To Christians, the Holy Spirit (once known as the Holy Ghost in the English speaking world) is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, along with God the Father and God the Son.
Indeed for Protestants and Catholics, the Nicene Creed reads
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.”
Or more simply in the Apostles’ Creed
” I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
The phrase “and the Son” does not appear in all versions of the Nicene Creed and it was a key factor in the Great Schism of 1054 AD that separated the Greek Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church. A mere twenty years later in another break with the Orthodox Church, Pope Gregory VII instituted the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests. It makes one think that, had the schism not taken place, the Catholic Church would not have made that move from an all male priesthood to the celibate all male priesthood which is plaguing it today.
The earliest Christian texts are the Epistles of St. Paul: his first Epistle dates from AD 50, while the earliest gospel (that of St. Mark) dates from AD 66-70. However, since the epistles were written after the events described in the gospels, they come later in editions of the New Testament.
Paul wrote that first epistle, known as 1 Thessalonians, in Greek to converted Jews of the diaspora and the other new Christians in the Macedonian city of Thessaloniki (Salonica) on the Aegean Sea. Boldly, at the very beginning of the letter, Paul lays out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: in the New Revised Standard Version, we have
1 To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly
3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,
5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Judaism is famously monotheistic and we understand that when Paul refers to “God” in his epistle, he is referring to Yahweh, the God of Judaism – “God the Father” to Christians. Likewise, the reference to “Jesus Christ” is clear – Jesus was a historical figure. But Paul also expected people in these congregations to understand his reference to the Holy Spirit and to the power associated with the Holy Spirit.
So who were in these congregations that Paul was writing to who would understand what Paul was trying to say? Mystère.
By the time of Christ, Jews had long established enclaves in many cities around the Mediterranean including, famously, Alexandria, Corinth, Athens, Tarsus, Antioch and Rome itself. Under Julius Caesar, Judaism was declared to be a recognized religion, religio licita, which formalized its status in the Empire. Many Jews like Paul himself were Roman citizens. In Augustus’ time, the Jews of Rome even made it into the writings of Horace, one of the leading lights of the Golden Age of Latin Literature: for one thing, he chides the Jews of Rome for being insistent in their attempts at converting pagans – something that sounds unusual today, but the case has been made that proselytism is a natural characteristic of monotheism, which makes sense when you think about it.
Estimates for the Jewish share of the population of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ range from 5% to 10% – which is most impressive. (For a cliometric analysis of this diaspora and of early Christianity, see Cities of God by Rodney Stark.) These Hellenized, Greek speaking Jews used Hebrew for religious services and readings. Their presence across the Roman Empire was to prove critical to the spread of Christianity during the Pax Romana, a spread so rapid that already in 64 A.D. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire that destroyed much of Rome, the fire that he himself had commanded.
During the Hellenistic Period, the three centuries preceding the Christian era, Alexandria, in particular, became a great center of Jewish culture and learning – there the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were translated into Greek (independently and identically by 70 different scholars according to the Babylonian Talmud) yielding the Septuagint and creating en passant the Greek neologism diaspora as the term for the dispersion of the Jewish people. Throughout the Mediterranean world, the Jewish people’s place of worship became the synagogue (a Greek word meaning assembly).
In fact, Greek became the linguafranca of the Roman Empire itself. St. Paul even wrote his Epistle to the Romans in Greek. The emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote the twelve books of his Meditations in Greek; Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra in Greek. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Senator and conspirator Casca reports that Cicero addressed the crowd in Greek adding that he himself did not understand the great orator because “It was Greek to me” – here Shakespeare is putting us on because Plutarch reports that Casca did indeed speak Greek. As for Cicero, for once neither defending a political thug (e.g. Milo) nor attacking one (e.g. Cataline), he delivered his great oration on behalf of a liberal education, the Pro Archaia, to gain Roman citizenship for his personal tutor, Archias a Greek from Antioch.
The spread of Christianity in the Greek speaking world was spearheaded by St. Paul as attested to by his Epistles and by the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, Paul’s strategy in a new city was first to preach in synagogues. Although St Paul referred to himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he could still better be called the Apostle to the Urban Hellenized Jews, Jews like himself. Where he did prove himself an apostle to the Gentiles was when Paul, in opposition to some of the original apostles, declared that Christians did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws and that Christians need not practice the Semitic tribal practice of male circumcision; Islam, which also originated in the Semitic world, enforces both dietary laws and male circumcision.
The theology of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology from pneuma the Greek word for spirit (or breath or wind) ; pneuma is the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew ruach. Scholars consider his pneumatology as central to Paul’s thinking.
In fact, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit time and again in his writings and in Paul’s Epistles the Holy Spirit is an independent force; the same applies to the Gospels: the Holy Spirit is a participant at the Annunciation, at the baptism of Christ, at the Temptation of Christ. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is the Holy Spirit who descends on the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire when they are gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish harvest feast of Shavuot which takes places fifty days after Passover; in the Greek of the New Testament, this feast is called Pentecost (meaning “fifty”) and it is at this celebration that the Holy Spirit gives the Apostles the Gift of Tongues (meaning “languages”) and launches them on their careers as fishers of men.
For a Renaissance painting of the baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove, a work of Andrea del Verrocchio and his student Leonardo da Vinci, click HERE . According to the father of art history Giorgio Vasari, after this composition Verrocchio resolved never to paint again for his pupil had far surpassed him! While we’re dropping names, click HERE for Caravaggio’s depiction of Paul fallen from his horse after Jesus revealed Himself to him on the Road to Damascus.
Although important in the New Testament, reference to the “Holy Spirit” only occurs three times in the Old Testament and it is never used as a standalone noun phrase as it is in the New Testament; instead, it is used with possessive pronouns that refer to Yahweh such as “His Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10,11) and “Thy Holy Spirit” (Psalms 51:11); for example, in the King James Bible, this last verse reads
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
This is key – from the outset, in Christianity, the Holy Spirit is autonomous, part of the Godhead, not just a messenger of God such as an angel would be. And Paul and the evangelists assume that their readers know what they are writing about; they don’t go into long explanations to explain who the Holy Spirit is or where the Holy Spirit is coming from.
The monotheism of Judaism has a place only for Yahweh, the God of the chosen people. But Christianity and its theology started in the Jewish world of the first century A.D.; so the concept of the Holy Spirit must have its roots in that world even though it is not there in Biblical Judaism. Jewish religious culture was as dynamic as ever in the post-Biblical period leading up to the birth of Christianity and beyond. New texts were written in Aramaic as well as in Greek and in Hebrew, creating a significant body of work.
So the place to start to look for the origin of the Holy Spirit is in the post-Biblical literature of Judaism. More to come.