The Historical Roots of Early Christian Pneumatology

John R. Levison, Seattle Pacific University
Jörg Frey, Ludwig Maximilians Universität München

         [1] Project Background [2] Interdisciplinary Research Fields [3] Project Elements

         [4] Project Funding [5] Project and Research Outcomes

[1] Project Background
Claims to the holy spirit lie scattered throughout the bedrock of early Christianity. The spirit was reputed to have rested upon Jesus at his baptism. It was considered the catalyst of faith, the impetus of prophetic insight, and the source of the inspired interpretation of scripture. Belief in the holy spirit is integral to every level of early Christian literature.
            Notwithstanding its pivotal place in the rise of Christianity, the background of early Christian belief in the holy spirit is a subject of sore neglect. This was not always so. Hermann Gunkel, in 1888, in a scant study—he called it a Büchlein—inaugurated a new era in scholarship when he argued that early Christian pneumatology could only be understood in light of Early Judaism. This little book unleashed a fractious but fruitful dialogue in which scholars sought to locate the origins of belief in the holy spirit in the Greco-Roman world, including various corners of Judaism. A host of superb scholars, such as William Bousset, Paul Volz, Hans Leisegang, Friedrich Büchsel, and Hans von Baer, found themselves intensely engaged in an effort to identify the most plausible foreground of early Christian belief in the holy spirit.
            Unfortunately, this flood of interest dwindled with the rise of the Third Reich and a worldwide depression, and there has been no subsequent renaissance of the remarkable sort of informed discussion of the historical roots of early Christian pneumatology that characterized this fertile period of historical inquiry. This fading of interest was due in part to the demise of the History of Religions School, which had heaped lavish attention upon the diverse cultural matrices of early Christianity. Further, an increasing focus upon the Jewish origins of Christianity, following the Second World War, led scholarship away from Greco-Roman loci of influence. Finally, the rise of Charismatic Christianity and the Neo-Pentecostal movement in the 1970’s drew attention to questions other than origins, such as charismatic gifts and the meaning of speaking in tongues, while scholars in these traditions located the cultural matrix of early Christian pneumatology exclusively in Judaism, as if the issue of origins had been resolved—though it had not. The purpose of this research project is to put together interdisciplinary research teams to unleash again the indispensable question about the origins of Christianity that has lain fallow for nearly a century.

 The time is ripe for this research project. A renewed interest in the female principals of Greco-Roman divination, a growing awareness of the significance of the physiology of pneuma in Greco-Roman medical texts and popular Stoic discourse, dense references to the Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the reclamation of the spiritual vitality of Early Judaism, and the emergence of interest in religious experience among scholars as evidenced by the vibrant Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity Consultation in the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature and a new monograph series, Ekstasis: Religious Experience From Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Walter De Gruyter)—these developments, to name a few, summon a reconsideration of the historical roots of early Christian belief in the Holy Spirit.