The origins of this festival go back into ancient biblical times, and beyond.
On one level the festival is simply the Jewish version of the universal celebrations to mark the completion of the grain harvest at the end of Spring. The fact that this happened seven weeks after Passover, which coincided with the beginning of the harvest, assisted in the development of the idea that this festival brought to a solemn conclusion a “week of weeks”.
The observance of the “festival of harvest” is stipulated in the ancient Covenant Code now found in Exodus 20:22-23:19, but there are very few references to this “feast of Weeks” (shavuot) in the Hebrew Bible:
- Exodus 19:1 (Sinai revelation coincides with date of Shavuot)
- Exodus 23:16 (Shavuot is one of the three pilgrim festivals)
- Exodus 34:22 (Shavuot is one of the three pilgrim festivals)
- Num 28:26-31 (details of the sacrifices to be offered at Shavuot)
- Deut 16:10 (freewill offering proportionate to the harvest is expected)
- Deut 16:16 (Shavuot is one of the three pilgrim festivals)
- 2Chron 8:13 (Shavuot is one of the annual feasts)
We find casual references to the festival in Tobit 21 and 2 Macc 12:32, as well as the first use of the Greek term pentekoste (fiftieth), and there are a few references in Philo (Decal. 160; Spec. Leg. 2,176) and several in Josephus (Ant. 3,252; 13,252; 14,337; 17,254. Bell. 1,253; 2,42; 6,299).
Only Luke-Acts gives the 50th day after Easter a special significance in the Christian calendar, and it now seems that Luke was following an older Jewish tradition that considered the Spring harvest festival of Shavuot (“Weeks” or 7 x 7 days) to mark the end of a sacred period that began with Pesach (Passover/Easter). Gunther Plaut (ed), The Torah. A Modern Commentary (New York, 1981), notes that the Rabbis spoke of Shavuot as “the Atzeret (solemn gathering) of Pesach” — suggesting that the two festivals were linked by their connection to the beginning and the end of the grain harvest.
Plaut (1981:924) continues:
The Bible describes Shavuot only as an agricultural festival. Later tradition regards it as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. According to Exodus, chapter 19, the revelation occurred early in the third month; but an explicit identification of the festival as anniversary of the revelation is not found until well after the beginning of the Christian era. Thereafter the stress on the historical meaning of the holiday overshadowed the agricultural aspect. The latter survived only in the custom of decorating the synagogue with greens and flowers. The prayers and hymns of Shavuot all glorify the Torah. And the occasion was fittingly chosen by Reform Jews for the ceremony of confirmation, at which the pledge of Sinai is renewed.
Pentecost in the New Testament
In the account of Christian origins crafted by Luke, we find this festival elevated to conspicuous significance although even his own later acount in Acts does not ever make anything of this event; and we find no hint of such a special Pentecost soon after Jesus’ death in any other NT writing.
Acts 20:16 does impute to Paul an eagerness to be in Jerusalem, if at all possibe, in time for the celebration of Pentecost but that appears to be no more than a creative flourish by Luke as author:
For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia;
he was eager to be Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
There is no convincing reason to think that Luke had direct knowledge of Paul’s personal wishes. Even if Luke had access to a travel narrative written by a companion of Paul, Luke does not suggest any specifically Christian reason for Pentecost being a special observance. The wording we have in Acts 20:16 is quite in keeping with his description of Paul as a faithful Jew who honored traditional observances (cf. 21:26).
Likewise, Paul’s own reference to Pentecost in 1Cor 16:8f suggests nothing more than a simple chronological marker:
But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost,
for a wide door for effective work has been opened to me …
Actually, that authentic Paul reference to Pentecost sits most oddly with the way Luke develops the Ephesus sojourn (or lack thereof) in relation to Pentecost. Where 1Cor has Paul planning to stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, Acts 20 has Paul bypassing Ephesus in his haste to get back to Jerusalem for Pentecost. These two NT references to Pentecost seem at odds with each other and both are blithely unaware of the special charcater of Pentecost in the narrative of Acts.
It may also be significant that both volumes of Luke-Acts begin with an impressive public event that sets the stage for what is to follow. In the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus beginning his public activity with an otherwise unattested appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18″The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers4 in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:16-30)
It is is most unlikely that a small Galilean village like Nazareth would have had a synagogue around 28 CE. In addition the village was not built on the brow of a hill. Like the crisis at the edge of the cliff, the liturgical functions peformed by Jesus in the synagogue seem to be a figment of Luke’s imagination. Whatever their historical value, however, they set the scene for the ensuing narrative.
It is no surprise, then, to discover that some NT scholars point to the similar function that the Pentecost scene plays in the Acts of the Apostles, part two of Luke-Acts:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:1-13)
In both Luke 4 and Acts 2 these impressive scenes also provide the occasion for the key character (Jesus/Peter) to deliver a programatic speech that outlines what the reader can expect to encounter in the narrative that follows. The Pentecost episode (Acts 2) has a similar function within the narrative of Acts to the part played by the Nazareth synagogue scene (Luke 4:16-30) in the narrative of Luke.
- Both set the scene for the longer narrative that will follow.
- Both revolve around the Spirit’s presence (upon Jesus in Luke 4, and on the gathered community in Acts 2).
- There is an appeal to prophetic texts in both cases.
- The Jewish religious community misunderstands and rejects the prophetic word.
In both cases we have reason to suspect the narratives are the result of Luke’s own literary creativity, since Luke seems to be developing strategic scenes without support in parallel traditions (cf. Mark 1:14-15 + 6:1-6a and Matt 4:12-17 + 13:5-58 for the more traditional description of Jesus beginning his ministry and his homecoming in Nazareth).
This is the same author who provides Jesus with an impressive infancy narrative, complete with angelic annunciations and a Jerusalem location for the key scenes. Luke will also relocate all the Easter appearances so that everything happens in Jerusalem and its environs, as befits the Holy City (and his own careful literary design).
In Acts 2 it is likely that Luke is developing a scene to exploit the significance of Shavuot as the solemn conclusion of the Paschal season. The occasion connects the proclamation of the resurrection to the tradition that angels announced the divine Torah to all the nations of the earth, proclaiming God’s requirements in seventy different languages.
Peter himself suddenly emerges in this scene as an eloquent speaker and a gifted scholar of the prophetic writings. There have been no hints of such a depth to his character in the earlier traditions, but he will deliver several significant speeches in Acts.
Given its single attestation in Acts, and its inherent contradiction by the Pauline and Johannine traditions, we have to conclude that Luke’s powerful scene, which has shaped Christian consciousness for almost 2,000 years, has no basis in history. It remains, nonetheless, a powerful parable of the new faith’s self-understanding around 125 CE.
The Christians for whom Luke is writing understood themselves to have a heritage reaching back into the biblical times, but they also know that Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed by the Romans. For them Jerusalem now exists only in the imagination of the Christian community. It is not a physical site to be visited, but a memory to be invoked. Jesus could be imagined as presented in the Temple for circumcision. The 12 year old Jesus, his bar Mitzvah being presumed by the narrative, could be imagined visiting the Temple and engaging the learned scholars in discourse on religious themes. All the Easter events take place at this sacred site. And the church itself is inaugurated on the day when the tradition had the divine Torah revealed to the nations and entrusted to Israel.
Luke was not afraid to use story to communicate meaning. Unless we consciously put it to one side, our obsession with historicity may prevent us from enjoying the story and embracing the message.
Jesus and the Spirit
It may be interesting to note the very different approach taken by James D.G. Dunn in his classic 1975 study, Jesus and the Spirit (and especially chapter VI).
Dunn begins by noting that the experiences of the Spirit which are attributed to the primitive Christian community differ in significant degree from the claims of various resurrection appearances by Jesus. These less personalised experiences of the divine Spirit might be understood as more like the experiences of the Spirit which Jesus himself had enjoyed. That is a tantalizing prospect and it transforms this discussion from academic historical inquiry into a quest for authentic encounters with Spirit in the life of the Church.
Of course, Dunn is well aware of the range of views on the historical character of the account in Acts 2:
The range of scholarly options stretches from the more traditional view at one end, that Acts 2 is a more or less accurate account of what happened on the first Christian Pentecost, to the more radical thesis maintained most forcefully by E. Haenchen at the other, that Acts 2 is wholly the construct of Luke’s theological expertise. (p. 136)
One Pentecost or many?
The first question that Dunn addresses is whether there were actually many separate occasions when the early Christian communities experienced dramatic manifestations of the divine Spirit in their midst, or whether there was just a single event something like the general picture given by Acts 2?
Is it possible that such ecstatic experiences were part of the primitive Jesus movement, possibly even before Easter? Might such experiences have continued to be characteristic of groups outside the Jerusalem area (e.g., the Q communities in Galilee where itinerant prophets continued to act in ways that seem very much like Jesus’ own actions)? The description of charismatic phenomena in Samaria (Acts 8), in Damascus (note the role of Ananias in Acts 9) and at Antioch (recall the activity of the Spirit in the sending of Barnabas and Saul in Acts 13) seem to suggest a more dispersed charismatic expression of Christianity. The ready acceptance that disciples of John (such as Apollos in Acts 18) could be “aglow with the spirit” despite knowing only the baptism of John seems also to suggest this.
Dunn concludes as follows:
It looks … as though there were several individual and groups whose experience of Spirit and faith in Jesus was initially at last independent of Jerusalem. At the same time it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jerusalem was the main growing point in the first instance — that the main impulse to the growth of a community rejoicing in rich experiences of Spirit and centring faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of Man stemmed from Jerusalem. (p. 139)
Dunn seeks to incorporate biblical evidence for a more complex distribution of “pentecostal” phenomena without discarding the claim of Acts 2 that the definitive and epochal events took place in Jerusalem.
The timing of Pentecost?
The next question that Dunn addresses concerns the timing of the event recounted in Acts 2.
