For the next few weeks, in celebration of Pentecost, I will be presenting a series of word study notes based on Jesus’ statement in John 6:63:
“the utterances [i.e. words] that I speak to you are Spirit and Life“
This involves two key words (and concepts) in the New Testament—pneu=ma (“Spirit”) and zwh/ (“Life”). Because these have such an important place in the Johannine writings, those works (especially the Gospel and First Letter) will be my primary focus. However, I will be examining key passages in the remainder of the New Testament as well.
Before proceeding, it will be helpful to define both of these Greek words.
The fundamental meaning of pneu=ma (pneúma), derived from the verb pne/w (pnéœ), is that of blowing. This is usually understood either (1) of the wind (a natural phenomenon), or (2) of breath (a personal/physiological phenomenon). In ancient thought, of course, these were often combined, especially in the mythological/cosmological sense of wind as the breath of God. For human beings, the life-animating principle, divinely bestowed, was often identified with the breath. Thus pneu=ma came to be used in reference to this inward life-force—the “soul” or “spirit”. When speaking of God (or deity), the source of life given to human beings could likewise be understood as the “breath” or “spirit”—i.e. the life-giving Spirit of God.
The noun zwh/ (zœ¢¡) is somewhat easier to explain, being derived from za/w (záœ), a primary verb meaning “live”. Thus zwh/ fundamentally means “life”—usually in the sense of natural, physical/biological life. Again, since God represents the source of life, zwh/ could also be used to refer to the life possessed by God (or the Gods, in a polytheistic worldview). This divine life can be understood both in a qualitative and quantitative sense—both aspects are combined in the expression “eternal life”. Often, the divine life is contrasted with that of mortal beings, thus hinging on the idea of deathlessness (i.e. “without death”, a)qa/nato$). In ancient thought, the righteous or deserving among humans, either after death or following a final Judgment, could come to possess and share in the blessed life of (the) God(s).
The Synoptic Gospels
I begin this study with a survey of passages from the Synoptic Gospels, which include sayings of Jesus which are central to the early Gospel Tradition—thus reflecting one of the earliest (if not the earliest) layers of Christian thought. To someone who has not analyzed the evidence carefully, it may come as a surprise how rarely both words zwh/ (“life”) and pneu=ma (“Spirit”) occur in the Synoptics, especially if we combine together the parallel passages. Admittedly the word pneu=ma itself is found relatively frequently, but often in the sense of a human “spirit” or of other “spirit”-beings (i.e. daimons, “demons”). Passages where the reference is clearly to the Spirit of God (or “Holy Spirit”) are far fewer. Let us survey these.
Pneu=ma in the core Synoptic Tradition
By this is meant the “Triple”-tradition, shared (generally) by all three Synoptics, and usually best represented by the Gospel of Mark. There are just six occurrences of pneu=ma (as “Spirit”) in Mark:
- Three times in the context of the Baptism of Jesus:
- The saying of John the Baptist:
“I dunked [i.e. baptized] you in water, but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8, par Matt 3:11 & Lk 3:16 [both add “and fire”])
- The Baptism scene:
“…stepping up out of the water he saw the heavens being split, and the Spirit as a dove stepping [i.e. coming] down unto him” (Mk 1:10; par Matt 3:16 [“Spirit of God”] and Lk 3:22 [“Holy Spirit”])
- After the Baptism:
“And straightway [i.e. immediately] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (land)” (Mk 1:12; cp. Matt 4:1; Lk 4:1)
- The saying of John the Baptist:
- The saying regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit”:
“All (thing)s will be released [i.e. forgiven] for the sons of men, the sins and the insults, however they might give insult; but whoever should give insult unto the holy Spirit, he does not have release [i.e. forgiveness] into the Age…” (Mk 3:28-29; cp. Matt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10)
- In Mark 12:36 (par Matt 22:43), Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit as the source of David’s inspiration in the composition of Ps 110:1ff.
- Mark 13:11 (par Matt 10:20; cp. Lk 12:12)—as part of the eschatological teaching given by Jesus to his disciples, he refers to the Holy Spirit:
“…whatever shall be given to you in that hour, this you shall speak—for you are not the (one)s speaking, but (rather) the holy Spirit“
It is only in the last of these (Mk 13:11), part of specific teaching by Jesus to his disciples, that something like the early Christian concept of the Holy Spirit appears to be in view. The sense of the “Holy Spirit” in the famous saying in Mk 3:28-29 is much more difficult to determine.
