Blowin’ In the Wind*

When did “spirit” become the translation for the Greek pneuma? The answer, while not difficult, has profound implications.

The Hebrew word ruach (ר֣וּח) means wind, breath, air.

The Greek word pneuma (πνεῦμα) means wind, breath, air.

The Latin word spiritus means wind, breath, air.

The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all have the same primary meaning. Wind, breath, and air are all aspects of the same thing and constitute the primary usage in each language. This pneumatic phenomenon has some interesting characteristics. It can be felt but not seen. The presence of breath in a mammal indicates life; its disappearance indicates death. These aspects enable wind-breath-air to function as a metaphor for the presence of the mysterious or divine. This last usage is rare.

Genesis 1:2 is a good example of this metaphorical usage.

  וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

And the wind (or breath) of Elohim hovers over the face of the waters.

The creation story in Genesis 1 is a myth and Elohim’s creating powers are viewed mythologically as Elohim’s breath or wind blowing over waters to bring order out of chaos. In the next verse Elohim speaks and creates light. Speaking is also an act of breathing.

The Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate translations of Genesis 1 understand this passage in the same way as the Hebrew. The breath or wind of Elohim is a metaphor expressing how the presence of the divine is active.

Council of Nicaea 325

But something changed. The Council of Nicaea (325) defined the Trinity. Then the metaphor became a person, the third person of the Trinity: hagia pneuma in Greek and spiritus sanctus in Latin. The holy pneuma/spiritus still has a metaphorical undertone as breath, because the Nicene Creed describes its function as “[the Son] who by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” The breath is still acting in a creative way although it is hidden in modern English translations. The Nicene Creed would make more sense translated, “[the Son] who was made alive (enfleshed) by God’s breathe and Mary the virgin.” That is what the Greek and Latin really mean.

When French and English separated from Latin, instead of translating “spiritus” as breath, they transliterated it, so in French it became esprit and in English spirit. As a transliteration it lost its connection to the physical and metaphorical meaning wind/breath/air. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the lead meaning of spirit as “An animating or vital principle; the immaterial or sentient element of a person.” Merriam-Webster presents a more schematic set of definitions:

1: an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms

2: : a supernatural being or essence: such as

a capitalized : HOLY SPIRIT


c: an often malevolent being that is bodiless but can become visible, specifically : GHOST

As both the OED and Merriam-Webster make evident, in English spirit has no hint of wind, breath, or air. Any sense of metaphor has disappeared.

The King James translates Genesis 1:2 “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In this translation, Spirit of God means the second person of the Trinity. Since the metaphorical and mythological sense has disappeared, the literal meaning now understands Genesis as an explanation of what happened, very different from the Hebrew version of Genesis.

Transliterations of religious terms should be prohibited. Translating would have the virtue of clarity at the risk of demythologization.

The translation of pneuma as spirit is never the best translation in the New Testament. Most often it is wrong and misleads. The lazy translation of hagia pneuma as Holy Spirit (notice with caps) has led to a profound misunderstanding of what the term means in the New Testament. It is clearly anachronistic, imposing a fourth-century meaning on first-century compositions. It obfuscates the Jewish meaning of the phrase for a fourth-century Christian one—yet another antisemitic move on the part of the church.

In a forthcoming new translation of the Acts of the Apostles, Arthur Dewey and I actually translate hagia pneuma. But you will have to await publication to discover our solutions (yes, plural).

A question asked during the Q&A of “When Jesus became Plato” (2023/01/25) occasioned this post. Someone asked about the use of “spirit,” stating that it was a twelfth-century word. I probably have the question garbled and I know the answer was fumbled. But it is a very good question.

The OED lists a translation of Genesis and Exodus (c1250) as the earliest English use of spirit. So, whoever asked the question was close about the date—thirteenth not twelfth century. And the implication of the question that spirit was a bad translation of the Hebrew and Greek was certainly correct.  

*Bob Dylan @1963

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