Several early theologians writing in Syriac and Coptic referred to the Holy Spirit as “she” and even as “Mother” in their writings. It has been thought that because the Syriac word for “spirit” (ܪܘܼܚܵܐ–rucha) is grammatically feminine, this led to the Holy Spirit being seen as feminine in the Syriac-speaking church.
Syriac is an East Aramaic dialect that was spoken in Edessa, an ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia. Edessa was a notable centre of Christianity from the end of the second century, and Syriac became an important literary and liturgical language during the third to seventh centuries.
In Coptic, however, the word for “spirit” (ⲡⲉⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ–pepneuma) is grammatically masculine and it is in Coptic (Egyptian) Christianity that we especially see the idea of the Spirit as Mother. (In a future post, I’ll look at Coptic and Greek texts where the Spirit is called Mother.)
In this article, I’ve compiled quotations, translated from several early Syriac texts, where the Holy Spirit is referred to as “she” and “Mother.” There is no agenda behind this resource. I’ve compiled these quotations out of interest, and I’ve done this as a non-expert. (I welcome input and corrections from Syriac specialists.)
I acknowledge that many of these quotations may sound odd. They show that some expressions of ancient Christianity were very different to what many of us are familiar with today. They also show that some Christians in the past had no problem with referring to the Holy Spirit, and even God the Father, with feminine and maternal terms and imagery.
Nevertheless, despite the feminine-maternal language in Syriac texts, the Holy Spirit is never referred to as a female or feminine being. In keeping with orthodoxy, God and the Spirit have neither sex nor gender.
The Holy Spirit as “She” in Early Syriac Translations of the New Testament
Up until around AD 400, the Syriac Church used feminine pronouns corresponding to “she” when referring to the Holy Spirit. For example, in John 14:26 in the Vetus Syra, the Old Syriac version of the Gospels, there are three feminine pronouns hi (equivalent to “she”):
“but ‘that’ (hi) Spirit, the Paraclete who my Father will send to you in my name, ‘she’ (hi) will teach you everything, ‘she’ (hi) will remind you of all that I say.”
The feminine pronouns in John 14:26, however, were changed to the equivalent of “he” in the Peshitta, written in Syriac in the early fifth century.
Sebastian P. Brock notes,
… there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12:12 and John 14:26). Much more frequently in the Gospels, the Peshitta simply retains the feminine of the Old Syriac; this includes two contexts of central importance, the Annunciation (Luke 1:35) and the Baptism [of Jesus]. It is, curiously, in Acts that the Peshitta provides the highest number of cases where a masculine form is used in connection with the Holy Spirit (nine instances), but even in that book the feminine survives in a further seven passages. There appears to be no clear rationale behind this variation in usage. In the Peshitta of the Epistles, on the other hand, the archaic usage with the feminine is kept throughout.
Brock further states that the Holy Spirit is typically feminine in “the three main monuments of early Syriac literature,” namely the Acts of Thomas, the writings of Aphrahat, and the writings of Ephrem.
In the rest of this article, I quote from the Acts of Thomas, from a sermon of Aphrahat, and from another work, the Odes of Solomon, which may have been originally written in Syriac. I quote from Ephrem of Syria, the prolific fourth-century hymn writer, only in a footnote. Even though he uses feminine language for the Holy Spirit that agrees grammatically with the feminine word rucha (“spirit”), Ephrem rarely ascribes a feminine or maternal character to the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit as Mother in the Acts of Thomas
The Acts of Thomas is an anonymous work which was originally written in Syriac sometime around 220. It also survives in a Greek translation which “shows less signs of revision and appears to preserve a more primitive [i.e. an earlier] form of the text.” The Holy Spirit is plainly called Mother several times in the surviving Syriac, and even more so in the Greek translation.
Some suggest that the Acts of Thomas reflects gnostic beliefs or the beliefs of the heterodox Valentinians. Others suggest it simply reflects the beliefs of early Syriac Christianity. Whatever the case, like the other Apocryphal Acts, this work has a strong emphasis on celibacy as desirable for a pious Christian life.
At the end of an enigmatic song sung by the apostle Judas Thomas in the First Act, is this line.
And they have glorified and praised with the living Spirit, the Father of truth and the Mother of wisdom. (section 7)
In the Second Act, after the apostle baptised king Gundaphorus and his brother Gad and anointed them with oil, there is this invocation.
Come, holy name of the Messiah that is above every name.
Come, power of the Most High, and the compassion that is perfect.
