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When the Holy Spirit Reportedly Launched the Church.

May 15, 2012

Did you realize that to biblical author, Luke, it was not so much Jesus as the Holy Spirit who got the Church off and moving? And it was around this time of year, about 1,982 years ago!

For those who follow a liturgical church year, Jewish holidays or anniversery dates just for fun, we are in the 50-day period between Easter and the Day of Pentecost.  Even if you are not a Pentecostal (with other “charismatics,” the fastest growing segment of global Christianity), you may realize that name derives from what Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, reports to have happened that particular day–some interesting things, to say the least.

For non-Christian readers and those largely uninterested in church matters or Christian theology, let me strongly suggest that this post and related ones to follow are relevant to you, too, in that they will cover things important to any understanding of how Jesus could have unintentionally prompted, and ultimately his followers accomplished, the “taking over” of Jewish scriptures and certain beliefs in the creation of a new religion (or “the true faith,” to many Christians). 

Now Acts is the only New Testament book which contains some narrated history of the first three-plus decades of the early “Church” (when the “Church” in the Christian sense can be said to have begun is uncertain and controversial).  The connection to Pentecostalism is that which the movement is most noted for – tongues-speaking, along with other “gifts of the spirit” not practiced by most denominations.  That is what stands out particularly to most people in the story by Luke about the first “Christian Church” Day of Pentecost – miraculous speaking of numerous Mediterranean-area languages, unknown to the speakers but understood by members of the gathered crowd.

The story goes that the Holy Spirit had just been poured out on the relatively small group of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem (apparently “about 120,” Acts 1:15).  To whatever extent this event was real and accurately related, perhaps the earlier “sound like the blowing of a violent wind” (from heaven—2:1) helped, with the subsequent speaking of praises to God in various languages, to draw a large crowd (eventually 3000 or more, “about 3000” being the purported number of converts! [2:41]).  How the scene moved from the “house where they were sitting” (2:2) to enough open space to accommodate at least 3000 people so that Peter could address them all is not explained.

The day of Pentecost was an important Jewish holiday at the time, though the word “pentecost,” meaning fifty, is Greek–“common” (or koine, as opposed to classical) Greek having become the major trade language that was widely known and used, especially for written communication, in the area.  Pentecost was the ancient Jewish Feast of Weeks fifty days after Passover – bringing in the first-fruits of the corn harvest.  In church tradition it was known as Whit Sunday or Whitsunday (the name retained mainly in the UK in recent times).

For our purposes, the main interest is in two things:

1) How Luke uses this event, symbolically and supposedly historically.  The point is his development of the scope of history – how God led the transition from a Jewish interpretation of Israel’s vital covenant relationship with God to an expanded and primarily Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian view of both covenant and cosmic/earthly history – no small stuff here! (I do have serious doubts about the historicity – the numbers claimed as well as just what happened and what Peter may have actually said – doubts reinforced by Luke’s repeated differences of reporting from St. Paul, Josephus, the first century Jewish/Roman-employed historian, and other problems throughout Acts.)

2)    This first “Christian” Pentecost event creates a clear marker for the reported ascension of Jesus.  According to Acts, this took place at least a day or more prior to Pentecost (1:9-2:1).  No big stir is reported (significantly!) by Acts in Jerusalem just following Jesus’ death and storied resurrection.  However, according to the same author here and in his Gospel (Luke), along with at least two other Gospels, Jesus was appearing to various disciples during this period between the resurrection and Pentecost (beginning with the women!).  I’ll later show how Luke skillfully relates Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ subsequent post-resurrection departure to the theme of the work of the Holy Spirit in such a grand project as the transformation of Judaism into Christianity!

Now, accounts in the Gospels cover a number of astounding and attention-getting events that would indeed have caused a great stir in Jerusalem if they occurred even similarly to what is reported (check especially Matthew for the most incredible of these).  We will later explore what some of these are and why I can so definitely make such a statement.  I do not do it lightly, in that my extensive study has taught me one important lesson, if nothing else: be very careful to not project back into an ancient situation any assumptions as to how things “must have been.” It is all too easy and common to assume things from personal observations and more modern circumstances that may not have been in effect then and there.  This is particularly the case for “defenders of the faith” when they, incidentally, make a case for things about “eyewitness accounts” and the earliest Jesus-followers supposedly founding a unified and continuous Church.

Getting history seriously wrong (or purposely slanting it as well, as I will continue to illustrate with Luke) has been and continues to be the foundation of a host of other misconceptions, often dangerous and damaging ones, that grow from it.  Similarly, assuming stories to be history which are either complete fabrication or major embellishment and exaggeration put onto much simpler, “smaller” core facts has led to the weaving of detailed theologies which have been taken as “Gospel truth.”  It’s more than time we move seriously along with unraveling such treasured but largely impure fabrics and create a more wearable garment.

What are your observations about this important section of Scripture which sets up not only the rest of the book of Acts but virtually all of the traditional understanding of how the Christian Church was launched and empowered from the beginning?  

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012 12:25 am

    Well, the starting point is that Pentecost (Shavuot) is a Jewish holiday commemorating the giving of the Law of Moses. That’s important to understanding the Christian understanding of the giving of the Spirit here.

    • May 17, 2012 6:07 pm

      Thanks for adding this important point, Athanasius. As I’ve been reading a lot ABOUT Acts lately, I’m re-reading the text itself again, and will repeatedly to get into the mental and theological framework of Luke, capture his themes better, etc. My impression of recent years (like that of scholars I tend to follow) is that Luke had done a very clever and masterful job, for his audience and circumstances, and it “won the day.” It has come on down as though it accurately represents “Church history” up to about 64 or so, though written probably about 3 decades later.

      Of course, the last 2+ centuries has seen much challenge to that (well-founded, according to evidence I observe). But few both take Acts seriously (if not entirely historically, for some) AND realize that much other data has to be taken so also, and compared to the slanted picture Luke wishes to give. The “other data” includes Paul, James and the Gospels, not to mention likely Essene literature of the period (Dead Sea Scrolls), etc.

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