The Holy Spirit and Translation Bias A Smoking Gun of Trinity Mischief

by Sean Finnegan (

Translators have historically held incredible power to influence millions of Bible-readers over the eons. Many impressive developments have occurred in the field of textual criticism and lexicology over the last century. Today we can access dozens of English translations, Greek interlinears, and lexical aids online for free. In no other age have Christians had better access to biblical tools for personal study than today. Even so, rather surprisingly, many Bibles contain wild distortions, especially on texts related to dogmas long ago etched in the stone of infallible tradition. The uninformed Christian walking into a local bookstore sees dozens of Bible translations lining the shelves and picks the one that best meets his or her needs—the Green Bible, the Extreme Teen Bible, the American Patriot’s Bible, the Catholic Holy Bible, the Archaeology Study Bible, the Life Application Study Bible, and so on. The number of translations produced in the last sixty years is even more impressive. Here are some of the major ones in chronological order.

New World TranslationNWT1950, 1960, 1984
Revised Standard VersionRSV1952
Amplified BibleAB1965
Jerusalem BibleJB1966
New American BibleNAB1970
New English BibleNEB1970
Living BibleLB1971
New American Standard BibleNASB1971, 1995
Good News BibleTEV1976, 1992
New International VersionNIV1978, 1984, 2011
New King James VersionNKJV1983
New Jerusalem BibleNJB1985
TanakhJPS1985, 1992, 2003
New Revised Standard VersionNRSV1989
Contemporary English VersionCEV1995
New Living TranslationNLT1996
Complete Jewish BibleCJB1998
English Standard VersionESV2001, 2007, 2011
Holman Christian Standard BibleHCSB2004
New English TranslationNET2005
Today’s New International VersionTNIV2005
Orthodox Study BibleOSB2008

Although most of these Bibles stay relatively true to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in most places, nearly all of them still have significant blind spots that subtly lean readers towards a Trinitarian theology. In what follows I intend to expose one of the smoking guns of text tampering as it relates to the holy spirit. I want to delve into the world of how translators go about their task, of how Greek grammar translates into English, and how theology consciously or unconsciously gets injected into translations. In particular, I am interested in exposing one of the most flagrant (mis)translation practices found in virtually all English Bibles: rendering impersonal Greek pronouns as personal in English when referring to the holy spirit. What I present here is neither sectarian nor ground breaking. Anyone who can read Greek can verify what I am saying. I will cite mainstream Trinitarian scholars to backup these very points. Yet, since one cannot grasp the issue at hand without some cursory knowledge of Greek grammar, we will begin with a brief overview of the basics.

Gender and Pronouns in Greek Grammar

In English nouns do not have gender. For example the word “table” is neither masculine nor feminine. It is a thing not a person, an “it” not a “he” or a “she.” However, in Greek, as with many other languages, nouns do have gender. The Greek word for table “τράπεζα” (trapeza) is feminine. Thus, when employing a pronoun to refer back to “table” in Greek, one would say “she” rather than “it.” This has nothing to do with how masculine or feminine the table in question might be. One could have a rustic, manly picnic table, and we would still refer to it as “she” in Greek. However, when translating a sentence into English, we would change the word “she” to “it” since that is how English works. Here is an example.

Ἡ τράπεζα ἐστιν ἀγαθή ὅτι αὔτη ἐστὶν ἰσχυρά.

The table is good because it (lit. “she”) is strong.

Even though the word “αὔτη” (afte) really means “she” we translate it as “it” in English because English does not use personal pronouns for things. So even if we usually translate gender out from most pronouns, we generally preserve the grammatical gender for neuter words. So if something is an “it” in Greek, it remains an “it” in English, but if something is a “he” or “she” in Greek, we change it to an “it” in English if the antecedent is a thing rather than a person. However, just like any language, Greek allows for breaking the rules in certain situations.

To see a number of other examples of translation shenanigans not related to the holy spirit, see the appendix.

One such case occurs when a neuter noun is used for a person or a group of individuals. 2 In the following example Paul uses the grammatically feminine word “head” for Christ, yet when he uses a pronoun to refer back, he chooses a masculine one.

