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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Pentecost

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So far as canonical Scripture is concerned, it is only in the NT that we meet with this name, and that in three places-Acts 2:1; Acts 20:15, 1 Corinthians 16:8. We also find it in Tobit 2:1 : ‘in the feast of Pentecost, which is the holy feast of the seven weeks’; and in 2 Maccabees 12:31 f.: ‘the feast of weeks being close at hand. But after the feast called Pentecost …’ In the last two instances the explanatory language reminds us that the term was comparatively new and came into use among the Greek-speaking Jews. Among Christian writers, Tertullian (c._ a.d. 200) apparently is the first to use it as the name of a Christian festival (de Idol. 14). He simply took it over from the Greek as already used in the LXX_ and NT.

1. The name ‘Pentecost’ (ἡ πεντηκοστή).-It is hardly necessary to add sc. ἑορτή or ἡμέρα, as the word had already hardened into a proper name. It was so used by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:8 (ἕως τῆς πεντηκοστῆς). It is therefore an unnecessary refinement to translate it in the NT, with R. F. Weymouth, ‘the Harvest Festival’ (The NT in Modern Speech3, London, 1909, ad loc.), or, still more cumbrously, with The 20th Century NT2, London, 1904, ‘the Festival at the close of the Harvest.’ Pentecost was the feast of the fiftieth day. It is a colourless name, and, unlike ‘Passover or Unleavened Bread’ and ‘Tabernacles or Booths,’ it reveals nothing as to the nature of the festival itself. This is the case also with the Hebrew name, ‘feast of weeks (ḥag shâbu‛ôth),’ generally given to this festival (Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10). It is true, the feast is also termed ‘the feast of harvest’ (Exodus 23:16), and, further, Exodus 34:22 adds ‘of the firstfruits of wheat harvest’; whilst, again, Numbers 28:26 calls it ‘the day of firstfruits.’ At a very much later date the Jews gave to this festival the name of ḥag ha‛aẓereth or ‛aẓarta’ (Aram.), a term which in earlier times was applied to the concluding festivities of Passover and Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:36, Numbers 29:35, etc.; in EVV_ ‘a solemn assembly’). Apparently it applied to Pentecost as the feast which marked the conclusion of the harvest. The Gr. ἀσαρθά (a transliteration) betrayed Josephus into the error of supposing that this term itself meant Pentecost (Ant. III. x. 6). But the far more common name was the Feast of Weeks, and later still, the Feast of Pentecost. Under the latter name it still denotes both the Jewish and the Christian festival.

2. Origin.-The name ‘Pentecost’ takes its origin from the very ancient custom of carefully counting the days from the second day of the Feast of Maẓẓôth according to the specific injunction of Leviticus 23:15 f., where the fifty days also are expressly mentioned. Although there has been much dispute as to the exact meaning of ‘the morrow after the sabbath,’ it is generally agreed to treat the 16th Nisan as the day when the wave-sheaf of early barley was offered and as the day when they began to ‘count the omer.’ So Jos. Ant. III. x. 5: ‘on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month.’ The term ‘omer’ = (a) sheaf, and (b) a measure of about 51/10 pints (dry), though the identity of the term in the two senses is uncertain. This, in turn, has given rise to the question whether ‘counting the omer’ refers to the sheaf or the measure. In the time of the Second Temple, it would seem that the meal rather than the corn-sheaf was the offering. Josephus (Ant. III. x. 5) is explicit on this point. Yet Leviticus 23 seems equally clear in intending a sheaf.

Be that as it may, in the Dispersion of Israel both the sheaf and the measure have long since ceased to have any significance; but the counting of the omer goes on still from Passover to Pentecost to the very eve of the feast (‘This is the forty-ninth day, making seven weeks of the Omer),’ and secures the regular observance of the feast. Every evening at prayers in the synagogue the counting duly takes place, with the addition of the formula: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast given us command concerning the counting of the Omer.’ The brief ceremony closes with Psalms 67 and a prayer that ‘the temple may be speedily rebuilt in our days,’ and, with still the backward look, ‘there we will serve Thee with awe, as in the days of old, and as in ancient years.’

