Communication with the Spirit World in Early Jewish and Christian Texts
1. The Johannine Promise of Sending the Spirit[s] of Truth
John 14:16-17“I will ask the Father and He will give another advocate . . . the spirit of truth”
John “. . . the holy spirit that the Father will send in my name; it will teach you everything and remind you of all I told you.”
John “When the advocate comes whom I will send, the spirit of truth that comes from the Father, it will testify to me.”
John 16:12-14 “I have much to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.But when it comes, the spirit of truth, it will guide you to all truth . . . it will glorify me, because it will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
THE spirit of God = EVERY spirit of God – The phrase “the spirit of God” and similar phrases such as “the Holy Spirit” are collective nouns in the New Testament as this text illustrates:
1 John 4:2 “In this way you know THE spirit of God: EVERY spirit who confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”The Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) as a Divine Person of the Trinity was a doctrine that did not develop until the fourth century.
For this development, see "The Spirit (World) and the (Holy) Spirits among the Earliest Christians: 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as a Test Case" in the Menu on the Homepage of this website.
Acts 2:4 “and they were all filled with a holy spirit (= Greek text) and they spoke with other tongues just as the spirit gave them utterance.”
Acts 23:9 “what if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”
1 Cor 12:3 “I want you to know that nobody through whom a spirit of God (= Greek text) is speaking can say ‘Jesus is accursed,’ and only a holy spirit (= Greek text) speaking through someone can say ‘Jesus is Lord’.”
The prepositional phrase en pneumati, “in a spirit,” is used of both holy and evil spirits.In Mark and 5:2 the phrase anthropos en pneumati akathartwis often translated as “a man with an unclean spirit” meaning that the man is possessed by an unclean spirit.In the above passage, 1 Cor 12:3, the prepositional phrase occurs in the context of “a holy spirit” and “a spirit of God”: en pneumati theou lalwn legei, “one who speaks with a spirit of God says,” that is, “one through whom a spirit of God speaks says,” and eipein en pneumati hagio, “to speak . . . with a holy spirit.”This prepositional phrase also occurs in 1 Cor 14:16 below.
1 Corinthians “As for yourselves, since you are strivers for spirits, seek as many different kinds of spirits for the building up of the church.”English versions have “zealous for spiritual gifts” whereas the Greek text reads pneumatwn“spirits,” not pneumatika charismata“spiritual gifts.”
1 Corinthians 14:16 “If you pronounce a blessing as a medium through whom a spirit utters in a foreign language, how shall the others who do not know the language say the ‘Amen’ . . . ?”
1 Corinthians 14:26–27 “When you come together [to enter into communication with the spirit world] each one has [from the spirit world] a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a foreign language, and a translation [of that language].If a certain spirit decides to speak a foreign language, allow two [spirits], or at most, three [to speak], one at a time, and let one spirit translate [the message into the language of the congregation].”
1 Corinthians “The spirits that manifest themselves through the prophets (Greek= ‘the spirits of the prophets’) will obey the prophets.”
1 Thessalonians 5:19–20 “Do not make it impossible for the spirit [world] to communicate with you; do not stifle the utterances of spirits through prophets” (Greek= ‘Do not quench the spirit, do not despise prophesying’)
2 Thessalonians 2:2 “Do not be troubled . . . by a spirit . . . allegedly from us . . .”(indicates that the Thessalonians were receiving communications from spirits, among whom may appear an impostor spirit, a spirit allegedly from Paul and his group).
2 Peter “For not by the will of man did prophecy every come, but men moved by a holy spirit spoke [by the will] of God.”
2. Spirits, Both Good and Evil, Are Able to “Teach”
Luke “the holy spirit [world] will teach you in that moment what you are to say.”
John “the holy spirit [world] . . . will teach you everything”
1 Corinthians “. . . words taught by a spirit . . .”
3. The Purpose of Spirit Communication in Early Christianity: To Reveal and to Spread the Gospel: Christ is Savior and Lord over All
Ephesians 3:4–5 “ . . . the mystery of Christ . . . [is] revealed by means of a spirit . . .” (Most English versions read, “in the Spirit” or “with the Spirit”).
1 Peter “. . . the things that have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news (the gospel) to you with a holy spirit sent from heaven.”
1 Corinthians “. . . we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by a spirit . . .”
1 Corinthians 12:3 – see above; only a holy spirit can declare “Jesus is Lord” thereby referencing Jesus as the risen Lord and all that the title entails for the meaning of the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 15:1–11).
1 John 4:2 – see above; note that a spirit of God CONFESSES Jesus to be “Christ” [Messiah] and to have come in the flesh.