Come, gift (Greek: charisma) of the Most High.
Come, compassionate Mother.
Come, communion of the male.
Come, she who reveals the hidden mysteries.
Come, Mother of the seven houses, that thy rest may be in the eighth house.
Come, Elder (masculine in the Greek) of the five members: mind, thought, reflection, consideration, reason;
Communicate with these young men.
Come, Holy Spirit, and cleanse their minds and hearts … (section 27)
In the Fourth Act, the apostle speaks to Jesus and says,
“We glorify and praise you and your invisible Father and your Holy Spirit, the Mother of all creation.” (section 39 from the Greek)
“We glorify you and we exalt through you your exalted Father, who is not seen, and the Holy Spirit that broods over all created things.” (section 39, Kijn’s translation from the Syriac)
In the Fifth Act, in a prayer said before the apostle shares the eucharist, there is another invocation.
Come, O perfect compassion,
Come, O communion of the male,
Come, she who knows the mysteries of him that is chosen,
Come, she who has a part in all the combats of the noble champion (athlete),
Come, the silence that reveals the great things of the whole greatness,
Come, she who manifests the hidden things and makes the unspeakable things plain, the holy dove that bears the twin young,
Come, the hidden Mother,
Come, she who is shown in her deeds and gives joy and rest to those who are joined to her:
Come and communicate with us in this eucharist which we celebrate in your name and in the love-feast where we have gathered together at your calling. (section 50 from the Greek)
In the Fifth Act, after the family of Siphor are baptised, a prayer is said for them which includes these lines.
“… we invoke upon you the name of the Mother of the unspeakable mystery of the hidden powers and authorities; we invoke upon you the name of Jesus …” (section 133)
“Mother” is also mentioned in the enigmatic Hymn of the Pearl (or, Hymn of the Soul) contained in the Acts of Thomas. This may be another reference to the Holy Spirit. (section 109.41)
There is some information about the Acts of Thomas on the Beth Mardutho website.
The Acts of Thomas can be read on the Early Christian Writings website.
A more modern translation is in A.F.J Kijn’s book. A PDF of his book, with commentary, is freely available.
The Greek translation can be read here.
The Holy Spirit as Mother in Demonstrations 18 of Aphrahat
Aphrahat was born around the year 280 in Neo-Persian Iran near the border of the Roman province of Syria. He was a respected teacher and well-known as “the Persian Sage.” In later life he wrote twenty-three expositions (or, sermons). These expositions are on various aspects of Christian doctrine and practice, and are known as the Demonstrations of Aphrahat. Aphrahat’s theology is more orthodox than what is expressed in the Acts of Thomas but he also emphasised celibacy.
In Demonstrations 18 which is on sexual asceticism, Aphrahat comments on Genesis 2:24 (“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife …”). He regarded marriage as abandoning God and embracing the world and he interprets Genesis 2:24 allegorically. He refers to the Holy Spirit as Mother here.
This prophecy is truly great and excellent! Who abandons his father and mother when he takes a wife? This is the meaning: when a man has not yet taken a wife, he loves and honours God, his Father, and the Holy Spirit, his Mother, and for him there is no other love. But when a man takes a wife, he forsakes his father and his mother (those which were just mentioned), and his mind is captivated by this world. is mind and his heart and his reasoning are dragged away from God into the midst of the world, and he loves and delights in it as a man loves the wife of his youth. His love for her is different than [his love] for his father and his mother. Demonstrations 18.1.10.
It is interesting that Aphrahat uses grammatically masculine Syriac words for “Holy Spirit” in this passage and yet calls the Holy Spirit “Mother.”
Maternal Imagery for God in the Odes of Solomon
The Odes of Solomon are 42 lyric poems that were written in the late first century, or sometime during the second century, by a Jewish-Christian author or school. The Odes survive in both Syriac and Greek. The most complete surviving collection is in Syriac, but it seems at least a few of the Odes were originally written in Greek.
In the commentary on his translation, James H. Charlesworth notes that “the key characteristic in these hymns is a joyous tone of thanksgiving for the advent of the Messiah who had been promised (cf. Ode 7:1–6; 41:3–7) and for the present experience of eternal life and love from and for the Beloved (3:1–9; 11:1–24; 23:1–3; 26:1–7; 40:1–6).”
James Rendel Harris, who translated the Syriac text in the early 1900s, stated that the Odes are of “singular beauty and high spiritual value.” He wasn’t wrong. Unlike the Acts of Thomas and Aphrahat’s Demonstrations 18, I very much enjoyed reading the Odes of Solomon. And both the Holy Spirit and God are described in maternal terms a few times in the Odes.
