The Third Person III: The Shekinah

To help track the Jewish origins of the Christian Holy Spirit, there is a rich rabbinical literature to consider, a literature which emerged as the period of Biblical writing came to an end in the centuries just before the advent of Christianity. Already in the pre-Christian era, the rabbis approached the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) with a method called Midrash for developing interpretations, commentaries and homilies. Midrashic practice and writings had a real influence on the New Testament. St. Paul himself studied with the famous rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3) who in turn was the grandson of the great Talmudic scholar Hillel the Elder, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history; his simple and elegant formulation of the Golden Rule is often cited today:

    “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole      Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn”

Hiller the Elder is also famous for his laconic leading question

    “If not now, when?”

For an image of Hillel, click HERE

In the writings of St Paul, this passage from the Epistle to the Galatians (5:22-23) is considered an example of Midrash:

    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

    Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

The virtues on this list are called the Fruits of the Holy Spirit and the early Christians understood this Midrash to be a reference to the Holy Spirit. Much like the way the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the Book of Isaiah provide an answer to Question 177 in the Baltimore Catechism, so these verses of Paul provide the answer to Question 719:

Q. Which are the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost?

A. The twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost are Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Benignity, Goodness, Long-suffering, Mildness, Faith, Modesty, Continency, and Chastity.

The numerically alert will have noted that St Paul only lists nine such virtues. But, it seems that St. Jerome added those three extra fruits to the list when translating Paul’s epistle from Greek into Latin and so the list is longer in the Catholic Bible’s wording of the Epistle!

It is also possible that Jerome was working with a text that already had the interpolations. The number 12 does occur in key places in the scriptures – the 12 sons of Jacob whence the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, …. . Excessive numerological zeal on the part of early Christians plus a certain prudishness could well have led to the insertion of modesty, continence and chastity into the list. In the Protestant tradition and in the Greek Orthodox Church, the number still stands at 9, but that is still numerically pious since there are 9 orders of Angels as well.

For some centuries before the time of Christ, the Jewish population of Biblical Palestine was not Hebrew speaking. Instead, Aramaic, another Semitic language spoken all over the Middle East, had become the native language of the people; Hebrew was preserved, of course, by the Scribes, Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, rabbis and others directly involved with the Hebrew texts and with the oral tradition of Judaism.

The Targums were paraphrases of passages from the Tanakh together with comments or homilies that were recited in synagogues in Aramaic, beginning some time before the Christian era. The leader, the meturgeman, who presented the Targum would paraphrase a text from the Tanakh and add commentary, all in Aramaic to make it more comprehensible and more relevant to those assembled in the synagogue.

Originally, the Targums were strictly oral and writing them down was prohibited. However, Targumatic texts appear well before the time that Paul was sending letters to converts around the Mediterranean. In fact, a Targumatic text from the first century BC, known as the Targum of Job, was discovered at Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

By the time of the Targums, Judaism had gone through centuries of development and change – and it was still evolving. In fact, the orthodoxy of the post-biblical period demanded fresh readings even of the scriptures themselves. Indeed, the text of the Tanakh still raises theological problems – in particular in those places where the text anthropomorphizes God (Yahweh); for example, there is God’s promise to Moses in Exodus 33:14

    And he [The Lord] said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.

In the Targums and in the Talmudic literature, the writers are careful to avoid language which plunks Yahweh down into the physical world. The Targums tackle this problem head on. They introduce a new force in Jewish religious writing, the Shekinah. This Hebrew noun is derived from the Hebrew verb shakan which means “to dwell” and the noun form Shekinah is translated as “The one who dwells” or more insistently as “The one who indwells”; it can refer both to the way God’s spirit can inhabit a believer and to the way God can occupy a physical location.

The verb “indwell” is also often used in English language discussions and writing about the Judaic Shekinah and about the Christian Holy Spirit. This word goes back to Middle English and it was rescued from obsolescence by John Wycliffe, the 14th century reformer who was the first to translate the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. It is popular today in prayers and in Calls to Worship in Protestant churches in the US; e.g.

    “May your Holy Spirit surround and indwell this congregation now and forevermore.”