Would such experiences have been delayed for seven weeks (50 days) after Easter, or would they have even been part of the “evidence” that convinced Jesus’ followers that he was still alive and perhaps even now exalted (one greater than Elijah) to heaven and able to pour out the divine spirit on his followers (just as Elisha had inherited a double share of Eliajh’s spirit)?
Dunn will argue in favor of just that kind of delay, as he foreshadows:
The main problem indeed is not the earliness of the Pentcost dating for the first great communal experience of the Spirit, but the lateness (cf. again John 20.19-23; also Acts 2.33). Was there really such a lengthy gap between the first appearances and ‘Pentecost’? In fact, the answer is quite probably, Yes. Indeed, it is quite possible, even likely, that the events of Acts 2.1-13 did fall on the day of Pentecost. (p. 140)
Dunn acknowledges that the closest parallels to the symbolic interpretation of Pentecost as a festival that celebrated the gift of the divine Torah at Sinai come from Jewish sources in the mid-2C CE, but he presumes these to be significantly later than Acts. (Recent studies that date Luke-Acts in the early 2C would give greater significance to these symbolic parallels.) Dunn also dismisses the Johannine description of the Spirit as part of the Easter blessing from the beginning (“John’s presentation of the gift of the Spirit is almost wholly inspired by theological considerations”), asserting simply that “Luke’s dating must be judged to have the superior claim to historicity.” (p. 141)
His proposed reconstruction of “what really happened” is nonetheless an interesting example of informed speculation, even if it cannot be persuasive as historical account:
… if we may assume that the earliest appearances, to Peter and the twelve, took place in Galilee, as seems most likely, then the timing and occasion of the return to Jerusalem becomes a relevant issue. The reason for the return to Jerusalem was presumably the eschatological significance of Jerusalem, the city of God, the expected focus of God’s final acts. The most obvious occasion to return would be in time for the next great pilgrim festival (Pentecost); and since Pentecost seems already to have become regarded as the feast of covenant renewal, the disciples may have expected the decisive eschatological intervention of God on that date. This is all the more likely in view of the fact that Pentecost marked the end of the festival which began with the Passover; it was regarded as the closing feast of the Passover. It would be very natural if the disciples cherished some hope that the sequence of events which had begun on the Passover would end on the day of Pentecost — that the last day of the feast which had been marked by the death and resurrection of Jesus would itself be the last great day of the Lord. The gathering together of the disciples in the sort of numbers mentioned in Acts 1-2 and the increasing anticipation and psychological preparedness which presumably led up to the experience of Spirit and glossolalia certainly makes it more than plausible that the climax was reached on the day of the festival itself, the hopes of the last age beginning to be fulfilled in the outpouring of the Spirit. (p. 141f)
Pentecost and the Appearance Tradition
Another question addressed by James Dunn concerns how the Pentecost event (sic) relates to the appearances tradition. He asks whether Pentecost was really a resurrection experience, and then seeks to eliminate that interpretation of the story in Acts 2. Having taken Luke’s general depiction of the disciples in Jerusalem some seven weeks after Easter as authentic, he now dismisses Luke’s underlying scheme of appearances — ascension — Pentecost as “theologically determined.”
The resurrection appearance to Paul certainly took place long after the forty days were past. If there had been an “ascension” which brought the resurrection appearances to a decisive end, or if there had been some other full stop to the resurrection appearances which was recognized by the primitve community as closing the circle of apostles, then Paul would never have been accepted as an apostle. It is Paul himself who seems to be the first to write finis under the list of resurrection appearances (‘last of all’). The real dispute over his own claim was not whether he really had experienced such a commissing appearance of the Lord, but whether he had understood his commission aright. The obvious implication is that the sequence of resurrection appearances listed in I Cor. 15 ran far beyond Luke’s forty days, and that Paul’s own ophthenai was recognized, initially at least, as just another link in the chain. (p. 143 emphasis original)
After a careful analysis of suggestions that Acts 2 represents nothing more than a variant tradition of an appearance by Jesus “to more than 500 of the brethren at one time” (1Cor 15:6), Dunn concludes that the events described (doubtless with some theological elaboration by Luke) in Acts 2 probably took place between the appearance to the twelve and the appearance to the crowd of 500+ persons. He draws out the significance of this suggestion as follows:
The not unimportant corollary follows that the gift of the Spirit was not something quite so distinct and separate from the resurrection appearances as Luke implies. Although Pentecost does not itself seem to have involved a resurrection appearance or even a vision of Jesus, it would seem that after the initial resurrection appearances, charismatic and ecstatic phenomena became a not uncommon feature of the communal gatherings of the young church together with occasional visionary appearances of Jesus, on one occasion at least to the whole company. In other words, we can only go so far in distinguishing experiences of Spirit from resurrection appearances in the earliest Christian community. The problem of how the exalted Jesus and the Spirit of God were related in the religious experience of the early churches is by no means solved. (p. 146 emphasis original)
The Pentecost miracle in Acts 2 does not form part of the Jesus Database inventory, but it may be related to the following items:
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.