The Holy Spirit before Christianity, by John R. Levison

Reviewed by Henri Louis Goulet

This is arguably the most important and insightful monograph ever written on the origins of what should rightfully be called “ruachology.”1 The result of over two decades of research, its historically, hermeneutically, and exegetically sound approach reveals “unprecedented conceptions of the spirit (i.e., ‘ruach’) that emerged in the crises of Israel’s exile and restoration.”2 As Israel remembered these crises, the conclusion was that God was present with them as “ruach.”3 Thus, what this monograph painstakingly shows is that ruachology at its origin was an Israelite enterprise rooted in the historical crises of exodus and new exodus, which led to a fresh understanding of both the exodus tradition and the ruach. The table of contents itself perspicuously and poetically reinforces the importance of this retrospective view of the exodus tradition, which reveals God’s elusive presence as ruach at the epicenter of divine deliverance.

1. The Emergence of the Spirit

Recasting Exodus: The Font of Pneumatology

Chapter one introduces the thesis of the monograph, namely that with the composition of Haggai 2:4–5 and Isaiah 63:7–14 insightful prophetic innovations emerged about the involvement of divine presence in Israel’s deliverance. Haggai saw that while the ruach had previously rested upon, rushed upon, been upon, fell upon, hovered over, and even filled Israel, from a retrospective view of the exodus, in which a pillar and angel had stood in Israel’s midst, it was actually the ruach who stood in Israel’s midst.

Moreover, in the lament of Isaiah 63 (from an equally profound retrospective view of the exodus), Isaiah saw that there need be no confusion about the agent of divine deliverance.4 The apparent confusion in Isaiah 63 about whether it was an angel or God’s “panim” that rescued Israel in the exodus was resolved by the fusion of the two—such that the “angel of God’s presence,” who is the ruach of the Lord, was deemed to be the one who rescued Israel and provided rest.5 This then led the prophet of the lament to ask the all-important question in Isaiah 63:11c: “Where is the one who placed in their midst the holy spirit?” As Levison rightly concludes, however, that despair would not have the final word; Haggai 2:5 would: “The word I cut with you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit stands among you. Do not fear!”

2. The Essence of the Spirit

Retelling Exodus: The Precursors of Pneumatology

Chapter two explicates the starting place for the study of ruachology, namely the discussion of divine presence. This is because, as Levison rightly and eloquently emphasizes, “from stories in the crevices of Exodus to the Persian-era prayers of Nehemiah, from the dogma of Deuteronomy to the poetry of the Psalms, from the pedestrian prose of Numbers to the elevated verse of exilic Isaiah—Israel saw God, obliquely but unmistakably, at the cusp of liberation from Egypt; in fact, Israel had no memory that did not include the ‘mien’ of God’s presence.”6 However, Levison rightly contended here that to grasp the force of this conviction and get to the “bedrock” of pneumatology, it was not necessary to analyze every agent or element associated with “divine presence” in the Tanakh.7 Thus, he rightly focused his attention on only those agents or elements that funded the origin of pneumatology: “the pillars, the angel, the presence-face of God, and, only by association, the cloud.”8 It was as a result of this historically, hermeneutically, and exegetically sound approach to ruachology that Levison discovered the exodus tradition to be “the peculiar soil in which the rare, even exotic, seed of Israel’s belief in the spirit as a deliver took root.”9

3. The Absence of the Spirit

Recalling Exodus: The Dawn of Pneumatology

Chapter three rightly emphasizes that the lament of Isaiah 63 is critical to a proper perspective on ruachology. Here, Levison eruditely and eloquently asserts that “its deceptively simply poetry may, in fact, lead back, through centuries of doctrinal and theological brush, to the headwaters of pneumatology.”10 His insightful contrast of the Hebrew and Greek versions of Isaiah 63:9 reveals that it is the Hebrew in this instance that better represents the original reading. The Hebrew fuses the agency of the “angel” and “God’s presence” and identifies the figure produced by this fusion with the holy spirit.11

