June 1: Acts 2:1-13 (part 2)

For the second day of Pentecost (Pentecost Monday), I will be examining the the second of three primary themes related to the Pentecost Narrative of Acts 2:1-13 (cf. also Part 2 of the article “The Sending of the Spirit”):

    1. Theophany (Pentecost Sunday)
    2. Tongues of Fire
    3. The Restoration of Israel

2. Tongues of Fire

This phenomenon is described in verse 3:

kai\ w&fqhsan au)toi=$ diamerizo/menoi glw=ssai w(sei\ puro/$ kai\ e)ka/qisen e)f’ e%na e%kaston au)tw=n
“and (there) was seen [i.e. appeared] to them divided throughout tongues as if of fire, and it sat upon each one of them”

It may be useful to examine several of the key words and expressions a bit more closely:

w&fqhsan (“was seen”)—the aorist passive of this verb (o)ptanomai, as an alternate for o(ra/w, etc), is used frequently in both the Greek Old Testament (LXX) and Luke-Acts in the context of theophany (i.e. “appearance/manifestation of God”, see the previous day’s note) or an otherwise divine/heavenly appearance: cf. Gen 12:7; 17:1; 18:1; Exod 3:2; Luke 1:11; 24:34; Acts 7:2, 26, 30, 35; 9:17; 13:31; 16:9; 26:16). In such a context, the plural form is rare—here it refers to the theophanic appearance of “tongues” (pl.).

diamerizo/menoi—this verb is a compound of meri/zw (“divide, separate, portion”) and the preposition dia/ (fundamentally, “through”); here the preposition serves as an intensive, or to convey a distributive sense. It is a feminine plural passive participle (modifying “tongues” glw=ssai), a compact way of describing the “tongues” suddenly/instantly (?) being distributed throughout the group of believers gathered in the house. In the New Testament, the verb occurs in the negative (or hostile) sense of separating/dividing something (Lk 11:17-18; 12:52-53; Mk 15:24 par [citing Psalm 17:14]), and similarly the noun diamerismo/$ (Lk 12:51). However, in Luke-Acts, there are three occurrences where the verb is used in a positive sense, i.e. of distributing something among a group of believers: in addition to the “tongues” in this verse, it is used (1) for the bread and cup of the last supper (Lk 22:17), and (2) for the distribution to the needy of the resources held in common by the early believers in Jerusalem (Acts 2:45).

glw=ssai w(sei\ puro/$ (“tongues as if of fire”)—this expression will be discussed below; note the comparative particle w(sei (“as if”, i.e. “as, like”), to indicate the symbolic description of the manifestation of the Spirit. There is a similar use of w(sei in the Matthean account of Jesus’ baptism—the Spirit coming down upon Jesus w(sei (“like, as if”) a dove, i.e. in the apparent form of a dove.

e)ka/qisen (“sat”)—here the verb kaqi/zw (“set, sit [down]”) may have the sense of “settle, rest, hover”, etc; however, the semitic idiom “to sit” (Hebrew verb bv^y`) can also be understood figuratively as “settle [down], set [down roots], dwell”, and so a more permanent dwelling of the Spirit may be implied as well. Note the singular form of the verb (“it sat”, lit. “she sat”), though the subject “tongues” is plural.

e)f’ e%na e%kaston au)tw=n (“upon each one of them”)—the idea seems to be that a “tongue” of fire sets down individually on each of the (approximately) 120 believers in the house. This was already implied in the use of the verb diameri/zw in the distributive sense (see above), but here is made explicit with the involved expression, literally “upon (each) one separate(ly) of them”. So we have a powerful juxtaposition of: (a) the unity of the group (community) of believers together, and (b) the distinctiveness of each individual. This can be illustrated by a comparison of verse 1 and 3:

one (together) upon the same (thing/place)” (v. 1)
o(mou= e)pi\ to\ au)to/
“upon each one of them” (v. 3)
e)f’ e%na e%kaston au)tw=n

“…and they were all filled…” (v. 4)
kai\ e)plh/sqsan pa/nte$

Verse 4 continues in parallelism with verse 2b-3:

    • The Spirit filled (e)plh/rwsen) the whole house where they where sitting (kaqh/menoi) together (v. 2b)
      • and there appeared to them “tongues (glwssai) of fire”… which sat (e)ka/qisen) upon each of them individually (v. 3)
    • They were all filled (e)plh/sqhsan) with the Holy Spirit (v. 4a)
      • and began to speak with other tongues (glwssai) as the (Holy) Spirit gave them to pronounce/speak forth (v. 4b)

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. For other references to “tongues of fire”, see 1 Enoch 14:9ff; 71:5ff which are part of a description of the heavenly realm.

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 §32-49), and so nearly contemporary with the book of Acts. In particular, Philo emphasizes an interesting relationship:

Sound/Voice (of God) (h@xo$, cf. Acts 2:2)
{changed into}
Fire (pu=r/puro/$, cf. Acts 2:3)
{changed into / understood as}
Human language (dia/lekto$, cf. Acts 2:6ff)

which generally seems to follow the same logical/narrative sequence in Acts.

In addition to the Sinai theophany, there would seem also to be an echo of the “confusion of tongues” episode in the Tower of Babel narrative (Gen 11:1-9); as we shall see in the next day’s note, the Pentecost narrative almost certainly draws upon the eschatological motif of the restoration of a common human language as part of the imagery surrounding the inauguration of a Christian world mission.

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