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Tongues of Fire: An Exegesis of Acts 2 in light of Second Temple Period Judaism

The New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles reports a peculiar event that occurred during the biblical festival חַג שָבֻעֹות Chag Shavuoth, commonly called "Pentecost":


And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together and were bewildered because they were each one hearing them speak in his own dialect. (Acts 2:1-6)
At first view, this event resembles no other recorded in scripture; thus, the option of investigating comparable occasions to gain a relative context appears lacking. And though a thorough exegesis can present a semi-clear picture of what the Acts 2 Pentecost symbolized, a more detailed answer has been present in Judaism's pre-Christian tradition all along.
“Why be interested in Jewish tradition?” one may ask. Succinctly, the NT is a compilation of writ, composed primarily by Jews, about a rabbi and his disciples. Therefore, it actually cites Jewish tradition as history. For example, Paul in his epistle to Timothy writes,
And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses these men also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected pertaining to the faith. (2 Tm 3:8)

Just who are Jannes and Jambres? And how did they "oppose Moses"? These names surely aren’t recorded anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, so where did Paul derive this information? Many overlook that Paul remained a Pharisee even after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Luke recorded Paul’s testimony:
Indeed I am a man, a Jew having been born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but having been brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, having been trained according to the exactness of the ancestral law, being a zealous one of God, even as you all are today. (Acts 22:3)
But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the council, 'Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!' (Acts 23:6)

Paul exclaimed in the present tense that he was undoubtedly a Pharisee that had been under the tutelage of Gamliel.[i] This means that Paul espoused Pharisaic teachings, one of which is found in the Targum Yerushalmi, Parashath Wayyera’. Regarding Jannes and Jambres it states,
And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and did as the Lord had commanded. And Aaron threw down the rod before the sight of Pharaoh, and before the sight of his servants, and it became a basilisk. But Pharaoh called the wise men and magicians; and they also, Jannes and Jambres, magicians of Egypt, did the same by their burnings of divination. They threw down each man his rod, and they became basilisks; but were forthwith changed to be what they were at first; and the rod of Aaron swallowed up their rods. And the disposition of Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not hearken to them, as Adonai had said.

According to the Targum, Jannes and Jambres were the Egyptian sorcerers that opposed Moses and Aaron with their staffs. This provides the background of Paul’s words to Timothy. We now turn to another instance where Paul quotes Jewish tradition:
And I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea. And all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. And all ate the same spiritual food. And all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock following, and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-4)

Why does Paul say that the water-giving rock "followed" the people in the wilderness? This is not written in the Torah. Again, it is a tradition. And it shows up in an old Jewish midrash called Bemidbar Rabba:
How was the well constructed? It was rock-shaped like a kind of bee-hive, and wherever they journeyed it rolled along and came with them. When the standards halted and the tabernacle was set up, that same rock would come and settle down in the court of the Tent of Meeting and the princes would come and stand upon it and say, 'Rise up, O well, and it would rise'. After that I brought you quails. (Bemid. R. 1:2)

Paul shared a theological heritage with the Pharisees, relying upon Jewish tradition as history. Therefore, tradition should not be discounted by any serious exegete. And as shall be demonstrated, Acts 2 confirms, relies upon, and draws heavily from Jewish tradition.
So why are tongues likened to fire in Acts 2? There is an a priori explanation: the "tongue" or "language" transmitted by God's spirit is likened to fire because Adonai is a consuming fire; therefore, spiritual forces emanating from Him are, by extension, also fiery.[ii] The apostles were "filled with the Holy Spirit" speaking supernaturally by God; thus, their multilingual words were "fiery". Yet a more profound, traditio-historical explanation is available and alluded to in an ancient, fragmentary composition from Qumran. This pre-NT manuscript expounds upon a phenomenon it calls “tongues of fire”:
[…] the stone, like… they will provide you with light and he will go out with it with tongues of fire {בלשונות אשׁ}; the stone of the left side which is at its left side will shine to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking. And after it (the cloud?) has been removed … and you shall keep and do all that he tells you. And the proph[et] … who speaks apostasy […][… A]donai, God of […] (4Q376 frag. 1 col. ii)

