The People in Jerusalem on Pentecost: Who Were They?

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.

At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.

They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?

Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?

We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome,both Jews and converts to Judaism,Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Acts 2:5-11

(From the Gospel reading for Pentecost)

Did you hear this Gospel reading at Mass this morning? 

The Second Chapter of Acts, which recounts the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles and Disciples gathered in the Upper Room, is familiar to Christians.  It’s truly the story of the Church’s birthday–the day on which the followers of Christ were emboldened by an infusion of grace, strengthened to face the risks and challenges of preaching and teaching the faith.

Pentecost (sometimes called Whitsunday) ranks with Christmas and Easter among the great feasts of Christianity.  It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit, and celebrates the fruits and effects of that event:  the completion of the work of redemption, the fullness of grace for the Church and its children, and the gift of faith for all the nations.

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BUT WHO WERE ALL THESE PEOPLE, and why were they gathered in Jerusalem on that particular day?

They were Jews, and they had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Shauvot, the “Feast of Weeks.”  Shauvot was one of the “temple feasts” when devout Jews were supposed to travel, if possible, to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Shauvot commemorates Moses’ receiving of the Law from God on Mount Sinai.  On the Jewish calendar, Shauvot falls on the sixth day of Sivan (in late May or early June)–roughly fifty days (seven weeks) after Passover.  Greek-speaking Jews referred to it by that name:  Pentecost.

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The Parthians, Medes, and Elamites traveled from what is present-day Iran (Parthia in the northeast, Media in the northwest, and Elam to the south along the north side of the Persian Gulf).  At the time of Acts, they would have been parts of the Parthian Empire, and known to Rome as part of the “Silk Road” trade routes between the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty China.

Mesopotamia incorporated what is modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and Western Syria around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. At the time of Acts, it was a Roman province.

Judea was the area around Jerusalem and what we would call “the Holy Land”, which encompasses modern-day Israel and Palestine. It, too, was a Roman Province at the time, having been conquered by Rome.

Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia were all Roman provinces, located in present-day Turkey (Cappadocia in eastern central Turkey, Pontus in the northeast on the Black Sea, Asia in the west on the Mediterranean, Phrygia in western central Turkey, and Pamphylia on the southern central coast).

Egypt (same as the country name today) was yet another Roman province at the time.

Libya  was not a Roman Province. At the time of the first Pentecost, modern-day Libya was divided into three provinces under Roman rule: Tripolitania (the northwestern part of Libya around, natch, Tripoli, which still exists today as the capital of Libya), Fezzan to the south in the desert, and Cyrenaica to the west, which was combined into one province with the island of Crete). Cyrenaica was, in turn, named after the city of Cyrene, a former Roman city (now in ruins) near modern-day Shahat in Libya.

Cretans were from the island of Crete, in the Mediterranean, now part of Greece.

Arabs would have been from the Arabian Peninsula (today covered by Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain) At the time of Acts, there would have been Jewish communities there, particularly in trading cities like Mecca and Medina.

Pentecost marked the beginning of the spread of the Gospel to the whole world.  Here, a map showing the lands from which the first converts had traveled: