Tongues of fire

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Someone asked me yesterday whether “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) points to the fact that the disciples were to proclaim that the kingdom of God was coming, meaning judgment on unbelieving Israel and the nations. I was at the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights on Sunday, and since proceedings were mostly in Greek, I missed any reference to the church calendar. In the afternoon Father Melchizedek gave an elegant homily in English looking at the events of Acts 2, but I’ve been slow to register the fact that we’ve just celebrated Pentecost. No wonder people are asking if the UK is still a Christian country.

Luke’s account of events in Acts 2 is a good example of how the biblical narrative often constrains our modern theologies. We think that this is all about the church as we know it. It’s not. The pneumatology of Pentecost has to work within narrow historical boundaries. As is noted in the question, it has to do with Israel and judgment. I’m not so sure about the nations.

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (2:2)

Father Melchizedek compared the “sound like a mighty rushing wind” to the effect of a jet aircraft flying fifteen yards above the building. But the word translated “wind” is pnoē, which in the Greek Old Testament almost always means “breath”, often explicitly the breath which God gives to living creatures (cf. Gen. 2:7; 7:22). It has this meaning also in Acts 17:25: “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything”. If something more violent is intended, the thought is of the strong wind of God’s anger (e.g., 2 Sam. 22:16; Ezek. 13:13 LXX).

Old Testament theophanies are often windy occasions (1 Kgs. 19:11; Job 38:1; Is. 66:15; Ezek. 1:4), but that doesn’t really seem to be what’s going on here. Ezekiel’s vision of the resuscitation of Israel is more pertinent: “And he said to me, Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, This is what the Lord says: Come from the four winds, and blow into these corpses, and they shall live” (Ezek. 37:9 LXX). But breath in this instance is pneuma, and I am inclined to think that Luke’s description of the phenomenon is unprecedented as far as the scriptures are concerned.

And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. (2:3)

There is some reason to associate the word diamerizomenai with the division of the nations. For example: “When the Most High was apportioning (diemerizen) nations, as he scattered Adam’s sons, he fixed boundaries of nations according to the number of divine sons” (Deut. 32:8 LXX).

A Jewish exorcism text, which I can’t give a date for, adjures the demon “by him who revealed the one hundred-forty tongues (glōssas) and divided (diamerisanta) them at his command” (Exorcism 56–58). This has no direct relevance, but it reinforces the point that the disciples are enabled to speak to diaspora Jews in the languages of the nations from which they came.

But what about the association with fire?

The phrase “tongues of fire” is found elsewhere in Jewish writings. Enoch describes a great house of God “wholly built in tongues of fire” (1 En. 14:15). Light flashes from the high priest’s breastplate like “tongues of fire” (1Q29 f1:3; f2:3; 4Q376 f1ii:1). At most this suggests the “tongue” as a natural metaphor for flames of fire.

It seems most likely, therefore, that Luke meant his readers to recall John the Baptist’s statement that the Christ would baptise “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:15). Here “fire” has clear connotations of an impending judgment: Israel will be winnowed; the wheat will be gathered into the barn; the chaff “will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17). Given the context, Malachi 3:1-3 is also evoked:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me…. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. (Mal. 3:1–3)

John is thus the messenger who proclaims the coming of one who will execute judgment against a corrupt priesthood in order to reform Israel’s worship of YHWH.

So yes, it appears that the Spirit of prophecy comes upon the disciples in the form of “tongues as of fire” because their primary mission is to reiterate Jesus’ warning about the coming judgment of Israel. A word about judgment is being distributed to all Jews, whatever language they speak. This is certainly more likely than the view that Luke meant to present the Pentecost event as the fulfilment of “new covenant” expectations (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:26-27).

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (2:4)

“Utterance” translates apophthengesthai. The word is often used for ecstatic or inspired speech. David set aside men who “make pronouncements” (apophthengomenous) with musical instruments (1 Chron. 25:1 LXX); “speakers of apophthegms” (apophthengomenoi) will be removed from Israel, along with sorcerers (Mic. 5:12 LXX); false prophets “utter” (apophthengomenous) vanities (Ezek. 13:9; cf. 13:19 LXX). When Peter stands up to explain what has been going on, he apephthegzato to them—he “prophesied to them”—inasmuch as he spoke by the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:14). In Acts 26:25 Paul is probably having a joke with Festus when he says that he is not out of his mind (ou mainomai) but uttering (apophthengomai) “true and rational words”.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. …both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. (2:5, 11)

The Spirit is given in order to proclaim to Jews and converts to Judaism, who have come to Jerusalem from the diaspora to celebrate the festival, the “mighty works” (megaleia) that God has been doing in Israel. This no doubt refers in the first place to the “mighty works (dynamesin) and wonders and signs” that God did through Jesus (Acts 2:22), but may also include the resurrection (cf. Acts 1:8). 

