The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit

The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit

by Adolf Holl

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Adolf Holl's divine biography examines the life of the Holy Spirit in the context of the history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Interweaving scholarship with religion, myth, and culture, Holl expertly traces the influence of the Holy Spirit on men and women from all walks of life, over the course of centuries.  The result is quite unlike


Adolf Holl's divine biography examines the life of the Holy Spirit in the context of the history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Interweaving scholarship with religion, myth, and culture, Holl expertly traces the influence of the Holy Spirit on men and women from all walks of life, over the course of centuries.  The result is quite unlike anything written before.

The Holy Spirit inspired a few Galilean fishermen to find the courage to preach a new world religion.  The Jews recognized it as the breath of God.  Mohammed was inspired by it in the dictation of the Koran.  Yet this same spirit has moved individuals to rebel against convention, authority, and even sanity.  Through Holl's freewheeling yet always crystal-clear discourse, we see how the Holy Spirit informs an incredible array of beliefs (including those underlying the rituals of Appalachian snake handlers) and ideas (the works of Freud and James Joyce are among the many discussed).

When the book was published in Germany, Der Spiegel wrote, "Holl has presented a formidable history, linking together the most distant things in a surprising way and leaving the whole as a paradox.  He leaves it to the reader to judge the encounter with the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of the divine in the human being--or as a case for the psychiatrist."

Whatever the reader's conclusion may be, The Left Hand of God is sure to be hailed as a major religious publishing event.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Now that Jack Miles has written God's biography, it's only fitting that someone write a biography of the third person of the Christian Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Yet this is less a biography than an episodic novel. Holl (Jesus in Bad Company) traces the "life" of the Holy Spirit from the baptism of Jesus, which Holl calls the "first decently reliable news about the intervention of a Holy Spirit," to the Spirit's dictation of the Koran to Muhammad and the influence of the Spirit on Freud, Jung, Rilke and Joyce. Holl ranges through an incredible body of literature and religious history as he chronicles the activity of the Holy Spirit. He also encourages readers to determine whether the reported activity is the work of a divine Spirit or simply the workings of the human mind. While Holl's ideas are certainly playful, this is a confusing book. He treats synonymously the Holy Spirit--a distinctly Christian phrase that has limited religious currency--and the Spirit, which he uses to refer to just about any quality of the human personality. Even though the book is eloquently written, and equally well translated, it simply fails to deliver what it promises. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
Holl, chaplain of and a theology lecturer at the University of Vienna, was suspended from teaching in the Catholic Church for some of his heterodox notions, but this book is a mellifluous testimony of faith from start to finish. Holl captures the contradictions inherent in the personage of the Holy Spirit, who is described one moment as a pacific, "still small voice" and the next as a tongue of fire. He takes as his canvas the history of Western religion and philosophy (though his attention to Judaism and Islam, which he examines as manifestations of the Holy Spirit, suffers when compared with his easy familiarity with Christianity). Holl is also conscious of the Holy Spiritþs role as a political subversiveþthe oppressed can tap into the Spiritþs immediate authority, which transcends all earthly control. The book is arranged somewhat chronologically, beginning with a quick look at the Old Testament, followed by New Testament events like the unexpected descent of the Holy Spirit onto Jesus and the gift of tongues on the Day of Pentecost. (Holl pairs this latter incident with an account of the Pentecostal movement in the US in the early 20th century; he does history a real service by crediting the movementþs founding to its true leader, the African-American preacher William Seymour, rather than to the white pastor who has traditionally gotten top billing.) Holl continues the story of the Holy Spiritþs workings through the rise of Islam, as well as the monastic movement and various "heretical" groups in Christianity. The last third of the book explores the Spiritþs entanglements with some great modern thinkers, including James Joyce, Martin Heidegger,Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone Weil, and Sigmund Freud. This section is, of course, less overtly "religious" than what precedes it, but its implicit message seems to be that the Spirit is at work even in a modern society where philosophers have found it irrelevant. A provocative read, gracefully translated from the German.

