Pentecost Sunday

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday and the sermon was appropriately on Acts 2. The sermon wasn’t particularly interesting though and so my mind began to wander onto the lengthy quotation of Joel in verses 17-21. New Testament quotations of the Old are always interesting for a variety of reasons, and if I had decided to do a theology degree the topic would probably be near the top of my list for a dissertation. As it stands though this is a little outside of my area of expertise, so take the following with a grain of salt.

Acts 2:16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 
17 “‘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;
18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ 

In Joel, the “day of the Lord” is clearly about judgment, but in Acts, the reference to judgment is downplayed to highlight the pouring out of God’s Spirit (and to be fair the previous section of Joel is about restoration and peace). Peter never directly discusses a final judgment, but in the beginning of the quotation, the Hebrew (Joel 3:1 in the Hebrew, 2:28 in the English) וְהָיָ֣ה אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן “And it will happen after this…” is slightly modified to καὶ ἔσται ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις “And it will be in the last days…” so that the context is understood eschatologically. In verse 22 he seems to imply that Jesus’ miracles fulfill verse 18, though in Joel the signs and wonders seem to be portents of disaster (the sun turning to darkness). The end of the quotation is also modified by dropping the second half of verse 5. What Peter quotes is this:

וְהָיָ֗ה כֹּ֧ל אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֛א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה יִמָּלֵ֑ט 

And it will happen that all who call on the name of the lord will be saved

But he omits this part:

כִּי בְּהַר־צִיּ֨וֹן וּבִירוּשָׁלִַ֜ם תִּֽהְיֶ֣ה פְלֵיטָ֗ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁר֙ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה 

וּבַ֨שְּׂרִידִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה קֹרֵֽא 

For in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape as the Lord said, 

and among the survivors [there shall be] those who the Lord calls.

The effect seems to be to put the emphasis on those who call on the Lord, rather than those the Lord calls, appropriate for Peter’s evangelistic sermon (“repent and be baptized!”) but a little disappointing for someone from the Reformed tradition as myself :). 

As interesting as all of this is however, what really caught my eye was the expansion of the poetic line from Joel 3:3a to a couplet in Acts 2:19:

Joel 3:3 וְנָֽתַתִּי֙ מֽוֹפְתִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֖יִם וּבָאָ֑רֶץ

And I will put wonders in heaven and on earth

Acts 2:19  καὶ δώσω τέρατα ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ἄνω

καὶ σημεῖα ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς κάτω,

And I will show wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below

The Acts version is better classical poetry, but it kind of leaves “blood and fire and columns of smoke” hanging and doesn’t really fit with the style of Joel, which is most likely post-exilic. It is also interesting that the word pair “heaven above” and “earth below” comes from the second commandment. I wonder if there is any connection, perhaps Peter had Torah on the mind since it was Shavuot? Or probably its just a common word pair.

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4 Comments on “Pentecost Sunday”


  1. The Acts usage of Joel is fascinating for many reasons. I use this text to show students that figurative interpretations, particularly of apocalyptic texts, are thoroughly biblical and not “liberal.” Since, it is hardly likely that Peter saw the moon literally turn to blood as he was preaching. As NT Wright says, it was an “Earth shattering event”–new things happening and old realities passing away…My dad refers to this stuff as the “special effects” of the biblical period–spicing things up without the aid of CG effects to capture peoples’ attention and imagination.

  2. Nicolas Baguelin Says:

    For omission of Mount Zion and Jerusalem, isn\’t that a \”universal approach interpretation\” that cancels the national aspect of Judaism ?

    Same for בשמים ובארץ that is transformed in \”earth below\” so that הארץ could not be interpreted in the restrictive sense of the Land of Israel.

  3. Peter Bekins Says:

    Yes, I agree that omission of Jerusalem/Mt Zion helps to broaden the scope, but I’m not sure about the expansion of heaven and earth. It seems more like an unconscious expansion to me, pulling it in line with classical poetry.

  4. Nicolas Baguelin Says:

    Yes of course, it is literraly Ex 20,4 :
    אשר בשמים ממעל ואשר בארץ מתחת

    (without the conlusion ואשר במים מתחת לארץ)

    This is a traditionnal form of billateralism, which is obvious in poetry but exists in all biblical texts. Billateralism is an anthropologic law that is part of the “Oral global” mnemotechnic style. See Marcel Jousse ‘L’Anthropologie du Geste’.


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