Biblical Pentecost and the Church’s Pentecost

Someone told us last night that today is Pentecost Sunday; “a time to remember when the Holy Spirit was given to us“.

My first reaction was “no, its only day 21, there’s another 29 days to Pentecost“!

We looked at each other blankly.

You see, the date the Church celebrates as Pentecost is not the anniversary of the date that it occurred in Scripture. The Church’s Pentecost is on a different date than Biblical Pentecost.

Based on God’s command to us in Leviticus 23, Jews actually count 50 days from Passover to arrive at the timing of Pentecost. The commencement of this 50-day period was marked in Temple times by the bringing of the Omer offering and ended on the 50th day with the festival of Shavuot, as described in the Book of Leviticus:

“And you shall count from the morrow of the Sabbath from the day you bring the Omer [sheaf] of waving; seven complete Sabbaths shall you count… until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath shall you count fifty days… and you shall proclaim on this very day, it shall be a holy convocation for you.”

Leviticus 23:15-16,21

During the Second Temple period there was a well-known debate between the three different Jewish factions (Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes) about the meaning of the Hebrew phrase “morrow of the Sabbath” . All three groups agreed that the “morrow of the Sabbath” was associated with the Passover / Feast of Unleavened Bread, but the different interpretations resulted in it being observed on different days by each of the sects.  The highly contested issue was “which Sabbath” do we start counting from? 

The Sadducees who made up the Temple Priesthood, believed the 50-day count to Pentecost began on the weekly Sabbath that falls during the seven-days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. According to their reckoning, the counting could begin anywhere from the 15th to the 21st day of the first month of Nisan — depending on what day of the week the Feast of Unleavened Bread began.Taking a plain reading of the text as the Sadducees used to [and as the Karaite Jews still do today], count from the day after the Sabbath of Passover [a Sunday], which was the day that the wave offering was brought in Temple times (also called the Feast of Firstfruits), until the day after the seventh Sabbath.  Based on this way of determining the date, Pentecost (Shavuot) always fell on a Sunday.

The Pharisees (who wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud and from whom today’s Orthodox rabbis descended) argued that Pentecost is to be counted from the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is designated as a “Sabbath” (where no work is done). There is a problem with the Pharisees way of counting, however. The 1st day day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread could theoretically be called “Sabbath,” (which is what the Pharisees do) but the 49th day of the Pharisee’s way of counting is does not usually fall on the weekly (7th day) Sabbath. As a result, the Pharisee’s Shavuot was rarely the “morrow of the seventh Sabbath” as required by Leviticus 23:16. Only about once every seven years, did the Pharisee’s Shavuot fall on a Sunday, i.e. the “morrow of the seventh Sabbath”.

We know from Josephus that the Pharisees interpretation was the one that prevailed as he writes that “all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their [the Pharisees’] exposition” (Antiquities 18:15), and that the Sadducees “submit to the formulas of the Pharisees, since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them” (Antiquities 18:17).

[Note: as Messianic believers, we have reason to be able to say that the Saduccees had it right — because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday! More on that below]

Pentecost got its name because there are 7 “weeks of weeks” (7 x 7 = 49 days) from after the wave offering — so when one day is added to the 7 “weeks of weeks” it totals 50 days (49 + 1 = 50 days). Pentecost (50 = Pente). The name of this feast day in Hebrew is Shavuot, meaning “weeks”.

As you may recall from an earlier article,  the date that Passover fell each year wasn’t known until the “new moon” appears that month. Once the “new moon” was sighted, the date of Passover was set for 14 days later.

Biblically, and based on the sighting of the New Moon which occurred this year in Israel on April 9th, Passover fell 14 days later], and today is Day 22 of that “counting”.

Coincidentally, based on the fixed Jewish Calendar adopted by Rabbinic Jews in the 4th century — long after the destruction of the Second Temple and the scattering of Jews throughout the known world, today is also Day 22 of that “counting”.

Crucifixion of Jesus – the ‘same day’ as “the Last Supper”

We have often been asked how it is if Jesus was crucified on a Friday, how He rose from the dead “on the third day”, given that was a Sunday.  In the explanation of how Pentecost was determined the year Jesus died, the “3 days” will become clear.

The night of Jesus’ “Last Supper” (more accurately, Last Seder) with His disciples, the Feast of Passover fell on the evening of the fifth day of the week.

[Note: Sunday is the first day of the week (see Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:1), the Sabbath is the 7th day of the week]

Therefore, the evening of the fifth day was what non-Jews would have called Thursday night.

[Note: By the Jewish reckoning of days, Thursday night is the beginning of Friday, as days begins at sunset, the night before – based on Genesis “evening and morning were the first day”].

