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From holy spirit to Holy Ghost

by Paul Sumner

  During the Middle Ages, Christian translators created a way to make the English Bible reflect their belief that the Holy Ghost was not the Holy Spirit.

These theologians coined the phrase "Holy Ghost" to designate the Third Person of the Trinity. In contrast, they used "Holy Spirit" to refer to the Spirit of God or Spirit of the LORD encountered by the Hebrews and Jews in the Old Testament.

Then, in the 16th century, Bible printers reinforced this distinction by introducing capital and small letters. In the OT they used "spirit" and "holy spirit." In the NT they printed "Spirit" and "Holy Ghost," but with subtle distinctions.

These translation and printing differences do not exist in the Bible itself, in either Hebrew or Greek.

They are invented theological biases imported into the (English) Bible. They provided both verbal and visual validation for the already existing conviction that Christianity must be separated from its Hebraic/Jewish foundations.

At the end of this study I raise questions about the implicatons of these biases. For example, if the Spirit of the Lord in the OT is not the Holy Ghost of the NT, when did the Spirit become the Ghost, another person in the godhead? Or are there two spirits in the godhead?

Most modern translations have discontinued the "Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit" distinction. But they still retain a misleading printing bias implying that the Ghost is not the Spirit.


King James Bible Data

The linguistic distinction between "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit" is most readily evident in the King James (Authorized) Version of 1611.

In the KJV, "Holy Ghost" occurs 90 timesonly in its New Testament portion. [See list: "Holy Ghost" in the KJV.] The phrase "Holy Spirit" occurs four times in the NT. But in the original Greek there is no difference between "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit."

Note that in these KJV texts the Greek words are identical: pneuma = ghost, spirit; hagion = holy.

Matthew 1:18 — "she was found with child of the Holy Ghost [pneuma hagion]"

Matthew 3:11 — "he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost [pneuma hagion] and fire"

Luke 11:13 — "how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit [pneuma hagion]"

Ephesians 1:13 — "ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit [pneuma hagion] of promise"

The KJV translators were so consistent about maintaining the distinction between "Ghost" and "Spirit" that they broke a key verbal link between two adjoining verses:

Acts 16:6 — "they ... were forbidden by the Holy Ghost [hagion pneuma] to preach the word in Asia"

Acts 16:7 — "The Spirit [pneuma] of Jesus suffered [allowed] them not [to go into Bithynia]"

In context, these verses make a key link between the "Holy Ghost" and the "Spirit of Jesus." It tells readers that the resurrected Messiah himself superintends the messianic movement — by his invisible presence, his "Spirit" (pneuma), "the Holy Ghost" (hagion pneuma).

Throughout the KJV, it's evident that "Holy Ghost" is a proper noun for deity, and translators sought to protect the Holy Ghost's independent, co-equal, divine status. He must never be subordinate to or "possessed" by anyone. That is, we never find "the Ghost of Jesus," "the Ghost of God" or "the Ghost of your Father."

Likewise, God and Jesus never give or send "the Ghost," only "the Spirit" (John 3:34; 14:26; 15:26). And the article "the" always prefaces "Holy Ghost."

Luke 4:1 — "And Jesus, being full of the Holy Ghost ... was led by the spirit into the wilderness."

In other words: even though the sense of the Text is plain, the KJV priority is to teach us that "Ghost" is not a synonym of "Spirit."

"The Israelites knew nothing of the Trinity and would not have used 'the Spirit of God' for the third person of the Trinity."
— John Walton, Job (2012) on Job 33:4


The Other Spirit

In the four places where "Holy Spirit" occurs in the KJV New Testament, the context reflects an OT viewpoint (the Spirit is fore-promised, as in Joel) or one in which the Third Person is a dependent agent acted upon (given) by God or possessed by him (Spirit of ...).

Luke 11:13 — "How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?"

