Modern notions of inspiration often evoke images of writers, artists, and musicians who experience moments when their creative powers are at their zenith. The artist appears to be operating beyond normal human capacities in terms of uniqueness, innovation, and spontaneity. Modern concepts of inspiration, however, are sometimes anachronistically applied to ancient texts.
The concept of biblical inspiration is classically captured in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God (theopneustos) and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Yet this verse also raises some questions. What does “inspired by God” mean, and what did it entail? How did ancient writers and readers understand it?
“Inspired by God” is one translation of the Greek word theopneustos, which is a compound word that uses theos (“God”) and pneuma (“breath” or “spirit”). The word is variously translated as “inspired by God” or “God-breathed.” Both translations attempt to render a distinctive quality of certain writings and indicate some sort of divine attribute.
Although the precise meaning of theopneustos is not explained elsewhere (indeed, the word only occurs in 2 Timothy 3:16), some biblical texts and other ancient writings offer descriptions of inspiration which allow insight into the many ways it was understood.
The Hebrew Bible does not use a specific word for inspiration, but instances of prophecy are later associated with it. Prophets are described as having an encounter with the spirit (ruah) which enables them to speak the words of God (e.g., Numbers 11:25, 29; 1 Samuel 10:5–6). The Hebrew word for spirit (ruah) can also mean “breath” and indicates that which enters the human to incite prophecy. One who speaks “by the spirit” speaks the words of God.
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The early Greek poet Hesiod describes elements of inspiration and its effects on poets and song writers:
So spoke great Zeus’ ready-speaking daughters … and they breathed a divine voice into me, so that I might glorify what will be and what was before, and they commanded me to sing of the race of the blessed ones who always are, but always to sing of themselves first and last.
Hesiod’s description of inspiration connects the human to the divine. The daughters of Zeus (Muses) inspire him by breathing a divine voice into him, which enables him to sing about the future and past. The Muses’ act of breathing into (empneo) can also mean “inspire,” and the divine voice (aude thespis) can be translated as a “word from god,” which indicates the divine nature of his speech. Hesiod’s description of inspiration is akin to prophets who received God’s words through the spirit.
According to the Greek philosopher Plato, inspiration took place when humans were possessed by a divine entity, had a divine word breathed into them, and entered a frenzied state:
The third kind of possession and madness comes from the Muses, seizing a delicate, virginal soul, rousing and exciting it to Bacchic frenzy in lyric and other forms of poetry, and by embellishing countless deeds of men of old it educates their successors.
For Plato, the process of inspiration first involves the poet being possessed and inspired by a divine being. The inspiration is a divine filling (entheos) and a “frenzied” state. The Greek word for frenzy is mania, which is where the modern word maniac comes from (but often with a negative connotation). Plato explains how the poet’s mania is like what the Bacchus undergoes. The Bacchi, initiates of the cult of Dionysius (god of wine and ecstasy), were known for shouting during their manic state.
The most significant part of mania was that the Bacchus and poet were out of their minds. In this state, the poet is possessed by the divine and thereby able to create inspired works that are superior to those composed using their own faculties. This extends not only to poets, but also to prophetic characters, such as the Delphic oracle. For Plato, mania is an elevated state above normal human cognition and viewed as a gift from god.
Inspiration in Hesiod and Plato is also similar to prophecy. For the combined descriptions of Plato and Hesiod, the writer is possessed, inspired, and in a state of mania. Each of these has a corollary in biblical literature. Possession by the spirit of God and prophetic utterance are mentioned with Saul, the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:9–12). Saul meets a band of prophets, is possessed by the spirit of God, and immediately begins to prophesy.
Hesiod’s depiction of a divine voice being breathed into the poet is close to how prophets, such as Balaam and Jeremiah, have a word put into their mouths by Yahweh (Numbers 23:5; Jeremiah 1:9). The poet and prophet are given a message to proclaim by a divine agent (Muse and Yahweh). The inspiration or filling of the poet with the divine is comparable to the spirit of God coming upon someone to induce prophecy.
Plato’s description of mania corresponds to biblical prophecy. Prophets, such as Ezekiel, were expected to have ecstatic moments (e.g., dreams and visions) as part of receiving divine revelation (Numbers 12:6; Ezekiel 37:1).
What about the connection to inspired writing? For Hesiod and Plato, the poet’s divine utterance leads to inspired written works. David and Jeremiah are two biblical examples of divine words becoming “inspired” texts. Jeremiah speaks the words of God by the spirit, while Baruch transcribes them onto a scroll (Jeremiah 36:4; 45:1). His recorded prophecy (words of God) equates to inspired writing (scripture). Hesiod’s description of inspiration, as a poet and writer, is analogous to David as a prophet and psalmist. David is a prophet who has the capacity to speak by the spirit of the Lord and even has God’s words on his tongue (2 Samuel 23:1–2; Acts 2:29–30). His divine words, like Hesiod’s, are also recorded. Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, quotes Psalm 110:1 and attributes its wording to David speaking by the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36). David, Hesiod, and Jeremiah speak by the spirit, and records of their speech are considered inspired because they contain divine words.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria merges the Hebrew and Greek conceptions of inspiration with more precision in his Life of Moses and Who Is Heir? He recounts how Moses was inspired to speak to the Israelites before crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14). He is inspired by God (entheos) and is breathed on by the spirit; he then speaks divine words and begins to prophesy (Moses 2.175). The combination of being breathed over by the spirit and speaking divine words (thespizo) evokes Hesiod’s description of breathing a divine voice into the poet.
Philo also explains how prophets, such as Noah and Abraham, enter a trance (ecstasis), are filled with the divine (entheos), are possessed, and then experience a state of mania (Heir 259–264). He adds that the prophet’s mind (nous) leaves as the divine spirit (theios pneuma) enters and controls his vocal cords and mouth (Heir 265–266). The divine spirit (theios pneuma) entering the prophet is the closest to theopneustos in 2 Timothy 3:16.
Hesiod, Plato, and Philo’s descriptions of inspiration demonstrate the numerous ways this concept circulated in antiquity. Theopneustos (“God-breathed”) in 2 Timothy 3:16 may be best understood in this historical context, as a conflation of the longer and more explicit descriptions of inspiration in Greek writings. This conflated rendering could convey to the audience that each writing contains the prophetic words of someone who was filled with the divine spirit, without needing to elaborate on the encounter.
Rodney Caruthers II is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He studies ancient Jewish texts written in Greek.
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