In ordination services today many religious groups practice the custom of laying hands on candidates for ministry. This is their moment of ordination in the religious group. The laying on of hands appears in the Israelite tradition for several purposes: to transfer the sins of the people to the scapegoat (Lev 16:21-22), to identify a blasphemer by those who heard him blaspheme God’s Name (Lev 24:14), laying hands upon bulls, one of which is selected as a sin offering (Num 8:12), to do physical violence to someone (Neh 13:21; Est 3:6), to appoint a new leader, following Moses, who (Num 27:15-23) would be full of the spirit of wisdom (Deut 34:9), and speak the words of Yahweh (Deut 18:18).
The practice of laying on of hands is referred to in several New Testament texts with no certain reason as to why hands are being laid on someone (1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Heb 6:1-2). In other cases, specific reasons are given: sick people are healed by having hands laid on them (Mark 6:5; 16:18; Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13; Acts 28:8), laying on of hands is an act done before praying for someone (Matt 19:13-15), laying on of hands is done to bring someone back to life (Mark 5:23), laying on of hands is a metaphor for doing physical violence to someone (Luke 21:12), hands are laid on someone to commission them (Acts 6:6; 13:2-3).
The most interesting reason for the laying on of hands is a feature that appears only in Acts. It is a means of giving the Holy Spirit. Peter and John are dispatched from Jerusalem to lay hands on certain people in Samaria who “had received the word of God” and had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Yet, the Holy Spirit had not fallen on any of them. Peter and John lay hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-24; see also Acts 9:17; 19:6). Curiously the Holy Spirit apparently also operates independently of the human medium and the Spirit simply spontaneously “falls” on whomever it chooses (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15).
This curiosity (Spirit by hands/no hands) raises several questions. Why didn’t the Holy Spirit spontaneously fall on those in Samaria (Acts 8:14-24)? Why was human mediation needed in that particular instance? Does a necessary relationship exist between the hands of Peter and John and the gift of the Holy Spirit? In other words, do the Apostles control the giving of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands?
It is not surprising that there should be Greco-Roman and Near Eastern parallels before the Christian period for the laying on of hands. Hands are laid on to heal, to exorcise demons, to install officials, and to consecrate.1 I am more interested in the Apostles as a reservoir of the Holy Spirit than with the other reasons why hands are laid on in these pre-Christian parallels. Is there a Greco-Roman parallel for special persons being infused with divine power? Apostles (Acts 11:24) were said to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” as were the seven chosen to administer the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-6, 7:55). Even disciples bestowed the Holy Spirit through the laying on of their hands (Acts 9:10, 17). If these persons in the early church were “full” of God’s Spirit, we should likely think of the Spirit residing in them in a fashion similar to that in the possession by evil spirits, for example, in the story told by Jesus (Luke 11:24-26=Matt 12:43-45). In other words, God’s Spirit possessed the Apostles, rather than the Apostles possessing the Spirit.
We should not think of God’s Holy Spirit as an appendage to God, or as a second entity so that one may distinguish it as an entity independent from God; for “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18). Hence, the depiction of the Apostles being possessed by God’s spirit is a kind of “divine” possession similar to the slave girl who had a “Pythian Spirit” in Acts 16:16. The Pythia was an “inspired” oracle through whom the God Apollo spoke. “She was the instrument of the God’s revelations at Delphi” in ancient Greece.2 “Crowned with laurel, she sat on the tripod [of the God Apollo], became possessed by the god, and, shaking a laurel, prophesied under divine inspiration.”3 In like manner the Apostles and other disciples are thought to be possessed by “God, who is the Spirit,” to perform their mighty deeds, as indeed was Jesus (Luke 4:1).
Except for the name of the authority under which the act occurs, there is little difference between The Pythia’s possession by Apollo for prophetic utterances, the slave girl’s possession by the Pythian spirit, or the Apostles’ possession by the Holy Spirit. They were all thought to be possessed by divine power (Acts 1:8, 8:19, 10:38; Rom 15:13). That people can be possessed by spirits both good and evil is simply part of the belief structure of antiquity. The only difference is the naming of the different authorities under which the various acts are performed.
How do you see it?
Missouri State University
1John Fleter Tipei, “The laying on of Hands in the New Testament” (PH.D. Thesis, University of Sheffield, July 2000), 81-95 https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3506/1/339937.pdf
2Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), 214. See also Hedrick, “Prophecy, Divination, and Fate,” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 250-56.
3Christine Sourvinou-Inwood, “Delphic oracle” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; Oxford University Press, 1999), 445.
For me, there is something beyond special to human touch. Even a brief handshake or hug transcends all of life's disappointing experiences, as a place of rest and comfort. Touch is a place of shared intimacy that's missing in all other life experiences. A simple touch can calm anger, temper fear, sooth anger in the most difficult of circumstances, dissipate shame, and relieve guilt.
I say with the greatest sadness and shame that I did not hold my father's hand in the last minutes before his death 23 years ago, even though I was only a few feet away and could see his breath leave him, and I even knew that this most kind and gentle man had gone without positive touch much of his life.
For me, some of the most encouraging biblical passages are stories of touch: he took her by the hand, lifted her, and the fever left (Mk 1:31), Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him - the leprosy left (Mk 1:41), if I but touch his clothes I will be made well - immediately her hemorrhage stopped ark 5:28), he took her by the hand at the point of death - immediately the girl got up (Mark 5:42), he put his fingers into his ears and spat and touched his tongue - immediately his ears were opened, his tongue released (Mk 7:32), Jesus laid his hands on his eyes - his sight was restored (Mark 8:25), Jesus took him by the hand, lifted him up - he was able to stand (Mark 9:27), taking a little child in his arms - whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me (Mk 9:37), Let the children come to me - and he took them in his arms , laid his hands on them, and blessed them (Mark 10:16).