Ephesians 1:13 — "Ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise"

Ephesians 4:30 — "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, by whom ye are sealed"

1 Thessalonians 4:8 — "God . . . hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit"

"Holy Spirit" in KJV OT – Ps 51:11; Isa 63:10, 11

"Holy Spirit" in KJV NT – Luke 11:13; Eph 1:13; 4:30; 1 Thess 4:8

The Holy Spirit in Ancient Israel

The phrase "Holy Spirit" occurs only three times in the KJV-OT:

Psalm 51:11 — "Take not thy holy spirit from me"
Isaiah 63:10 — "They rebelled and vexed his holy spirit"
Isaiah 63:11 — "Where is he who put his holy spirit within him?"
In these passages the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) has pneuma hagion, the same phrase used in the Greek NT for "Holy Ghost." The Hebrew behind the phrase is ruach qodesh. Ruach is the noun also used in the phrases "Spirit of God" and "Spirit of the LORD" throughout the OT. There are no separate terms in Hebrew to describe God's Spirit or his Holy Spirit. Ruach is Ruach. [See the portal: Ruach Studies]


In other words, there is no linguistic basis in the Bible for rendering either ruach or pneuma as both "Ghost" and "Spirit." The distinction lies within the minds of the translators.

See the study The Personhood of the Holy Spirit for comments by Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities on their concept of Spirit in the OT and NT.

See also the lists: Ruach in the Hebrew Bible (PDF) and Holy Spirit in the N.T.]

The word "ghost" appears in some modern English NTs. The Greek word behind each is phantasma (Matt 14:26; Mark 6:49) or pneuma (Luke 24:37, 39) [ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV].


BKJV (Before the KJV)

So far, we've focused on the King James Version of 1611. But the Ghost/Spirit difference existed in all major English versions prior to the KJV — dating back over 230 years to John Wycliffe's ground-breaking English version of 1380. Compare two verses in the KJV to five previous English versions. (Spellings are original.) [Note 1]

Matthew 1:18
KJV (1611) — she was found with child of the Holy Ghost
Rheims (1582) — she vvas found to be vvith childe by the Holy Ghost
Geneva (1557) — she was found wyth chylde of the holy goost
Cranmer (1539) — she was founde with chylde by the holy goost
Tyndale (1534) — she was founde with chylde by the holy goost
Wycliffe (1380) — sche was founde hauynge of the holy goost in the wombe

1 Thessalonians 4:8
KJV (1611) — God . . . has also giuen unto us his holy Spirit
Rheims (1582) — God . . . also hath giuen his holy Spirit in vs
Geneva (1557) — God . . . hath geuen you his holy Sprite
Cranmer (1539) — God . . . hath sent his holy sprete amonge you
Tyndale (1534) — God . . . hath sent his holy sprete amonge you
Wycliffe (1380) — god . . . also yaf his holi spirit in us

This shows that the KJV editors weren't innovators, but tradition bearers of a theological bias rooted not in the text of Scripture. This tradition did not start with Jerome's Latin Vulgate (5th century), the dominant Bible translation in the Western Christian church. It does not distinguish between "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit," but reads "SPIRITUS SANCTUS" in all passages.


A Visible Invisible Legacy

The distinction "Holy Spirit" and "Holy Ghost" all but disappeared in Christian English Bible translations after the late 1800s. But "Holy Ghost" still exists in older hymns based on the KJV text, and it's used in at least one modernized KJV edition from 1994. [Note 2]

However, the underlying theological assumption that originally produced the distinction still exists among Roman Catholics and certain Protestants.

Many theologians believe and teach that the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is not the Holy Ghost or Third Person of the Trinity. They hold tight the doctrine that the Third Person came or was revealed at Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2). Before then the third member of the triune Godhead was unknown to the human race. [See comments by Catholic and Protestant authorities in The Personhood of the Holy Spirit.]

One exegetical challenge theologians must face is 1 Peter 1:11, where the text says "the spirit [pneuma] of Christ" was "within" the ancient Hebrew prophets, "indicating" or "forewitnessing" the coming Messiah's sufferings. Was his pre-Pentecost "spirit" Christ himself? If so, what is his post-Pentecost "spirit" mentioned in Acts 16:7, Romans 8:9, Galatians 4:6, and Philippians 1:19? Is that spirit different from the Holy Ghost?

