Filled With The Spirit A Synopsis And Explication

Filled With The Spirit  A Synopsis And Explication

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Pneuma 33 (2011) 25-34

Filled with the Spirit: A Synopsis and Explication

Amy M. Donaldsona and Alaine Tomson Buchananb a) PhD, Associate Editor, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan

b) PhD student, Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Virginia


Tis review essay of John Levison’s Filled with the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2009) introduces his book to readers of Pneuma so that even if they have not read it, they can better appreciate the critical analyses in the following roundtable devoted to interacting with him. Te two parts include a broad overview for main themes (authored primarily by Donaldson) and a more detailed iteration of the specifics of the argument (Buchanan).


Levison, Filled with the Spirit, Gunkel, ecstatic inspiration, new creation, Second Temple Juda- ism, early Christian pneumatology


John (Jack) R. Levison is professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific Univer- sity. He is originally from Long Island, New York, and earned his B.A. from Wheaton College, an M.A. from Cambridge University, and his Ph.D. from Duke University. He is the author or editor of books such as Texts in Transi- tion: the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (2000), Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible (1999), Te Spirit in First-Century Judaism (1997), Jesus in Global Contexts (1992), and Portraits of Adam in Early Judaism (1988), as well as author of dozens of articles, essays, and book reviews.1 He is also the founding


John R. Levison, Texts in Transition: Te Greek Life of Adam and Eve, Early Judaism and Its Literature 16 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 2000); John R. Levison and Priscilla Pope-Levison, eds., Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1999); John R. Levison, Te Spirit in First-Century Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1997; paperback edition, 2002); John R. Levison with Priscilla Pope-Levison, Jesus in Global Contexts (Louisville:

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.1163/157007411X554677



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editor of a new book series entitled Ekstasis: Religious Experience from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Walter de Gruyter).

Levison’s interest in the work of the holy spirit was initially sparked by a conversation with a Midwestern minister when he was fifteen years old.2 In that discussion, the minister dismissed any charismatic dimension of the spirit’s activity by arguing that the “perfect” Bible supplants the “imperfect” spiritual gifts according to 1 Corinthians 13:10. From that point on, Levison has explored the nature, character, and workings of the holy spirit with one foot in mainline Protestantism and the other in Pentecostalism. His religious and academic background and experiences led him to use the phrase “filled with the spirit” as his principal lens,3 which proves to be both expansive and open-ended.

Synopsis of the Volume

In Filled with the Spirit, Levison uses as his starting point and conversation partner the brief but groundbreaking work on the Spirit by Hermann Gunkel, Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes nach der populären Anschauung der apostoli- schen Zeit und der Lehre des Apostels Paulus.4 Levison thus begins each of the three major divisions of his book with a discussion of Gunkel. Te Introduc- tion lays out the history and significance of Gunkel’s work on the Spirit and identifies the main ways in which Gunkel’s ideas were innovative. Levison keeps these themes in mind as he embarks on a much more ambitious study

Westminster/John Knox, 1992), and John R. Levison, Portraits of Adam in Early Judaism (Shef- field, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988).


We are following Levison’s lead on writing “holy spirit” without capitalization. Levison notes that Hermann Gunkel distinguished between ruach and pneuma in his book Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes, which prompted a division between the creative spirit-breath of life and the divine spirit in twentieth-century scholarship. He also points out that both ruach and pneuma have a variety of meanings that the English language cannot express; therefore, English transla- tors have to make a decision between words such as “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit” in their transla- tions. Due to the variety of potential meanings, in order to respect the original languages, and since both ruach and pneuma refer to the spirit or breath of God within human beings as well as to the divine spirit or breath God gives as an endowment, Levison chooses to leave “holy spirit” uncapitalized.


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


Hermann Gunkel, Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes nach der populären Anschauung der apostolischen Zeit und der Lehre des Apostels Paulus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1888); Hermann Gunkel, Te Influence of the Holy Spirit: Te Popular View of the Apostolic Age and the Teaching of the Apostle Paul, trans. R. A. Harrisville and P. A. Quanbeck II (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).


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than Gunkel’s, covering a wide range of texts that are arranged in the book under three main categories: Israelite Literature, Jewish Literature, and Early Christian Literature. Te lens that Levison uses to select, investigate, and com- pare the texts is the phrase found in the book’s title, or what it means to be “filled with the spirit.”

