Pentecost and the Jews

The Day of Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the Church, that day when God, in fulfillment of the promises of Christ, poured out the Holy Spirit upon the believers gathered in the Upper Room. This Holy Spirit endowed the fledgling Church with supernatural zeal, courage and miraculous charisms and sent the Apostles out from the Upper Room to begin the conversion of the world. Pius XII, in his memorable encyclical Mystici Corporis, stated that the Holy Spirit's indwelling in the Church made it the very soul of the Catholic Church. And this began on the Day of Pentecost. Rightly, then, is this feast celebrated with such enthusiasm by the Catholic people. Today, however, rather than focus on the giving of the Holy Spirit, we shall draw out some implications the events of that day on the topic of interreligious dialogue and the necessity of conversion for the Jewish people.

Let us begin by reviewing the sermon delivered by St. Peter to the Jews on that fateful morning. After citing some Old Testament prophecies regarding the manifestations of the Spirit witnessed among the Apostles, Peter preaches on the death and Resurrection of Christ:

"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it...This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear" (Acts 2: 22-24, 32-33).

After proclaiming that "God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (v. 36), the Jews are cut to the heart and ask themselves what they should do with this new knowledge. St. Peter tells them:

"And Peter said to them,Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (v. 38). 

After this appeal to repentance, about three thousand Jews convert and accept baptism, "and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (v. 47). Thus the first pope's first sermon contained a clear call to repentance and conversion: "Repent, and be baptized everyone one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins", and a few verses later, "save yourselves from this crooked generation" (v. 40). The Jews were told of the Lordship of Christ and encouraged to repent of their sins.

In the context of contemporary discussions about interreligious dialogue and the salvation of non-believers, it is important to note that St. Peter specifically says in his sermon that Jews need to "repent and be baptized...for the forgiveness of sins." And these are not wicked Jews like the Pharisees; these men to whom St. Peter speaks are called "devout men" by the New Testament; in other words, Jews faithful in spirit and letter to the Mosaic Law. Thus even if we were to stop at this point, we can see that there is no biblical warrant for the notion that Jews do not need to formally accept the Messiah.

But that is not all we can draw from St. Peter's sermon. We have noted that the first sermon of Pentecost was delivered by St. Peter to devout Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the last of the spring feasts of the Jewish calendar. Acts 2 reminds us that these devout Jews were not merely from Jerusalem and Judea, but had traveled from all over the Roman world:

"Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)

Though Acts does not specify the point, it must be borne in mind that these Jews did not simply come to Jerusalem for Pentecost. Pentecost, or Weeks, was one of three major spring feasts in addition to Passover and Unleavened Bread. Passover, corresponding to the time our Lord was crucified, would have occurred approximately fifty days after our Lord's Resurrection. It is probable that many of these pilgrims had been in Jerusalem since Passover, although given the uncertain nature of sea travel, it is also very probable that many pilgrims did not arrive until after Passover and continued to trickle in throughout the period between Unleavened Bread and Pentecost.

And some of these places were extraordinarily far away from Jerusalem and would have entailed considerable difficulty to travel from. Acts 2 mentions that there were Jews from Rome. How long would it take to get from Rome to Jerusalem?

Consider that when St. Paul was taken from Jerusalem to Rome in Acts 27, he leaves in the Fall of AD 60 buy does not arrive in Italy until the Spring of AD 61. Presuming his departure from Jerusalem happened before the winter set in, he is journey probably took between four and five months. The Book of Acts chronicles Paul's difficulty in making this journey. "The winds were against us", St. Luke wrote of the departure from Palestine (Acts 27:4); other hints are given as to the difficulty of the trip. The ship moves "slowly and with difficulty" (v. 7), the wind was fierce and they had "much ado sailing by it" (v. 8). The party had to spent a long time harboring at Thessaly "because sailing now was dangerous" and could only put out to sea "after much time was spent" (v. 9). Of course we also remember that Paul's ship spent three days caught in a fierce gale and was eventually shipwrecked as well.

Why dwell on these points of chronology? Simply to stress that the devout Jews who were present for St. Peter's sermon in the spring of 33 AD probably left their homelands a considerable time earlier in order to arrive on time. If St. Paul left Jerusalem in the fall and did not arrive in Rome until spring, we may presume that some of these Jews - especially the distant ones from Cyrenaica, Libya, Rome, Spain, etc. - may have left their homelands in the fall of 32 AD or at least with considerable time to spare in case they got held up on their journey.

By common theological consensus, the Old Testament ended with the death of Jesus Christ and the New Testament begins with His Resurrection and the establishment of the Church. If it took many of these devout Jews months to reach Jerusalem, this means that many of these men were living under the Old Testament when they left home but by the time they reached Jerusalem were confronted with the New. They probably departed while Jesus was still alive and arrived after His Resurrection.

This is remarkable to reflect on. It is also generally agreed by Aquinas, Augustine, and the Church's theological tradition that the Old Testament dispensation was salvific to those Jews faithfully living under it. The worship of the Temple, the sacrifices, etc. were pleasing to God, who had in fact commanded them. Those Jews who wanted to be faithful to God were obligated on pain of sin to participate in these Old Testament rituals - so long as the Old Testament endured. But as Aquinas and even the New Testament teach, the inauguration of the New Covenant brings the Old Covenant to its fulfillment and hence logical end. It is now "obsolete" for the believer in Christ, as St. Paul says, "In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8:13). Henceforth it is not only unnecessary but sinful because to do so constitutes a kind of denial of Christ's saving work (STh I-II Q. 103 art. 4).

Now, for a Jew who began his trip to Jerusalem before the crucifixion of Jesus, this means that not only would he have departed under the Old Testament and arrived under the New, but that what was morally obligatory when he departed has now upon his arrival become mortally sinful! These Jews literally left their home in one world and arrived in Jerusalem in another.

What import does this have vis-a-vis our earlier considerations on interreligious dialogue? It is often repeated that contemporary Jews do not need to accept Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church for salvation; they have been told they the Old Testament is still salvific for them, that is constitutes a distinct path to communion with God outside of the Church, that efforts of Catholics to evangelize Jews are misplaced and so on. In other words, that they are excused from the obligation of following the Messiah because they cling to the Old Covenant, which was once valid and continues to be valid for all time.

Now, if anybody had a right to claim that they were exempt - if any people on this earth had an argument to be made to that end - it would have been these very Jews we have been speaking of, men who left their home under the Old Covenant and arrived in Jerusalem under the New. It must have seemed like a cosmic joke for God to switch out the Covenants while they were in transit. Surely, if the Old Testament dispensation was still salvific for any one group of Jews, it would have been these fellows.

And yet what does St. Peter say to these devout Jews, these men who were in God's grace under the Old Covenant when they left home? He says to them, "Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins."

In other words, despite the fact these men were probably in God's grace when they left home, despite the fact that the Old Testament expired while they were in transit, despite the fact that they had nothing to do with the crucifixion of Jesus and in most cases had probably never even heard of them, despite the fact that the seismic soteriological shift going on around them was in no way something they bore any responsibility for nor could have, still, St. Peter says to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you."

And if the Jews of that time and place had no excuse or justification not to accept the Messiah, then how much less those of our own day and age?

Hat-Tip: I first heard this argument made in person by Mr. John Vennari at the 2013 Catholic Identity Conference in Weirton, West Virginia.