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Holy Spirit

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In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) the Hebrew term Ruach HaKodesh is used many times; it is translated literally as "Holy Spirit". Within the Hebrew Bible its use refers to the presence of God as experienced by a human being.

The expression "Holy Spirit" occurs in Psalms 51:11 and in Isaiah 63:10, 11. In Ezekiel 3:12 it is stated, "the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing," the expression "behind me" characterizing the unusual nature of the noise.

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Jewish views of the Holy Spirit

The midrash literature contains many statements about the Holy Spirit. It is written that the Holy Spirit, being of heavenly origin, is composed, like everything that comes from heaven, of light and fire. When it rested upon Phinehas his face burned like a torch (Midrash Lev. Rabbah 21). When the Temple was destroyed and the people Israel went into exile, the Holy Spirit returned to heaven; this is indicated in Eccl. 12:7: "the spirit shall return unto God" (Midrash Eccl. Rabbah 12:7). The spirit talks sometimes with a masculine and sometimes with a feminine voice (Eccl. 7:29); i.e., as the word "ruah" is both masculine and feminine, the Holy Spirit was conceived as being sometimes like a man and sometimes like a woman.

According to Jewish tradition, the Holy Spirit dwells only among a worthy generation, and the frequency of its manifestations is proportionate to the worthiness. There was no manifestation of it in the time of the Second Temple (Talmud, Yoma 21b), while there were many during the time of Elijah (Tosefta to the Talmud Sotah, 12:5). According to Job 28:25, the Holy Spirit rested upon the Prophets in varying degrees, some prophesying to the extent of one book only, and others filling two books (Midrash Lev. Rabbah 15:2). Nor did it rest upon them continually, but only for a time.

The stages of development, the highest of which is the Holy Spirit, are as follows: zeal, integrity, purity, holiness, humility, fear of sin, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit conducts Elijah, who brings the dead to life (Yer. Shab. 3c, above, and parallel passage). The pious act through the Holy Spirit (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayeki, 14); whoever teaches the Torah in public partakes of the Holy Spirit (Midrash Canticles Rabbah 1:9, end; comp. Midrash Lev. Rabbah 35:7). When Phinehas sinned the Holy Spirit departed from him (Midrash Lev. Rabbah 37:4)

Jewish tradition divides the books of the Hebrew Bible into three categories, based on the level of prophecy that their authors are said to have reached.

The visible results of the activity of the Holy Spirit, according to the Jewish conception, are the books of the Bible, all of which have been composed under its inspiration. All the Prophets spoke "in the Holy Spirit"; and the most characteristic sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is the gift of prophecy, in the sense that the person upon whom it rests beholds the past and the future. According to the Talmud, with the death of the last three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit ceased to manifest itself in Israel; but the Bat Kol (heavenly voice) was still available.

  • The Torah (five books of Moses) is said to be written by Moses from a direct verbal revelation of God.
  • The Nevi'im (prophets) are books written by people who recieved a high level of prophecy.
  • The Ketuvim (writings, hagiopgrapha) are written by authors with a lesser level of prophecy known as divine inspiration, Ruach HaKodesh.

According to one view in the Talmud, the Holy Spirit was among the ten things that were created by God on the first day (Talmud Bavli, Hag. 12a, b). Though the nature of the Holy Spirit is really nowhere described, the name indicates that it was conceived as a kind of wind that became manifest through noise and light.

Of special interest is a distinction made by ancient Jewish authorities between the "Spirit of the Lord" (which is the most common way of referring to the Holy Spirit in the Tanach) and the Shekinah, the presence of God. This distinction is made in the Talmud, which gives a list of things found in the first Temple in Jerusalem, but missing in the second Temple. This list included the Holy Spirit and the Shekinah. The difference is not clearly understood, but it seems that the Shekinah glory was somehow more tangible than the Spirit. This may have referred to God's actual dwelling within the Holy of Holies[?], and God's presence emanating outward from it in a special way, as opposed to the presence of the Holy Spirit, which was in many locations throughout the world, and especially in individuals. In the Tanach, however, this indwelling of the Spirit is reserved for kings, prophets, high priests, etc. and is not given to the common believer).

In the Apocrypha

The Holy Spirit is less frequently referred to in the Apocrypha and by the Hellenistic Jewish writers; this may mean that the conception of the Holy Spirit was not prominent among the Jewish people at this time, especially in the Diaspora.

In I Maccabees 4:45, 14:41 prophecy is referred to as something long since passed. Wisdom 9:17 refers to the Holy Spirit which God sends down from heaven, whereby God's behests are recognized. The discipline of the Holy Spirit preserves from deceit (ib. i. 5). It is said in the Psalms of Solomon, 17:42, in reference to the Messiah, the son of David: "he is mighty in the Holy Spirit"; and in Susanna, 45, that "God raised up the Holy Spirit of a youth, whose name was Daniel."

Christian views of the Holy Spirit

In Christianity, the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) is a part of the Godhead, the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove, based on the story of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus Christ in the form of a dove when he was baptized in the Jordan. The book of Acts describes how the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and followers of Jesus as they prayed during the feast of Pentecost. Based on the imagery in that account, the Holy Spirit is sometimes symbolized by a flame of fire.

Many Christians believe it is the Holy Spirit who leads people to faith in Jesus Christ and the one who gives them the ability to lead a Christian life. The Pentecostal movement places special emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit; see Pentecostalism.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the Holy Ghost (the name used in the King James Version of the Bible), particularly by conservative Pentecostal groups and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to dispensationalism, we are now living in the Age of the Spirit. The Old Testament period, under this view, may be called the Age of the Father; the period covered by the Gospels, the Age of the Son; from Pentecost until the second advent of Christ, the Age of the Spirit.

The Gender of the Holy Spirit

The Biblical Hebrew word for spirit is ruwach, meaning wind, breath, inspiration; the noun is grammatically feminine. In the "Odes of Solomon'; the oldest surviving Christian hymnal, the Holy Spirit is grammatically female. The Greek word for spirit, 'pneuma', has no grammatical gender. The Holy Spirit is translated in masculine terms only in languages such as Latin and English.

See the article God and gender for a discussion of how to translate the names of God into English, male and female aspects of the Holy Spirit, and related issues.

See also: God, Revelation



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