Part I, on Israelite Literature, begins by explaining a common construction and, in Levison’s thinking, a misunderstanding of the relationship between the spirit as life-breath — what every human is born with, and what some would associate with the soul — and the spirit as an extra endowment that yields charismatic or special inspiration. Levison argues that for all of Gunkel’s groundbreaking ideas, one place where he erred, along with the scholars of his day and many subsequently, was in taking the early Christian concept of the spirit and charisma and projecting that back upon his reading of the Old Tes- tament. What Levison attempts to do with his survey of Israelite Literature, then, is to consider these texts once again on their own merits, in their own worldview, to show that the spirit as life-breath and the spirit of God were considered to be one and the same.

In Part I, the discussion of the spirit as the agent of life begins with a discus- sion of death. Humanity originates from dust and returns to dust, and in between is animated by the life-force inbreathed — or infilled — by God. Job is an example of this focus on mortality: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, especially with regard to the spirit that gives life. Te same recognition of mortality surfaces in the psalms. In both Job and Psalms, it appears that no distinction is made between the spirit that gives life and the spirit that gives wisdom or inspires the psalmist.

Such wisdom or exceptional ability is also found in the lives of several fig- ures throughout the Hebrew Bible who are described as having the spirit of God: for example, Joseph, Joshua, and Daniel. Did these individuals receive a special endowment of the spirit at a particular moment to enable their feats, or were they graced with a divine spirit or giftedness that they carried with them throughout their lives? Levison argues that it is the latter. Te spirit that fills such people is a lifelong quality, a matter of character, skill, and heart. To be filled with this spirit is to be full, lavishly so, so that the skill and wisdom exhibited by these people is a natural outflowing, and overflowing, of the spirit within them. Tis is the divine spirit, the divine vitality, that gives life to all creatures, found in some people in extraordinary measure. Te life-giving spirit was also promised through Ezekiel to God’s people during the exile, so that they would be reconstituted from dry bones into a renewed body, as in a new Eden, animated and cleansed by the filling of the spirit. Part I, therefore,



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travels from creation to new creation, setting the vitality or fullness of the spirit against the backdrop of mortality, the privation of the spirit. Part II turns to the literature of early Judaism, and it begins by noting Gunkel’s original and important approach of seeking the context for early Christian pneumatology in Jewish literature rather than primarily or strictly in the Israelite texts of the Old Testament. Levison points out, however, that Gunkel’s approach was still handicapped by the prevailing view of his day that Judaism was a legalistic religion devoid of prophecy. Tis view has left its mark on modern scholarship, so that against the backdrop of this Judaism, New Testament experiences of the spirit seem to stand out as a new thing. Part II of Levison’s book sets out to debunk this perception.

Te range of texts and experiences that Levison covers reflects the range and variety that constituted Second Temple Judaism. In these texts, he finds continuation of the theme of filling with the spirit as a fullness of the spirit within. For example, Ben Sira sees the spirit of understanding as filling a scribe through the process of years of dedicated study and experience. Yet, once Greco-Roman culture came to permeate the Jewish worldview, new ideas emerged. Tus arose the paradigm of ecstatic inspiration, in which a spirit comes upon or indwells and replaces the rational mind. Levison points out that such a notion is foreign to Israelite literature but completely consonant with Greco-Roman prophets and poets. With this concept of inspiration also arose a belief in the inspired interpretation of Scripture, so that Philo could assert that the spirit guided him to the allegorical meaning of Torah, and Ezra was portrayed as teeming with a spirit of wisdom and insight that led him to fill volumes.

For all of this emphasis on ecstasy and inspiration, though, Levison returns to the Israelite portrait of the figure filled with a spirit of virtue and justice — a spirit that is human but God-given. Trough Ben Sira and the emulation of Daniel, this figure persists in Jewish literature. During this period, there was also a heightened use, if not a coining, of the term “holy spirit” to refer to the God-given spirit within. Tis spirit is then viewed as a locus of virtue, of holi- ness. Such a view was not in conflict with the image of a spirit that inspired ecstasy. Tus, the spirit was both within and without, the elevation of human virtue and an extra endowment that inspired. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, more- over, an entire community could be filled with the spirit, transforming them into the new Eden and new temple envisioned by Ezekiel. In contrast, then, to the claim that early Judaism was devoid of the spirit, the diverse literature testifies to an era when the concept of a holy spirit developed, people were


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inspired either in their minds or in spite of their minds, and the spirit was seen as infusing both scripture and community. Tis was the immediate backdrop for early Christian pneumatology.

