The Gospel reading for this Sunday (John 15) contains a rather unusual word, which is translated in various ways across the range of English translations. The word (in Greek) is parakletos. It appears four times in the Gospel of John (14:16, 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7) and once more in the first epistle of John (1 John 2:1). How should this word be translated?
First, a word about translations. There is a range of possibilities for undertaking a translation of the Bible into modern English, stretching across a spectrum that ranges from formal correspondence translations, all the way to dynamic equivalence translations.
At one end of the spectrum, formal correspondence translations place a high value on sticking closely to the original biblical language. They follow, as closely as is possible, what was written in the original language. Where the original Greek or Hebrew is obscure, it may attempt to assist the reader in some measure; but the sentence structure of the original language is basically adhered to, and there are approximately the same number of words in the translation as in the original.
At the other end of the spectrum of translations, dynamic equivalence translations move the emphasis away from the original language; the overriding concern of the translators is to communicate the meaning of the text in contemporary, idiomatic English expression. There are anumber of such translations that have been published over the years.
When we turn to this single Greek word, used in John and 1 John to describe the Holy Spirit, we find that the Revised Standard Version translates this word Parakletos, as Counsellor. The same term is used in the New International Version.
Both translations aim at formal correspondence as much as possible. The term counsellor infers that the spirit is a guide for Christian faith; one who relates one-to-one with the Christian person, who walks alongside them, encouraging them and offering advice where relevant. This is a fair translation of the Greek word used here.
The New Revised Standard Version has made a significant change from its parent translation, the RSV. In place of the term Counsellor, the NRSV prefers the term Advocate. The Jersualem Bible and the New Living Translation also use this term. It has quite a different nuance in English.
The usual location for the term advocate, in contemporary English, is the courtroom; so we move from the intimacy of the counselling relationship, to the public realm of judicial hearings. By describing the spirit as an advocate, these translations are describing the spirit as a person who represents the Christian person and stands up for their rights, who ensures that the believer is given a full and fair hearing at the day of judgement.
The NRSV translation, Advocate, is equally as valid as the alternative, Counsellor, since the Greek term they both translate actually contains both shades of meaning – it refers to one who walks beside and supports, as well as one who stands on behalf of and represents. Either translation corresponds formally to the original term. But, in opting for one or the other of the nuances of the term, the meaning has actually been specified far more narrowly than in the original language. Such are the limitations of translations.
The Good News Bible, a dynamic equivalence translation, translates the word for the Spirit in John 14-15 as Helper. The New American Standard Bible and the translation made by J.B. Philips also use the term Helper.
This choice of word is obviously related to the sense of Counsellor, but it is very limited in meaning. A counsellor can certainly help; usually they have specific skills and expertise that they bring to bear into a situation. By contrast, the word helper suggests someone who is in a subordinate position, one who pitches in by assisting with the more menial tasks, and perhaps one who is at the beck and call of the one requesting the help.
This kind of nuance might give some insight into the role of the spirit, who does come to the aid of the Christian person and provide assistance. Nevertheless, the English word helper sits somewhat at odds with the broader Christian conception of the Holy Spirit. It is a limited, over-simplistic view of the role of the Holy Spirit.
A fourth option for translating this term is the word Comforter, which appears in the King James Version, the so-called ‘Authorised Version’ of 1611. This also is an accurate translation of the word Parakletos, for it was used in ancient writings to describe the comfort, or consolation, to those who were aggrieved. By opting for this translation, the KJV was also being faithful to the text.
However, there are other considerations to be made here. Because the KJV is so old – it is over four centuries since this translation was made – it can sometimes be less relevant to contemporary understandings. The word “comfort” has shifted in meaning over the centuries, and to us it now conveys an image of the kindly parent, hugging the distressed child, drying their tears, settling them down into bed; a domestic image which may well describe something of the role of the spirit, but which loses so much of the broader scope inherent in the term.
In addition to the formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence translations, a third type of bible version which can be bought today is the Paraphrase. Although some of these versions claim to be translations, there is a significant difference. A paraphrase will happily move very far from the original text of the Bible, in order to convey in precise detail the particular nuance of the passage being translated. Most paraphrases deliberately use a number of words, a phrase, to convey one of the possible meanings of the original word.
A popular contemporary paraphrase is The Message. In this instance, it uses just one word for Paraclete, which it renders as Friend. That is nice and cosy—but not quite grasping the range of meanings in the Greek!
Finally, let me note a fifth option for translating the Greek term for the Holy Spirit in John 14-15. The Jerusalem Bible translates the term parakletos as Advocate; but in revising the JB, the New Jerusalem Bible has decided simply to transliterate the term from Greek into English. It thus uses the non-English term, the Paraclete, at this point. The virtue of this is that all the possible meanings are inherent in the term. We need to explore what it means, using biblical dictionaries or commentaries. Thus, this translation has encouraged us to work out what the word means for ourselves.
The disadvantage of this translation is that, from a simple reading of the text, we have absolutely no idea what a Paraclete is. It is not an English word, and it is as puzzling as reading the original Greek. We cannot simply read this translation; we have to stop, think, explore, and question. Depending upon the situation, this may be appropriate and valuable, or frustrating and unhelpful.
The bottom line, for me, is: use a range of translations … explore the alternatives that are chosen in each of them … and use this range, to ponder the significance of the text that is under investigation!