From the Publisher
"For years the Third Person of the Christian Trinity has either been neglected or just demoted to second-class status.  This book almost makes up for all that....The book may annoy some people but it will inform and (may I say it) entertain more."
—Harvey Cox, Thomas Professor of Divinity, Harvard University and author of Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century

"At this first time in history when all world religions can talk and meet, it is so important to see the work of the Holy Spirit in a broader and non-denominational way.  Adolf Holl has created a masterpiece of scholarship, history, readability, and a vocabulary for holiness."
—Rev.  Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Center for Action & Contemplation, Albuquerque, New Mexico

"Adolf Holl gifts us with an urbane, sardonic travelogue of the Holy Spirit's manifestations through history.  Writing in a punchy yet lyrical style, the author is no pedantic guide, but rather a raconteur for whom every moment is equidistant, and Joachim of Fiore (d.  1201) rubs shoulders with Hitler and Stalin.  There will be no other book about the Holy Spirit quite like it."
—Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation, Auburn Theological Seminary, New York, and author of The Powers That Be

"What a brilliant idea, brilliantly realized! Who or what is this mysterious third member Who (or which) proceeds from the Father and the Son: A dove-like creature? A beam of light? A violent wind? The Word spoken through the prophets? The force that could pull off an immaculate conception? The terror of the Apocalypse? Holl gives us the history, the sociology, the literature, the theology and the politics of the Holy Spirit.  This 'biography' is a fascinating and important book."
—James Reston, Jr., author of The Last Apocalypse

"Behind every religious belief lies breath, ruach, pneuma, animus, pure spirit, the very stuff of the soul—all of it very hard to handle.  But Adolf Holl has done just that.  With The Left Hand of God and a generous, eclectic and evolutionary approach, he has succeeded—perhaps as well as anyone can—in laying the Holy Ghost."
—Lyall Watson, author of Gift of Unknown Things and Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil

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Chapter One


IT WAS HIGH TIME FOR A NEW GOD. TO BE sure, the priests of Jupiter were busy as of old, maintaining good relations with the higher powers, and all around the Mediterranean the Divine Wife had her altars, where pilgrims submitted their petitions and the sick hoped for a miracle.

    But more and more foreign cults from the eastern parts of the Roman Empire were appearing alongside the traditional gods. Noblemen's sons, dissatisfied with the faith of their fathers, were traveling from the Tiber to the Nile to be initiated into esoteric mysteries.

    Now and again an imported deity even managed to acquire a temple in Rome. None, however, got so far as to reign supreme in the sacred sphere from Spain to Syria, from Africa to Britain.

    This is how things stood when the followers of a certain Chrestos began to cause a stir. This remarkable sect agitated among the lower working classes and the slaves, shunned the public baths, the chariot races, and the gladiatorial combats, and preached contempt for the gods. No one was very disturbed when the authorities took severe measures against these opponents of religion.

    What was known about them was scanty enough. They prayed to a Jew who had been crucified as a criminal; they met in secret, never failed to support one another, had congregations in every large city, and were tightly organized.

    And they believed in God--not the conventional, generic designation used for the plural gods of Mount Olympus, but the absolute, singular entity in the otherworldly realm, next to whom the familiar multiplicity of celestial beings shrank down to a demonic deception.

    Against all expectations, this God, of Jewish origin (like the man who died on the cross), rose to become the central religio-political authority in the Roman Empire, with well-known consequences for Europe and the rest of the world.

    Behind this amazing sequence of events was a hidden force that the Christians, right from the beginning, called the Holy Spirit.

    Further reports about the workings of this force are quite fragmentary. It hides between the lines of the basic Christian texts and gives itself away only through hints that seem encoded, as though it wanted to deny its decisive role in the salvation process.

    Whoever can crack the code and read the signs will see the beginnings of Christianity in a different light. Considered in this light, those beginnings suggest a condition that in our narrow-minded times would probably be seen as a psychiatric disorder.

    Then Jesus becomes a man possessed; the only question is by whom or what.

    For thoughtful people, the answer to this question is almost certainly not to be found in the Bible.

A Dove
from Heaven

           THE FIRST DECENTLY RELIABLE NEWS about the intervention of a "Holy Spirit" in the course of earthly events comes from the second decade of our era. In those days, it is written in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And at once, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you." In Matthew's Gospel, the apparition that Jesus saw is called "Spirit of God." Luke is the clearest of all. The Holy Spirit, with the definite article, descended on Jesus out of the opened heavens "in a physical form, like a dove." Finally, in the fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is presented as a witness: "I saw the Spirit come down on him like a dove from heaven and rest on him."