Part III, finally, turns to early Christian conceptions of the spirit. What Gunkel brought to Christian pneumatology was the distinction he made between apostolic and Pauline understandings of the spirit. While the apos- tolic church saw miraculous and supernatural events as intermittent, Paul saw supernatural power as a way of life — life in the spirit. But Levison comments that Gunkel’s distinction is not without its problems. Tere is, in fact, more continuity between Jewish and Pauline conceptions of the spirit than he rec- ognized. Part III’s exploration of early Christian literature therefore moves beyond Gunkel to cast a net wider than merely the book of Acts and the writ- ings of Paul, to include especially the Johannine literature.

Te concept of the spirit that Levison finds in Israelite literature, of a spirit within that may be lavish in wisdom and virtue, appears in the New Testament only in the early part of Luke’s Gospel and in the figure of Stephen, who was full of the spirit and wisdom. Beyond this, the early Christians did not find the same value and hope in the spirit that is within all humanity. Instead, Chris- tians believed they were a new creation, so that what was old or innate was not elevated to a higher and purer level but replaced with a new life and a new spirit. Tis spirit did not reside in all humanity — it was given only after the advent, and ascension, of Jesus Christ. In contrast to Gunkel’s emphasis on divergence, then, Levison finds an overall unity in early Christian pneumatol- ogy, namely, a conviction that the spirit is received as an additional endow- ment, something beyond the innate spirit shared by all humans.

Within this unity there are unique emphases by different New Testament writers. Paul has many points of contact with Ezekiel’s vision of the renewed life and new creation that is brought about through the spirit, but Paul’s expo- sition of the spirit is more situational than systematic, or all things to all occa- sions. Luke is more consistent in portraying filling with the spirit as a source of inspired speech and especially of scriptural interpretation. Even this hap- pens in ecstatic guise at times, so that the believers at Pentecost were mistaken for being drunk, yielding in Acts a combination of ecstasy and inspired intel- lect. In the Gospel of John, the spirit is delivered intimately through an inbreathing by Jesus, bestowing the spirit that will lead the disciples into all truth. Te First Epistle of John carries this portrait into the first generation of the church, depicting a community led by prophets and guided by the spirit to discern truth and error.



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In the Epilogue, Levison clarifies the role that Gunkel plays in this book. Te focus on Gunkel as a framework is not because his ideas play an essential role in Levison’s main arguments. Rather, Levison seeks to honor and recog- nize the daring and groundbreaking quality of Gunkel’s work on the spirit, both in those points that Levison echoes and in those that he ultimately finds incorrect. Tere is perhaps one other resonance between the two authors, unstated here by Levison: he wishes to walk in the footsteps of Gunkel, to present his own groundbreaking work that will shake up the conceptions, and misconceptions, of the spirit. Te very structure of the book, then, invites the audience to follow Levison’s example: to honor his daring and bold work that challenges old ideas and inspires new conversations, to show it recognition both in the points that we hail as correct and in those, as Levison says of Gun- kel, where we may find ourselves at odds with his findings and at loggerheads with his conclusions.

Details of the Argument

Tis section provides a more detailed description of how Levison breaks new ground by uniting together Israelite, Jewish, and early Christian understand- ings of the filling of the spirit. He suggests that the gap between spirit as the giver of life in the Israelite literature and spirit as the initiator of charismatic endowment in Jewish literature and as redeemer in early Christian literature is not as wide as previously suggested. Instead, he argues that the biblical testi- mony as a whole blurs the traditional distinctions of the spirit as immanently constituting human life, of spirit as empowering virtue, knowledge, and skill from without, and of spirit as a cosmic, universal, and transcendent divinity. In other words, the varying perspectives presented in this book refer to differ- ent aspects of the same spirit, aspects that the orthodox and dogmatic tradi- tion has generally distinguished.

Levison divides this book into three parts: ancient Israelite, Second Temple Jewish (175 BCE-100 CE), and early Christian literature. He begins each part with what Levison calls a “prescript,” the purpose of which, as has already been mentioned, is to clarify Hermann Gunkel’s (1862-1932) impact on pneumatology, particularly in the latter’s Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes. Levison critiques and builds upon Gunkel’s initial research by a fresh reading of the “biblical” literature and thus furthers the study of early Christian pneumatology.


