For introductory notes on the first chapter of Acts and other matters preliminary to the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, see Part 1 of this article.
The main narrative of the sending of the Spirit during Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) I divide as follows:
- Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), verse 1.
- Manifestation of the Spirit, verses 2-4.
- Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the crowds), verses 5-13.
I will discuss each of these in turn.
1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), Acts 2:1:
As I did for Acts 1:14 in Part 1, I break out the specific words of this short verse:
e)n tw=| sumplhrou=sqai (“in the being filled up” [su/n as intensive prefix, i.e. “filled completely”]—but here as a temporal clause = “when it was completely filled”)
th\n h(me/ran th=$ pentekosth=$ (“the Fiftieth day”)
h@san (“they [i.e. the Disciples] were”)
pa/nte$ (“all”—all of them, together)
o(mou= (“as one” or “at one”, i.e., together, the same; see the similar o(moqumado\n [“of one impulse”] in 1:14)
e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (“upon the [same] thing”—this phrase occurs repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts, though somewhat obscured by conventional translations; it is indicative of the unity of the believers)
Here is the verse in literal translation:
“And in the Fiftieth day’s being filled completely, they were all at one upon the (same) thing [or, place]”
And in a more conventional translation:
“And when the Fiftieth day had been fufilled, they were all together in the same place.”
[As C. C. Torrey and other scholars have noted, the Greek may reflect an Aramaic expression “when the Weeks had been fulfilled” (e.g., aY`u^Wbv* <l^v=m!b=W), which is more intelligible]
The “Fiftieth” day (usually transliterated as “Pentecost”), is the festival of Weeks (toub%v*) in Israelite and Jewish tradition (cf. Lev. 23:9-22; Deut. 16:9-12). Fifty days (seven weeks) are counted from the offering of the firstfruit sheaf of grain at the time of Passover. Traditionally, it was also the time associated with the Sinai theophany and giving of the Law (Ex. 19:1ff). In the Exodus narrative, the entire camp of Israel was gathered together beneath the mountain “to meet God” (Ex. 19:17). Here, the disciples, too are gathered together in the same place and will “meet God”. Elements of the Sinai theophany also have their parallel in the manifestation of the Spirit, as we shall see.
2. Manifestation of the Spirit, Acts 2:2-4:
Here the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) is recorded in dramatic fashion, in the language and imagery of Theophany. Since the manifestation of God at Sinai (occurring at Pentecost, by tradition) was mentioned above, it is worth looking at elements of that theophany:
- Thunders (lit. “voices”) and lightnings (19:16)
- A thick cloud
- Fire went down upon the mountain; smoke (as of a furnace) went up from it (19:18), perhaps parallel to the cloud in v. 16.
- The mountain “trembled” (or “quaked”); in v. 16 it is said the people trembled (same verb, drj)
- The sound (lit. “voice”) of a horn (rp*ov, shofar) (19:19, also mentioned in v. 16), which sounded long and grew louder
Consider also the theophany to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12):
- A great and strong wind (or “breath”, “spirit” j^Wr = pneu=ma) which swept through and tore at the mountain
- An earthquake (“quaking”, “shaking” vu^r^)
- Fire (va@)
all of which occur as God (hwhy) is “passing over” (or “passing by” rb@u), but God Himself is not in (b) the wind, quaking or fire. Then comes a quiet, thin voice.
Here is the manifestation of the Spirit as recorded in Acts (note the theophanic details in italics, with specific parallels in bold):
- “And suddenly there came to be out of the heaven a sound as of a violent wind [pnoh/] being carried (along) and it filled the whole house (in) which they were sitting” (2:2)
- “And there was seen [i.e. appeared] unto them tongues as if of fire divided through(out), and it sat upon each one of them” (2:3)
- “And they all were filled of/by (the) holy Spirit [pneu=ma] and began to speak in other tongues even as the Spirit gave (to) them to utter forth” (2:4)
Clearly, there is wordplay with “tongues (as if) of fire” [glw=ssai w(sei\ puro/$] anticipating “with other tongues” [e(te/rai$ glw/ssai$] in v. 4. There is at least one other occurrence of the phrase “tongues of fire” from roughly the same period in a Qumran text (represented by fragments of 1Q29 and 4Q376: these with 4Q375 and 1Q22 may all be part of the same work). 1Q29 fragment 1 can be restored on the basis of 4Q376 (ellipses indicate gaps [lacunae] in the text):
“…the stone, like… they will provide you with light and he will go out with it with tongues of fire [va twnwvlb]; the stone which is at its left side will shine to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking. And after it [the cloud?] has been removed… and you shall keep and do all that he tells you. And the prophet … … who speaks apostasy … … YHWH, God of …”
Another tiny fragment reads: “… the right stone when the priest leaves … … three tongues of fire … … And after he shall go up and remove his shoes ….” (translations taken from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Brill/Eerdmans 1997/2000, vol. 1 pp. 108-9). The words (possibly spoken by Moses) refer to an anointed Priest; the stones on the right and left (urim and thummim?) are associated both with light and the voice of the Priest as he addresses the assembly. It is possible the “three tongues” are also “divided out”, one over each stone, and one directly over the Priest in the middle.
There is some uncertainty whether the “other tongues” refer to an ecstatic ‘heavenly’ language or ‘earthly’ foreign languages. Other New Testament references (Acts 10:46; 19:6, and those in 1 Cor. 12-14) suggest the former, while the context here (cf. Acts 2:11) indicates the latter. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional, in order to reflect both: (a) heavenly origin, and (b) the languages of the nations. Returning to the Sinai theophany, there is an old Jewish tradition that as the Torah (each word of God) went forth it was split into the seventy languages of the nations (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 88b); that is, each nation could hear the voice of God (the “thunderings”) in its own language (cf. Exodus Rabbah V.9). A tradition along these lines seems to be at least as old as Philo of Alexandria (On the Decalogue §46), and so nearly contemporary with the book of Acts.
3. Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the Crowd), Acts 2:5-13:
The following outline indicates the main elements of this section:
- Jews “come together” in Jerusalem (v. 5, 6a)
- Response of the crowd (vv. 6b-11) in two aspects:
1) Each person hears in his/her own language
2) Nations respond in a (symbolic) united voice
- Confusion (v. 12, see also in vv. 6-7)—”What does this wish to be?”
The mocking retort in v. 13 serves as a lead-in to Peter’s address in vv. 14-40. Let us look at each element in a little more detail:
a. Jews “come together” in Jerusalem (v. 5, 6a)
The mention of “Jews” ( )Ioudai=oi) being in Jerusalem may seem unnecessary, but it is significant for at least two reasons: (1) to emphasize the underlying religious and cultural unity of the ‘nations’ present in the city, and (2) it draws attention to the (post-exilic) reality of the current situation. When Israel, and particularly the southern kingdom of Judah (centered at Jerusalem), was taken into exile, the people were dispersed among the nations; and it was in the “dispersion” (diaspora) that a distinctly Jewish identity developed. It is generally assumed that these Jews are sojourning in Jerusalem for the festival of Weeks (Pentecost); the verb katoike/w often implies a more permanent residence, but here may simply mean generally “to dwell”. These Jews are “from every nation under heaven”, and have come together in the city (for the festival). At the coming-to-be of “this voice” (th/ fwnh/), again Jews, symbolized as a specific crowd (plh=qo$), “come together” (sune/rxomai) in confusion (being “stirred together” [sugxe/w]). It is interesting that, just in the tradition regarding the Sinai theophany, the multitudes are hearing different languages but one voice.
b. Response of the Crowd (v. 6b-11)
V. 6b and 7a reprise the confusion—they “stood out of (their minds)” and “wondered” in amazement as they heard the disciples speaking. It is unnecessary to ask just how, when, or where these people heard the disciples—and altogether beside the point. The author has crafted a marvelous dramatic scene, with events (at the historical level) certainly having been compressed together into a single moment. Similarly, it is rather unlikely that a single person or group of persons in the crowd would have said precisely what the crowd is recorded as saying here. Instead, various reactions and responses are represented by one voice. This is important thematically, and, one might say, theologically as well. Often a creative literary device conveys far more truth than a ‘sober’ record of events. Consider several of the themes inherent in the crowd’s response:
- The reference to the disciples as “Galileans” (Galilai=oi), while serving to emphasize the wonder of the situation, also creates a subtle shift stressing ethnic (and geographic) identity. Most of the disciples, and certainly the Twelve were Galileans (“men of Galilee”, 1:11). The early Christian mission began in Galilee (cf. 1:1-2), is centered in Jerusalem (by the united community of the Disciples), and will spread from there into all nations (1:8).
- Two key references to hearing the voices speaking “in our own language” (th=| i)di/a| dialek/tw| h(mw=n, v. 8, cf. also v. 6) and “in our tongues” (tai=$ h(mete/rai$ glw/ssai$, v. 11) bracket the list of nations in vv. 9-11a. The importance of this description should by now be apparent. It may be useful to consider the qualifying phrase accompanying each reference:
(1) V. 8: “in our own language in which we came to be born” [e)n h! e)gennh/qhmen] (2) V. 11: “(hear speaking) in our tongues the great (work)s of God” [ta\ megalei=a tou= qeou=] The first phrase clearly indicates ethnic sense; the second echoes Old Testament language whereby news of the great and glorious deeds of God is spread into the surrounding nations (cf. Ex. 15:11ff, and many others)—geographic sense.
- The list of nations (vv. 9-11) has been a source of some confusion, as indicated by the number of textual variants and proposed emendations. However, much of the difficulty disappears when its literary nature is recognized, rather than simply being a list rattled off by someone in the crowd. The inclusion of “Judea” has seemed strange (since Jews are speaking, and they are already in Judea!) as well as its position, leading to many suggested emendations; however, as a separate geographical list it actually makes sense—moving from East (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia) to West (Anatolian/Asian provinces, Egypt, Lybia, Cyrene and Italy) with Judea in the middle. While still a bit uneven (the final two, Cretans and Arabs, don’t fit in order as well) and not without difficulties, its significance as a list of the (known and relevant) surrounding nations is obvious.
c. Confusion (v. 12, cf. also vv. 6-7)
The confusion of the crowd is re-iterated, stating that they all were beside themselves (again e)ci/sthmi, lit. “stand out of [one’s mind]” v. 7) and “thoroughly at a loss” (diapore/w). Their summary response is: ti/ qe/lei tou=to ei@nai; (literally “what does this wish to be?”), often translated more conventionally as “what does this mean?”—however a more literal rendering preserves better a sense of the strange, dynamic nature of the situation in which the crowd finds itself: events almost seem to have a will of their own! The ironic, mocking retort that closes the crowd’s response (“they are filled with sweet [wine]!”), of course, serves to lead into Peter’s great Pentecost speech (vv. 14-40). The disciples are indeed “filled” (plh/qw) with the Spirit (v. 4), rather than “filled” (mesto/w, a somewhat cruder verb which can indicate “stuffed”, “intoxicated”) with ordinary wine.
In conclusion, it is perhaps worth considering again the theme of the “restoration of Israel” in light of the Pentecost narrative:
- The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
- The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
- Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
- They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
- The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
- The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)