Towards the end of the first century CE, the Jewish historian and apologist, Flavius Josephus, wrote a two-volume treatise rebutting the criticism of Judaism which had been made by Apion Pleistoneices, an Egyptian writer of the early first century, who was famous for his breadth of knowledge and ostentatious oratory.
In the course of his analysis of the claims of Apion, Josephus deals with the works that form scripture for the Jews—22 books “which contain the records of all the past times which are justly believed to be divine” (Josephus, Against Apion 1.38). Josephus makes the claim that the authors of these works were “prophets that have written the original and earliest accounts of things as they learned them from God himself by inspiration; and writing down what happened in their own times in a very exact manner also” (1.37). These works, says Josephus, cover the time from Moses to Artaxerxes; he regards them as divinely-inspired, accurate and reliable.
He distinguishes them from a series of later works, which set out events in subsequent decades. Of these, he makes this claim: “our history has been written since Artaxerxes very thoroughly, but it has not been considered of equal authority with the earlier records by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time” (Josephus, Against Apion 1.41). This last claim–the lack of prophets in recent centuries–has resonated in the histories of Judaism, and Christianity; it led to the notion that prophecy ended because the Spirit had become inactive.
In this context, it is striking to note the way that Luke starts his orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment amongst us (the two volumes we know as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles). The Holy Spirit plays a central, active role in these writings. In the first volume of his orderly account, Luke highlights the Spirit at key places in the narrative, beginning even before the conception and birth of Jesus.
The events reported in the second volume are generated from the dramatic intervention of the Spirit into the early community formed by the followers of Jesus after his ascension. The story of that intervention—known to us as the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost—is told early in Acts (2:1-42). Jews from around the eastern Mediterranean are gathered in Jerusalem for the annual festival (2:1-13), when the Spirit comes upon them. This is the event that is remembered each year, in the calendar of the church, at Pentecost (this year, on Sunday 5 June).
A second story of the coming of the Spirit is told at a later point in Acts—after Peter sees a vision in which God declares all food clean, and he is summoned to the home of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius, in Caesarea (10:1-33). As Peter preaches to the Gentiles, the Spirit falls on them, “just as it had upon us [Jews] at the beginning (11:15). The importance of the Spirit in Luke’s account of the early movement cannot be underestimated. The significance for the church today of the Spirit’s empowering presence at Pentecost is likewise high.
The Spirit, of course, was not a new concept to the people,of Israel, for the Spirit had already been active throughout the stories told by the people of Israel about their ancestors. It was the same Spirit who was seen to be active in the creation of the world (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5) who then guides selected leaders within Israel. The Spirit is active in stories about Moses (Num 11:16–17); Joshua (Deut 34:9); Othniel (Judg 3:10); Gideon (Judg 6:34); and David (1 Sam 16:17).
The Spirit inspires prophecy (1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29; Mic 3:8), enables the interpretation of dreams by Joseph (Gen 41:38) and Daniel (Dan 4:8,18, 5:1), and gives other specific gifts to Israel (Num 11:25; Deut 34:9; Dan 4:8–18; Prov 1:23).
The qualities of the Spirit will characterise the coming Messianic figure envisaged by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 11:2–5). This idea is taken up later in Isaiah in descriptions of the Servant (Isa 42:1–4; 61:1–7). In second Isaiah the Spirit is promised as a gift to the people who are led by the Servant (Isa 42:5; 44:3; 48:16; 59:21). Third Isaiah recalls the time of Moses as a period when the Spirit was given to Israel (Isa 63:11–14).
So Luke stands firmly within the tradition of the people of Israel—the tradition of Jesus himself—as he narrates the story of Jesus, and his followers, in the two volumes of his orderly account. The story of Pentecost is a climactic and pivotal moment in that narrative. We need to see it in relation to what has come before it, and also what follows on after it.
This is the first in a series of posts relating to Pentecost, exploring the role of the Spirit in the two volumes of Luke’s orderly account (Luke-Acts). Stay tuned for more each day … … …
… and see previous posts at