Cover image for The Human Spirit: Beginnings from Genesis to Science By Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle

The Human Spirit

Beginnings from Genesis to Science

Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle


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ISBN: 978-0-271-08204-2

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344 pages
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The Human Spirit

Beginnings from Genesis to Science

Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle

“A rich, synthetic, and nuanced investigation. This is a highly original piece of work that draws on an astounding array of primary sources as well as the author’s incredible knowledge of rhetoric and philology, archaeology, ornithology, the science of avian flight, ancient crafts of tent-making, Greek earthenware, and metallurgy. This is an erudite tour de force that requires but will also reward patient reading.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In this volume, Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle probes significant concepts of the human spirit in Western religious culture across more than two millennia, from the book of Genesis to early modern science.

The Human Spirit treats significant interpretations of human nature as religious in political, philosophical, and physical aspects by tracing its historical subject through the Priestly tradition of the Hebrew Bible and the writings of the apostle Paul among the Corinthians, the innovative theologians Augustine and Aquinas, the reformatory theologian Calvin, and the natural philosopher and physician William Harvey. Boyle analyzes the particular experiences and notions of these influential authors while she contextualizes them in community. She shows how they shared a conviction, although distinctly understood, of the human spirit as endowed by or designed by a divine source of everything animate.

An original and erudite work that utilizes a rich and varied array of primary source material, this volume will be of interest to intellectual and cultural historians of religion, philosophy, literature, and medicine.

“A rich, synthetic, and nuanced investigation. This is a highly original piece of work that draws on an astounding array of primary sources as well as the author’s incredible knowledge of rhetoric and philology, archaeology, ornithology, the science of avian flight, ancient crafts of tent-making, Greek earthenware, and metallurgy. This is an erudite tour de force that requires but will also reward patient reading.”
“As with so many questions, Boyle does not speculate beyond what the texts tell us. But with her close readings she helps us to understand the importance of attitudes toward the human spirit through two and a half millennia.”
“This book is so rich that barely a page in my copy does not have one or more passages marked off. . . .[W]ith her close readings she helps us to understand the importance of attitudes toward the human spirit through two and a half millennia.”
The Human Spirit provides a fascinating and sturdy entry point for engaging with the human spirit in the Western theological tradition in general and especially in the texts to which Boyle applies her impressive scholarship.”

Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle is the author of eight other books, including three volumes on Erasmus and Petrarch’s Genius: Pentimento and Prophecy. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in religion in 1979.



