The Holy Spirit Before Christianity

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John R. Levison
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This superb and accessible book, The Holy Spirit Before Christianity, enhances John Levison’s already impressive corpus of work on the holy spirit. Against the grain of much scholarship, this book argues for the emergence of the spirit of God as an independent agent centuries before Christianity. Levison presents clear arguments in welcoming prose. This is mature scholarship which makes an immediately tangible contribution.

Levison puts his finger on two prophetic texts that disclose the beginnings of a pneumatological pulse. Both look back to the exodus tradition, both inject allusion to the spirit retroactively into that tradition, and, by doing so, both attribute agency to God’s spirit. For Levison, that attribution of agency is the decisive element inaugurating pneumatology proper.

First, the lament of Isaiah 63:7–14. This text presents the angel of God’s presence as the agent of the exodus-salvation but quickly makes a switch so that this same salvation is attributed to the spirit. In the second text, Haggai 2:4–5, God looks back to “the word I cut with you when you came out of Egypt: my spirit stands in your midst; do not fear” (Levison’s translation, 78). The discussion converges on two points. First, this passage is unusual as the lone instance where the spirit is said to “stand.” Second, there is no place in the exodus tradition where God makes this statement. Levison argues that a connection to Exodus 14:19 ties off both loose ends. Looking back, Haggai sees the spirit at work in this moment as the angel and pillar move to “stand” between Israel and the Egyptian army. The claim is then that both prophetic texts make the “simple but bold fusion of the spirit with the agents who led Israel during the exodus” (96).

Levison postures the emergence of pneumatology proper as an internal, exegetical development. There are “porous boundaries” as well as “overlap and ambiguity” between the functionaries (an angel, a cloud, pillars of fire and cloud, the presence-face of God) of Israel’s exodus deliverance (10, 25). For Levison, this complexity fuels vitality by leaving room for reinterpretation. Levison builds on the picture that during the Persian era, Israel was “rife with a combustion of crisis and displacement that proved fertile ground for a creative reimagining of Israel’s cherished traditions” (39). Further, the author’s broader project is tied in to argue that reflection on the spirit was flourishing in post-exilic Israel and these factors are combined to establish the fertile ground for the noted exegetical moves. Levison suggests that although God’s spirit breaks ground as an independent agent in these Jewish texts, these ideas would not be fully nurtured until the rise of Christianity.

If Levison is correct, the commonly held distinction “between the spirit as a power in the first testament and a person in the second” dissolves (5, italics original). Three implications are explored: hypostasis as a flawed category for pneumatology, the Jewish contribution to pneumatology as essential, and the need for theology to account for the birth of pneumatology in historical crisis.

There are significant text-critical issues with the books’s two key texts. The Greek translations of Isaiah 63 and Haggai 2 present both passages bereft of the features on which Levison’s argument hangs. What is at stake here is timing: when did the exegetical moves which the author identifies take place? Levison argues that the Masoretic tradition is earlier but establishes a problematic positioning of the Septuagint. The translator of Isaiah is described as aggressively omitting unwelcome concepts (33) and the translator of Haggai as leaving out a section of the text because of its difficulty (76-77). In both cases our capacity to know the intention and working method of the ancient translators is overplayed. Levison’s argument for the temporal priority of the Hebrew text may still stand, but a more satisfactory treatment of the relationship between it and the versions is still needed.

The critique of hypostasis is valuable for refreshing the terms on which pneumatology operates but is itself uncertain. Looking especially to Paul Volz, Levison insists on an essentially etymological definition of hypostasis. But this is a highly nuanced term and the etymological sense by no means reflects the consistent or dominant sense. Second, the author would replace it with words like “exegetical” and “agent,” but these do not profile the same issues as hypostasis. Questions of how belief in the spirit emerged and what the spirit does are related to what the spirit is, but they are not coextensive with it. Finally, Levison’s preference for the spirit as agent does not necessarily get further than hypostasis. We still need to explain what agency means and this embroils us in the kind of “Cappadocian” debates which the book is anxious to avoid (100, 157). Levison is right to raise these issues but probably overstates the contribution of the alternative offered here.

I also have questions related to Levison’s exegesis. The emphasis on “stand” in Haggai 2 puts a great deal of weight on an innocuous verb. Rather than making an exact connection with a single moment of the exodus, this reference to the spirit could be related to the prevailing motif of the spirit’s presence. In this light, the spirit standing would not be unusual at all. Levison also seems to overemphasize the insertion of the spirit into the exodus tradition by these two prophets. After all, the ruach (wind/spirit) of God was essential to the parting of the sea (Exod 14:21; 15:10). Only a strict, modern dichotomy between ruach-as-wind and ruach-as-spirit leaves the exodus tradition devoid of the spirit of God.

Levison has packed all of this into a concise package. The one hundred pages of endnotes and excurses are almost as long as the main body of the book itself. Other reviewers have commented that this makes it hard to read but I think it makes the core argument even more accessible and clear. The form of Levison’s work is worth considering itself and the book gives us much to ponder: How does agency mark the independence of the spirit? How did an independent conception of God’s spirit become available for these prophets to read back into the exodus? As usual, Levison makes the terms of engagement crystal clear. This book provides another provocative thesis on the spirit and Levison will continue to be at the center of our most fruitful discussions of pneumatology, especially in relation to biblical studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tyler Horton is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge – Faculty of Divinity and Theological Educator with SIM Canada.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John R. Levison is W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.


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