John and John –14 – see above
4. Spirits Utter Prayers Through Persons
1 Corinthians “for if a spirit utters a prayer through me in a foreign language, the spirit, indeed, prays [through] me . . .”
John “those who pray to him [God] must do so by means of a spirit [in the presence of manifesting spirits from the spirit world of God] and truth.”
Ephesians “pray at every opportunity by means of a spirit.”
Jude 20 “pray with [by means of] a holy spirit.”
According to David Aune (Prophecy in Early Christianity [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983] 201, 229) a true prophet, i.e., a Christian prophet, was an “inspired medium of divine revelation” while a false prophet was “a medium through whom an evil spirit spoke.”Both true and false prophets claimed inspiration for their utterances.
5. Spirit Communication in Texts of the Second and Third Centuries AD
Didache 11:7 a true or false prophet might be “. . . a prophet who is speaking with [by means of] a spirit . . .”(here, en pneumati= “with a spirit”)
Didache 11:8, 12 a false prophet “orders a meal with a spirit” and “says with a spirit, ‘Give me money’.”In both cases, the true and false prophet speak en pneumati, “with a spirit,” i.e., speak “while possessed by a holy or an evil spirit.”See 1 Cor 12:3 and above.
The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.5 “for every spirit that is given by God is not questioned; but such a spirit having the power of divinity speaks all things of itself.” Note 1 John 4:2 above.
The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.9 “When a man who has the divine spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in a divine spirit, and this assembly of men offers up a prayer to God, then the angel of the prophetic spirit comes upon him, and fills the man; and the man, being filled with the holy spirit, speaks to the group just as the Lord will.”
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.16.1–17.
The third to fourth century church historian Eusebius records that two catholic bishops, Zoticus of Cumana and Julian of Apamea, attempt to converse with a spirit that speaks through the Montanist prophetess Maximilla:
they “tried to refute the spirit that was in Maximilla,” and they were “present for the purpose of testing and conversing with the spirit as it spoke.”
Their purpose in conversing with the spirit as it spoke is given by Eusebius: the two bishops were attempting “to silence the lying spirit which was leading the people astray.”
Eusebius further records that the Montanists welcomed "a spirit that injured and deluded the mind and led the people astray";Montanus was “a demoniac in the grip of a spirit of error”;
“They [Montanists] were taught by this arrogant spirit to denigrate the entire Catholic Church throughout the world, because the spirit of false prophecy received neither honor nor admission into it”;
The Montanists were also accused of the neglect of careful discernment:
“The spirit bestowed favors on those who were elated and exultant about him, swelling their heads with his extravagant promises.Sometimes it reproved them pointedly and convincingly to their faces, to avoid appearing uncritical–though few of the Phrygians [i.e. Montanists] were deceived.”
Initially, the Montanists were not condemned for their spirit communication per se by the Catholic church of that time.Rather, the contents of the utterances of spirits through Montanus and Montanist prophets and prophetesses were the targets of the church.Once the spirits who were moving among the Montanists were believed to utter blasphemy against the church, as the above quote from Eusebius indicates, then it was an easy step to condemn the spirits themselves and eventually thereafter the ecstatic state, i.e., trance state, itself of the prophet during which the spirit spoke through the prophet.Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5.17.2–3, records this state of affairs:
“The false prophet speaks in ecstasy (ekstasis) . . . .But they cannot show that any prophet, either of those in the Old Testament or of those in the New was inspired (pneumatophoron = ‘moved by a spirit’) in this way.”Ecstasy = ek, “out of” + histemi, “to stand,” so “to stand outside of.”
Tertullian, On the Soul, 9: “We have now amongst us a [Montanist] sister . . . favored with gifts of revelation which she experiences in the spirit by ecstatic vision amidst the sacred rites of the Lord’s day in the church . . . Whether it be in the reading of Scriptures, or in the chanting of psalms, or in the preaching of sermons, or in the offering up of prayers, in all these religious services opportunity are afforded to her of seeing visions . . . all of her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed. . . . She says, ‘There has been shown to me a soul in bodily shape, and a spirit has been in the habit of appearing to me; not, however, a void and empty illusion, but such as would offer itself to be even grasped by the hand, soft and transparent and of an ethereal color, and in form resembling that of a human being in every respect.’This was her vision . . . the apostle [Paul] most assuredly foretold that there were to be ‘spiritual gifts’ in the church.Now, can you refuse to believe this?”
