For Christians around the world, Pentecost marks the arrival of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire after Jesus’ ascension. Yet this holiday—in Hebrew “Shavuot” (שבועות) or the Feast of Weeks—was celebrated long before Jesus and the first apostles. According to the Torah, the festival marks the wheat harvest for which the people would “offer a grain offering of new grain to the Lord” (Numbers 28:26). When Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews began to converse in Greek after the rise of Alexander the Great, Shavuot went by its Greek name, “Pentecost” (πεντηκοστῇ; pentekostē), due to the festival’s occurrence “fifty” days after Passover. In later Jewish tradition, the feast is associated with the giving of the Torah on Sinai. Thus, the celebration commemorates God providing both food and instruction for Israel—a reminder that the Lord sustains life and offers guidance through the divine word.   

But not all the Pentecosts in Israel’s history were positive. Second Temple Jewish literature records times when the Feast of Weeks was associated with the loss of life and God’s guidance. For instance, the book of Tobit has its eponymous figure recall spending one Shavuot as an exile in Nineveh: “At our Festival of Pentecost (πεντηκοστῇ), which is the sacred Festival of Weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me, and I reclined to eat” (Tobit 2:1). Being a righteous man, Tobit asks his son Tobias to search for a poor person from among his people and invite him to Shavuot dinner, but all Tobias finds is a Jewish man who had been strangled to death. On hearing this horrible news, Tobit says, “I sprang up, left the dinner before even tasting it, and removed [the dead man] from the square and laid him in one of the outbuildings at my home until sunset, when I might bury him. When I returned, I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow” (2:4-5). Pentecost was meant to reaffirm life in the Promised Land, but Tobit is met with death in exile.

As Tobit eats, he remembers the words of Amos 8:10 and applies them to his own Shavuot experience, saying, “Your festivals shall be turned to mourning and all your songs into lamentation” (Tobit 2:6). In Amos’s original context, this happens because some of the people have corrupted the wheat gleaned during Shavuot, preferring to use grain for personal gain rather than love of God and neighbor. Amos declares, “Hear this, you who trample the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain (שבר; shever), and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat (בר; bar) for sale?’” (Amos 8:5). In response, God resolves to “send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:11). The celebrants of Shavuot were supposed to offer grain to God and remember the giving of divine words to Moses, but Amos shows that Israel’s sins have perverted the principles of Pentecost.

The first-century historian Josephus describes the Shavuot of 4 BCE, in which Jews revolted against the Roman treasurer Sabinus who had arrived in Caesarea to take stock of the recently deceased Herod’s estate. Josephus writes that during “Pentecost (πεντηκοστῇ)… tens of thousands of people came together… not only to celebrate the festival, but out of their indignation at the madness of Sabinus and the injuries he offered them” (Antiquities 17.10.2). When a battle arose between Jews and Sabinus’s forces, the Romans set fire to the battle site so that Jewish fighters were burned to death. Josephus even says that “there was a great number more [Jews] who, out of despair of saving their lives, and out of astonishment at the misery that surrounded them, either threw themselves into the fire; or threw themselves upon their own swords, and so got out of their misery” (17.10.2). What was meant to be a life-affirming feast turned out to be a fiery disaster in Jerusalem. 

Being an historian, Luke would have known of these instances in Israel’s Pentecostal past. Yet the Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension does not end in the withholding of God’s word or a destructive fire. Instead, Luke narrates the arrival of divine fire through which God disseminates the divine word. Jesus’ followers see “divided tongues as of fire… and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:3-4). The prophet whom Tobit cited on his own sorrowful Pentecost had said that a wayward Israel would “seek the word of the Lord but not find it [so that] in that day, the lovely maidens and the young men shall faint for thirst” (Amos 8:12-13). Conversely, Peter proclaims that the apostles’ Pentecost fulfills Joel’s prophecy that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men will see visions” (Acts 2:17). That is, the post-ascension Pentecost replenishes Israel with the words of God. More, whereas Jerusalem had once wallowed in the fire of Sabinus, Luke says that Jerusalem has now been infused with the fire of the Spirit. In these ways, Luke not only highlights the arrival of spiritual power through Jesus, but also shows how God responds to the suffering of previous Pentecosts and offers restoration through the Spirit on Shavuot.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Prof. Schaser, can you please explain how we can understand speaking in tongues? can you just utter words that nobody can understand? I heard some preachers do that and teach their congregation how to speak in tongues. Thank you for your response
    • Thanks for your question, Claire. In Acts 2, speaking in "tongues" is speaking in real, identifiable languages. When Paul discusses speaking in tongues (1 Cor 12-14) a case can be made for either "real" languages or a spirit language whose interpretation is a spiritual gift -- either (or both) interpretation is possible.

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