The Qumran tradition indicates that Israel's high priest would speak with fiery tongues while receiving information from God via the ’urim and thummim stones. Further, the congregation would be bound to keep his charge. This may shed light on a familiar but often misunderstood passage in the Gospel of John:
But one of them, Caiaphas being high priest of that year, said to them, 'You know nothing, nor consider that it is profitable for us that one man die for the people, and the whole nation not perish.' But he did not say this from himself, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was about to die on behalf of the nation, and not only on behalf of the nation, but that He also might gather into one the children of God who had been scattered. Then from that day, they took counsel that they might kill Him. (Jn 11:49-53)

Caiaphas is said to have "prophesied" and "not of himself" because he was the high priest that year. Afterwards everyone took counsel to kill Yeshua, keeping Caiaphas' charge. This is consistent with the directive described in 4Q367. So it seems John 11:49-53 and 4Q367 both report a common enigmatic tradition. And if so, Caiaphas spoke with tongues of fire. Further, the high priest's prophesy of vicarious punishment was harmonious with Yeshua's own teachings – a concept that even Yeshua’s disciples would not fully realize until after his death.
Having established Jewish tradition's relevance to the NT, Acts 2:1-6 now begs for a proper exposition. Recall how Acts 2:5 says that Jews "from every nation under heaven" were living in Jerusalem during Pentecost, and how Acts 2:10 says that among them were "strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes." Because Pentecost is one of the שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים Shalosh Regalim or annual “three pilgrimages”, the Jews and proselytes from all nations would have been before God at the temple to submit their offerings in accordance with the Torah.[iii] Of the innumerable crowd that encamped before the temple, notice how many received Yeshua as the messiah:
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about 3,000 souls. (Acts 2:41)

There were about three thousand persons brought to new life through baptism that day. Now notice what occurred at Mount Sinai fourteen hundred years earlier:
So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about 3,000 men of the people fell that day. (Ex 32:28)

After the divine injunction certain golden calf-idolaters perished at the hands of the Levites. So at Sinai during the giving of the Torah about 3,000 people were destroyed. Then over a millennium later about 3,000 people were reborn -- “about” 3,000 in both cases. The Sinai Mountain and the Jerusalem Temple both held the presence of God, the former being where 3,000 perished and the latter being where 3,000 were reborn. But why would the Pentecost account in Acts 2 be connected with the Sinai theophany? Though our scriptures are silent on the matter, Jewish tradition says that the Torah was given on Pentecost (the 6th day of the Jewish month Sivan). The Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin states,
Our Rabbis taught: On the sixth day of the month (Pentecost) were the Ten Commandments given to Israel. R. Jose maintained: On the seventh thereof. Said Raba: All agree that they arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first of the month. (For) here it is written, on this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai; whilst elsewhere it is written, This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: just as there the first of the month, so here (too) the first of the month (is meant). Again, all agree that the Torah was given to Israel on the Sabbath. (Sanh. 86b)

Apart from Rabbi Jose’s disagreement, the overall opinion was that the Torah was given on the 6th of Sivan -- Pentecost. Judaism still teaches this today. Further, if Pentecost is when the Torah was given and the Mosaic covenant established, then one might expect similar circumstances for a new covenant's establishment. Moreover, the Pentecost phenomena of Sinai and Acts 2 both occurred in the morning. Exodus 19:16 states,
And on the third day, it being morning, it happened: There were thunders and lightnings, and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a ram's horn, very strong! And all the people in the camp trembled.


And Acts 2:14-15 states,

But standing with the eleven, Peter lifted up his voice and declared to them, 'Men, Jews, and all those living in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to my words: For these are not drunk, as you imagine, for it is only the third hour of the day.

 

The outpouring of fiery tongues in Acts 2 occurred during the third hour of the day (approximately 9 a.m.) which is the hour of prayer. Therefore all of these Jews certainly were at the Temple, perhaps fulfilling the shacharith.

