Reviews of

The Holy Spirit, Inspiration, and the Cultures of Antiquity

In De Gruyter, DSS, Early Christianity, Jörg FREY, Jesse D. Stone, John R. LEVISON, New Testament, Pneumatology, Qumran, review on January 19, 2018 at 9:02 pm


2018.01.02 | Jörg Frey and John R. Levison, eds. The Holy Spirit, Inspiration, and the Cultures of Antiquity: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Ekstasis 5. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017.

Reviewed by Jesse D. Stone, University of St Andrews.

This volume gathers together essays produced as part of an interdisciplinary project on the historical roots of early Christian pneumatology (ECP) led by the editors, Jörg Frey and John “Jack” Levison.

The project included fifteen scholars from six different countries, representing various disciplines related to the study of pneumatology and pneumatic language in antiquity. To encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and learning, scholars were organized into workgroups focused on relating ECP to a variety of ancient foregrounds. Participants then presented papers at a symposium hosted by Leiden University in September 2011. This volume presents the resulting research.

 The opening essay by the editors (“The Origins of Early Christian Pneumatology: On the Rediscovery and Reshaping of the History of Religions Quest,” pp. 1–37) offers some introductory reflections on the task of researching ECP as well as some methodological recommendations regarding future work on the origins of ECP. The bulk of the essay is devoted to an overview of research, beginning with representatives of the religionsgeschichtlich approach to pneumatology and moving through Bultmann, the Dead Sea discoveries, and more recent developmental accounts of ECP. The essay concludes with four sections outlining new methodological commitments that might govern a fresh “History of Religions” approach to the subject.

The second essay by Teun Tieleman (“The Spirit of Stoicism,” pp. 39–62) outlines in an admirably accessible fashion the basic features of Stoic pneumatology in what should become required reading for those who wish to engage Stoic materials related to pneumatology in the future. The essay is full of first-class engagement with both the primary sources and the secondary literature on Stoic pneumatology.

The next essay by Gunkel, Hirsch-Luipold, and Levison (“Plutarch and Pentecost: An Exploration in Interdisciplinary Collaboration,” pp. 63–94) identifies the ways Plutarch might serve as an aid for interpreting Luke’s Pentecost narrative. The authors chose Plutarch because his discussions about divination, prophecy and ecstasy share features in common with the language of Luke’s Pentecost narrative, including pneuma, fire, drunkenness, and inspiration (p. 66).

The next two essays by Soham Al-Suadi (“Even before His Birth He Will Be Filled with the Holy Spirit—Luke 1:15 in the Spectrum of Theological and Medical Discourses of Early Christianity,” pp. 95–118) and Annette Weissenrieder (“The Infusion of the Spirit: The Meaning of ἐμφυσάω in John 20:22-23,” pp. 119–51) use ancient medical texts to help interpret key verses in Luke’s infancy narrative and John’s resurrection account. Al-Suadi concludes that Luke “made use of general medical knowledge” by connecting the activity of the pneuma with pregnancy and childbirth (p. 118). Likewise, Weissenrieder concludes that it is “almost unavoidable to derive the meaning of the term ἐμφυσάω in John 20.22 from the context of ancient medical texts, where the term may connote nourishment and movement through air pressure or a puff of air” (p. 150).

Beate Ego’s essay (“Ruaḥ and the Beholding of God—From Ezekiel’s Vision of the Divine Chariot to Merkaba Mysticism,” pp. 153–66) investigates the traditio-historical roots of the ruaḥ-beholding-of-God theme and traces “the lines leading from its traditions in the Hebrew Bible to its usage in Hekhalot literature” (p. 153). Beginning with Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot, Ego describes the role of the ruaḥ as both an inner and outer force that can bring real and visionary changes of place for the prophet (p. 155). Ego shows that Ezekiel drew on older traditions from the Hebrew Bible for his use of ruaḥ while, simultaneously, establishing “the foundations of the concept’s increasing importance in post-exilic times” (p. 162).

The longest essay in the book is that by Eibert Tigchelaar (“Historical Origins of the Early Christian Concept of the Spirit: Perspectives from the Dead Sea Scrolls,” pp. 167–240), which includes commentary on more than sixty texts from the Qumran corpus. Tigchelaar’s essay makes two important points. First, the scrolls cannot be read as a “uniform homogenous collection.” Different conceptualizations of the holy spirit pervade the texts from Qumran, and those conceptualizations, even where they differ dramatically from one another, must be read on their own terms. Second, one cannot look at statements containing references to the holy spirit without giving proper attention to the broader textual context and worldview of the text under question.

Judith Newman’s contribution (“Speech and Spirit: Paul and the Maskil as Inspired Interpreters of Scripture,” pp. 241-264) seeks “to situate two Jewish teachers of the Greco-Roman age within their cultural environment and Judean ethos,” the maskil from Qumran and Paul (p. 242). Newman shows that both the maskil and Paul were understood as inspired teachers who extended the revelation of the prophets in their own teaching (pp. 242-243). The primary texts used are the Community Rule and Thanksgiving Hymns for the maskil and 2 Corinthians 3 for Paul.

