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The In-Breathing of the Spirit (John 20:22)

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.””— John 20:19-22 (NRSV).

40-days-with-the-holy-spirit-17Jack Levison’s new book 40 Days With the Holy Spirit is filled with insights about the Holy Spirit. The book is divided into several brief meditations on the Spirit — and the language the Scriptures use to  speak of the Spirit’s role. Dr. Levison holds the W. J. A. Power Chair of Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. He has written about the Holy Spirit before: The Spirit in First Century Judaism (1997), Of Two Minds: Ecstasy and Inspired Interpretation in the New Testament World (2000), Filled with the Spirit (2009),  Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (2012).

And, in reading this new book, I came across a insight about the passage above that was new to me. I am quite familiar with the passage that reads: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”” Some scholars call this the Johannine Pentecost — the Gospel of John’s way of speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the Christian believers. More traditional believers have had some difficulty reconciling this bestowal of the Holy Spirit with the later event of Pentecost — wondering when the Spirit really came upon the first disciples of Jesus.

But, I had never looked closely at the language used here. The typical translation “he breathed on them” (understandably) tones down the language. It really says: “he breathed into them and said….” Levison writes:

But translators usually avoid the appalling intimacy of inbreathing by saying Jesus “breathed on them,” in the way, I suppose, we might breathe on our glasses or a mirror before cleaning them with a rag. This is a mistake.

Indeed it is. Looking at the passage more closely, I discovered that the language here is quite interesting — just as Levison says. When I looked up the verb used in verse 22 for “breathed” I discovered that it was ἐμφυσάω — a word that means “to blow or breathe into, inflate” [Mounce Greek Dictionary]. Levison writes:

Breathing into someone is more intimate, more intense, more indiscreet than breathing on could ever be.

Dr. John R. (Jack) Levison

Dr. John R. (Jack) Levison

And, he also cites places in the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures (called the Septuagint or LXX) were this verb ἐμφυσάω appears. It appears in Genesis 2:7 where it speaks of God breathing life into the first human being: ἐνεφύσησεν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πνοὴν ζωῆς (“breathed into his face the breath of life“). It appears again in 1 Kings 17:17-24 when the prophet Elijah lays on the widow’s dead son, face to face, and breathes life back into him. In the Septuagint it reads καὶ ἐνεφύσησεν τῷ παιδαρίῳ τρὶς (“and he breathed into the boy three times“). It appears in Ezekiel 37:9-10 when, in the prophet’s vision, the Spirit of God enters into the dry bones to bring them back to life: ἐμφύσησον εἰς τοὺς νεκροὺς τούτους (“breathe into these corpses“). Levison writes:

In each case, Spirit-breath enters into a body to bring it to life. Adam, once dust, now pulses with life. The widow’s son, once dead, comes alive, turning a mother’s bereavement to delight and praise. Israel, once a hopeless heap of bleached bones, turns inot a nation looking to its future. And, finally, in a private upper room, it occurs again. This time, Jesus gives to his friends the newfound authority of the Spirit, to forgive or not — but not from arms length. The very personal act of inbreathing turns into a fresh call for his frightened and timid friends.

That is a remarkable new insight into that passage of Scripture that I must confess, I hadn’t looked at it that closely before.

This insight is found already in Day 6 of Levison’s 40 Days With the Holy Spirit. I am looking forward to many more insights to come. The book is well adapted for use by individuals in personal study or by church study groups. It might be a good thing to read during the 40 days of Lent.

Just so you know: this book was sent to me by Paraclete Press — in the hopes that I would mention or review it, no doubt, but without any promise on my part, either stated or implied, that I would.

I am only mentioning it here because it is an excellent book, written by a recognized scholar and filled with wonderful insights.


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2 Responses

  1. Jack Levison February 14, 2015 / 7:43 pm

    Thank you, Craig, for such an appreciative and interesting essay. I talked about this interpretation with some colleagues in Leiden, and a German colleague referred me to the remarkable photo of a kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker–kissing.

    Again, Craig, thank you so much. I hope you do discover insights as you read further. I so appreciate your taking the time to write about Forty Days with the Holy Spirit.

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