Word Study: Parakletos

I've always been a champion of reading and studying from multiple translations of the Bible.  But as I'm learning Koine Greek and studying the New Testament in the original language, I've come to believe this even more.  Because words in one language tend not to translate perfectly into another, looking at how multiple translation teams handled specific words helps us see the complexity of the word.  (And if you don't know the original languages, there are a number of resources--in print, on-line, and computer software) to make this much easier.

Recent research and study on John's understanding of the Holy Spirit led me to a word study of Parakletos.  I ran across its use a few times and felt it was worth deeper study.  (I've excluded  the technical study of the word's construction.)  

Parakletos appears only five times in the New Testament—four times in the Gospel of John and once in First John (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 John 2:1). Incidentally, it makes no appearance in the LXX, the first translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) into Koine Greek. Köstenberger states, “The translation of this term has proved particularly difficult, since there does not seem to be an exact equivalent in the English language” (1999, 157). Most English Bible translations seem to handle the word differently. For example, the English Standard Version (ESV) uses the word “Helper” in all of the Gospel accounts and uses and “Advocate” in John’s epistle. The American Standard Version (ASV) uses “Comforter” in the Gospel uses, and “ Advocate” in the letter. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) uses “Counselor” in the Gospel, and once again, “Advocate” is used in First John; and the same is true for the King James Version (KJV). The New International Version (NIV) also selected “Counselor” in the Gospel and simply says “one” in the Epistle. “Helper” is the choice for the New American Standard Bible (NASB) except in the Letter, where “ Advocate” is the selected word. The New English Translation (NET) uses “Advocate” for every occurrence, as does the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New Living Translation (NLT). But which English translation should be considered best?

Turning to dictionaries and lexicons a variety of meanings are presented. Perschbacher defines parakletos as, “one called or sent for to assist another; an advocate, one who pleads the cause of another, [. . .] one present to render various beneficial service, and thus, the Paraclete, whose influence and operation were to compensate for the departure of Christ himself” (1990, 308.) Strong defines the word as, “counselor, intercessor, helper, one who encourages and comforts; in the NT it refers exclusively to the Holy Spirit and to Jesus Christ” (2001, 3884).

Köstenberger feels that the best translation is “helping Presence” because it “captures the importance of the term better than any others” (1999, 157). His reasons are three fold: because this translation best mirrors Jesus’ earthly ministry, it best outlines the Spirit’s functions as outlined in John 14-16, and it seems to avoid the legal concepts other words get marred down in. (1999, 157). The challenge in simply accepting Köstenberger’s translation however is that it brings in theology with the translation—something that might stretch beyond the necessary theological under-girding that is inherent with most biblical translations.

When read in context, the use of “Advocate” in 1 John 2:1 seem to make good sense. But it may not be the correct idea in the Gospel of John. But for what reason should the same work be translated differently in two different works? Likely because it has no perfect match in the English. That being said, I wonder if two English words might do a better job at capturing the meaning? Maybe Helping Comforter or Comforting Helper? Helping Counselor?

Regardless of the best translation, I can say this with certainty: if I bring my theological ideas into the translation, I am not as comfortable with Köstenberger’s “helping presence.” If we are to believe that the Holy Spirit is a person (as Jesus is), and is engaged in a function (also as Jesus is), then only using the idea of “Presence” seems to introduce ideas that may be worse than only using the the idea of an Advocate.  Indeed, the Holy Spirit has come to be present with us; but "Presence" opens the door for ideas such as a force or energy, which is an incorrect way to view the Holy Spirit. 

Köstenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002.
Perschbacher, Wesley J. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990.
Strong, James, John R. Kohlenberger, James A. Swanson, and James Strong. The Strongest Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001.