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When Is Pentecost?

by Tim O'Hearn

When is Pentecost? It is named for the prescribed counting of forty-nine days and celebrating on the fiftieth day. That should be pretty straightforward. Whatever the starting date for the counting is, then fifty days later is Pentecost (Shavuot). But there is the problem. What is the starting date?

On a web site claiming to refute Seventh Day doctrine I recently saw a statement that Pentecost always falls on a Sunday. And yet the calendar shows Pentecost on Friday, 17 May 2002. Which is right, the web site or the calendar, the date most Jews celebrate the holiday or the Sunday following?

What difference does it make? Probably none. And yet it does affect some of our traditions. Maybe it even affects some of our doctrines. Therefore it is worth taking a look at the different traditions concerning the dating of Pentecost, a difference that dates back at least to the time of Jesus.

The scripture that defines the dating of Shavuot can be found at Leviticus 23:15-16, which says,

And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD.

The Pharisees said that the sabbath in question was the first day of Passover, which was to be a day on which no constructive work was to be done, just as on the other sabbaths. The fiftieth day could fall on any day of the week. The Sadducees, on the other hand, said that Passover is nowhere called a sabbath, so the counting should begin on the Sunday after Passover. The fiftieth day would always be on a Sunday.

For most of my years I have heard from Bible teachers and from the pulpit the contradictory statements that Pentecost came fifty days after Passover and that the Pentecost on which the gospel was first preached was a Sunday. If Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and if that Friday was a Passover, then fifty days after the Passover would be a Saturday. While there is nothing in scripture to contradict that (Acts 2 never specifies that the following Pentecost was on a Sunday) it makes what I have always been taught impossible. It makes it difficult for those who would like a nice convenient argument that we assemble on Sunday because Jesus arose on that day and that was the day on which the church began.

A literal reading of the passage may indicate that Pentecost should always be on a Sunday, and that centuries of Jewish celebrations have been on the wrong day. If so, we should be teaching that Pentecost was fifty days after the Saturday after Passover. Christian teachers, then, need to decide whether the gospel was first preached on Sunday or whether to teach that Pentecost was fifty days after Passover. They can't have it both ways. Jesus, who usually agreed with the Pharisees on similar questions, is, to our knowledge, silent on this matter.

Again, what difference does it really make? To some, like the authors of the web site that I mentioned earlier, it is important to say that the church began on a Sunday. To some of us, that does not matter because we have sufficient evidence otherwise that the church assembled on the first day of the week as their normal practice. Since most Christians do not celebrate Pentecost as a specific holiday this is probably just an academic exercise.

Maybe it will prompt us, though, to be more careful in our study and our traditions. Maybe we ought to be constantly looking at some of those things that we "know," to be sure that what we know is only what the Bible teaches.