Stephen — The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Stephen disputing with Jews of the synagogue of the Freedmen and others in Jerusalem – by Vittore Carpaccio

Following from The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in Acts – 1 . . . .

Stephen makes a most awkward fit into the narrative that follows Acts 6:1-7 when we try to make sense of the account as history. There are two options that I see:

  1. Either the author of Acts is attempting to weave a narrative about Stephen that he has inherited from a tradition that is incompatible with his propaganda narrative about the growth of the church
  2. Or the same author or redactor who made a botch of trying to reverse the traditional order known to Mark and Matthew of Jesus appearing first in the Capernaum synagogue and later facing opposition in his hometown — an attempt that led to a number of anomalies and loose ends in his narrative — finds himself in Acts in something of a similar pickle with the way he attempts to explain a persecution event that is quite implausible historically with incompatible fictions.
  3. Or I am sure there are any number of other alternatives but I’m only counting to two for purposes of this post.

In this post I explain the argument for the first option as it appears in Paul and James by Walter Schmithals and conclude with a few thoughts from the alternative argument.

For Schmithals there is “no doubt for his account of Stephen’s martyrdom . . . Luke is making use of an existing tradition.” The reasons?

  1. The mention of the Hellenistic Jews who dispute with Stephen (Acts 6:9) is not accounted for by anything that has preceded (Stephen himself is not introduced as a Hellenist Jew).
  2. The description of Stephen as a powerful preacher is inconsistent with his introduction in 6:1-7 where it is the apostles whose job is to preach leaving the task of almsgiving to Stephen and his fellows.

The author has added the details of Stephen being tried before the council and of his speech to the tradition he received about him.

Noteworthy in this connection is also the paucity of any reference in the speech to the accusations to which he was supposedly responding (Acts 6:11).

Stephen’s martyrdom is said to be tied directly to the launch of a mass persecution upon the entire church in Jerusalem — Acts 8:1.

Since Luke always presented Stephen to his readers as a representative of the whole Jerusalem church, the persecution must in consequence strike the church as a whole. That is what Luke supposes in 8.1: ‘they all were scattered’. (p. 19)

But here is the problem.

Now we know that Stephen by no means represented all the Jerusalem Christians, but only the Hellenist section of them. [Note that all 7 appointed in Acts 6:5 bore Greek names and were chosen in response to complaints by Hellenists that their widows were being overlooked.] We know in addition that the relationship of this section to the ‘Hebrews’ was not free from tension. So we must allow for the possibility that the persecution only struck the Hellenists. (p. 19, my emphasis)

It might be helpful to read the account in Acts at this point. It explains how the dispute against Stephen could be initiated by Hellenists with the consequences of Stephen’s death being the persecution of the Hellenists:

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.

9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.

11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous[c] words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”

15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

Then follows Stephen’s long speech that culminates in his martyrdom and the persecution on the church generally (or only the Hellenist branch of it according to Schmithals).

Acts 8:1 makes it clear that the twelve apostles were not scattered. They were not subject to this persecution.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

This is taken as clear evidence that the persecution was not directed against “the Hebrews” but only against “the Hellenists”. For Schmithals (and no doubt many others) it is “quite unthinkable” that the whole church be scattered while the apostles remained untouched.

Further, if there were such a persecution and the “whole church” driven out from Jerusalem we are faced again with a silence in the evidence that renders such an idea impossible (Schmithals, p. 19):

Neither in Acts nor in the Pauline letters is there preserved any trace of a tradition from which we might conclude that the original church had been obliged to leave Jerusalem in the early days as a body, and had only been allowed to return again later.

Luke points out that the twelve apostles remained in Jerusalem as a gentle way of passing over the fact that not the whole church was persecuted but only the Hellenists — and that the Hellenists were led by Stephen. The Hebrew faction escaped any trouble.

This is a topic on which I have only limited reading and realize I may be covering only a small facet of the arguments out there. I have other references close by but not the time to read them all and put together an argument that takes such a wide range of views into account.

The next part of this series will examine the explanations for the real differences between the Hellenists and Hebrews in Acts 6. But it may be a few days before I can complete it.

So however premature it may be here is my own take on the above:

What strikes me about this analysis of Schmithals is that it is like so many other similar attempts to explain biblical texts from the perspective that they must be attempting to re-write historical traditions. Meanwhile in other journals and books we read of literary critics showing that these texts are something quite (or at least somewhat) different.

What happens if we stop here to think of the symbolism in the name of the first Christian to receive the martyr’s crown? (Stephen means crown.) Consider also those studies that have shown influences upon Stephen’s words and fate with the misadventure of Jesus himself? And let’s not forget the critical arguments that call into question the very existence of a body of twelve apostles. But above all note Luke’s purpose — to demonstrate that Jerusalem has been the authoritative base for the foundation of the church in these twelve apostles.

Luke needs the twelve to stay in Jerusalem to maintain the authoritative status of the “catholic” tradition he is propagating. He also needs to reduce the role of Paul to one of subservience to the Jerusalem church for the same purpose. Thus while Paul is the apostle to the gentiles he is not responsible for opening the door to the gentiles. That was Peter’s job, and in Stephen and others we see a gradual step towards gentile inclusion (first through proselytes) into the church.

All of these are well known (at least among literary critics) aspects of Luke’s agenda for Acts. 

Most important also is the implausibility of this sort of mass persecution upon the church so early in its history. Luke uses the persecution motif to regularly propel the gospel to new areas. This is only the beginning of a pattern to be repeated through to the final chapters. Given the wide-ranging views of Second Temple Judaism — including views that the physical temple was corrupt or to be avoided — there is nothing in Stephen’s speech that can plausibly account for his martyrdom at the hands of a Jewish council.

Acts was a product of the mid-second century. The earliest evidence we may have for Jewish rejection (excommunication — not murders) of their Christian brethren may be from around the 90s as apparently testified in the Gospel of John and the Birkat Ha-Minim.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Stephen — The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 2”

  1. Eisenman and others suggest that the stoning of Stephen is a stand in for the stoning of James in Hegisippus (and arguably Josephus). The last words put in Stephen’s mouth are similar to the last words of James in Hegesippus: “The Son of Man … is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power and he will come on the clouds of heaven … I beseech Thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (EH 2.23).

    Compare this with Stepen’s words in Acts 7:56-60: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God … Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:56-60).

    The similarity is all the more remarkable because Acts doesn’t tell us about the stoning of James at all, a huge event in Hegesippus (and, I am convinced, the Dead Sea Scrolls).

    Acts also doesn’t say anything about the election of James to replace Jesus, as mentioned in several non-canonical sources. It tells us instead about the meaningless election of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot (1:26).

    The “trick” is that both Stephen and Judas are fictional stand ins for events that happened to James, in order to marginalize the importance of James as much as possible.

  2. I am not so sure that Jewish authorities sought the deaths of people claiming so and so was the messiah. If there was an eager expectation of the messiah as most seem to believe, and if we have hints of messianic pretenders in Josephus, then it looks like there was very much a wait-and-see attitude, a hope that maybe they were right or at the best an ignoring of them.

    This whole idea of Jewish authorities going out to kill Christians strikes me as a buy-in on the theme of the Jews as Christ-killers we read of in the gospels. It is Christian propaganda. The gospels themselves give no credible reason why the Jews would have killed Christ. They are forced to manufacture blasphemy charges in order to make the plot work — they are trying to find some historically plausible narrative to convey a theological concept that never was historical. At least we have no evidential reason to think there was anything more to the crucifixion than theology.

  3. Still treating it as an attempt at history, I see a major oddity here. In the earlier parts of Acts, the movement has got so strong that Peter and John are able to cock a snook at the Jewish authorities. But in this section, with the movement even stronger, the authorites can organise a major persecution against the movement. And yet they do nothing about the ringleaders!

    To my evil little mind it looks as though the history behind this (if any) is that of the Hebrew Jews of the movement driving out the Hellenistic Jews of the movement. Nothing to do with Sadducees and Co.

  4. This [the establishment of Stephen’s committee for the Greek-speaking widows] 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.

    The issue is stated as above in the first (Dec 11) of the articles in this Vridar series. Why did a “Hellenistic-Hebrew division” appear at the beginning of Acts Chapter 6, after five chapters of harmony within the movement?

    I suggest that Luke provided his explanation in the very first sentence of Chapter 6:

    But with the believers multiplying rapidly, there were rumblings of discontent.

    The first five chapters of Acts depicts not only an original harmony with the movement, but also an explosive growth within the movement. The Pentecost ended with the baptism of 3,000 new believers (Acts 2:41). After Peter and John spoke at the Temple for a series of days, the number of new men believers totaled 5,000 (Acts 4:4). Then after the disciples performed healing miracles at the Temple, “more and more believers were added to the Lord” (Acts 4:14).

    So, Luke does explain why “there were rumblings of discontent”. Luke’s explanation was that “more and more believers were added …. the believers were multiplying rapidly”.

    The more the new believers, the more the eventual dissensions. Luke’s explanation is quite simple and understandable — within the realm of common-sense.

    The much more interesting issue is that Jerusalem at that time (following the year 30) did not have any inhabitants at all who believed that a human-like Jesus Christ had been walking around and preaching and doing any other activities right in their own city in the recent months. In other words, there was not even one such believer in the city, because nobody at all ever saw any such Jesus. No stories about any such Jesus had been told at that time in Jerusalem or anywhere else. So the number of believers at that time totaled absolute zero.

    At that time there were some believers in a mystical Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was the subject of a mystical drama that took place on the Firmament, many miles above the Earth.

    As far as we know, all those mystical believers communicated with each other primarily in the Greek language. We now have a few letters and essays that were written by such believers at that time, and the only language used in any of these writings was the Greek language. Nothing at all was written in Aramaic or Hebrew or any other Semitic language.

    Did any of these Greek-speaking believers live in Jerusalem? Probably not. According to the stories that were told about them much later, it seems that they all lived in Galilee or Gaulanitis (e.g. Bethsaida). For these believers, Jerusalem was a distant place that they visited only occasionally.

    About a century later, Luke in Antioch comes to believe that this Jesus Christ really had been a human-like being who had visited Jerusalem several times and who was famous there and who had been greeted and followed by large crowds of inhabitants. But if Luke himself ever visited Jerusalem, then he surely found that nobody there ever had heard of any such Jesus Christ. So Luke wondered: what happened to all the descendants of all those crowds of Jerusalem inhabitants who with their own eyes and ears and seen and heard Jesus?

    Luke explains: all the Jerusalem inhabitants who had seen and heard Jesus and who believed he was divine were expelled from the city and were dispersed throughout Judah and Samaria? That is why in Luke’s time nobody at all in Jerusalem had ever heard any Jesus stories passed down from their ancestors.

    Luke’s next mystery was why nobody anywhere else in Judah or Samaria had heard any Jesus stories from their ancestors? If all the believers had been expelled from Jerusalem throughout Judah and Samaria, then many people in those areas should have heard Jesus stories passed down from their ancestors.

    Luke’s explanation for this second mystery was that all the observant Jews who had been expelled from Jerusalem eventually decided that they could not share their beliefs with Gentiles, who were uncircumcised and who ate unclean food, and so forth. So, all those observant Jews eventually returned to their pure Jewish religion and forgot all about Jesus Christ.

    So, the only believers who were expelled from Jerusalem and who managed to preserve the memory and pass on the stories about Jesus in Jerusalem were the Greek-speakers, who were not stuck to obsolete rules about circumcision, diet and so forth. Somehow, a group of these expelled Greek-speaking believers made their way to distant Antioch, where they became the first Christians.

  5. Neil, Evan,

    I think the question is more like, Was there ever any Jew on Jew political killings? Of course, and there are numerous examples of this, even from our own times, as it seems to be a part of human nature in the stuggle for power. This inevitably involves ideology.

    Paul experienced both sides of this struggle during the first century:

    “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9); “I persecuted the Church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13); “I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy'” (Gal. 1:22-23); “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one … with far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods … [I have been in] danger from my own people” (2 Cor. 11:23-26).

    There is evidence that Paul was a Pharisee, and possibly even a member of the Herodian family, and it would be naive to think this didn’t play a part in the reasons for persecuting “Christians.” The letter of James also indicates that there was Jew on Jew killing by the wealthy and powerful. Eisenman sees this struggle in the larger picture of the struggle between Pharisees and Sadducees for the meaning of Judaism and its relations with foreign powers.

    Sometimes the Sadducees had the upper hand, and sometimes -including the first century CE- the Pharisees did. When Bar Kochba had power, he killed his Jewish enemies, some of whom by then were called Christians.

    It no more surprising to see legendary accounts of these times in Hegesippus in the second century than it is to see “the story of Paul” recounted in Acts. It’s only natural that a larger picture becomes hazier the farther you get away from it, in this case taken over by the developing ideas about the meaning of “Christ” and “Christian Origins,” and that can be compensated for.

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