The rest of the chapter continues to historically and exegetically elucidate the fact that “the imminence of full-blown exile, especially during the years after Ezekiel’s own exile alongside the River Chebar, detonated an era of explosive creativity that left its mark inevitably on Israel’s most cherished tradition, the exodus.”12 The exodus, “once the hallmark of tenderness, election, and covenant, became one long, gruesome history of divine grace and human disgrace.”13 From this retrospective view, the two streams of exodus and ruach merged in the lament of Isaiah 63:7–14, which mourned the absence of God, the absence of the angel of God’s presence, the absence of the holy ruach, the absence of the spirit of the Lord, each of which played a pivotal role in the exodus. In fact, as Levison so astutely observes, the lament’s first indictment of Israel was that she “rebelled and grieved his holy spirit” (Isa 63:10). He suggests that this may be the earliest reference to God’s ruach ha-kodesh in Israelite literature, with the other two references being found in Isaiah 63:11 and Psalm 51:11 (Psa 51:13 Hebrew).

This chapter closes with the intriguing observation that the agents that once played pivotal roles in the exodus tradition became “fungible” (that is, interchangeable)—their prerogatives became the prerogatives of the spirit, God’s holy spirit.14 The ultimate meaning of this fungibility belongs to the future of ruachology and divinology.15 Moreover, as Levison rightly intimates, even the most accurate terminology to describe this interchangeability belongs to future study.

Levison, however, cautions that traditions about divine agents are difficult to corral precisely because of the development and divergence within them. He goes so far as to say that it is impossible to speak of any tradition as a static whole because of the presence of elusive iterations that reflect the ebb and flow of Israelite memory. He wonders whether the terms “elasticity,” or “overlap,” or “porosity,” or the possible neologism “membraneity” might do justice to describe these intersecting traditions.16 His conclusion is exegetically elegant: “Whatever the phenomenon is called, the tendency of traditions to diverge and merge throughout the centuries evinces both a complexity and a vitality that ought not to be missed in any study of the exodus tradition.”17 The divine agents of the exodus “are neither altogether discrete nor necessarily identical dimensions of Israel’s memory”—and most striking is the fact that “the divine agents of the exodus tradition evince a stubborn persistence” in being present with Israel.18 Moreover, how unfathomable is it that in the prophetic texts of Isaiah 63:7–14 and Haggai 2:5, “the spirit does not just take its place alongside the other agents; the spirit takes their place altogether”!19

4. The Assurance of the Spirit

Rekindling Exodus: The Force of Pneumatology

Chapter four provides a rich explication of the historical development of the exodus tradition, how it reshaped belief in the ruach, and how exodus and ruach were combined in it. Here, Levison documents in some detail the history of the flourishing hopes for a new exodus in the Tanakh using the striking examples of Ezekiel 20:33–35; Jeremiah 16:14–15 (Cf. Jer 23:7–8); and Isaiah 40–55 (which Excursus 11 is also devoted to); as well as the more subtle example of the story of Ezra’s return. As Levison insightfully asserts here, “The character of restoration as a new exodus is apparent in the understated ways in which the exodus story is woven into the tapestry of Ezra’s story.”20 Levison then rightly observes that “taken together with the oracles of Ezekiel and Jeremiah at the start of the exile, and the poetry of Isaiah 40–55 toward the end of the exile, the book of Ezra gives testimony to the depth of conviction that the God of the exodus was now the God of restoration.”21

Most important in this chapter is Levison’s observation that it was in this context of restoration as new exodus that Haggai positioned the ruach at the center of the exodus tradition. As Levison rightly emphasizes, Israel’s keen interest in the ruach spanned more than half a millennium, and this interest remained vibrant and vital after return from exile—such that Haggai extended the promise: my ruach stands among you (Hag 2:5). The rest of the chapter focuses on three developments that “illuminate the kinetic energy that provided the crucible in which Haggai framed this unique promise of the spirit: the rushing of the spirit, the resting of the spirit, and the outpouring of the spirit.”22 This unique promise of Haggai 2:5 became the word of assurance alongside the lament of Isaiah 63:7–14 in the origin of ruachology. These two prophetic innovations “framed the door to unprecedented oracles that engendered a conception of the spirit as a unique agent, which embedded God’s invisible and inescapable presence in the drama of [Israel’s] history.”23

This chapter’s astounding conclusion is that the words of Haggai 2:5, The word I cut with you when you came out of Egypt: my ruach stands in your midst, do not speak of first exodus, or second exodus, but of our exodus. The timeless notion of “God cut a word with us when we came out of Egypt” is found in the assurance of Haggai’s promise: God’s ruach stands in our midst (cf. Exod 13:8; Pesachim 113b:3). “In this ‘anamnesis’ (i.e., historical remembrance of the past) the diaphanous (i.e., translucent) border between past, present, and future disintegrates—there is only the presence of God in the solidity of the spirit’s standing.”24

5. The Significance of the Spirit

Rediscovering Exodus: The Future of Pneumatology

Chapter five is a synthesis and summation of the entire thesis of the monograph, namely that pneumatology is a historical phenomenon rooted in Israel’s historical crises that led to a fresh understanding of both the exodus tradition and the ruach.25 The conception of the holy spirit is, at its core, “exodus-generated and exegetical.”26 It is not the product principally of abstraction or theological invention or projection, but of historical Israelite prophetic exegesis. Thus, as Levison gently but boldly concludes: “If the attribution of the spirit’s agency first to Christianity is a misjudgment— a misapprehension of history—it is incumbent upon the bearers of the tradition to analyze the impact of that misunderstanding and to offer course correctives that better reflect the impulse that lay at the origin of that tradition.” The ability “to hold up a plumb line consisting of the prior Israelite understanding of the spirit as an agent has the potential to reveal where Christian tradition is crooked, off kilter, and in need of correction.”27 As Levison rightly emphasizes, one of the Christian traditions in need of correction is the persistent and imprecise characterization of the ruach as a “hypostasis,” which he masterfully begins to correct here.

The only weakness of this monograph is its publication format. All of the references, including every reference to virtually every verse cited from the Scriptures, appear in the endnotes at the back of the monograph. In addition, there are thirteen numbered excurses in the back of the monograph that are randomly referred to in the text or footnotes by title and not number. This contributes to the difficulty of reading this wondrous monograph, as you are constantly flipping back and forth. Once we set this publication format critique aside, however, Levison’s The Holy Spirit before Christianity is clearly the new standard for understanding the historical and exegetical Israelite origins of ruachology!

1 1 Following contemporary Greek conventions, the author uses the default term “pneumatology” in this monograph. In addition, the author rarely capitalizes the word “spirit” or “ruach” as reflected in this review.

2 2 John R. Levison, The Holy Spirit Before Christianity (Waco: Baylor, 2019), 2.

3 3 Levison, 3.

4 4 Throughout this study, Levison follows his colleague, philosophical theologian William Abraham, in using the terms “agent” and “agency” precisely because of how radically open these concepts are in defying definition and ranging from the impersonal to the personal. See a fuller explanation of this topic in footnote 15 on page 157.

5 5 Levison, 3.

6 6 Levison, 7.

7 7 Levison, 10.

8 8 Levison, 10.

9 9 Levison, 13.

1010 Levison, 13.

1111 Levison, 34.

1212 Levison, 41.

1313 Levison, 43.

1414 Levison, 54.

1515 This future study is all the more intriguing given the fact that there is exceptionally strong evidence from a variety of textual witnesses for the reading of Jude 5 that names “Yeshua” as the one who delivered a people out of Egypt. Several English translations of the Scriptures now reflect this textual evidence (see, e.g., ESV, CSB17, NET).

1616 Levison, 29.

1717 Levison, 29.

1818 Levison, 30.

1919 Levison, 30.

2020 Levison, 67.

2121 Levison, 67.

2222 Levison, 68.

2323 Levison, 74.

2424 Levison, 83.

2525 Levison, 85.

2626 Levison, 97.

2727 Levison, 85–86.