19 May 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
42, Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή

Pentecost depicted in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Day of Pentecost in the western calendar of the Church (19 May 2024), the fiftieth day of the Easter season, which began on Easter Day (31 March 2024). Today celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the fulfilment of the promises of Easter. You could say it is the birthday of the Church.

The Feast of Pentecost has parallels in the Jewish calendar, with Feast of Shavuot or the ‘Festival of Weeks,’ which is sometimes called Pentecost too, and which also comes 50 days after Pesach or the Passover.

But the word Pentecost is Greek in its origins, and comes from the Koinē Greek πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē), which means literally ‘fiftieth’.

In the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, one of the meanings of Pentecost refers to the festival of Shavuot. It is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, according to Deuteronomy 16: 10 and Exodus 34: 22, where it is referred to as the ‘Festival of Weeks’ or ἑορτὴν ἑβδομάδων (heortēn hebdomádōn).

The Septuagint uses the term πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē) in this context in both the Book of Tobit and II Maccabees. The translators of the Septuagint also use the word in two other senses: to signify the year of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25: 10), which falls every fiftieth year, and in several passages of chronology as an ordinal number. The term is also used in Hellenistic Jewish literature by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus to refer to the Festival of Shavuot.

The festival of Shavuot is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals in Judaism and is celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first day of Passover (see Deuteronomy 16: 9), or seven weeks and one day after the Sabbath (see Leviticus 23: 16). It is discussed in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Arakhin. The actual mention of 50 days comes from Leviticus 23: 16.

The Festival of Weeks is also known as the Feast of Harvest in Exodus 23: 16 and the Day of First Fruits in Numbers 28: 26. In Exodus 34: 22, it is called the ‘first fruits of the wheat harvest.’

At some time in the Hellenistic period, the ancient harvest festival also became a day of renewing the Noahic covenant, described in Genesis 9: 17, established between God and ‘all flesh that is upon the earth.’ After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, offerings could no longer be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and the focus of the festival shifted from agriculture to the Israelites receiving the Torah.

By that time, many Jews were living in the Diaspora and were Greek-speaking. According to Acts 2: 5-11, there were Jews from ‘every nation under heaven’ in Jerusalem, possibly visiting the city as pilgrims during Pentecost.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 includes numerous references to earlier biblical narratives such as the Tower of Babel, and the flood and creation narratives from Genesis. It also includes references to certain theophanies, particularly God’s presence on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses.

Some scholars identify the οἶκος (oikos, ‘house’) that was the location of Pentecost in Acts 2: 2 with one of the 30 halls of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the text is lacking in specific details, and other scholars suggest that the author of Acts could have chosen the word ἱερόν (hieron, sanctuary, temple) if this meaning were intended, rather than ‘house.’ Some suggest that the ‘house’ could be the ‘upper room’ (ὑπερῷον, huperóon) mentioned in Acts 1: 12-26. But there is no literary evidence to confirm the location with certainty.

The events in Acts 2 are set against the backdrop of the celebration of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The author notes that the disciples ‘were all together in one place’ on the ‘day of Pentecost’ (ἡμέρα τῆς Πεντηκοστῆς, imera tis Pentekostes).

The gathered disciples were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

The languages are difficult to enumerate, but the vast majority of these people, including the Jews and proselytes living in the diaspora who have come to Jerusalem from Crete, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia Minor, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, north Africa, and perhaps even Rome, may have been Greek speakers.

The largest Greek-speaking cities at the time were Alexandria and Ephesus, and at the time Latin was regarded as a vulgar language. Greek as a language had cultural prestige among the Roman upper class, and Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is written in Greek. It was not until after 200 CE that the Church in Rome produced documents in Latin, and the first Christian theologian to write in Latin was Tertullian, a North African, writing in the early 200s.

Orthodox Pentecost is celebrated in Greece seven weeks and a day (50 days) following Easter, and marks the end of the Easter cycle that began 92 days before with Orthodox Shrove Monday. This means Orthodox Pentecost usually fall in late May to mid-June in Greece, and the feast traditionally lasts for three days – on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – and with a public holiday on the Monday.

This year, in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, the Day of Pentecost is celebrated on 23 June. Pentecost is one of the Great Christian Feasts of the year, being second in importance only to Pascha or Easter. It is celebrated with much fanfare in Greece, so much so that it seems like ‘a second Easter.’

Because Easter Day was late in the Greek calendar this year (5 May 2024), the Day of Pentecost is celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Church this year on Sunday 23 June 2024.

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Greek was once the principal language in the Mediterranean … lines from Άρνηση (‘Denial’), a poem by George Seferis, on an old Greek door on Carmel Street in the former Jewish quarter of Mdina in Malta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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