Article - Michael P Germano
The Upper Room: Was It the Site of the First Christian Pentecost?
by Michael P. Germano
Posted 22/5/2002. Used with permission of the author.
Source article can be found at:
An upper room was the site of the Last Supper. While awaiting Pentecost the apostles stayed in an upper room. Tradition places the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Christians in an upper room. Where did Jesus’ followers meet for the first Christian Pentecost? Could it have been on the Temple Mount?
The Upper Room was a second story room wherein Jesus and his disciples dined together the evening of his arrest on the 14th of Nisan (Luke 22:8–10 and Mark 14:13). The evening before his Crucifixion he ate the Last Supper, washed the feet of his disciples, and instituted the first Christian Passover.
The disciples also stayed in an upper room while they remained in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 1:13). There is no hint in the accounts by Luke and Mark that the Upper Room of the Last Supper was a place they stayed. In fact that probability would have been quite low. In Herodian times between 300,000 and 500,000 people would descend on Jerusalem for the pilgrim festival of Passover. Many pilgrims would stay over until Pentecost for the expense of making this pilgrimage, in both time and money, was great. Many pilgrims would be put up at private homes and synagogues and others would camp in the hills and valleys outside the city. At Passover temporary housing was at a premium. The owners of the Upper Room of the Christian Passover had made their room available for dining not as a place to stay.
When Jesus and his disciples visited Jerusalem over the three and a half years of his public ministry they stayed outside the city usually on the Mount of Olives and the Passover of his Crucifixion was no exception. Some time after the Resurrection they were found in the city staying in an upper room to which they had to enter the city and go up implying they put up in the Upper City (Acts 1:13).
According to the writer of Acts, presumably the apostle Luke, Jesus’ disciples witnessed the Ascension on the Mount of Olives and then went to their quarters in Jerusalem. He wrote:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. (Acts 1:12–14 NASB.)
This upper room was a place where all eleven of them resided in the city. There is no hint in Acts of the location of this upper room was except that the route they took, as they descended from the Mount of Olives, required them to go up on entering Jerusalem. This was simply the reverse order of the route they took when they finished the Last Supper and walked to the Garden of Jesus’ arrest as well as the route the soldiers would have taken in bringing Jesus from the arrest scene to the courtyard of the high priest in the Upper City. This route into the city would have taken them through the Gate of the Essenes and up into the Upper City.
The most likely places for them to have put up in the Upper City would have been the Essene guesthouse or the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. If they stayed at a private house, such as with Mary, then their upper room was probably no more than a rooftop where another disciple hosted them as guests. The Essenes routinely hosted visitors and their accommodations would have been ascetic and minimal but not conducive to the apostles’ belief systems. In context a private home appears more likely. The Christian tradition is that it was at this upper room where the Holy Spirit descended upon these and other disciples. In the period of the Mishna a large residential room measured 15 feet by 12 feet (Mishna Baba batha vi. 4; Kennedy and Reed 1963:402).
A large room of 300 sq. ft. would probably have been satisfactory for eleven men to sleep and store some of their possessions. However, Acts 1:20 states that 120 persons, all disciples of Jesus, were meeting together and on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon them (Acts 2:1–4). For 120 people to fit into a 300 sq. ft. room, affording every person with 2.5 sq. ft., would possibly allow for a standing room only crowd and probably a little more weight than a typical residential room or rooftop could handle. This proposal won’t work as Acts 2:1 states that all 120 were seated.
Allowing a minimum of 6 sq. ft. per person for all to be seated would require at least 720 sq. ft. well over double the size of a large residential room. This still would not be a comfortable situation and when the group began to speak in foreign languages (Acts 2:4–6) and attracted a considerable crowd with whom they debated and preached to an upper room of 720 sq. ft. simply would be insufficient.
Lastly, the implication of the Greek is that the group, including women and children, actually comprised about 120 families, e.g. Greek: onoma “names” (Acts 1:15) not individuals, presumably encompassing in all about 500 people (I Corinthians 15:6). For 500 people to be seated for a religious event at 6 sq. ft. per person requires at least 3,000 sq. ft. which is a bit large for any ordinary residential upper room to accommodate. The point of this analysis is that neither the upper room of Acts 1:13 nor the Upper Room of Luke 22:8–10 and Mark 14:13 could have been the venue for the descent of the Holy Spirit.
The likely solution of the enigma raised above is that the apostles and their followers assembled on the Temple Mount (Acts 2:1), in the Royal Stoa or one of the large halls in the Temple Court available for public religious meetings. On the Day of Pentecost all were seated (Acts 2:2) in a building for Holy Day services. The notion of them meeting in the “Upper Room” where Jesus had instituted the Christian Passover by necessity is a myth. The Temple Court, a single structure about one quarter of a mile in circumference, was a massive complex with hundreds of rooms. The Royal Stoa, the colonnade at the southern wall, may have been the venue if construed as an unenclosed building. Its exposed access would allow for people in the building to be easily seen and heard from the outside the colonnade. The apostles then were immediately accessible to thousands of Jews and proselytes gathered for the festival in a massive public facility.
Symbolism was quite important in this culture. The Acts 2 account of the founding of the Church of God contains dramatic symbolism in regard to the New Covenant. The Exodus account of the giving of the Law to the people of Israel records how it was done audibly and visibly. Similarly, the writer of Acts, apparently Luke, related in Acts how God, with no less a public manifestation of power nor at less a place than the Temple Mount itself, also caused the Holy Spirit to descend upon the apostles and their followers audibly and visibly. Being the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), many Jews had gathered on the Temple Mount for the activities of the day where some heard a loud, curious noise. The sound, reported to be a noise like a violent and rushing wind, prompted a crowd to gather to see what was going on which suggests the entire group was immediately accessible and visible to the public (Acts 2:2, 2:6). There they observed a unique and dramatic event in the history of the church—its legitimation as the new people of God—the qehal’el—the Church of God. Luke’s point was that by such an overt and manifestly public notice God placed a seal of approval, a mark of authenticity, upon the fledgling Church of God—the New Israel. It was public affirmation of this small group of Jews being set apart as the qehal’el. The parallelism was deliberate.
Of the Jews living in Jerusalem, there were visitors from many nations (Acts 2:5). Jewish pilgrims customarily remained at Jerusalem following the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread for the Day of Pentecost. Some of these visitors heard the apostles proclaim the “good news” of the Kingdom of God in their own native tongue, e.g. foreign or vernacular languages (Acts 2:7–8, 2:11). Their messages stressed the wonderful works or “the mighty deeds” of God (Acts 2:11). The crowd was astonished. Some sought baptism seeing these events as legitimation of the apostles as those through whom God intended to accomplish God’s Work. However, there were those who mocked and accused the apostles of being intoxicated when it was the third hour of the day, that is 9 a.m. (Acts 2:13). No matter how one feels about the veracity of the story as recorded in Acts the foregoing analysis certainly dispels the idea that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples in the upper room.