This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.
Although often lost in a generic celebration of the giving of the Spirit, this text is one that is filled with questions of ethnicity, language, and diversity. It speaks to the American debate of whether this nation can or should be a melting pot that blends and ignores culture and ethnicity or a mosaic and celebration of the diversity that exists in our midst. But first, some background:
The word in the New Testament most commonly translated as “Jew” is Ioudaios, which literally means Judean and refers to a resident of Judea in Palestine. However, in Acts 2:5 we are told that here are “devout Ioudaioi from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Residents from every nation under heaven clearly cannot be limited to residents of Judea and so, in order to smooth over this inconsistency, translators resort to the term “Jews,” which to modern readers often becomes a more religious designation, but for residents of first century Jerusalem would have been at the same time, and perhaps more accurately, an ethnic designation.
Religion was an essential part of cultural life and identity and so in the invention of ethnicities in the early empires. Jews were as much known for their origins in Judea and their distinct dietary practices (as prescribed by the Torah) as they were for the monotheistic religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When repeated conquests by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires (and later Ptolemaic rulers) forced many Ioudaioi to flee Palestine, these exiles retained many of their ethnic and religious characteristics, even while adapting to the cultures of their new residences. Consequently, there evolved hyphenated identities — Jewish Egyptians and Jewish Syrians in the same way that today we speak of African Americans or Latin Americans.
These “devout Jews” made homes for themselves (as much as possible for people perceived as ‘resident aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ in their new lands). Some of them even achieved relative success and prestige (think, for example, of Daniel, Esther, Mordecai, and Nehemiah). As a result, even after Cyrus encouraged conquered peoples to return to their homelands after Persia took control of the previous Babylonian/Assyrian territories, many Jews chose to remain in the lands where they had made a new home for themselves. This, combined with the extensive length of the exile, meant that most if not all of the Jews referenced in Acts 2:5 were likely descendents of several generations of Jews who had lived outside of Palestine.
They, their parents, and their grandparents were born and raised in the lands from which they came (cf. Acts 2:9-11). They were in a real sense, residents of these varied nations; however, in another real sense, they remained devout Ioudaoi—both ethnically and religiously, indeed, they wouldn’t have known a separation of the two.
These Jews from “every nation under heaven” were considered part of the “diaspora” – Ioudaioi who for one reason or another found themselves dispersed away from their ethnic homeland to varies countries and regions in the known world. After the first century, this diaspora has widened and continued as Jews were persecuted and exiled from one nation until the founding of the modern nation of Israel. Even today, with the conflict in Israel, this idea of a “homeland” for the Ioudaioi is full of political strife. And, of course, today, there are many Jews who have made for themselves new homes in “every nation under heaven” while retaining their religious and ethnic identities. So, what are Jews from all these various nations doing in Jerusalem? In Palestine?
They are there for Pentecost – a Jewish harvest festival celebrated fifty days after the Passover. Along with the Passover, this was one of the three great pilgrim festivals that brought devout Ioudaioi to Jerusalem from all over the known world in order to give thanks and praise to God.
In your own nation, state, or territory, who are the “diaspora”? Who are the Ioudaioi? Who bears the hyphenated identities in your midst? What language(s) do you speak in your town? In your schools? In your parish? Who is included? Who is left out? Today, our Gospel reading takes a stand. God’s Holy Spirit takes a stand. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) The proclamation of God’s Word is and always has been contextual. The politics of Acts 2:1-21 asks questions of and makes demands for such contextuality. It gives a place—an important and honored place—to the devout diaspora. It is significant that the Holy Spirit doesn’t simply grant the “foreigners” the ability to understand the dominant tongue, but instead enables…(forces!) the dominant Galileans to converse in their languages, not the other way around.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.