Spirit (in the Bible)
SPIRIT (IN THE BIBLE)
The word spirit is the usual translation of the Hebrew word rûaḥ and of the Greek word πνε[symbol omitted]μα. This article treats of the various meanings and uses of these terms in their original context under three main headings, in the Old Testament, in late Judaism, and in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament. Under the first heading, rûah will be considered as life breath, as the seat of human experience, in its opposition to flesh and the Greek concept of spirit, and in its nature.
Rûaḥ as Life Breath. The basic meaning of rûah : in the Old Testament is breath or wind and by extension it came to mean the breath as signifying life and thence spirit, mind, and life principle. In creatures with lungs, breathing is a natural sign of life, and in many languages the term connoting physical breath takes on the meaning of what it signifies, life. So in Hebrew, rûaḥ came to mean breath as significative of life in men (Gn 6.17; Ez 37.10) and in animals [Gn 7.22; Ps 103 (104).29]. It was often used in synonymous parallelism with n ešāmā (breath of life, Gn 2.7) and nepeš (throat opened to breathe, thence, life, seat of emotions, self or person; cf. Judges 15.19, rûaḥ, with Lam 1.11, 16, nepeš ). The absence of rûaḥ connotes the lack of vital force (Jer 10.14;51.17). Since God is the life-giver, life breath comes from Him and man lives as long as God's breath remains in him (Jb 27.3; Is 42.5; Zec 12.1). When God withdraws His breath, man and all flesh return to the ground [Ps 145 (146).4; Jb 34.14; Eccl 12.7]. During man's existence life breath may wax or wane (Gn 45.27; Jgs 15.19).
Rûaḥ as the Seat of Human Experience. This use is frequent. Hebrew awareness of the concrete observed that strong feelings affected respiration. Thus, dejection, sadness, astonishment, anger, patience, pride are all expressed by corresponding changes in a man's breathing (Jos 2.11; 1 Kgs 10.5; 1 Sm 1.15; Gn 26.34; Mi 2.7; Prv 16.18; Eccl 7.8; etc.). Rûah : is then the subject of human emotions, and good and evil habits (Ex 35.21; Is 19.3a; Jer 51.11; etc.). The modern, Western concept of spirit fits these situations but only in a very extended acceptance of the word.
Rûaḥ in Opposition to Flesh. In Is 31.3, man is contrasted to God as flesh is to spirit. Man then is flesh, weak and perishable, while spirit is divine, strong, and enduring. In this opposition can be seen the concrete Hebrew grasp of the numinous, mysterious power that man shares, participates in, while he lives, but does not control. It belongs to the divinity who gives of it to man, but who can and does take it away. This contrast is obviously not that of the material and immaterial, the body and spirit, as found in Greek categories, for it is God's rûaḥ that gives whatever degree of permanency man's flesh (bāśār ) enjoys (Gn 6.3). God controls man's destiny and life by the power of His spirit (Jb 10.12; Is 42.5).
Rûaḥ as Opposed to Immaterial Spirits. Until late Judaism and New Testament times, rûaḥ is never used of an immaterial spirit, whether demon, angel, or ghost. In 1 Kings 22.21, the Prophet Micaiah describes the spirit commissioned by Yahweh to deceive Ahab. Here there is a personification of the prophetic spirit that God changes into a lying spirit to achieve His punishment of Ahab through his own sycophantic seers. In other cases the original meaning of breath persists. In Judges 9.23, the evil spirit that God puts between Abimelech and the Sichemites is correctly translated by the CCD translation as "God put bad feelings …." The evil spirit from the Lord that troubled Saul in 1 Samuel 16.14 is a mysterious, abnormal feeling—an attempt to describe the source of his psychopathic melancholy. Other frequent uses of spirit modified by substantives such as knowledge, fear, and fornication, express either special powers from God or subjective attitudes, evil, good, or indifferent, of an individual (Is 11.2; Hos 4.12; etc.).
The Nature of the Old Testament Spirit. To arrive at a common notion of rûaḥ from its concrete, particularized use is a very difficult task. One may, however, conclude to at least this common theological notion that transcends its merely physical usage—that it comes from God as a creative, life-giving, superhumanizing force (Gn1.2; 2.7; 41.38; Ex 31.3; 1 Sm 16.13; Jgs 3.10; Nm 24.2; Is 42.1; 59.21). Its extraordinary effusion will characterize the Messianic age and will make men share in special charismatic gifts (Zec 4.6; 6.8; Nm 11.29; Jl 3.1–2; Acts2.16–21). Most of all, it will create a New Alliance and become an interior source of justice and peace in man's heart through the ministry of the Messiah who will transmit it to His faithful (Ez 36.26–27; 37.14; Is 32.15–19;44.3; Zec 12.10; Is 11.1–3; 42.1; 61.1). This notion of spirit as a participation in God's power is still real and concrete and is never taken as an empty, unreal abstraction (see spirit of god).
