What Do the Thousands of New Believers Imply?

14 Jan
from Google Images

from Google Images

We know that Peter preached his first sermon on the day of Pentecost, a Jewish annual festival, which is also called the Feast of Weeks in the Scriptures. This occurred 50 days or nearly two months after the crucifixion. The first thing that draws my attention that may be a factor in dating specific events in Acts 1-8 is the fact that 3,000 souls believed Peter and were baptized (Acts 2:41). The scene of Peter’s sermon was near the upper room where the disciples were staying (Acts 2:2-6). It is difficult to believe that at any given time more than 3,000 people would be passing by where the disciples were staying. This number represents how many believed Peter’s Gospel. The actual number that Peter preached to had to have been far more. So, what’s the story? How could Peter have preached to so many at one time?

I believe this number is indicative of the day that Peter preached. It was the day of Pentecost, one of the Jewish annual festivals. Josephus tells us that more than a million Jews came to the Passover in 70 AD and were shut up and perished there due to war breaking out between the Jews and the Romans (Wars; Book vi, chapter 9, section 3). Tacitus puts the number at 600,000 (Histories V, xiii) which may mean that of Josephus’ 1.1 million, 500,000 were slain in Judea outside Jerusalem. In any event even if Tacitus’ figure is closer to the truth in 70 AD, of the number of Jews in Jerusalem on Pentecost, 31 AD, 3,000 is not a difficult figure to believe that may have been passing by the upper room and heard Peter and believed.

Why is this so important? Well, in chapter four Luke tells us that another 5,000 (not including women and children) came to believe the Gospel (Acts 4:4). Shouldn’t we understand this figure to be derived from a much larger number of pilgrims at Jerusalem, and if so, is this not indicative of yet another annual Jewish festival? The next Holy Day season was four months from Pentecost and was in the seventh month and often collectively referred to as Tabernacles. Following Tabernacles would be Passover, 32 AD, or nearly one year after Peter’s first sermon. I think it is reasonable to conclude that such large figures of believers converting at one time must occur during the seasons when we find so great a number of Jews at Jerusalem. Certainly, these figures could include the locals but it would be very difficult to believe the figures were composed of only locals. Nevertheless, could the figures be taken from the same multitude of Jewish pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost in 31 AD? I don’t think this is a probable conclusion. I’ll explain.

We know there was but a day between chapters three and four, but the period between chapters two and three had to have been longer if we consider the context. Notice that after Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, 31 AD, the new believers continued in the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship and breaking bread (Acts 2:42). This implies daily teaching going on between the Apostles and the new believers. Moreover, the text says the group had all things in common. That is, they shared their wealth. Those who possessed properties and were moved by the Spirit sold them and shared the proceeds with those among them who lacked. Ordinarily properties don’t go up for sale one day and sold the next. Usually the sale occurs after the passage of some time, usually months and perhaps longer. The point is Luke’s record at the end of chapter two implies the passage of time and probably does not indicate the new believers in chapter 4 received Jesus as their Savior during the same Pentecost season that the original 3,000 believed. It is more likely that the 5,000 in chapter 4 accepted Jesus as the Messiah during Tabernacles, 31 AD, or during the Passover of 32 AD.

Finally, after mentioning that the needs of all were taken care of, the text adds the new disciples continued daily with one accord in the Temple and breaking bread from house to house (i.e. taking part in the Lord’s Supper), and satisfied their needs with singleness of heart. They praised God and had favor with the people (Acts 2:46). All this implies the passage of time: “…they continued daily” and “…had favor with the people.” How long would it take for the reputation of the group to begin having a favorable effect upon the unbelieving citizens of Jerusalem? Moreover, the text concludes with “And the Lord added to the church daily, such as should be saved (Acts 2:47). Doesn’t this demand time between chapters two and three?

Why would the Lord add another 5,000 to the small group, when the needs of the 3,000 were still in the process of being addressed? These new disciples had to be taught, the poor had to be cared for and all this demanded time. It doesn’t seem probable that the Lord would overwhelm the Twelve with another 5,000 new disciples until the first group was well on its way to having its needs met. I consider it to be a very conservative estimate that the 5,000 did not come to know Jesus until four months later or during the fall festivals. It may have occurred during the Passover of 32 AD, but it certainly did not occur during the Pentecost celebrations of 31 AD.

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Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Christianity, New Testament History, Religion


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