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (2:16–18)

Peter addresses the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”. What they are witnessing is the fulfilment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel. In the “last days” before the great and terrible day of the Lord, the Spirit of God will be poured out not on Israel’s prophets only but on “all flesh”—that is, indiscriminately on all sorts of people in Israel, with no regard to social or religious status. Sons and daughters, young and old, male servants and female servants will all see what Jesus saw and prophesy as Jesus prophesied—that Israel faces a dreadful day of reckoning, comparable to Old Testament catastrophes such as the Babylonian invasion. Only those Jews who call on the name of the Lord at this time will be saved.

So what was going on Pentecost? It was the moment when the disciples were empowered to proclaim not only to the people of Jerusalem but to Jews and proselytes from the diaspora—to “all the house of Israel”—what God was doing, at that time, in Israel. God had done mighty works through Jesus while he was alive; he had raised him from the dead after he was unjustly killed by the authorities in Jerusalem; he had made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:32, 36); and he would soon bring a dreadful judgment upon the current “crooked generation” of Jews (Acts 2:41).

The pagan nations are not directly in view, but the later account of the apostolic mission will show that when the “mighty works” of Israel’s God were proclaimed in the synagogues of the Greek-Roman world, Gentiles were more inclined to believe the story—and appreciate its long-term implications—than Jews were.

I have thought for some time now that the Pentecost event was tied to the baptism “of the Holy Spirit and with fire,” and one of the aspects of that is that Israel will survive the fiery trial and come out the other side alive, just as water baptism signified.

John Shakespeare | Tue, 05/26/2015 - 15:11 | Permalink

Andrew, somewhat off topic, can you recommend any good material about the impact of the AD 70 events on diaspora Jews (and, by association, on gentile Christians) throughout the empire? 

@John Shakespeare:

I’m not sure I can help you very much. It’s not my area, and I’m not sure there’s much evidence to go on anyway. So this is a bit random.

But to start with, I can offer this paragraph from the Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism:

A Roman army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. For the Jews of antiquity the loss of the Temple not only constituted a devastating blow but signaled an enduring trauma. The reverberations of that event still resonate. The day of the Temple’s destruction which, by a quirk of fate or (more probably) fabrication, coincides with that on which Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians six and a half centuries earlier, continues to receive annual commemoration in Israel. For many it shaped the consciousness of the Jewish Diaspora through the centuries to follow. The eradication of the center that had given meaning and definition to the nation’s identity obliged Jews to alter their sights, accommodate to a displaced existence, and rethink their own heritage in the context of alien surroundings. (“Judaism in the Diaspora,” EDEJ, 77)

There is some anguished reflection on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, but the consensus appears to be that these are Palestinian texts:

Then answered I and said: I beseech thee, O Lord, wherefore have I been endowed with an understanding to discern? For I meant not to ask about the ways above but of those things we daily experience; Why is Israel to the heathen given over for reproach, thy beloved people to godless tribes given up? The Law of our fathers has been brought to destruction, the written covenants exist no more; We vanish from the world as locusts, our life is as a breath. We indeed are not worthy to obtain mercy; but what will he do for his own name whereby we are called? It is about these things that I have asked.  (4 Ezra 4:22–25)

2 Baruch contains a letter written to the diaspora providing consolation following the “multitude of tribulations”:

But regarding consolation, hear ye the word. For I was mourning regarding Zion, and I prayed for mercy from the Most High, and I said: ‘How long will these things endure for us? And will these evils come upon us always?’ And the Mighty One did according to the multitude of His mercies, And the Most High according to the greatness of His compassion, And He revealed unto me the word, that I might receive consolation, And He showed me visions that I should not again endure anguish, And He made known to me the mystery of the times. And the advent of the hours he showed me. (2 Bar. 81:1–4)

The phrase “advent of the hourse” points to the development of apocalyptic hopes of judgment on Rome and a future restoration of Israel.