Colossians 2.19

καὶ οὐ κρατῶν τὴν κεφαλήν, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἁφῶν καὶ συνδέσμων ἐπιχορηγούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον αὔξει τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ θεοῦ.

and not holding to the head (feminine), from whom (masculine) the whole body being supplied and held together through joints and ligaments grows the growth (which is) from God.

The words τὴν κεφαλήν (the head) are feminine, yet the relative pronoun, οὗ (of whom), is masculine rather than feminine. It would have been grammatically correct to use the feminine word ἧς (of whom), but since the antecedent, “head,” refers to a person (i.e. Christ), Paul broke the rules of grammar to communicate more naturally—after all Christ is not a “she.” This phenomenon occurs many times throughout the New Testament.3 Here is one more example:

Matthew 25.32

καὶ συναχθήσονται ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, καὶ ἀφορίσει αὐτοὺς ἀπ᾽ ἀλλήλων, ὥσπερ ὁ ποιμὴν ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων,

and all the nations (neuter) will be gathered together before him, and he will divide them (masculine) from one another, as the shepherd divides the sheep from the goats,

Here the phrase “τὰ ἔθνη” (the nations) is neuter, but Matthew refers to them using the masculine αὐτοὺς (them) rather than the neuter αὐτά (them). He does so because “the nations” are groups of people, not things, and it sounds more natural to refer to nations as masculine rather than neuter.

So, if the New Testament writers could bend gender from impersonal to personal when neuter words referred to persons, then we should expect the same sort of anomaly in reference to the spirit—if they really did believe the spirit was a person.

Key Texts Analyzed

What follows is a collection of key texts in which the holy spirit is referenced using pronouns in English translations. Every one of these texts is an example where one of the very best and most literal English versions—the NASB—chose to use personal pronouns to refer to the spirit. Yet, in every case the Greek words are actually neuter!

John 6.63 [NA27] John 6.63 [Literal] John 6.63 [NASB]

τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ ζῳοποιοῦν, ἡ σὰρξ οὐκ ὠφελεῖ οὐδέν…

the spirits is that which gives life, the flesh does not benefit anything..

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing…

As we can see from these texts, the Bible employs neuter (not masculine) pronouns to refer to the holy spirit. However, due to an ambiguity in the Greek language, there are some instances where the neuter and masculine forms of a word are the same. Here are some relevant examples:

Each time the bolded word(s) could be translated “who” rather than “which” since masculine and neuter forms are identical in these cases. However, all we need to do is look at the noun to which the pronoun or participle refers to find out which is intended. In every instance, the noun is πνεῦμα (spirit), itself neuter, and this easily determines which gender the other word is. So, translators should render each of these in English as “which” in keeping with grammatical consistency. We will return to see how English Bibles translate these unambiguous texts in a moment. First we need to consider what the translation committees themselves set for standards.

Translator Standards

Since most people do not have any way of testing how trustworthy a Bible is, they depend on what the translation committees say they intended to accomplish. Here I will quote from just a few of the most popular Bibles in current bookstores to show what their translation philosophies are:

The Lockman Foundation (NASB)4

The New American Standard Bible translation team adhered to the literal philosophy of translation. This is the most exacting and demanding method of translation, and requires a word-for-word translation that is accurate and precise, yet easily readable. This philosophy of translation follows the word and sentence patterns of the original authors so that the reader is free to understand God’s message as the Holy Spirit leads….

First published in its compete form in 1971, the NASB is excellent for Bible study because it aims at a precise translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. As such, it renders, where practical, the original order of words and phrases. In passages where this literalness produces unacceptable English, the translators used modern English idioms and indicated the literal renderings in marginal notes.”

The Biblical Studies Foundation (NET)5

The NET Bible is a completely new translation of the Bible with 60,932 translators’ notes! It was completed by more than 25 scholars – experts in the original biblical languages – who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Turn the pages and see the breadth of the translators’ notes, documenting their decisions and choices as they worked. The translators’ notes make the original languages far more accessible, allowing you to look over the translator’s shoulder at the very process of translation. This level of documentation is a first for a Bible translation, making transparent the textual basis and the rationale for key renderings (including major interpretive options and alternative translations). This unparalleled level of detail helps connect people to the Bible in the original languages in a way never before possible without years of study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It unlocks the riches of the Bible’s truth from entirely new perspectives.