Part I Ancient Realities

1. Genesis

2. Paul

Part II Medieval Thoughts

3. Augustine

4. Aquinas

Part III Early Modern Discoveries

5. Calvin

6. Science


From the Introduction

The modern human spirit is defined by courage. Its awesome character envisions a worthy aim and dares its achievement, often by perseverance in adversity. Yet the human spirit did not always denote virtue, not before science identified the liquid spirit, blood, whose hot circulation in the body inspired courage. The Human Spirit: Beginnings from Genesis to Science treats significant interpretations of human nature as religious, in political, philosophical, and physical aspects. It searches its historical subject, in a long duration, through major sources: the Priestly tradition of the Hebrew Bible; the apostle Paul among the Corinthians; the innovative theologians Augustine and Aquinas; the reformatory theologian Calvin; and the natural philosopher and physician William Harvey. These writers are renowned for their importance and influence. They do not, in this book, represent eras or schools; they present themselves. Their presentations were not necessarily personal, however, as in the modern genre of autobiography. As intellectuals, they could develop abstract and even speculative thinking about the human spirit. Their thoughts about it were not staged on a progressive continuum, however, but displayed the continuities and discontinuities usual to history. Their methods varied, whether traditional or theoretical, scholarly or scientific. This book endeavors to quicken those authors to speak in their distinctive voices from their special experiences and particular notions. It also contextualizes them in their communities.The biblical source on the creation of humans by the divine Spirit was not the invention of an individual author but the legacy of some Priestly tradents. Chapter 1 of Genesis originated in a communal belief in the Spirit soaring like an eagle to find and choose Israel from the foundation of heaven and earth. A communal context for understanding the human spirit continued in the letters of Paul to the Christian church he founded at Corinth; in the writing and preaching of Augustine, from his commune at Cassaciacum to his bishopric at Carthage; in the lectures and commentaries of Thomas Aquinas to his fellow friars in the Order of Preachers; in the texts and sermons of Jean Calvin as pastor of the reformed church at Geneva; and in the demonstrations and publications of William Harvey as the Lumleian lecturer in anatomy for the College of Physicians, London. A communal context was fitting because the human spirit was universal to all humans, in distinction to animal spirit or divine Spirit. Yet those authors did disclose to their communities personal situations from which they came to their individual convictions about humans as created by God “in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Those were all perilous places: for the Priestly tradents, in the desolate wilderness; for the apostle Paul, on horseback in a storm; for the wayward Augustine, in a whirling abyss; for the disobedient Aquinas, in a family kidnapping; for the perplexed and fatigued Calvin and Harvey, in labyrinths mental or bodily. Whether historical or rhetorical places, they marked beginnings on a thoughtful path from isolation and danger to belonging and security, in God, the divine Spirit, as the beginning and end of the human spirit. The Christian theologians Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin shared a vocation of interpreting the human spirit in Scripture, as introduced in Genesis and witnessed in Paul’s apostolic letters. The philosopher and physician Harvey was different in his empirical investigations of animal nature. Yet, when his anatomical research failed to discover the efficient cause of generation, he, too, acknowledged the biblical Creator. The long, sturdy thread that stitches and binds the pages of this book is a cultural conviction that the human spirit originated in the divine Spirit, from which it derived its identity. The book reveals through its authors, among their distinctive ideas, a shared belief in the human spirit as endowed or designed by a divine source of everything animate.The method of the book for this challenging subject is broadly interdisciplinary in the arts and sciences. Its research discovers an origin of the human spirit in Western culture in the politics of the biblical Creator Spirit finding and choosing Israel for its own portion among the nations. It interprets in the apostle Paul’s biblical first letter to the Corinthians an extraordinary personal witness to the creational bond of the divine Spirit to the human spirit. It details in the theology of Augustine, then of Aquinas, their speculative transformations of the biblical human spirit into an imaginative or an intellectual soul. It interprets Calvin’s theology as an intended restoration of the biblical human spirit in the Spirit’s new creation of humans through faith in Christ. It finally documents Harvey’s respect for a numen of nature as mind and soul, or for the biblical Creator and Father, as an inference to a final cause from his identification of the human spirit with the vital blood flow in its body.ANCIENT REALITIESThe origin of the human spirit in Western culture is obscure. Who or what was the controversial agent rûaḥ ’ĕlōhîm—polysemous spirit-windbreath—in or at the beginning of the biblical creation story? Its identity was fundamental because it was in its image and likeness that the Bible introduced humans.GenesisThe first chapter, on Genesis, accesses the history of the human spirit through comparative linguistic evidence from archaeological excavations. It researches the precise meaning of the controversial agent rûaḥ ’ĕlōhîm—polysemous Hebrew spirit-wind-breath—in or at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2). It identifies that agent rûaḥ ’ĕlōhîm from its action mĕraḥepet by studying its Ugaritic root rhp in the Story of Aqhat, where its agent is always an eagle. The chapter applies ornithology as a heuristic to understand by science what philology cannot resolve about avian phenomena that have endured relatively stable throughout the millennia. From the aerodynamics of avian flight it recognizes biblical mĕraḥepet as the rare mode of “soaring.” From the species of birds that soar it identifies the biblical agent as a metaphorical golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).The biblical divine action mĕraḥepet in Genesis 1:2 occurs also only in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:11, where God mĕraḥepet is designated like a nešer, an “eagle.” Since both biblical texts belonged to the Priestly tradition, the earlier Song, with its simile of God soaring like an eagle over the Israelites, was the source in Genesis for the metaphor of the Spirit soaring like an eagle over creation. This chapter researches the natural behaviors of eagle flight and parenting to retranslate the astonishing behavior of the Song’s eagle toward the Israelites wandering in the desert. It understands the Golden Eagle as a definitive model for the finder of Israel and for the Creator of humans for the same reason. Its soaring involves a magnificent display over its breeding ground to mark and call its territory. That aquiline spectacle in the sky inspired the two Priestly images. Just as the God of the Song in Deuteronomy soared to encircle Israel as its portion among the nations, so did the Spirit God of Genesis soar to create humans for a deputized care of the earth. The relation of the human spirit to the divine Spirit was from the beginning a political belonging.Genesis 1 was projected about the national origins of Israel, not the natural origins of the cosmos. The generations of the heavens and the earth in Genesis were derived from the generations of Israel in the Song of Moses. Genesis 1 was not directly and explicitly a narrative—not even a mythological or religious one—of the creation of the universe. It was the Priestly location of Israel in a universal order before metaphysics. The Spirit God soared like an eagle to mark his created territory for the increase and multiplication of its creatures. The relation of the Spirit God to the human spirit, as Creator to creature, was political ownership as formalized in Israelite covenant and cult. This interpretation strengthens a modern exegetical consensus about God’s image and likeness in v.26 as historically a political association of sovereign and vassal.PaulThe biblical New Testament affirmed the human spirit created in God’s image and likeness from its earliest writings, the apostle Paul’s letters to Christian churches. As with the fortune of Genesis, his situational meanings became erased in later interpretations that cited his verses as theological prooftexts. The second chapter recovers Paul’s historical meanings about the relationship of the human spirit to the divine Spirit. The evidence matters because Paul is the prime historical source for knowledge of the first Christians, with his church at Corinth its best documented community. The chapter interprets his reflections on the human spirit not as abstract theological dissertations but as directed pastoral instructions to the Corinthians in their quarrels about its meaning. Who were the truly “spiritual” humans, the “psychics” or the “pneumatics”? Paul confronted their rival boasts of spiritual authenticity and authority by evaluating the Spirit’s manifestation among them in gifts that were diverse yet from the same giver.The chapter interprets Paul’s extraordinary contribution on the human spirit by his own boasting of a personal experience of spiritual rapture. This analysis differs from the interpretation of his rapture as merkabah mysticism since those apocalyptic texts were both anachronistic and incongruous with Paul’s verses. Beyond conduct, the chapter discusses Paul’s distinction about the human spirit, whether from Adam or from Christ, by interpreting Genesis on creation. It unearths from archaeology the Corinthian artifacts, terracotta lamps, that were Paul’s model for the Spirit indwelling in Christians as his new creation. It differs basically from the standard translation and exegesis of Paul’s relation of the human and divine spirits. Their premise has assumed a privacy of human thought as arguing for the inaccessibility of divine thought. This chapter explains that Paul wrote a classical a fortiori argument that coordinated and transcended the insights of either analogy or antithesis. At issue was not private epistemology but social experience, as based on the common sympathy of types, like-to-like. Paul inferred a mysterious Spirit God; he did not define human nature.


