The most important thing we need to know when reading any book is what kind of work it is. Is Luke’s Acts history or novel? If it is history, what sort of history? Above all, what did “history” mean to writers/readers in the Roman world of the first and second centuries CE?
Todd Penner, Professor of Religious Studies at Austin University, has written a richly informative study of historiographical writing in antiquity as it is relevant to our appreciation of Acts, in particular to Luke’s account of Stephen and the Hellenists, Acts 6:1-8:3. This is the section most scholars of Christian origins consider historical at some level. Usually they suspect Luke was attempting to cover-up real events of unsavory divisions within the early church. Penner has a different perspective. Those little details that other scholars see as evidence of a cover-up Penner sees as quite coherent contributions toward Luke’s larger literary and theological narrative. But other scholars have generally not read Acts with any significant understanding of its literary character and have accordingly misread literary sails as archaeological trowels. Penner’s book is In Praise of Christian Origins:
There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.
The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.
Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.
The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.
Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting)
Acts 6 opens with a problem in the church. Some of the widows are being neglected.
Penner shows by means of contemporary Roman literature and Luke’s pattern of usage that there is no reason to think that Luke here was particularly concerned personally about the widows. He does not even stop to tell us how they fared after the deacons were appointed to look after them. This is typically “Luke”. As soon as the poor and destitute serve their literary function they are dispensed with without further ado. Compare his reference to the poor in Judea who needed famine relief.
And what was the literary function of the widows? To show how caring and good the Christian community is and to contrast them with the law-abiding Jews who are breaking the law in their murderous hostility towards the Church. That might sound bizarre since the widows are being neglected. But Penner also shows that Luke is presenting the Church as a “politea” or political body, mini-state, if you will. It is a polity counter to the Jewish one, and distinct from the Roman one, too.
So what Luke is doing is teaching readers how it deals with problems that inevitably arise in any such body. The leaders shine out for showing their piety in caring for the widows and for showing their wisdom in how they answered the problem. Roman aristocracy. even emperors themselves, would advertise their care for the poor and lowly. It demonstrated their “equality” with “the common man”. That is, it was all good PR. People were expected to admire the common-touch and condescending care on the part of such exalted highnesses. It was as much a mark of piety and nobility of spirit for Romans as it was for Christians to “care for the poor and widowed”.
The fissure line of the dispute is another curiosity. Hellenists and Hebrews? Penner argues that we are introduced here to an otherwise unattested division on the basis of language and one that happens so aptly to meet Luke’s literary requirements. The point of the dispute is to bring the deacons into the picture to enable the narrative to eventually move from a Jewish to a gentile mission. Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora in Jerusalem are just the perfect fit.
So the widows are introduced. And their neglect serves an ideological function in the narrative. But there is a more critical literary purpose for their appearance at this point of Acts.
Luke’s theme, announced in the opening chapter, is to show how the church of his own day emerged out of Jerusalem, from the Jews. His plan is to show the steps gradually taken in this journey: first the Jews in Palestine, then the Jews of the Diaspora in Jerusalem, then the spread of the message to other parts of Judea and Syria, then to gentiles in Judea, then to gentiles in gentile lands . . . .
To create the narrative required to lay out this theme, Luke needed to find a way to move from the work of the Twelve in Jerusalem to the mission of Paul. The deacons are such a half-way agency. They are Jews, but they speak Greek. And the last one named is even a proselyte from Antioch. So with characteristics in both Jewish and gentile camps they are an excellent choice to serve as the half-way house between the Jewish Twelve and the Paul whose mission will be to go to the gentiles.
But how should Luke put such a band into the action? The Jewish scriptures — Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — provided the answer? When judging the disputes of the tribes of Israel proved too much for Moses he wisely ordained others, men full of wisdom and the spirit of course, to step in. Luke borrowed the idea and had the Twelve continue their primary mission while at the same time instituting a new body who would soon serve as a stepping stone towards the next phase of the Holy Spirit’s mission.
Explaining those oddities
If we read this passage as “history” in our modern sense of the word we are expecting and demanding that Luke at least pretend to tell us about something that really did happen in . . . “history”. So how do we explain deacons being appointed to “serve tables” (of the widows) being subsequently portrayed as having nothing to do with table-serving and instead going out and performing miracles and preaching with inspired power? This is where most scholars have assumed Luke is fudging the facts.
The dissension over the widows and the “serving tables” doesn’t relate to what happened next. So those points have been picked up as trowels to dig “beneath the text” and to uncover what they imagine must have really happened.
Penner disagrees, and he disagrees by referencing a wealth of information about Roman and Greek historiographical writings of the day.
What Luke is doing is catching the thematic wind in the narrative sails that are stitched with the widows and table-serving. These details have been used for the sole purpose of introducing a band of brothers to serve as a half-way event between the Twelve and Paul.
Once the widows had served their literary function they disappear from the scene as totally as the famished in Judea disappear once the Church at Antioch and Paul demonstrate their care for them (Acts 11:27-30).
Once the Deacons have been put into authority over the church through the mechanism of answering the needs of the widows Luke could move them through the narrative as he willed.
The church leadership was thus shown to be pious, wise and good in the way it cared for the widows. At the same time a new body was introduced to serve as an appropriate link (with Jewish and gentile traits) between the the mission to the Jews and that to the gentiles.
In the title of this post I placed the word ahistorical in quotation marks. Penner would argue, I think, that the deacons, widows and Hellenists are “historical” according to certain concepts of the day. Luke’s “history” is intended to inform readers of an ideal beginning of the church that contains many points worth imitating. That’s not history by our standards, of course. The events and characters in this little scenario serve no relevance for anything that we would consider “history” according to what we can best understand — through comparative literary studies and literary analysis — to be Luke’s interests.