1. In the Old Testament:
As the name indicates (pentekoste), this second of the great Jewish national festivals was observed on the 50th day, or 7 weeks, from the Paschal Feast, and therefore in the Old Testament it was called "the feast of weeks." It is but once mentioned in the historical books of the Old Testament (2Ch 8:12-13), from which reference it is plain, however, that the people of Israel, in Solomon's day, were perfectly familiar with it: "offering according to the commandment of Moses, on the sabbaths, and on the new moons, and on the set feasts, three times in the year, even in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles." The requirements of the three great festivals were then well understood at this time, and their authority was founded in the Mosaic Law and unquestioned. The festival and its ritual were minutely described in this Law. Every male in Israel was on that day required to appear before the Lord at the sanctuary (Ex 34:22-23). It was the first of the two agrarian festivals of Israel and signified the completion of the barley-harvest (Le 23:15-16; De 16:9-10), which had begun at the time of the waving of the first ripe sheaf of the first-fruits (Le 23:11). Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, therefore fell on the 50th day after this occurrence. The wheat was then also nearly everywhere harvested (Ex 23:16; 34:22; Nu 28:26), and the general character of the festival was that of a harvest-home celebration. The day was observed as a Sabbath day, all labor was suspended, and the people appeared before Yahweh to express their gratitude (Le 23:21; Nu 28:26). The central feature of the day was the presentation of two loaves of leavened, salted bread unto the Lord (Le 23:17,20; Ex 34:22; Nu 28:26; De 16:10). The size of each loaf was fixed by law. It must contain the tenth of an ephah, about three quarts and a half, of the finest wheat flour of the new harvest (Le 23:17). Later Jewish writers are very minute in their description of the preparation of these two loaves (Josephus, Ant, III, x, 6). According to the Mishna (Menachoth, xi.4), the length of the loaf was 7 handbreadths, its width 4, its depth 7 fingers. Le 23:18 describes the additional sacrifices required on this occasion. It was a festival of good cheer, a day of joy. Free-will offerings were to be made to the Lord (De 16:10), and it was to be marked by a liberal spirit toward the Levite, the stranger, and orphans and widows (De 16:11,14). Perhaps the command against gleaning harvest-fields has a bearing on this custom (Le 23:22).
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 19:1-25). 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 Acts 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.
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 2:1-47. 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