Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?

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by Neil Godfrey

By Fra Angelico, “Life of Stephen: Ordination and Distributing Alms” — making sure the Hellenist widows get a fair deal.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog is a sincere effort to share biblical scholarship with a wider lay readership. He has most recently pointed to a site that promises to address biblical issues for a general readership and even has an “ask a scholar” section: Bible Odyssey. Hurtado’s interpretations are (in my view) quite conservative. I think one should raise questions when a scholar’s explanations for so many questions coincidentally support traditional Christian dogma. I don’t suggest that all of his views should be suspect for that reason alone: I have found some of his analysis into how soon Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divine figure to be very strong. But I think Biblioblogs fail to fully respect readers when they present just one view of scholarly research as if that one view were “the correct” one.

Vridar was started as an attempt to share “the other side” of so much scholarly research in biblical studies. When I first took up learning so much about scholarly studies into the nature and origins of the Biblical literature I found that it was so difficult to wade through so much that was logically suspect or short on clear evidence. There was so much assumption, specious reasoning, possibilities that were transformed to probabilities and then to facts, circular argument . . . . and most of it was (suspiciously) essentially consistent with conventional religious dogmas.

So when I read The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication — a post in which Larry Hurtado argues that the only difference between the Hellenists in Acts and other Jewish members of the first church was that they hailed from the Diaspora and hence spoke Greek — I felt compelled to submit the following comment: 

There is another scholarly perspective on the Hellenists, is there not? I am thinking of Todd Penner’s discussion in his In Praise of Christian Origins. Perhaps the point of departure between Todd on the one hand and the views expressed here lies in the views one brings to the nature of Acts.

I understand your view arises from the proposition that the details of the narrative involving the Hellenists can be read as source material (however much embellished or filtered) for historical events. The same could be said of the common view that you argue against here. The difference in view comes down to arguing for the most cogent interpretation of a historical source.

Penner, on the other hand, discerns reasons to see the Hellenists as more of a literary than a historical construct. They fulfil a creative theological-thematic function. They are a stepping stone towards the advance of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps one who has more confidence in Acts as a historical source might suggest there is no contradiction here and that genuine historical memories can be told in creatively literary ways, but then that leads to the question of deciding which explanation has the fewest supporting hypotheses to make it work.

I do hope Larry does allow it to pass moderation and I further hope that if there is any response to it that it can be civil and professional.

Anyone interested in another scholarly view of the nature and function of the Hellenists in Acts might like to read

Acts 1-7 as Creative Literature, not History — Illustrated

as well as the post preceding that one (but not so colourfully illustrated)

Luke’s “Ahistorical” Widows, Hellenists and Deacons


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?”

  1. I remember reading someone, I suspect it was Hanz Conzelman, who rhetorically asked the question “Why were the Pharisees wandering around the wheat fields of Galilee checking on JC’s disciples nibbling grain – what were they doing there?
    His answer was ” fulfilling a literary need, being there to ask the question so the author could answer it.’
    So refreshing not to read tortuous speculations that assumed the event actually occurred as described.

  2. “…a view from a perspective that possibly nullifies the competing views (no schism/schism)…”[NG]
    …may be a view that posits there is a “…false dilemma…”
    The “false dilemma” being: ‘no schism/schism’.
    Thus, Larry Hurtado has ‘civilly and professionally’ provided a proper name for “… a situation in which only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.”
    False Dilemma: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma
    At first, I did not see where NG’s false dilemma [as LH calls it] had been posed.

    1. I must commend Larry Hurtado for bending over backwards to patiently explain to me in successive responses that I do not grasp the point he is making. Each time in response I attempt to demonstrate that I do indeed grasp his point (repeating it as clearly as I can in order to assure him of this) — and then I attempt to make even clearer my own problem with his argument for historicity. But I am not a scholar and am struggling in vain it seems to express my critique in a manner he can at least acknowledge. So far he has not even appeared to register what the problem is. I might be wrong but I’m beginning to somehow suspect he really cannot grasp the very concept of a flaw in something he has taken for granted all his life.

      1. I can’t follow some of the further remarks Hurtado makes. I think he was side-tracked in his first response: he ought just to have clarified that his original post was consistent with the claim that Acts is fiction from beginning to end. The point was that Acts just isn’t saying that there was a school or party or sect of ‘hellenists’ but only that some of the Jerusalem believers it is describing were native Greek speakers (as, on most any account, many residents of Jerusalem were — just as today many residents of Jerusalem are native speakers of English, and there are English speaking synagogues.) If it is a fiction, this will be a true statement (he thinks) about the world in the story.

        1. I have left a reply to his latest comment but it has been waiting in moderation all this time. He does not seem to like a comment to appear without his accompanying naysaying of it at the same time. Either that, or it will simply vanish into his cyber-trash. If that happens I will post it here.

