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!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • 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.