Thematic Concordance to the Works of Josephus

Pentecost / Shavuos

in the Works of Josephus

                                                                                                G. J. Goldberg




The Law Ordaining the Festival (c. 1200 BCE) 

Hyrcanus joins forces with Antiochus against the Parthians (130 BCE) 

Herod and Phasael are Attacked by the Allies of Antigonus (40 BCE) 

The Revolt against Sabinus (4 BCE)  

Omen of the Destruction of the Temple (66 CE) 



   The Hebrew feast of Shavuos, the Festival of Weeks, appears five times in the works of Josephus, who calls it by its Greek name Pentecost 

     Marking the seventh week after the feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast in Rabbinic Judaism is associated with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, since the latter Biblically occurs three months after the Passover. But Josephus does not give this connection, leaving it understood only as the spring harvest festival. The explicit association with Sinai appears to be a later development. Ascertaining the date of Shavuos each year engendered a dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, recorded in later Rabbinic literature but which does not appear in Josephus. 

     Josephus' descriptions provide evidence of the magnitude of the observance of the festival in early Judaism. In contrast, the festival does not seem important later, as the Mishna, the description of Jewish culture compiled a century later, does not devote a chapter to Shavuos, the only major festival not to have one -- although it is mentioned in passing. The feast is also mentioned in works earlier than Josephus: the Second book of Maccabees (12:31) in connection with the battles of 164 BCE, in Tobit 2:1, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The Accounts in Josephus' Works

     Josephus gives an account of the rituals of the festival, derived from a  combination of the commandments  in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. He also cites four historical festivals at which important events occurred.  The first is a royal celebration on the road to Parthia. At two of these festivals described by Josephus, the crowds who came to Jerusalem for the festival served, as at Passover, as a reservoir of recruits for an army. One occurred during the Hyrcanus-Antigonus civil war, which resulted in Herod fleeing from Jerusalem. The other was an uprising against the authorities, in this case, an extremely serious and successful revolt against a Roman procurator temporarily governing Judea in the absence of Herod's heir Archelaus. In the aftermath of the Roman response, Varus crucified two thousand Jews. At one of the last festivals to be held in the Temple, a miraculous revelation was made of the coming destruction. 

Pentecost in the New Testament

     In the New Testament, the festival is of foundational importance to the Christian church. Seven weeks after the Passover at which Jesus was crucified, on Shavuos/Pentecost, the holy spirit fills the apostles:  

     "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." (Acts 2:1-4) 

     Pentecost was an important holiday for Paul. Having spent the festival of Unleavened Bread in Philippi (Acts 20:5), Paul journeys to Jerusalem seven weeks later: 

    "For Paul had decided to sail past Ehphesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, as he was eager to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost." - Acts 20:16  

    "But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries." - 1 Cor 16:8 

     But whether this importance was because Pentecost had already taken on its Christian meaning, or  because Paul still observed the important Jewish festivals, or it was simply a good occasion to gether with friends and gain new members for the Church, we cannot tell. 

Further reading: Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Part 4, Chapter 17. 


The Law Ordaining the Festival (c. 1200 BCE) 

Ant 3.10.6 252-257 

     When a week of weeks has passed since this sacrifice -- these weeks comprising forty-nine days -- on the fiftieth day, which is called by the Hebrews Azartha, meaning "fiftieth" [pentecostin], they bring to God a loaf made of two assarons of wheat flour, with leaven For sacrifices they bring two lambs; when these have been presented to God they are made ready for supper for the priests, and it is not permitted to leave anything of them till the day following. For whole burnt-offerings they sacrifice three young bulls, two rams, fourteen lambs, with two kids of the goats as sin-offerings. 


     Josephus calls the festival Azartha, which, according to H. St. J. Thackeray's note in the Loeb Edition, "is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew  

     Azereth," which is the word used for Shavuos in the Talmud. Azereth means "closing assembly" and indicates the end of the seven week harvest period whose beginning was marked by the feast of Unleavened Bread.  

     Josephus combines the two different laws of the Festival that appear in Leviticus 23:15-21 and Numbers 28:27-31. The following table shows how the festival offerings described in the sources are altered in his version.  