6. The Ambiguity of Spirit Communication Recognized by Early Christians
The Greek noun pneuma, “a spirit,” is used for either a holy or an evil spirit in the New Testament.Christians believed and taught that even deceptive spirits might speak some truth.The present-day categories “spirits,” “angels,” and “demons,” were seamless in New Testament times.Each denoted the same reality: an invisible sentient being.Angels and demons were both called by the term pneuma, “a spirit,” in the New Testament.For example, see Hebrews 1:4,13–14, and Matthew 8:16.
2 Cor 11:4 Paul warns of “a different spirit” that might impart “a different gospel.”
Galatians 1:8 “Even if an angel from heaven preaches to you a gospel that we did not preach to you, let it be anathema.”
2 Thess 2:2– the Thessalonians are warned of “a spirit allegedly from us.”
The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.3 “But he [the false prophet] also speaks some true words for the devil fills him with his spirit.”
Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 1.17 “But among the lies, the false prophets also told some true things . . . they prophesied ‘in an ecstasy’ as the servants of the apostate.”
Clement of Alexandria, Homilies, 17.14 “it is possible that he [a spirit] be an evil demon or a deceptive spirit pretending in his speechesto be what he is not.”
Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 6.8 “‘the devil is transformed into an angel of light.’When about to do what?Plainly, when about to prophesy.”
Cyprian, Treatise, 6.7 “. . . these spirits . . . are always mixing up falsehood with truth.”
Tertullian, Apology, 47 “Everything opposed to the truth has been got up from the truth itself, the spirits of error carrying on this system of opposition.”
The institution of “discerning” or “testing the spirits” was a Christian innovation that implies two realities: (1) the knowledge of the ambiguity involved in communicating with spirits; and (2) the attempts to circumvent this ambiguity by recognizing the “Christian” nature of the spirits by their utterances and behavior through a prophet.
1 Corinthians “discernment of spirits,” i.e., “discerning those spirits who are holy from those who are not by their speech and behavior through a prophet.”
1 John 4:1-3 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see if it is from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.By this you know the spirit of God: every spirit who confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God.”
Didache 11.8 “Not everyone who speaks by means of a spirit is a [true] prophet, but only if he exhibits the Lord’s ways.By his conduct, therefore, will the false prophet and the [true] prophet be recognized.”
The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11.16 “Test by his deeds and by his life the man who says of himself that he is moved by a spirit [to speak].”Note 2 Peter above, “moved by a holy spirit.”
7. A Musical Instrument Simile used to illustrate Christian Deep-Trance Spirit Communication
A simile of a musical instrument is used by Christian authors of the second and third centuries to describe the way in which spirits communicate through OT and Christian prophets as passive instruments in a state of trance.
Epiphanius, Heresies, 48.4, describes the Christian prophet Montanus as a passive medium through whom a holy spirit states, “The man is like a lyre and I strike him like a plectrum, the man is asleep [i.e., in a trance] but I am awake.”
Justin Martyr, Hortatory to the Greeks, 8 “. . . by the gift which descended from above upon holy men, who had no need of rhetorical art . . . but merely to present themselves pure and clean from other [spiritual] influences to the energy of the divine spirit, in order that the divine plectrum itself, descending from heaven, and using righteous men as an instrument like a harp or lyre, might reveal to us the knowledge of things divine and heavenly . . . concerning God, and the creation of the world, and the formation of humankind, and concerning the immortality of the human soul, and the judgment after this life, and concerning things which is needful for us to know . . .”
Athenagoras, A Plea for Christians, 7 and 9 “ . . . the spirit of God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments . . . the spirit making use of them as a flute-player breathes into a flute.”
Clement of Alexandria, Instructor, 2.5 “‘Praise Him on the lyre.’By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the spirit, as it were by a plectrum . . . ‘Our body he calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the spirit, it gives forth human voices.’ . . . For man is truly a pacific instrument [in the practice of Christian spirit communication].”
Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 2 “. . . to be reckoned a true prophet . . . these fathers were furnished with the spirit . . . just as it is with instruments of music . . . like the plectrum in union with them, and when moved by the spirit the prophets announced what God willed.For they spoke not of their own power, neither did they declare what pleased themselves.”
Theophilus, To Autolycus, 2.9 “Men of God, moved by a holy spirit and becoming prophets, being inspired and made wise by God, became God-taught and holy, and righteous . . . they should become instruments of God.”Note that the Greek term pneumatophoron, “moved” or “borne along by a spirit,” is used to slam Montanist as a demoniac, yet is used of both true and false prophets in Hermas, Mandate 11.16, of men moved to prophesy by a holy spirit in 2 Peter 1:21, and here of “men of God.”In the time line, the earliest uses of this Greek term simply denoted possession by any spirit, good or evil.Later, the term came to denote exclusively false prophets moved by evil spirits.See Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5.17.2–3 above.
