I have pointed out that the earliest Christians believed they were living at the end of time and that in fulfillment of the promises of Scripture, especially in the Old Testament prophet Joel, they (or at least many of them) believed God had sent his Spirit to guide and direct them in these final days before the Kingdom of God arrived. We find this idea in the letters of Paul (our first Christian author), in the book of Acts (e.g., on the Day of Pentecost in ch. 2), and elsewhere in the New Testament.
In this post I want to point out that when later Christians told their stories about Jesus they took this belief that the Spirit had come upon them and applied it to the (earlier) life of Jesus, saying that the Spirit was particularly manifest in his life, since he was the one who inaugurated the end of time.
You get some a whiff of that view already in the Gospel of Mark. When Jesus is baptized in the opening chapter, the Spirit of God descends from heaven and comes “upon him” (Mark 1:10). Actually the Greek is a little odd here; the preposition Mark uses typically means “into.” Did the Spirit enter *into* Jesus at that point?
The Spirit certainly was believed to come upon and into believers after Jesus’ death, at least according to some of our early writings (Paul, Acts). Of all the Gospels, it is Luke that places the greatest emphasis on the role of the Spirit in the life of Jesus. For example:
- Jesus’ virgin mother becomes pregnant when the Holy Spirit “came upon” her (1:35);
- The Spirit identified Jesus as the Son of God already when he was an infant, through the prophet Symeon (2:25)
- The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism “in bodily form” (a phrase found only in Luke; 3:1)
- Jesus returned from his baptism “full of the Spirit” and the Spirit then “drove him into the wilderness” to be tempted by the Devil (4:1)
- When Christ returns from the desert and enters into the synagogue in Nazareth, he proclaims himself by declaring that the Scripture from Isaiah that says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” so that he can miraculously do good for people has now been fulfilled in his own life (4:14-18)
And so on. Jesus receives the Spirit, is directed by the Spirit, does miracles by the Spirit – all in anticipation of what will happen to his followers after his death.
It is important to remember that Luke and Acts are written by the same author, as two parts of the larger story. Luke gives the beginning of the new era brought by God through Christ, in recording Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection; the book of Acts picks up immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, with his commission to the disciples to proclaim the Gospel once “the Holy Spirit comes upon” them (ch. 1). That then happens on the day of Pentecost (ch. 2); and throughout the account of Acts – which covers the first thirty years of the spread of the church – the Spirit is incredibly active.
The author, in other words, shows that the Spirit is the link between the life of Jesus and the life of his followers. Like him they get baptized, receive the Spirit, heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead; and all along their powerful preaching and deeds are directed by the Spirit. This link, then, between the earthly Jesus and his later followers, through the Spirit is an important literary motif for the author of Luke-Acts.
And this understanding of the role of the Spirit shows that (some) early Christians believed the Spirit was some kind of divine being that was not God the Father himself (who sent the Spirit) or Christ his Son (who was empowered by the Spirit). The Spirit was some kind of tertium quid, a third divine being. And yet these early Christians, so far as we can tell, never deviated from their monotheistic belief – there was only one God.
None of our early Christian authors articulated how that could be, how God could be God and Christ be God and the Spirit be God, but there be only one God. It might seem absolutely incredible to people today to think that no one bothered to realize there was a problem here, that the Christians conceived of three distinct entities, all of them thought of as God, but continued to say there was one God. Even so, I need to be clear: the term “trinity” never appears in these early writings (not until Tertullian around 200 CE). The writings provide no reflections on how the three all existed and were not the same but there was only one God.
It is completely inappropriate for us today to think that these early Christians – at least the highly educated ones — MUST have thought there was a Trinity, or that they MUST have reasoned it out, or that they MUST have had an explanation. There’s no evidence they did so.
Whenever I myself think: “Look, the MUST have. It would be incredible if they didn’t,” then I think about all the other people in the world today, billions of them, who believe contradictory or at least seemingly inconsistent things without working them out and putting a label on their solution (whether in religion, social policy, scientific “knowledge,” or whatever). People believe contradictory things all the time, even if it is impossible for contradictory things to be true. If you don’t think so, I’d suggest you re-read Alice in Wonderland:
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”