Christianity's Historical Context

Understanding the world in which Christianity developed helps understand Christian beliefs.

Print this page Print this page

The idea that the righteous have a special pipeline to God is not unknown in Judaism. Not only is it anticipated in Second Maccabees, a similar system can be seen in Israel today, where the pious pray at the tombs of Jewish "saints." Jesus himself, in the so-called "Lord's Prayer," speaks only of prayer to "our father, who is in heaven." (Throughout my grade school years in the Massachusetts public school system, children recited the "Lord's Prayer" every morning. I had no idea this was a "Christian" prayer; there's nothing in it a Jew could not say.)

The Holy Spirit

As for the "Holy Spirit," this is the Jewish ruah, spirit--or "wind" or "breath" to give a literal translation to this Hebrew word--used in Gen­esis when God hovered over the face of the deep, according to Bereshit (Genesis 1). The idea of the Spirit coupled with the concept of Wisdom, as found in books such as Proverbs, coalesced into the Christian Holy Spirit (the Greek term for "spirit," pneuma, can also mean "wind" or "breath"; hence, pneumonia).

Later on, when this Jewish movement in­tersected with Greek philosophical thought and as its adherents attempted to explain how God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit were related, the doctrine of the "Trinity" developed.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also directs the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.