Shavuot / Pentecost and Jesus being the Firstfruits from the Dead

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Many people seem surprised when they find out that Pentecost (Shavuot) is actually tied to the  Passover on the Jewish calendar.  Jesus being the firstfruits from the dead can be understood when one understands this feast.


Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) is a holiday which marks the completion of a seven-week counting period that began at Passover and is one of the three annual Pilgrim festivals (along with Passover / Pesach and Sukkot / Feast of Booths) on which every male Israelite was commanded in the Law to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Shavuot is also referred to in the Torah as the Feast of Harvest (Exodus 23:16).

Shavuot has come to be associated with the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai although this is not explicit in the Biblical text.  Shavuot (Pentecost) is also the day in which the Holy Spirit was given, as recorded in the New Testament book of Acts.

Since the Jewish calendar is lunar (354 days instead of 365 days as in a solar calendar) and a new month begins with the new moon, the timing of all Jewish holidays varies each year on the Western  (Gregorian) solar calendar. Shavuot does not even fall on the same day on the Jewish calendar because it is timed relative to the Feast of Unleavened Bread rather than on a specific day of the Jewish month, as do all other Jewish holidays.

Shavuot is celebrated at the end of a 50-day period known today as the Counting of the Omer. The start of this 50-day period (hence ‘Pentecost” meaning “50”) was marked during Temple times by the bringing of the Omer offering (also called “Firstfruits“) and ended on the 50th day with the festival of Shavuot.

The timing of these events are of consequence to the Church;  Jesus was crucified on what is called “Good Friday” (which fell on the first day of the Passover that year) and rose from the dead on what is called “Easter Sunday”; and the first Sunday after the Sabbath that fell during Passover / the Feast of Unleavened Bread that year.  The Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead was when the Omer offering (also called the “Firstfruit offering”) was brought to the Temple to be offered to the LORD.  This gives understanding to Paul referring to Jesus as the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor 15:20-23).

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

The date of when Shavuot / Pentecost fell was the focus of one of the fiercest of debates between the Pharisees and the Sadducees during the end of the Second Temple period, around the time of Jesus. Not only was there debate between the Pharisees and Sadducees as to when this holiday was to begin, the Essenes (the sect known for the Dead Sea Scrolls) had a third interpretation. Difference of opinion centered around the interpretation of the phrase “morrow of the Sabbath” i.e. the “day after the Sabbath”, in Leviticus 23:


“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).


The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes each arrived at a different understanding as to what the Hebrew phrase “morrow of the Sabbath” meant

טז  עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה

and as a result, there was disagreement amongst these three groups as to when Shavuot fell.  This is no small matter, since this is one of the three festivals in which Jewish males were commanded to come to Jerusalem.

The Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes  each agreed that the “morrow of the Sabbath” was associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread and that Shavuot is counted as being “seven complete Sabbaths” (i.e. 49 days) plus “the morrow of the Sabbath”  but what is meant by the “morrow of the Sabbath” was what was in dispute among these three groups. Each arrived at a different conclusion and thus each arrived at a different date for when Shavuot was to be celebrated.

(1) The Pharisees (who wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud and from whom today’s Orthodox rabbis descended) argued that Shavuot is to be counted from the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which they designated a “Sabbath.” According to the Pharisees, “morrow of the Sabbath” means the “morrow of the 1st day of Unleavened Bread.” The ancient Pharisees and their modern day successor the Orthodox rabbis begin the 50-day count to Shavuot on the second day of Unleavened Bread, which is always the 16th day of Nisan (on the Hebrew lunar calendar).  As a result, the Pharisee Shavuot always fell from the 5th to the 7th day of the third Hebrew month of Sivan.  After the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, the Pharisees became the predominant surviving faction among the Jewish leadership and their interpretation is followed by most Jews until this very day. In 359 CE, the Pharisee leader Hillel II established a pre-calculated calendar and ever since the Pharisee Shavuot has always been observed on the 6th of Sivan.