  Leviticus Numbers Josephus
Wheat 2 loaves, 0.2 ephas each (unspecified) 1 loaf of 2 assarons 
For the priests 2 lambs (unspecified) 2 lambs
Whole burnt offerings 7 lambs, 1 bull, 2 rams 7 lambs, 2 bulls, 1 ram 14 lambs, 3 bulls, 2 rams
Sin offering 1 male goat 1 male goat 2 goat kids

   Note how Josephus apparently regards the two accounts as supplementary rather than contradictory, as he sums the number of their offerings. We might guess that this manner of resolving apparent inconsistency in the Bible was also that applied by the priests of his day, as Josephus was likely present at many such festivals and knew the sacrifices that were performed. The Mishnah presents the same resolution:  

Whatsoever [offerings] were enjoined in the Book of Numbers were offered in the wilderness; whereas whatsoever offerings wre enjoined in the Bok of Leviticus were not offered in the wilderness; but when they were come into the Land [of Israel] they offered both kinds.   
 -- Mishna Menahoth 4:3; trans. Herbert Danby
This teaching is ascribed to Simeon ben Nanos, who taught some 30 to 50 years after Josephus wrote the Antiquities. 

Hyrcanus I joins forces with Antiochus against the Parthians (130 BCE)

Ant. 13.8.4 249-253

     Hyrcanus also opened the sepulcher of David, who excelled all other kings in riches, and took out of it three thousand talents of silver; relying on this wealth. he became the first of the Jews to support foreign troops. 
     He also made a league of friendship and mutual assistance with Antiochus, whom Hyrcanus admitted into the city and furnished his army with whatever they needed in great plenty and with great generosity. 
     And when Antiochus made an expedition against the Parthians Hyrcanus marched along with him. On this Nicolaus of Damascus is a witness for us, who in his history writes: 

"When Antiochus had erected a trophy at the river Lycus upon the defeat of Indates, the general of the Parthians, he remained there two days at the request of the Jew Hyrcanus, because of an ancestral festival on which it was not lawful for the Jews to travel." 

And he did not speak falsely in saying this; for the Pentecost festival had come following the Sabbath, and it is not permitted us to journey either on the Sabbath or on a festival. 


     The friendly ruler referred to here is Antiochus VII (Sidetes), not to be confused with the hated Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) of the Maccabee story. Thackeray notes that in this tale the Pentecost falls on the day after the Sabbath, as is always the case in the view of the Pharisees, whereas in the more literal Biblical interpretation of the Sadducees the festival could fall on any day of the week; he therefore suggests that the observance of (probably) the Pharisee's dating indicates the influence of the Pharisees during Hyrcanus' reign. Josephus reports that Hyrcanus abolished the rules of the Pharisees (Antiquities 13.10.6 296). 



Herod and Phasael are Attacked by Antigonus (40 BCE) 

War 1.13.3 253 (Ant. 14.13.4 337) 

     When the festival called the Pentecost was at hand all the places about the temple and all the city were filled with a multitude of people that had come from the countryside, the majority of whom were armed. Phasael was defending the walls, and Herod, with a small company, the royal palace. With this Herod made an assault upon his enemies in the suburb, when they were out of their ranks; he slew a great number of them and put the rest to flight, shutting some of them up within the city, others in the Temple, and others within the outward rampart. 
     Following this, Antigonus requested that Pacorus be admitted to mediate between them. Phasael agreed and admitted the Parthian into the city with five hundred horse and treated him in an hospitable manner, who pretended he had come to quell the tumult but in reality to assist Antigonus. 
     He laid a plot for Phasael and persuaded him to go as an ambassador to Barzapharnes in order to put an end to the war, even though Herod earnestly opposed this and exhorted him to kill the plotter rather than expose himself to his snares; because the barbarians are naturally perfidious. So he left the city with Hyrcanus. 

     The background for this battle is the following: The sons of Queen Alexandra, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, had fought each other for the throne after her death. After Aristobulus' murder his son Antigonus continued to try to depose Hyrcanus. Antigonus gained the assistance of the Parthians (Persians) by promising them "a thousand talents and five hundred women" (War 1.13.1 249). On the other side, the forces of Hyrcanus II were led by his top administrators, the brothers Herod and Phasael.  

     The battle at the time of Shavuos evolved into bad-faith peace negotiations by the Parthians, who captured the negotiators. The result was the victory of the Parthians, who pillaged the country; Antigonus' seizing the throne of Jerusalem; the death of Phasael; and the carrying off of Hyrcanus II to captivity in Parthia. Only Herod escaped; he would eventually to return to claim Jerusalem with the assistance of the Roman army.  


