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Translation and the Shavuos/Pentecost dating controversy

May 29, 2012

BLT co-blogger J. K. Gayle has some keen insights into the way that the holiday known in Hebrew as “Shavuos” came to be called in Greek Pentecost. 

But, of course, there is more to the story.  The problem is with the dating.

There was a sect active from about 24 BCE known as the Boethusians – who are somehow related to the Sadducee sect.  The had a significant controversy over the dating of Shavuos.  To get to it, let’s remember that Shavuos, is celebrated after the 49 days of Omer counting, as related in Leviticus 23:15-16.  But let us remember what that says.  Here are some portions of Leviticus 23 from Everett Fox’s discussing the date of Passover and Shavuos (I have slightly modified his translation and also added emphasis in the form of color):

The LORD spoke to Moshe, saying:
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them:
The appointed-times of the LORD, which you are to proclaim to them (as) proclamations of holiness—
these are they, my appointed-times:
For six days may work be done,
but on the seventh day (is) Sabbath, Sabbath-Ceasing, a proclamation of holiness,
any-kind of work you are not to do

These are the appointed-times of the LORD, proclamations of holiness, which you are to proclaim at their appointed-times:
on the first New-Moon, on the fourteenth after the New-Moon, between the setting-times
(is) Passover to the LORD.
On the fifteenth day after this New-Moon
(is) the pilgrimage-festival of matzos to the LORD:
for seven days, matzos you are to eat!
On the first day
a proclamation of holiness shall there be for you,
any-kind of servile work you are not to do

Now you are to number for yourselves, from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day that you bring the elevated sheaf,
seven Sabbaths-of-days,
whole (weeks) are they to be;
until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath you are to number—fifty days,
then you are to bring-near a grain-gift of new-crops to the LORD.

Now what is “the morrow of the Sabbath” highlighted in red above?  One possibility is to read the first day of Passover, when work is forbidden, as a Sabbath, so the counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover.  This is the interpretation taken by the Rabbis (and presumably, by the Pharisaic party in late Second Temple Judaism). 

However, there was another interpretation offered by a group called the Boethusians, who are now somewhat shadowy in history, but were clearly associated with the Sadducaic party.  They read “the morrow of the Sabbath” as meaning the day after the first Sabbath day (seventh day of the week – e.g., Friday night and Saturday day) following the first day of Passover. 

Here is a entry for “Boethusians” from the second edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica (2007 edition, with emphasis added):

BOETHUSIANS, a religious and political sect which existed during the century preceding the destruction of the Second Temple. According to rabbinic tradition the Boethusians and the Sadducees were named after two disciples of Antigonus of Sokho , Zadok and Boethus. They misinterpreted the maxim of their teacher, “Be not like servants who serve their master in order to receive a reward” as meaning that there was no reward for good works, and thus they denied the doctrine of resurrection and the world to come. They thereupon established the two sects named after them (Avos de Rabbi Noson 13b).

Modern scholars however consider this account to be legendary and they ascribe the origin of the Boethusians to the high priest Simeon b. Boethus who was appointed high priest by Herod the Great in 24 B.C.E. (Jos., Ant., 15:320), in succession to Joshua b. Phabi, in order to afford him a suitable status, as he desired to marry Herod’s daughter, Mariamne II. Although in their theological views they closely resembled the Sadducees, some scholars regard them merely as a branch of them […], and are always mentioned together with them, they did not share their aristocratic background, and whereas the Sadducees supported the Hasmonean dynasty, the Boethusians were loyal to the Herodians. It is they who are apparently referred to in the New Testament as Herodians (Mark 3:6; 12:13). The Boethusians were regarded by the Talmud as cynical and materialistic priests. They hired false witnesses to delude the Pharisees about the new moon (RH 22b; TJ, RH 57d; Tosef., RH 1:15). They maintained that the Omer (Men. 10:3) was to be offered on the first Sunday after Passover, and not on the morrow of the first day and, as a result, differed as to the date of Shavuot which according to them must always fall on a Sunday (Ḥag. 24). They held special views on the preparation of incense on the Day of Atonement (TJ, Yoma 1:39a; Tosef., Yoma 1:8). In terms of the Sabbath ritual, they were not even considered as Jews (Eruv. 68b). The high priestly “House of Boethus” is criticized in the Talmud for its oppression, “Woe is me because of the House of Boethus, woe is me because of their staves” (with which they beat the people – Pes. 57a; cf. Tosef., Men. 13:21).