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Part I analyzes the meaning of “filled with the spirit” in ancient Israelite literature. Whereas Gunkel understood references to the spirit to be exclu- sively divine, Levison explains that ancient Israelite literature presents spirit that brings life as being no less divine or holy than spirit subsequently received as a temporary or charismatic endowment. Spirit within is the life-breath given by God to every human being. As such, spirit is both divine and human at the same time. Tey are one and the same in ancient Israelite literature. Levison begins with the spirit who inspires and intimately gives the breath of life to Adam in Genesis 2-3. Tis spirit gives life to humanity for a relatively brief period, and then the spirit leaves and the body returns to dust. Te sacredness of this human spirit, the fragility of life, and the reality of death function as focal points for ancient Israelite literature. As such, the spirit fights against death. Job deals with this reality as his spirit struggles between life and death, while his friend, Elihu, only understands the spirit to be that which gives vitality. Other writings such as Psalms and Ecclesiastes express the depar- ture of the spirit at the point of death.

Te spirit restrains “death” through bestowing qualities such as knowledge, wisdom, insight, justice, and skill. Tese God-given qualities can be cultivated and developed through the empowerment of a God-given spirit within. Exam- ples provided include Daniel, whose spirit of wisdom, knowledge, and insight served three generations of kings; Micah, who pursued justice and spoke the truth; Joseph, who interpreted dreams and served as an effective administra- tor; Bezalel and Oholiab, who mastered various crafts and taught their skills to others; and Joshua, who was mentored by Moses and led the people of Israel. On the other hand, Ezekiel presents his understanding of spirit as a revital- izing and renewing agent that opposes death through his vision of the valley of dry bones. In the midst of the death of the people of Judah and of the destruc- tion of the Temple in 587 BCE, Ezekiel finds hope as bones, sinews, and flesh gradually come back together and as the spirit blows new life into these bodies. Tis spirit then creates life afresh and anew for the people of Israel within this valley of dry bones. Tis re-creation is the new heart and new spirit that God had promised them.

Tus within Israelite literature, the same spirit who provides life, vitality, and empowerment for cultivating and acquiring skills, and who fights against death, also re-creates life from death.

Levison next examines the meaning of being filled with the spirit in Second Temple Jewish literature, which includes ecstatic experiences and intellectual insight as further dimensions of the spirit’s activity. Although Gunkel became



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part of the initial history of religions school, he believed that little pneumatic phenomena occurred in the early Judaic period and that John the Baptist was the first prophet since the end of the Persian period to possess the spirit. Sev- eral scholars throughout the twentieth century followed Gunkel’s lead in neglecting the role of the spirit in Jewish literature, as it was believed that the spirit had been lost with the passing of Israel’s prophets. In contrast, Levison presents the phenomena of the spirit in individuals and communities in Juda- ism throughout the Greco-Roman period from approximately 175 BCE to 100 CE. He begins with writings that emerged from the quest to maintain Jewish identity in the midst of an increasing influence of Greco-Roman cul- ture and then moves into later writings that incorporated the emphasis on ecstasy in certain aspects of Greco-Roman spirituality into the understanding of inspiration in Jewish literature.

For example, Ben Sira declares that the spirit of understanding and wisdom can be cultivated through listening, prayer, study of Torah, devotion to men- tors, and service in foreign places. Tis perspective informed the stories of people like Micah, Joseph, Bezalel, Oholiab, Joshua, and Elihu, which flour- ished during this time period.

Te spirit within can also be defiled, exchanged for money, or forfeited, as written in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in Liber antiquitatum biblicarum (by Pseudo-Philo). On the other hand, the author of Wisdom of Solomon sug- gests that the spirit can be trained to flee from deceit, to reject foolish thoughts, and to challenge injustice. Likewise, Philo explains that the pneuma or “mind” rules the soul and can draw a body filled with vice to a life of virtue.

Beginning in the fifth century BCE, the Greek and Roman emphasis on inspiration and ecstatic spiritual experiences in religious contexts eventually made its way into Jewish literature through the influence of the experiences and prophecies of the Delphic Pythia, Cassandra, the priestess of Dodona, and the sibyls. As a result, Philo, Josephus, and Pseudo-Philo imported ecstatic experiences into their description of Israelite personalities such as Balaam, Hannah, Kenaz, and Ezra, all of whom were described as being “filled with the spirit” ecstatically in their respective situations.