Pneu=ma in the “Q” material and the Gospel of Matthew
(References marked with an asterisk might be considered part of the so-called “Q” material, shared by Matthew and Luke [but not found in Mark])
- In the Matthean Infancy narrative, the Holy Spirit is mentioned as the source of the supernatural (virginal) conception of Jesus—Matt 1:18, 20 (on the Lukan parallels, cf. below).
- Matt 12:18—part of a citation of Isa 42:1-3, a (Messianic) prophecy applied to Jesus (“I will set my Spirit upon him…”)
- *The saying of Jesus in Matt 12:28: “but if in [i.e. with/by] the Spirit of God I cast out the daimons, then the kingdom of God has (already) arrived upon you”. The parallel saying in Luke 11:20 reads “finger of God” instead of “Spirit of God”.
- *The saying regarding the “sin against the Holy Spirit” in Matt 12:31-32 and Lk 12:10 differs in certain respects from the Markan parallel, and may be derived from the “Q” tradition.
- Matt 28:20—The famous statement by Jesus, part of the closing “Great Commission” refers to the Holy Spirit in something like a Trinitarian sense. Here it seems to reflect (or at least anticipate) early Christian thought and understanding regarding the relationship between the Spirit and Jesus.
Pneu=ma in Luke
The Gospel of Luke contains noticeably more references to the Spirit, representing a key theme and motif that continues on in the book of Acts. This will be discussed in a separate note in this series. Here it is necessary to survey the key Gospel references unique to Luke:
- In the Infancy Narrative, John the Baptist, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and Simeon are said to be “filled with the Spirit”, or that the Spirit is (or will be) upon them, that they are “in the Spirit”, etc.—Lk 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27. This reflects both the traditional idea of Prophetic inspiration, as well as a foreshadowing of the role of the Spirit among Christians (e.g., in the book of Acts). In reference to the conception of Jesus (cf. Matt 1:18, 20), “the Holy Spirit” is parallel (and synonymous) with “the Power of the Highest” (Lk 1:35).
- Luke has expanded the basic Synoptic tradition from Mark 1:12 (par Matt 4:1), describing in more precise terms, the relation between the Spirit and Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (before and after the Temptation scene):
Lk 4:1: “And Yeshua, full of the holy Spirit, turned back from the Yarden, and was led in the Spirit in the desolate (land)”
Lk 4:14: “And Yeshua turned back in the power of the Spirit into the Galîl…”
- As part of this narrative recording the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in Galilee), there is the citation of Isa 61:1 in Lk 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” This a fundamental passage regarding Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (“Anointed One”), both at the historical level, and in the Gospel of Luke.
- This same aspect of Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit is reflected in the introduction to his saying in Lk 10:21:
“In that hour he leapt (for joy) [in] the holy Spirit and said…”
- The Lukan version of the saying in 11:13 (cp. Matt 12:34):
“if you…have known (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will the Father out of Heaven give the holy Spirit to the (one)s asking him?”
- Mention should also be made of Lk 24:49, which, though the word pneu=ma is not used, clearly refers to the Holy Spirit. On “Power” as a kind of synonym for the Spirit, cf. Lk 1:35.
Thus, even without considering the evidence from the book of Acts, it is clear that there has been a degree of development in the Gospel Luke, giving greater emphasis to the (Holy) Spirit, both in relation to believers and to Jesus himself.
Zwh/ (“Life”) in the Synoptic Gospels
It is somewhat surprising that the word zwh/ occurs just 16 times in the Synoptic Gospels (compared with 36 in the Gospel of John). If we exclude the Synoptic parallels as such, the actual number of distinct occurrences is even smaller. Found in the sayings of Jesus, they involve certain idiomatic expressions, generally with an eschatological orientation:
- “come into Life” (ei)selqei=n ei)$ th\n zwh/n)—Mark 9:43, 45 (par Matt 18:8-9); Matt 19:17
- “inherit [lit. receive the lot of] (the) Life of the Age [zwh= ai)w/nio$]”—Mark 10:17, also v. 30 (par Matt 19:16, 29; Lk 18:18, 30); Luke 10:25
- “the way leading away into Life”—Matt 7:14
“come/go away into Life”—Matt 25:46
Only twice (in Luke 12:15 and 16:25) is zwh/ used in the normal sense of an ordinary human life (or life-time). In all the other occurrences cited above, it can more properly be understood as eternal life—that is, the divine life which the righteous will come to possess (or enter) at the end-time (following the Judgment). This is important, as it indicates the background to the term as it came to be used regularly by early Christians. If we accept the fundamental authenticity (and historicity) of the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, we would have to recognize that the early Christian usage has been shaped and influenced in important ways by Jesus’ own teaching.
For more on references to the Holy Spirit in the Synoptic Gospels, consult the notes in the recent series “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition”.