Holy Ghost: Spook or Spirit?

Halloween is just around the corner. Soon we will be hearing about ghosts and goblins, and "Trick or Treat!" However, there is one notion that some find troubling. Why is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Godhead, sometimes referred to as "the Holy Ghost" in older English translations of the Holy Bible? The term "ghost" normally describes something that is spooky or scary. Is the Holy Spirit something that is supposed to scare us?

The Term "Holy Ghost" in the KJV

In the King James Version (hereafter "KJV"), the phrase "Holy Ghost" occurs ninety (90) times. This phrase only occurs in the New Testament; it never occurs in the Old Testament. Also, in the KJV the word "ghost" is never used of the Holy Spirit apart from the adjective "holy." The phrase "Holy Spirit" occurs three times in the Old Testament (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10, 11) and four times in the New (Luke 11:13; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:8).

Why Was the Term "Holy Ghost" Used?

In his Lectures on the Holy Spirit (Plainview, Tex.: Nichols Bros. Publishing Co., 1967), p. 53, Gus Nichols explained the use of the term "Holy Ghost" in this way:

At the time, however, the King James translation was made, the word Ghost carried with it the idea, largely, of guest; a visitor; one who had come to make his abode with us, and thus guest. At that time, when they would read about the Holy Ghost, it just meant a being who had come to live with man, dwell in man. So they didn't get the wrong idea back there in 1611 when the King James Version was made. A Holy Guest. But finally the word ghost came to connote in our changing, growing, language something it didn't mean then. It came to mean a sort of goblin or something like that something that is mysterious in the sense that they didn't know what it was didn't know anything about it at all. Hence, false doctrines began to develop.

According to Bro. Nichols, since the Old English word "ghost" is related to the English word "guest," the KJV translators intended the phrase "Holy Ghost" to convey the idea that the Holy Spirit dwells within the Christian as a "Holy Guest." Even today, one still hears this explanation from many brethren. In fact, one can trace it back to a lesson that Alexander Campbell delivered in Nashville in 1841, which he published as "Address on Demonology" in the Millennial Harbinger, new series, vol. 5 (October 1841), p. 383 (it was later reprinted in Campbell's Popular Lectures and Addresses, published in 1861, p. 384).

Ghost - Guest

These brethren are surely right about "Holy Ghost" no longer being a good translation. Today the term "ghost" conveys the notion of a "spook" or a "goblin," while the Holy Spirit is a divine person. But they are mistaken in their explanation as to why the term "ghost" was ever used in the first place for the Holy Spirit. Contrary to their assertion, our English words "ghost" and "guest" do not come from the same Germanic root. Such an etymological relationship is linguistically impossible, for the words "ghost" and "guest" actually come from two different roots in Old English. As the chart below illustrates, our modern English word "ghost" comes from Old/Middle English gast, while "guest" comes from Old English giest, which in Middle English became gest.

ghost - guest

Old English (450-1066) gast giest

Middle English (1066-1470) gost/gast gest

Early Modern English (1470-1650) gost guest

Modern English (1650-today) ghost guest

Compare with Modern German Geist Gast

The phrase "Holy Ghost" occurs in all English translations prior to the KJV:

Wycliffe (AD 1384) Tyndale (AD 1526) Great Bible (AD 1539) Geneva Bible (AD 1560) Bishops' Bible (AD 1568) Rheims-Douay Bible (AD 1582)

But Why Do Both Terms "Ghost" and "Spirit" Appear in the Same Bible Translation?

All older English translations of the Holy Bible use both words, "Ghost" and "Spirit," in reference to the Third Person of the Godhead. In the KJV, the word "Spirit" (including lowercase "spirit" and plural "spirits") occurs 540 times. The word "Ghost" (including lowercase "ghost"; the plural never occurs) occurs 109 times. But why is there this variation between "Holy Spirit" and "Holy Ghost"?

The explanation for this variation lies in the history behind the British people. The British people today are a mixture of two different groups, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. The Anglo-Saxons (German by ancestry) used the Germanic word "ghost." After the Norman Conquest in A.D. 1066, the Normans (French by ancestry) preferred their own word "spirit," which was the French (and Latin) equivalent for "ghost." Since church liturgy was already established by the Anglo-Saxons, the Germanic term "ghost" tended to stick in the phrase "Holy Ghost." But elsewhere it was quickly being replaced by the Norman (French) word "spirit."

Thus, in the KJV, one finds "Holy Ghost" ninety (90) times, but then also "The Spirit of God" (Genesis 1:2; Exodus 35:31; Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:10; 11:6; etc.), "The Spirit of the Lord" (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 1 Samuel 10:6 [cf. vs. 10]; etc.), "The Spirit of Truth" (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6), and other similar combinations.


Modern translations no longer use the term "Holy Ghost." It has been uniformly replaced by the term "Holy Spirit." This was one of the major differences between the British Revised Version of 1881 and its counterpart, the American Standard Version of 1901. The American Standard Version was the first major committee translation to use consistently "Holy Spirit." Yet seventy-five years before that, Campbell"s Living Oracles, first published in 1826, had already made this substitution.

God's Spirit is not something that is supposed to scare us. He is not a "ghost." He is simply the Third Person of the Godhead (see my article on "The Godhead" for a further explanation of God"s nature as a "Spirit"). The very essence of God is "love" (1 John 4:8, 16), and real love has nothing to do with fear (1 John 4:18).

-David Warren

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