In the Targums, the term Shekinah is systematically applied as a substitute for names of God to indicate that the reference is not to God himself; rather the reference is shifted to this agency, aspect, emanation, viz. the Shekinah. Put simply, when the original Hebrew text says “God did this”, the Targum will say something like “The Shekinah did this” or “The Lord’s Shekinah did this.”

In his study Targum and Testament, in analyzing the example of Exodus 33:14 above, Martin McNamara translates the Neofiti Targum’s version of the text this way:

    “The glory of my Shekinah will accompany you and will prepare a resting place for you.”

Here is an example given in the Jewish Encyclopedia (click HERE ) involving Noah’s son Japeth. Thus, in Genesis 9:27, we have

    May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.

In the Onkelos Targum, the Hebrew term for God “Elohim” in Genesis is replaced by “the Lord’s Shekinah” and the paraphrase of the meturgeman becomes (roughly)

    “May the Lord’s Shekinah extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

For a 16th century French woodcut that depicts this son of Noah, click HERE .

Another function of the Shekinah is to represent the presence of God in holy places. In Jewish tradition, the Spirit of God occupied a special location in the First Temple. This traces back to Exodus 25:8 where it is written

    And let them make Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.

Again following the Jewish Encyclopedia’s analysis, the Onkelos Targum paraphrases this declaration of Yahweh’s as

    “And they shall make before Me a sanctuary and I shall cause My Shekinah to dwell among them.”

This sanctuary will become the Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem. Indeed, in many instances, the Temple is called the “House of the Shekinah” in the Targums.

Jesus was often addressed as “Rabbi” in the New Tesyament; in John 3:2, the Pharisee Nicodemus says “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God”. Today, the role of Midrash and the Targums on Jesus’ teachings and on the language of the four Gospels is a rich area of research. Given that the historical Jesus was an Aramaic speaker, the Targums clearly would be a natural source for homilies and a natural methodology for Jesus to employ.

Let us recapitulate and try to connect some threads in the Jewish literature that lead up to the Christian Holy Spirit: The Essene view of the Holy Spirit as in-dwelling is very consistent with the Shekinah and with the Christian Holy Spirit. The Essene personification of Wisdom as a precursor to the Holy Spirit is as well. The Targumatic and Talmudic view of the indwelling Shekinah as the manifestation of God in the physical world has much in common with the Christian view of the Holy Spirit; in point of fact, this is the primary role of the Holy Spirit as taught in Sunday Schools and in Parochial Schools.

One more thing: the term “Holy Spirit” itself only appears three times in the Tanakh and there it is used much in the way Shekinah is employed in the rabbinical sources. The term is used often, however, by the Essenes in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then it appears in the Talmudic literature where it is associated with prophecy as in Christianity: in Peter’s 2nd Epistle (1:21) we have

    For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost

Moreover, in Talmudic writings, the terms Holy Spirit and Shekinah eventually became interchangeable – for scholarship, consult Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess.

What is also interesting is that in Hebrew the words Wisdom (chokmâh), Spirit (ruach) and Shekinah are all feminine. However, grammatical gender is not the same as biological gender – a flagrant example is that in German “young girl” is neuter (das Mädchen). So, we could not infer from grammatical gender alone that the Holy Spirit was a female force.

However, in the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom/Sophia is a female figure. Following Patai again, one can add to that an assertion by Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived in the first half of the 1st century: in his work On the Cherubim, Philo flatly states that God is the husband of Wisdom. Moreover, in the Talmud and the Kaballah, the Shekinah has a female identity which is developed to the point that in the late medieval Kaballah, the Shekinah becomes a full-fledged female deity.

So there are two female threads, Wisdom/Sophia and the Shekinah, coming from the pre-Christian Jewish literature that are both strongly identified with the Holy Spirit of nascent Christianity, identifications which persisted as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. Wisdom/Sophia of the Wisdom Literature looks to be an importation from the Greek culture which dominated the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in the Hellenistic Age, an importation beginning at the end of the biblical era in Judaism. The Shekinah, though, only appears in the Talmudic and Targumatic literatures. So the next question is what is the origin of the concept of the Shekinah. And then, are the Shekinah and Wisdom/Sophia interconnected? Mystères. More to come.