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines Holy Ghost as "the usual designation of the Third Person of the Trinity in liturgical and dogmatic language."


Giving the Third Person Increased Place of Honor

The belief that the Third Person appeared only after Jesus' departure is still reflected in modern Catholic and liberal Protestant translations of the English Bible.

Though the Spirit/Ghost verbal distinction was discarded over a century ago, translators and publishers rely on another, artificial way of distinguishing theological meanings. This involves typography.

In the earliest English translations by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Cranmer, the word "Spirit" (even "God" and "Jesus") was printed in what we now call lower case letters: spirit, god, jesus. This wasn't an act of irreverence. In those times, there was no distinction in type face. People did not distinguish words or interpret biblical texts using the eye.

But in the mid-1500s, doctrine-minded printers introduced a watershed distinction: spirit and Spirit.

Apparently, the first translations to employ the spirit/Spirit distinction were the Protestant Geneva Bible and the Catholic (Counter-Reformation) Rheims edition. Note the evolution:

Matthew 3:11
Wycliffe (1380) — holi goost
Tyndale (1534) — holy gost
Cranmer (1539) — holy goost
Geneva (1557) — holy Gost
Rheims (1582) — Holy Ghost
KJV (1611) — "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost"

Romans 8:9
Wycliffe — the sprit of crist
Tyndale — the sprite of Christ
Cranmer — the spryte of Christ
Geneva — the Sprite of Christ
Rheims — the Spirit of Christ
KJV — the spirit of Christ [modern KJV editions have Spirit of Christ]


The spirit and the Spirit

This typographical distinction is used in all translations today. But not the same way.

In modern Roman Catholic versions (e.g., New Jerusalem Bible, New American Bible) and in liberal Protestant versions (such as Revised English Bible and New Revised Standard Version) we find two forms of the same word: spirit and Spirit, even though both spirits originate with God.

In each version, the form "spirit" (lower case initial letter) occurs in their OT portion, while the upper case form "Spirit" occurs only in their NT. Note that even the adjective "holy" is also distinguished in the New Revised Standard Version:

Psalm 51:11 — "Do not take your holy spirit from me"
Isaiah 63:10 — "They rebelled and grieved his holy spirit"
Isaiah 63:11 — "Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit"

Matthew 1:18 — "She was found to be of child from the Holy Spirit"
Matthew 3:11 — "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit"
Luke 11:13 — "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"


Similarly, the editors of the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible print Isaiah 61:1 as:

The spirit of the LORD God is upon me.
Then, to be consistent, when they come to Yeshua's reading of this very passage and applying it to himself (Luke 4:18), they print his words as:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me.
In their consistency, these Catholic editors suggest that since Isaiah the prophet was a pre-Pentecost-Acts-2 Jew, he didn't know about the Third Person of the Godhead. Therefore, Yeshua's quotation could not have referred to the Third Person. And that suggests Yeshua himself didn't know about the (Holy) Spirit; he only knew God's "spirit."

Again, the Latin Vulgate is not the source of this Roman Catholic distinction. It reads "SPIRITUS SANCTUS" (in caps) in all these verses.

Is the Spirit in the OT
A Person Other Than God?

"The men of the Old Testament knew nothing of the Holy Spirit as a hypostasis existing in His own Person with God. . . . The Old Testament shews no knowledge of a distinct person or hypostasis of the Spirit." Theodore of Mopsuestia, AD 392-428.

"Explicit recognition of the divinity of the Spirit did not take place for some time; the evolution of the Church's theology was a slow process." Alan Richardson, Creeds in the Making (1935), p. 116

Other English translations print "holy Spirit" in the OT and "Holy Spirit" in the NT (a subtle distinction without explanation). James Moffatt put "sacred Spirit" in his OT and "holy Spirit" throughout his NT. But today nearly all conservative Protestant versions print "Holy Spirit" in both OT and NT.

Clearly, editorial opinions exist on what the Bible should "say" — to uninformed readers.