The following two essays by Fulco Timmers (“Philo of Alexandria’s Understanding of πνεῦμα in Deus 33-50,” pp. 265–92) and Volker Rabens (“Pneuma and the Beholding of God: Reading Paul in the Context of Philonic Mystical Traditions,” pp. 293–329) bring the writings of Philo of Alexandria into the picture. Timmers’ essay is exclusively on Philo, particularly Deus 33-50, examining how the πνεῦμα relates to four categories that account for the nature of physical bodies in Philo’s thought: cohesion, growth, life, and rational soul. The essay helpfully cautions the use of labels like “Middle Platonic” or “Stoic” to designate an ancient author’s thinking about pneumatology, suggesting that in practice such labels are “largely hollow” (p. 267). Rabens’ essay seeks to read Paul’s enigmatic statements in 2 Corinthians 3:18 in light of Philo’s mystical theology. In particular, Rabens notes how both authors use experience of the divine, or even “participation” in the divine, to discuss human transformation.

Following these is a very brief essay by Michael Becker (“Spirit in Relationship—Pneumatology in the Gospel of John,” pp. 331-341) on Johannine pneumatology.

Jörg Frey concludes the book by sketching an answer to what might be the biggest question about ECP (“How did the Spirit become a Person?” pp. 343–71). Despite the title, I see two questions at play for Frey: (1) When did Christians begin to think of the Holy Spirit in personal terms? And (2) when did they identify the person of the Holy Spirit as somehow divine? Frey traces the development of ECP across different stages, beginning with the biblical traditions and moving through Jesus and the early Christian movement to Paul, Luke, and finally John. The beginning of the Spirit’s “personalization” is identified with the ministry of Jesus, but Frey is careful to note that it is only in John’s gospel where one can begin to see what might justifiably be called a “proto-Trinitarian” theology of the Holy Spirit.

Frey and Levison deserve commendation for organizing such an important project. The Holy Spirit, Inspiration, and the Cultures of Antiquity will almost certainly become a standard reference for those wishing to explore questions concerning ECP. However, not all of the essays will be equally useful for readers. Three of the essays stand out as particularly important for everyone working on ECP, and from my perspective are individually worth the price of the book. The first is the opening essay by the editors, who manage to give a masterful overview of the twentieth-century scholarship on the origins of Christian pneumatology and offer some fresh methodological considerations for future work on the subject. The second is the essay by Teun Tieleman on Stoic pneumatology. An essay of this caliber by a noted expert in Stoic thought brings some needed fresh air into debates about the potential Stoic provenance of Christian pneumatology. Finally, the lengthy essay by Eibert Tigchelaar brings together numerous texts from Qumran in beneficial ways. Tigchelaar’s criticisms of previous work on the pneumatology of the scrolls are noteworthy, and the connections he makes from important biblical texts to the scrolls are helpful. The result is a helpful introduction to the variegated use of spirit-language in the Qumran corpus.

There are many other praiseworthy features that could be mentioned about this book, but let me say just a few things by way of criticism. It seems odd that the fourth methodological commitment outlined in the introductory essay about the need for interdisciplinary work was not subsequently exemplified in more than one essay, especially for a project that utilized distinct workgroups. The commitment to interdisciplinary work is certainly demonstrated spectacularly by the third essay, co-authored by three scholars working together on Plutarch and the New Testament. However, that is the first and only time we see scholars from this initiative producing research in cooperation with one another. Perhaps the other workgroups were not asked to produce the results of their collaboration in writing like this one, but if the third essay were missing from the book, one would not get a sense that the present volume was the product of a much larger interdisciplinary and collaborative scholarly initiative. While I appreciate the editors’ effort to bring together such a diversity of experts across different disciplines into one volume, I am still left wishing to see in more ways than one how such interdisciplinary endeavors might have produced collaborative results.

Another criticism relates to the final piece by Jörg Frey. In the opening essay, the editors say, “The majority of scholarly studies of the Spirit in the New Testament have focused upon the interpretation of individual authors, especially Paul, Luke, and John, with a tendency among scholars to focus upon the development within the Christian tradition rather than upon issues of extra-biblical influences” (p. 29, emphasis original). They then outline their method for bringing some of those extra-biblical sources to bear on the question of ECP. Consequently, it is surprising when finally arriving at Jörg Frey’s concluding essay that one discovers work that represents the very majority focus being called into question by the project as a whole. Frey’s attention is almost entirely on developments within the Christian tradition, particularly as exemplified by Paul, Luke, and John, with only a few brief comments about the significance of the Qumran literature. After reading so many articles on the gains that can be made by taking some of these extra-biblical sources into account, particularly the Greco-Roman literature, it is odd that the essay addressing arguably the most important historical question about ECP should not likewise bring those sources to bear on the subject, even if only to demonstrate their irrelevance to the question under consideration.

To be fair to the editors, it is entirely likely that the opening essay was composed long after the remaining materials. If that is the case, then my only wish is that the methodological commitments would have been placed separately in a concluding chapter by both editors, outlining a research path for other scholars to follow in order to continue the work started by those who participated in this initiative.

The criticisms I have of the volume are overshadowed by the value it brings to current scholarly debates on the subject. I wholeheartedly commend this volume to others who wish to engage the fascinating questions surrounding ECP. Professors Frey and Levison, both of whom I admire greatly, are to be thanked for organizing such an inspired project. I hope that this book is counted one among many that might reignite scholarly passions for the task of “contextualizing” the New Testament’s language about the Spirit. It is long past time for New Testament scholars working on pneumatology to be awakened from their dogmatic slumbers by a mighty rushing wind.

Jesse D. Stone
University of St. Andrews
js367 [at]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: