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Indeed, in the first appearance of the word ru’aḥ in the Bible, in the second verse of the book of Genesis, it is difficult to know which meaning to give it. Does veru’aḥ elohim meraḥ efet al-p’nei ha-mayim mean “And the spirit of God hovered over the water” or “And a wind from God hovered over the water”? Perhaps both.
The phrase ru’aḥ ha-kodesh, “the holy spirit,” occurs only three times in the Bible, one of them being Psalms 51:13, where we read, “Cast me not away from your presence and take not thy holy spirit [ru’aḥ kodshekha] from me.”
In rabbinic literature, on the other hand, the phrase is extremely common. In most cases, it is perhaps best translated as “divine inspiration,” in others as “the divine presence.” In several passages, it is associated with the Shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence in the world.
In very early Christianity, the Holy Spirit is much the same as the ru’aḥ ha-kodesh of the rabbis. The first chapter of Acts, for example, written in the first century, tells how after Jesus’ death he appears to his apostles and is asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”
He answers them: “It is not for you to know the times…. But you will receive power when the holy spirit [to agios pneumatos, in the Greek of the New Testament] has come upon you.” The “holy spirit” here is the power to prophesy, granted by inspiration from above.
The rabbinic mind was not a theological one, nor was that of the early Christians; neither attempted, as did the ancient Greeks, to systematize their thought logically or to construct it upon a foundation of defined terms and concepts.
The first figure to do this in either Judaism or Christianity was Philo of Alexandria, an early first-century Jewish philosopher who sought in his Greek works to integrate Judaism with the Hellenistic school of Neoplatonism, which viewed the universe as emanating in stages from the One, the unknowable origin of all things, to the material world. One way in which he did this was by developing the idea of the ru’aḥ ha-kodesh as a distinct spiritual sphere midway between God and man, the realm of “pure knowledge in which every wise man naturally shares.”
Philo turned out to have much more of an influence on Christianity than on Judaism, in which he was a peripheral figure who was soon forgotten. The Christian notion of the Holy Spirit as the third element of a triadic God whose two other constituents are “the Father” and “the Son” — that is, the creator God of the Old Testament and the divine Jesus of the New Testament — derives largely from him, though Philo himself was no more Trinitarian in his approach than were the rabbis. This, in a nutshell, is the answer to Mr. Foley’s question.
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