Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

Some believe that the author of John’s Gospel broke with grammatical convention and used masculine pronouns for the Holy Spirit even though the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) is grammatically neuter, and not masculine.

In this article, I look at the gender of pronouns associated with the Holy Spirit in a few key passages in John chapters 14–16. My aim is to show that they were not masculinised, or personalised,[1] in the Greek text, and that their grammatical gender does not break Greek grammar rules.

Pneuma (“Spirit”) is Neuter

All Greek nouns and adjectives have grammatical gender and will be either masculine, feminine, or neuter.  Pneuma (“spirit”) is grammatically neuter, and every word directly associated with it in ancient Greek texts, words such as pronouns, articles, adjectives and participles, will be grammatically neuter.  This is true also for the Greek New Testament including John’s Gospel.[2]

Neuter pronouns for the Holy Spirit in the Greek New Testament are typically translated as masculine pronouns in English translations. This is because the English word “it” (neuter) feels impersonal compared with “him” (masculine). But this translation issue is not the topic I’m discussing in this article. My topic here is a little more complicated and concerns the Greek text itself.

Paraklētos (“Paraclete, Advocate”) is Masculine

John is the only biblical author to refer to the Holy Spirit as the paraklētos: the Paraclete, Advocate, or Counsellor. John uses the Greek word paraklētos four times in his Gospel, in John 14:16, 14:26, 15:26 and 16:7, always in reference to the Holy Spirit.

Paraklētos is a grammatically masculine word and any pronouns, articles, adjectives and participles directly associated with it will be masculine. We see this principle of grammatical “agreement” demonstrated in John 14–16.

The Paraclete is the Spirit of Truth

The Paraclete (paraklētos) is the main subject of John 14:16, 14:26, 15:26 and 16:7, and also of John 16:13–14. In three of these verses, John adds a phrase that contains the neuter word pneuma (“spirit”) to spell out who the Paraclete is. It is this additional phrase that seems to have led to some confusion about grammatical gender.

In John 14:26, the Paraclete is “the holy Spirit who the Father will send in [Jesus’s] name.”
In John 15:26, the Paraclete is “the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father.”
In John 16:13, the Paraclete is “the Spirit of truth.”

At the risk of sounding repetitious, paraklētos is grammatically masculine, and pronouns referring to the Paraclete are grammatically masculine in these verses. Pronouns that refer to the Spirit (pneuma) are neuter, such as the neuter relative pronoun behind the word “who” (Greek: ὅ) in John 14:26 and 15:26.

Grammar rules regarding gender have not been broken in John’s Gospel. Pronouns that should be neuter are neuter; they have not been masculinised.

Let’s look more closely at the relevant passages.

The Paraclete and Pronouns in John 14:26

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

ὁ δὲ παράκλητος, τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον πέμψει ὁ πατὴρ ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί μου, ἐκεῖνος ὑμᾶς διδάξει πάντα καὶ ὑπομνήσει ὑμᾶς πάντα ἃ εἶπον ὑμῖν.

This verse contains the masculine pronoun ekeinos, translated into English here as “he.” (It is a demonstrative pronoun, but John uses it many times without a demonstrative force.)
Ekeinos grammatically agrees with the paraklētos.
The neuter relative pronoun ὃ (“who”) grammatically agrees with pneuma. This is all fine.

The Paraclete and Pronouns in John 15:26

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.”

 Ὅταν ἔλθῃ ὁ παράκλητος ὃν ἐγὼ πέμψω ὑμῖν παρὰ τοῦ πατρός, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας παρὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκπορεύεται, ἐκεῖνος μαρτυρήσει περὶ ἐμοῦ·

As in John 14:26, we have the masculine pronoun ekeinos (“he”) agreeing with paraklētos.[3]
There is the masculine relative pronoun ὃν (“whom”) referring to the Paraclete.
And there is the neuter relative pronoun ὃ (“who”) agreeing with pneuma.

The Paraclete and Pronouns in John 16

The same principles apply in John 16 but are perhaps a bit more difficult to recognise, especially when we focus on one or two verses rather than reading the whole chapter.

The word paraklētos occurs once in John 16, in verse 7. John then uses the pronoun ekeinos to refer to the Paraclete in John 16:8, 13, and 14.

John 16:7b–8: “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.  When he comes, he [no Greek pronoun] he will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment;”

John 16:7b-8: ἐὰν γὰρ μὴ ἀπέλθω, ὁ παράκλητος οὐ μὴ ἔλθῃ πρὸς ὑμᾶς· ἐὰν δὲ πορευθῶ, πέμψω αὐτὸν (masculine personal pronoun) πρὸς ὑμᾶς. καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐκεῖνος ἐλέγξει τὸν κόσμον περὶ ἁμαρτίας καὶ περὶ δικαιοσύνης καὶ περὶ κρίσεως·

. . .

