June 3: Acts 2:1-13 (conclusion)

In the previous day’s note (for Pentecost Tuesday), I discussed the third of three major themes associated with the Pentecost Narrative of Acts 2:1-13: namely, the Restoration of Israel. This same theme was examined in two earlier passages—the disciples’ question regarding the Kingdom (Acts 1:6-8) and the reconstitution of the Twelve apostles (Acts 1:15-26). Today, in conclusion, I will look at the theme as it appears in the Pentecost Narrative itself.

This can be studied according to a pair of useful, and (I think) meaningful, chiastic outlines. First:

Outline 1:

  • The unity of the disciples (together in one place and/or for one purpose—e)pi\ to\ au)to/), verse 1.
    • The house/place of gathering is filled (e)plh/rwsen) with the Spirit, verse 2.
      • Appearance of tongues (glwssai) of fire upon each individual disciple (~120), verse 3
      • The disciples (each) begin to speak in other tongues (glwssai), verse 4
    • The disciples are all filled (e)plh/sqhsan) with the Holy Spirit, verse 4
  • The unity of the crowd—devout Jews (from all nations) in Jerusalem come together in one place, verse 5ff

I discussed the “tongues of fire” in the note for the second day of Pentecost. Here I will briefly examine the outer ring of this outline—(a) the unity of the disciples (v. 1), and (b) the unity of the crowd (v. 5ff).

a. The Unity of the Disciples (2:1)

Here are the specific words of this short verse (taken from an earlier note):

    • kai\ (“and”)
    • 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”.

b. The Unity (i.e. the united voice) of the Crowd (2:5ff)

By this is meant the reaction of Jews in Jerusalem, to the theophany of the Spirit and the “speaking in other tongues”, as narrated in 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:

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 and/or to take up residence). 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.

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.
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.

Outline 2:

This second chiastic outline builds upon the first (described in detail above):

  • 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 disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

This emphasizes more clearly the theme of the “restoration of Israel”, according to the eschatological imagery of the later Old Testament prophets and Judaism, which involves two related themes:

    1. The return of Israelites (Jews) from exile among the nations—this return is to the Promised Land, and, in particular, to Judah and Jerusalem.
    2. The Nations (Gentiles) come to Judah and Jerusalem, bringing tribute and/or worshiping the true God there.

The first theme, of course, is more prominent in the Pentecost narrative, since the people from the nations in Jerusalem (v. 5) are all devout (eu)labh/$, lit. “taking good/proper [care]”) Jews (perhaps also including proselytes, v. 11). However, the global emphasis—a)po\ panto\$ e&qnou$ tw=n u(po\ to\n ou)rano/n “from every nation under the heaven”—certainly provides an ideological and narrative foundation for the mission to the Gentiles (lit. “the nations”, ta\ e&qnh). I will explore this thematic parallel between Jews and Gentiles, in relation to the early Christian mission, in an upcoming article.

One final point in this regard: the “tongues” (glw=ssai) in the Pentecost narrative relate not only to the restoration of Israel, but, I believe, in a secondary sense, to the restoration of the human race as well. There is almost certainly an echo of the “confusion of tongues” episode from the Tower of Babel episode narrated in Genesis 11:1-9. In traditional terms, humanity (united by language) was dispersed throughout the world (speaking different languages), just as Israel would be dispersed among the nations. The Hebrew verb JWP (pûƒ, “break into pieces, scatter, disperse”) in Gen. 11:4, 8-9 is translated in Greek by diaspei/rw (diaspeírœ, “[sow] seed throughout”, i.e. “scatter [seed]”). In the New Testament, this verb is used only in the book of Acts, and refers to early believers being scattered/dispersed from Judea and Palestine into surrounding countries as a result of persecution (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19). Ironically, this dispersion sets the stage for the mission to Jews (and Gentiles) in the wider world. Also ironic is the way that another division (of the 120 disciples) into separate languages will begin the process that (re-)unites humanity (Jews and Gentiles both) into a new people (of God). There is a touch of this idea in the eschatology of the Old Testament Prophets, as in Zephaniah 3:9:

“For then I will turn over the peoples to a purified/polished lip [i.e. language/speech] (for) all of them to call on the name of YHWH, to serve him (together with) one shoulder.”

A final touch of irony: the “confusion” (ll^B*, “mix [together]”; LXX sugxe/w, “pour together”) of tongues in Gen 11:7-9 is healed and reversed (symbolically) with a new “confusion” (Acts 2:6, same Greek verb sugxe/w) as the crowd (of Jews from the nations) comes together (sune/rxomai) at the marvellous sound (lit. “voice” fwnh/) which speaks in different individual languages (dia/lektoi) at once. In response, though still confused, the crowd speaks with a united voice (in vv. 7-11)—though a literary device, it is one of considerable theological and spiritual significance, for it presents an Israel united again in one place (Jerusalem) to hear the word of God.

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