Location of the Day of Pentecost
Did the events recounted in Acts 2 take place in the Upper Room?
by Marc Turnage
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts record that, after Jesus ascended to heaven, His followers remained in Jerusalem, with the temple at the heart of their activities (Luke 24:52; Acts 3:1). Luke recounts that on “the day of Pentecost” (the biblical feast of weeks, Shavuot, cf. Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15,16; Numbers 28:26), Jesus’ followers gathered together (Acts 2:1), but Luke never specified the location of their gathering. Christian tradition came to identify the location for the disciples’ gathering on the Day of Pentecost as the same place where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples, within the upper city of Jerusalem. These traditions, however, do not predate the Byzantine period (5th century A.D.). Luke and Mark describe the location of the Last Supper as “a large upper room” (ἀνάγαιον: Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12), which seems similar to Luke’s description of the place where the disciples gathered after Jesus’ ascension, an “upper room” (ὑπερῷον: Acts 1:13).
In spite of the general similarity between these locations, the Greek terms Luke used to describe both are different, which does not assume they were the same place. The Latin translation of the New Testament, however, translated the different Greek words with the same Latin word cenaculum. Based, then, on the Latin translation, Byzantine Christians began to identify the location of the Last Supper as the same place as the Upper Room in Acts 1. Even if the room of the Last Supper was the same “upper room” in Acts 1 where the disciples met, the narrative of Acts does not suggest that Jesus’ followers remained in the Upper Room for the events recounted in Acts 2. In fact, the Greek syntax at the beginning of the second chapter of Acts preserves a Hebraic-styled narrative break, “And when the day of Pentecost came,”1 which separates what follows from everything that had previously occurred.2 In other words, the narrative of Acts 2 indicates that Jesus’ followers have moved in time and location from the first chapter of Acts. So, where, then, did the events in Acts 2 take place?
“The house where they were sitting”
Luke’s mention of “the house where they were sitting” has suggested to many that the disciples gathered in the Upper Room mentioned in Acts 1:13. It seems more probable that Luke’s language reflects a manner of speaking within Judaism about the Temple of Jerusalem, i.e., “house (בית) of the Lord.”3 Within ancient Jewish sources, and even until today, people refer to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in Hebrew as הבית הר (lit. “the mountain of the house”; cf. m. Bikkurim 3:4). In the first part of the Book of Acts, Luke’s Greek narrative frequently preserves Hebraic-styled syntax and idiom; thus, the mention of the “house” in Acts 2:2 likely reflects his preservation of the Hebrew idiom that identified the temple as “the house.” The location of the events in Acts 2 on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem seems certain in light of the festival of Pentecost, the crowds encountered by the disciples, and the ritual immersion of the large crowd that repented.
The Festival of Pentecost
After Jesus ascended to heaven, His disciples remained in Jerusalem and “were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52,53). Clearly, Jesus’ followers did not interpret any of His actions prior to, and including His crucifixion as either rejecting the temple or rendering it obsolete. We should assume, then, that Jesus’ followers would have participated in the pilgrim festival of Pentecost in accordance with the commandment of God: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place which he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), at the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and at the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)” (Deuteronomy 16:16). The first century Jewish historian Josephus mentions that the population of Jerusalem swelled at Pentecost as Jewish pilgrims came from all over the countryside (War 1:253; cf. 2 Maccabees 12:31,32). Luke also attests to the multitudes of Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:9–11). Peter addressed these crowds of pilgrims who were participating in the festival, which took place in the temple.4
The Crowds of Pentecost
These crowds of Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman world heard the disciples speaking in their own languages and were amazed (Acts 2:4–8). In response to their amazement, Peter stood and addressed the crowd (Acts 2:14–39) proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel and identifying what the pilgrims saw and heard as the “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit. This signified the advent of the Messianic era, so Peter called the people “to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38). Peter’s discourse and the events that precipitated it suggest a public location; moreover, the only place in Jerusalem where such crowds would have gathered on the Day of Pentecost would be the Temple Mount.5
The Ritual Immersion of the Crowds
According to Acts 2:41, about 3,000 people responded to Peter’s call “to repent and be baptized.” The ritual immersion pools (miqva’ot) located around the southern and southwestern portions of the Temple Mount offer the only place in Jerusalem able to accommodate the ritual immersion of so many.6 These ritual pools serviced the pilgrims entering the temple (cf. Luke 2:22; Acts 21:24), and could accommodate the swollen masses of pilgrims that converged on the temple during the festivals. The most practical setting for such a series of events on the festival of Pentecost would be in the vicinity of the temple in Jerusalem.
When the temple stood, the Jewish people identified it as the dwelling place of God’s presence, i.e., His Holy Spirit; thus, it makes perfect sense that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost would occur in relationship with the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Joel 3:5). Moreover, Jewish tradition believed that the Holy Spirit manifested himself among those sitting together (Acts 2:2) studying the Torah (cf. m. Avot 3:2; and b. Berachot 6a). During the days of the Second Temple, the Temple Mount served as a center for the study of the Torah (cf. Antiquities 17:140–163; Luke 2:48,49, 21:37; t. Sanhedrin 7:1; t. Hagigah 2:9; m. Yoma 7:1; m. Sotah 7:7,8; and b. Pesahim 26a), and perhaps, Torah study explains, in part, what the disciples were doing “together in one place” when they received the Holy Spirit (cf. m. Bikkurim 1:6; t. Sotah 15:12). According to Jewish tradition, God gave Moses the Torah on the festival of Pentecost7 (cf. Jubilees 1:1),8 that explains the appearance of many of the Sinai motifs, e.g., fire, wind, and language8 in Luke’s description of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. All the events of Acts 2 occurred in a public setting; given the date of Pentecost, the only natural location for these events to take place was the temple in Jerusalem — the House of the Lord.
1. F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1975), 208.
2. Cf. Deuteronomy 23:17; 1 Samuel 1:24; 3:15; 1 Kings 3:1; 6:37; 7:12; 9:1; Isaiah 2:2; 37:1; 66:20; Jeremiah 7:2; 17:26; 19:14. Usually the Jerusalem temple is identified throughout the Old Testament as the “house of the Lord.”
3. S. Safrai, “Religion in Everyday Life,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum; vol. 2; Van Gorcum: Assen, 1976), 810; and idem, “The Temple,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, 893,94.
4. Cf. A.F. Rainey and R. Steven Noltey, The Sacred Bridge (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), 370.
5. In recent years, a large number of Jewish ritual immersion pools have been uncovered in excavations around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; see H. Geva, “Jerusalem. The Temple Mount and Its Environs,” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (ed. E. Stern; vol. 2; The Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem 1993), 739,40. In 2004, the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7) was uncovered south of the Temple Mount. This large pool served as a ritual immersion pool for pilgrims during the Jewish festivals; see R. Reich, Excavating the City of David: Where Jerusalem’s History Began (Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem, 2011), 225–244, 328–333.
6. Jewish tradition also identifies Pentecost as the day on which David was born and died (Ruth Rabbah 1:17; y. Bezah 2, 61b; cf. Acts 2:29).
7. The Book of Jubilees also connects the festival of Pentecost with the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9 (Jubilees 6:17–19). The Qumran community annually renewed the covenant, in which they brought into the community new initiates, at the festival of Pentecost.
8. The school of Rabbi Ishmael interpreted the verse, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29) as “Just as a hammer is divided into many sparks, so every single word that went forth from the Holy One (i.e., at Sinai), blessed be He, split up into seventy languages (i.e., the languages of the nations of the world; cf. Acts 2:5–11)” (b. Shabbath 88b).