John 16:13–14: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak from himself; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”

(The “he’s” that I haven’t made bold in vs. 13–14 do not have a corresponding pronoun in the Greek text. The idea of “he” is implicit in the Greek verbs for “guide,” “speak, “hear,” etc.)

John 16:13-14: ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ, οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφ’ ἑαυτοῦ (masculine reflexive pronoun), ἀλλ’ ὅσα ἀκούσει λαλήσει, καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. ἐκεῖνος ἐμὲ δοξάσει, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν.

I suspect John 16:13–14 are the verses that have tripped up some people because they do not contain the word paraklētos. The masculine pronouns in these two verses refer back to, i.e. their antecedent is, paraklētos in John 16:7. There’s nothing unusual here about the gender of the pronouns.[4]

Conclusion

Throughout John’s Gospel, grammatically neuter words are used to “agree” with pneuma (“spirit”), a neuter word (John 1:32–33; 3:5–8, 34; 4:23–24; 6:63; 7:38–39; etc). And grammatically masculine words are used to “agree” with paraklētos (“advocate”), a masculine word.

The grammatical gender used in the Greek text of John chapters 14–16 is in keeping with grammar norms. No grammar laws have been broken with the aim of masculinising or personalising neuter words. There is no masculinising of the Holy Spirit in the Greek text of John’s Gospel.


Footnotes

[1] Some suggest that masculine pronouns are used in a few verses of the Greek New Testament to make the Holy Spirit seem more personal. As well as the verses about the Paraclete in John, other verses used in this personalisation argument are Ephesians 1:14, which contains the masculine noun arrabōn (“pledge, guarantee”), the enigmatic 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7, and 1 John 5:7 KJV. The use of grammatical gender in the personalisation argument does not hold water.

[2] Grammatical gender tells us nothing about the gender of the Holy Spirit. The word for “spirit, breath, wind” in the Hebrew Bible (ruach) is a grammatically feminine noun. The word for “spirit, breath, wind” in the Greek New Testament and Septuagint (pneuma) is neuter. The Greek word paraklētos used in John’s Gospel is masculine. In early Latin and Coptic translations of the Bible, spiritus (Latin) and pepneuma: ⲡⲉⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ (Coptic) are also grammatically masculine.

[3] Referring to John 15:26 and 16:13–14 in particular, Daniel B. Wallace explains,

pneuma is appositional to a masculine noun. The gender of ekeinos, thus has nothing to do with the natural gender of pneuma. The antecedent of ekeinos in each case is paraklētos, not pneuma. … The ekeinos [of 16:13–14] reaches back to v. 7 where paraklētos is mentioned. Thus, since paraklētos is masculine, so is the pronoun.
Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 331–332. (Wallace uses Greek letters which I’ve changed to Latin letters for my readers.)

[4] Andrew David Naselli and Philip R. Gons, who have looked at this topic from the angle of personalisation more so than masculinisation, conclude their paper with,

A careful analysis of the texts in their contexts with sound principles of grammatical gender firmly in place demonstrates unequivocally that the antecedent of ekeinos is the masculine paraklētos. The gender of the nouns and pronouns in these chapters neither supports nor challenges the doctrine of the Spirit’s personality.
Naselli and 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, 89. A link to their paper is here. (Nasselli and Gons use Greek letters which I’ve changed to Latin letters for my readers.) An impressive catalogue of Bible scholars who see things differently from me is included in this paper.

Postscript: January 24, 2023
The Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed

In response to some feedback on Facebook, here is what the Nicene Creed, originally written in Greek, says about the Holy Spirit. I’ve made bold the grammatically neuter language (nouns, adjectives, articles, and participles). Admittedly, the genitive neuter “Πνεύματος Ἁγίου” (“Holy Spirit”)  in the first phrase is somewhat ambiguous, but the numerous accusative neuter words in the following paragraph are not.

ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου
From the Holy Spirit and Mary the virgin

. . .

καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ Κύριον καὶ Ζωοποιόν,
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver

τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον,
The one going out from the Father

τὸ σὺν Πατρὶ καὶ Υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον,
The one, together with the Father and Son, being co-worshipped and co-glorified.
(Greek text;  my translation)

No masculine words are used for the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. Furthermore, no pronouns, masculine or neuter, are used when referring to the Holy Spirit in the Greek text of the Nicene Creed.

© Margaret Mowczko 2023.
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More about the role of the Paraclete, here.
More about grammatical gender in reference to God and the Holy Spirit, here.
Is God Male or Masculine?
Which Bible Translation is Best?

In case you missed it, I recently posted an article looking at the evidence for sacred prostitution in Corinth, here.

