Acts 2:1-4 and 4Q376

Acts 2:1-4 and 4Q376

One of the most striking features of the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-4ff is the description of the coming of the Spirit upon the early believers as they are gathered together. The details are evocative of the ancient Near Eastern theophany (spec. the storm theophany) tradition, such as the famous Sinai theophany of Exodus 19-20. These details indicate the manifestation of God (El-YHWH): His presence on earth among His people, expressed through imagery associated with the storm—clouds, wind, thunder, fire, etc. Traditionally, the Sinai theophany, which marked the establishment of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, was associated with the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost); on the dating in support of this, cf. Exod 19:1; 2 Chron 15:8-15. The Torah, which served as the terms of the covenant, was given to the people (through Moses), in the context of this theophany (Exod 19-23), and the covenant was ratified in YHWH’s presence (chap. 24).

The Pentecost scene and narrative in Acts draws upon this line of tradition, only now it is a new covenant established among God’s people—who are believers in Christ. God is manifest through the presence of His Holy Spirit, and, just as the Torah was given at Sinai, so now the Gospel is proclaimed to all the people, as they are gathered together. The believers (the apostles and others) are the vehicle for this new manifestation of God’s presence; the Spirit comes upon them all collectively, as a Community, rather than upon one chosen individual (Moses).

The theophanous details in the Acts narrative are indicated in verses 2 and 3:

“And there came to be, without (any) shining (in advance) [i.e. unexpectedly], a sound (from) out of heaven, just as (of) a violent wind [pnonh/] being carried (along), and it filled the whole house (in) which they were sitting; and there was seen by them, being divided throughout, tongues as if of fire [glw=ssai w(sei\ puro/$], and it sat upon each one of them…”

The coming of the Spirit is marked by sound (a roaring) and the idea of wind (play on the related words pnoh/ and pneu=ma) blowing through the house, but is indicated more directly and immediately by the image of “tongues of fire” resting upon each of the believers. The motif of tongues is certainly related to the phenomenon of the early Christians miraculously speaking in tongues (i.e. other languages). Indeed, there is word-play of this sort throughout these verses; note the parallels:

    • Believers sitting (kaqh/menoi) together
      • The sound of the rushing wind (pnoh/) filled (e)plh/rwsen) the house
        • The tongues (glw=ssai) of fire came upon the believers
    • The fire (of the Spirit) sat (e)ka/qisen) upon each believer
      • The believers were filled (e)plh/sqhsan) with the holy Spirit (pneu=ma)
        • They began to speak in other tongues (glw=ssai)

While this may explain the use of “tongues” to describe the coming of the Spirit in the form of fire (cf. Matt 3:11 par), it is worth noting that the expression “tongues of fire” is attested in at least two other texts from the first centuries B.C./A.D. While the basic image is perhaps natural—i.e., a flame in the shape of a tongue, along with the idea of fire devouring/consuming (like a mouth), etc—it is interesting to consider how the expression itself is used.

4Q376 / 1Q29

The corresponding Hebrew expression (vva@ tonv)l=, “tongues of fire”) occurs in the Qumran text 4Q376 (= 1Q29). This small text-fragment provides an interesting example of the difficulties involved in trying to determine the context and nature of many of the Dead Sea Scroll writings. At least one fragment survives, preserving portions of three columns; what survives of each column is different enough for it to be unclear just how the text of the columns is related.

Column 1

This snippet (requiring some restoration) apparently refers to a sacrificial priestly ritual, involving the Urim and Thummim:

“[…and before the de]puty of the anointed priest […a young bul]lock from the herd and a ram […] […] for the Urim”

The expression “anointed [j^yv!m*] priest” is perhaps significant, given the evidence at Qumran for an Anointed (Messianic) priest figure-type as part of the Community’s Messianic expectation (cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

Column 2

“[…] the stone, like […] […]they will provide you with light and he will go out with it with tongues of fire; the stone of the left side which is at its left side will shine to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking. And after [the cloud (?)] has been removed […] and you shall keep and d[o al]l [that] he tells you. And the proph[et…] […] who speaks apostasy […] […Y]HWH, God of […]”
The words in italics above represent the corresponding parts of the same text (presumably) in 1Q29 which go beyond what is preserved in 4Q376.