The Revolt against Sabinus (May, 4 BCE) 

Ant. 17.10.2 254 (War 2.3.1 39-54) 

     After Archelaus sailed for Rome the whole nation was in a tumult. Varus [president of Syria], since he was in Judea himself, brought the authors of the disturbance to punishment; and when he had for the most part subdued this sedition, which was a great one, he journeyed Antioch. He left one legion of the army at Jerusalem to keep the Jews quiet, as they were still very eager for revolution. 
     Yet this did not put an end to their sedition; for after Varus had gone, Sabinus, Caesar's procurator, remained and greatly distressed the Jews. Relying for protection on the legion that had been left, he armed them as spearmen and so oppressed the Jews that at length they rebelled. For he had used force in seizing the fortresses and zealously searched for the king's [Herod's] money, in order to seize it by force, through his love of gain and his extraordinary covetousness. 
     But on the approach of Pentecost, which is a festival of ours, so called from the days of our forefathers, many tens of thousands of men gathered together, who had come not only to celebrate the festival but also out of their indignation at the madness of Sabinus. There were a great number of Galileans, and Idumeans, and many men from Jericho, and others who had come over from across the river Jordan. A whole multitude of Judaeans joined themselves to these and were even more eager to take vengeance on Sabinus. 
     So they divided themselves into three groups, and encamped themselves in the following places. One of them seized on the hippodrome; of the other two, one group encamped on the east quarter of the Temple, from the northern part to the southern, while the third group held the western part of the city, where the king's palace was. Their intention was to entirely surround the Romans in order to besiege them. 
     Now Sabinus was afraid of the numbers and the determination of these men who had little regard to their lives, in a battle they considered it a point of virtue to overcome their enemies; so he immediately sent a letter to Varus and, as usual, insisted that he come quickly to his assistance, because the army he had left was in imminent danger, and would probably soon be seized upon and cut to pieces. 
     He himself got up to the highest tower of the fortress, Phasael, which had been built in honor of Phasael, king Herod's brother, and named for him when the Parthians had brought him to his death. From there Sabinus signaled the Romans to attack the Jews, although he did not venture to come down to his friends himself and thought it proper that others should die on account of his avarice. 
     When the Romans ventured to sally out of the place a terrible battle ensued, in which the Romans beat their adversaries, yet the Jews were not daunted in their resolution even when they had the sight of the terrible slaughter that was made of them. Instead, they went round about and climbed upon the porticoes which encompassed the outer court of the Temple, where a great fight was continuing, and they cast stones at the Romans, hurling them with their hands as well as from slings, having been well trained in these tactics. 
     And all the archers arrayed beside them did the Romans a great deal of harm, because they were on a height and not easy to attack; for the arrows shot upwards could not reach them, so the enemy was vulnerable. 
     And this sort of fight lasted a great while, till at last the Romans, who were greatly distressed by what was happening, set fire to the porticoes, without being noticed by the Jews who had climbed up on them. 
     This fire, being fed by a great deal of combustible matter, caught hold immediately on the roof of the porticoes; so the wood, which was full of pitch and wax, and the gold, which was laid also with wax, yielded to the flame at once; and those vast works, which were of the highest value and esteem, were destroyed utterly, while the men on the roof perished when the roof unexpectedly tumbled down, killed when tumbling down with it or at the hands of their enemies who encompassed them. 
     There were a great many more who out of despair of saving their lives and out of horror at the misery that surrounded them either cast themselves into the fire, or threw themselves upon their swords, and so escaped their misery. Those that tried to escape down the same way they had climbed up were all killed by the Romans, for they were unarmed and their courage was failing them; their wild desperation was not able to help them, being without arms. And so of those that had gone up to the top of the roof, not one escaped. 
     And the Romans rushed through the fire, wherever it gave them room to do so, and captured the treasury where the sacred money was deposited. A great part of this was stolen by the soldiers, and Sabinus openly took for himself four hundred talents. 


     This was the worst rebellion before the War. Varus eventually put down the revolt and crucified two thousand Jews.  


Omen of the Destruction of the Temple (62 BCE) 

War 6.5.3 299-300 

     Moreover at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, "Let us remove hence." 


For the other heavenly warnings of the destruction, see Omens. 


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