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PENTECOST (pĕn'tĕ-kŏst, Gr. pentēcostē). The word derives from the Greek for “the fiftieth day.” It was the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Exod.34.22; Deut.16.9-Deut.16.11), variously called the Feast of Harvest (Exod.23.16) or the Day of Firstfruits (Num.28.26), which fell on the fiftieth day after the Feast of the Passover. The exact method by which the date was computed is a matter of some controversy.

Originally, the festival was the time when, with appropriate ritual and ceremony, the firstfruits of the corn harvest, the last Palestinian crop to ripen, were formally dedicated. The festival cannot therefore have antedated the settlement in Palestine. Lev.23.1-Lev.23.44 prescribes the sacred nature of the holiday and lists the appropriate sacrifices. Num.28.1-Num.28.31 appears to be a supplementary list, prescribing offerings apart from those connected with the preservation of the ritual loaves. In later Jewish times, the feast developed into a commemoration of the giving of the Mosaic Law. To reinforce this function, the rabbis taught that the Law was given fifty days after the Exodus, a tradition of which there is no trace in the OT nor in the Jewish authorities, Philo and Josephus. It was the events of Acts.2.1-Acts.2.47 that transformed the Jewish festival into a Christian one. Some have seen a symbolic connection between the first fruits of the ancient festival and the firstfruits of the Christian dispensation. “Whitsunday” is therefore the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday. The name derives from the wearing of white garments by those seeking baptism at this festival, a practice of very ancient origin.

It seems reasonable, therefore, in view of the fact that in a Greek and Aramaic-speaking audience no practical purpose can be seen for a multiple use of languages, to reject the view that unknown tongues were used for the preaching of the new faith at Pentecost. The lack of any need for “interpreters” also makes it difficult to identify the situation in Acts with the one Paul sought to regulate in the Corinthian church. The “tongues” made for clarity; they did not destroy clarity for those who listened with sympathy.——EMB

The name is derived from the Greek word for “fiftieth” (pentemcostos) for it was seven weeks after Passover that the “Feast of Weeks” (Exod. 34:22; Deut. 16:10) or the “Feast of Harvest” (Exod. 23:16) was observed. It marked the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. It was one of the three occasions in the year on which male Israelites were to appear before the Lord (Deut. 16:16), but it was much less observed as an occasion of pilgrimage than the feasts of Passover and Tabernacles. Pentecost was regarded in later Judaism as the conclusion of the Passover rather than as a harvest festival. After the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70 it was taken to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Acts 2 records how the Holy Spirit was given to the first Christians on the day of Pentecost, which no doubt symbolized both the completion of the redemptive act of Good Friday and Easter and the beginning of the harvest of the nations. Pentecost was observed by the second century as a Christian feast, second only in importance to Easter. The name “Whitsunday” came to be attached to it because of its being a major occasion for baptisms, the baptisands being clothed in white. New proposals for the calendar of the churches in England refer (as does the Church of South India) to “Sundays after Pentecost” instead of “after Trinity.”

Other names for the feast.

The feast was designated the “day of first fruits” (Num 28:26; see also Exod 23:16; 34:22; Lev 23:17), because it marked the beginning of the time in which the people were to bring voluntarily their offerings of firstfruits, a season that concluded with the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). It was celebrated as a sabbath with rest from ordinary labors and the calling of a holy convocation (Lev 23:21; Num 28:26). Among Hel. Jews, the feast was called the (Day of) “Pentecost,” referring to the seven week harvest period. Since this feast is mentioned once in the OT outside the Pentateuch (2 Chron 8:13), coupled with a paucity of references in rabbinical lit., it has been concluded that the feast was not so important as the Feasts of Passover and Tabernacles.

Secular use.

The profane use of the word “Pentecost” from the 4th cent. b.c. was in connection with a tax on goods as impost to the state. In non-Biblical usage, the word πεντηκοστή, G4300, was a technical tax term, originally connected with a cargo tax in the harbor of Piraeus. In Israel there were no connotations of a tax of firstfruits. Jubilees 6:21 states: “This feast is twofold and of a double nature,” referring to the weeks and firstfruits.

Reckoning the feast.

