The text of Matthew 1:20b in the UBS4 reads:

τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου.

In the ESV, it is rendered:

for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

What is confusing me is the separation between πνεύματός and ἁγίου.

I have checked Wallace, and the Scripture references he provides for Matthew 1:20 deal with ἄγγελος κυρίου and μὴ φοβηθῇς, not this portion of the verse. I'm not quite sure how it makes sense in my mind to translate it, but even seeing the English translation, it still seems very odd to me to have the verb in the middle of "Holy Spirit". Is there a rule out there that I'm missing? I haven't yet had the chance to check other grammars.

The way I read it when first reading in the Greek, I would have translated it something like this:

for that which is conceived in her of the Spirit is holy.

or maybe:

for that which is conceived in her is of the Spirit and is holy.

I agree that those are pretty awkward in the English, but it (currently) looks just as awkward to me to have the noun and adjective split up by the verb.


Word order often confuses more than it clarifies in the minds of English speakers (myself included) trying to sort out Greek syntax. In typical Greek fashion, the inflection of the nominal elements takes priority. In this case, ἁγίου must be an attributive adjective modifying πνεύματός because ἁγίου is in the genitive case,1 so it modifies a noun in the genitive case, of which we have one: πνεύματος.

For your alternative translation:

for that which is conceived in her of the Spirit is holy

"holy" would need to be a predicate nominative adjective.2 Regarding,

for that which is conceived in her is of the Spirit and is holy

here again, "holy" is predicated in a nominative position, outside the prepositional phrase. This would be instead:

τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν καὶ ἅγιον.

Although this construction is unambiguous and well within the bounds of proper Greek,3 it is true that the "default" word order would keep the attribute adjective adjacent to the noun:

.... ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου ἐστιν

The variation we see is clarified (and perhaps occasioned) by this precise phrase ("ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου") mentioned two verses earlier when Mary is found to be with child "ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου". There is really very little doubt that the method of conception is stable between v. 18 and v. 20, a fact that reinforces the syntactical conclusions required by the grammar.

1. Morphologically this could be either masculine or neuter, but both of the available referents (τὸ and πνεῦμα) are neuter.

2. This syntax also entails an odd word order in Greek (S-copula-PN; preferred is S-PN-copula), but since I just recommended discounting word order, this must be relegated to a footnote. I will attempt when I have more time to find a reference for this.

3. Since this has been disputed in comments, I provide a sampling of illustrative examples. Within the Biblical texts, Luke 2:25 is the most obvious example with "Holy Spirit". There are also the ὥρα ἦν... constructions (e.g. John 1:39) which standardly put an atttributive adjective after the verb. Cf. Acts 4:21 (οὐδὲ γὰρ ὄνομά ἐστιν ἕτερον), Acts 18:10 (λαός ἐστίν μοι πολὺς), LXX Ex 3:17 (σημεῖόν ἐστιν αἰώνιον), etc.

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  • Wow. That's an embarrassingly basic oversight on my part. 😔 – mbm29414 Apr 30 '16 at 3:06
  • Nah, I think the priority of word order in organizing syntax is probably indelibly marked on the neurons of all of us who only learned an inflected language as adults. – Susan Apr 30 '16 at 3:10
  • 2
    You are too gracious. As usual, your answers astound and amaze. Thank you! – mbm29414 Apr 30 '16 at 3:11
  • In verse 18, the KJV translators render εκ πνευματος αγιου as "of the Holy Ghost", which is not a problem. However in verse 20 they render εκ πνευματος εστιν αγιου also as "of the Holy Ghost", which to me seems odd. Such a construction is nowhere else found in the Bible (LXX+GNT) – enegue Apr 30 '16 at 5:34
  • FWIW I checked a translation from Koine to modern Greek and they "correct" the word order ...διοτι το εν αυτη γεννηθεν ειναι εκ Πνευματος Αγιου. ccel.org/ccel/bible/gkmod.Matt.1.html However I notice that they still omit the definite article, as also in verse 18, unlike the many other articular nouns in the sentences. Reading "from the Holy Spirit" sounds to me like the last thing Matthew had in mind. – user10231 Apr 30 '16 at 13:02

The Greek text involves a textual variant.

