Sunday, December 6, 2015

120 in an Upper Room on Pentecost

How many people were in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)? Where was the crowd of diaspora Jewish pilgrims who heard these men and women speak in their own "native languages"? Where was Peter's Pentecostal sermon preached?

I have always been taught that 120 of Christ's disciples assembled in an upper (second-floor) room of a Jerusalem residence after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and waited patiently there until they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues (Acts 2:1-4).

But a closer look—and some practical thinking—undermines this picture. It is difficult to imagine a second-floor room of any first-century Jerusalem residence holding 120 occupants. It is equally curious how the "other languages" were heard by those outside the room—especially when the hearers swelled to a crowd. It is altogether impossible to believe that Peter's sermon addresses the crowd from within the confines of the upper room.

The problem here is the human tendency to run details together in adjacent sections of an episodic narrative. Remember, Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and follows the same presentation of events as discrete episodes that may or may not be connected in sequence, location, or time. The Gospel narratives offer a collection of episodes—no doubt arranged around the rough outline of the life of the historic Jesus.  These episodes sometimes abruptly shift in time and location, but more often, the episodes are delimited and tied together by clear transitional phrases that indicate (suggest) a change in time, location, or situation.

With this in mind, let's take a close look at Acts 1 & 2 and at our assumptions about when, where, and to whom the Pentecostal experience occurred.

Following the literary introduction of the book of Acts (Acts1:1-3) which ties the current volume to the earlier Lucan Gospel and the narrative to the passion of Jesus, Acts 1 & 2 divides into 7 distinct episodes, each beginning with a clear transitional phrase.

Acts 1:4-11 - The Ascension of Jesus (beginning with "on one occasion").

Acts 1:12-14 - Return of the Eleven to Jerusalem (beginning with "then"). Here the apostles (the Twelve minus Judas), Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the brothers of Jesus go to the second-story room of a Jerusalem residence which was probably where they had been staying since the resurrection of Jesus. This is probably fifteen or sixteen people.

Acts 1: 15-26 - The Election of Matthias (beginning with "in those days"). 120 people are present, but no location is specified. It is doubtful this occurred in the upper room of a residence since such a space would hardly hold 120 people.

Acts 2:1-4 - Spirit's Outpouring at Pentecost (beginning with "when the day was fully come"). The time is designated as early in the morning on the feast of Pentecost. The location is designated very loosely ("the house where they were sitting"). The NT word for house can refer to a residence, a public building, a sheltered area, etc. No indication is given of the number in attendance. (This is at least the following day—or perhaps several days after—the election of Matthias. Night has past and day has come.)

Acts 2:5-13 - Gathering of the Crowd Brought by the Public Display of Glossolalia (beginning with "now there were"). This appears to be a public place capable of holding a crowd. This is clearly a place where diaspora pilgrims would gather. There is certainly no indication that the crowd entered a room of any sort.  The best guess for the location would be the temple grounds on the feast day.

Acts 2:14-40 - Peter's Sermon (beginning with "then Peter"). This presentation assumes a public area large enough to hold the Jewish pilgrims at the feast. Again the temple grounds make the most sense.

Acts 2:41-47 - Author's Summary of the Aftermath/Results of Peter's Sermon. This section describes a period of time ("day by day") of public life in the temple and table fellowship in homes.

If we are to take these episodes seriously as separate events (some obviously in sequence), then there is no reason to conflate or "smudge" the details of the events together. There is no reason to assume that the 120 that elected Matthias were in the same upper room where the Eleven, Mary, and Jesus' brothers set up residence. There is certainly no reason to think that the Pentecostal experience took place in this same upper room to this same 120 people.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think this is a great interpretive insight. Neither would I even think about parting company over how the details of these stories are conflated.

But the consistent presentation of the "facts" that Spirit was poured out on 120 in the upper room on Pentecost bears witness to our tendency to "run together" the details of adjacent episodes in the Gospels and Acts. This calls us to a more careful and closer reading of these texts, taking seriously the literary conventions upon which they were built.


  1. Joe, I fully agree with what you've laid out. I've thought for years that the temple courts were a more likely place for the descent of the Spirit rather than the upper room. Indeed, what Luke says at the end of his gospel tends in this direction also, where he says that after the ascension "they stayed continually at the temple, praising God." It makes sense that they may have spent the nights in the upper room, but the daytimes in the temple. Furthermore, Pentecost becomes a theological extension of the return of the Spirit to the temple as promised by Ezekiel and Malachi, first in the person of Christ himself and then in the living temple of the disciples. It would only be appropriate that this would happen in the temple itself.

  2. Dan: We need to do more study on the notion of "Jesus as the temple" or "replacement of the temple" as seen in "Jesus the Temple" (Nicholas Perrin). I am not really sold on this argument, although one can see the theology of Hebrews as leaning in this direction. I am more drawn to the analysis of "Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13" (Robert H. Stein) and "The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God" (G. K. Beale).

    I cannot see any scenario in which the "Jesus as temple" reinterpretation could arise BEFORE the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. Nor can I downplay the "resounding" of temple imagery in Hebrews and John's apocalypse. I might even be persuaded that Hebrews was written in shocked response to the temple's destruction. (I am ambivalent about the Platonizing of the "heavenly sanctuary" in Hebrews.)

    This role of the temple in Palestinian Jewish Christianity and diaspora Jewish Christianity (with its mission to the larger pagan world) - which may well be the essence of Christianity for all of the first century and possibly well into the second - seems like an important, but open question for both periods before and after the temple's destruction (and maybe down to Bar Kochba's defeat in 135 CE which ended any hope of the temple's restoration).

    1. Let's do that, Joe. I have G. K. Beale's work, but I'm unfamiliar with Perrin and Stein. In general--and I'll just sketch in some things, since I'm presently lecturing for U. of N. in Hawaii and don't have my library and resources at hand except for a UBS Text and a Lexicon--I understand the temple motif to begin with creation in Genesis. Just as a number of A.N.E. cosmogonies were temple texts, I think the creation story in Genesis is as well. The later construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness and Solomon's temple were conceived as earthly copies of some sort of celestial temple. With Yahweh's abandonment of the temple described by Ezekiel, there seems to have been held out the hope of another divine residency, but it never occurred in the post-exilic period. Hence, the 2nd temple carries with it some theological ambiguity, since the divine glory that attended the tabernacle and Solomon's temple did not reappear in Zerubbabel's. There was no ark in the 2nd temple, either.

      Hence, when John raises the temple motif in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel by saying the Logos "tented" among us and we beheld his "glory", it seems to me that he was suggesting Jesus as temple, at least in the sense of incarnation. That Jesus spoke of himself as the temple (destroy this temple) also seems to point in that direction. This latter point, assuming that even though the Fourth Gospel antedates the debacle in AD 70 and still represents something that Jesus actually said (and was referenced at his trial), seems to anticipate a temple motif that would extend into the early church with the Pauline imagery of Jesus as the cornerstone and believers as the building blocks. Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin tends in this direction, and 1 Peter uses the same imagery, too.

      So, this is just a sketch of some free-floating ideas, but they are some features of temple imagery that I think may be significant.

      At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the language of replacement, since it seems to smack of a triumphalism that is largely absent in the apostolic community. At the same time, Jesus predicted the fall of the temple, and for Christians, at least, they could prepare themselves for a period sans temple well before the climactic event.