Paraclete – three meanings of the Greek word hidden in the Old Testament
Photo credit_KUL Heschel Center
Paraclete – a word that has not been translated. It appears in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible even before the time of Jesus and in Aramaic translations of the text from the first century. So when the first Jewish disciples of Christ heard the word Paraclete, it was not unfamiliar to them, but made all the biblical associations resound in them immediately like a symphony – about how to understand this Greek word in the perspective of the Old Testament and why it remained in the original in translations into various languages writes Dr. Faydra Shapiro, executive director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, in a commentary for the Heschel Center KUL.
Although the original written text of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, however, the word parakletos already appears in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible text from before the time of Jesus, as well as in the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text from the first century.
“It’s interesting to note that the Greek word paraclete doesn’t disappear in Judaism”. – writes Dr Shapiro, “We find it in later rabbinic literature in some fascinating ways. And even today, in modern Hebrew, we still use this Greek word in Israel today to refer to legal defense.”
We publish the text of the Jewish commentary on the Gospel of the 6th Sunday of Easter:
In the Gospel reading for this Sunday we are confronted by a rather strange situation. We read and hear the Gospel in translation into whatever language: French, Polish, English, but there’s this one word that often doesn’t get translated and instead is kept in Greek: Paraclete.
And while I don’t actually know why the word is so often left in Greek while everything else is translated, I’d like to think that it’s because the word is just so rich, so multi-faceted, that to give it one translation is to thin it out and miss out on other elements.
If we only look at the New Testament, we won’t get very far. The word “paraclete” παράκλητοv occurs only a handful of times, all of them in the Gospel of John. This is the first one, where Jesus promises that God will give his people another παράκλητοv.
However, the Hebrew Bible and its translations can help us to get at some of the pieces that make up the richness of this role.
Looking at the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, of course the word does not exist, because, well, it’s written in Hebrew. *However* in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text from well before Jesus’ time, the word does indeed appear. And we also see it in the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text from the first century. So the followers of Jesus, would not have been like “Para-whaaat?” but would have already been familiar with the term and its connotations.
So what can the Old Testament tell us about this paraclete job?
The first connotation is one of comfort. The best example is from Isaiah 40:1 – where the text says “Nachamu, nachamu ami” in Hebrew (“comfort, comfort my people”) is translated into Greek long before the gospels as “Παρακαλεῖτε παρακαλεῖτε”. We also see this, for example, in Job chapter 16:1, where Job expresses his disappointment in his friends for being such poor comforters.
A second connotation can be found also in Job, chapter 16:20 and again in 33:23, where the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text “Melitz” is פְּרַקְלִיטָא. Here the sense is not comfort but rather a kind of spokesperson who speaks in favor of the accused and advocates on his behalf “declaring him upright” before God.
Finally, we find a third connotation by association. The Hebrew word “melitz” (that gets translated as פְּרַקְלִיטָא in Job, in Genesis is used for the intermediary or interpreter between Joseph and his brothers.
So when the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus heard the word “Paraclete” they would not have thought “it’s all Greek to me” but rather immediately would have heard all of these biblical associations together in a kind of symphony: of profound comfort during a time of perceived abandonment, of an intermediary who stands between you and another helping to increase understanding, of someone standing alongside and advocating on your behalf.
And just as a kind of postscript, it’s interesting to note that the Greek word paraclete doesn’t disappear in Judaism. We find it in later rabbinic literature in some fascinating ways. And even today, in modern Hebrew, we still use this Greek word in Israel today to refer to legal defense.
About the author
Dr. Faydra Shapiro is a specialist in contemporary Jewish-Christian relations and is the Director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. She received the National Jewish Book Award for her firs publication (2006). Her most recent book, together with Gavin d’Costa is Contemporary Catholic Approaches to the People, Land and State of Israel. Dr. Shapiro is also a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project and a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religions at Tel Hai College in Israel.