In ancient Pal., the grain harvest lasted seven weeks, beginning with barley harvest during the Passover and ending with the wheat harvest at Pentecost. The offering of the sheaf fell on the day after a sabbath; reckoning this as the first day, the feast was celebrated on the fiftieth day. Disagreement has arisen as to the meaning of “sabbath.” Is the weekly sabbath meant? Is some other day of rest (Israel has several sabbaths) indicated? The words “after the seventh sabbath” (Lev 23:16) argue for the first possibility. If this is true, the festival would always fall on the same day of the week, namely, Sunday. This has its counterpart in the Christian Day of Pentecost. According to rabbinical judgment, the “sabbath” in question was not the weekly sabbath, that is, the one which came in the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; rather, it was the fifteenth day of Nisan, described as a day of “holy convocation” and of rest from work (23:7). The Day of the Sheaf then fell on the subsequent day, the sixteenth of Nisan. The Jews, therefore, celebrated the feast on the basis of this reckoning. The Sadducees always started counting on a Sunday, so Pentecost always fell on a Sunday. The Pharisees understood the “sabbath” of Leviticus 23 as the first day of Passover (the fifteenth of Nisan). Thus, Pentecost always came fifty days after the sixteenth of Nisan, and the day of celebration varied from year to year. This view prevailed after a.d. 70. In later Judaism it was considered as the concluding feast of the Passover.

The rites of the feast.

The sheaf brought as a wave offering (Lev 23:11) was garnered when the sickle was first put to the grain (Deut 16:9). It was presented for the whole land. Before this sheaf was offered, the law forbade the reaping or use of the harvest for personal purposes (Lev 23:14). A portion of the sheaf was placed on the altar, and the priest ate the rest. A male lamb was sacrificed as a burnt offering (23:12). The ritual of the sheaf offering was a part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The feast was one of joy and thanksgiving for the completion of the harvest season. As a holy convocation (23:21) the observance prohibited ordinary labor, and the males in Israel appeared at the Temple before the Lord (Deut 16:16). Other festal offerings are specified (Num 28:26ff.).

The main offering of the day was a cereal offering of two loaves (Lev 23:17). The loaves, made from the new wheat and baked with leaven, were brought by the priest as a wave offering for all the people. None of the bread was placed on the altar because of the leaven, but was eaten by the priests. With the two loaves, two lambs were offered as a wave offering also. When seven weeks earlier the sheaf had been presented, it marked the freedom to use the new grain as food. Beginning with this sacrifice, Israel was allowed to use it for liturgical purposes also. The feast was concluded by the eating of communal meals to which the poor, the stranger, and the Levite were invited.

This feast, as stated above, was also the Feast of First Fruits (Num 28:26). After the ceremony of the loaves, the worshipers could offer of the new grain harvest as personal gifts of firstfruits. The offerings were given to the priest, followed by a recital of thanksgiving for God’s past deliverances of the nation and their settlement in the land of promise (Deut 26:1-11).

It may be helpful to set forth the sacrifices offered on the Feast of Weeks: (1) the daily burnt offering of two lambs (Num 28:3, 31); (2) the particular sacrifices for the feast (vv. 27-30), identical with those of the new moon celebration and the days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (vv. 11, 19); (3) the sacrifices at the time of the offering of the loaves and two lambs (Lev 23:17-19).

The Talmud and the Feast of Weeks.

The Talmud, which commonly refers to the feast day as עֲצֶרֶת (“assembly”), stresses its relation to Passover and the harvest season together with the presentation of firstfruits; thus the festival is strictly agricultural in nature. Because the Book of Jubilees adds the thought of covenant renewal for Noah’s covenant on this day (6:1-21), it has been suggested that this paved the way for the later association of the Feast of Weeks with the giving of the law at Sinai. In Pal., the feast lasted one day, whereas in the dispersion (as with other festivals in Israel) it covered two days in order not to miss the right day. The date is clearly stated in Leviticus 23:15.

Change in celebration.

After the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70, Weeks was celebrated, but now as a feast commemorating the giving of the law at Sinai. The joy of the feast was transferred to joy over the law. Since Passover and Tabernacles were linked with the Exodus and wilderness experiences, later Judaism sought to connect the Feast of Weeks with the Mosaic era. They indicated that Weeks commemorated the giving of the law at Sinai. This change was all the more necessary in view of the loss of the Temple in a.d. 70. The first certain evidence that the rabbis considered the giving of the law took place on Pentecost is the statement of Rabbi Jose ben Chalaphta (c. 150): “In the third month (Sivan), on the sixth day of the month, the ten commandments were given to them (the Israelites), and it was a sabbath day” (Seder ’Olam Rabba, 5). In the 3rd cent. Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedath (c. a.d. 270) spoke of the common belief of his time: “Pentecost is the day on which Torah was given” (Pes. 68b). Philo, Josephus, and the earlier Talmud know nothing of this new significance attached in later Jewish history. However, it is too late to credit Maimonides as the origin of the change, a view adopted by Christian writers.