Other Boethusian high priests included Joezer and Eleazar b. Boethus (Jos., Ant., 17:164, 339), Simeon Cantheras (ibid., 19:297), Elionaeus b. Cantheras (ibid., 19:342), and Joshua b. Gamala.

Now given that Boethusians are apparently mentioned in Gospel of Mark, it seems likely that at least some of the figures mentioned in the New Testament were keenly aware of the dispute over the dating of Shavuos.

The Christian dating of Easter (and thus of Pentecost) was at least determined by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.  (By this point, of course, Pharisaic Judaism had evolved into Rabbinic Judaism). 

It is not clear that at this point the Nicean Council members were aware of the Pharisee/Boethusian dispute; since Easter was decoupled from Passover, they probably established the date from their reading of the Septuagint, which is less amenable to the Rabbinic reading than the Hebrew.  And thus, with translation as one wedge (and of course vastly different customs and mutual antipathy which had evolved by the 4th century), comes yet another point of difference between the Christians and Jews.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2012 7:24 am

    If the Feast of Weeks was 50 days after the day after the high Passover Sabbath which was always on the 15th of the first month (Nissan) there would be no reason to count to 50, since it would always fall on the same calendar day and it would have been likely that the calendar day would be instructed instead of the counting instruction. However, if the time of the Feast of Weeks was counted from the day after the regular weekly Sabbath, being Sunday, then it would not always be on the same calendar date, but would always fall on a Sunday. Thus the need for the algebra.

  2. May 29, 2012 12:23 pm

    In fact, Shavuos is always celebrated on the same day: Sivan 6.

    However, I disagree that it is a valid way to understand what a commandment means based on whether we think the commandment is logical or not; and based on whether we think the commandment is non-redundant or not.

    There are many commandments in the Bible that defy human logic — such as the commandment of the red heifer. The heifer must be perfectly red, the heifer is ritually slaughter and burnt. A few ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled over a person has had contact with a corpse, and that person is purified. However, the priest performing the ceremony becomes the most impure person, and is forced to isolate himself until evening, when he is permitted to become pure again. Now, good luck finding some rhyme or logic to that commandment. Even Maimonides analyzed it extensively and said it was a commandment that defied logic. But it is a commandment none the less.

    Similarly many commandments are repeated in many places, which seems not to be necessary. The commandment to keep the sabbath is repeated frequently in the Pentateuch — I haven’t counted the number of times, but it must be at least a dozen or so. Similarly, the whole ten commandments are repeated twice.

    So what is the purpose of counting the Omer, if we could just look at a calendar? And why does it need to be counted in two ways: by total number of days and also by the number of weeks and days? Some people argue that it is a spiritual pilgrimage in time. For example, see:,481/What-is-the-spiritual-significance-of-counting-the-Omer.html

  3. jayseidler permalink
    May 29, 2012 1:21 pm

    That the feast of weeks is celebrated on Sivan 6 only means that that school of thought won. However, I don’t think that was the original idea, thus the counting. I am not so concerned about the logic of all the Jewish laws, I am just saying that I think the Boethusians and the Sadducees probably were right on this one. From a Christian perspective the Sunday observance of the offering of first fruits as Paul connects that Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection and then the Sunday Feast of Weeks has theological significance.

  4. May 29, 2012 3:18 pm

    OK, I understand where you are coming from Jay. But I do want to point out that the has an explicit focus on counting out the days, unlike other measures of time — e.g., the 40 days and 80 days in Leviticus 12 for a woman who has given birth to be purified.

    Further, not only does Leviticus 23 require counting, it requires each person to count for himself. So there is something else going on here beyond merely recording dates.

  5. jayseidler permalink
    May 29, 2012 3:28 pm

    Yes, I agree that the counting is unique and so the lack of a specific calendar date emphasizes the need to count even more than just wait for the more modern designated date of Sivan 6.

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