Luke’s account of the descent of the Spirit on the Jewish festival of Pentecost may not be historically reliable but it certainly expresses the tumultuous character of the early Jesus movement. The twelve apostles and members of Jesus’s family, he tells us, were at prayer in their Jerusalem lodging when they suddenly heard a roaring sound, like a driving wind; flames appeared and rested over the heads of each one of them. Filled with the Spirit, they began to speak in different languages and rushed outside to address a crowd of Jewish pilgrims who came from all over the diaspora, each one of whom heard them speaking in his native tongue. The apostles’ demeanor was so wild that some of the spectators thought they were drunk. Peter reassured them: These men, he explained, were simply filled with the Spirit of God. This was how the prophet Joel had described the Last Days, which had been set in motion by Jesus, a man revealed to Israel by miracles, portents, and signs. But, Peter told his large Jewish audience, by the “deliberate will and plan of God he was given into your power, and you killed him, using heathen men to crucify him.” Yet God had raised Jesus to a glorious life in the heavenly world, thus fulfilling David’s prophecy in the psalm that begins: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’?” Israel must now acknowledge the crucified Jesus as Lord and Messiah; if people repented, were baptized, and separated themselves from “this crooked age,” they too would receive the Spirit and share Jesus’s victory.
Overnight Jesus, the man, had been forever transformed. After seeing him standing at God’s right hand, his disciples had immediately begun to search the scriptures to help them understand what God had done for him. From a very early date they meditated on Psalm 110, which Peter quoted to the crowd. In ancient Israel, this had been sung during the coronation ceremony in the temple, when the newly anointed king, a descendant of David, had been elevated to near-divine status and made a member of the Divine Council of heavenly beings. Another psalm proclaimed that at his coronation the king had been adopted by Yahweh: “You are my son, today I have become your father.” The disciples also remembered that Jesus had sometimes spoken of himself as the “son of man,” a phrase that took them to Psalm 8, where the wonders of creation had inspired the psalmist to ask why God should have raised a lowly “son of man” to the eminence that, as they had seen with their own eyes, Jesus now enjoyed:
You have made him little less than a god,
You have crowned him with glory and splendour,
Made him lord over the work of your hands,
Set all things under his feet.
Again, the title “son of man” brought to mind the vision of the prophet Daniel, who had seen a mysterious figure “like a son of man” coming to the aid of Israel on the clouds of Heaven: “On him was conferred sovereignty, glory, and kingship, and men of all peoples, languages, and nations became his servants.” Jesus, the son of man, the disciples were now convinced, would soon return to rule the world and conquer Israel’s oppressors. With truly remarkable speed, the titles “lord” (kyrios in Greek), “son of man,” and “son of God” were attributed to Jesus, the Messiah, the Christos, and used routinely by all New Testament authors.
The Pentecost story suggests that the gospel had an immediate appeal for Greek-speaking Jews from the diaspora, many of whom joined the community of Jesus’s followers. First-century Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. Devout Jews came from all over the world to worship in the temple, though they tended to form their own synagogues where they could pray in Greek rather than in Hebrew or the Aramaic dialect used in Judea. Some of them were dedicated to ioudaismos, a word that is often translated as “Judaism” or “Jewishness” but which during the Roman period had a more precise significance. The emperors respected the antiquity and morality of Israelite religion and had granted Jewish communities a degree of autonomy in the Greco-Roman cities. But this was often resented by local elites who were smarting under their own loss of independence, so periodically anti-Jewish tension erupted among the townsfolk. To counter this, some Greek-speaking Jews had developed a militant diaspora consciousness that they called ioudaismos, a defiant assertion of ancestral tradition combined with a determination to preserve a distinctly Jewish identity and forestall any political threat to their community—even if they had to resort to violence. Some were even prepared to act as vigilantes to enforce the Torah and defend the honor of Israel. In Jerusalem, these more rigorous Jews were attracted to the Judean sect of the Pharisees, who were committed to a punctilious observance of the Torah. Because they wanted to live in the same way as the priests who served the Divine Presence in the temple, they laid special emphasis on the priestly purity laws and the dietary regulations that made Israel “holy” (qaddosh in Hebrew), that is, as “separate” and “other,” as God himself utterly distinct from the gentile world.
But other Greek-speaking Jews may have found life in the Holy City disappointing. In the diaspora, many had come to appreciate Hellenistic culture. They tended, therefore, to emphasize the universality inherent in Jewish monotheism, seeing the One God as the Father of all peoples, who was worshiped under different names. Some also believed that the Torah was not the possession of the Jews alone but that in their own way the ancestral laws of the Greeks and Romans also expressed the will of the One God. Instead of concentrating on ritual minutiae, therefore, these more liberal Jews were drawn to the ethical vision of the prophets, who had emphasized the importance of charity and philanthropy rather than the ceremonial laws of purity and diet. They probably found the Pharisees’ preoccupations stifling and petty, and they may also have been offended by the commercial exploitation of pilgrims in the Holy City. So when they heard the Twelve talking about Jesus, they would have been drawn to some of his teachings. For instance, he was said to have been critical of the Pharisees: “You pay tithes of mint and rue and every garden herb but neglect justice and the love of God. It is these you should have practiced, without overlooking the other.” They would also have liked the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple as he quoted the words of Isaiah that reflected the universal implications of the cult: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
When they joined the Jesus movement, these Greek-speaking Jews continued to pray in their own synagogues. But, Luke tells us, tension broke out between the Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking members. According to Acts, it began as a disagreement about the distribution of the food, which the Twelve solved by appointing seven Greek-speaking deacons to apportion rations to the community so that they themselves could devote more time to prayer and preaching. But Luke’s account is full of contradictions, and it is clear that the duties of the seven deacons were not simply domestic One of them was Stephen, who was a charismatic preacher and miracle worker, while ...