In one of your pages, you report that Mr. Jochen Katz claims that there is a contradiction in the Qur’an, when it in one place (2:97) identifies the angel Gabriel as the entity which brought the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad (sAas), while in another place (16:102) it identifies the entity as ‘the Holy Spirit’. Muslims do not see any contradiction in this, but instead take ‘the Holy Spirit’ to be a name or title for Gabriel, since after all angels and spirits are both celestial beings.
However, to a Christian, the Holy Spirit is part of God in the Trinity and thus can hardly be the same as an angel. So, Christians are not satisfied with the Muslim response.
But did Christians at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an have the same understanding as today? Mainstream Christians certainly did, but there were many Christian movements that are now considered heretical, such as the Nestorians (who believed that Jesus only became divine as an adult) and the Monophysites (who believed that Jesus was only divine and not human), which were still popular at the time of the Prophet (sAas) even though they had first come onto the scene one or more centuries previously. Could there have been any heretical belief concerning the Holy Spirit that dated to only a few centuries before the coming of Islam?
This essay will look at the Holy Spirit in Jewish thought during the Talmudic era (circa 50-400 CE) since this is the background for the development of Christianity, and then at some Christian writings on the Holy Spirit from around 50 CE and from around 360 CE.
The Holy Spirit in Jewish thought
The book ‘Everyman’s Talmud’ by Abraham Cohen provides an introduction to the Holy Spirit in Talmudic thought:
Another Rabbinic concept to indicate the nearness of God and His direct influence on man is that of Ruach Hakodesh (the Holy Spirit). Sometimes it seems to be identical with the Shekhinah as expressing the divine immanence in the world… More often it is employed to describe the endowment of a person with special gifts. Prophecy, in the sense of the ability to interpret the will of God, is the effect of which the Holy Spirit is the cause. Its possession also endows one with foreknowledge (p. 45).
The similarity between this belief and the Qur’an’s statement that ‘the Holy Spirit’ brought down the Qur’an should be obvious.
This belief is expressed in a number of other passages from the Talmud, which are quoted below:
The Holy Spirit alighted on Solomon and he composed three books: Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes (Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 1.1)
Hezekiah said to him, ‘The reason is that I have seen by the aid of the Holy Spirit that worthless children will issue from me’ (Berachot 10a)
By means of the Holy Spirit, Rabbi Meir knew what had happened… (Sotah 16d)
When these workmen came to Solomon, he foresaw by means of the Holy Spirit that they were to die in the course of the year… (Pesitka 34a)
Which [David] foresaw by the Holy Spirit would enslave Israel… (Midrash 66b)
As Abigail told David through the medium of the Holy Spirit… (Midrash Rabbah Ecclesiastes iii. 21)
The Holy Spirit in early Christian thought
In the Bible book Acts of the Apostles, after the Holy Spirit has come and given the apostles the gift of speaking in foreign languages they did not know before, Peter quotes the Book of Joel from the Old Testament to explain what has happened:
But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: `And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:16-21).
This is clearly referring to various forms of God’s discourse with human beings. Thus Peter’s understanding was the same as that of any Jew of the period, which has been described above.
Furthermore, in his Epistles, Paul often describes the workings of the Holy Spirit in ways that are consistent with this understanding:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)
By the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ, (Romans 15:19)
And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, (1 Corinthians 2:4)
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
For our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. (1 Thessalonians 1:5)
From this we can see that the first generations of Christians held views of the Holy Spirit that were consistent with Jewish thought of the time.
Let us now look at the situation about the year 360 CE. In her book ‘A History of God’, Karen Armstrong, a noted British scholar of religion, describes Christian beliefs regarding the Holy Spirit during the fourth Christian century. It should be noted that the Gregory of Nazianzus quoted in this passage lived from 329-391 CE, so he was probably writing in the year 360 or later:
The Cappadocians were also anxious to develop the notion of the Holy Spirit, which they felt had been dealt with very perfunctorily at Nicaea: ‘And we believe in the Holy Spirit’ seemed to have been added to Athanasius’s creed almost as an afterthought. People were confused about the Holy Spirit. Was it simply a synonym for God or was it something more? ‘Some have conceived [the Spirit] as an activity,’ noted Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘some as a creature, some as God, and some have been uncertain what to call him’ (p. 115).
From this, it does not sound like the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity had been developed at all until that time! Armstrong goes on to describe how the Cappadocians (Gregory of Nazianzus was one of them, from Cappadocia in what is now Turkey) studied the Bible, decided that the Holy Spirit must be divine and from this worked out the doctrine of the Trinity that is familiar today.
During the Talmudic period (c. 50-400 CE), most Jews understood the Holy Spirit to be something sent by God that was responsible for prophecy and revelation. The early Christian writers like Paul understood it the same way, and it appears that many Christians continued to do so even as late as 360 CE. If Gabriel was accepted as the angel of revelation, then none of these people would have been surprised that the Qur’an referred to Gabriel as ‘the Holy Spirit’. They certainly would not have thought of the Holy Spirit as God, or as part of God in a Trinity. It is not unlikely that many Jews, and perhaps some Christians as well, even a couple of centuries after this period continued to understand the Holy Spirit as the spirit of revelation, and thus the Jews and Christians of Arabia may not have been surprised at all by the Qur’an’s identification of the Holy Spirit as Gabriel.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. Copyright 1993, Ballantine Books, New York
Cohen, Abraham. Everyman’s Talmud. Copyright 1949, Shocken Books, New York