AND CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS
by Doug Ward
The Feast of Pentecost has several rich layers of meaning in Jewish tradition. It is the Feast of Firstfruits, a festival of the spring harvest in
Significantly, all of these layers of meaning are carried forward and
developed further in Christian theology and tradition. In this article, I will
discuss the wonderful ways in which
The Firstfruits of Salvation
The most familiar Hebrew name for Pentecost is Shavuot, which means ``weeks.'' This name refers to the period of seven weeks that began with the wavesheaf offering at the beginning of
These traditions have great symbolic significance. Throughout the Bible,
mankind is pictured as a spiritual harvest. We read in Jer. 2:3, for example,
The fullness of that blessing became possible in Jesus Christ, whose resurrection on the day of the wavesheaf offering paved the way for our future resurrection. In [1, p. 173], Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi explains, ``As the first sheaf was a pledge and assurance of the ingathering of the entire harvest, so the resurrection of Christ is a pledge that all who put their trust in Him will be raised from the dead.'' Jesus is referred to as ``the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep'' in I Cor. 15:20 (see also v. 23); and the Church, which was empowered to evangelize the world beginning on one remarkable day of Pentecost, is described in several New Testament passages as the firstfruits of a worldwide harvest (Rom. 8:23; James 1:18; Rev. 14:4).
Throughout the last two thousand years, Christians have recognized the wavesheaf offering as a prophetic type of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. This theme is developed, for example, by Cyril of Alexandria (c. 373-444 A.D.) in De Adoratione in spiritu et veritate [2, pp. 322-323]. Commenting on Num. 28:26-31, Cyril writes, ``We say that it is the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord which is signified by the feast of the firstfruits. For indeed it is in Christ that human nature first flowered anew, henceforth doing away with corruption and rejecting the old age of sin.'' Cyril goes on to say that
``Christ is prefigured here in the symbol of the sheaf, considered as the firstfruit of the ears of grain and as the new fruit: He is indeed the firstborn from among the dead, the way which opens to us the Resurrection, He Who makes all things new. The old things have passed away, now everything has become new, says Holy Scripture. The sheaf is presented before the face of the Lord: so Emmanuel, risen from the dead, the new and incorruptible fruit of the human race, ascended to heaven to present Himself henceforth for us before the face of the Father.''
The seven weeks after the day of the wavesheaf offering link together the Passover season and Pentecost. The connection between the two is reflected in another Hebrew name for Pentecost- Atsereth Pesach, which means ``the completion of Passover.'' For both Jews and Christians, Passover is indeed incomplete without Pentecost. (For an excellent discussion of this point, see [3, Chapter 9].)
The first Passover marked the deliverance of the children of
``This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.''' (Ex. 19:6)
Up to that point, the Israelites had been a ragtag
collection of twelve tribes. At Sinai,
``Then I will dwell among the
Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who
brought them out of
We Christians view
``...a most joyous space....''
It is no wonder, then, that both Jews and Christians look forward to Pentecost each year with great anticipation. Jews traditionally count the days from the omer to Pentecost. Commenting on this custom, the great philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 A.D.) wrote,
``Just as one who is expecting the most faithful of his friends is wont to count the days and hours to his arrival, so we also count from the omer of the day of our Exodus from Egypt to that of the giving of the Law, which was the object of our Exodus, as it is said: `I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.'''
On the eve of Pentecost, observant Jews stay up all night,
engaged in serious study and discussion of Torah. Then at synagogue
services on Pentecost, congregations stand for the reading of the Decalogue, as
if they themselves were standing at the base of
Likewise in Christian tradition, the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost have always been a period of great rejoicing. During the momentous seven weeks following His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ appeared often to His disciples and taught them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). He then ascended to His Father, leaving them with a twofold promise: He would be with them again soon through the Holy Spirit, and in due time He would return to reign over all the earth.
Christians in the early centuries of the church had some interesting ways of commemorating these wonderful events. For example, it became customary to refrain from fasting during the weeks before Pentecost, since this was a season for rejoicing rather than mourning. In addition, Christians often prayed in a standing rather than a kneeling position during the Pentecost season, in honor of the resurrection [1, pp. 213-214]. These seven weeks were also considered to be a very appropriate time for baptisms. In chapter 19 of his treatise On Baptism, the early church father Tertullian (ca. 160-225 A.D.) commented,
``...Pentecost is a most joyous space for conferring baptisms; wherein, too, the resurrection of the Lord was repeatedly proved among the disciples, and the hope of the advent of the Lord indirectly pointed to, in that, at that time, when He had been received back into the heavens, the angels told the apostles that `He would so come, as He had withal ascended into the heavens;' at Pentecost, of course.''
Both Jewish and Christian thinkers have pondered the possible significance of the number fifty in relation to Pentecost [2, pp. 325-327]. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo called fifty ``the sacred number of the remission'' because of its connection with the Year of Jubilee, a time of remission of debts that was to occur every fifty years in Israel (Lev. 25). Early Christian theologians Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius also saw this connection and associated the number fifty in the counting of Pentecost with remission of sins. The fifty days of the Pentecost season follow shortly after Passover, the day of Jesus' sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, so this association is a natural one.
Another link with the Year of Jubilee also is worth considering. The Year of
Jubilee was a time to ``proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its
inhabitants'' (Lev. 25:10). On Pentecost at
The parallel between the writing of the law with God's finger at Sinai and the granting of His Spirit was discussed by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) in his Letter to Januarius [2, pp. 331-332]. There Augustine observed,
``It is very clearly stated in the books of the Gospels that the finger of God signifies the Holy Spirit. Indeed one of the evangelists has said: `It is by the finger of God that I drive out demons' (Luke ), another expresses the same thing, saying: `It is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons''' (Matt. ).
This parallel caused Augustine to marvel at the unity and harmony of the scriptures. Later in the same letter, he commented,
``Is it not as if, like the two seraphim, they answer one another in singing the praises of God: `Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, the God of hosts!' So the two Testaments in faithful harmony together sing the holy truth.''
Developing his comparison further, he added,
``The Law placed in the
In considering the many connections and parallels between the Old and New Testament Pentecosts, and between Jewish and Christian Pentecost traditions, I rejoice along with Augustine in their richness and beauty. Keeping these connections in mind will enrich our celebration of Pentecost each year.
1. Samuele Bacchiocchi, God's
Festivals in Scripture and History, Part 1: the Spring Festivals, Biblical
2. Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy,
3. Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of
Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers,
File translated from T EX
by T TH , version