Thus is retained a relic of a long-past day. When the Jews were a people settled in their own land, an agricultural people, it was a comparatively simple matter to keep the festival as the procession of the seasons went on year by year. The Feast of Maẓẓôth marked the opening of harvest with the early barley crop; the Feast of Weeks marked its close with the ingathering of the wheat; the Feast of Booths crowned the cycle with the gathering of the vintage and the ‘fruits of the land’ (Leviticus 23:39) in general. The climatic conditions of Palestine made those seasons timely and appropriate. The counting of the omer was a quaint expedient for enabling the farmers to appear at the central sanctuary at the appointed time for the Feast of Weeks. The primitive proclamation of new moon, which the authorities announced by messengers, who went through the land as soon as the faint sickle was seen in the sky, could not be relied upon in this instance. Those who dwelt in the borders of the little land would be belated. But all could count from ‘the morrow after the sabbath’ from the second day of Maẓẓôth, when the ceremony of waving the omer (of barley) took place. And all could arrange to appear on the appointed day at the end of seven weeks. But all this has long since become antiquated. The counting of the omer is entirely useless. Still the feast is celebrated in the synagogue for one day or two, but all that links it to the festival of the Pentateuch is the counting of the omer (though no omer has been ‘waved’), and such dim recollections of a harvest festival in Palestine as can be secured by dressing the synagogue with flowers.

Because the tokens of the actual observance of this feast are few and far between, some have argued a late origin for it. But the argumentum e silentio is always risky. What is settled and customary may go on for generations without remark. The Law at any rate was very explicit: ‘Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles’ (Deuteronomy 16:16). As an intermediary festival, however, and one lasting originally only for one day, there was an inevitable tendency to make the Feast of Weeks less conspicuous than the other two. Passover marked the beginning of harvest; Tabernacles celebrated the very crown and consummation of the year, when all the fruits of the earth had at length been gathered in; but Pentecost was a brief pause of joy and thankfulness for the close of harvest proper and the gathered store of ‘bread that strengtheneth man’s heart.’

This is seen especially in the dearth of commemorative matter associated with Pentecost. In connexion with Passover, e.g., in the course of time there gathered a considerable number of historical associations, not only with the Exodus, but with all sorts of other great happenings in Jewish history, with or without foundation. Afterwards, however, and at a late date, Pentecost was supplied with one notable historical association, and it became the festival at which the giving of the Law on Sinai was commemorated. The special lessons of the synagogue for Pentecost are all designed to glorify the Law. Once the connexion was made, Talmudic authorities had, by the use of ingenious methods of calculation, no difficulty in proving that this indeed was the very time when this august event took place (Exodus 19, 20). à This association persists after Pentecost becomes a Christian festival, and provokes the contrast which Keble makes the basis of his hymn for Whitsunday in the Christian Year (London, 1904, p. 120). But see also long before this Jerome (Ep. lxxviii., ‘ad Fabiolam’ [PL xxii.]).

In the few instances wherein we have historical reference to the Feast of Pentecost there is one noticeable thing: stress is laid on its being a time when crowds were gathered together at Jerusalem. Apparently in the 1st cent. a.d. the festival was well kept as a ḥag in accord with the ancient legislation. Josephus refers to it more than once (BJ_ II. iii. 1, VI. v. 3; Ant., III. x. 6, XIII. viii. 4, XIV. xiii. 4). In those days of growing distress and oncoming doom, indeed, he says that the adversaries of the Jews deliberately chose such times when crowds were gathered at Jerusalem to work them some mischief. ‘The enemy waited for the coming of the multitude out of the country to Pentecost, a feast of ours so called: and when the day was come, many ten thousands of the people were gathered together,’ etc. (Ant. XIV. xiii. 4).

3. The reference in Acts 2.-Time notes are few and far between in Acts, so that all the more precious is this clear note of the day when so momentous and auspicious an event took place. At any rate, there is complete agreement with the repeated testimony of Josephus as to the crowds of people who were at Jerusalem for the festival. With naïve hyperbole the author records the fact that there were at Jerusalem ‘devout men from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5). Not that all these were necessarily visitors who had come up expressly for the feast. It reflects for one thing the cosmopolitan character of the resident population of the city. Not a few devout Jews who were of the Diaspora found their way at last to Jerusalem to spend the remainder of their days in the vicinity of the Temple with all its privileges, and at length be buried in the land of their fathers. Perhaps also some were not without wistful hopes that the Messiah would appear. At all events, κατοικοῦντες (Acts 2:5) suggests a more permanent residence than a mere sojourn. It is equally clear, however (Acts 2:9, οἱ κατοικοῦντες τὴν Μεσοποταμίαν, and Acts 2:10, οἱ ἐπιδημοῦντες Ῥωναῖοι) that there was also a crowd of genuine visitors who had come to keep the festival.

