Monday, January 16, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: Jewish Background on the ‘Spirit of Prophecy’

Although Judaism at the time of Jesus had no unified or centralized system of belief, there was an understanding of the Spirit which influenced popular expectations. Hebrew had become a specialized literary language which was replaced in common usage by Aramaic and Greek translations of the Scripture. The Aramaic translations were called Targums. In the century before the time of Jesus, both in early Targums and other Jewish writings we see the emergence of an expectation of a phenomena called the “Spirit of prophecy.”

Scholars have pointed out that this term referred to the Spirit acting on a person as the organ of communication between that person and God in a manner that is broader than usually though of by the term ‘prophecy.’ Max Turner (Holy Spirit, 6-12) has pointed out four distinct activities of the Spirit that were attributed to the coming of the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ in Jewish expectation. The first is the reception of charismatic revelation and guidance in the form of supernatural knowledge about someone or something without the added dimension of the reception of inspired speech or ‘prophesying.’ The second is the reception of charismatic wisdom following the archetypical example of Bezalel who crafted the Temple furnishings through a special infilling of the Spirit in Exodus 31:3. This gift can also relate to the charismatic wisdom afforded to understand God’s Word (Sirach 39:6). Less commonly the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ can mean Spirit inspired prophetic speech in what we more typically think of as prophesying.

The classic example would be the inspired speech of Balaam in Numbers 23-24. Balaam was supposed to utter a prophetic curse against Israel on behalf of Balak, King of Moab, but under the inspiration of the Spirit he utters prophetic words of blessing instead. The Jewish historian Josephus comments on this passage that Balaam was possessed by the Spirit of God and that the Spirit “gives utterance to such language and words as it will, and of which are unconscious” (Josephus, Antiquities, 4.119). Finally, Turner points to the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ as “invasively inspired charismatic praise or worship.” This might be analogous to the experiences of the bands of prophets in 1 Samuel 10, and 19. The Aramaic Targum to 1 Samuel 10:6 reads; “And the spirit of prophecy from before the Lord will reside upon you, and you will sing praise with them, and you will be changed into another man. Later rabbinic tradition linked this type of inspiration to the inspired Song of Moses in Exodus 14-15.

The coming of the Spirit at the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2 would be understood against these popular Jewish expectations. This would especially be connected with a future expectation that God would pour out the Spirit of prophecy on all of a restored Israel (Joel 2:28-32, cf. Ezekiel 36:27) the very passage quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:17-21).

Further Reading:

Gonzalo Haya-Prats, Empowered Believers: The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011)

Max Turner, Power form on High: The Spirit in Israel’s Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts, (Sheffield: SAP, 1996).

Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, (Paternoster Press, 1996/Hendrickson, 1998).

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