    Therefore, only Jesus and his baptist discerned the manifestation of the deity in dovish form. So the question suggests itself: How did they both know that the heavenly bird embodied, of all things, the Holy Spirit? Not a single passage in the Hebrew Bible mentions the Spirit of God in connection with a dove.

* * *

In the stories, as they circulated among the followers of both Jesus and John and were later included in the Christian Gospels, one can still notice the original tension between the two men. They appear as a pair of rivals, like Romulus and Remus or Cain and Abel. One of them must die, and in this case it is John, for whom the executioner is already waiting; the decision, however, is first made in the visionary space that envelops the two ecstatics. In this space, other certainties hold sway than those of the humdrum world. The thing that takes shape out of the cascading light of the opened heavens, descends as a dove, and finally stops, hovering above the chosen one--this must have its origin in the divine sphere, must, for devout Jews, come from Yahu (Yahweh), the Most High (praised be His Name), whose exhalations have always quickened the prophets: God's Spirit, ruach yahu. And there's another, simultaneous decision, concerning which baptism the heralds of God's oncoming Kingdom will ordain in the future--not the baptism in water, but the baptism "with the Holy Spirit."

    And at once, Mark goes on, the Spirit drove him into the desert. That makes it clear how the new baptism works, first of all for Jesus, the Nazarene, whom the dove has marked as the favorite of heaven. John, the baptizer with water, must exit. Hereafter the spiritual dove is never sighted again.

And the Jordan flows on into the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, where Lot's wife stiffened into a pillar of salt because she was too curious. There, surrounded by inhospitable desolation, Jesus is to encounter another spirit, not a holy one this time, but the dastardly adversary called Shaitan. In this flat stretch of desert land he commands the numberless djinns, a tumultuous, twittering retinue of half-demons that bear the mantle of the Prince of Darkness. Spirits are everywhere, partly incarnate, not gods, not beasts, not human, sexless, with claws, beaks, goggle eyes, scales, tails.

    But Jesus, as Luke emphasizes, is "filled" with the Holy Spirit, and his victory in the power struggle is assured from the outset. Into the mad-house of the spirits bursts God's command: Hear ye! No others before me! All homage to me alone!

    At once the fiends disperse in every direction, desisting until the next attack. Already the flame-faced messengers are approaching from Yahweh's throne in order to boost the exhausted man's failing energy. Angels looked after him, Mark comments. Then, he continues, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. Current conditions will soon change, All Things Will Be Made New, Abraham's table is already laid for the hungry, heaven on earth, Thy Kingdom come.

    The people who hear the new sound most clearly are those who are possessed. Already, with the Nazarene's first entrance into the splendid temple in Capernaum, the action begins, as though on the stage. A man begins to bellow. The "unclean spirit" (Mark) that has taken possession of him speaks in the first-person plural; he's not the only one who's nervous: "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God!"

    So the demons know what's going on. Now the man from Nazareth must show what he's capable of. The preacher has already turned into an exorcist. Two harsh commands are aimed at the center of the disturbance: "Be quiet! Come out!" Immediately the body of the possessed man goes into convulsions. The occupying force is not ready to withdraw so abruptly. Finally comes a long-drawn-out shriek, the signal for departure. Then silence. Mutterings in the crowd: "He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him."

Matthew and Luke have information about the exorcised spirit's next moves. When it comes out of a man, it goes through waterless country looking for a place to rest, but cannot find one and returns thereupon to its former home, finds it vacant, swept clean, chilly. Takes seven more spirits, craftier than itself, and together they go back into the deserted house and live there.

    That sounds fairly dangerous. The world of the evangelists is filled with spirits, much as the island of Bali is for its present-day inhabitants.

    Thus the evangelists insist all the more energetically upon the uniqueness of the Spirit that has taken possession of the Nazarene. Only this Spirit "from above," as John's Gospel describes him, may bear the attribute of holiness. It must be he who has chosen Jesus as Israel's Redeemer, as the mashiah (that is, the Messiah, literally "the anointed one," in Greek, christos). Without this Holy Spirit, Jesus would never have become Christ, and the religion that traces itself to Jesus Christ would have had to look for another name.

