Friday, July 17, 2009

Ruha d-Qudša

James McGrath has just mentioned his interest in the Mandaeans. This is perhaps as good a time as any for me to bring up the gender of the holy spirit in Aramaic. The holy spirit for the Mandaeans was a female deity of ambiguous moral nature. Jorunn Jacobsen writes,

    Mandaeism presents Ruha (Spirit) largely as a leader of the forces of darkness opposing those of the Lightworld. Traditionally, most scholars have labeled her as evil, and it is true that she possesses abundant negative traits. One of her epithets is Ruha d-Qudša (Holy Spirit), a devalued Christian Holy Spirit, it seems. A mistress of the detested Jewish god Adonai, Ruha is also the mother of the malignant zodiac spirits and of the planets.

    Still, there are good reasons to see Ruha as a fallen wisdom figure, resembling Sophia (Wisdom) in other Gnostic traditions. Mandaean materials testifying to such a view of Ruha include passages in which she speaks and behaves in ways one would not expect of a force hostile to the Lightworld. She displays dramatic mood swings, suffers, and utters revelatory speeches uncharacteristic of a figure of darkness. Instead of seeing these passages as atypical occurrences thwarting a scholarly, imposed negative pattern, I think it is useful to take them as clues to Ruha's own ambivalence and to her ambiguous personality. This chapter, therefore, offers a sustained examination of the stories in which Ruha appears as ambiguous or in a downright positive light. Four sets of mythological traditions, taken from a variety of texts, will serve to illustrate my point.

Both Greek and Aramaic gnostic groups had a feminine divine character, either Sophia or Ruha. In fact, the Holy Spirit did not become unambiguously masculine in English Bible translations until the 19th century.


Peter Kirk said...

That's an interesting idea that the Spirit is the mistress or consort of Adonai/Yahweh and the mother of at least parts of the created world. I wonder if this idea predates the shift to them becoming evil and goes back to strands of Judaism or gnostic fringe Christianity. I guess even Genesis 1:1-2 could be read as support for that as a model of creation, with merachefet understood in terms of giving birth. It is also reminiscent of early misunderstandings of the Trinity as God, Mary and the Christ Child - could Mary, in the light of Luke 1:35, have been seen as some kind of incarnation of the Spirit? But I am not suggesting that this is orthodox Christianity.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, in the early Syrian church the Holy Spirit was a fully good mother and spouse of God. I have to take a break and want to write a few posts about that later this summer.

I think we need to feel free to discuss these things without people feeling that we are challenging orthodox Christianity. What surprised me was the consistent perception in Aramaic that the Holy Spirit was feminine. And Jesus spoke Aramaic. When he said "comforter" for the spirit he was possibly referring back to Wisdom the spouse. Anyway, that is what I will write about later.

But I am not personally of the opinion that God has gender. I think the Jewish notion, and David Stein's work is important in this respect.

Ray said...


Just stumbled upon your blog. As a fellow lover of languages, I love the work you pour into your blogs. Very insightful and helpful. Keep up the good work.

Grace and Peace,


Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thank you, Ray. I expect to be away for the next couple of weeks but when I get back I will write more on this topic.

CD-Host said...

Wisdom as a fallen savior goes back to 100 BCE. Sophia as mother of the Logos or Christos seems to go back to the first century (or earlier) you see this idea very well developed in Simon Magus. Certainly 2nd century Christianity this imagery is rampant. There were also sects that identified Mary as divine.

I'm working through GRS Mead's Mandaean related materials since he was interested in the Mandaeans <--> Christian connection.

I can't imagine Hellenists assigning sex in the Wayne Grudem sense to any part of God though.

CD-Host said...

I'm doing a little work on Simon Magus and figured you might enjoy this little ref to Sophia in very early Christianity: