The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 1

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by Neil Godfrey

The Scripture for today is Acts 6:1-7

1. In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

This marks a change in the scenario the author has painted in the previous five chapters. Till now the church has been portrayed as harmoniously united. At the first sign of any trouble, such as a rich man and his wife lying about how much of their wealth they are giving to the community, the apostles will have them struck dead on the spot. Miracles like these created so much excitement that multitudes more rushed to join up with such an idyllic group.

Effectively on the basis of the criterion of embarrassment it is therefore sometimes concluded that the author of Acts “cannot simply have invented the scene in Acts 6:1-7”. The scene is said to “conflict with his special purpose.” (Schmithals, Paul and James, p. 16)  Not so. Luke’s purpose is to write an origin tale to show how certain things came to be the way they were in his own day and how the “true faith” — even/especially that said to be taught by Paul — was founded on the “perfect” foundation of Jesus and the original Jerusalem church led by the apostles. Some such episode had to be found as surely as the author of Genesis had to introduce the tempting serpent and “fall” of Adam and Eve to get the story rolling.

But let’s accept an author of Acts who is working with material, tradition, whatever, that obliges him to write Acts 6:1-7. What might this passage mean?

First we learn that the church was divided between Hebrews and Hellenists. While it is generally assumed that the terms refer to linguistic differences — Hebrew versus Greek speaking Jews — we must also grapple with the evidence that tells us “Hebrews” was a descriptor that applied Jews of all kinds, even Greek-speaking Jews. Should we therefore think that Acts 6:1-7 is speaking of a conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians?

One thing is for certain. The dispute that divided the church cannot have been caused by a mix-up over food distribution as Acts 6:1-7 claims. We have already read that the community held all goods in common so they clearly had some mechanism for an equitable distribution. (I’m rolling with the historicity of what we read for the sake of argument.) Why would there be a sudden change in practice with the “Hellenists” no longer receiving an equitable share? This is the point at which some scholars suggest the real reason for the rift — and the real reason for the sudden inequitable treatment of the Hellenists — had to do with doctrinal teachings, that is missionary efforts of the “Hellenists” that were felt to be threatening by the “Hebrews”.

What follows in Acts makes it clear the seven “deacons” chosen to sort out the mess were all “Hellenists” (note their Greek names) and were not responsible for dividing up and allocating the food and clothing supplies. They were evangelists, preachers, missionaries. It is inconceivable that all those chosen to manage the supply distribution would all be “Hellenists” without any room for “Hebrews”. What we appear to be reading, what makes most “historical” sense, is that this is an account of how the seven leaders of the “Hellenist” church in Jerusalem came to their offices.

So now 3 questions arise.

  1. How did such a special group come into existence in Jerusalem? What were the pre-existing conditions that led to this development?
  2. What was the real difference between the Hebrews and Hellenists? Acts 6:1-7 tells us nothing about this.
  3. Why does the author of Acts fail to tell us what these differences were? Why does he not tell us anything about how the Hellenists came to emerge as a separate party in Jerusalem? Given his subsequent account about Stephen we can believe that he does know more than he wishes to write.

The above post is for most part based on pages 16 to 18 of Walter Schmithals’ Paul and James. (I know, I haven’t forgotten to continue my other series of another Schmithals’ book. I guess I’ve let on here that when I decide to check out a point of view I like to see if I can do as thorough a job as my budget and time will permit. So this is a “Schmithals’ time” in my reading. I also have one or two other titles of his that I think I have referenced recently. Look forward to getting through these and moving on asap.)

Will continue in a future post.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 1”

  1. I’m glad you are doing this series on Schmithals. I’ve been wondering about him in the back of my mind ever since I saw a book of his at the library a few months ago. I don’t recall the title, but now I want to check it out and have a look.

    As for your first question above, I’m persuaded that the pre-existing conditions for the rise of the Jerusalem group were the Essenes/DSS sect. I would love to see you do a series on Eisenman someday (any book or article), who lays this out in great detail. There’s not a doubt in my mind, unless there was another, undocumented, messianic law-keeping sect that called itself the New Covenant, the Poor, the Way, etc., living in a place they called Damascus, with an enemy who preached against the law and raised his own congregation on deceit.

    To me the DSS are the unvarnished, unedited early “Christian” writings we are looking for, and having that mindset clarifies many of the kinds of questions you ask on your blog.

  2. According to Luke, in Acts 22:1-5, Paul grew up as a Greek-speaking Jew in far-away Tarsus and then as a young man came to Jerusalem and studied under the teacher Gamaliel.

    Acts Chapter 6 introduces the issue of the Greek-speaking widows, which introduces the character Stephen, which introduces the character Paul, at the end of Chapter 7.

    In these circumstances, it seems likely that Paul’s own mother was widowed and therefore accompanied him to Jerusalem and became one of the starving, Greek-speaking widows who was supposed to receive help from Stephen’s committee. Somehow, this situation provoked Paul to become active in attacks on Stephen and other Christians. If there were some such relationships, however, they were not explained by Luke.

    Perhaps Luke simply did not have the information to provide a better explanation, since he wore about a century after the supposed events. In particular, Luke perhaps simply did not know whether Paul’s mother was involved.

    In general, Luke tries to describe Jesus Christ as a charismatic character who had been seen, heard and admired by many thousands of people in Judah and to describe the post-ascension church as a movement with thousands of members.

    In fact, however, Jesus Christ had not been seen in Judah by anybody at all. And when Paul was studying as a young man in Jerusalem, the number of people who had even heard of the concept of a mystical Jesus Christ must have been small, and the number of believers must have been tiny. Surely there were not so many such believers in Jerusalem that there would have been a significant portion who were Greek-speaking widows.

    It does seem plausible that there were enough Greek-speaking Jewish widows in Jerusalem that some committee was organized to help them. Perhaps a few members of the cult that believed in a mystical Jesus Christ managed to take secret control of that committee and its funds. Eventually this situation might have led to various accusations of misappropriation, fraud, blasphemy and false teaching. Perhaps there really was a subsequent trial and execution of a real person named Stephen, and perhaps Paul really did participate in those legal proceedings (perhaps because of his own widowed mother). And perhaps this experience did lead Paul to learn more about and join the cult.

    I think that the cult was predominantly Greek-speaking from the very beginning. Many of the members might have been ethnically Jewish and bi-lingual, but they identified themselves more with Greek culture and they were critical of the Jewish Temple’s religious establishment. Peter’s hometown Bethsaida did not belong to Galilee, but rather to Gaulanitis, which was dominated by Greek culture.

    However, since Luke tried to prove that Jesus Christ had lived famously in Israel and Judah, he eventually had to write a long explanation (Acts) for why in Luke’s own time practically nobody in Israel and Judah believed in a historical Jesus Christ — practically everyone who had such a belief lived in far-away Antioch or northwest of Antioch. Luke’s story about the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem was part of that long explanation. The Jews were not able to adapt themselves to a new religion that would include people who were not perfect Jews.

  3. Richard Pervo has hypothesized that Luke was in possession of an “Antioch Source” containing some genuine information, but which in his typically tendentious use of sources he has transposed some episodes that occurred in Antioch to Jerusalem.

    1. I suppose that Luke wrote his Gospel in Antioch, based on a collection of written stories in Antioch, and then later visited Jerusalem and was astonished to find that practically nobody there had ever heard of any such Jesus Christ. Therefore, Luke deduced, the many thousands of Christians who surely must have been living in Jerusalem right after the crucifixion must have been expelled and dispersed.in the following years. .

      Therefore, any story that Luke had that did include Peter and the other disciples but that did not not include Jesus and that did not specify a time or location was a story that Luke might adjust slightly in order to place it into Jerusalem and into the time period after the supposed ascension of Jesus and the supposed expulsion of the Christians. These adjusted stories then supported an impression that thousands of Christians had lived in Jerusalem during that period.

      Luke then linked the expulsion of the Christians to his story about the execution of Stephen. As I wrote in a comment above, perhaps there was a Stephen who believed in the mystical Jesus Christ and perhaps he and a few of his fellows had taken control of a committee that helped Greek-speaking widows, and perhaps this Stephen was accused of some misappropriation or other wrong-doing in that position, and perhaps Stephen was even tried and executed, and perhaps Paul was involved in that wrong-doing.

      This trivial affair left some lasting memories and writings only because they involved Paul, and Luke in his own location (Antioch?) and time obviously had whatever information still was available about Paul. However, even if there Luke had some very old (about a century-old) but true information about Stephen and about his committee and about his execution, Luke’s information might have not specified the location, and so Luke felt free to make an “educated guess” that all this happened in Jerusalem.

      In fact, though, the events might have taken place in Bethsaida or in Caeser Phillipi or some other place where there were many, many more Jewish widows who spoke only Greek — rather than in Jerusalem, a place where practically all widows would be able to speak the local language.

  4. Neil said,
    “Should we therefore think that Acts 6:1-7 is speaking of a conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians?”

    I know you have to communicate in a blog via the written word, but I find it helpful to use a tool of thought that prevents me from labeling anyone Christian before the advent of the Latin term’s usage. I try to imagine what they would call themselves. The word I keep coming back to is Jew. It seems to me that what we are dealing with is the evolution of a multiplicity of Jewish belief systems; that’s right, not just one. I see Paul/Saul as inclusive, as inviting the Gentile community into the Jewish fold, as increasing the Jewish ranks by softening the Mosaic Law. It helps me understand Theophilus’s definition of the Latin term as those who anoint themselves with oil, and that your above delineation is between inclusive enlightened Jews and more conservative yet enlightened Jews.

    For me, the concept of the intermediary Son was resurrected, Ha!, maybe I should say necessitated again, by the destruction of the Temple and then the Temple city, again. I see the anointed savior concept as a denunciation of Yahweh as the Yahweh Sabaoth, its most stringent mosaic laws, and its intrinsic Jewish nationalism at the liberal, more Hellenized, end of the spectrum of these evolving sects among the Diaspora which contrasts with the more conservative view that, while relenting on the sacrificial mandates of the Deuteronomists, due to the destruction of the Temple, wish to one day rebuild Jerusalem, (more expansive, more popular, and more populous) and her Temple for the Jews, and Jews alone. Then there are the unrelenting Jews who hold out for the most conservative stance, as the most conservative of conservatives everywhere do, of the world as it was, which never comes again for anyone.

    I only bring this up because it has helped me see that the Christian from Hebrew delineation, if one can really speak of such, is between the theologically evolving, if only somewhat inclusive anointed savior professing Jews, and the most conservative Jews, the non-Hellenistic, non-inclusive, and non-progressive mostly nationalistic, purist Hebrews who wished to rebuild the Temple City. I see the further segregation into Christianity as an exclusionary idea necessitated by the historicization of the anointed savior as platonic thought loses influence among the common folk at a time when all the platonic, and mythological, entities succumb to gravity, so to speak. In the case of the anointed savior it becomes a reversed euhemerism.

    Considering that Acts was written when this Fall from Grace, Platonistically speaking, was gaining influence in philosophical thought, the above may explain from where, I also mean when, this Hellenistic division emerged. Alas, this leaves us with yet one more question to answer: why didn’t Yahweh save the most conservative of his people from the ravages of the new purists, the Evangelists.

    But this is just my buck-and-a-quarter on the topic.

    1. Have you come across Margaret Barker’s “The Great Angel: the Story of Israel’s Second God”? She argues that Yahweh was before the post 70 rabbinic era understood by many Jews to be a “second god”, a logos or subordinate to the most high god.

      1. No, I haven’t.

        If Margaret Baker is arguing that the shift in attitude as expressed by Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) beginning the second temple period is from El Elyon (failed to preserve Judea) to Yahweh Sabaoth (one of the seventy, & God of Armies) as a result of suffering through the Babylonian Exile, prima facie, that makes sense to me. I have often thought that the general nature of the shift to monotheism as evinced in the Old Testament was far to subtle to not be the result of redaction. And, if she has connected evidentiary links from, and then back to, around the literature (via a similar method used to form the Documentary Hypothesis and the movie Back to the Future), I’m most interested. And, I’ll try not to cling to any preconceived notions as I read it.

        Thanks, I’ll look into it.

          1. Tim,

            Thank you!

            Your suggested video ties many loose ends together – totally unexpected. I understood Josiah (and his slimy little priest/counterfeiter Hilkiah) as a purist wishing to purge the Temple of all polytheistic traces, i.e. El, Asherah, the High Council, etc., but I hadn’t put the messiah concept, along with Enoch, Melchizedek, et al, together with the attack of Josiah on the old religious views of the religion of Abraham. Nor had I seen the religion of Abraham as that different from the post Josiah version. Isaac was sacrificed and resurrected in the original, very interesting.

            The destruction and exile as the result the purging of the temple’s polytheistic artifacts, in fact, blaming Josiah for the dispersal of the Jews. One doesn’t read that version in the Histories.

  5. “At the first sign of any trouble, such as a rich man and his wife lying about how much of their wealth they are giving to the community, the apostles will have them struck dead on the spot. Miracles like these created so much excitement that multitudes more rushed to join up with such an idyllic group.”

    Actually, Acts 5:11 says “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

    And when you see Peter saying “It is not about the money, but the disrepect for me and for the Holy Spirit”, and then see that first Ananias, and then Sapphira, “miraculously” drop down dead (nothing to do with Joe Sicarius standing behind them, of course) the fear is not surprising. You don’t hold out on Peter the Rock.

      1. Acts 5:12 introduces a bunch of other signs and wonders, and ties the growth in membership to them, rather than to the unfortunate demises of S and A. (Who would have thought it? They seemed so nice.)

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