Levison, THE SPIRIT IN FIRST-CENTURY JUDAISM
Levison, THE SPIRIT IN FIRST-CENTURY JUDAISM

John R. Levison, The Spirit in First-Century Judaism (Brill: Boston, 2002). (Amazon.com)

In The Spirit in First-Century Judaism John R. Levison invites his readers to explore Jewish Pneumatologies as he juxtaposes them with those of the broader Graeco-Roman world. The book is not exhaustive (his 2009 Filled with the Spirit arguably covers more ground), but it does help the reader envision what Levison calls the “exegetical movements” of various ancient authors as they attempt to interpret Scripture in dialogue with the predominate ideologies of their day. Levison’s three primary dialogue partners are Philo Judaeus, Flavius Josephus, and the author of Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, known also as “Pseudo-Philo”. He engages their writings across three primary categories: Part One, “An Anomalous Prophet”; Part Two, “The Eclectic Era”; Part Three, “The Extraordinary Mind”.

Part One is divided into two parts: (1) The Spirit as an Invading Angel; (2) The Spirit as Life Itself. In this section Levison examines places where spirit is depicted as an angelic being who comes from outside the human in order to influence him/her. The interpretive traditions around Numbers 22-24—the story of Balaam—play a predominate role as we see how Philo and Josephus reinterpret this story. There is much emphasis placed on the ecstatic, the possession, where humans lose control of their own thought to become conduits of spirit. In the second part of the section the role of spirit as sustaining force is highlighted, especially places like Genesis 2 where God breathes into the man or the interpretive tradition surrounding Genesis 6:3 wherein the role of God’s spirit to determine life spans in central.

Part Two is divided into three parts: (1) The Spirit and Human Transformation: Palestinian and Diaspora Perspectives; (2) The Spirit and Prophetic Transformation: Palestinian Perspectives; and (3) The Spirit and Philosophical Transformation: Diaspora Perspectives. This entire section focuses primarily on how spirit takes a human from one point to another, whether it be changing someone fearful into a military leader, or altering one’s appearance or rhetorical skills in order to accomplish something important. In gist, when spirit comes upon or arises from within a person they can look different, or become prophets, or even disperse philosophical wisdom and insight.

Part Three is divided into two parts: (1) The Spirit and Extraordinary Insight; (2) The Spirit and Inspired Exegesis. This section discusses figures like Daniel, Joseph, Moses, the Messianic Servant, and even Socrates. When spirit comes upon these people they can foresee important events. They are given insight into matters that cannot be understood by others. In the latter part of this section Levison investigates the tradition of expired exegesis. Whether it be Philo claiming that a spirit within helps him understand the deeper aspects of Scripture, the scribe Ben Sira, or the Teacher of Righteousness discusses in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are those who argued that spirit is needed in a special way to truly understand sacred texts.

While Levison has three primary dialogue partners that does not mean the study is a narrow one. He interacts with Plato and Plutarch, Cicero and Stoicism, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. Levison has a strong grasp on a wide array of literature which will help the reader gain a more thorough and informed understanding of how spirit was understood in early Judaism. The book contains a Preface to guide and a Retrospect and Prospect to help the reader summarize what was said and consider other avenues of Pneumatology worth exploring.

For anyone seeking an entry point into early Jewish Pneumatology, or even the broader Pneumatolgies of the first century, this is an excellent place to start. The book is readable, thorough, informative, and organized with discipline which allows the reader to keep pace and follow Levison’s discussion both when he is introducing new ideas or building off of something presented earlier in the book. It is a book I know I’ll be consulting often.

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