We haven’t even heard that the Holy Spirit Is! — Acts 19:2

This post was suggested by a member of our bible study last night. They had heard that the greek form in Acts 19:2 was a little odd, and thought I might like to do some digging. If you’re not interested in NT greek geekery, then my apologies.

he asked them “did you receive a holy spirit when you believed?”

they answered him “we hadn’t heard there was a ‘holy’ spirit.”

— acts 19:2*, tr. mine.

Acts 19:2 is a conversation between Paul and a group of Ephesian ‘disciples’ who had come to their faith through teaching that clearly wasn’t in line with Paul’s preferred message. They had been baptized with the same baptism as Jesus (John’s baptism of repentance) rather than Paul’s baptism in the name of Jesus (or possibly in the names of the trinity — though it is debated whether this is a slightly later invention).

The interesting thing is that, often in the gospels, the holy spirit is described with the definite article: The Holy Spirit (τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον). But not always, in many cases it is without (πνεῦμα ἅγιον). In the latter case it is the same as the construction used to describe ‘unclean spirits’ (e.g. πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον in Mark 7:25). Luke’s gospel and Acts use this construction for the holy spirit more than others, but it is still rare. In this passage Paul first uses the form, then the Ephesian disciples use the same form back to him. When Paul lays hands on them, however, it is The Holy Spirit, with the definite article, that comes upon them (Acts 19:6)

Translations don’t tend to reflect this. The Holy Spirit is always The Holy Spirit, regardless of whether the ‘The’ is in the Greek or not. Same goes for similar theological spirits such as “The Spirit of The Lord” (Luke 4:18), But unclean spirits, spirits of divination (Acts 16:16), and so on, do get to differentiate between ‘a’ and ‘the’. The ‘a’ form seems to me to reflect the sense of this passage better, so I’ve followed that in my translation.

All of which raises a question I’m not able to answer: at what point in the development of early christian theology did receiving a holy spirit / a spirit of holiness, become receiving The Holy Spirit? It is early, certainly, but are the presence of these kinds of no-article forms indicative of an earlier understanding, or just a random feature of Luke’s writing?

* Apropos of nothing, but this passage obviously seemed awkward to some early scribes. The ‘Western’ text tradition, evidenced for example in Papyrus 48, has the Ephesians replying “we hadn’t event heard that some people had received a holy spirit”, thus making the ‘disciples’ response less a matter of core faith (not even knowing about the existence of one part of the trinity) and more about the mechanics of baptism.

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