This past Sunday morning, I preached on John 1:29-34. As I was working on the text, I noticed a potential problem with the ESV translation of verse 32:
And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
Do you see the problem? If not, compare the ESV with the NIV and NKJV on the same verse:
NIV: Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”
NKJV: And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.”
If you haven’t caught on yet, the problem is with the “it” in the ESV. The other translations avoid this issue, either through by-passing the use of the pronoun or using the third-person masculine pronoun. This is what I said about this verse in my sermon:
I need to say one more thing about verse 32. Look at it with me. Our Bible translation says that “it remained on him.” That could give the impression that the Holy Spirit is an “it.” I want to be charitable. I think the ESV translators meant to say that the image of the dove remained on Jesus. “It” then refers to the image, not the Holy Spirit himself. After all, elsewhere the ESV is careful to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he.” To be fair, even the old King James Version used “it” here. The NKJV has “he,” and that is better at removing the danger that we might think and speak wrongly about the Holy Spirit. What we need to remember is that the Holy Spirit is not an “it.” We dishonour the third person of the Trinity when we refer to him as “it.” We always need to speak of he, him, his, when we’re speaking of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or power – that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. No, he is a person, which means that he is a someone. Scripture teaches that he is a someone whom you can grieve (Eph. 4:32), he is someone to whom you can lie (Acts 5:3) and so on. Brothers and sisters, I urge you to be careful in your speaking about the Holy Spirit. Be careful, don’t ever say “it.” Why? Because this is a matter of honouring God.
So, in John 1:32, while I still wish it would be clearer, I’m willing to cut the ESV translators some slack. I’m less inclined to do that for another problematic text referring to the Holy Spirit, Numbers 11:25.
ESV: Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.
NKJV: Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders;
NIV (1984): Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders.
This is a more challenging case, because there is no image or symbol of the Holy Spirit involved. There is apparently no excuse for the ESV’s approach in Numbers 11:25. However, there may be an explanation. I suspect it has to do with the pedigree of the ESV in the RSV and KJV. Compare:
KJV: And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders:
RSV: Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders;
Notice how both the KJV and RSV translate/interpret the Hebrew word ruach as “spirit” with a lower-case ‘s.’ The Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have capital letters like English does, so it can be difficult sometimes to gauge whether a word like ruach is referring to the spirit of a man or to the Holy Spirit. The KJV and RSV chose for the former and then used the appropriate pronoun for their choice, “it.” The problem with the ESV is that it capitalizes “Spirit,” normally meaning a reference to the Holy Spirit, and then — inconsistent with that choice — uses “it.” That seems to be a carry-over from the earlier translations, a mistake that was somehow overlooked.
One of the good things about the ESV is that it is still being periodically revised and updated. There is a possibility that future editions of the ESV will include better translations of John 1:32 and Numbers 11:25. I find it hard to believe that the ESV translators deliberately set out to speak of the Holy Spirit as “it.” Rather, I reckon this betrays a problem common amongst so many Christians: we don’t take the Holy Spirit seriously enough as a person of the Trinity. He often has a background role and, as a result, our thinking and speaking about him can often be less than precise. Bible translators are no less afflicted with this than the rest of us. However common it may be, it should not be acceptable. We should aim for giving full honour to the Spirit and his personhood in our speaking — and we should also insist that a faithful Bible translation do the same.