Next, in Acts 2 the Jews from "every nation under heaven" heard the disciples speak each group's respective language. Notice what Jewish tradition tells us occurred at Sinai. The midrash Shemoth Rabbah states,
When God gave the Torah on Sinai, He displayed untold marvels to Israel with His voice. What happened? God spoke and the voice reverberated throughout the world… It says: And all the people perceived the thunderings. Note that it does not say ‘the thunder' {הקול}, but 'the thunderings' {הקולות}; wherefore R. Johanan said that God's voice, as it was uttered, was distributed {נחלק} into seventy voices, in seventy tongues, so that all the nations should understand. When each nation heard the voice in their own dialect their souls departed, save Israel who heard… (Shem. R. 5:9)

According to this ancient tradition, the Torah was given in seventy tongues or languages. To prove this, Rabbi Johanon in Shemoth Rabbah brought up how Ex 20:18 doesn’t say “the thunder”, but “the thunderings." What did he mean by this? The first portion of Ex 20:18 states,
...וְכָל־הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִם
And each of the people (were) perceiving the thunders and the lamps...

The plural noun קֹולֹת qoloth meaning “thunderings” also means “sounds” or “voices”. Rather than the text speaking of a singular voice ("the voice" הַקֹּול haqqol), it records a plurality -- "the voices" הַקּוֹלֹת haqqoloth. This is the crux of R. Johanon’s argument for the Torah being dispensed in multiple languages. Notice how the LXX (Greek Tanach) translates the construction הַקּוֹלוֹת haqqoloth:
Καὶ πᾶς ὁ λαὸς ἑώρα τὴν φωνὴν καὶ τὰς λαμπάδας...
And all the people perceived the sound, and the flashes...

Notably, the LXX translated the Hebrew plural noun קוֹלוֹת qoloth to the Greek singular noun φωνή phone (= "sound", "voice", "disclosure", etc.) rather than βροντή bronte (= "thunder"). Clearly, the LXX scribe understood the קוֹלֹוֹת qoloth as voices and not mere thunders. Further, this word φωνή phone (= קוֹלוֹת qoloth) is used as a descriptor of the spirit and fiery tongues in Acts 2:6 which says,
γενομένης δὲ τῆς φωνῆς ταύτης συνῆλθεν τὸ πλῆθος καὶ συνεχύθη, ὅτι ἤκουον εἷς ἕκαστος τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ λαλούντων αὐτῶν
But this sound occurring, the multitude came together and were confounded, because they each heard them speaking in his own dialect.

This usage of φωνή phone is no mere coincidence, but a deliberate allusion to the Sinaitic קוֹלוֹת qoloth while utilizing the Greek Tanach's terminology. Like Ex 20:18, the collective sounds of the apostles' voices (Heb. = קוֹלוֹת qoloth) are denoted as a singular φωνής phones (= "sound") rather than plural φωνῶν phonon (= "sounds"). Next, Shemoth Rabbah 5:9 stated that each nation heard the voice of God "in their own dialect”! This wording is almost identical to the report of Acts 2:6 which says, “…every man heard them speak in his own dialect.” Moreover, Acts 2:3 describes the fiery tongues as “distributing themselves” (Grk. = διαμερίζω diamerizo) while Shemoth Rabbah 5:9 reports that God’s speech was "distributed" (Heb. = חָלָק chalaq) into seventy voices and tongues. The Greek verb διαμερίζω diamerizo and the Hebrew verb חָלָק chalaq function as philological equivalents:
יְחַלְּקוּ בְגָדַי לָהֶם וְעַל־לְבוּשִׁי יַפִּילוּ גוֹרָל׃ (Ps 22:19 \mathfrak{M})
They distributed my garments among them, for my clothing they cast lots (Ps 22:19 \mathfrak{M})
διεμερίσαντο τὰ ἱμάτιά μου ἑαυτοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν ἱματισμόν μου ἔβαλον κλῆρον (Ps 21:19 LXX)
They distributed my garments among themselves, and cast lots upon my raiment. (Ps 21:19 LXX)
σταυρώσαντες δὲ αὐτὸν διεμερίσαντο τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ βάλλοντες κλῆρον (Mt 27:35)
And when they had crucified Him, they distributed his garments among themselves by casting lots. (Mt 27:35)