Ode 28 was written when the author was being persecuted but the lines about the Holy Spirit are especially beautiful.
As the wings of doves over their nestlings, and the mouths of their nestlings towards their mouths, so also are the wings of the Spirit over my heart.
My heart continually refreshes itself and leaps for joy, like the babe who leaps for joy in his mother’s womb. […]
And immortal life embraced me, and kissed me.
And from that life is the Spirit which is within me. And it cannot die because it is life.
Ode 19 is about Mary conceiving and becoming the mother of Jesus. Both God the Father and the Holy Spirit are described in feminine terms. Here is the first half of Ode 19.
A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son 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 ineffectually released.
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 womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth. […]
Ode 35 contains some similar ideas as in Ode 19. Here is the complete hymn.
The gentle showers of the Lord overshadowed me with serenity, and they caused a cloud of peace to rise over my head;
That it might guard me at all times. And it became salvation to me.
Everyone was disturbed and afraid, and there came from them smoke and judgment.
But I was tranquil in the Lord’s legion; he was more than shade to me, and more than a foundation.
And I was carried like a child by its mother; and he gave me milk, the dew of the Lord.
And I was enriched by his favour, and rested in his perfection.
And I spread out my hands in the ascent of myself, and I directed myself towards the Most High, and I was redeemed towards him.
Ode 36 begins with a couple of statements about the Spirit using feminine language in the Syriac.
I rested on the Spirit of the Lord, and she lifted me up to heaven;
And she caused me to stand on my feet in the Lord’s high place, before His perfection and His glory, where I continued glorifying Him by the composition of His Odes.
The Spirit brought me forth before the Lord’s face, and because I was the Son of Man, I was named the Light, the Son of God […]
Wikipedia has a good article on the Odes of Solomon.
The Odes of Solomon can be read on the Early Christian Writings website.
Or you can read them on Internet Archive.
Emmanuel Kaniyamparampil discusses other maternal allusions to the Holy Spirit in the Odes. See pages 178–180 of his chapter (pdf).
In the fifth century, the Syriac word rucha began to be treated as masculine when referring to the Holy Spirit, and this became the norm by the sixth century. Consequently, the maternal imagery that had been a pervasive part of the theology of early Syriac Christianity was no longer in regular use.
Here is a short note on that theology. In the conclusion of his chapter, Emmanuel Kaniyamparampil explains that the maternal imagery of the Spirit revealed,
… early Syriac-speaking Christianity’s theological consciousness of the regenerating and life-giving force of the Holy Spirit whereby a Christian is formed into the full stature of Jesus the Messiah. Moreover, through this vivid picture in human language, the biblical revelation of the Spirit of God as the life of God [was] given symbolic expression. Thus, what the Syriac writers emphasized through the maternal imagery in not a femininity of the Spirit, but rather the feminine-maternal function of the Spirit towards Christians, the children of God.
 The word for “spirit, breath, wind” in Hebrew (ruach) and in Aramaic (rucha), including Syriac, is usually grammatically feminine.
 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Syriac language,” Encyclopedia Britannica (13 Feb. 2022)
On the website of Saint Demetrius Orthodox Monastery is some information about Syriac, including this:
Historically, the Syriac language is generally associated with Asia Minor in general, including Antioch, and more specifically several upper Mesopotamian regions known by their Roman provincial names, Syria, Oshrone, Cappadocia, Pontius, and Bithynia and important the educational centers of Nisibis and Edessa. It was the liturgical language of the Patriarchate of Antioch until the suppression of their Rite in favor of an Arabic translation of the Greek Byzantine Rite in the twelfth century by their patriarch Theodoros Balsmon, and remains the liturgical language of the West Syriac non-Chalcedonian Syriac Orthodox Church and of the East Syriac non-Nicaean Mesopotamian-Persian Church of the East, and continues to be spoken as a first language in some of their surviving communities, especially Edessa …
 The Evangelion da-Mepharreshe, or Old Syriac Version of the Four Gospels, can be read on Internet Archive. Unfortunately, the English translation in this source renders the feminine pronouns as “it.”
 In the original Greek of John 14:26, the main subject is the Paraclete and the pronouns are masculine which correspond with paraklētos which is a grammatically masculine word. The early Syriac has the Spirit as the main subject and the pronouns are feminine which correspond grammatically with the Syriac word for “spirit” (rucha) (See p. 510 here.) Was this order of Paraclete and Spirit deliberately changed in early Syriac translations to reinforce a feminine understanding of the Holy Spirit? (I’ve written about the gendered pronouns for Paraclete in the Greek text of John 14 here.)
 Sebastian P. Brock, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature,” After Eve: Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition, Janet Martin Soskice (ed) (London: Harper Collins/ Marshall Pickering, 1990): 73–88. Brock’s chapter can be read on the Women Priests website.
The Syriac translation of logos (word) was also feminine in the Vetus Syra but changed to masculine in the Peshitta. See Emmanuel Kaniyamparampil, “Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit in Early Syriac Tradition,” The Hermeneutic of Continuity: Christ, Kingdom and Creation, Scott Hahn, Dave Scott (eds) (Letter and Spirit 3: Steubenville, Ohio: St Paul Center for Biblical Theology, 2007), 169–188, 170 fn. 6. (Google Books) (A pdf of his chapter is here.)
 The Acts of Thomas is included in a list of works in the Gelasian Decree (compiled in the sixth century). This list is of writings described as “recognized by heretics or schismatics” and not in any way received by the “catholic and apostolic Roman church.”
 Peter Brown comments that “The legendary Acts of Judas Thomas enable us to enter into the imaginative world of Encratite Christianity in Syria.” He further writes that “Encratite villages were scattered all over Asia Minor and Northern Syria. Protected from the attentions of the more orthodox bishops of the cities by the great stretches of the Anatolian plateau and by the mountains of Northern Syria …” Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in the Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 97 and 203.
 Robert Murray explains that “male” refers to Christ as the partner of the Spirit.
Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom. A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1975), 317.
 “The seven houses referred to are the planetary spheres through which Sophia [the Spirit] descends: the eighth, the ogdoad, is the place of rest above them, the heavenly bridechamber.” Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom, 317. (Google Books) Wikipedia has an article on the Gnostic concept of the ogdoad, the eighth sphere.
 The Syriac does not have the noun for “mother” here but has the verb rahhep (“hover”) which took on special significance in early Syriac pneumatology (cf. Gen. 1:2; Deut. 32:11). See Kaniyamparampil, “Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit,” 170–172, esp. 180, 185–184; Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom, 142–144, 331; Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (1993): 111–139, 166.
 Peter Brown describes Aphrahat as “a serene, sweet-natured man” and an advertisement for the tranquil way of life of ascetics. Brown, The Body and Society, 204.
 Kaniyamparampil, “Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit in Early Syriac Tradition,” 182 fn. 51.
 James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 425.
 J. Rendell Harris, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon, 2nd edition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1911), xiv.
 In Ephrem’s Hymn 25:18, God is described as having breasts and as nursing infants.
The Divinity is attentive to us, just as a wetnurse is to a baby,
keeping back for the right time things that will benefit it,
for she knows the right time for weaning,
and when the child should be nourished with milk,
and when it should be fed with solid bread,
weighing out and providing what is beneficial to it
in accordance with the measure of its growing up.
Quoted in Sebastian P. Brock, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature.”
Brock also quotes from Ephrem’s Hymns on the Resurrection 1:7 where God the Father has a womb.
The Word [fem.] of the Father came from his womb and put on a body in another womb: the Word proceeded from one womb to another and chaste wombs are now filled with the Word. Blessed is he who has resided in us.
 Lutheran theologian Edward Engelbrecht argues that the author of the Odes of Solomon “used milk as an analogy for the nurturing presence of Christ in the baptismal eucharist.” And in his conclusion, Engelbrecht writes, “By lauding God’s milk and breasts, the writer of the Odes of Solomon was not attempting to change the heavenly Father into a heavenly mother. Nor did he borrow this imagery from Gnosticism. His goal was never grotesquerie or androgyny but an analogy that explained God’s character. Edward Engelbrecht, “God’s Milk: An Orthodox Confession of the Eucharist,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7.4 (1999) 509-526, 510 and 525. (Online source)
 Kaniyamparampil, “Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit,” 187.
© Margaret Mowczko 2023
All Rights Reserved
Photo of mother hugging her children. Cropped from Ketut Subiyanto’s photo via Pexels.
The Holy Spirit and Eve as Helpers
The Holy Spirit and Masculine Pronouns in John’s Gospel
Is God Male or Masculine?
Why masculine pronouns can be misleading in English Bibles
Celibacy, Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15
Shekinah: God’s Immanent Presence
Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (1993): 111–139. (Academia.org)