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Jarrod C. said in his sermon that Pentecost was a Jewish holiday even before the Day of Pentecost celebrated by the Church. What were they celebrating? (2007)

Good question. The holiday that the Jews were celebrating at Pentecost was ... Pentecost, another name for the Feast of First Fruits. Pertinent scriptures are at the bottom of the page. Feel free to ignore the rest of this answer, which has less to do with scripture than with the historical development of the holiday.

There is a lot of conflicting and extraneous material out there on the web, so finally I broke down and read an article by J. C. Rylaarsdam, an Old Testament scholar, in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Rylaarsdam is not to blame for the content of this page, however, and notice the large number of times I still have to say “apparently.”

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had about 2000 years of history, and consequently they had a lot of holidays. Three of these were big, important holidays, established by God very early in the history of the Jews. These were the Feasts of Passover, First Fruits, and Booths. According to Deuteronomy 16:16, every male Jew had to come to the Temple (which from the time of David onward was in Jerusalem) to celebrate these three feasts.

"Pentecost" means "fiftieth" in Greek, and it is an alternative name for the Feast of First Fruits. The Feast of First Fruits was also called the Feast of Weeks. This is because the Feast was held seven weeks after the first cuttings of the barley harvest, which is 50 days, counting the day of the Feast. First Fruits aka Weeks aka Pentecost recognized “God as the source of rain and agricultural fertility,” according to Rylaarsdam, who cites Jeremiah 5:24.

Remember a while back when I talked about the Jewish calendar? I said that Passover comes on the same day every year, and so does Easter - you just have to be looking at the right calendar. Apparently this was not initially true for Weeks. Weeks was celebrated a certain number of days after an event, namely, the beginning of the grain harvest. It could vary from year to year depending on the weather. Normally it came about 7 weeks after Passover. Eventually the Jews began calculating the Feast of Weeks from the Feast of Passover.

Later, the nature of the celebration changed from a harvest emphasis to a revelation-of-the-Law emphasis, because the rabbis decided that God had given the Law to Moses on Pentecost. Thus it seems to many people to be particularly appropriate for the Holy Spirit to have come upon the Church to replace the Law with Grace on the day of Pentecost. Unfortunately for all the sources that make a point of this, Rylaarsdam says, “It is historically incorrect to describe Weeks as a ‘feast of revelation’ at the time of Jesus, as has sometimes been done.” Rylaarsdam says that “apparently the oldest reference” to Pentecost as the day the Law was given was made around A.D. 270. Most Western Christian denominations celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the Paschal full moon (a bit of a summary - the real story takes about a page), and we celebrate Pentecost 50 days later - 7 weeks and 1 day.

Exodus 23:14-17, The three feasts commanded. (See also Exodus 34:18-23.) Deuteronomy 16:9-12, Nature and purpose of the Feast of Weeks. Deuteronomy 16:16, Attendance at the three feasts commanded.
Copyright 2007, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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