Paul, as a learned and devout Jew converted to Jesus the Christ, was faithful to Genesis 1 on the human spirit as a creature of the divine Spirit. Yet he wrote not systematically but situationally to a local church in crisis about its “spiritual” identity. As Christianity continued beyond the biblical era, ecclesiastics still revered his words as authoritative. But their meaning became vague, even opaque. Theologians were temporally and culturally removed by experience from Paul’s historical situation. They lacked a historical method for its recovery, a method only developed later in Renaissance humanism from philological science. They were further disabled by their ignorance of the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, and by their lack of consultation with their remnant scholars. At that juncture the understanding of the human spirit turned theoretical, although theōria was not a biblical word or concept. Gaps in experience and skill for interpreting the biblical human spirit occasioned hermeneutical and exegetical ingenuity.Without the disciplinary resources to research the biblical texts for their linguistic and historical meanings, theologians unwittingly lost the biblical origins of the human spirit—save, of course, to affirm the Creator. They dedicated their energy toward understanding the human spirit from what they did possess naturally, their experience and a mind to analyze it. Their intellectual efforts exhibited a basic tendency and yearning of the mind itself to insert its human part into the divine whole. Metaphors of a journey from mind to God were common. The medieval thinkers Augustine and Aquinas are still studied for their powerful speculations, which some admirers consider universal and permanent truths. Both theologians meant to interpret the human spirit in fidelity to the biblical text. However, lacking the later developments of historical method, they unwittingly transformed its original meaning. They psychologized about humanity by converting spirit to soul, as either its imaginative or its intellectual faculty of the mind.[Excerpt ends here.]