St. Paul's Anglican Catholic Church
2560 Lake Michigan Dr NW, ​Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Jewish Background to Pentecost
Easter came early this year. As far as I can determine, from the information provided (in print) by the Prayer Book and (on-line) by the U S Naval Observatory, it was the earliest Easter those of us alive today will ever see (unless, of course, genetic engineering and stem-cell research increase our life-expectancy by a few centuries). So Pentecost, or Whit Sunday - the celebration of the Descent of the Holy Ghost in Tongues of Fire on the Apostles in Jerusalem - is also remarkably early, being fixed at the fiftieth day after Easter, and so, this year, the eleventh of May.

Pentecost, like Easter, is a Christian re-interpretation of a pre-existing Jewish festival. The Jewish precursor of Easter - Passover or Pesach, the commemoration of the escape of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt - is of course well known, and is adequately explained in the New Testament texts. The Jewish origins of Pentecost are less obvious: St Luke, the only New Testament writer to give us an account of the events of that day (in Acts Chapter 2), says merely, without any explanation "When the day of Pentecost was fully come" - as if he expected his readers to know what that meant.

Pentecost is known to Jews as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. It is mentioned only three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 34: 22, Leviticus 23: 15-6, Deuteronomy 16: 16), as one of the three pilgrim festivals (along with Passover and Tabernacles) when Jews were required to make the journey to the Jerusalem Temple. It took place on the fiftith day after Passover - or rather, seven weeks after the offering of the Omer or the Sheaf of First fruits on the second day of Passover, so 1 + (7 x 7) = 50; hence the Greek name "Pentecost", meaning "fifty" (a name not found in the Hebrew Old Testament, but used by the Greek Apocrypha in Tobit 2: 1, and by Josephus, in case you were wondering).

Like all the festivals of the Torah (including Passover, of which the Unleavened Bread and the Sacrificed Lamb probably preceded the Exodus), Pentecost or Shavuot was in origin a pastoral or agricultural observance, an offering to God of the first fruits of flocks or crops in recognition of the fact that all good gifts came from Him. In Rabbinic times, and probably already by the time of Our Lord and St Luke, the festival of Pentecost or Shavuot had been re-interpreted, on the basis of Exodus 19: 1, in terms of a commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai, and thus appears in the Synagogue Liturgy as "the Season of the Giving of our Torah".

Post-Biblical Judaism observes Pentecost with various customs, notably the eating of dairy produce: the origins of this practice may be nothing more than the abundance of milk generally available at this time of the year, but of course, the Rabbis were able to find a symbolic and spiritual meaning: milk represents the Torah because it feeds both young and old (cf "the sincere milk of the word" in I Peter 2: 2), and - as a warning against pride to the teachers of the Law -¬†milk turns sour if kept in golden vessels…

I have my doubts about the last statement: gold being a "noble metal", unwilling chemically to react with anything else, it would seem the least likely material to turn milk sour. Unfortunately my household does not boast any gold vessels, so I am unable to try a scientific experiment - but those of you who use solid gold kitchenware are welcome to try this at home. I will be interested to hear the results…

So, anyway, a striking contrast between Judaism and Christianity: the Giving of the Law versus the Giving of the Holy Spirit…

- Fr Richard Bowyer, May 2008