From the outset in the New Testament, the Epistles and Gospels talk of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” God the Father came from Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible; the Son was Jesus of Nazareth, an historical figure. For the Holy Spirit, things are more complicated. For sources, there are the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes with the indwelling universal presence of the Holy Spirit; there is the Aramaic language literature the Targums with the Lord’s Shekinah who stands in for Him in dealing with the material world and who enables prophecy by humans; there is the Wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon where Sophia provides a feminine divine presence.
As the Shekinah becomes an independent deity in the Kabbalah, so in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is a full-fledged divine actor. Like the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit’s announced role is to represent the Godhead in the material world, to guide the lives of the believers and to inspire their prophesying.
The New Testament is written in Greek, not Aramaic and not Hebrew. In the first century, the leadership of the nascent Christian community quickly passes from the apostles and deacons in the Holy Land to the Hellenized Jewish converts of the Diaspora and the Greek speaking gentiles of the Roman Empire. Traditional Jewish practices such as male circumcision are dropped, observing the Law of Moses is no longer obligatory and the Sabbath is moved to Sunday, the day of rest of the Gentiles.
But now God has become three –the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Monotheism is definitely in peril here. Add to that the Virgin Mary together with the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption and you have four divinities to deal with.
Indeed, the early Christians assigned to Mary functions once assumed in the world of Biblical Palestine by Asherah, the Queen of Heaven, and then by the Shekinah of Jewish lore. Christianity would thus not suffer from the unnatural absence of a feminine principle as did the Judaism of the Pharisees of the Temple. However, despite accusations of Mariolatry, Christianity has never deified the Mother of God, only canonized her. Even so, that still leaves us with three divinities where once there was one.
When it comes to the messianic role of Jesus, the New Testament writers do strive to calibrate their narratives with the prophecies and pronouncements of the Hebrew Bible. The situation is different when it comes to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire when they are assembled in Jerusalem for the Shavuot holiday (aka The Feast of Weeks). This holiday takes place on the fiftieth day after Passover; it both celebrates the spring harvest and the day that God gave The Torah to Moses and the nation of Israel. This is a link to the Essenes’ doctrine where this feast was a special time of connection between the believer and the indwelling Holy Spirit. But that link is not made clear in Acts and even the origin of that Jewish feast is obscured by that fact that the New Testament gives it the Greek name of Pentecost, simply meaning “fifty.”
In general, in the New Testament, there is no explicit association of the Holy Spirit with the Shekinah or with Wisdom/Sophia. Moreover, the way the early Christians handled this complex situation involving the Holy Spirit would not be to go back to the practices of folk or formal Judaism, or to the Essene scrolls or to the Hebrew scriptures to sort it out; rabbinical sources such as the Talmud would not be consulted; Aramaic language sources such as the Targums would not be mined. Rather in dealing with the Holy Spirit and with the charge of polytheism, the Gentile Christians would follow the lead of Greek philosophy and formulate their theology in a way so as to make Christianity intellectually reputable in Greek cultural terms.
With such an important role in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit becomes theologically significant in Christianity – but, in terms of the beliefs and practices of the faithful, the Holy Spirit becomes something of a silent partner. The feminine role of the Shekinah and that of Wisdom/Sophia are taken over by Mary, the Mother of Jesus; the earliest Christian writers place the Holy Spirit in the Godhead with God the Father and God the Son and they do so as Wisdom/Sophia; but later Wisdom becomes identified with the Son of God. In the end, for the faithful, the role of the Holy Spirit as indwelling individual guide would be usurped by patron saints and guardian angels; for the Holy Spirit, the only substantial role left is to round out the Holy Trinity.
As the war with Cleopatra and Mark Anthony comes to an end, Augustus becomes the Roman Emperor and a (relative) peace that would last four hundred years, the Pax Romana, leads to accelerated commercial and cultural exchange throughout the Mediterranean world. Indeed, the cultural world of the Roman Empire is in full ebullition. As the Pax Romana has facilitated the spread of Christian ideas throughout the empire, so too it has provided a platform for competing philosophies, theologies and mystical practices of many sorts. So encounters with developments in Greek and Roman philosophy, with the flow of new ideas from Messianic Judaism and alternative Jewish/Christian groups, with eastern religions, with mystery religions and on and on would lead to difficult theological arguments and would drive centrifugal forces within the Christian movement itself leading to almost countless heresies to be denounced.
Given the different theological roles of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their theology, the early Christians were naturally accused of polytheism. To counter this, the most simple position was called Sabellianism or monarchianism or modalism – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are just manners of speaking, façons de parler, to describe God as He takes on different roles. However, this view came to be condemned multiple times as a heresy by Church authorities basically because it implies that God the Father had to somehow endure the pain of the crucifixion..
So alternative solutions were proposed. The adoptionist position was that God the Son was a human elevated to the rank of Son of God, the Holy Spirit also being a creation of God the Father. In the form of Arianism where God the Son is not co-eternal with God the Father but was begotten by the Father at some point in time, this kind of position stayed current in Christianity for centuries. The position that eventually emerged victorious was trinitarianism: “three co-equal persons in one God.” This last phrase seems straightforward enough today, but a proper parsing requires some explanation. For one thing, this formulation does not come from the Hebrew scriptures, the Targums or rabbinical sources. To be fair, there is one place in the Hebrew Bible where God does appear as a threesome: in Genesis 18, the Lord visits Abraham to announce that his wife Sarah shall bear a child. The first two verses are
The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
This was taken as a pointer to the Trinity by some early Christian writers (St. Augustine among them) but hardly suffices as an explanation of the evolution of the doctrine. So the development of the theology of the Holy Trinity is still a mystère of its own.
In the Greco-Roman world of the time of Christ, there was a view that prefigured the Christian Trinity that originated with Plato and that was followed by the Stoics: there was an abstract, non-material God from all eternity from whom came the Logos (the Word of God) who was responsible for the Creation of the material universe. So already from the Greek philosophical world, we have the idea of a dyadic Godhead.
This cosmogony infiltrated the Hellenized Jewish milieu as well. In a kind of last attempt to reconcile Jewish and Greek culture in the Hellenistic world, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, Philo of Alexandria (aka Philo Judaeus) developed an entire philosophy complete with a trinity: there was Yahweh of the ineffable name, the Wisdom/Sophia of the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Logos (the Word) of Plato who was responsible for the actual creation of the physical universe. Philo wrote (Flight and Finding XX (108, 109))
because, I imagine, he [the Logos, the Word of God] has received imperishable and wholly pure parents, God being his father, who is also the father of all things, and wisdom being his mother, by means of whom the universe arrived at creation
The theology of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology from pneuma the Greek word for spirit (or breath or wind). On the Christian side of the fence then, Philo’s view – where the Holy Spirit takes on the role of queen consort of El/Yahweh – is known as consort pneumatology.
Another movement with roots in the Jewish/Christian world of Alexandria that impacted early Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism was Gnosticism. This topic is certainly worth an internet search. Very, very simply put, at its core there was the belief that God, the Supreme Being, is unknowable, that the material world was created by a lesser figure known as a demiurge, that the material world is evil in itself and that only knowledge (gnosis in Greek) coming from God can lead to salvation. At its root, Gnosticism is based on a dualism between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between God and lesser deities. Gnosticism was an important movement in antiquity with an impact on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The battle between St Michael and Lucifer in the Book of Revelation can be understood in Gnostic terms. Furthermore, Gnosticism contributed to the elaboration of the Kabbalah and Gnostic strains abound in the Quran. It gave rise to religious systems such as Manichaeism (with its competing forces of good and evil).
Manichaeism’s last stand in the Western Christian world was the Cathar (Albigensian) movement of the South of France in the Middle Ages. To aid in the destruction of Cathar civilization with its indigent holy men and holy women and its troubadour poets, Pope Innocent III created the first Papal Inquistion and in 1209 had the French king launch a horrific crusade against them. For his part, in imitation of the Cathars, St. Dominic founded the mendicant order of the Dominicans but then it was this same order that led the Inquisition’s persecution of the Cathars – all this is bizarrely celebrated in her pop hit “Dominique” by Soeur Sourire, the Singing Nun:
“Dominique … combattit les Albigeois”
For the vocal click here.
The Mandaeans are a Gnostic, dualistic sect that is still active in Iraq. One of the many terrible side effects of the War in Iraq is the oppression (approaching ethnocide) of religious groups such as the Chaldean Christians, the Yazidis and the Mandaeans. The Mandaeans numbered some 60,000 in 2003 but, with the war and Islamic extremism, many have fled and their numbers are down to an estimated 5,000 today. When you add to this how conflict in the Middle East has led to the end of the once thriving Jewish communities of Mesopotamia, we are witnessing a terrible loss of religious diversity akin to the disappearance of species.
For the history of Christian Gnosticism in the early Christian era, we have the writings of their opponents and texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. Again very simply put, to the Gnostic scheme these Christians add that the Supreme Being sent Christ to bring humans the knowledge (gnosis) necessary for redemption. Concerning the Holy Spirit, we know from the Gnostic Gospel of St. Philip that theirs, like Philo’s, was a consort pneumatology. Some of the names of these Gnostic Christians pop up even today; for example, Jack Palance plays one of them, Simon Magus, in the 1954 movie The Silver Chalice. Being portrayed by Jack Palance certainly means you are villain enough, but one can add to that the fact that the sin of simony (selling holy offices) is named for Simon Magus (Acts 8:18).
So with all these competing philosophies and theologies – from within Christianity and from outside Christianity – to contend with, just how did trinitarianism emerge as the canonical position? Mystère.