Huff and Puff

        NO, CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A RELIGION of the book, at least not originally. The Nazarene left no writings behind. Do not cling to me, the Jesus of John's Gospel admonishes his loving friend, Mary of Magdala. Thus does he fend off as well any attempt to pin him down in written words. Apparently Jesus had no time to bother with paper and writing tools. From the start, therefore, the holy scriptures that were written about the Nazarene after his death incurred the suspicion of having distorted his original intentions. And this is why surreptitious traces of a profound self-irony sometimes emerge--perhaps unintentionally--as they do, for example, in the apostle Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians, where he says that written letters kill, but the Spirit gives life.

    Here, in the middle of Paul's text, the divine principle of origin, under the name "Spirit," without whose intervention the Nazarene would have remained a carpenter, balks at the written word's tendency to fix its subject.

Geist ("spirit"): with this word the Germanic peoples, when they came to be baptized, translated the Greek word pneuma (spiritus in Latin) in the Bible. Pneuma was in turn a translation of the Semitic root rwh, feminine in gender, pronounced ruach in Hebrew and rucho in Syriac; its original meaning was "air in movement."

    Indeed, the Germanic Geist did have in common with the Semitic ruach incorporeality, as well as a certain liveliness; but the scorching wind from the Arabian desert, likewise called ruach in the Hebrew Bible, could mean nothing to the men of the north.

    In John's Gospel, on the other hand, the original sensuousness of the ruach is still there: the pneuma blows wherever it pleases. You hear its huff, but you cannot tell where it's coming from or whither it's puffing. So it is with everyone born of the pneuma.

    The pneuma in the Greek original of this passage quite clearly betrays the feeling for language characteristic of the Semitic tongue from which it was translated. The quotation lets the ruach blow like a violent storm, but soon uses it as a metaphor for a sudden, transforming force that makes a new person of whomever it strikes.

    Accordingly, the process indicated here would be quite stormy, and this, again, must remain as foreign to the essentially sedate German spirit (holy or not) as an Oriental market.

    On the other hand, the 378 passages in the Hebrew Bible that mention the ruach readily associate it with everything that runs athwart the monotonous course of things, whether it has to do with the creation of the world or an outburst of rage, with Yahweh's condescension to the man Moses, with the resuscitation of dead bones, the guarantee of Samson's unprecedented physical strength, ecstatic runners racing for God, the metamorphosis of a guerrilla such as David into a respectable king. As soon as the ruach comes blowing down, the sons and daughters of Israel begin prophesying, young men have visions, councillors are haunted by dreams of the future, and God makes a new testament.

So also in the case of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph's son. How the ruach exercised this man, whose earlier life remains obscure, is betrayed by a little word that the evangelist Mark, to no particular purpose, lets slip some forty-one times: euthys. This word is a mere filler, easily overlooked, occurring at the beginning of many a sentence, connecting one episode to the next: right away, just then, immediately, at once.

    This little word gives a driving tempo to the Nazarene's life. For something like a year he must rush breathlessly from one appointment to the next, until it's all over for him. In Mark's Gospel, the staccato pulse of the ruach starts the moment Jesus climbs out of the waters of the Jordan after his baptism. At once heaven is torn open, the dove descends, the imperious voice rings out. And at once the ruach casts its man into the desert. Jesus beckons to Simon and his brother, and immediately they leave their nets lying on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and run after him. And as soon as the Sabbath comes, Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum. Right away the possessed man cries out.

    And so forth, all through Galilee, then on to Tyre and Sidon, down to Jericho, and finally up to Jerusalem for the Passover, where Jesus is arrested, and where the last euthys hastens his delivery to Pilate, early in the morning of Good Friday, the day that will bring him to the cross.

    Jesus is allowed to take his time only after his death, during the course of his deification, his enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and for this no further euthys is necessary in the Gospel according to Mark.


           A HEBREW INHERITANCE IS EVIDENT, therefore, in this spiritual acceleration of the ruach, of the One whose name pious people in Jesus' time no longer pronounced for fear of offending God. On this account the ruach of God was provided with the definite article and the attribute of holiness by those who, under the impression of their Master's divine power, were together with Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan until his crucifixion on Golgotha.

    As mentioned, this Holy Spirit was in something of a hurry, and news of such urgency had been announced for some time in certain tracts that constituted a new kind of disaster literature. It flourished between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D., and it was written by impatient Jews for whom the old era couldn't run its course fast enough. One of them called himself John and his little book "Apocalypse of Jesus Christ." Apocalypse means "revelation," and the book later gave its name to the entire genre.

