The Johannine Pentecost and the Social Context of the Early Church

Ever since my college days many centuries ago, I have been reading about “the Johannine Pentecost”, by which scholars meant John’s version of the Pentecostal bestowal of the Spirit. The reference, of course, is to John 20:19-23. In this post-Resurrection appearance of Christ to His disciples, Jesus greets them by saying, “Peace be with you”, adding, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you”. He then “breathed on them” [Greek emphusao; the same word used for God’s breathing life into Adam in Genesis 2:7 LXX] and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”.   Earlier in John’s Gospel Christ predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit: “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever, the Spirit of truth…He abides with you and will be in you” (14:16-17); “The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things” (14:26); “When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father…He will bear witness of Me” (15:26); “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you, but if I go, I will send Him to you” (16:7).

These promises of the coming of the Holy Spirit, some scholars declared, found fulfillment in Christ’s post-Paschal breathing on His disciples narrated in 20:19f. In the words of one such scholar, “Jesus’ promise in the farewell discourse about the coming Paraclete is fulfilled by his breathing of the Spirit upon the disciples”: for Luke, the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost; for John, the Spirit came prior to that when Christ breathed upon His disciples behind the closed doors of the upper room on the evening after He was first raised from the dead (John 20:19). The historicity of the event seems to matter little. Some scholars suggest that Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost is simply his poetical reworking and is of little historical value. Joseph Fitzmayer, for example, contends that Luke’s narrative is simply his dramatization of the events leading to Peter’s first sermon proclaiming the risen Christ.

There are a number of problems with this scenario, and the main one of which seems to go unnoticed by the scholars referring to “the Johannine Pentecost”—namely, Christ’s breathing upon His disciples on the first day after He was raised from the dead does not in fact fulfill His predictions for the coming of the Spirit that He promised in His farewell discourse. For consider: common to all those promises and predictions is the physical absence of Christ during the bestowal of the Spirit. Christ spoke of His going away from them (16:7), and of the Father sending the Spirit after He had left, and said that the Spirit would not come until after Christ had gone. The Spirit is portrayed as coming to the disciples from the Father after Christ’s departure. These words cannot be fulfilled, therefore, until after Christ had left. When He breathed upon them, He was still present with them—and would be, according to John’s own reckoning, for at least another week or two (compare John 20:26, 21:1-14). Christ spoke of the Spirit being sent, and Christ breathing upon them (or into them) hardly looks like the Father or Christ sending the Spirit after Christ had gone. However, the event narrated by Luke in Acts 2:1f, does look like what Christ described in His farewell discourse, for these events did indeed occur after Christ had departed and could well be described as the Spirit being sent from the Father and the Son in heaven and coming upon the disciples. In other words, Christ’s promises in His farewell discourse were fulfilled not in His breathing upon the disciples on the evening of His resurrection, but in the events fifty days later, and related by Luke.

Scholars who insist that Christ’s post-Paschal breathing upon the disciples was the fulfillment of His promise to send the Spirit do this, I suggest, because they insist upon reading John’s Gospel in isolation from the totality of the Gospel tradition. John describes Christ’s promise to send the Spirit, and He later describes Christ’s breathing upon the disciples, and so this latter must therefore be the fulfillment of the former. It is inconceivable to them that John assumed his readers would read the promise to send the Spirit in light of a Pentecostal event that John himself did not relate. These scholars assume that the ancient Christians of the first century would read John’s Gospel as their twentieth-century students read John’s Gospel—i.e. in isolation from the other Gospels, as if it were a college course. In their college courses, they study John’s Gospel and debate John’s viewpoint and John’s theology. If one wants to look at Luke’s theology, one must take the course of Luke, not John. The Gospels and all the New Testament material are thus read in relative isolation from one another, and not as parts of a totality. This is quite artificial. Especially if John’s Gospel was written later than Luke-Acts, it is probable that the readers of John’s Gospel would have some familiarity with the events Luke narrates. And if Luke’s narrative of Pentecost was not simply his “dramatization” but an account of what actually occurred, it is more than probable that reader’s of John’s Gospel would all know about Pentecost and naturally see it as the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Spirit.

One must therefore read the books of the New Testament as they were written—as a collection of material that circulated within a small and tightly-knit community scattered throughout the Roman world. If Paul’s letters, individually addressed as they were, were passed around to churches to which they were not addressed, we may be sure that those churches passed around whatever stories they could find about Jesus. There was a large mass of oral histories circulating among the churches (Christ’s words about it being more blessed to give than to receive in Acts 20:35 were part of these oral histories), and it is clear that stories of the apostles’ miracles formed part of that oral reservoir. It is a methodological error to read the Gospels in isolation from one another, ignoring the social context in which they were written and circulated. We must read them as the first Christians read them and as the Fathers read them, as component parts of a total picture and a reliable history. John wrote as part of the Church, drawing upon and explicating its Tradition. We must read the Gospel stories as parts of that over-arching Tradition, for only so can we hope to see the traditional forest and not lose it among the Johannine trees.





  1. I notice that in John, the reception of the Holy Spirit is directly connected with the authority and obligation to forgive sins. I can’t help seeing this as the birth of the Christian priesthood, which is distinct from the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (Seal!)

    Luther was quite right about the universal priesthood of Christians, of course: Everyone is called to stand before God in intercession and before the people in prophetic witness. That’s certainly the calling of a priest. Yet amid this “Royal Priesthood,” the apostles “ordained presbyters in every city,” setting apart a few as overseers and elders, and by no means was everyone ordained as a presbyter. So it’s not surprising to me that there should be an additional gift of grace, “which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of hands by the presbytery,” for those who are appointed to forgive sins in Christ’s name, to offer the Eucharist, and to “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof.”

    1. Amen, dear Father. Where I would dissent from modern evangelical understanding of the royal priesthood (I am not enough of a Luther scholar to know whether or not he taught this) is that they seem to mean that each individual Christian is a priest, and I would suggest that St. Peter (in 1 Peter 2:9) meant that all the Christians of a given congregation/ church corporately constitute a royal priesthood, together offering the Eucharist through the mouth and person of their clergy.

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