11 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit and Masculine Pronouns in John’s Gospel

  1. Marg,
    Not knowing a thing about Greek language, I “sort of” worked this out with a bunch of interlinears–my final result was a whole lot less artful/elegant and more like a bull in the china cabinet approach. Made my head hurt–a lot. I have two questions:
    1. Do you have any insight into why the OT Spirit is referred to as feminine (ruach elohim) but the NT is neuter? (but for paraclete). I’ve never found any explanation (very few address it) very satisfying.
    2. Since Jesus said He would send “another Helper” (another paraclete; John 14: 16) and John said Jesus is our paraclete (i.e. first paraclete vs. another paraclete; 1 John 2: 1), then neither Jesus nor the ruach elohim changed their name. Is paraclete best understood as a role (or office) that the Holy Spirit fills?
    thank you for your time!
    Brian

    1. Hi Brian, the answer to your first question is relatively easy.

      All nouns in Hebrew will be either masculine or feminine. This grammatical gender often has nothing to do with actual gender. The Hebrew word for “spirit, breath, wind,” ruach, is a grammatically feminine noun.

      Ruach isn’t really a name–the Holy Spirit doesn’t have a name–and elohim is actually a grammatically masculine word: ruach elohim means “Spirit of God.”

      All nouns in Greek with be either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Again, this often has nothing to do with actual gender. By way of example, the words gynaikaria and gynaikeiō, both used in the New Testament, refer to women but are grammatically neuter. The three Greek words behind “everyone who is believing/faithful” in John 3:16 are grammatically masculine but they potentially apply to all people regardless of their sex.

      The Greek word for “spirit, breath, wind,” pneuma, is neuter. This is always the case, and it has nothing to do with actual gender. The grammatical gender has no real theological significance. This is simply how the Greek language works.

      In answer to your second question, being a paraclete is definitely a role that the Holy Spirit and Jesus fill. The Holy Spirit was sent as Jesus’s replacement when Jesus returned to the Father.

      1. Forgive me a follow on as my old, non-Greek brain is struggling and I really want to understand this. I’m confining my question to John 16: 13-14 since that’s where I’m studying this. I’m having trouble seeing the “obviously He.” (my brain, not your explanation!)
        So, 1) ekeinos is a demonstrative pronoun, and according to Thayer, means “that one there” but can be intensified from (he, she, or it) by the article proceeding.”
        2) In this case, the article proceeding is the masculine noun parakletos from v. 7?
        3) Thayer states that ekeinos refers to the noun immediately proceeding. But v. 7 seems to NOT be “immediately proceeding” in my miniature, non-Greek brain! Although, in fairness, there are no other nouns between vv.7 and 13 which make any sense but paraclete, either.
        4. So, why is ekeinos not “it” or “itself” to match the neuter noun of pneuma? Is it because there are no other nouns reasonably attributed to “he” until we get back to v. 7? The first use of Pneuma in these verse does not occur until after ekeinos (rare to use such a case). So then, the focus of ekeinos is on the office of paraclete and not the person of the Spirit?
        5. Or, more correctly (I hope), the obvious “He” of ekeinos is more accurately attributed to the “immediately proceeding” noun, paraclete, in v. 7. So, “He” refers to the masculine role of helper. If so, how far “back” does “immediately proceeding” extend? I know that some Greek sentences can be quite lengthy, but that is not always easily seen in English–is this one of those cases?
        Forgive me for having to teach me such basics in Greek. I’m not even sure I’m wording my questions correctly.
        Brian

        1. Hi Brian,

          1. Ekeinos is a demonstrative pronoun, but John uses this word a lot without a demonstrative force. So “he” is a fine translation of ekeinos in John’s Gospel. It would be tiring to read a translation of John where ekeinos was repeatedly translated as “that one.”

          2. Yes, the antecedent of ekeinos in John 16:13 is paraklētos in John 16:7.

          3. See point 5 below.
          “in fairness, there are no other nouns between vv.7 and 13 which make any sense but paraclete”
          Exactly. There are no other masculine nouns in verses 9-12 that make sense as the antecedent. What does make sense is that paraklētos in John 16:7 is the antecedent, followed by ekeinos in John 16:8 and also in John 16:13 and 14 when the subject of the Paraclete returns.

          4. Ekeinos is masculine to grammatically agree with paraklētos. The neuter form would be ekeino. (How we translate ekeinos or ekeino into English is another matter that depends on more than Greek grammatical gender.)

          The phrase “Spirit of Truth” is almost parenthetical in John 16:13, as are the similar phrases in John 14:26 and 15:26. The phrases give a short explanation of who the Paraclete is. The word paraklētos is the main subject in all these verses. I can’t see that it’s helpful to make a sharp distinction between office and person in these verses.

          5. Thayer does not give John 16:13 as an example of “1 c. referring to a noun immediately preceding …” Rather, he gives John 16:13 as an example of “1 b. of noted persons (as in classic Greek) …” and he includes this note which is spot on: “with an apposition added, ἐκεῖνος, τό πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, John 16:13.”