This portion of the fragment preserves more substantial text, and includes the expression “tongues of fire”. The reference to the “stone of the left side” suggests that a ritual involving the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30, etc) is still in view. The ‘shining’ of one stone or the other (on the right or left side) indicated the will of God. This oracular technique, of which we have little actual detail in the Old Testament, was reserved for the priests (Lev 8:8; Num 27:21; Deut 33:8, etc). The reference to a (false) prophet, in the corresponding portion of 1Q29, may reflect an intentional contrast between priest and prophet, with the priesthood being given a higher position of authority and access to God’s will. The text 4Q375, which many commentators feel is related in some way to 4Q376, deals specifically with the question of how to determine the true prophet vs. the false (cf. Deut 13:1-5), and what steps must be taken in response.

Column 3

“in accordance with all this judgment. And if there were in the camp the Prince of the whole congregation, and […] his enemies, and Israel is with him, or if they march to a city to besiege it or in any affair which […] to the Prince […] … […] to field is far away […]”

It is hard to be certain, but the preserved portion in this column seems to give an example of the sort of priestly message that comes with the shining stone of the Urim/Thummim oracle. Such oracles would be consulted prior to the beginning of a military campaign, for example, and almost certainly the Urim/Thummim would have been consulted for this purpose (cf. 1 Sam 14:41; 28:6, and compare the consultation of prophets in 1 Kings 22:5-28, etc). The expression “Prince of the congregation” in the Qumran texts tends to have Messianic significance—i.e. the Anointed leader of Israel who will specifically have (political/military) leadership over the Community (as the faithful remnant of Israel) in the end-time. This part of the text may indicate the relationship between the Davidic and Priestly Messiahs of the Community, intended to illustrate how this will function in the end-time; the Priest receives the divine message and conveys it to the Prince for him to act.


In addition to the main fragment (cf. above), there are 6 additional tiny fragments belonging to 1Q29 (= 4Q376). Unfortunately, they are too small to add much to our knowledge of this writing. Fragment 2 seems to mention the stone on the right side (“the right stone”), corresponding to the “stone of the left side” that shines. In this context, we have the intriguing mention of “three tongues of fire”, a detail that further defines the expression “tongues of fire” in fragment 1 (= 4Q376 col. 2), above. It may be that the three tongues refer to the stone on the left side, the stone on the right, and the priest (in the middle?); there is, however, no way to be sure.

The remaining fragments, it would seem, tend to emphasis the role of the priest in conveying the will of God (YHWH) to the people (the Community). In particular, the (Anointed) priest is equipped to explain all that YHWH wishes, and that the people are to keep and observe this instruction. From the standpoint of the Community, this involves a correct interpretation and explanation of the Torah, but also of the other Scriptures (the Prophets). The prophetic emphasis in this text (cf. also 4Q375) suggests that there is also a special inspiration that belongs to the priestly leadership of the Community, which may have been expressed in the form of oracular messages. Admittedly, there is relatively little evidence for this charismatic aspect of the teachers/leaders of the Qumran Community, but it seems to have applied to the person known as the “Teacher of Righteousness”; and, to the extent that it was part of the religious/spiritual dynamic of the Community, it could form a certain parallel with the Spirit-inspired leadership (apostles, prophets) in early Christianity.

1 Enoch

The only other occurrence of the expression “tongues of fire” in Jewish literature of the period (as far as I am aware) is found in the book of Enoch (1 Enoch). In 14:9-10 and 71:5 the expression is part of a visionary description of the heavenly realm. On his journey through the heavens, the seer encounters a great wall, built of crystals, and “surrounded by tongues of fire” (14:9). He proceeds into this fire and approaches a crystal house, or palace, part of a complex that eventually leads to the Chariot-throne of God Himself (14:10-20ff). The reference in 71:5, is part of a similar description, in poetic form, composed almost certainly by a different author and at a later time.

These references in the book of Enoch make it likely that the expression “tongues of fire” in 4Q376/1Q29 is part of a visionary/apocalyptic tendency, in certain Qumran writings, blending the heavenly realm together with the religious ritual of the Community. The Qumran Community very much considered itself to represent the “holy ones” on earth who functioned in tandem with the “holy ones” (i.e. Angels) in heaven, and this was part of the imagery in a number of texts, such as in the War Scroll and the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” (or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”). As the inspired/anointed Priest ascertains and explains the will of God, he touches upon the heavenly realm (of God’s Throne and His Angels), and the oracular response of the Urim/Thummim (the “shining” stones) is accompanied by “tongues of fire” that mark the Divine/Heavenly presence.

It is quite possible that the narrative in Acts 2:1-4 is alluding to a similar line of tradition, and that, here too, the “tongues as of fire” are meant to convey the idea of the Heavenly/Divine presence at work within the Community.

The translations of the Qumran texts above are taken from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentíno García Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).

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