Interestingly, the work expresses the view that the Jews have been scattered among the nations following divine judgment “that they may do good to the nations” (1:4).

There are Christian passages in the Sibylline Oracles (early 2nd century?) that refer to AD 70:

After that, when the Hebrew people reap their evil harvest, will a Roman king much gold and silver utterly destroy. And afterward will other royal powers continuously arise as kingdoms perish, And they will oppress mortals. But there will be great fall for those men, when they will begin unrighteous arrogance. But when the temple of Solomon in the holy land will fall, cast down by barbarous men in brazen mail, And from the land the Hebrews will be driven wandering and wasted, and among the wheat they will much darnel mingle, there will be evil contention among, all mankind; And the cities suffering outrage will bewail each other, receiving wrath of the great God in their breasts, since they committed an evil work. (Sib. Or. 1:387–400)

And in Barnabas:

Finally, I will also speak to you about the temple, and how those wretched people went astray and set their hope on the building, as though it were God’s house, and not on their God who created them. For they, almost like the heathen, consecrated him by means of the temple. But what does the Lord say in abolishing it? Learn! “Who measured heaven with the span of his hand, or the earth with his palm? Was it not I, says the Lord? Heaven is my throne, and the earth is a footstool for my feet. What kind of house will you build for me, or what place for me to rest?” You now know that their hope was in vain. Furthermore, again he says: “Behold, those who tore down this temple will build it themselves.”  (Barn. 16:1–3)

@Andrew Perriman:

Thank you very much. The reason for my interest in this is the way in which AD70 is foretold to, especially, the Thessalonians, as an event which will have a significant effect on them and their circumstances. I’m trying to guage the nature if that effect other than sometning vaguely akin to Obi Wan’s awareness of a disturbance in the force when the death star destroyed that planet. It seems they were to expect direct consequences. I think this is rather important. I’m very grateful indeed for your response.

@John Shakespeare:

just a thought if I understand your question. If Jews were the ones threatening and harassing the Thessalonians , once Jerusalem fell all Jews were now wanted throughout the empire. So the ones threatening the followers of Jesus would now be on the run and the Thessalonians would be rescued from their oppressors and given relief. Therefore being Justified in believing that Jesus had done what He said he would do. 

@Doane :

Thanks Doane. I’m sure you have understood my question correctly. However, I suspect things might be rather more complex than you suggest. The real issue is the relationship between diaspora Jews and Palestinian Jews. No doubt there were some close links: Jews from ‘every nation under heaven’ gathered in Jerusalem for the feasts, so clearly the city and the temple were seen as vitally important for Judaism. But I’m not sure of the extent to which ethnic disapora Jews would have been perceived by the Roman authorities (and their local allies) as complicit in the revolt which occasioned the overthrow of Jeruslaem in AD 70. It follows that I remain to be persuaded that ‘…all Jews were now wanted throughout the empire.’ That may be the case: I don’t know, and it is among the things I want to find out, if possible. We know that Jews were sometimes perceived as a nuisance, and maybe a convenient target for official persecution, as, for example, the Claudian expulsion of Jews from Rome. Again, the extent to which this was widespread and on-going needs to be explored. We also know that the writ of the Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin ran well beyond the borders of Judaea, as Saul was given letters of authority to pursue Christians as far as Damascus. 

To what extent would the AD 70-inspired widespread persecution of Jews have provided relief to the Thessalonian and other churches? If it was an ethnic matter, then it seems likely that the Christians (who were widely regarded as just a branch of Judaism) would have been caught up up in the same troubles; so far from providing relief for them, the fall of Jerusalem could have compounded their misery. 

So there are a lot of questions to answer, and I will be grateful for any suggestions people can give.

@John Shakespeare:

The book of Acts and the Epistles seems to depict the early church’s chief persecutors to be certain Jews from Judea.  They go around to the new churches and tell them they need to follow Torah.  They accuse the apostles of blasphemy and try to manipulate the local governments into persecuting them.  They stir up opposition in the cities they visit.  During this period of time, the Roman empire appears as a reluctant partner — at any given time just as likely to bail the Christians out of a situation as be complicit in their persecution.

But once their power is broken, Rome itself is happy to step up to the plate and occupy the chief persecutor role, particularly in the Asian churches.

The Beast destroys the harlot, then makes war against the saints.