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.

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

For the third day of Pentecost (Pentecost Monday), I will be exploring the last 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 (Pentecost Monday)
    3. The Restoration of Israel

3. The Restoration of Israel

There are actually three episodes in Acts 1-2 where this theme is prominent:

    1. The question of the disciples regarding the Kingdom, with Jesus’ response (Acts 1:6-8)
    2. The reconstitution of the Twelve apostles (Acts 1:15-26)
    3. The Pentecost Narrative (Acts 2:1-13)

Each of these will be examined in turn.

The Question regarding the Kingdom (Acts 1:6-8)

This passage should be considered as part of the Ascension narrative (1:6-11), which one may break down chiastically:

    • Question regarding the Kingdom of God with Jesus’ reply, including a reiteration of the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8)
      • The Ascension of Jesus (v. 9)
        —At their seeing/looking
        —      He was raised up(on)
        —      A cloud took him under
        —Away from their eyes
    • Angelic appearance and eschatological announcement about Christ’s return (vv. 10-11)

The theme of the Kingdom—shorthand for “Kingdom of God (or Heaven)”—is most significant; I discussed this in detail in an earlier post. One can, I think, outline four principal ways of understanding the phrase:

    1. As the Eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
    2. As an eschatological (Messianic) Kingdom, on earth, the establishment of which will involve: (a) judgment/defeat of the nations and enemies of God, and (b) restoration of the Davidic inheritance to Israel.
    3. In the person and work of Jesus—the miracles, teaching, foundation of the church, atoning death and resurrection, etc.
    4. As the (spiritual) presence and power of God in the heart, mind, and lives of believers.

Other interpretations are possible, but they likely will end up being a variation on one of the above. These four meanings can be found in the New Testament—even, I think, in Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom—but probably #1 and 4 are most common. The thorniest question scholars raise is to what extent #2 is part of Jesus’ teaching. It is likely that his proclamation “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.) would have been understood in this manner—of eschatological/Messianic expectation—by his contemporaries; and this certainly seems to be what the disciples have in mind here at Acts 1:6.

Let us briefly examine the disciples’ question:

ku/rie, ei) e)n tw=| xronw=| tou/tw| a)pokaqista/nei$ th\n basilei/an tw=|   )Israh/l;
“Lord, (if) in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of a)pokaqisth/nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (a)po/) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”.

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own e)cousi/a

e)cousi/a (from e&cestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom (meaning #2 above) common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

Indeed, I would maintain that the idea of the “restoration of the kingdom”, or, one may say, the “restoration of Israel” is an important idea both in Jesus’ teaching and in the book of Acts.

The theme of the “Restoration of Israel” can be glimpsed in the subsequent summary narrative (1:12-14) as well:

    • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
      a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
      b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
    • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in one place (upper room), v. 13. If the Twelve represent Israel (see below), then here we also have an image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
    • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related, seminal motifs:
      • ou!toi (“these”—the twelve, along with the other disciples)
      • pa/nte$ (“all”—that is, all of them, together)
      • h@san proskarterou=nte$ (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
      • o(moqumado\n (“with one impulse”—a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al. qumo/$ is often translated as “soul”, “mind” [“with one mind”], but also as “passion”, “desire”; the primal sense of the word was something like a “[violent] stirring”)
      • th=| proseuxh=| (“in prayer”)

Does this not seem a beautiful, concise image of what one might call the “kingdom of God” on earth?

The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26)

Here it is important to emphasis again the theme of the Twelve. On purely objective grounds, the Twelve represent one of the earliest Christian traditions—a fixed tradition and symbol, separate, it would seem, from much of the actual historical detail. This appears clearly enough from passages such as 1 Cor. 15:5 and Matthew 19:28, where “the Twelve” are mentioned, even though only eleven disciples could be involved (Judas being dead or disqualified). Also, note the variant lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-14; Mark 3:14-19; and Luke 6:13-16 / Acts 1:13). Most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. This may seem strange to modern thinking, but the symbolism was powerful indeed to early Christians, for whom Israel and “the Church” were closely connected. It may also be worth noting the possible (even likely) symbolism in the parenthetical notice in Acts 1:15, where the number of disciples gathered together in the house is (about) 120—that is, 12 x 10. The symbolic association of these 120 disciples with a unified/restored Israel could perhaps also be inferred by the use in v. 15 of two other items which appear elsewhere at significant points in the narrative: use of the comparative particle w(sei (cf. Acts 2:3), and the expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (Acts 2:1, and elsewhere).

The Pentecost Narrative (2:1-13)

This will be discussed at some length in a follow-up note.

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.

May 31: Acts 2:1-13 (part 1)

In celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I will be exploring the Pentecost Narrative in the book of Acts (Acts 2:1-13, cf. also the article “The Sending of the Spirit”), with one of three central themes highlighted for each of the three days of Pentecost (Sunday-Monday-Tuesday):

    1. Theophany
    2. Tongues of Fire
    3. The Restoration of Israel

To see how these three themes fit together, it is important to look at the introductory verse (v. 1) of the Narrative. Here I break out the specific words of this short verse:

    • 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”. Elements of the Sinai theophany also have their parallel in the manifestation of the Spirit, as we shall see. Indeed, this brings us specifically to the first theme of the narrative which I would emphasize, the subject of today’s note.

1. Theophany

Here the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) is recorded in dramatic fashion, in the language and imagery of Theophany. A theophany is a manifestation (literally “shining [forth]”) of God—at the historical level of Scriptural narrative, of course, this means a manifestation in time and space, one which can be observed by God’s people. Within the Old Testament tradition, specific manifestations of God (YHWH), are typically described (and experienced) in terms of natural phenomena—light, wind, fire, thunder, earthquake, and so forth.

Since the manifestation of God at Sinai (occurring at Pentecost, by tradition) was mentioned above, and is perhaps the most prominent such manifestation recorded in Scripture, 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):

    1. “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)
    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)
    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)

The parallels with the Sinai theophany, especially, make clear that, to the author of Acts at least (and/or the underlying tradition he inherited), the coming of the Spirit is meant to indicate the very power and presence of God Himself. In this respect, the Acts narrative is somewhat different from the account of the coming of the Spirit in the Gospel of John (Jn 20:19-23), which, in light of the earlier Paraclete passages of the Discourses of Jesus in Jn 13-17, emphasizes the Spirit as the continuing presence of Jesus in the hearts and lives of his disciples. This is just one of several fundamental differences between the Lukan and Johannine accounts; however, one important point of emphasis they hold in common is that the coming of the Spirit is central to the empowering and equipping of the disciples for the Christian mission. This mission is only touched upon briefly in Jn 20:19ff (and again in the ‘epilogue’ of Jn 21), but it encompasses almost the entirety of the book of Acts. As we shall see, the theme of the mission to the wider (Jewish and Gentile) world is a thread underlying the Pentecost Narrative.

The Sending of the Spirit, Part 2: Book of Acts (2)

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:

    1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), verse 1.
    2. Manifestation of the Spirit, verses 2-4.
    3. 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:

  • 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”. 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):

    1. “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)
    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)
    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 disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)