Why Did Jesus Call the Holy Spirit “He”?

woman Image of the Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit Mother

When I first began my exploration (back in 2001)of the femininity of the Holy Spirit, the road was bumpy. Few Christians were interested in the topic, and many Christians grew furious when faced with discussing the topic. One episode stands out for me. A pastor, when he heard I was writing on the topic of the femininity of the Holy Spirit, was outraged that I would dare to change the Bible. He said (something like), “Jesus called the Spirit a ‘He’ and so I am sure that Jesus knew what he was talking about.”

In the New Testament, yes… it’s true–according to some translations of the Greek–Jesus is seemingly calling the Spirit a “He.” But, we must remember… this is a translation.

Scripture, at least as far as New Testament translations go, refer to the Holy Spirit as “he.”  Most translations do. If “he” is not used than “it” is used to refer to the Spirit. For myself, when first faced with the idea of the “she” in the Holy Spirit this proved problematic. After all, I had called the Holy Spirit “he” or occasionally “it” for years. Suddenly now, as I began exploring the “she” in the Spirit, God was challenging my personal theology. But wasn’t this theology the Bible’s theology and, therefore, the founders of my faith’s theology, too? How could I come against what the apostles believed or what the giants of faith believe today? I seriously told God, during my prayer time, that I couldn’t begin to write on this topic unless He explained the “he” factor to me. And explain it, He did.

The Greek (New Testament) word for spirit is “pneuma” whereas the Hebrew (Old Testament) word for spirit is “ruach.”  Both words mean: a current of air, wind, a breath in reference to either a human, demon, or the Holy Spirit of God. We see the use of this word in Genesis as God breathed into man the breath or “ruach” of life:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [“ruach”] of life; and man became a living being. (NKJV Genesis 2:7)

Through this verse I came to understand that God’s Spirit or His “breath” is what gives and maintains life. So then I began to search the New Testament for every mention of God’s Holy (“pneuma”) Breath.  I looked for “Holy Spirit” or “Spirit” or “Spirit of the Lord” or “Spirit of God” to see what pronoun had been placed in front. For the most part no pronoun was used. Often “he” was used. I then noticed that “it” was used sporadically. Now a year earlier (this was way back in 2001 before we had LOGOS Bible Software), my dad had bought me a disk called The Bible Library with many different Bible translations on it: the NIV, the King James version, the New Revised Standard, the Morris Literal Translation of Hebrew and Greek… and so on. I began to cross-reference these instances of pronouns and found that among the different translations there was no concrete congruity between verses. “He” would be used in some instances, “it” in others. The New King James almost always used “he” when referring to the Spirit, whereas others seemed to prefer “it”:

And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.” (NKJV John 1:32)

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. (NRSV  John 1:32)

So what was going on?  Why was there no consensus?  How should we relate to this word “pneuma”?  Of course, I’m not a translator. I don’t know Greek from a hole in my head. So what I needed was a translator. I prayed to God, “God, you know I’m a mother of three girls, very busy, and with what free time I have I read and pray and write … please send me a translator.” I then opened up my NRSV and sent an email to the publishing house’s web site, asking why this difference existed.

Then I waited.

No answer.

So then I noticed my Bible Library also had the Morris Literal Translation of Hebrew and Greek on it, so one day I looked up a sentence referring to the Holy Spirit and zeroed in on the word “he.” To my surprise the Greek pronoun “autos means, “she, he or it.”  The translators of the Bibles which we all read had all chosen to use “he” or “it,” but never “she.” Even though “she” seemed to be an option:

The Spirit Himself [autos] bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (NKJV Romans 8:16)

The Spirit itself [autos] bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God. (DARBY Romans 8:16)

The Spirit herself [autos] bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (no one has chosen to translate autos like this, Romans 8:16)

However, this wasn’t enough. I wanted a professional opinion on the matter. This was important, after all. So I prayed to God again. “God, you know I’m a mother of three girls, very busy, and with what free time I have I read and pray and write … please send me a translator.” And then the email came. This is the email sent to me (in February of 2004) by Walter Harrelson who was part of the translation team for the NRSV:

The Greek word PNEUMA is neutral—that is, neither masculine nor feminine. The translation “it” is linguistically correct, which explains the widespread use of “it” in translations of the New Testament. The NRSV translators decided to use “he,” I am confident (though I was not a part of the New Testament panel that made this decision), because “Holy Spirit” refers regularly to the deity, and the translators decided always to remain with the masculine pronoun to refer to deity.

The translators who decide for “it” have a point, and those who decide for “he” do as well.  The use of “he” in NRSV is a consequence of a larger decision and can well be rejected by translators. The use of “it” may well be rejected by translators on the principle that for the Bible, God is surely personal, and “it” conveys little of the intimate association characteristic of the relation of human beings and the deity.. . . . You are right:  “she” could well be used as the pronoun for Spirit or spirit. The Hebrew for spirit, ruach, is almost always feminine.”

So there it is. The pronoun “he” can be rejected and so can the pronoun “it.” Choosing the correct pronoun must come from the source we are addressing. When “autos” is placed in front of Jesus, we know to use “he.” When it is placed in front of God, because God is referred to as our “Father” (a multitude of times), we feel completely confident in using “he.” But when the participle “autos” is placed in front of “pneuma” we are at a bit of a standstill because we do not get much of a hint toward the correct pronoun to use from the word “breath” or the phrase “breath of God.” Often “it” seems a logical choice when referring to “breath” except this particular “holy breath of God” is alive: the Spirit makes decisions, speaks and leads both Jesus and his disciples. Because of this, “it” seems horrifically lacking.  Therefore, our understanding must come from the source we are trying to address.

women image of the holy spirit, holy spirit mother

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