Monday, June 25, 2012

Acts 2: Understanding Pentecost: Jewish Background (part 2)

Jewish traditions concerning Pentecost (Shavuot) are numerous and continue to be written even today. Discerning which ones are of sufficient antiquity to be relevant to New Testament research is tricky indeed, but not impossible. Here I present several I have judged relevant for understanding the events described in the book of Acts.

1) A Covenant Forging Day

One solid extra-biblical inter-testamental book which we know the first century had access to is the book of Jubilees because if was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this work, the book of Genesis is retold with an emphasis on dividing and keeping accurate days, holidays, and years. In this retelling, the author specifies when each of the covenants God made with mankind occurred. Noah emerges from the ark to sacrifice to God in the third month, the month of Pentecost. Immediately after relating the covenant God made with Noah it is written, "Therefore, it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shebuot in this month, once per year, in order to renew the covenant in all (respects), year by year."1 Jubilees does not ignore that this is also the wheat harvest celebration for a few sentences later it has, "...and it is the feast of the first fruits. This feast is twofold and of two natures." In the same vein, God forges the covenant with Abram, "in the third month, in the middle of the month," immediately after Abram had, "made a feast of the firstfruits of the harvest of grain."2 All this is compounded by the opening line of the book at Mt. Sinai: the third month on the sixteenth day of that month, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Come up to me on the mountain, and I shall give you two stone tablets of the Law...."
This of course is the quintessential Pentecost (pun fully intended), when God covenants with the people gathered, transforming them into God's own nation. This serves to demonstrate that in New Testament times there existed the idea that Pentecost was was the very time of the year at which God made covenant, over and over again. If there ever was a time to institute the berit hadash (new covenant), it would be on Pentecost. If ever there was a time to resurrect God's people as a new nation, it was Pentecost. If ever there was a time to re-institute the church, it would be Pentecost!

2) Annual Qumran Induction Ceremony

The second solid extra-biblical source that connects Pentecost to covenant are found in the practices of Qumran itself. In the Qumran community, there was an annual ceremony conducted where new members were inducted to the community and current members renewed their oath.3 During this ceremony, priests recited the blessings and curses of the covenant over the those present, just as was done with the Mosaic covenant and its renewals. The officiating priests would also declare, “the great deeds of God”.4 The linguistic similarity with the "mighty deeds of God" in Acts 2:11 cannot be lightly dismissed. Unfortunate for the Pentecostal movement, its own scholars such as Gordon Fee and Robert Menzies both refrain from making a connection between such a ceremony and Pentecost. Fee does, however, aptly cite Qumran as the one Jewish sect where the Holy Spirit and the prophetic continued to be active.5  Menzies tries to assert that the date of the ceremony is "obscure".6 In another scroll,7 however, we find that "all [the inhabitants of] the camps shall congregate in the third month and curse those who turn right [or left from the] Law."8 The combination of blessing, cursing, and the third month leaves only one rational date for this ceremony. Pentecost.

3) Fiery Crowns Lost and Returned

The third most relevant source is unquestionably written after the New Testament period. Because, however, it is congruent with the New Testament account in Acts 2 and also congruent with dateable Jewish literature as in the previous two examples, there is a strong case that the tradition in the Babelonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a-b, existed in oral form in the first century. In it thousands of angels tie two crowns (literally "horns") to each of the heads of the Israelites when they hear the Ten Commandments spoken in all the languages of the world and subsequently vow to do them and obey them. When they sin with the golden calf, thousands of angels remove these crowns from the Israelites and give them all to Moses, by which his face shines ("horns/projects"). This facial radiance is not far removed from what scholars call mellamu, a concept in the ancient world where a god singles out an individual by raping his head in a fiery halo which forms a crown.9 The tradition then goes on to anticipate the day that God will return this theophanic head gear to them. In Acts 2, this anticipation is fulfilled, via "tongues of fire" (i.e. visual horns) on the heads of the people. The fact that Stephen, within the book of Acts itself, describes the law as "being put into effect by angels" (7:53) lends further credence not only to this tradition's existence at that time, but also its support within the early movement. Further support of this concept is found within the opening chapters of book of Hebrews where Jesus, the implementer of the younger covenant, is compared with angels, the implementers of the elder covenant (2:1-4). Hebrews 1:7  even describes these angelic covenant messengers as "flames of fire" by quoting the Greek version of Psalm 104:4.

Devil's Advocate:

If these Jewish traditions are not only relevant, but essential to understanding Acts 2 as I claim, then why does Peter quote Joel and not Jeremiah 31:31 or some other "covenant" tip off passage? Great question! For one, there is no reason to think he didn't, but that is an argument from silence.

First, neither Peter nor Luke had to say it explicitly. Ultimately, I believe Luke is writing to a Jewish audience to convince them that Gentiles should be accepted without circumcision. His original audience would have known all these traditions merely by hinting at them with things like multiple languages, fiery crowns, the Holy Spirit, etc. We do this all the time in our retelling of history, in our movies, and in our day to day language, recasting new things in garb of the familiar.

Second, Luke is explicit. He says it happens on Pentecost. Were not the traditions associated with Pentecost important to the theology of the account it would not have been mentioned. Compound this with the little known fact that Luke almost never calls God's covenants with the word for covenant. He almost always calls them promises instead. For Luke to quote Jesus calling the Holy Spirit, "the promise from the Father" in one breath, and then call God's other covenants "the promise to David" or "the promise to our fathers" in the next several chapters is deliberate. For Luke the "promise of the Spirit" was the "covenant of the Spirit".

Third, the real motivation behind this question is "how come Peter didn't tell me!" Peter (and Luke) are more interested in interpreting why this particular Pentecost celebration should be so favored by God, as opposed to any other year it was celebrated. They want their audience to see that Jesus' death, resurrection, ascension, (return?) CAUSED this particular out pouring. Luke had no time or space to waste ink on a rudimentary Jewish (pardon the phrase) "Sunday school" lesson. Luke's two books in the New Testament are already the two largest, both being about the same size probably because this is about how how much would fit on one full scroll. Luke was already condensing his voluminous work to fit the space provided.

< Skip back to part one 

1. Jubilees  6:17 in James Charlesworth. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 Vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Pseudepigrapha vol. 2, pg 67.

2. ibid. 15:1 pg 85.

3. 1QS I 16 - III 12

4. 1QS I 21

5. Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994. pg 914.

6. Menzies, Robert P. The Development of Early Christian Pneumatology: With Special Reference to Luke-Acts, Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series, no. 54, Edited by David Hill. England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991. pg 233.

7. 4QDa (4Q266) 11 16-18 [formerly 4QD(4Q267) 18 V 16-18] and also 4QD(4Q270) 7 II 11-12 [formerly 11 II 11-12]

8. Translation is from Joseph M. Baumgarten, Qumran Cave 4 XIII: The Damascus Document(4Q266-273), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 18 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 77. See also James C. VanderKam,  “Covenant and Pentecost.” Calvin Theological Journal 37.2 (2002): 239-54.

9. Jeffrey Niehaus. God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995, pg 350-5. See also Moshe Weinfeld. “Pentecost as Festival of the Giving of the Law” Immanuel 8 (Spring 1978): 7-18.

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