The author even ventures upon an enumeration of the several provinces and regions whence they had come (Acts 2:9-11). It does not seem clear that he had any principle to go on in this enumeration, save that roughly he begins in what must have been to him the Far East (‘Parthians and Medes’) and ends with the West (‘sojourners from Rome’), and then adds, a little inconsequently, ‘Cretans and Arabians.’ It seems a little odd that ‘Judaea ’ should be named between ‘Mesopotamia’ and ‘Cappadocia,’ and gives rise to a question as to whether there has not been some misplacement or error in the name itself. If ‘Jews and proselytes’ (Acts 2:10) is ‘a summarizing touch’ and the two types are mentioned as being ‘found in all the regions just enumerated’ (J. V. Bartlet, The Century Bible, ‘Acts,’ Edinburgh, 1901, ad loc.), it would be superfluous to mention that there were Jews in ‘Judaea.’ J. A. Bengel (Gnomon Novi Test., ad loc.) says that (for Judaea ) ‘Armeniam legit Augustinus: eaque inter Mesopotamiam Cappadociamque jacet,’ and rather inconclusively adds: ‘sed vetustam sane Armeniorum linguam sub alia quadam gente hic nominata innui existimare licet.’ It does not appear what authority Augustine had for this, but it witnesses to early uncertainty.

It does not follow that St. Luke is to be understood as giving a careful specification of the regions represented, and it is of little moment whether we consider the list as ‘an enumeration, not of languages but of provinces’ (Speaker’s Commentary, ‘St. John and the Acts,’ London, 1880, p. 363), or with Bartlet (loc. cit.) say with equal assurance, ‘the list is one of languages rather than geographical areas.’ For a comparison with Talmudic parallels see E. von Dobschütz, ‘Zu der Völkerliste Acts 2:9-11,’ in ZWT_ x. [1902] 407-410.

Much has been said at one time and another as to the particular day of the week on which the Feast of Pentecost sensu eminenti fell. Did it really so happen that that day was ‘the first day of the week’? This depends on what day the 16th Nisan fell that year: and it is mixed up with the obscurity attending the day of our Lord’s death (see art._ Passover). It is after all a matter of inconsiderable importance. But we have the strong tradition that Jesus rose again on the first day of the week: and more than that, we have the undeniable fact that Sunday became the Christian weekly holy day on that very ground. That of itself makes Pentecost to fall on Sunday seven weeks later. We know as a matter of fact that the Christian Church in the course of time established this commemoration on the Lord’s Day as most fitting, whatever the actual day may have been, and we need not ask for more. In older Judaism Pentecost fell, like Passover, on all the days of the week as the case might be. A later usage has so far modified this as to avoid the observance of Pentecost on the third, fifth, or seventh days.

4. Nature of the event.-Much more important is the question as to what was the nature of the event which makes this day for ever memorable to the Christian. We must carefully discriminate between the wonder-element of the story, the strange and symbolic accompaniments, and the extraordinary change which most certainly marked the behaviour of the apostles as well as that of the first believers in general. It is, indeed, not impossible that so memorable an event should have been signalized actually by such phenomena as ‘a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind’ and ‘tongues parting asunder, like as of fire,’ and that all should have begun ‘to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’ (Acts 2:2-4). At the same time, it is impossible not to see a close parallel to the circumstances which had heralded the giving of the Law from Sinai, which, as we have seen, was commemorated at Pentecost. In the course of time Jewish midrash and legend had considerably heightened these conditions (Exodus 19:16 ff.; cf. Hebrews 12:18 ff.) and had added such particulars as that at Sinai all nations had heard God’s voice in their own language and that voice could be heard as well by those farthest away as by those nearest the mount (see Midrash on Psalms 68:11, and Philo, de Decalogo). The resemblance is close and could not well have been accidental. But whatever may be said as to the manner of the narrative, however much the writer may have drawn upon legendary matter in the setting of his story, the main thing is to remember that the underlying and undeniable experience is that which is of supreme importance. As C. von Weizsäcker says (Apostolic Age, Eng. tr._ i.2 [London, 1897] 50f.), the gift of prophecy ‘finds expression, though in a peculiar form, in the narrative of the Pentecost miracle, which he has placed in the forefront of his history. The import of this event is revealed in the speech of Peter (Acts 2:14 ff.). It was the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy of the universal outpouring of the Spirit of God.… Now this is certainly the historical part of the narrative. The members of the Church felt the presence of the new spirit so strongly, … that they were confident of the fulfilment of Joes’s words in their own time.’ (On this and the whole subject of the glossolalia see art._ Tongues, Gift of.)

5. Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.-Altogether too narrow and parochial a view has often been taken as to the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A literalism which proceeds on the assumption that we have exhaustive information as to these events, and that all things actually occurred as they are described, has found itself again and again in sore straits when it has come to explaining precisely what happened. Thus, on the strength of an editorial note in the Fourth Gospel (John 7:39)-οὔπω γὰρ ἦν πνεῦμα-coupled with some of our Lord’s utterances reported in the same Gospel (e.g. John 16:7), it has yielded but a grudging acknowledgment of the Spirit’s presence and power in the world prior to this event. But we should gladly see in every gracious movement of thought and every outflowering of beauty, virtue, and goodness whenscever and wherescever displayed, whether before the Incarnation or subsequent thereto, the working and manifestation of the same Spirit of love and light and power. That is quite compatible with giving full weight to Pentecost as ushering in a special manifestation of God’s Spirit and an era which was to be peculiarly characterized by the activities and energies of that Spirit in revealing and deepening what is Christ’s (ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται κτλ., John 16:14).

Among the Fathers, when they proceeded to explain the coming of the Holy Spirit as a new thing and in special connexion with Pentecost, there was a strong disposition to lay stress on the miraculous gifts and give them the chief place, an exegesis which later found too wide a vogue. ‘Visibilia illa dona, quae initio nascentis ecclesiae excellenter viguerunt’-so runs even Beza’s note. Moreover, they too often limited the Spirit’s dower to the apostles and their successors, a line of interpretation which at once went in flat opposition to the plain sense of Scripture and helped the development of a sacerdotal and sacramental view of ‘Orders.’ We meet with similar limitations still: ‘The Holy Ghost came upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost’ (T. B. Strong, A Manual of Theology2, London, 1903, p. 325). But the whole assembly of believers, if anything is clear, shared in the enduement of power which Pentecost witnessed, as they waited ‘all together in one place.’ (For ample quotations in support, see J. C. Hare, Mission of the Comforter4, London, 1877, Note H.)

Too much, indeed, may be made of such expressions as ‘coming,’ or ‘descent,’ of the Holy Spirit, as characterizing this day. It helps the perilous parcelling out of time and distinction of ‘dispensations’-the dispensations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-which has found favour with many. This has little to commend it, is artificial, and can only be taken as generally signifying the progressive development of religion among men. Nor was Pentecost ‘the birthday of the Christian Church,’ as it is often called. ‘Birthday’ is an awkward term to use in such a connexion, and can be accepted only as a rough mode of indicating the beginning of the Christian community. But there was a church of a sort already existing (see Acts 1). The movement, in truth, did not lend itself easily to dates, and refused to be subjected to the precision and exactitude which mark the inauguration of merely human societies and institutions. This holy gift was bestowed on a church already in existence. ‘Pentecost was a day of power, a day on which the Spirit of God manifested himself through the disciples as a power for the conversion of others’ (A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, p. 50).

6. Significance of Pentecost to the primitive Church.-The after course of events makes it clear that Pentecost was a turning-point of great significance in the career of the little community. The chief sign was power to give clear and bold testimony to the truth about Jesus Christ-a rich gift of prophetic grace. ‘As they waited and prayed, and pondered the sayings of the Master, and searched the OT Scriptures, the Truth flashed upon them-the Truth that was the Spirit’s teaching therein, blending with the words and memory of the Master. Suddenly the darkness of their souls was illumined by the inshining of this light from heaven, their hearts were filled with joy, and in the new exultant confidence that came to them, they were “clothed with power from on high” ’ (W. L. Walker, The Spirit and the Incarnation, Edinburgh, 1899, p. 67). Looking back from his then standpoint, the historian could not adequately account for the actually existing and widespread Church, save through some Divine enthusiasm kindled in men’s hearts by God indwelling and working in them with power and love. What could symbolize that ‘Breath of God’ more fittingly than the wind? What could more appropriately suggest the penetrative purifying power and grace than tongues ‘like as of fire’ (ὡσεὶ πυρός)? The miracle of Pentecost was that the little community should be transformed by the enduement of energy, illumination, and power, which is simply spoken of in the words: ‘And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’ That was a work of grace which was repeatedly experienced in the Apostolic Church (Acts 4:31), and has been witnessed since again and again. It is the mysterious outburst of a Power which never wholly leaves the world, however lifeless it may at times appear. As A. B. Bruce remarks, the Christian ‘believes in the Holy Ghost, and in His incessant struggle for the birth of a better world. He sees in the great crises of history His action as a mighty wind; in quiet times he traces His blessed presence and influence as a still, noiseless, yet vital air, the breath of human souls’ (Apologetics, Edinburgh, 1892, p. 69).

