Levison, Filled with the Spirit

Levison, John R. (2009) Filled with the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Several months ago I suspended my reading of Jack Levison’s book Filled with the Spirit (see here). At that juncture I had written a little by way of introduction (see here), as well as some commentary on the prescript to part one (here), chapter one (here), two (here), three (here), and finally the postscript to part one and the prescript to part two (here). After meeting Jack at the recent SBL PNW it seems like a good time to resume.

Why? Because I think this is going to be the most important book on pneumatology for some time. It revisits biblical texts in relation to Second Temple Judaism in a similar way to how E.P. Sanders forced Pauline scholars to rethink their presuppositions.

In chapter one of part two, titled “A Wise and Holy Spirit Within”, Levison examines how the spirit provides wisdom to the scribal vocation as seen in Sirach. He observes that “universal wisdom comes to reside in Israel through the word of Torah (Sirach 24)”. (p. 118) This spirit empowers the scribe to do three important tasks: (1) travel; (2) study of Torah; (3) prayer. (p. 120) In contrast to others who see  pneuma as providing ecstatic speech and prophecy, Sirach sees the role of spirit in the scribe laboring to understand Torah (pp. 121-122)

This leads Levison to understand the spirit in Sirach not as “charismatic endowment” but rather something more or less like a human soul (p. 124). In literature like the Book of Daniel it is the spirit within that is stirred up, not an external spirit that comes from without. (pp. 127-130). In the Damascus Document the “holy spirit” is merely the human spirit (pp. 130-133). In Liber antiquitatum biblicarum of Pseudo-Philo the spirit is essential for life of the human, indicating it is something anthropological (pp. 133-140).

What about outside Jewish literature? Seneca understand the holy spirit as something that “dwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. As we treat this spirit, so are we treated.” (Moral Epistles, 41.2) (p. 141) This sounds similar to what we today may say of the conscience. The Stoic idea is that the human spirit is part of a greater divine spirit and this maintains life (pp. 141-142).

Once one has read this chapter it seems evident that this literature, including Wisdom of Solomon, some other writings by Philo, and so forth, depict the spirit, and even the holy spirit, as something intrinsic to human existence (often citing Gen. 2.7).

What does this mean for the common understanding of the “holy spirit”? Does this impact Christianity in any way? We will investigate Levison’s views more when we read those chapters covering early Christian literature. In our next entry we will look at part two, chapter two, “Spirit and the Allure of Ecstasy”.