Day of Pentecost

Christianity relies on Jewish understandings of cosmopolitanism

Hands touching in front of setting sun
Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 28, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost, in many Christian circles, is acknowledged as the birthday of the Church, but we need not forget that it is a deeply Jewish holiday. One could argue that the event in Acts 2 not only presents the genesis of the Jesus movement, but it also provides glimpses into how Acts understood first and second century Jewish practices. This should not be a surprise, because Christianity began amongst Jewish people. All of the protagonists in Acts are Jewish, and most of the other characters are too, especially prior to chapter 10. Tending to the Jewishness of Pentecost provides an opportunity to better understand why this setting appropriately inaugurates the movement for Acts.

Shavuot or “The Festival of Weeks” occurs seven weeks after Passover and begins on the fiftieth day after, hence its Greek name Pentecost. This is one of the three festivals for which some Jewish people would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the other two are Passover and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles). Pentecost is a harvest festival where families bring the first fruits of their harvest in anticipation of God blessing the remainder of the harvest (Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 26:5-11). This made Pentecost already symbolically rich for imagining the beginning of a bountiful ingathering, but in Acts’ case what was reaped was not produce, but people.

Pentecost’s rich symbolism was also connected to it being the day that commemorated the Israelites receiving the Torah or Law. Many Jewish people in the first centuries of the Common Era believed that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and they understood that the Torah contained two components: 1) the written Torah, which was what God inscribed Godself and 2) the oral Torah, which was verbally passed down from generation to generation. One had to be taught both components of the Torah, but one especially had to receive the oral Torah from a teacher, because aspects of it would not even be written down until the Mishnah at the end of the second century CE. The idea of oral Torah can be useful for reading Acts. In Acts, the Holy Spirit is the one through whom even Jesus teaches (Acts 1:2). On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appeared through images of fire, clouds, and loud noises similar to the theophany when God gave the Torah at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). Similar to later Jewish texts, Acts is also considering what oral Torah looks like after one cannot keep the written Torah because of diaspora and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Diaspora as depicted in Acts 2:5-11 is significant for understanding ancient Jewishness and reading Acts. Acts 2:5 notes that “there were devout Jews (Ioudaioi andres eulabeis) from every nation (ethnous) under heaven staying in Jerusalem.” The term ethnē is generally used to refer to non-Jewish people or those called “Gentiles” or “pagans.” Acknowledging this, one way to translate this verse is that “there were devout Jews from all non-Jewish/Gentile places staying in Jerusalem.” Acts 2:5 debunks a major trope of anti-Jewish readings of Acts that suggests that ancient Jewishness was particular while Christianity was universal and open to everyone. The presence of Jews (Ioudaioi) amongst every group of people under heaven insinuates that Jewishness was anything but particular. It had found homes all across the Mediterranean and beyond. In line with that, Christianity does not offer a new universal vision, but it relies on Jewish understandings of cosmopolitanism.

Acts also uses Jewish Scriptures to make meaning of this movement that seemed so strange to the audience in Acts that onlookers wondered if the apostles were drunk (Acts 2:12-13). Acts has Peter appeal to Joel’s prophecy to explain what was occurring on this special Pentecost—the first Pentecost of the last days (Joel 3:1-5). The Hebrew Bible prophetic concept of the last days was punctuated by the Day of the Lord (hēmeran kuriou), which would culminate history with dynamic ecological displays and radical egalitarianism. Such are on display in the passage from Joel. There are “portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.” Again, we see images that recall the theophany at Sinai.

Joel writes that God’s spirit would be poured upon all flesh (sarka). The pouring does not discriminate by gender; the passage deliberately names daughters, when often sons (uioi) could be used to refer to children regardless of sex or gender. Furthermore, we can take this to mean that all (with an emphasis on all) genders have access to the pouring out of God’s spirit. The pouring does not discriminate by age either. Young people will see visions and the elderly will dream dreams (Acts 2:17). The pouring does not exclude those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder—enslaved men (doulous) and enslaved women (doulas). It is worth noting that those who are named as receiving the pouring out of the Spirit are relatively powerless without the Spirit. Although Joel declares that God will pour out God’s spirit on all flesh, the wealthy, the patriarchs, the able bodied, and the enslavers are not named. This is not to suggest that they are not included, but perhaps by tending to those who are chronically ignored and overlooked, the prophet highlights that those who think they are safe because of their wealth, gender, ability, or domination of others are the very ones who need new tongues to call on the name of God and be saved.

Further reading

Cynthia Baker, “From Every Nation under Heaven: Jewish Ethnicities in the Greco-Roman World,” Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity, 94-115.