          Also, I wouldn’t say “the masculine role of helper.” Just because the word paraklētos is grammatically masculine, this doesn’t mean that being a Paraclete is necessarily a masculine role, though it usually was in the ancient world. And “helper” does not adequately describe the role of a Paraclete. I’ve written about this role here: https://margmowczko.com/holy-spirit-eve-helpers/

          1. awesome! thank you!

      2. Hi,

        In the comments, you say,

        “Ruach isn’t really a name–the Holy Spirit doesn’t have a name–and elohim is actually a grammatically masculine word: ruach elohim means ‘Spirit of God.'”

        While I agree that Ruach isn’t really a name. In Matthew 28:16-20, doesn’t the Spirit share a name with the Father and Son?”

        I’m a student and still learning Greek, but it is my understanding, that Jesus commands his disciples as they are going to make disciples of all peoples ” in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. ” teaching them to “obey all I have commanded you. ” and he reassures them “I will be with you to the end. “

        1. Hi Lindy, Matthew 28:18-20 doesn’t tell us anything about actual names. None of the words “Father,” “Son,” or “Holy Spirit” is a name. (God’s name is YHWH; Jesus’s name is Jesus.)

          When we do something in someone’s name, it usually means, idiomatically, that we are doing that thing with their authorisation. Matthew 28:18-20 is about being authorised with Jesus’s authority for ministry, and this authorisation comes from the Triune Godhead.

          The Greek word for “name” in Matthew 28:19 is neuter singular. Neuter singular words can be used as collective nouns. However, if the Spirit actually does share a name with the Father and Son, Matthew doesn’t tell us what it is. Perhaps he is referring to YHWH, but I doubt it. I think Matthew is simply using “in the name” (eis to onoma) as an idiom of authorisation.

          I believe Jesus was saying, in effect,
          “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them with the authorisation that comes from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. …”

          1. Hi,
            I just want to clarify that I was not proposing that Father is a name, nor that Son is a name, nor that Holy Spirit is a name. I agree that they are not names. I also agree that YHWH and Jesus are names.

            While clearly this passage focuses on Jesus total authority, and I understand the instructions he gives are to be carried out in obedience to that authority. I believe we are largely in agreement.

            I will think more on your understanding of this, because I do see how the usage of ” in the name” could be idiomatic for authorization, especially with the way we see ” in the name” used with baptisms.

            Still, to me, it seems that Matthew’s language in this pasage seems to imply that there is a shared name. This would not preclude the name being cited as the authorization for baptism. In fact, that very much seems to be the reason this name is being referred to, but it also seems that there may be a theological richness here of a name that is shared amongst the god-head, which we are washed into.

            While noting the recurring phrase, I have not studied it as an idiom and I certainly respect your expertise. I will give this further prayerful study.

          2. Thanks for the clarification, Lindy.

            If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have a shared name, we don’t know what it is. And this makes taking “name” literally in Matthew 28:19 a problem. How can we baptise people in a literal name when we don’t know what it is?

            In his entry on the Greek word onoma (“name”), Thayer cites Matthew 28:19 under the definition 2.b. “to do a thing … by one’s command and authority, acting on his behalf, promoting his cause.” Thayer cites quite a few other New Testament verses that use onoma (“name”) in a similar way. https://biblehub.com/greek/3686.htm

  2. In John 1:32 the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove (feminine).

    One of the earliest translations of the New Testament is the Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, spoken in many early Christian communities. In Syriac, the word for Spirit (Ruha) is feminine and in the earliest Christian literature, up to 400AD, the Holy Spirit is virtually always treated grammatically as feminine.

    In modern terminology we might say that the Holy Spirit is “non-binary” and “gender fluid”.

    1. Yes, “Spirit” is grammatically feminine in Syriac; the language has strong similarities with Hebrew.

      In early Syrian Christianity, the Holy Spirit was actually, not just grammatically, viewed as feminine and as “Mother.” Early Coptic Christianity also viewed the Holy Spirit as feminine and as “Mother” even though the Coptic word for “spirit” is grammatically masculine.

      In John 14:26 in the Vetus Syra, the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, there are three feminine pronouns hi (equivalent to “she”):
      “but ‘that’ (hi) Spirit, the Paraclete who my Father will send to you in my name, ‘she’ (hi) will teach you everything, ‘she’ (hi) will remind you of all that I say.”
      (Note that unlike this verse in the Greek, “Spirit” is the main subject, not “Paraclete.”)
      The feminine pronouns in John 14:26 were changed to the equivalent of “he” in the Pershitta.

      I have an article that I work on from time to time looking at the Holy Spirit as “Mother” in early Christian texts. This idea picked is up later by the Moravians and others. However, I personally don’t think the Spirit has any gender.

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