In keeping with the rejoicing over the law, some leaders arranged special reading sections for the Pentecost eve, consisting of excerpts from the beginning and end of every book of the Bible and Mishnah, which abridgement they considered tantamount to the reading of the entire works. The reading takes some till morning, but others finish it at midnight. About a.d. 200, the custom arose of reading Exodus 19 on Pentecost. It has been traditional for years to read the Book of Ruth with its harvest background, and the custom continues to this day.

NT references.

Historical observances.

As the second of the three annual pilgrim feasts (Deut 16:16), the feast was observed in Solomonic days (2 Chron 8:13). In the days of the second Temple, the men went up to Jerusalem to present their offerings of the harvest. When they reached the bounds of the city, the priests and Levites met the crowds and conducted the pilgrims to the Temple. To the accompaniment of songs, they entered the sanctuary with baskets on their shoulders. At the presentation of the firstfruits, the offerer recited the words of Deuteronomy 26:3-10. As stated above, in the intertestamental and later periods Pentecost came to be regarded as the memorial of the giving of the law at Sinai (Jub 1:1; 6:17). The Sadducees celebrated it on the fiftieth day from the first Sunday after Passover. The Pharisees construed the “sabbath” of Leviticus 23:15 as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and their computation prevailed in Judaism after a.d. 70. Now in the Jewish calendar, Pentecost occurs on different days of the week.

The Church Fathers highly regarded Pentecost. Easter was always on Sunday, so Pentecost was also. Between Easter and Pentecost there was to be no fasting. Praying was done standing rather than kneeling. During this time, catechumens were baptized. Many expected, because the Ascension had taken place near Pentecost, that Christ would return in the same season. The custom, still common in the Roman Catholic Church and among Protestants who observe the ecclesiastical calendar, is to celebrate the festival for two days. The practice of dressing in white preparatory to baptism on Pentecost gave rise to the name “Whitsunday” (for “Whitesunday”).

It is a popular custom among Jews on Pentecost (Weeks) to eat dairy products and cheese cakes in honor of the law, which has been compared to “honey and milk” Song of Solomon. A meat repast follows the milk meal, both meals recalling the offering of two loaves of bread in the Temple.


E. Auerbach, “The Feast in Ancient Israel” (in German), Vet Test, VIII, 1ff.; Jew Enc, IX (1905), 592ff.; H. Schauss, The Jewish Festivals (1938), 86ff.; S. M. Gilmour, “Easter and Pentecost,” JBL, LXXXI (Mar 1962), 62-66; J. C. Rylaarsdam, “Weeks, Feast of,” IDB, IV (1962), 827, 828; J. M. Chinitz, “Elusive Revelation,” Judith 14 (Spring, 1965), 187, no. 4; G. Friedrich, ed., TDNT, VI (1968), 44-53.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. In the Old Testament:

The Old Testament does not give it the historical significance which later Jewish writers have ascribed to it. The Israelites were admonished to remember their bondage on that day and to reconsecrate themselves to the Lord (De 16:12), but it does not yet commemorate the giving of the Law at Sinai or the birth of the national existence, in the Old Testament conception (Ex 19). Philo, Josephus, and the earlier Talmud are all ignorant of this new meaning which was given to the day in later Jewish history. It originated with the great Jewish rabbi Maimonides and has been copied by Christian writers. And thus a view of the Jewish Pentecost has been originated, which is wholly foreign to the scope of the ancient institution.

2. In the New Testament:

The old Jewish festival obtained a new significance, for the Christian church, by the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Joh 16:7,13). The incidents of that memorable day, in the history of Christianity, are told in a marvelously vivid and dramatic way in the Ac of the Apostles. The old rendering of sumplerousthai (Ac 2:1) by "was fully come" was taken by Lightfoot (Her. Heb.) to signify that the Christian Pentecost did not coincide with the Jewish, just as Christ’s last meal with His disciples was considered not to have coincided with the Jewish Passover, on Nisan 14. The bearing of the one on the other is obvious; they stand and fall together. the Revised Version (British and American) translates the obnoxious word simply "was now come." Meyer, in his commentary on the Acts, treats this question at length. The tradition of the ancient church placed the first Christian Pentecost on a Sunday. According to John, the Passover that year occurred on Friday, Nisan 14 (18:28). But according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Passover that year occurred on Thursday, Nisan 14, and hence, Pentecost fell on Saturday. The Karaites explained the shabbath of Le 23:15 as pointing to the Sabbath of the paschal week and therefore always celebrated Pentecost on Sunday. But it is very uncertain whether the custom existed in Christ’s day, and moreover it would be impossible to prove that the disciples followed this custom, if it could be proved to have existed. Meyer follows the Johannic reckoning and openly states that the other evangelists made a mistake in their reckoning. No off-hand decision is possible, and it is but candid to admit that here we are confronted with one of the knottiest problems in the harmonizing of the Gospels.