Typography Isn't Inspired

There is no distinction in either Hebrew or ancient Greek between holy spirit, holy Spirit, and Holy Spirit. Biblical texts were written in letters of the same size. It is still true of Hebrew scrolls and printed Hebrew Bibles today.

Scripture was originally written for the ears, not the eyes. (We can't hear a distinction between "spirit" and "Spirit" if spoken.) [Note 3]

Isaiah 63:10 — They rebelled and grieved his HOLY SPIRIT.

Mark 12:36 — David himself said in the HOLY SPIRIT:

Ever since the spirit/Spirit distinction was created in the 1500s, translators and editors have had to decide whether to capitalize SPIRIT or not. (See marginal readings throughout their NTs.) But the original texts did not create (nor solve) the problem.

Typography is an instrument for conveying doctrine.


Questions & Implications

Bible versions reveal beliefs residing in the translators and in their sponsoring traditions. This isn't unique to Christians.

Jewish Bibles in English typically print "holy spirit," "spirit of God," and "spirit of the LORD," all lower case. Orthodox Jews don't believe in the doctrine of the Trinity nor in the separate personality of the Spirit, apart from God. In this, Jews agree with Catholic tradition — that is, about the absence of trinitarian doctrine in the Hebrew Bible/OT.

These verbal and typographical distinctions that Christian theologians developed — Spirit/Ghost, spirit/Spirit — impose on us that we query the validity of the beliefs that created them. If these men misrepresent the original text of Scripture for doctrinal purposes, we have an obligation to examine their doctrines.

  • If God (the Father) is "spirit," as Yeshua said (John 4:24), then what "is" the Holy Ghost/Spirit?
  • Is the Holy Ghost actually someone other than the Holy Spirit of God?
  • Did the Holy Spirit of God at some point in time become the independent manifestation of deity, the Holy Ghost? If so, when, why and how? Who was behind that transformation?
  • But if the Spirit did not evolve into the Ghost, are there then two holy Spirits of God? What about the Spirit of Jesus or of Messiah (Acts 16:7; 1 Peter 1:11)? Is his Spirit someone other than himself? Are there actually three holy Spirits?
  • And if a divine evolution from Spirit to Ghost did not take place, is there indeed a Third Spirit Person distinct from God? [Consider the blunt: Spiritanity.]

Answers will come from an informed study of Scripture, in their original languages.


Disasterous Logical Conclusions

In the end, if these age-old Christian views about the Spirit are valid, we are led to reach at least four conclusions:

  1. The Hebrew Bible is theologically inadequate, because we can't take its statements about the SPIRIT as fully authoritative — for doctrinal purposes.

  2. When King David (Ps 51) pleads with God, "Take not your holy ruach from me," we understand he's not talking about the Third Person, for he didn't have the Holy Ghost. In addition, Christian theology says God can't take the Holy Spirit from someone, once he has bestowed him on a person. David lacked this assurance.

  3. When Isaiah (Isa 63) looks back in time and describes how the Exodus Generation rebelled against God's ruach, and how God even put his ruach into the nation, we know the prophet was speaking of realities quite different than what Christians know today. Isaiah had no conception of the Trinity, nor of course did Moses.

  4. Isaiah, David and all the other Hebrews and Jews only knew the ruach of God as God's creative breath, holy power, mind, nature, and communicating presence. They were given no revelation about what God's ruach/pneuma was to become in his coming in later days.


Apparently Yeshua Didn't Know

Along this same path of Deconstruction, we must be honest about the Gospel record too. Frankly, we realize that Yeshua himself was unaware of the Spirit in much the same way his Hebrew ancestors were.

In the synagogue at Capernaum, Yeshua declared he was anointed with "the spirit of the Lord" (Luke 4:18). He was quoting from Isaiah 61 — a pre-Pentecost Jewish text. Was he anointed with God's "OT spirit" or with the "NT Holy Ghost"?

Yeshua never spoke to the Spirit or prayed to him. He never included him in his anguished cries to God, his father. Nor did he direct his disciples to ask for the Spirit's counsel in their lives. He told them to pray, "Our Father who is in heaven."