Te filling of the spirit also comes through inspired knowledge, according to the hymn writer at Qumran, Philo of Alexandria, Josephus of Palestine, and the author of 4 Ezra. Although each author wrote in different genres at differ- ent times, all of them held in tension ecstatic spiritual experiences, alertness of mind, and the work and filling of the spirit within and as subsequent endow- ment in relation to the inspiration, understanding, and interpretation of


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Scripture. For example, the Dead Sea sect understood the vision of a resur- rected nation in Ezekiel 36-37 to be fulfilled within their community as they believed God had inbreathed new humble and upright spirits within the indi- viduals of their community. Tey also believed that their temple represented the restored and renewed Eden and that they would one day receive all the glory of Adam as relayed in Genesis 2:7.

Troughout Second Temple Jewish literature, then, God’s spirit-breath within serves as the locus of virtue and a sanctuary of holiness, not only for them, but also for Israel’s prophets; therefore, the spirit indwells both indi- viduals and communities, serves to inspire virtue and learning, empowers life together that transcends individual boundaries, and induces ecstasy and intel- lectual insight.

Te spirit as endowment and as the inspirer and director of intellectual and ecstatic speech and interpretation takes center stage in the early Christian lit- erature. Both ecstatic speech and experiences were a product of Greco-Roman influence upon Christianity. According to Levison, Gunkel thought that Paul’s views of the spirit’s activity included miraculous, sporadic, extraordinary, mys- terious, and intermittent experiences as well as constant, typical, ordinary, and permanent workings and interventions of the spirit in the entirety of Christian life. Levison adds that the filling of the spirit in the early church included the spirit’s role as teacher and guide, a recipient of opposition, the enabler of prayer and praise, and the empowerer of prophecy and discernment — all areas Gunkel did not address.

For instance, although John the Baptist, Jesus, and Stephen gradually grew in wisdom via the spirit within, the main consensus of the early Christian writings is that the spirit fills people in various ways upon their faith in Jesus Christ. While Paul uses the language of Ezekiel 36-37 to describe the filling of the spirit in individual believers, the Fourth Gospel describes the intimate inbreathing of the spirit from the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, and Peter understands the filling of the spirit on the Day of Pentecost to be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the spirit would be poured out on all flesh.

Te endowed spirit brings about a new creation, introduces one into the community of believers according to Paul and John, inspires interpretation of Israel’s Scriptures so that the person of Jesus is illuminated, and balances intel- lectual and ecstatic acuity. Troughout his letters, Paul emphasizes these aspects of the filling of the spirit in the life of faith, adoption, holiness, and the pledge and promise of hope for the future. For example, Paul refers to the resurrected body of Ezekiel 37 in his letters to the Tessalonians to describe



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hope for a resurrected body and to Genesis 2:7 to describe Jesus as the new Adam who provides a life-giving spirit. Paul also works through the intellec- tual and ecstatic aspects of what it means to be filled with the spirit.

Luke includes the inspired speech of Elizabeth in Luke 1:41 and the various inspired speeches concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as well as the ecstatic undercurrent in the Book of Acts in his interpretation of the filling with the spirit. On the other hand, the spirit of truth in the Fourth Gospel is contested by the spirit of error in 1 John. In this case, spirit-inspired prophecy corrects the teaching of liars, deceivers, and the antichrist, which the author believed should be exposed.

Overall, early Christian literature expresses that human beings cannot make themselves righteous; only the spirit can. As such, higher value is placed on a subsequent endowment of the spirit over and above the spirit’s enabling the gradual formation of virtue and sagacity. In doing so, the spirit can and does work simultaneously through intellectual and ecstatic experiences.

In conclusion, Levison places the filling of the spirit in the Israelite and Jew- ish literature on par and on equal footing with that of the early Christian lit- erature, even though the understanding of what that means and looks like shifts in different time periods, cultures, and historical situations. In the Isra- elite literature, the God-given spirit breathes the breath of life. In Jewish lit- erature, this spirit can be defiled or sold, promotes holiness, enables virtue and learning, fosters life together, and induces intellectual insight and ecstasy, both separately and together. Te early Christian literature relays that the spirit also “fills” believers upon their faith in Jesus, provides ecstatic experiences and inspired intellect, and unites the community. But the same spirit fills people across the biblical literature.

Te ambiguity of “spirit,” “a spirit,” and “the spirit” is inherent in Levison’s thesis. He presents the “filling of the spirit” as an open-ended and expansive area of study, which suggests that the unbridled spirit works in immeasurable ways in individuals, communities, and even the world at large. Our task has been briefly to summarize the book in order to set the stage for the roundtable discussion to follow; hence we will leave it to Levison and his critics to adjudi- cate these issues.


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