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The Paracletos

In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises the coming of what is called the Paracletos. This is a Greek word that in the KJV is translated the ‘Comforter.’ In many translations it is rendered as ‘Advocate’ or ‘Helper’. These are all legitimate translations of the Greek word. In fact, the KJV translates that same word in 1 John 2:1 as ‘Advocate’. The word paracleto is a compound word from para (from close beside) and kaleo (make a call). In other words, someone who can make the call or the judgment because they are close enough to the situation. So an Advisor, or a Helper, or a Counselor, or an Attorney. This makes perfect sense in the translation of the word in 1 John where it is rendered as ‘Advocate.’ And this is likely why many translations use the same rendering in the Gospel of John instead of ‘Comforter.’ However, it is interesting that the KJV (as well as the ASV, ERV, Darby, WEB, YLT, and many others including translations in other languages) chose ‘Comforter’ in the four times it is used in the Gospel of John. But this rendering goes back to the Wycliff translation (1382-1395). The Latin Vulgate uses the loan-word, Paracletum, which in Latin means Comforter, Advocate, Helper, Counselor, etc.

This is a good example of the complexity of translation that must be kept in mind whenever we are reading the Bible. None of the renderings of Paracletos are wrong. And they each have much to commend them. But there is an additional level of complexity involved in translation that we must also keep in mind: The dynamic nature of language. Not only does the original word have many meanings, and therefore many legitimate translations, but that word and all the words with which it has been translated historically, they have all morphed over time; to one degree or another. So when you and I hear ‘Comforter’ or ‘Advocate’ or ‘Helper’, these words might not mean to us what they meant to the authors and translators. In some cases the words have changed very little, if at all; but in other cases they have changed dramatically. It is very important to acknowledge this fact, otherwise we end up insisting on a translation that is actually only our private interpretation. In other words, it is a ‘translation’ that the translator and the original author knew nothing about. This is not a knock on any historical translation; it is simply the reality of language that is in a constant process of transformation.

Take the word ‘Comforter’ for an example. When Wycliff rendered Paracletos as ‘Comforter’, that word meant something quite different than how it is almost universally understood today. When the modern reader visualizes what the ministry of the Holy Spirit is, on the basis of the word ‘Comforter’, they are seeing a significantly different image than what Wycliff, or Jerome, or the Apostle John had in mind. This is not because of any error in your Bible translation, it is a reality inherent in language that can only be acknowledged or dismissed, but can’t be fixed or changed. Languages change over time, and before long, we are uttering the same sounds but saying different words.

The English word ‘Comforter’ is from the Old French word ‘conforter’ which in turn is from the Latin words ‘con’  and ‘fortis’ which roughly means ‘take strength’ or ‘take courage’. So, today, we think of a ‘Comforter’ as some one who soothes or gives relief to one who is suffering. But originally the word was much more aligned with the Greek and Latin meaning of Paracletos: It meant some one who exhorts you to take courage, to be stronger. So rather than to visualize the job of the Holy Spirit as a sympathetic friend, you should imagine He is much more like a drill sergeant. He isn’t coddling your emotions or soothing you in your distress. He is standing close beside you, calling you out, and spurring you on to be strong in the spirit of God’s might.

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