According to Constantin Tischendorf,1 the following manuscripts have the reading «ἐστιν ἁγίου»:

Constantin Tischendorf, Matt. 1:20, ἐστιν ἁγίου

If I am not mistaken, the earliest witness appears to be the Codex Sinaiticus (א) dated to the 4th century A.D. as seen in the following image of the manuscript:

Codex Sinaiticus, Matt. 1:20

However, he notes the following witnesses which have the reading «ἁγίου ἐστιν» or an equivalent (e.g., in Latin, Sancto est):

Constantin Tischendorf, Matt. 1:20, ἁγίου ἐστιν

The list of witnesses include, but are not limited to, the Vulgate (4th c. A.D.) which reads Sancto est, the Latin equivalent of ἁγίου ἐστιν, Irenaeus (below) in Book 4, Ch. 23 of "Against Heresies" (Adversus Hæreses), and Origen (below) in Book 1, Ch. 66 of "Against Celsius" (Contra Celsium),

Irenaeus. Against Heresies, Book 4, Ch. 23. Matt. 1:20

Origen: Origen. Against Celsius, Book I, Ch. 66. Matt. 1:20

Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" is dated to approximately 180 A.D., and Origen's "Against Celsius" is dated to approximately 248 A.D. Thus, both of these earlier witnesses (than the Codex Sinaiticus) attest to the variant «ἁγίου ἐστιν».


Irenaeus. Against Heresies (Adversus Hæreses). Book IV, Ch. XXIII. Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 7. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857. (1048)

Origen. Against Celsius (Contra Celsium). Book I, Ch. LXVI. Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 11. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857. (783-784)

Tischendorf, Constantin. Novum Testamentum Graece. Vol. 1. Lipsiae: Giesecke, 1869.


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The OP was right to suspect something was amiss.

In Matthew 1:18, the author writes εκ πνευματος αγιου, which the KJV translators render as "of the Holy Ghost".

In Matthew 1:20, the author writes πνευματος εστιν αγιου, which the KJV translators also render as "of the Holy Ghost".

This is not sensible. No author intending the same thing, would construct something different within the space of a couple of sentences. So, what does the author mean by what he has written in verse 20?

εστιν αγιου

εστιν αγιου is unique in the Greek scriptures (LXX+GNT). However, there are a number of examples of εστιν + GENITIVE.

Mark 3:29 ενοχος | εστιν | αιωνιου | κρισεως in danger | he is | of eternal | damnation

1 Corinthians 6:20 και | εν | τω | πνευματι | υμων | ατινα and | with | the | spirit | of you | as εστιν | του θεου it is | of God

1 Corinthians 14:3 ου | γαρ | εστιν | ακαταστασιας | ο | θεος not | for | he is | of confusion | the | God αλλ | ειρηνης but | of peace

1 Timothy 5:8 την | πιστιν | ηρνηται | και | εστιν | απιστου | χειρων the | faith | he has rejected | and | he is | (an) heathen | most evil

1 Timothy 5:8 is the most relevant because what follows εστιν is a genitive adjective that has been deployed as a noun.

εστιν + GENITIVE is not common in the GNT, but there is clear evidence for its use to have been deliberate in Matthew 1:20.


So, what can be said about αγιου?

In Isaiah 60:14 the LXX has αγιου ισραηλ for the Hebrew יִשְׂרָאֵֽל ְד֥וֹשׁ, which in the KJV is given as "of the Holy One of Israel"

In Jeremiah 3:16 the LXX has αγιου ισραηλ ("of the Holy One of Israel") for the Hebrew יְהוָ֔ה, which in the KJV is given as "of the LORD".

It is quite obvious that the LXX translators saw αγιου ("the Holy One") as a fitting representation of "Yahweh"

In Jeremiah 3:21 the LXX has επελαθοντο θεου αγιου αυτων, where θεου is given for אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם (Elohim) and αγιου is again given for יְהֹוָ֥ה (Yahweh).

enter image description here

Which for Matthew 1:20 gives:

You should not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife; for the one being conceived in her out of Spirit, is of the Holy One.

For those who still can't see the relationships between the phrases, the following may be helpful:

enter image description here

Whether one uses "s" or "S" for "spirit" is moot, because all "spirit" has its source in God ("the Holy One")

This argument, of course, gives cause to rethink the whole notion of the use of πνευματος αγιου. It is rendered as "the Holy Ghost" or "the Holy Spirit" in all translations with which I'm familiar, and that's fine, as long as one understands that it is representative of "the spirit of the Holy One"

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  • Thank you for your answer. I have 3 questions for you. 1 - Why do you not use breathing marks? 2 - Does the end of your answer circle back around to an English translation that is basically the same thing as v. 18? (I'm not sure what point your last paragraph is intending to make.) 3 - Why to you translate παραλαβεῖν as "to take alongside" rather than what appears to be the "common" gloss of "accept"? – mbm29414 May 2 '16 at 1:47
  • Can you start a chat room for this. I'm still not sure how it's done. – enegue May 2 '16 at 1:54
  • I don't know how it's done, either, until you get enough comments that it auto-suggests chat. Sorry. – mbm29414 May 2 '16 at 1:56
  • LOL I'll see what I can discover. – enegue May 2 '16 at 1:57
  • I made a new chat room for this topic. Click on "chat" at the bottom of the screen and you should be able to see it. – mbm29414 May 2 '16 at 2:02

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