The word that most Bibles translate as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Holy Spirit,’ or even ‘Holy Ghost,’ is literally just the word for breath, the wind, or any sort of movement of air. We get the English word ‘spirit’ from the Latin word spiritu, which also just means breath.
So the ‘holy spirit’ said to be sent by God or Jesus is really the sending of holy breath. What exactly this ‘breath’ is, is a matter of much debate and argument.
- In the Greek sources, the word is pneuma (πνεῦμα). That’s where we get the English word pneumonia, a breathing disease.
- In the Aramaic sources, the word is ruhah (ܪܘܚܐ).
The problem with translating these terms as spirit or ghost is that these words have gained religious meanings over the centuries that weren’t there originally. This has led people to form doctrines based upon misunderstandings and wrong assumptions. It can also radically change the meanings of certain verses which were not intended by the original authors. Most confusion comes from translating the terms as ghost.
We usually translate the Greek word pneuma and the Aramaic word ruhah as breath, but occasionally occasionally as wind. However, sometimes we do say spirit or spirits, for example, where the Bible is referring to demons, because it may be confusing otherwise.
There are also places where pneuma is speaking of a person’s motivation (the spirit behind why we do something). So these places also appear as spirit.
However, most of the time, you’ll see it translated as Holy Breath, as this really is more accurate.
Breath of life
Another important use of these words is in the phrase, ‘Breath of Life’ that appears in 11 places, and other references to breath that simply mean normal human breathing and being alive.
This pneuma or ruhah is not the same as the soul (which literally means a breathing thing, or a breather), and is never described as being immortal.
For example, note how pneuma is found in the Greek Septuagint at Job 27:3, where Job asked:
‘Does the breath of the Divine One remain in my nose?’
So here pneuma is referring to actual breath here, not to God’s Holy Spirit. He was clearly talking about his own breathing, the breath of life.
It’s interesting how at Genesis 6:3, God said concerning the wicked people on earth before the Downpour:
‘I won’t allow My Breath (Greek: pneuma mou, literally ‘Breath Mine’) to stay with these men through the age, for they are fleshly.’
Most other Bibles use Spirit here. So while the words Breath Mine (pneuma mou) may refer to God’s Holy Breath, it seems more likely to us that He was just referring to the breath of life that He gave to Adam. Otherwise, it’s difficult to believe that the wicked people He destroyed had the Breath or Spirit of God!
So, it appears that God was saying that the breath of life, which originally came from Him, would be removed prematurely – in other words, they’d die!
More controversially, you can see how translating ruhah as breath greatly changes the appearance of John 19:30, where Jesus dies. In the NIV it says:
‘When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’
But our translation says this:
‘Then he hung his head and gave up his breath.’
This translation shows how the words simply mean that Jesus died and stopped breathing.
Yet for many centuries, people have mistakenly thought that the passage is describing Jesus’ ghost, or spirit, leaving his body and returning to God. This causes a Bible contradiction, as elsewhere it states that he didn’t return to God until 40 days later.
Yet once you understand that it simply meant he stopped breathing, that is, he died, then the confusion disappears.