Could The Holy Ghost Be Jewish?

Christian Belief Can Be Traced Back to the Hebrew Bible

Ghost Light: There can be no doubt that the concept of the “spirit of holiness” of the Bible and rabbinic literature was the direct antecedent of the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit.
Getty Images
Ghost Light: There can be no doubt that the concept of the “spirit of holiness” of the Bible and rabbinic literature was the direct antecedent of the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit.

By Philologos

Published May 19, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Robert J. Foley of Wilmington, N.C., sends me a copy of an open letter written by author and rabbi Rami Shapiro to Pope Francis. In it, Rabbi Shapiro hopes that “ruach ha-kodesh, the Holy Spirit, has called a new pope from the new world to lead the Catholic Church,” and Mr. Foley writes:

“Rabbi Shapiro… is alluding to an expression often used by the conclave of cardinals [which chose the new pope], to the effect that the Holy Spirit will guide them in their deliberations. In my cursory look at the meanings and interpretations of the Hebrew words ruach ha-kodesh, I was indeed struck by some of the similarities between them and the concept of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. In forming this concept, to what extent do you think the early Christian writers and Church Fathers might have been influenced by Judaism?”

They were influenced by it a great deal. Although neither biblical nor rabbinic Judaism has anything like the Christian Trinity in its thinking about God, there can be no doubt that the ru’aḥ ha-kodesh (literally, “spirit of holiness”) of the Bible and rabbinic literature was the direct antecedent of the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit — or, as it was more commonly known in the English-speaking Catholic Church until recent times, the Holy Ghost. (“Ghost” is an Old English word for “spirit,” just as “a spirit” is a now archaic way of denoting a ghost. A ghost is nothing but a disembodied spirit, and the expression “to give up the ghost,” which has survived from medieval times, refers to the body’s sundering from the spirit at the time of death.)

In Hebrew, starting with the Bible and continuing to this day, ru’aḥ has the two meanings of “spirit” and “wind.” Historically, wind is clearly the older of the two, spirit being derived from it by analogy: As the wind, that is, is invisible but has the power to move visible things, so the spirit is conceived of as that unseen force in human beings or the world — the breath of life, as it were — that activates all that can be seen.

The linking of wind, breath and spirit is widespread in many languages. Thus we have English ghost and gust, as well as breath and breeze; Greek pneuma — air (think of pneumatic), wind, spirit; Latin spiritus — breath (think of respiration, inspiration, expiration), spirit; Polish duch — spirit, and dech — breath, etc.

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.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.