8. Deep-Trance Spirit Communication Explicitly Described by First-Century Jews
While Christian texts can be quite pithy and occasional in their descriptions of spirits communicating through prophets, Jewish texts of the same era give more detailed explanations for the same phenomenon that is described in Christian texts.
Philo, Heir of Divine Things, 265 “This is what regularly befalls the fellowship of the prophets.The mind is evicted at the arrival of the divine spirit, but when that [spirit] departs the mind returns to its tenancy.”
Comment: Philo is describing a deep-trance state, a state necessary for a spirit to enter into and take temporary possession of a prophet.Once the spirit leaves the prophet’s body, the prophet regains consciousness or “the mind returns to its tenancy.”
Philo, Heir of Divine Things, 266 “For indeed the prophet, even when he seems to be speaking, really holds his peace (is silent), and his organs of speech, mouth and tongue are wholly in the employ of Another [i.e., the divine spirit], to show forth what he wills.Unseen by us that Other beats on the chords with the skill of a master-hand and makes them instruments of sweet music, laden with every harmony”
Comment: Philo is describing divine spirit possession from the perspective of a spectator: to all outward appearances, the prophet is speaking insofar as the movement and utterance of his mouth and tongue indicate (“seems to be speaking”).The prophet’s vocal chords, however, are being controlled by a foreign spirit and not by the prophet’s own spirit that has been temporarily jettisoned, or in Philonic terms, “his mind has been evicted.”Spirits entering the bodies of prophets and speaking through them is a phenomenon invisible to the normal human senses, hence Philo’s statement that such activity is “unseen by us.”
Philo, The Special Laws, 4.49 “For no pronouncement of a prophet is ever his own; he is an interpreter prompted by Another in all his utterances, when knowing not what he does he is filled with inspiration, as the reason withdraws and surrenders the citadel of the soul to a new visitor and tenant, the divine spirit which plays upon the vocal organism and dictates words which clearly express its prophetic message.”
Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities, 28.6,10 “And when they had sat down, a holy spirit came down upon Kenaz and dwelled in him and put him in ecstasy, and he began to prophesy, saying. . . . And when Kenaz had spoken these words, he was awakened, and his senses came back to him.But he did not know what he had said or what he had seen.”
Comment: As in the Philo descriptions, Ps-Philo describes the effects of a holy spirit that enters into a person in order to communicate matter to a gathered assembly.The phrase “put him in ecstasy” refers to a deep-trance state.The phrase, “he was awakened, and his senses came back him” references coming out of the deep-trance state at the departure of the holy spirit.Amnesia accompanies a deep-trance state, hence Ps-Philo states that Kenaz “did not know what he had said or had seen.”
9. Prophetic Amnesia in Early Christian Prophecy
The Greek phrase en pneumati, "in a spirit" or "with a spirit," was believed by the church father Tertullian to be the form in which Christian prophecy took place. As we have seen above, this is not unlike what we find in 1 Corinthians 12:3, 14:2,16 and the Didache 11:7,8,12 where the phrase en pneumati is used to indicate a spirit speaking through an entranced prophet. As a proponent of Montanism, Tertullian shared the belief that Christian prophets went into a trance state or in "ecstasy" as another spirit utilized the prophet's vocal chords to speak. In his Against Marcion, 4.22.5, Tertullian states, "And therefore, because it was 'in the spirit' that he had now spoken, and not in his natural senses, he could not know what he had said." Notice here that speaking "in the spirit," i.e., in a trance state while another spirit is speaking, results with amnesia once the prophet awakens from the trance state, a state that is called a kind of "sleep" in another text describing the manner of Montanist (Christian) prophecy: "The man is like a lyre and I strike him like a plectrum, the man is asleep [in a trance] but I [the spirit] am awake" (Epiphanius, Heresies, 48.4). This is a clear indication that amnesia occurred subsequently to the speech of the spirit through the prophet.
Amnesia was also the hallmark of demonic spirit possession.John Cassian, ca. fourth century–ca. fifth century, records two types of demonic possession, those who “are affected by them [demons] in such a way as to have not the slightest conception of what they do and say, while others know and afterwards recollect” (Conferences 1.12).Cassian describes a deep-trance state with amnesia and a part-trance state wherein the ecstatic condition is less intense.Prophetic amnesia, then, was a product of both holy spirit and demonic spirit possession.