The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 3

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by Neil Godfrey

The previous post in this series raised the question over the nature of the apparently very sharp divisions between the Hellenists and Hebrews in the early Jerusalem church. This division was sharp enough to bring about not only a division within the church itself but was a cause for the Hellenists (led by Stephen and such) being persecuted and driven out of Jerusalem while the Hebrew faction, under the leadership of the twelve apostles, remained in Jerusalem untouched.

More precisely, it follows from the persecution of the Hellenists ‘that their “gospel” necessarily contained something which the Jews could not bear and which was lacking in the preaching of the “Hebrews”.’ What was this special feature in the Hellenists’ preaching? (p. 20, Schmithals, Paul and James)

Walter Schmithals finds a tell-tale clue to answer this question in what he argues is the “pre-Lucan tradition” that lay behind Luke’s account of Stephen’s martyrdom and the ensuing persecution.

This “tradition” or the “real story” that Luke attempted to whitewash, says Schmithals, was that Stephen and the Hellenists preached blasphemous things against the Temple, Moses and the Law. They declared that Jesus was going to destroy the Temple and change the Mosaic customs. Luke says that this charge against Stephen was brought by “false witnesses” (Acts 6:11ff). He has Stephen point out in his speech in response that it was “not the Christians but the Jews themselves who rejected Moses and the Law (Acts 7:35, 37, 39-43, 48-53).” According to what else we read in Acts it is clear that the apostles and first converts themselves had only respect for the Temple and Law since they met in the Temple to worship and preach. But not so the Hellenists, apparently.

This is called “historical reconstruction”. How it works is this: One takes a narrative that makes perfect sense on so many levels as theological propaganda and Luke’s larger narrative purpose, and even as a form of midrash, observes that it does not work as plausible history — which will simply not do, so dismantles the plot and motivations in the narrative, then inverts and rearranges them to construct something that makes more sense as history. It’s a process that can have some validity if there are any existing historical controls to guide the scholar in directions that do not necessarily conveniently coincide with his or her prior hypotheses.

A simpler explanation lies at hand and it is found both in the narrative of Acts itself and in the circumstances surrounding the first testimony to the existence of Acts. The narrative purpose of Acts has widely been recognized as an attempt to establish Jerusalem (along with all that means — in particular the authoritative status of the Old Testament) and the twelve apostles as the foundation of the church.  According to external witnesses Acts made its appearance at a time when the status and teachings of Paul the Apostle were in dispute between (in particular) Marcionism (opposing the Old Testament and Jewish heritage of the church) and “orthodox” Christianity, that is in the latter half of the second century. 

Once we accept this externally supported purpose of Acts we can see that “Luke” has gotten himself into a few narrative difficulties (and that simply don’t work as plausible history) by his attempt to make Jerusalem the source of the whole spectrum of “catholic” Christianity — Paul needs to be authorized from there and be submissive to the Jerusalem and apostolic councils; the first gentile convert (the Ethiopian eunuch) must be associated with Jerusalem; even both “Hellenistic” and “Hebrew” Christianity, each legitimate, must be found to originate in Jerusalem.

But there is a problem and Schmithals recognizes it. In reality,

Any Jew might announce the abolition of the Temple at the end of time. It was even not uncommon in Jewry to have only a slight regard for the cult and its sacrifices. Judaism had for long been a religion not of the cult, but of the Law. Already the Old Testament contains plenty of criticism [of the cultic worship practices] . . . The Hellenistic Jews had only a very loose relationship to the Temple cult; Justin (Dial. 117.2) mentions that Jewish circles in the Diaspora had interpreted Mal. 1.10ff. to mean that God had rejected the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem in favour of the prayers offered by the Jews in the dispersion. The critical attitude towards the Temple shown in Stephen’s speech is not, in fact, generally Jewish, but neither is it un-Jewish. (p. 21, my emphasis)

I question Schmithals’ reliance here upon Justin. Justin was writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem and defeat of Bar Kochba in 135 c.e. when no sacrifices were possible for any Jew whatever their wishes.

So much for the Temple cult. What of the Mosaic Law?

Similarly it was by no means already a crime involving the death sentence to dispute about individual regulations of the Mosaic Law or to ignore them.

The Pharisees were only a small portion of the population and even they had disputes about the law among themselves. As did the scribes. In John 7:49 we read that the people of Judea did not know the law and were therefore cursed. But they weren’t stoned as Stephen was. Hellenistic Jews like Philo were not threatened for arguing theologically that he was free from the letter of the law. The Jewish apocalyptic writings are rich with sentiments that are the opposite of what we understand of the views of the Pharisees.

The reason for the division into Hebrews and Hellenists, and the consequent different treatment as regards persecution by the Jews can therefore hardly have lain in the greater or lesser extent to which the Law was observed by the two groups. (p. 23)

Clearly few among even the more Law-loving Jews would care if Gentiles were converted to Christianity and failed to embrace Jewish laws or hold much hope for the survival of the Temple at the return of Jesus.

The Critical Difference

So what could that critical difference have been that divided the church and led to one faction being persecuted and driven out of the city?

The difference is hardly a very satisfying answer from Schmithals, in my opinion, but I will give it anyway.

First one must understand what is thought to be meant by the terms Hellenists and Hebrews.