Committee on Bible Translation (NIV)6

…the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form…The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers. They have weighed the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.

National Council of Churches (NRSV)7

Many of us pay scant attention to the Bible translation we use, and yet we all want the most accurate and readable translation available for our study and devotional use. That Bible translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Widely recognized by scholars and religious authorities as the most accurate translation, it is also the direct successor of the beloved King James Bible, following in that Bible’s tradition of elegant, readable prose. As a literal translation rather than a paraphrase, the NRSV leaves interpretation in the hands of the reader.

Notice how they are all committed to accuracy of translation. None of them indicates that their commitment is first to a creed or tradition over and above reliable translation. As a result, we should see these versions rendering the texts I listed above using impersonal pronouns, since that is what the Greek says. Let’s see how they do.

Putting the Translations to the Test

Imagine someone jumps online and accesses the most popular and well received translations to investigate the meaning of Acts 5.32 and they check fifteen translations:

After seeing that 15 of these 16 translations personalize the holy spirit by capitalizing Spirit (most capitalize Holy as well) and that 15 out of the 16 use “who” or “whom” to refer back to holy spirit, what would someone conclude? Of course, they would go with the majority.

Besides, the only translations that differ on this point are the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation and the Roman Catholic’s New American Bible—the very two sources that evangelicals and Protestants are trained never to trust! In fact, the New World Translation does not even appear on major Bible websites (or in BibleWorks), so access to it is limited. What is so shocking is that the Greek very clearly reads “the holy spirit which God gave…” There is no ambiguity or confusing grammar to cloud the question. It is as plain as day, and any first year New Testament Greek student could easily verify it.

The most frustrating aspect of this chicanery is that these translations mislead honest-hearted men and women who simply want to read and understand the Scriptures. What is more, most Bible readers implicitly trust the scholars who produce translations in the same way that most people trust doctors or school teachers. This is partly due to the impressive verbiage we saw above in their translation philosophies. The NASB team “adhered to the literal philosophy of translation” and required “a word- for-word translation that is accurate and precise,” yet, they literally did not translate the word “ὅ” as “which.” The NET boasts that its nearly 61,000 translators’ notes enable readers to “look over the translator’s shoulder” and make “transparent the textual basis and the rationale for key renderings (including major interpretive options and alternative translations).” However, when I look at the footnotes on Acts 5.32, I see nothing whatsoever indicating they flat out changed a word to make their translation more palatable. Ironically, Daniel Wallace was one of the primary scholars involved in the NET and his paper on this subject exposes this very issue. The NIV committee stated that they were committed “to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form,” yet they corrected the infallible Scripture in their translation to read “whom” instead of “which.” Isn’t a correction the result of an error? But, if Scripture is infallible, why is the NIV correcting it? Lastly, the NRSV claims it is “the most accurate and readable translation” and that it “leaves interpretation in the hands of the reader.” Yet, in this verse (and many others like it), it obscures the meaning of the text and does not so much as leave a footnote indicating their decision.

So if the Greek is clear, why do nearly all of these translations get it wrong? Why do all of these translations think the simple word ὅ (which) is really ὅν (whom)?

Sola Scriptura and Perspicuity

From the time of the Protestant reformation to today, countless Christians have embraced the motto “sola scriptura,” a Latin phrase meaning “scripture alone.” The idea is that Christians can find whatever pertains to faith and piety in the pages of Scripture without depending on external traditions or authorities. This came up quite a bit in the battle between the reformers and the establish Roman Catholic Church. The Catholics claimed tradition was necessary for rightly interpreting Scripture whereas the Protestants argued people could understand the Bible without the Church telling them what it was supposed to mean. To this day the mentality of sola scriptura dominates the confessions and creeds of most non-Catholic denominations.

