This is the fourth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. The first entry covered some of the major critical, technical and background issues that will concern us as we read through and comment on the Acts. The second post, found here, considered the prologue to the Acts of the Apostles. In the third column, we began to examine the founding of the Jerusalem Church. In the fourth blog post, found below,
B) Founding of the Jerusalem Church (1:12-2:47): ii) Pentecost (2:1-15):
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. (NRSV)
With the twelfth apostle chosen, as we saw in the third entry, the necessary conditions for the founding of the Church are met and the Holy Spirit is given to the Church on Pentecost (see Leviticus 23:15-21). Pentecost, which refers to the “fiftieth” day after Passover (in Greek: tên hêmeran tên pentêkostês, “the fiftieth day”), is the Festival of Weeks, originally a pilgrimage Spring harvest festival, which occurs seven full weeks after Passover. The name Pentecost is already found in the Septuagint (LXX) in Tobit 2:1 and 2 Maccabees 12: 32, but also in Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.299. Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks became associated with the celebration of the giving of the Law (Torah) to the Jewish people. But was that already the case at the time of Luke’s writing? Is Luke making a parallel between the giving of the Law to the Jewish people by God and now God’s giving the Holy Spirit to the (new? Restored? Transformed?) people of God?
Luke Timothy Johnson points out that Jubilees 6:17-21 “speaks of the Feast of Weeks as a covenant-renewal feast” (Sacra Pagina: Acts, 46) and this is some 200 years before Luke writes. Later Rabbinic writings note the Feast of Weeks as the time that the Torah was given (Babylonian Talmud Pesach 68b). Johnson, however, points to the 1st century Jewish philosopher and writer Philo of Alexandria as speaking of the Law given to Moses as emerging from “the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven” and “to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them” (On the Decalogue, 46). This does seem to include general parallels to Luke’s description of the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Much more could be said about these connections, including the linking of fire, theophany (the manifestation of God) and prophetic speech in the Old Testament (see Exodus 3:2, 19:16-18; Isaiah 5:24), but this is sufficient for our purposes to state that Luke has antecedents in the linking of fire, the Festival of Weeks and the giving of the Law and sees the giving of the Holy Spirit as a new movement of the presence of God among the followers of Jesus which builds upon the revelation of God to the people in times past, including the Torah.
What actually happened at Pentecost? Luke describes the 120 people (mentioned in the previous post) on Pentecost “all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:1-4). In the next entry we will see that Peter will interpret this event in light of a prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, but we can certainly say that this sort of religious experience, encompassing sound and sight, the physical senses, is to be understood as transformative spiritual experience.
The initial transformation that is mentioned is that they “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The indication is that these are not languages which they previously knew, but now were given divine ability to speak in them. Luke does not mention where the disciples of Jesus were when this took place, simply that they were “all together in one place.” That this might be the upper room is unlikely; a public space is more likely, and possibly even the Temple, since a crowd gathered in response to the sound. Not only did a crowd gather, but Luke mentions that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 1:5). The Greek verb for “living” used here is κατοικέω (katoikêo) which does suggest people who make their home in Jerusalem, although a pilgrimage festival like Pentecost would attract Jews from all over the world.
Whatever the reason, Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem. And this crowd responded to the sound
“And was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power’” (Acts 2:6-11).
The miraculous nature of the activity are the speech acts, fuelled by the Holy Spirit, which allow the Galileans to speak languages they do not know and the people to hear in their own native languages. It is not clear whether this indicates that the disciples were speaking “spiritual languages” that were heard as native languages or whether the disciples were given the ability to speak other human languages they did not know. Such ability to speak “other” languages is known as glossolalia.
It is also important, though, for the mission of Acts that the languages being heard are so numerous and geographically spread all over the (known) world. These areas include Asia Minor, North Africa, Arabia and regions we would know as present day Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. It shows that the disciples will be able to communicate with all people, a necessary precondition since Jesus promised in Acts 1:8 (see entry two) that they would bring his message “to the ends of the earth.” It is also a sort of reverse-Babel, in which the confusion of tongues is conquered by God’s activity in their lives, locating the Church’s mission in the reunification of all peoples.
The response of the people, however, is not necessarily that they are blown away by the inherent spirituality of the theophanic event. Luke makes it clear that this is not simply an internal experience, since the crowd gathers in response to physical stimuli, such as sound and the languages, but that does not mean its source is understood as coming from God. The people “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’” (Acts 2:13-14). Some people that is are trying to figure out what these events indicate, while others are clear they know: the Galileans are drunk. What the sneering response tells us, though, is that the experience of the disciples is ecstatic to some degree, which allows for such an interpretation. Depending upon where one locates the origin of the behavior, in God or in wine, it might be interpreted as a mystical experience or simple drunkenness.
At this point, the account ends by most divisions of the text and Peter’s speech begins. But I wanted to include Peter’s response to this charge prior to jumping into the speech proper in which Peter explains the source of the behavior and offers Scripture to help explain it. It is Peter who speaks on behalf of the twelve and addresses the crowd, saying “indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning” (Acts 2:15). Is saying it is 9 am sufficient warrant to indicate that people could not be drunk? It seems that this was a powerful argument in antiquity, if not in modernity (apparently “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” was not on the lips or in the minds of ancient people).
The important realities to stress, though, is that the behavior of the disciples was such that people could mistake it for drunkenness and that the coming of Pentecost according to Luke has transforming effects on the behavior of the Christians, attributable to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. That which was promised by Jesus in Acts 1:8 is now being fulfilled. How will this new spiritual activity be made manifest in their mission? How will the Holy Spirit aid them in their goal to bring Jesus’ message to the world? Is the “speaking in tongues” (glossolalia) the key or just a sign of the true power which now underlies the ministry?
Next entry, Peter’s Speech.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word