One time, when he burst into praise to God, he didn't also praise the Holy Spirit (Matt 11:25). And another time he said, "I am not alone, the Father is with me" (John 16:32). He did not acknowledge the presence of someone else. Does this imply that Yeshua was completely oblivious to the reality of the Third Person?

[Consider the comments by Christian theological historians on The Personhood of the Holy Spirit.]


And Just Who Was Yeshua's Real Father?

What is clearly most devastating to a "Christian" view of Yeshua — if we follow the path of Medieval English "Holy Ghost Theology" — is that he didn't seem to know who his true father was.

According to Matthew and Luke, the Holy Spirit was the literal father of the baby conceived within and born to Miryam.

Matt 1:18, 20 — "... she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. ... that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."

Luke 1:35 — "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, even the Power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God."

But if the Spirit is a distinct person, separate from God the Father, must we not conclude that the Spirit is Yeshua's Father — and that God the Father's title "father" has no real meaning? [Note 4]

From that it follows that Yeshua was erroneously looking to the wrong Person of the Godhead as the one who gave him life and nurtured him — from Bethlehem to the Tree, then to resurrection and enthronement at the Father's right hand.

In light of that, as shocking as it may be, we ultimately cannot take Yeshua's testimonies seriously — if later Christian doctrines about the Third Person are true. In other words: Christianity has more authority than Jesus.

Do we want to go there?

• Paul Sumner



1. Source for early English versions: The English Hexapla, Exhibiting the Six Important English Translations of the New Testament Scriptures (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1841).

John Wycliffe translated from Jerome's Latin Vulgate, not from Greek texts. Even though Wycliffe made a "spirit" and "ghost" distinction in his version, Jerome did not. He uniformly used the word spiritus. Therefore, Wycliffe's choice to use goost in some texts and spirit in others derived from theological traditions within the English church. It would be worth checking the translations of Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537), and the Great Bible (1539) to see if these distinctions also exist in them.

Fragments of pre-14th century Bible translations have no ghost/spirit distinction: Gothic [Ahma=Spirit], Anglo-Saxon [Gast=Spirit], Old English [Gast=Spirit], Middle English [Gost/Goost=Spirit]. The English word "Spirit" derives from the Latin spiritus. [Joseph Bosworth, The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels (London: n.p., 1865); Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1933), Vol. 1, pp. 790-91.] [Return to footnote marker]

2. The 21st Century King James Version (1994) retains "Holy Ghost" in the same verses its progenitor did, and it has "holy Spirit" where the KJV-NT had "holy spirit" (Luke 11:13; Eph 1:13; 4:30; 1 Thess 4:8). Its editor says his "is not a new translation." But in modernizing the old KJV "to eliminate obsolete words," he did not perceive the need to remove obsolete theological terms and their inherent bias. [Return to footnote marker]

3. The most forthright editorial comments about the issue of capitalization of spirit/Spirit perhaps come from The Englishman's Greek New Testament published by Bagster & Sons of London in 1877:

"The only remark needed here is in reference to the names of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. The greatest difficult is touching the word 'spirit.' In some places it is very difficult to say whether the Holy Spirit as a person or the spirit of the Christian is referred to (see Rom. viii.9). . . . In the English we have been obliged to a put a capital S when the Holy Spirit was referred to and so have retained it wherever we thought this was the case; but in some places it is really doubtful, and becomes a question for the spiritual judgment of the reader. The Greek will not help in the difficulty, because in the earliest copies every letter was a capital." [pages ix–x] [Return to footnote marker]

4. Repeatedly, the NT distinguishes between "God" and his or the "Spirit" (Acts 2:32-33; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:3-6; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Peter 1:2). To bridge a perceived theological gap, theologians coined the phrase "God the Spirit" in order to give balance to the phrase biblical "God the Father." They also created the phrase "God the Son." They could thus precisely delineate the three members of the Godhead with their appropriate titles: God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit. They did not import these two new phrases into the Bible itself. They are only used in their teaching. [Return to footnote marker]


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