Of Weeks, Pentecost, and Giving the Law

Of Weeks, Pentecost, and Giving the Law May 25, 2020

The Book of Acts reports that on the day of Pentecost, the apostles were in Jerusalem at the time of the great pilgrim feast of Shavuot, or Weeks, which occurs fifty days after Passover. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word for that fifty day period. Jews still celebrate Shavuot, which this year begins on May 28, but they no longer use the term Pentecost, as the Christian connotations are now so strong. (Christian Pentecost this year falls on May 31). So much is well known, but it’s far from clear exactly how early Christians actually understood that Pentecost celebration. Every year around this time, lots of Christian sermons will explain that Shavuot commemorated the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, so that the Christian Pentecost was in effect a giving of a new law, a new way of believing and thinking. I confess that this is something I myself used to accept. But almost certainly, it’s just not true.

This particular story also points to a larger problem. Christians rightly try to understand the origins of their faith against the background of early Judaism as it would have existed at the time. Yet Judaism is a vibrant religion that has experienced much change and development through its history, and at the same time, like any faith, it commonly portrays its beliefs and institutions as more ancient and unchanging than they actually are. Hence, those Christians who try to uncover early Judaism often find themselves describing a faith as it existed in later times, and which can only with difficulty be back-projected into the first century. In particular, we always need to recall that Talmudic sources portray conditions after the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD, which provides such a radical separation from the era of the earliest Jesus movement.

Shavuot and the Law

Like most Jewish holidays, Shavuot combines multiple layers of origin and meaning, and Jewish sages were rarely bothered by the hobgoblin of consistency. In its origin, the feast was a seasonal celebration, which marked the wheat harvest in ancient Israel (Deut. 16.9-11), a “Festival of Reaping,” and the presentation of First Fruits. All the crucial ceremonies happened in the Temple, where farmers made their offerings to the priests. With Passover and Tabernacles, it was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts.

The Old Testament itself makes no suggestion of any kind of link with giving the Law. Most histories of that connection begin with a reference to the Book of Jubilees, a strange but important text, which I discuss at length in my 2017 book Crucible of Faith. Jubilees comes from that wildly creative and contentious era of Jewish religious thought and writing around 160 BC or so, around the time of the Book of Daniel, and the foundation of the Qumran sect. The author was deeply interested in the calendrical disputes of the time, and to our modern view he seems obsessed with the minutiae of dates. In the text, Shavuot has a Covenantal quality, but is not explicitly linked to Sinai. I quote the classic 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia:

Some insight into the origin of this association of Pentecost with the giving of the Law is afforded by Jubilees where the covenant with Noah as regards the eating of blood is made on the Feast of Weeks. This covenant is renewed with Abraham and with Moses on the same day. It needed but a step for later times to place the covenant on Sinai also on the same day.

Note that even this still does not provide an exact association with Shavuot. I recall the old joke about “It’s close, but no shofar.” Also, Jubilees itself was anything but a mainstream text in the Judaism of the Second Temple period, and was very popular in the Qumran sect. It fell out of Jewish use in the rabbinic period, but Christians continued to venerate it, and it is actually canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

I need to be very careful with one phrase here. Scholars of the Second Temple era often talk about “sectarian” Judaism as opposed to the mainstream, but in fact it’s hard to tell exactly where the lines lay between mainstream and margins in that time, or if indeed we can truly speak of a mainstream. But let’s just say that the Sinai interpretation of Shavuot had a special appeal on what we commonly call the margins, before working their way gradually to the center. Confirming the marginal status of the opinions set out in Jubilees, still in the first century AD neither Philo nor Josephus seem to know about the feast’s association with Law-giving and Sinai.

As in so much else in Jewish history, the key transition in the festival’s history comes with the fall of the Temple, which made all the old Shavuot ceremonies impossible. How could you present loaves to priests when they weren’t there to receive them? Rabbis now began a prolonged struggle to rethink and redefine so many aspects of faith and practice, and Shavuot was one. Over time, the theme of Law-giving became ever more prominent in the feast that was now called Atzeret (Closing, or Solemn Assembly), but without replacing the seasonal foundation. In the second century, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus declared that “All agree in respect to Atzeret that it is required because on that day the Torah was given.” (Pesachim 68b: I am drawing here on an article with the wonderful name of “The Twisted History of Shavuot.”) That interpretation then became standard and orthodox, and that is how Jews have subsequently understood it.

In modern times, the creation of the state of Israel allowed the restoration of those older agricultural celebrations, which looked a lot like European May Day festivities. But that is another story.

Does Acts 2 Refer to the Giving of the Law?

So in 150 BC, say, Shavuot did not commemorate Moses at Sinai. By 150 AD, it definitely did. When is the transition? If it was indeed after 70, how soon after 70?

There is considerable doubt whether Luke, writing in the 90s, intended such a context for Acts. Significantly, Peter’s great speech on that occasion really contains no Law-, Sinai-, or Moses-appropriate echoes, as it could easily have done, if indeed Luke was thinking along these lines. The only marginal exception in that speech is that the men who handed Jesus over for death are “wicked” or rather “lawless,” anomon.

An oblique verbal parallel might – might – offer a little evidence that the Sinai story was the context for Luke’s Pentecost . In Exodus, after Moses receives the Law, he comes down the mountain to find the children of Israel engaged in worshiping the Golden Calf. He orders the Levites to purge the unbelievers, and that day, three thousand perished. The Acts story of Pentecost ends with three thousand being added to the number of the emerging Jesus movement. The parallels between the stories are clearer if we use the Septuagint Greek that the early Christians would have known best. On one day, in Moses’s time, three thousand lost their lives, or more specifically, “fell,” epesan. Under the new dispensation, three thousand gained new life – or, as Luke might have said, they rose. Here is Exodus 32.28:

“And that day, about three thousand of the people died” – or rather, “there fell of the people on that day.”

kai epesan ek tou laou en akeine te hemera trischilious andras

Here is Acts 2.41:

“And that day, about three thousand were added to their number”

kai prosetethesan en te hemera ekeine psychai hosei trischiliai

It’s not a direct parallel, but it’s suggestive, and might mean that Luke is referencing Exodus. Also, that phrase carries special weight in Acts 2 because it is clearly the end of the story, before we move on to other things. It’s a takeaway line.

I used to think that this was enough to support the “Law given at Sinai” theme here. Given the weight of other evidence, I really don’t think so any more.

On balance then, the Acts passage suggests a new declaration or kerygma to the whole world, to the whole list of nations given in 2.9-11. Incidentally, that universal quality is even stronger if we assume that the reference to “Judea” – which makes no sense in the context – is actually an ancient scribal error for Edessa, which would fit much better geographically and contextually.

But no, I don’t think Luke meant his readers to think of Moses and Sinai.


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