To me these are examples of "laying on of hands" to pass along what is most important in life. Holy Spirit is as good as any other name for it.
But, of course, humans are not above abusing touch in the most heinous of ways: The one I will kiss is the man, arrest him (Mk 14:44), it was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him (Mk 15:25). Mark, of course, had the harshest of warnings about negative touch: if your hand, foot, eye abuses a child cut it off (Mark 9:42ff.)
Thank you Gene, A warm response.
You asked, “Is there a Greco-Roman parallel for special persons being infused with divine power?” Certainly. Serapis gave Vespasian this infusion: “for the god declared that Vespasian would restore the eyes, if he would spit upon them, and give strength to the leg, if he would deign to touch it with his heal. Though he had hardly any faith that this could possibly succeed, and therefore shrank even from making the attempt, he was at last prevailed...” to do it and it worked. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. Vespasian 7.) That sounds like an “infusion of divine power” to me, one that didn’t even require “faith.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Hi. I think you’re entirely right about the Spirit, but there are important points you left out. The most important is that possession by the Spirit changes a person into a different person. This is true throughout the dozens of cultures where spirit possession is practiced, and in the NT. For example, Gal. 4:4-7 shows how Paul regarded those with the Spirit of the Son as having become Sons of God with amazing Son of God powers: 1 Cor. 12:7-10. As Pauline Christians became Sons of God, so did Jesus via possession by the Spirit (Mark 1:10-11). Note that Jesus has no observable special powers prior to this time (cf. Mark 6:2-6) but after the Spirit enters “into” him he does. The Greek preposition in Mark 1:10 is “into” not “upon” as it is in Matthew’s and Luke’s revisions. Also, for that matter, note that John 1:-5,12-14 is a pre-Gospel poem having to do with the Word/Spirit entering into people: “And the Word became flesh and lived in us, and we have seen its glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The common translation “among us” is appropriate for the Gospel itself, but the introductory poem originally was about the Son living “in us”, presumably in the manner Paul discusses when he identifies those with the Spirit as Sons of God. Mark’s (the first, of course) Gospel begins the career of Jesus with his reception of the Spirit; Luke begins the career of the Church with the followers’ reception of the Spirit (Pentecost, of course). And there’s lots more to be said… much of which I wrote in my books Jesus the Healer and the expanded version: Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity.
Thanks for you comments, Stevan. It is good to hear from you and know you are still alive and working.
I've never had either an encounter or some inner experience with something I would call a holy spirit by any of the standards listed in your essay. I grew in a church environment which recognized altar calls, but I've never reacted well to being pressured, and this was no different.
At age 11-12 I heard a speaker at a church camp event and came away thinking about becoming a minister. I don't remember any specifics of what was said. Not too long thereafter my sixth grade teacher asked me what I wanted to be, and I said a minister or an electrical engineer.
I don't ever remember thinking that Jesus was not available to me personally, but I've never associated that experience with a holy spirit. Paul writes that law triggers flesh to acts of sinful behavior, and trust triggers spirit to acts of fruity behavior against which there are no laws (Galatians 5). Somehow, if I'm lucky enough to get from trust to fruity behavior, I do it without awareness of a holy spirit.
What is the experience of others?
My experience is the same as yours. See my next blog.
Literature and movies can be categorized into genres. I would suggest that one finds the concept of “genre” in Christianity and that if one hasn’t experienced this “Holy Spirit” aspect, one is not participating in the evangelical genre called “Pentecostalism,” where Charismatics freely roam. In fact, in some Pentecostal groups, if one hasn’t, for instance, spoken in “tongues,” one has not received this “Holy Spirit” stuff. They aren’t that small of a group. According to a somewhat old poll (2008) I have, 3.4% of Christians identify with Pentecostal Evangelicals and .5% with non-denominational Charismatics. A bit north of here, one occasionally reads a news story of snake bites of those who see Mark 16.17 (that section not bracketed in their translations) as a way to prove one’s faith.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Pentecostal Christians are basically Lucan and not Pauline Christians.
Regarding the twentieth century "Holy Spirit," as found in their manifestations:
The nervous system controls the “Holy Spirit,” if one must use such religious terms for it. A variety of neurotransmitters signals arousal and other functions. When one gets excited and thinks they are “blessed by the Holy Spirit” it is an imbalance (to simplify the actions at the synapse) of the “messengers” of the brain, one or more neurotransmitters. This happens with fear, anger, sadness, ecstasy, happiness, and so forth. This can be overwhelming in a situation where there is a group of people who have been aroused for instance by fear when spread in a sermon, by the touch of the minister “laying on hands,” (which, when the smack on the head is accompanied by a loud voice at the right moment causes one to react severely), or suggestive behavior by one or more in the group (like speaking in tongues, holy laughter, fainting and falling in the floor). This can have a collective effect on suggestive people. It becomes a “group activity.” To put it into the simplest terms the “Holy Spirit” is an effect of the body to stress, nothing more or less.
I should mention that my mentor, the late Bo Turner, showed me how the charlatans did the “HEAL!” (((smack}}} on the forehead. It sort of causes a momentary “paralysis,” generally triggering one to fall (into the arms of someone helping the scam artist). He said he learned it while working on his doctorate.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Tell me about Bo Turner. I could not find anyone that seemed to be he on the internet.
He would probably be considered regional. Bo was also not his legal name. Unfortunately, when I searched, most of the “Bo Turners” were not him. He died around fifteen years ago and though he had email, he didn’t do much on the web. I’ll send some information.. Here is a link to one 2004 article that gives one an idea of Bo:
The actual case this relates to is found here:
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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