Sola Scriptura is, I think, a very good idea, but it can only be practical for the one who is willing to change his or her beliefs based on what the Bible actually says. Still, one will always need external help from translations, lexicons, cultural studies, etc. To be uncompromisingly sola scriptura would require someone to be able to read uncial manuscripts fluently without the aid of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek dictionaries. Even so, the sentiment has great force and it combines with another idea from the Reformation—perspicuity. Someone who is perspicacious can accurately see or grasp a matter. The idea here is that Scripture is clear and understandable by nearly everyone. Here are a couple of classic articulations of this notion:

On the Bondage of the Will (Section 4) by Martin Luther

Therefore come forward, you and all the Sophists together, and produce any one mystery which is still abstruse in the Scriptures. But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth. As Paul saith concerning the Jews, 2 Cor. iii. 15. “The veil still remains upon their heart.” And again, “If our gospel be hid it is hid to them that are lost, whose heart the god of this world hath blinded.” (2 Cor. iv. 3-4.) With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God.

Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7)

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130).

This mentality puts an incredible burden on Protestants to find their doctrines in Scripture. It will not do to say, “Well, the creed has the following…” or “The Church teaches that this means…” No, they must show the teaching in plain Scripture. This would all work out well enough if denominations were actually willing to evaluate their long cherished creeds in the light of Scripture, but, of course, they are not. The whole situation is doomed from the start, because the Protestant Reformation did not start from scratch and question each belief based on Scripture. Sure, there were a few, highly significant, doctrines that they put on the chopping block of biblical scrutiny and successfully eliminated, but many of their core beliefs were never up for discussion. For example, they never allowed the Trinity to be questioned and when people did apply sola scriptura to the dogma they found themselves on the chopping block.

However, now that Catholics and Protestants are no longer able to execute their fellow brothers and sisters on the charge of heresy, they have had to find new ways to deal with this thorny problem. This is precisely where the need arises for translators to monkey with the text. The issue comes down to pressure—pressure to make the Bible conform to the creed so that we can say the creed is biblical.

Jason BeDuhn helpfully explains:

“For the doctrines that Protestantism inherited to be considered true, they had to be found in the Bible. And precisely because they were considered true already, there was and is tremendous pressure to read those truths back into the Bible, whether or not they are actually there. Translation and interpretation are seen as working hand in hand, and as practically indistinguishable, because Protestant Christians don’t like to imagine themselves building too much beyond what the Bible spells out for itself. So…there is a pressure (conscious or unconscious) to build up those ideas and concepts within the biblical text, to paraphrase or expand on what the Bible does say in the direction of what modern readers want and need it to say.”9

But, this sort of circular reasoning cannot prove anything. The translators begin with the belief that the holy spirit is a “person.” As a result they go against their own stated translation principles to literally change the text from “which” to “who.” Next a reader comes along and, on the basis of all those personal pronouns, concludes therefore that the Holy Spirit is, of course, a “person.” We begin with a creedal belief and we end with one—and at the end of the day we have proved nothing.

We should not allow our doctrines to determine the text. To do so is like a doctor who believes that cancer is the root cause of all sickness. Someone comes to him for examination, and though the patient’s symptoms line up perfectly with the common flu virus, the doctor finds ways of convincing himself that cancer is the true culprit. Every test he orders comes back negative, but still he knows, in his bones, that chemotherapy is the right treatment. When translators see that troubling ὅ (which) they ignore the negative results for the test of personhood, and merrily capitalize the “S” on spirit and put “who” anyhow. This is a smoking gun of translation bias and it is absolutely unacceptable. It does the exact opposite of what all of the translations say they want to do; it injects theology into Scripture and limits the reader’s access to what the text really says.

How This Works in Our Favor

The fact that nearly all modern translations change the text so that it supports their doctrine about the third person of the Trinity is actually evidence that the Bible does not teach that the holy spirit is a person. This whole issue smacks of anachronism. Of course neither Jesus nor Paul would say something like, “God the Spirit” or “the third person of the Trinity” or “three persons in one essence” because this kind of language did not yet exist! Pneumatology slowly evolved into full blown Trinitarianism over centuries of reflection. It was not until a.d. 381 that some Christians officially recognized the holy spirit as an equal person of God in the Constantinopolitan Creed. Since the theologians cannot find any of this terminology in Scripture, they tweak the translation to ensure compliance with their beliefs. This dastardly act needs to be exposed so that doubt can be cast on the doctrine of the personhood of the holy spirit. These mistranslated pronouns are like make-up covering a large pimple. If we can help people see through this deception, they just may turn away from the dogmatic deception that has held sway for so many centuries and instead simplify their piety and come to worship the true God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, rather than some three-headed Cerberus.


