5 Aug 2020

“And She …” The Feminine Holy Spirit in Ancient Christianity

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church, Church History, Culture, Holy Spirit, Jewish Backgrounds, Women, Worship
Charlesworth is one of the leading scholars on the Odes. His very readable translation is a joy.

Non-Western Christianity of Syria

Disciples of Jesus in Europe and North America have a “culture” and “vocabulary” of Christianity that is profoundly Western. Even disciples who are not Roman Catholic (indeed even anti-Catholic) or do not consider themselves Protestant are profoundly shaped and molded by centuries, centuries and centuries of how Christian faith has been expressed in the West.

We often are, seemingly, unaware that there are non-western “cultures” of Christianity. They are as ancient, indeed more ancient, than any western expression of the Way. They are located in the same geographical area that Christianity emerged:


For two thousand years Christianity has flourished in places that are rarely associated with Christ followers by Americans today. The Way, or Christianity, already existed in Damascus (Syria) before Saul of Tarsus was called to be an apostle. Disciples of Jesus were in Antioch (also in Syria) before Saul/Paul was called. This form of Christianity knew Greek but its native language was Aramaic/Syriac. It was Jewish or “Oriental” in orientation. These disciples of the Way have basically the same books of the Bible that Western Christians had (their “Old Testament” usually contains what Protestants call the Apocrypha and the books of the NT). These Christians sometimes expressed their faith in ways that may help us in the West. For more on ancient non-western Christianity see my review of Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity.

Odes of Solomon: Ancient Hymnbook

The earliest, that is the oldest, Christian “hymnbook” outside the Book of Psalms itself, comes from these Syriac speaking Christians. It is called the Odes of Solomon. The collection dates to about AD 100 though incorporating material that was obviously sung before getting put in the collection (the book of Odes contains 42 songs similar in style to the Psalms).

The Odes reflects the worship and beliefs of first century Christianity and on into the second centuries and whoever used the Odes thereafter. The Odes are beautiful and moving. Themes that appear frequently in the Odes of Solomon are: God is the Loving Father, Christ is the Word, he Holy Spirit is an ever present help. Many scholars have noted connections between the Odes and the thought world of the Gospel of John.

What is interesting is how these early Christians referred to the Holy Spirit in the feminine gender and often startling images of God the Father. In a most vivid description of the Father and Holy Spirit and the Virgin Birth we read some, for westerners, surprising words. But this shows the intimacy in which these early Christians viewed themselves in relation to God and they recognized that God is not ontologically male or female. Ode 19 says,

A cup of milk was offered to me,
and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness
” (v.1)

The Lord is gracious and takes care of his children. But watch what happens.

The Son [Jesus] is the cup,
and the Father is he who was milked;
and the Holy Spirit is SHE who milked him;

Because his breasts were full,
and it was undesirable that his milk
should be released without purpose.

The Holy Spirit opened HER bosom,
and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

Then SHE gave the mixture to the generation
without their knowing,
and those who have received it
are in the perfection of the right hand.

The song then speaks of the Virgin Mary who becomes pregnant and bears the Son (the one the generation received, but did not know it). The song shifts to speaking how the Virgin Mary bore the Son, cared for the Son and served and protected him in love. It does all this in eleven verses.

These Christians embrace images from Scripture like 1 Peter 2.3 (‘newborn infants craving spiritual milk) and Isaiah 46.3-4

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been born by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made you, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save

And Isaiah 49.15-16

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have you inscribed on the palms of my hands

And Jesus’s unforgettable parable of God as a woman and her lost coin in Luke 15.8-10.

Yet these images of the Father and the Spirit startle us. Not because they are unbiblical but because we have not integrated the biblical imagery of the divine feminine into our religious vocabulary and culture. But it has been there all along. All that humanity is (male and female) is reflected in the Trinity.

God is not ontologically male or female but whatever humanity is, male and female, it is created in the “image” of God. Unlike in Greek, the word for “Spirit” in Syriac is … feminine (it is neuter in Greek). The Holy Spirit is “feminine” and is referred to as a “she” in almost all early Syriac Christian writings.

Much depends on the language we speak (the “culture” in which we live). These ancient Christians remind us that God is not a man (i.e. male) and that males are more in the image of God than females. No the God in whose image we are created is reflected in both maleness and femaleness. It may have a significant impact on how one treats the woman sitting next to you in worship or meet on the street if every time I speak I speak of the Holy Spirit’s activity I say,

And She …

You can get James H. Charlesworth’s translation of the Odes of Solomon by clicking on the link.


One Response to ““And She …” The Feminine Holy Spirit in Ancient Christianity”

  1. Jerry Starling Says:

    Very interesting. This information SHOULD stand some of our traditions on their head! (But I doubt very much that it will. Sigh!) The traditions are so deeply engrained in us, and we have preached them so long that our hearts are hardened to any ‘new’ (ancient) information. How many preachers even know (or think about) the fact that Deity is neither male or female (except for Jesus, who was born male and still retains his human body)? Then to learn that in the heart language of the 1st century the Holy Spirit is described with the feminine ‘she’ is a real shock to the system.

    Thanks for this post.

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