7. Pentecost as a Christian festival.-There is no sign whatever in the NT that the Church observed this season as a festival, or, as in the case of Passover, superimposed Christian associations on an ancient Hebrew feast. Epiphanius (4th cent.) interprets Acts 20:16 as showing that St. Paul observed the feast, and either deliberately or loosely read into the text the verb ποιήσῃ (Ἔσπευδεν, ὅπως ποιήσῃ τὴν Πεντηκοστὴν εἰς Ἱερουσαλήμ, quoted in J. Bingham, Antiquities, XX. vi. 6). (Truly it is a substantially different thing to hasten to Jerusalem to keep Pentecost from hurrying to be at Jerusalem at Pentecost.) St. Paul had little enough to do with keeping festivals. Pentecost here appears as a mere note of time. Bengel’s note ad loc. is to the point: ‘in festo, magni conventus: magna lucrifaciendi occasio.’

The 2nd cent. passes (a period fraught with all sorts of problems for the Church historians), and in Tertullian we find Pentecost definitely referred to as a Christian feast, familiar and established (de Idol. 14): ‘Non Dominicum diem, non Pentecosten, etiam si nossent, nobiscum communicassent; timerent enim ne Christiani viderentur.’ A few sentences later he speaks again of Pentecost not as one day but as a period-‘excerpe singulas solennitates nationum, et in ordinem exsere Pentecosten implere non poterunt’ (cf. also de Corona, 3). And from the time when the scheme of distinctive Christian festivals came to be developed it would appear that the whole fifty days elapsing between Easter and Pentecost were called by the latter name (Lat. Quinquagesima) and were regarded as a time of joy and happy commemoration (see R. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, IV. xiii. 7-‘which fifty days were called Pentecost, though most commonly the last day of them which is Whitsunday be so called’).

So anciently among the Jews the ‘days of the Omer,’ as the period between Passover and Weeks was called, being a time of harvest operations, was a time of joy. It is food for thought, indeed, that the principal feasts of the Christian Church should be moulded on a system so parallel with that of the Jews. How strange, if indeed we have here a primitive reference to nature and the great yearly crises of springtime and harvest, in such climatic conditions as those of Palestine, that these should gather new associations sacred for the Jew, and again in turn gather very different associations rendering them sacred in Christian eyes!

Ultimately Pentecost was limited to the fiftieth day from Easter Day, though, still later, festivities tended to prolong themselves over the week following; hence ‘Whitsuntide,’ suggesting an extended festivity rather than one day. As connected especially with that effusion of the Holy Spirit which marked the beginnings of the Church’s history, the festival was pre-eminently from the first a favourite time for baptisms (Tertullian, de Bapt. 19).

As in Passover, the Christian Church for the most part took over the name of the festival from the Jews. It was Pentecost for both. But just as Easter replaced Pascha in English and kindred languages, so Whitsunday replaced Pentecost in England through Norse influence. Before the Norman Conquest the season was always known in England as ‘Pentecoste.’ The meaning of Whitsunday has been the subject of much controversy, but has been generally explained by a reference to the white garments of the newly-baptized. W. W. Skeat gives it decidedly as White Sunday, with this explanation (see An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Oxford, 1910, s.v.).

Literature.-Besides the works quoted in the course of the article there may be mentioned G. T. Purves, art._ ‘Pentecost’ in HDB_; I. Benzinger, art._ ‘Pentecost’ in EBi_; art._ ‘Festivals and Fasts [Christian], [Hebrew], [Jewish],’ in ERE_; O. Zöckler, art._ ‘Pfingsten’ in PRE_3; J. L. Magnus, art._ ‘Pentecost’ in JE_; A. Edersheim, The Temple: its Ministry and Services as they were at the Time of Jesus Christ, London, n.d.; E. von Dobschütz, Ostern und Pfingsten, Leipzig, 1903; M. Friedländer, The Jewish Religion, London, 1891.

J. S. Clemens.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Pentecost'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/pentecost.html. 1906-1918.

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