Here are a few other examples of textual tweaking to make the Bible sound more Trinitarian:

1 John 5.7-8 in KJV

For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth,] the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

Everything within the brackets is a forgery not found in any ancient Greek manuscripts. All modern translations have thankfully omitted these words.

John 8.58 in NAB

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.”

Here the translators have garbled the word order in order to dangle the “I am” statement tantalizingly off the end of the verse. They further emphasize their intention by capitalizing the “I am” in order to make the reader think back to the burning bush incident when God told Moses “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3.14). However, in every other translated verse the NAB correctly reorders the wording to reflect proper English. For example, the first part of John 8.58 reads εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἱησοῦς, which literally translated is, “said to them Jesus.” However, following the word order for good English, the translators properly rendered the phrase, “Jesus said to them.” The last part should be “I am before Abraham came to be” or something similar.

Revelation 1.8 in NIV

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Red letter editions of the Bible often color this saying in red to indicate that Jesus is the speaker. But, the speaker is clearly identified as “the Lord God.” Thus, only if one assumes a priori that Jesus is the Lord God can he or she likewise assume that these words are spoken by him. Furthermore, in verse four, it is clear that “him who is, and who was, and who is to come” is not Jesus.

Worshiping vs. Bowing in NASB

Matthew 2:2

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

Revelation 3:9

‘Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie– I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you.

In these two texts, the text used the identical Greek word προσκυνέω (proskyneo), but the translators rendered the former as “worship” and the latter as “bow down.” They do this because they believe Jesus is God so when people bow before him, they are not just paying respect, but they are offering religious worship, whereas when people bow before the saints, they are merely doing obeisance. This subtle inconsistency, invisible to anyone without access to the Greek text, colors Scripture and biases the reader towards believing Jesus is God. Another cunning trick the NASB and many other translations play on the reader is capitalizing pronouns that refer to Jesus or God. So, above, it reads “we…have come to worship Him.” The capital “H” on “Him” combined with the word choice of “worship” strongly implies to modern readers that even the baby Jesus is no mere man. However, the text would more probably read, “we…have come to bow to him.” If this were the case, people would probably call to mind a regal context wherein subjects bow before a new born king.

Philippians 2.5-6 in NIV

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

As with the prior example, the meaning of this text turns on word choice. The phrase in question is “Who, being in very nature God,” which comes from the Greek phrase “ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων,” which comes into English as “who being in (the) form of God.” A massive interpretive chasm lies between saying that Jesus is “in very nature God” and saying he is “in the form of God.” Yet, with the NIV one does not get the opportunity to wrestle with the meaning of this curious phrase, instead he or she is simply told that Jesus is God.

Romans 9.5 in the NLT

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

The translators of the NLT are among the most flagrant offenders when it comes to changing the text to fit the meaning they think it should have. A simple comparison to another translation reveals what tricks they were up to in rendering this verse:

Romans 9.5 in the NAB

theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.

We need not get into their inserting names of patriarchs or completely reworking the sentence structure. Instead I want to focus on the last phrase in which the NLT unambiguously calls Jesus “God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise” whereas the text is far more ambiguous, depending on where and what punctuation one inserts as the NAB makes clear.


2 For much of this discussion I am indebted to Daniel Wallace’s fine treatment of pneumatology in his article “Greek Grammar and the Personality of the Holy Spirit,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13.1 (2003) 97-125, Institute for Biblical Research, 2003.

3 i.e. Matthew 28.19; Mark 9.26; Acts 21.36; Galatians 4.19. See ibid. for a much more extensive list.



6 The NIV Study Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1995), p. xi.


8 The Nestle Aland 27 edition is the standard Greek text translators use for the New Testament (same as the United Bible Societies’ fourth edition).

9 Jason David BeDuhn, Truth in Translation (Lanham: University Press of America, 2013), pp. 163-164.

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