    It is highly unlikely that this author had ever looked the living Jesus in the eye, despite the fact that he gave himself the name of one of the Nazarene's disciples. For the writer of the Apocalypse, the earthly Jesus had been a terrifying figure whose voice sounded like the rushing of a mighty waterfall, whose eyes were like a burning flame, and whose feet seemed to be made of white-hot iron.

    The author affirms, right at the beginning of his work, that he heard this figure's voice while "in the Spirit" one Sunday on the island of Patmos, and thus he claims for himself the same heightened awareness that was granted to Jesus and John when they caught sight of the dove at the end of the twenties (A.D.), in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius' reign, as Luke tells us. Since then a few more world rulers had traveled on to Hades, among them the arch-enemy and persecutor of Christianity, Nero, who died in the year 68 after the birth of Christ. On the other hand, according to the evidence of John's Apocalypse, which was written down in the last years of the Emperor Domitian's reign--the date can be worked out to around the year 95--the Holy Spirit was still very much alive.

    The addressees of the Apocalypse, seven Christian societies in as many cities, all mentioned by name and lying in the western portion of what is today Turkey, apparently knew the meaning of "in the Spirit" as well as the author did--otherwise he would surely have explained it to them. They were likewise informed about the speech habits of dragons and about the significance of the number 666, as well as other arcana that were to cost later exegetes many a brooding hour. So esotericism was rampant in the Christian circles of Ephesus and Pergamum, where the faithful bent to study copies of the Apocalypse. He who has an ear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Seven times the author repeats the instructions from on high that were the cause of his writing, so that there can be no doubt that his pen was guided, not by writer's vanity, but by the holy pneuma, the ruach of the Lord Jesus, the faithful witness, the first-born from the dead, the highest of earthly kings.

    Those to whom John's Apocalypse is addressed are not invited to make any common textual study or enjoy any reading pleasure, but to swerve into a sphere of spiritual experience that embraces both the Lord Jesus and the author and even includes his readers, who are apostrophized in his work as seized by the Spirit and whose ears hear only if they have become inspired ears. The Holy Spirit, whatever he may have to say in detail, has become the sole medium for those he favors, and this medium is the message as well.

    The nonfavored--that is to say, "dogs, fortune-tellers, and the sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters, and everyone of false speech and false life"--remain "outside," locked out by the Spirit-Medium. In the apocalyptic scenario, the sphere of spiritual experience is that of the sects.

In the inspired space that the author of John's Apocalypse spreads open "in the Spirit," fierce energies are mobilized--fear and trembling, vengeful thoughts, pleasurable anxiety, certainty of victory. From the fifth chapter on, Jesus Christ as sacrificed Lamb, fitted out with seven horns and seven eyes, steps onto the visionary stage; he appears in a total of twenty-eight passages in the text, a monstrous central figure disinclined to put up with any nonsense. Emphasis is laid upon the Lamb's mighty wrath. He has scarcely opened the first four seals of the scroll wherein is written the fate of all mankind when the steeds of the apocalyptic riders break into a trot, and they aren't bringing anything pleasant. And they were given authority over a quarter of the earth to kill by the sword, by famine, and by plague, and through wild beasts. The psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung certified that the author of the Apocalypse spun an extensive web of resentments, that a veritable orgy of hatred, wrath, and blind destructive fury worked itself out in fantastic, terrifying images perhaps comparable with the outward manifestations of deep psychosis. Of course, this leaves open the question of whether the Holy Spirit or the unknown writer on Patmos bears responsibility for the furious galloping of the Apocalypse.

    Maybe they both do. By way of exoneration of the Holy Spirit, it turns out that his mouthpiece cheated a little with regard to the originality of the visions he described. The four remarkable beings who appear in his fourth chapter, for instance, didn't originate in a vision, as the author claimed, but were copied out word for word from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Little effort is required to pick out examples of other borrowings from the apocalyptic literature. These demonstrate that the author of John's Apocalypse was well-read, but do not unconditionally attest to his qualifications as a virtuoso ecstatic. Perhaps his situation resembled that of the Swedish mining engineer and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, who now and again, while merely reading a sacred text, suddenly found himself "in the Spirit," chatted with angels, and even encountered various apocalyptic dragons. Sixteen hundred years lie between Swedenborg and the drafting of the Apocalypse, but such a length of time is apparently of no consequence when the next world comes to life.

