Filled with the Spirit

Written by John R. Levison Reviewed By William W. Combs

John Levison is professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University. The title of this book is easily misleading if one is accustomed to thinking in normal theological categories. In fact, Paul’s classic text on being filled with the Spirit in Eph 5:18 is not even mentioned in the book. Yet Levison chose this title because he believes his study of the literature of the OT, extrabiblical Jewish literature, Greco-Roman materials, and the NT suggests that “filling with the spirit” best describes the spirit’s presence in the lives of these ancient people. The uncapitalized “spirit” is deliberate on Levison’s part.

Part one deals with Israelite literature—the OT. Levison does not write in a normal academic style, interacting with the text and scholarly literature; instead, we are treated to a rather novel but interesting prose narrative journey through selected OT texts, beginning with the creation account. It is a fascinating journey, filled with the author’s idiosyncratic understanding of numerous texts. For instance, when the psalmist pleads, “do not take your holy spirit from me” (Ps 51:11), “holy spirit” is not to be understood in anyway related to the Trinitarian Holy Spirit, but as an aspect of the psalmist himself, similar to the heart (p. 31). Basically, the spirit in the OT is the human spirit. When Bezalel is said to be “filled with the spirit of God” (Exod 31:2), nothing more is meant than Bezalel’s human spirit was “richly enhanced with wisdom, insight, and intelligence” (p. 62). Filling with the holy spirit in the OT is about the “expansiveness” of the human spirit within (p. 66).

Part two surveys Jewish literature produced from after the exile until the Christian era. Levison begins with Ben Sira and Susanna and finds, as in the OT, that all references to the spirit, even the holy spirit, are to be identified with the human spirit, not any sort of endowment from God. The same is true for the Wisdom of Solomon. But the Greco-Roman culture of the pre-Christian era challenged this understanding of “spirit.” The oracles and prophets of Greece were frequently described as filled with the spirit, although the precise nature of this is unclear. This produced uncontrolled prophetic ecstasy, sometimes described as madness and drunkenness. According to Levison, this caused Jewish writers like Philo to describe “the entire race of Israelite prophets as ecstatics, whose minds are ousted when the divine spirit takes up its tenancy” (p. 176). This influence will be seen in the NT literature.

Part three examines Christian literature. First, Levison tackles the idea of “filling” in the letters of Paul. As I noted earlier, the one place where Paul specifically uses filling language, Eph 5:18, is not even discussed. For Levison any text that speaks of “giving the spirit” or “having the spirit” is subsumed under the idea of “filling.” The author takes us on an interesting tour of a number of Pauline texts, but sometimes the search for the origins of Paul’s ideas leads to some improbable connections. For instance, after nicely explaining the concepts of “seal” and “pledge” in 2 Corinthians, Levison then argues that Paul borrows these metaphors from the story of Judah and Tamar in Gen 38. This must be the case, says Levison, because Gen 38:18 “is the only instance in the Hebrew Bible where the Hebrew words ‘seal’ and ‘pledge’ occur in intimate association with one another” (p. 257). Paul describes the holy spirit so as to reflect the language of the story of Tamar and Judah because their offspring, Perez, was the ancestor of David. Levison also argues that Paul’s ideas about the holy spirit were formed from his acquaintance with the Qumran community (p. 271), even though there is no real evidence that Paul had any contact with this community.

Luke’s understanding of the spirit’s filling is not far from the kinds of ecstatic experiences claimed by the oracles and sibyls of the Greco-Roman world of the first century (p. 331). Paul encountered one of these pythonic spirits in Philippi (Acts 16). He commanded the spirit to leave the slave-girl, not because this was in any way a demonic spirit, but because Paul was simply annoyed by her yelling. She was, strangely enough, actually proclaiming the true gospel.

While this book makes for a remarkable read, it does not really fall in the evangelical tradition. It appears to be a history of religions approach to the idea of the spirit in ancient Israel that developed and was enlarged in the Christian era through the influence of extrabiblical sources such as the Greco-Roman religions and Qumran. Levison’s understanding and explanation of these sources is informative and helpful, but not really convincing as the source of the NT’s teaching about the Holy Spirit.

William W. Combs

Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

Allen Park, Michigan, USA

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