Biblically, by the Jewish reckoning of days, Jesus was crucified later the same day as He shared the Passover meal with His disciples. That is, after sundown on the fifth day (Thursday night), the sixth day (Friday) began.  By a Jewish reckoning of days, Jesus was crucified later on the 6th day, a “Friday” to Gentiles. This is what the Church has come to call “Good Friday“.

Now here is where it gets very interesting…

Jews started counting the days to Pentecost (Shavuot) from the day after the “Sabbath of Passover” — so the year Jesus went to the cross, the “Sabbath of Passover” was the Saturday between Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection. 

It was the day after that Sabbath — the “Sabbath of Passover” from which the Sadducees would have begun “counting of the Omer“.  Of course, the “morrow after the Sabbath [a Saturday] of Passover“, is a Sunday (as it is required to be according to Leviticus 23:16)

On the year that Jesus was crucified, it was that Sunday, that the “counting of the Omer” began. Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday (“Resurrection Sunday”) – which was the “morrow after the Sabbath” of Passover — the day of the wave offering, which is called the “Feast of Firstfruits” and the Scriptures say that Messiah (Jesus) is the “first fruits from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Counting the 50 days of the Omer from the day that Jesus rose from the dead [a Sunday, following the Sabbath of Passover] brings us to another Sunday… Pentecost Sunday! 

The Holy Spirit fell on Shavuot (Pentecost), 7 weeks after the Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead!

The Church’s Pentecost

“Christian Pentecost” does not fall on the same date as “Biblical Pentecost”, which is why to the Church, Pentecost is tomorrow and by Biblical reckoning, it is 29 days from now.

As we developed at length in an earlier blog on Passover, and its celebration by the Early Church on the 14 day of Nisan (including Church Father, Polycarp), this was changed by the Church leaders of the First Ecumenical Council (4th century CE). At that time, they adopted the secular Roman solar calendar (Julian Calendar) and “fixed” the date of “Pascha” (forerunner to Easter) to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on, or after the vernal equinox (set as March 21st).  Therefore, Christian Pentecost falls 50 days after Pascha (or Easter).

Biblical Pentecost is tied to Passover based on a lunar calendar, and which falls 14 days after the sighting of the New Moon in the first month (called Aviv before the Babylonian captivity and Nisan, afterwards).

In the 4th century, the Church abandoned the date of Passover established by God in Scripture [which was based on the sighting of the New Moon on a lunar calendar (354 days)] – in favour of a fixed solar calendar of 365 days. Their reasons for doing so were much the same as the reasons for the Jew’s adoption of the ‘fixed’ Jewish Calendar— so that the dates of all the holidays were known in advance.  With a fixed solar calendar, Christians throughout the known world could celebrate the holidays, especially Pascha (Easter) on the same date.

Which Pentecost, then?

As Messianic believers, we continue to celebrate the Passover, and commemorate Messiah’s Last Seder with His disciples and going to the cross on the 14th of Nisan, as the early Church did and as the Church father Polycarp, did (as the Apostle John taught him, see earlier blog).

Since the timing of Pentecost is tied to Passover, Pentecost (Shavuot) for us, falls on the same date as it did in Scripture; 50 days after the “morrow of the Sabbath of Passover” — which is always a Sunday and which is the actual anniversary of the giving of the Holy Spirit.

That being said, we don’t for a moment think that the Church changing the dates of Passover and Pentecost has any importance to Gentile believers. The matter of Gentiles not being required to keep  the Law of Moses was resolved in Acts 15:5. Halacha (“the way to walk”) for Gentiles is simple;

“(1) abstain from things polluted by idols, (2) from sexual immorality, (3) from eating anything that has been strangled and (4) from blood”

Acts 15:20

We don’t believe that it is somehow ‘wrong’ for the Church to celebrate “Easter” on a date other than on the date of Passover, or for the Church’s Pentecost to be on a different date than the Biblical Pentecost.

We trust you will understand, that for us as Jews, we continue to do as we always have, and see no reason to adopt a different date.

Final Thoughts

We think that the important thing is what Paul said in Romans 14 — if the Church commemorates Pentecost tomorrow, then observe the day — for the honour of the Lord;

“One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

Romans 14:5-8

So, Happy Pentecost to our Christian brothers and sisters!

Meanwhile we’ll keep counting. . .until June 12th.

Sunday May 15, 2016:
Today is the 1st day of the 4th week of seven weeks. Today is the 22nd day of the counting of fifty days from the day of the waving of the Omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.
שבוע 415 מאי 2016:
הַיּוֹם יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן‏ לַשָּׁבוּעַ רְבִיעִי מִשִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעוֹת. הַיּוֹם עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁנַיִם יוֹם מִסְפִירַת חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם מֵהֲנָפַת הָעֹמֶר מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת.