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.
- How did such a special group come into existence in Jerusalem? What were the pre-existing conditions that led to this development?
- What was the real difference between the Hebrews and Hellenists? Acts 6:1-7 tells us nothing about this.
- 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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