And one more example:
וְחִלַּקְתֶּם אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הָזֹּאת לָכֶם לְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ (Ez 47:21 \mathfrak{M})
And you will distribute the this land among you for the tribes of Israel. (Ez 47:21 \mathfrak{M})
καὶ διαμερίσετε τὴν γῆν ταύτην αὐτοῖς, ταῖς φυλαῖς τοῦ Ισραηλ (Ez 47:21 LXX)
And you shall distribute this land to them, to the tribes of Israel. (Ez 47:21 LXX)

The same phraseology, dates, and number figures present in the account of Sinai are present in the Pentecost of Acts 2. In both accounts, heavenly "voices" were "distributed" to various language groups that everyone heard "in his own dialect". There is definitely a thematic parallel, but why were there 70 fiery tongues and voices of God? And, earlier,what did Rabbi Johanon mean when he stated "so that all the nations should understand"? The Book of Genesis documents 70 peoples coming from the loins of Noah in a pericope often called "The Table of Nations" (Gn 10-11). This is demonstrable by simply counting the chronicled descendants of Noah, a meticulous task beyond the scope of this work.[iv] But a second century BCE work, The Book of Jubilees, attests to the historicity of this teaching:
And in the land of Canaan two sons of Judah died, Er and Onan, and they had no offspring, and the children of Israel buried those who perished, and they were counted among the seventy Gentile nations. (Jub 44:34)


In Gn 11:1-9, the 70 peoples having one language are stricken with a confusion of speech and left unable to communicate with one another. This biblical etiology explains why Adonai spoke the Torah in 70 tongues and voices at Mount Sinai. There were people groups from multiple lineages present:

And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle. (Ex 12:38)
And the mixed multitude among them lusted greatly, and the sons of Israel also turned back and wept, and said, 'Who shall cause us to eat flesh?' (Nm 11:4)

The mixed multitude was a composite people from many nations. Therefore the Torah was given in 70 tongues for all to understand -- a proverbial number based on the sum of Noah's sons. This is why Shemoth Rabbah states,
God's voice, as it was uttered, was distributed into seventy voices, in seventy tongues, so that all the nations should understand.

To summarize the data, the Hebrews and proselytes from every one of the 70 nations under heaven stood before God on the morning of Pentecost hearing fiery words, each in his own language. This event hearkened back to their ancestors who 1,400 years earlier stood before God at Sinai on the morning of Pentecost, hearing the Torah issued in 70 tongues of fire. The 12 apostles, standing before the temple and ratifying the new covenant, perhaps represented the 12 pillars erected by Moses during the ratification of the Sinai covenant in Ex 24:1-4.

The episode of Acts 2 is not only consistent with written Torah but also with details found in the Pharisaic oral tradition. What begins as a possible correlation between the Pentecost of Acts 2 and the Sinai event is only solidified by the backdrop of Judaism’s tradition. This extra-biblical information enlightens an NT pericope that has caused much controversy in the Christian world. Christendom has much to learn from its older brother Judah. And though there is much to glean from the written word, at times one can only reach its fullest understanding by seeking the rich history that Yeshua and Paul were brought up in – Jewish tradition.


Notes:


[i] רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הַזָּקֵן Rabban Gamliel hazzaqein or "Rabban Gamaliel The Elder" was the grandson of the famed Hillel The Elder and was also a leading authority in the Sanhedrin prior to the destruction of Herod's Temple. He and his decisions are referenced throughout Jewish literature, and the NT book of Acts (5:33-41) credits him for saving the lives of the apostles and disciples.

 

[ii] See Dt 4:24, 9:3; Ex 3:2; Ps 104:4; 2 Kgs 2:11; Is 66:15

 

[iii]See Ex 23:14-17, 34:23; Dt 16:16

 

[iv] Also confer Dt 32:7-8 where God is said to have partitioned the sons of Adam (mankind) according to the number of the children of Israel (MT). Then compare Gn 46:27 and Ex 1:5 where Israel is reckoned as seventy persons in total.

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