A key word of great significance has just been dropped: psychosis. This word occurred to Jung as he was reading the Apocalypse, but he was far from equating ecstatic religiosity with madness. He knew it was unlikely that a world religion was based on the jabbering of lunatics. Jung thought of himself as a physician. While Christians wrangle about the proper perception of the truth, the renowned psychologist wrote, the doctor is busy with an emergency. Whoever has investigated schizophrenic delusions knows about the appearance of archetypal motifs in the psyches of people who have never heard of mythology.

    In the course of his own therapy sessions, one of Jung's colleagues, the Prague psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, came across those same collective, prototypical images that Jung called archetypes. At first Grof worked with LSD, then with hyperventilation or accelerated breathing. By these means participants are able to reach an altered state of consciousness and to experience once again the trauma of their birth, with all the anxiety and trepidation that accompany the unborn child as it makes its way into the light of the world. Grof expressly mentions apocalyptic visions in his account of the various images that are sighted on such a journey. Dragons, for example, may appear, or angels and devils in deadly combat, right up to the final release from all anxiety, with a great deal of light and radiant colors, as in the last two chapters of John's Apocalypse, where the bride of the Lamb comes down from heaven in the form of a golden city with twelve pearly, glittering gates.

    Grof makes no sharp distinction between psychotic disturbance and mystical ecstasy. He simply accepts the ability to integrate one's experiences into everyday life as the boundary line between a clinical and a religious episode. According to Grof, the "transpersonal" sphere includes both saints and madmen. This conclusion is theologically acceptable too.

For the devout in Ephesus, where the monumental temple of many-breasted Artemis stood, or for those in Pergamum, where the colossal statue of Zeus loomed above the city, everyday life was determined by powers that they as Christians rejected out of hand. The Apocalypse inculcated in them, "in the Spirit," the belief that soon all heathenish abominations would turn into a wasteland in the course of a single hour and become a landscape of ruins, fit only for archaeologists.

    This notion wasn't completely false, as the intervening time has proved. Of course, it took a few hundred years for the Apocalypse's visions of doom to become reality. Right at the outset, the Secret Revelation emphasizes that the time is near, and shortly before the end the imperious divine voice says, I am indeed coming soon. What was meant by that, neither the author nor the addressees of the Apocalypse could know. They took the Holy Spirit literally, which was a mistake.

    Admittedly, without this mistake they would have been forgotten long ago.

After Easter

         THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT DURING the sixty-five years between the baptism of the carpenter's son and the dictation of John's Apocalypse reached its absolute high point in the weeks that followed Christ's death on the cross. The executed man's comrades, both men and women, must have experienced what happened during that period in distinctly different ways, if the Gospels, which were put in writing several decades after the events, are to be trusted.

    Sometimes it is a stranger who, at the crucial moment, lets himself be recognized as the man heretofore believed dead. Another time the corpse itself, with the stigmata of its wounds still fresh, joins the distraught apostles through closed doors and accepts their hospitality. Or a young man, clad in white and stationed in the empty tomb, gives the frightened women a lecture on the enormity that has taken place: "He has risen, he is not here." For another witness, the sight of the grave cloths lying in the tomb is sufficient to make him believe. Even a representative of skeptical reserve, the doubtful Thomas, puts in an appearance, as though the text wanted to make an ironic allusion to the traps that scientific thought can fall into. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, the doubter is told. Thereafter comes Christ's ascension, before the eyes of the faithful, with the promise that the exalted one will soon return. Seven weeks after Easter, in the firestorm of Pentecost morning, the Holy Spirit at last manifests himself definitively. He is the unremittingly effective gift of grace, bringing the new Israel a supremely reinvigorated prophetic power among the peoples.

Now, all this happened a good while ago, and the generations following the Christian Big Bang must consider themselves latecomers, superficially baptized as they are. In the Easter stories that are read to them, what is most important remains unsaid. A change in each individual consciousness took place among those who bore their Jesus to the grave and then made ready to go back to their fishing boats and cooking pots, and nowhere is it revealed how such a change was brought about.