See Chronology of the New Testament.

The occurrences of the first pentecostal day after the resurrection of Christ set it apart as a Christian festival and invested it, together with the commemoration of the resurrection, with a new meaning. We will not enter here upon a discussion of the significance of the events of the pentecostal day described in Ac 2. That is discussed in the article under TONGUES (which see). The Lutherans, in their endeavor to prove the inherent power of the Word, claim that "the effects then exhibited were due to the divine power inherent in the words of Christ; and that they had resisted that power up to the day of Pentecost and then yielded to its influence." This is well described as "an incredible hypothesis" (Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 484). The Holy Spirit descended in answer to the explicit promise of the glorified Lord, and the disciples had been prayerfully waiting for its fulfillment (Ac 1:4,14). The Spirit came upon them as "a power from on high." God the Holy Spirit proved on Pentecost His personal existence, and the intellects, the hearts, the lives of the apostles were on that day miraculously changed. By that day they were fitted for the arduous work that lay before them. There is some difference of opinion as to what is the significance of Pentecost for the church as an institution. The almost universal opinion among theologians and exegetes is this: that Pentecost marks the rounding of the Christian church as an institution. This day is said to mark the dividing line between the ministry of the Lord and the ministry of the Spirit. The later Dutch theologians have advanced the idea that the origin of the church, as an institution, is to be found in the establishment of the apostolate, in the selection of the Twelve. Dr. A. Kuyper holds that the church as an institution was founded when the Master selected the Twelve, and that these men were "qualified for their calling by the power of the Holy Spirit." He distinguishes between the institution and the constitution of the church. Dr. H. Bavinck says: "Christ gathers a church about Himself, rules it directly so long as He is on the earth, and appoints twelve apostles who later on will be His witnesses. The institution of the apostolate is an especially strong proof of the institutionary character which Christ gave to His church on the earth" (Geref. Dogm., IV, 64).

Whatever we may think of this matter, the fact remains that Pentecost completely changed the apostles, and that the enduement with the Holy Spirit enabled them to become witnesses of the resurrection of Christ as the fundamental fact in historic Christianity, and to extend the church according to Christ’s commandment. Jerome has an especially elegant passage in which Pentecost is compared with the beginning of the Jewish national life on Mt. Sinai (Ad Tabiol, section 7): "There is Sinai, here Sion; there the trembling mountain, here the trembling house; there the flaming mountain, here the flaming tongues; there the noisy thunderings, here the sounds of many tongues; there the clangor of the ramshorn, here the notes of the gospel-trumpet." This vivid passage shows the close analogy between the Jewish and Christian Pentecost.

3. Later Christian Observance:

In the post-apostolic Christian church Pentecost belonged to the so-called "Semestre Domini," as distinct from the "Semestre Ecclesiae" the church festivals properly so called. As yet there was no trace of Christmas, which began to appear about 360 AD. Easter, the beginning of the pentecostal period, closed the "Quadragesima," or "Lent," the entire period of which had been marked by self-denial and humiliation. On the contrary, the entire pentecostal period, the so-called "Quinquagesima," was marked by joyfulness, daily communion, absence of fasts, standing in prayer, etc. Ascension Day, the 40th day of the period, ushered in the climax of this joyfulness, which burst forth in its fullest volume on Pentecost. It was highly esteemed by the Fathers. Chrysostom calls it "the metropolis of the festivals" (De Pentec., Hom. ii); Gregory of Nazianzen calls it "the day of the Spirit" (De Pentec., Orat. 44). All the Fathers sound its praises. For they fully understood, with the church of the ages, that on that day the dispensation of the Spirit was begun, a dispensation of greater privileges and of a broader horizon and of greater power than had hitherto been vouchsafed to the church of the living God. The festival "Octaves," which, in accordance with the Jewish custom, devoted a whole week to the celebration of the festival, from the 8th century, gave place to a two days’ festival, a custom still preserved by the Roman church and such Protestant bodies as follow the ecclesiastical year. The habit of dressing in white and of seeking baptism on Pentecost gave it the name "Whitsunday," by which it is popularly known all over the world.

Henry E. Dosker