His argument is that a Hebrew in Acts is that “genuine Jew who is aware of his intimate bond with the traditions of his fathers, his national and his Palestinian home, even though he speaks the Greek language.” Even Paul calls himself a Hebrew (Phil. 3:5; II Cor. 11:22).

The Hellenists in Acts, especially those Christian Hellenists led by Stephen and the Seven, are Jews — whether in Judea or in the Diaspora — who embraced the Greek way of life. Sometimes the word refers to Greeks as opposed to Jews (Acts 11:20), but other times it refers to Jews of the Diaspora as opposed to Palestinian Jews (Acts 9:29).

When in Acts 6 a dispute arises between Christian Hellenists and Christian Hebrews it is a dispute between Christians who do not keep the Law, whether they are Jewish or Greek in origin or language, and Jewish Christians who do observe the Law.

Given that the text of Acts does not make much historical sense, Schmithals must conjecture a plausible historical event or situation that does make sense of Acts as a historical source that attempts to hide real history. The Christian Hellenists, he concludes, threatened the very national identity and survival of the Jews by thinking and teaching that the Law was completely irrelevant and had no bearing on Israel’s special status with God. In this respect the Christian Hellenists must have been more extreme than the non-Christian Jewish Hellenists.

Schmithals had previously argued that ignoring the law did not incur the death penalty among Jews so I don’t find this explanation entirely cogent. But I have already given my two bits above.

Why Jerusalem?

Schmithals acknowledges that such an antinomian Christian view is hardly likely to have arisen in Jerusalem, particularly so early. He finds much more sense in Luke’s indication that such a gospel arose in Antioch.

But if Antioch was the origin of antinomianism how can we account for Luke’s scenario of these Christian “Hellenists” being found in critical numbers in Jerusalem — again so early?

Apart from the simple fact that Jerusalem was a major city and no doubt attracted people from all places for all sorts of reasons, the primary explanation for this must be, says Schmithals, the expectation that Jesus was about to return there from heaven. Christian “Hebrews” from Galilee — such as those who became the church leaders at Jerusalem — moved there for the same reason.

To be continued etc.


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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 3”

  1. There was not an “early Jerusalem church”. There was not a historical Jesus Christ who was greeted and followed by crowds of people in Jerusalem and who was crucified and buried in Jerusalem. There was not a Pentecost at which followers of such a historical Jesus Christ baptized 3,000 people in Jerusalem. On the contrary, the number of people in Jerusalem who believed in a historical Jesus Christ at that time was zero.

    There was a group of people who at that time believed in a mystical Jesus Christ. They lived in Galilee and Gaulanitis, and they spoke and wrote to each other in the Greek language.

    One such believer was Paul, and we do know from his extant letters that Jerusalem was at least an occasional meeting place for the believers of Paul’s own time. Paul wrote that he met Peter and James in Jerusalem. Paul wrote that he was collecting money from his own churches as a donation that would be paid in Jerusalem. So, Jerusalem was the site of some significant events for the early Christians who believed in a mystical Jesus Christ.

    This situation is illuminated by the later stories about a historical Jesus Christ who lived mostly in Galilee and Gaunitis. In these stories, Jesus Christ and his immediate followers traveled to Jerusalem occasionally for religious festivals. On those occasions in Jerusalem, Jesus and his followers challenged the Jewish religious establishment, purified and healed sick people, gave sermons and answered questions, and (we can suppose) met with fellow believers who lived in other places throughout the region. In other words, Jerusalem was a convention center — a place with various facilities and attractions for large numbers of people who normally were dispersed.

    There were a few believers who lived in Jerusalem permanently. Luke wrote in Acts that after the mass expulsion of believers from Jerusalem, twelve believers were allowed to remain living in the city. So, when Luke himself visited Jerusalem many decades after Paul’s time, Luke found a small community of believers that had lived in Jerusalem for several generations, since Paul’s time.

    However, Luke in his own time did not find a community that was large enough to indicate that thousands of believers had lived in Jerusalem at Paul’s time. Since Luke thought that thousands had lived there, Luke had to explain away the discrepancy by deducing that the thousands must have been expelled from the city in Paul’s time.

    Further, Luke deduced that this supposed Jerusalem community of thousands of believers must have been divided between “Hellenists and Hebrews”. In Luke’s time, there were practically no Hebrews anywhere who had even heard about the mystical Jesus Christ, much less any Hebrews at all in Jerusalem who ever had heard from their immediate ancestors about a historical Jesus Christ visiting Jerusalem. In Luke’s time, the only people who believed in such a historical Jesus Christ were Greek-speakers who lived in distant Antioch and in regions extending far to the northwest from Antioch.

    So, since Luke assumed, as a given, that in Paul’s time thousands of believers had lived in Jerusalem, Luke had to explain what had happened between Paul’s time and Luke’s own time. Luke deduced that the thousands of believers must have been expelled from Jerusalem, except for only about twelve believers. Then Luke deduced that the expelled believers who were ethnically Hebrew eventually became intolerant of the many Gentiles in their new religion and so they reverted to their old religion. Those deduced developments explained why Luke himself observed that in his own time the only remaining believers were cultural Greeks who lived far from the Hebrew regions.

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