Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Close this search box.

“Paraclete” in Ancient Secular, Jewish, and Christian Texts (2)

I’ve edited and expanded this article which can be read here: https://margmowczko.com/paraclete-in-ancient-literature-and-nt/

Paraclete as “Advocate” in Ancient 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.

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. 2 John 2:1-2

Barclay observes that “paraclete” was a common word in secular ancient Greek and gives four examples 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).

(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.)

Barclay continues and states that Jewish people “adopted the word and used it in the sense of advocates.” This includes the author of John’s Gospel and 1 John, who was Jewish, and other Jewish teachers.

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.

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.

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).

These three excerpts are from William Barclay’s 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.)

Paraclete as “Advocate” and “Intercessor” in LSJ

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 related verb paraklēteuō means “act as advocate or intercessor.” (LSJ: Perseus)

Was Paraclete a Military Term?

I’ve not found an occurrence in ancient sources where paraklētos refers to paired Greek soldiers as some have claimed. Gordon Dalbey, as one example, states that paraclete was a military term and 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)

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).

If paraclete was used somewhere in a military context for battle partners, it wasn’t the typical use of the word.

Explore more

The Holy Spirit and Eve as Helpers (briefly discusses paraklētos)
The Holy Spirit and Masculine Pronouns in John’s Gospel (briefly discusses paraklētos)
The Holy Spirit as Mother in Early Syriac Texts
I have more articles on Greek words, here.

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?