The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition: Introduction

In honor of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the (Holy) Spirit upon the first believers (cf. Acts 2:1-13ff), I will be presenting a series of Daily Notes examining all the references to the Spirit in the Gospel Tradition—i.e., the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, as well as a survey of passages in the book of Acts. This series will continue through the month of May (2020) until the day of Pentecost (May 31).

With regard to the earliest layers of the Gospels and Christian tradition, it is sometimes difficult to be sure precisely what is meant when the word pneu=ma (pneúma) is used. This is due in large measure to the basic range of meaning in the word itself. The root verb pne/w fundamentally signifies “to blow”, as of the wind in nature, or the breath of a living being, these being generally related—according to the ancient (mythological) worldview, the wind could be understood or described as the “breath” of a deity. The noun pneu=ma, like the related pnoh/, refers to something blowing (or “breathing”); specifically this can mean: (a) wind or breeze, (b) breath of a living being (esp. a human being), (c) the life force/essence which animates a living being (i.e. soul/spirit), or (d) a personal/personified life-essence (“breath”), i.e. an invisible deity or “spirit-being” which animates the natural world. The Hebrew word j^Wr (rûaµ) has a similar range of meaning.

Frequently in the Old Testament, j^Wr refers to the “breath/wind/spirit” of God (YHWH)—Gen 1:2; 6:3; 41:38; Ex 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:2; Judg 3:10; 6:34, et al. Primarily this signifies the presence and power of YHWH in relation to his people, especially to the prophets and rulers of Israel. There is no real indication in Old Testament tradition that the “Spirit” of YHWH is a distinct person; however, according to the ancient mindset, the attributes (power, wisdom, holiness, etc) and/or manifestation of a deity were often personified. The “Messenger” of YHWH is perhaps the most common and notable example of this religious phenomenon in the Old Testament—often it is hard to know for certain whether the tradition understands this as separate being (“Angel”) or the manifestation of YHWH himself. Early Christians, including the Gospel writers, inherited this idea of the Spirit of God. Naturally, holiness was a fundamental attribute and characteristic of God’s Spirit, though the term “Holy Spirit” (lit. “Spirit of Holiness”) itself is quite rare (Psalm 51:11; Isa 63:10-11; cf. also Dan 4:8-9, 18; 5:11), becoming more common in later Jewish writings. It is quite in keeping with the phenomena of ancient Near Eastern religion that the Holiness of God would come to be personified or understood as a person.

In the New Testament, the word pneu=ma (as “breath, spirit”) is primarily used three ways:

    1. The animating life-breath or ‘soul’ of a human being, i.e. “spirit” (with a lower-case “s”)
    2. The Spirit of God (YHWH), according to Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish tradition
    3. A distinctive Christian understanding of God’s Spirit, in relation to the person of Jesus Christ and God the Father (YHWH)

For the most part, as we shall see, it is the second meaning that is most common in the Gospel tradition. Occasionally there is some uncertainty whether the first or second meaning is intended. Only in a few places do we find clear evidence for the third (Christian) meaning. By the time of the later New Testament writings (c. 70-95 A.D.), use of pneu=ma, with or without the qualifying adjective a%gio$ (“holy”), almost always indicates the Holy Spirit in the uniquely Christian sense.

In these Daily Notes, I will be adopting the following approach, looking at references to the Spirit in:

  • Passages or sayings of Jesus common to the Synoptic tradition (generally using the Gospel of Mark as a reference-point)
  • The Gospel of Luke (along with parallels in the Gospel of Matthew)
  • The Gospel of John
  • A survey of passages in the book of Acts, along with several key references from early Christian tradition elsewhere in the New Testament

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