Modern English translations of the Bible no longer capitalize pronouns that refer to deity since the original text has no capitalization. Should the same practice be observed for capitalization of common nouns that refer to deity?

For example, should Matthew 3:16 be typeset as "he saw the spirit of god descending like a dove" or Matthew 3:17 as "This is my beloved son"? In each case, there are common words like "spirit", "god", and "son" which aren't normally capitalized in English.

There's some precedent in certain early English translations which omit this kind of capitalization.

Of course, proper names like Jesus or John should be capitalized following standard English spelling rules. This question is about common nouns which would not be otherwise be capitalized in English.

  • When you have the article in front of God (ὁ θεὸς) in Greek, that is the equivalent to capitalizing. This can be true with other nouns. Pronouns are a different issue.
    – Perry Webb
    Jul 17, 2018 at 20:57
  • Thanks. How about cases where a definite article is not present?
    – mndrix
    Jul 17, 2018 at 21:18
  • The definite article may be absent because the noun is predicate nominative. Sometimes a article refers to the previous use of the same noun, meaning it points back to the same one/thing.
    – Perry Webb
    Jul 17, 2018 at 22:07
  • @PerryWebb Could you link a reference to 'article ... equivalent to capitalising', please ?
    – Nigel J
    Jul 18, 2018 at 14:46
  • Note we capitalize proper names. "3. With Proper Names. This seems rather odd to us in English, since the proper name itself is supposed to be definite enough. But at bottom the idiom is the same as with other substantives. …" Robertson, A. T. (2006). A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (p. 759). Logos Bible Software.
    – Perry Webb
    Jul 18, 2018 at 20:12

1 Answer 1


This opens a Pandora's box (the spell checker insisted on a capital "P" for Pandora!) Here are some facts using your excellent example of Matt 3:16, 17.

  • The 1526 edition of William Tyndale's translation does NOT capitalise god, spirit nor sonne. [Even in the Greek the definite articles before these words in these verses varies between early manuscripts - check UBS5 and NA28]
  • The 1611 KJV does capitalise all these words
  • The original manuscripts used uncial (ALL CAPITALS) script and so no distinction is made
  • during the second century the widespread use of "nomina sacra" arose (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomina_sacra for more information) However, it is not clear if the autographs used such a practice to distinguish divine names.

The modern use of capitalisation as a mark of respect for a sacred name is widespread but not universal and some instances are far from clear. Most would agree that "the Holy Spirit" should be capitalised because it contains the Greek definite article, but, there are numerous places where the article is missing and most translators will supply one. For example, how should Matt 26:41 be translated? Some have it, "The Spirit is willing …" despite the absence of the definite article which would make the literal rendering, "[a] spirit is willing..."

The same is true of God/god. For example, how should John 1:1 be translated? David Bentley Hart's translation gives "...the Logos was present with God and the Logos was god." He argues that the final use of "theos" is a classic Greek category statement because it lacks the definite article. (See his extensive discussion about his translation approach.)

All this boils down to the beliefs and interpretation of the translators and when they believe a sacred name is in view. The NIV - if you look carefully - regularly translates "Spirit" and footnotes with "or spirit" because it is not clear to the translators.


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