Prof Joyce Hill: Pentecosts

March 24, 2021
March 24, 2021 Fiona

My computer tells me that the title of this month’s article is misspelled. That’s because I’ve put it in the plural. But there are two Pentecosts — Jewish and Christian — and both are the subject of this month’s article.

For Christians Pentecost is the feast-day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles as they were gathered together soon after the Ascension. This year Ascension Day (always a Thursday) is on 13 May, with the Feast of Pentecost (always a Sunday) being on 23 May. The two feasts are always ten days apart, but not always on these dates because they stand in a fixed relationship to Easter, which has a variable date. Pentecost comes ‘fifty’ days after Easter. The clue is in the name: Pentecost comes from the Greek for ‘fifty’, Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē)  I put ‘fifty’ in inverted commas, though, because you will immediately realise that, with Easter and Pentecost always being celebrated on Sundays, Pentecost cannot possibly be exactly fifty days after Easter by our normal counting conventions. Actually, it is always the 49th day after Easter, if we begin counting on Easter Day itself.

However, the name of ‘Pentecost’ doesn’t start with Christianity: it’s a name we’ve taken from Jewish tradition — hence the plural ‘Pentecosts’ of my title. The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, verse 1, tells us that the coming of the  Holy Spirit occurred when the Apostles were gathered together ‘on the day of Pentecost’ – that is, the Jewish feast-day of Pentecost. It’s more commonly known as Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks, but Acts was written in Greek and describes the spread of Christianity beyond the world of Judaism, so rather than using a Jewish name for the feast-day on which the apostles were gathered, the author uses the Greek name for it: ‘Pentecost’, which captures the fact that it is a festival occurring fifty days (seven weeks) after the Passover. Within the Jewish tradition ‘fifty’ makes sense because Passover began at sunset of the previous evening, so if you start counting then, it follows that  the day-time of Pentecost (Shavuot) is the fiftieth day. The parallel in the Christian tradition would be to count from Easter Eve (the evening of Holy Saturday), which is the vigil of Easter Day.

The Gospels record the Crucifixion and Resurrection at the time of the Jewish Passover (Hebrew Pesach, which became Pascha in ecclesiastical Latin when used for the Christian Easter) and in Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit at the time of the Jewish Pentecost or Shavuot fifty days later. That fixed time-relationship, between Easter (Pascha) and Pentecost, persists in the Christian liturgical year. In both Jewish and Christian traditions the feasts  are moveable because the date of Pesach/Pascha/Easter depends each year on the lunar calendar rather than on the solar calendar that shapes our diaries and daily lives. However, Christianity soon started to use a method for calculating the date of Pascha that was slightly different from the one by used by Jews for calculating Pesach, so the actual dates of the Jewish Pesach and the Christian Pascha diverged.  Consequently so did the dates of the two Pentecosts.

What the Jewish Pesach celebrates is the freeing of the Jews from enslavement in Egypt. What the Jewish Pentecost (Shavuot or Festival of Weeks) celebrates is the first wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (Exodus 34) and, as determined by a later tradition, also the anniversary of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.


Joyce Hill

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