(2) The Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls began the 50-day count to Shavuot on a different Sabbath from the Pharisees. Unlike the Pharisees (and today’s Orthodox Jews who follow a lunar calendar), the Essenes had a 364-day solar calendar which began every year on a Wednesday and had fixed lengths for each month.  Based on the Essene calendar, Shavuot always fell out on the 15th day of the third Hebrew month.  In their reckoning, the Omer offering was to be brought on the ‘morrow of the weekly Sabbath‘.  Since Sabbath is always on Saturday (beginning on Friday night at sundown), the morrow of the weekly Sabbath would be what we call Sunday.  The Essenes began their count as to when Shavuot started on the Sunday after the seven-days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, i.e. on the 26th day of the first Hebrew month. The Essenes are presumed to have been wiped out when the Romans invaded Judea in 66-74 CE and only their documents survive today.

(3) The Sadducees made up the Temple Priesthood.  The Sadducees agreed with the Essenes that Shavuot is to be counted from a weekly Sabbath, but disagreed as to which one. The Sadducees believed the 50-day count to Shavuot begins on the weekly Sabbath that falls during the seven-days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  According to their reckoning, the counting towards Shavuot could begin anywhere from the 15th to the 21st day of the month of Nisan, depending on what day of the week the Feast of Unleavened Bread began.  If Unleavened Bread began on a Sunday, the count would begin on the 15th day of the month. If Unleavened Bread began on a Saturday, the count would begin on the 16th day of the month, and so on. Based on this counting, Shavuot could fall from the 4th to the 12th of the third Hebrew month of Sivan.

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).

Orthodox Jews today also count the Omer starting on the second day of Passover, whereas Kairate Jews (a very small sect) that do not recognize the authority of the Talmud or Mishnah and follow only the Tenakh (Old Testament) count the Omer is accordance with the understanding of the Sadducees.


The Challenge of the Pharisee Reckoning of Shavuot


The Pharisees (and today’s Orthodox rabbis) believed the 50-day count must begin with an annual “Sabbath” rather than the weekly Sabbath.  The problem with this is while the 1st day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (and the 7th day of Unleavened Bread) is a day on which no work was to take place, it is never referred to in the Tenakh (Old Testament) as a “Sabbath”.  The only annual feast day to ever be referred to in the Tenakh (Old Testament) as a ‘Sabbath’ is the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) which falls on the tenth day of the seventh Hebrew month. Work is forbidden on six other annual feast days, but the days are never referred to in the Tanakh as “Sabbaths”.

The bigger problem with the Pharisee interpretation of “Sabbath” is when it comes to the end of the 50-day count.

Leviticus 23:16 says,

“…until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath shall you count fifty days.”

The 1st day day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread could theoretically be called “Sabbath” even though the Hebrew Bible never uses this terminology, however, the 49th day of the Pharisee counting is not a Sabbath, unless it just happens to fall on a weekly Sabbath (i.e. on the 7th day of the week).   As a result, the Pharisee Shavuot rarely falls on the “morrow of the seventh Sabbath” as required by Leviticus 23:16. Only once every seven years, the Pharisee Shavuot falls on the “morrow of the seventh Sabbath.”  In most years, Shavuot according to the Pharisee reckoning is actually the morrow of seventh Monday, the morrow of seventh Tuesday, etc.

The only way for Shavuot to consistently be the “morrow of the seventh Sabbath” is for the counting to begin on the morrow of a weekly Sabbath (what we now call “Sunday”); which is how the Sadducees reckoned it.


The Best Reckoning of When Shavuot Falls


The Hebrew word for “morrow” is מִמָּחֳרַת (pronounced ‘mi-mocharat’) which refers to “the morning after”.  In the passage;

“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).

the most straight-forward understanding of the phrase “morrow of the Sabbath” describes Sunday, the morning after the 24-hour Sabbath.

Of the three interpretations of when Shavuot falls, the Sadducee reckoning for beginning the 50-day counting of the Omer to Shavuot of referring to the weekly Sabbath that falls during the seven-days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is the most natural understanding.

Based on this understanding, Shavuot falls each year from the 4th to the 12th of the third Hebrew month of Sivan and always fall on the seventh Sunday after Passover.


This Year; Shavuot & Pentecost Sunday


This year (2015 / 5775) as it did the year Jesus was crucified, “Good Friday” on the Western calendar coincided with the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (“Passover”) on the Jewish lunar calendar and as a result, this year Shavuot falls on the same day as Pentecost Sunday.

Happy Shavuot / Pentecost!

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