert.

  2. […] “Paraclete” in Ancient Secular, Jewish, and Christian Texts […]

  3. […] “Paraclete” in Ancient Secular, Jewish and Christian Texts […]

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