Truth, Understanding, Insight


9th August 2009, mgh


1) 'Spirit' in Old and New Testaments

From Strong's definitions, it appears that the Hebrew 'ruach' and Greek 'pneuma' have similar meanings.

Hebrew 7307 ruach roo'-akh from 7306; wind; by resemblance breath, i.e. a sensible (or even violent) exhalation; figuratively, life, anger, unsubstantiality; by extension, a region of the sky; by resemblance spirit, but only of a rational being (including its expression and functions):-air, anger, blast, breath, X cool, courage, mind, X quarter, X side, spirit((-ual)), tempest, X vain, ((whirl-))wind(-y)
Greek 4151 pneuma pnyoo'-mah from 4154; a current of air, i.e. breath (blast) or a breeze; by analogy or figuratively, a spirit, i.e. (human) the rational soul, (by implication) vital principle, mental disposition, etc., --ghost, life, spirit(-ual, -ually), mind.

But just as the modern world has passed from an agrarian world to an industrial and scientific world and then to a technological age, the ancient world also underwent significant changes.

The first century CE had been shaped by the forces of Greek and Roman thought and practices as those empires expanded across the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world. Philosophy, science, mathematics and various forms of government were shaping a new age. The monotheistic religion of the Jews was challenged by the paganism of the Greeks and Romans.

The Greek language itself was to present challenges to the definition of many of the fundamental concepts and beliefs of Judaism and monotheism.

'Spirit' of Greek, not 'Spirit' of Hebrew

As the New Testament was in Greek the word 'spirit' had the connotation of substance or energy of life existing in all visible things. The Hebrew word 'ruach' only applied to human and animal life, and wind. The Greek 'pneuma' after the third century BC and the influence of the Stoics, could refer to what we recognise as atoms in everything including inanimate objects. The Greeks would apply this word as a force or energy that determines the characteristics for all matter.

For the Jews in New Testament times, they had to differentiate a way by which this 'pneuma' only referred to life from God, the breath of life. For this reason in the New Testament, the spirit pneuma, had to be further defined. Whereas the Greeks pondered the nature of fire and substances such as rock, and what made silver different to gold, the Hebrews had a more pragmatic approach to substances and just used them.

The word translated as just 'spirit' (pneuma) in the New Testament was usually defined clearly unless the context made its application obvious.

The following are a few examples that give an indication of the use of 'pneuma' in the New Testament. The whole verse is not quoted but the location is given.

“spirit of the world” (1 Corinthians 2:12); “spirit of your father” (Matthew 10: 20); “spirit of the Lord” (Luke 4: 18); “spirit of an unclean devil” (Luke 4: 33); “spirit of infirmity” (Luke 13: 11); “spirit of truth”, ie. Comforter (John 5: 26); “spirit of divination” (Acts 16: 16); “spirit of holiness” (Romans 1: 4); “spirit of bondage” (Romans 8: 15); “spirit of slumber” (Romans 11: 8); “dumb spirit” (Mark 19: 17); “unclean spirit” (Matthew 10: 1, Mark 1: 23, Mark 3:11, Mark 6: 7, Luke 4: 36); “evil spirit” (Acts 9: 16, Luke 7: 21, 8: 32, 9: 39); “spirit of Christ” (Romans 8: 9, Philippians 1: 19), “spirit of God” (Matthew 3: 16, Romans 8: 14); “eternal spirit” (Hebrews 9: 14).

These are but a very few examples. They demonstrate that 'pneuma' was a broad term and was qualified in most cases by a descriptive word, that gave information related to people. It can refer to people afflicted with mental or physical illness and the intellectual and emotional state of a person. Paul uses 'spirit' meaning 'Godly' as opposed to 'flesh' (human). It cannot be said that the word 'spirit' (pneuma) in the New Testament refers to aspects of Yahweh's power specifically.

Pneuma referred to anything where there was visible evidence of an effect without a cause being seen.

Diagram of relationship between Hebrew and Greek word for 'spirit'

Holy Spirit in the New Testament

English translations of the Old Testament have the term 'holy spirit' in only 2 passages, with only 3 occurrences. Why is it so little in evidence when it is used often in the New Testament?

One reason is that, as the Greek term for 'spirit' was so wide in meaning, 'holy' was added as clarification. Another answer is quite surprising and reveals that the precise term 'the holy spirit' is used somewhat less than the translators show. When it was used, it had a specific application. In addition, the 2 passages of the Old Testament translated 'holy spirit', in the Greek Septuagint translation, have deep resonances with the way the Greek text of the New Testament was written.

Before we turn to the investigation of holy spirit in the New Testament. We should understand the use of 'holy'.