    At first, the apparition of the living corpse in their midst spreads horror among them, and the ghost's comforting words--that he isn't one--merely indicate the abyss that had to be bridged over before terror could transform into jubilation. Did this jubilation among an inner circle of the Jesus Group, which comprised a dozen people at most, then spread to the rest of his followers? If so, a riddle still remains: How did such a congregation of jubilators mutate into the energetic divine messenger service that set off along the roads of Palestine, Syria, Arabia, and Asia Minor in order to spread the news that an executed Jew had snapped his fingers at death?

All that has been preserved is a couple of obscure allusions (for the latecomers to decipher) to the manifestations of the Spirit that occurred between Easter and Pentecost in the year of Christ's death. We are told that the Master, returned from the kingdom of the dead, breathed on his disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Another passage asserts: "We are well aware that we have passed over from death to life." Peter tells of how the Holy Spirit came down on him and the other apostles; it was a kind of outpouring, and they were filled with mighty eloquence and rhetorical power.

    Sleep deprivation may have played a certain role in all of this. We're informed that the men and women who had been especially close to Jesus occupied an "upper room" in Jerusalem after their Master's ascension, so that "with one heart" they might stay together there "constantly in prayer." This snapshot, if it happens to be correctly lighted, shows a primary group of an exceptional kind, jolted by God. It's hard to imagine that these people attached much importance to an undisturbed night's sleep during their wanderings with the nervous Nazarene. Then came the anxiety of the last few days after Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, a time filled with forebodings of inevitable disaster. So you had not the strength to stay awake with me for one hour, says the Master on the night of his arrest to the exhausted, drowsy disciples. At the first cock crow early on Easter morning, after the petrified bewilderment of Holy Saturday, a few women run out to the tomb and are immediately surprised by some exceedingly vivid manifestations of the other world. At first the men maintain their reserve, but they are quickly swept up in the events that turn the slain man into a victor, until he dissolves in air and leaves an empty place at the table where they were wont to break bread with him, in that upper room that is mentioned only once, without any further explanation.

    That's because there is no explanation. The unique, unrepeatable group dynamic that developed in the days before the Pentecostal explosion and pulsated among persons of Jewish descent--they are called by their names--cannot be observed through the keyhole. All we can see are a few overexcited men and women who have little time for personal hygiene, who, when hunger makes itself felt, distractedly chew one or two bites of food, who sleep little, and who have only one thing in mind: to fill the new void at the center of their community with the presence of him whom they so sorely miss. Maranatha. "O Lord, come!" Normally such a droning as this leads to nothing whatsoever, even if it lasts for hours, unless God the Holy Spirit should feel moved to occupy the power vacuum and take over this already fairly flipped-out bunch of analphabetic housewives and fishermen, who will shortly be convinced that they have a permanent connection to the enthroned glory wherein Father and Son live eternally, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

    Amen. After nine o'clock in the morning of Pentecost Sunday, the permanent connection is live, the Spirit machine has begun its work with a firestorm, it's anno Domini 30 if the details are correct. The latecomers would be happy to learn how the Holy Spirit picked out his four evangelists during the course of the next forty years and would be particularly interested in everything worth knowing about how the Christian Bible came into existence, but unfortunately they must content themselves with a couple of the apostle Paul's Epistles, dictated during the fifties A.D., and with the first twelve chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, which were written down in about 70 A.D. Neither the Epistles nor the Acts offer useful particulars about the Holy Spirit's methods of insinuation, the so-called inspiration responsible for the stern, gentle prose that later, throughout the Christian era, queens and shoemaker's apprentices, popes and nuns, conquistadors and colonized peoples would read on their knees.

    For a hundred years, Bible scholars among the latecomers have been tormented by the question of which of Jesus' Gospel sayings actually could have originated with him, and which were formulated only after his death in the religious circles of those who believed in his resurrection and hoped he would return soon to judge the world. These included Jews and Greeks, Egyptians and Syrians and Romans, for the Good News traveled fast.

    As academic teachers, biblical commentators cannot allow any confidence in the workings of the Holy Spirit to influence their scholarly prose; they must remain objective as they conduct their researches. If they are reasonably sure that one of the Nazarene's important sayings was coined only twenty or thirty years after his death, they speak of "communal formulation," as though familiar biblical quotations could be summarily ascribed to the self-importance of religiously inflamed loiterers. Such foolishness doesn't begin to account for the fact that the Bible was for so long the most popular of all books.

