There is no distinct term for spirit in the languages of the Bible; the concept was expressed by a metaphorical use of words that mean, literally, wind and breath (Hebr. rûaḥ; Grk. pneuma); the English word “spirit” is simply an Anglicized form of the Latin word for breath (spiritus). Wind is an invisible, unpredictable, uncontrollable force, which bears down on everything in its path; and people found early that they are exposed to influences that affect them like the wind. Breath is a miniature wind, and from this the metaphorical use of the term acquired a more precise and positive direction, for breath is essential to life (Gen. 6.17).

The Spirit of God in the Hebrew Bible.

The action of the spirit is seen in a broad range of experiences, some of which seem less than “spiritual” as we now understand the word. Thus the source of (physical) strength that enabled Samson to kill a lion is ascribed to the spirit of God (Judg. 14.6). And there are several places where it is not clear whether rûaḥ bears the literal sense of wind or the metaphorical sense of spirit (e.g., Gen. 1.2 [cf. 8.1]; Ezek. 1.12). The action of spirit is more often seen in inner experiences, but some of these too are ambiguous (e.g., the evil spirit from the Lord that seized Saul, 1 Sam. 16.14; the lying spirit that the Lord put in the mouth of certain prophets, 1 Kings 22.22). Among the most distinctive experiences ascribed to the action of the spirit are the raptures that drove people to ecstatic speech and behavior (e.g., Saul after his anointing, 1 Sam. 10.6–11; the seventy elders, Num. 11.25); this was the original meaning of “prophecy.”

None of the prophets of Israel before the exile ascribe their vocation to the action of the spirit or, indeed, have much to say about the spirit at all. Some references of a critical or ironical nature seem to indicate that these prophets wished to dissociate their prophetic calling from the ecstatic raptures that earlier went under the name (Hos. 9.7; Mic. 2.11; cf. 1 Sam. 9.9). It is only in the later prophets that the spirit comes into prominence, notably in Ezekiel. Ezekiel mostly used the term rûaḥ without the qualification “of God,” and in many cases the literal and metaphorical senses of the term are hard to disentangle. A high point in the prophecy of Ezekiel is his vision of the valley of dry bones, over which he was commanded to invoke the life‐giving breath, or wind, or spirit of God (Ezek. 37.1–14; the three words all render rûaḥ). The hope so dramatically envisaged here becomes a major theme in the latest phase of biblical prophecy. Recognizing that the renewal of God's people could come only from God, the prophets came to look for a general outpouring of his spirit (Isa. 32.15). In no case is the fulfillment of this hope ascribed to the mediation of an expected messianic king; but in the portrayal of this figure in the prophecy of Isaiah, he is to be the permanent bearer of the spirit (Isa. 11.2; 61.1)—perhaps in contrast to the charismatic leaders of Israel, such as Saul, from whom the spirit departed. The distinctive mark of the messianic era will be the bestowal of God's spirit on all, high and low, old and young, male and female (Joel 2.28).

The designation “holy spirit” occurs only in Psalm 51.11 and Isaiah 63.10–11.

The Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

The New Testament announces the fulfillment of the eschatological hope of the spirit proclaimed by the prophets. Two elements are emphasized: the coming of the one who is the permanent bearer of the spirit and the outpouring of the spirit on “all flesh”; and both are linked.

Jesus is identified as the promised one on whom the Spirit will remain (John 1.33). This identification took place at his baptism by the visible descent of the Holy Spirit on him in the form of a dove. The story need not imply that the association of the Spirit with Jesus began at his baptism and that he was at that moment adopted as Son of God; John especially saw in the baptism of Jesus the epiphany of the preexisting Son (John 1.29–34), the one in whom the prophetic hope was fulfilled. According to Luke (4.16–21), Jesus explicitly claimed this identity in his sermon at Nazareth; and it is indicated in the nativity stories, where the emphasis is on the conception by the Holy Spirit rather than on the virginity of Mary (Matt. 1.18; Luke 1.35; see Virgin Birth). Further references to the Holy Spirit are not frequent in the Gospels, but they occur at significant points, especially in Luke (4.1, 14, 16–21; 11.20 [cf. Matt. 12.28]; 12.10). It is preeminently in the presence and operation of the Holy Spirit in him that Jesus is authenticated (Matt. 12.28; cf. 1 John 5.6–12); and thus to refuse the testimony of the Spirit is a sin that is infinitely graver than the sin of refusing the testimony of Jesus to himself (Matt. 12.31; John 5.31–36). The life of Jesus is presented as wholly directed by the Holy Spirit (John 3.34), and this note recurs in the apostolic preaching in Acts (e.g., 10.38).

Jesus is not only the permanent bearer of the Holy Spirit; he is also the one who will dispense the gift of the Holy Spirit to others. But this action of Jesus (which is expressed in the future tense in the first three Gospels) does not coincide with his manifestation as the bearer of the Spirit; it is projected into a future beyond the earthly mission of Jesus. There is a stated interval between the epiphany of Jesus and the general distribution of the Holy Spirit. Luke concludes his account of the ministry of Jesus with his command to the disciples to wait for the promise of the Father (Luke 22.49), and in the sequel he measures the period of waiting as fifty days after Easter (Acts 2.1). John expressed the same point in a different way, even though he records the promise made at the baptism of Jesus in the present tense (John 1.33), and he disagrees with the Lucan chronology in placing the gift of the Spirit to the disciples on the evening of Easter (John 20.22); early in his gospel John states that the gift of the Spirit could not be bestowed before Jesus was “glorified,” that is, before he had completed his mission (John 7.39), and later, in one of the Paraclete sayings (see below), he stressed that the departure of Jesus must take place first, no matter how that grieves the disciples (John 16.7).

The five sayings about the Paraclete, perhaps a separate collection before their inclusion in the gospel according to John (14.15–17; 14.25–26; 15.26; 16.4–11; 16.12–15), contain the only formal teaching about the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. The term “Paraclete” (NRSV: “Advocate”) belongs to the language of the law courts, and means a defending counsel, or attorney, as opposed to the accuser, who is called diabolos (“devil,” Rev. 12.10; see Satan). Paraclete is applied directly to Jesus himself in 1 John 2.1, and, indirectly, in John 14.16, where the word “another” implies a similarity between the Paraclete and Jesus himself; the Paraclete will be to the disciples what Jesus himself has been, and the coming of the Paraclete will be equivalent to a coming of Jesus himself (John 14.18, unless this is an allusion to the return of Jesus to the disciples after the Resurrection). But there are important differences, in addition to the sequential relation. The similarities and the differences may be listed summarily: the teaching of the Paraclete will be centered on Jesus and his teaching (John 14.26; 15.26; 16.14); the Paraclete will extend the range of Jesus' teaching to the world (John 16.8); the Paraclete will advance the disciples' understanding of “the truth,” which is identical with Jesus (John 16.13; cf. 14.6); the presence of the Paraclete with the disciples will be permanent, in contrast to that of Jesus, which had to be withdrawn (John 14.16; 16.7); the presence of the Paraclete will be invisible and inward (John 14.17).

The relation between Christ and the Holy Spirit is also close in Paul. The mission of Christ and the mission of the Holy Spirit are virtually indistinguishable; the presence of the Holy Spirit is equivalent to the presence of Christ. The Christ who is designated Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1.4) is no longer to be known according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5.16).

The distinction between Christ and the Holy Spirit, where it appears in Paul, is nowhere expressed in terms of a sequence but rather as one between two sides or aspects of the same act of God; the mission of Christ presents its objective, or exterior, aspect, the mission of the Spirit its subjective, or interior, aspect (1 Cor. 2; Gal. 4.4–6). Paul's main concern is with the reality of Christ for faith; for the reality of Christ is accessible only to faith, and it is made accessible through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.1–15). Thus to be “in Christ” (Rom. 8.1) is the same as to be “in the Spirit” (Rom. 8.9).

The notion of the “seven gifts” of the Holy Spirit, which was developed in Christian liturgical tradition, is based on Isaiah 11.2 (where the Septuagint and the Vulgate add “piety” after “knowledge”), but this number does not cover the endowments granted to different members of the church for the good of the whole; lists of these gifts, called “charismata,” are found at various places in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 12.6–8; 1 Cor. 12).

George S. Hendry