Spirit in Late Judaism. In the two centuries preceding the Christian Era and in subsequent Jewish tradition, due to Persian and Greek influence, there is a noticeable development of thought concerning spirit and spirits. The Biblical indications of this development are found in the important Book of Wisdom, 2 Mc, and the Greek version of Nm 16.22. In Wisdom 7.22–23, wisdom's spirit is described as the source of many qualities in "all spirits, though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle." The Book of 2 Maccabees and the Greek version of Numbers speak of the divinity as the "Lord of spirits" (2 Mc 3.24; Nm 16.22). The same development is evident in extra-Biblical Jewish literature, especially in the Book of Henoch 22.3–13, where the deceased are described as "the spirits of the dead." Good and evil spirits, spirits of fornication, uncleanness, and error, are also mentioned in this apocryphal literature. All these spirits are taken as persons and not merely as subjective attitudes in man. Nevertheless, this evolution did not lead to a philosophical analysis of spirit or spirits in Judaism. The particularized concept of spirit remained dominant and, as will be seen, appears again in the New Testament.
In the New Testament. The basic meaning of spirit as breath or wind is found in the New Testament, but its derived meanings are, of course, more common and important (2 Thes 2.8; Jn 3.8).
Man's Spirit. As the principle of life (Mt 27.50) it exists after death (Lk 8.55) and goes to the underworld (1 Pt 3.19) or to the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12.23). It is the seat of man's feelings (Mk 2.8; 2 Cor 2.13) and mental attitudes, in contrast to the flesh (Mt 26.41) or the body (1 Cor 5.3; 2 Cor 7.1). Sometimes it has merely a pronominal use (Gal 6.18). Spirit (πνε[symbol omitted]μα) and soul (Ψυχή) are often used interchangeably, although the tripartite division of man in 1 Thessalonians 5.23 may indicate that the spirit is of a higher order than the soul and more amenable to God's influence, whereas soul would pertain more to man's rational nature. However, this division is unique in Paul and the New Testament and is certainly not evidence of an elaborated psychology.
When spirit is governed by a modifier, it expresses a disposition or mental state rather than life principle (Gal6.1; 1 Pt 3.4), although in Paul it is difficult to determine whether he uses spirit as man's natural faculties or as a special disposition that can easily receive the Holy Spirit's influence (1 Cor 2.4–16, passim; 2 Cor 4.13).
Spirit, Flesh, and the Law's Letter. Paul often contrasts spirit with flesh (Gal 3.3–6; Rom 8.4–13). Spirit is the vital, justifying principle while flesh is weak and corruptive. The spiritual man is opposed to the carnal (1 Cor3.1) and the merely human or psychic man (1 Cor 2.14). So also, the spiritual body and not the psychic will inherit incorruptibility (1 Cor 15.35–58). These contrasts are also evident in Jude 19; James 3.15, and especially in John (4.23–24; 3.10–12, 27–36; 7.37–39).
The Pauline opposition between spirit and the Law (Rom 2.29; 2 Cor 3.4–18) is not that between a shallow and a deeper appreciation of God's Law. In Paul's conception the Law is external to man, a letter and not an interior vital force like the spirit. The Law makes one aware of what should be done but, in contrast to the spirit, does not give the ability to do what is right, and therefore serves only to make one more aware of guilt and its consequence, death. Thus, the Law kills man by making him conscious of sin, whereas the spirit sets him free (Rom7.5–12).
The spirit then is the source of a new creation (Gal l5.16–26; Rom 8.1–4) and the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise (Jer 31.31–34; Ez 36.36–39) of a new covenant written in man's heart. It is a life-giving reality as its source is the "life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15.45; cf. Jn 3.5; 6.63–64).
Good and Evil Spirits. The use of the word spirit to refer to superhuman beings or good spirits, i.e., angels, is not common in the New Testament (Acts 23.8–9; Heb1.14; Rv 4.5). The Synoptic Gospels and Acts; however, frequently speak of evil or unclean spirits (Mt 12.43; Acts5.16; etc.). These demons or devils as Luke and Matthew often call them (Lk 4.33; 8.27; Mt 9.33–34; etc.) know something of the mystery of Jesus, but when they are cast out by Him, they are not allowed to reveal to others that He is the Messiah (Mk 1.23–28).
Spirit as Characteristic of God. In John 4.23–24, God is called spirit not simply because He is immaterial and not bound by place, but because He is the source of a new life and worship that is totally different from the previous dispensation. The worship He desires, therefore, is in spirit and in truth, i.e., the worship of men who are born from on high, of the water that is the Spirit (Jn3.3–13), of those who by receiving and believing in His unique Son become His own sons, sharing in the gratuitous covenant love and truth of Jesus Christ (1.13–18). Thus the living waters that Christ offers the Samaritan woman and all who come to Him and believe is the participation in the Divinity, in His Spirit, by which, henceforth, man can offer the only true worship to God (4.10–14; 7.37–39). This promise is fulfilled when Jesus breathes forth His spirit from the cross and on His Disciples after the Resurrection (19.30; 20.19–23).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 2294–99. e. kÄsemann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 2:1268–79. w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (London 1961–) v.1. p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 1954–56). e. schweizer et al., "Spirit of God," tr. a. e. harvey, Bible Key Words, ed. g. kittel (New York 1961) v.3.2.
[l. a. bushinski]