    It was for this reason that the philosopher Ernst Bloch (d. 1977), that fascinating messianic Marxist, thought little of such parade-exegetes as Rudolf Bultmann. His "de-mythologizing," according to Bloch, calls all cats black, all fairy tales old wives' tales, and fails to hear Prometheus' voice in the murmuring of the myths.

    Biblical scholars, therefore, cannot be expected to provide answers to the latecomers' questions about the origin of Western book culture. Erudition is capable, at best, only of indicating the basic political, social, and economic conditions in which the fundamental writings of Christianity were composed.

    Such an overview permits the discovery that in the Holy Land, just at the time of the Holy Spirit's most intense inspirational activity, a war broke out that was to have disastrous consequences for the people of Israel.

Not a single stone will be left on another. That, according to Mark, is what Jesus said as he gazed on the temple in Jerusalem, which was regarded as one of the wonders of the world. No other of the Nazarene's prophecies was fulfilled so precisely. Of the whole magnificent edifice only a single wall remains, which King Herod's workers had taken ten years to erect and which was not even fifty years old at the time of Christ. The work of mass destruction that went on in the summer of the year 70 A.D., the Romans' answer to four years of insurrection in Judea, deprived Abraham's descendants of their political and religious center. It would not be recovered until the State of Israel's victory in the 1967 Yom Kippur War.

    But, strangely enough, the writings of the Christian Bible make no direct mention of either the Jewish War or its gruesome end. Only indirectly, in one of Jesus' threatening speeches, is there a reference to the armies that will surround Jerusalem and lay the holy city desolate.

    Considering the obvious hostility that all four evangelists felt toward "the Jews" (see the Gospel of John), this silence seems astonishing. Today there is a nearly unanimous assumption that the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. If this is true, we might well ask why the evangelists passed up this opportunity to rub the Jews' noses in the destruction of their temple as a divine punishment for their disbelief.

    Did the Holy Spirit refuse to allow such nastiness? After Auschwitz, it would be nice to be able to imagine such a thing. But, unfortunately, it's well known that God generally prefers to duck unpleasant questions.

Bibble, Bubble, Babble

         IT TOOK THREE HUNDRED YEARS FOR Christian believers to agree upon which Gospels were inspired by the Holy Spirit and which were not. The rejected Gospels, and there were many of them, were withdrawn from circulation. That some of them have nevertheless survived is a fact known only to specialists. In keeping with official ecclesiastical regulation, the Holy Scriptures of the "New Testament," as available in bookstores, comprise the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus fourteen Epistles attributed to Paul, a couple of other letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Apocalypse of John, for a total of twenty-seven different Scriptures.

    These have frequently been too few for people who were vigorously seeking God. Despite the fact that the canon of divine revelation had been authoritatively fixed, such people couldn't really believe that the Holy Spirit had ceased all activity around the year 100 A.D. The most meteoric proponent of this sort of spirituality was Thomas Muntzer, who was beheaded in 1525 for his part in the German Peasants' War. If a person all his life has neither heard nor seen the Bible, Muntzer announced, he could still, like all those who wrote the Holy Scriptures without the aid of any books at all, have an undeluded Christian faith through the righteous teaching of the Holy Spirit. Thus did Muntzer assert, cheekily enough, the essential contemporaneity of all those who came afterward with the writers of the Holy Scriptures, provided the latter-day faithful stood under the afflatus of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther then reacted to his radical colleague with appropriate severity, accusing him of having mocked the entire Bible by calling it "bibble, bubble, babble." Muntzer had, in fact, used language just as strong as Luther's. A person who knows nothing about God's inward word in the depths of his soul, Muntzer wrote, must remain ignorant, even if he's gobbled up a hundred thousand Bibles.

    It's not readily possible to reconcile the written principle, as represented by Luther, with Muntzer's spiritual principle. In the one case there is an appeal to established writings, in the other to their eternally present source. Ernst Bloch found that the figure of the solitary, spiritual person, which appears very early in the history of Christianity, can be understood as the prototype of creative people in the modern age.

    This is a lovely compliment for the Holy Spirit, and it comes from an atheist to boot.

Meet the Author

Adolf Holl lives in Vienna, where he was Chaplain of the University of Vienna and a lecturer in its Department of Catholic Theology. Because of conflicts with Church authorities, he was suspended from his teaching and priestly duties. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Jesus in Bad Company, Death and the Devil, and The Last Christian: A Biography of St. Francis of Assisi.

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