Historical Cultural Context
If Jesus is not yet returning, who will help believers now?
Scholars conclude that the concept of the “paraclete” is an answer to this question. In the absence of living eyewitnesses to Jesus and with the increased delay of Jesus’ return, the “paraclete” will guide and help believers.
Modern sophisticated Christians know that the “Paraclete” is the “Holy Spirit.” Our earliest ancestors in the Faith, the first-century Christians of John the evangelist’s community, were less precise in their understanding. Jesus is the paraclete in 1 John 2:1, and the Holy Spirit is the paraclete in John 16:7.
These passages suggest that the word is best understood as describing a function rather than serving as a name or title in the Johannine writings.
What is this function? The variety of translations found in modern Bibles indicates how difficult that question is to answer.
The English word “paraclete” simply transliterates the Greek word that basically means “advocate.” This word has legal connotation.
Literally it means “one who stands by the side of a defendant.”
The 1956 Jerusalem Bible translates paraclete as “advocate,” but the 1985 Jerusalem Bible uses “paraclete!” The 1970 New American Bible translation used “paraclete” but the 1986 revision replaced it with “advocate!” Other translations prefer the word “counselor” (New International Version) or “comforter” (King James Version).
What does the evangelist himself indicate the meaning might be? The “paraclete” performs at least three functions or activities.
(1) It is the continued presence of Jesus on earth after Jesus’ departure to heaven (Jn 14:12, 16).
(2) It is a truth-telling spirit (Jn 14:17; 16:13) that testifies on behalf of Jesus and in defense of him. It affirms that Jesus was not a shameful failure but rather the beloved of God, a faithful and dutiful Son.
(3) It reminds them of things that Jesus said (Jn 14:26) and reveals things Jesus was unable to convey (Jn 16:12-14).
The “paraclete” therefore, represents divine presence and guidance for the early Messianists.
It is very likely that modem Western believers experience difficulty appreciating the exasperation our ancestors in the Faith would experience without a “paraclete” as just described. After all, we vigorously defend our individual “right to know.” The ancient world was shot through with secrecy and deception. If anything, they believed that no one had a right to know.
In addition, we are confident even as individuals that we can get to the bottom of things. We have legal recourse by means of the “freedom of information act.” In the ancient world, if you didn’t have an “inside source,” or a “paraclete,” you were certainly “not in the know.”
Jesus’ guarantee that the Father will give his followers a paraclete gives them enormous peace, and “not as the world gives peace” (Jn 14:27). Even we can now see why.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University