  3. Larry Hurtado has finally allowed my response through after holding it in moderation for nearly a full week. He has simultaneously added his own response and closed the thread. Thus endeth the matter.

    Larry could not endure the civility that I sought to maintain in our exchange and resorted to ad hominem and false innuendo as his opener, and proceeded to argue for historicity of the Hellenists by means of logically fallacy. We have background evidence that makes the Acts scenario plausible therefore we can consider it historical!

    I have unfortunately found Larry Hurtado to be a most unpleasant person to deal with despite several efforts now to engage him in civil and courteous and sincere discussion.

    My post he finally allowed through after 6 days:

    You have got your point over perfectly, Larry. Yes, I fully understand that your point is that rhetorical craft does not of itself nullify any historicity in an account. Or course that is simply a truism. We all accept that as a simple matter of fundamental logic. No question. Historical narratives can well be crafted with literary artistry. The literary artistry does not mean there is no historicity in the narrative. Such a proposition surely goes without saying.

    Yet we must have a reason — a reason external to narrative’s self-testimony itself — for believing history can be found at some level in a narrative. This is how historians in every field outside biblical studies (as far as I know) treat evidence. Most scholars who address Christian origins are unique in relying upon the self-witness of a narrative alone to tell them whether or not it encases historicity at some level.

    I am not for a moment suggesting that Acts is useless as a historical document. It is not. But I know of no evidence external to the self-testimony of Acts that justifies assumptions of historicity behind any particular narrative in these earlier chapters. Rather, Acts is itself historical evidence for what certain Christians believed about their past. It is in this sense a valuable historical document for the study of Christian origins.

    But to simply assume — without supporting evidence external to the narrative itself — that the narrative contents embed historicity at some level is not a valid exercise, I suggest.

    What we have in the case of the Hellenists in Acts is a literary/theological explanation for the narrative. But we have no evidence for historicity of the account. On the one hand we have evidence for a certain explanation (literary); and on the other we have no evidence (merely assumption) for an additional explanation.

    See my comment below for the original paragraphs that Larry deleted from this part of my argument.

    Now there may well be a historical core to the Acts narrative about the Hellenists. My point is that — unlike the evidence we have for other historical persons, even very minor ones such as certain household slaves we know by name or otherwise not very significant rhetors, etc) — we simply have no way of making a sound judgement on the historicity question in this case and therefore it must remain moot.

    Larry’s belated response:

    Actually, Neil, if you took the time to read much produced by biblical scholars who address historical questions, you’d find that we too look for corroborative evidence in making judgments, so your assumption otherwise is simply misinformed. (Don’t you think that you ought to acquaint yourself with a field before bad-mouthing it? Just a suggestion.)

    And in the case of Acts that’s perfectly illustrated: NT scholars regularly have wondered how much to make of things related in Acts, and distinguish between things for which we have some corroborative evidence (e.g., from Paul’s letters) and those for which we don’t have such evidence (the latter category treated with greater caution). From the days of William Ramsay onward, scholars have sought out any archaeological data as well, to see if we can test narratives in Acts.

    In the case of the “hellenists”, we certainly know (1) that there were Greek-speaking Jews who appropriated in varying degrees things Greek, (2) that some Jews from the Diaspora re-settled in Jerusalem (we have archaeological data), and so it would be entirely reasonable to accept that there were some in the early Jerusalem church. The specifics of the Acts account of them can be tested at least indirectly by such data and others.

    So, to reiterate the point (and here I draw this thread to a close), we do have ways of “making a sound judgement on the historicity” of material in Acts, and we need not remain “moot” (or agnostic). We may well have to express those judgements with some provisos and with appropriate humility, but it isn’t as bad as you presume.

    I emailed the following to Larry in response:

    I regret that you interpret my question as “bad mouthing”. I have made it abundantly clear on my blog and elsewhere many times what my motives and interests are and I make it very clear I am not anti-Christian or the least interested in attacking anyone or any religion or any profession. Quite the contrary.

    I am also dismayed at your implication that I jump the gun after reading narrowly and selectively. I certainly have not read as widely as you and that is one reason I am keen to learn from people like you (as I do) but a list of 40 of the works on Acts that I have read and that are part of my personal library is listed here (I do not include works that I do not personally own in that list.)

    Before you closed the thread you might have had the courtesy to advise me what I should read to find the balance you seem to assume I lack.

    I am certainly very aware of scholarly interest in find corroborating evidence. However I note that you rely entirely on a fallacious or logically invalid argument to support your claim for historicity in this instance. Some biblical scholars are indeed very aware of such logical fallacies but I am surprised there are still a few professors in the field who appear oblivious to their weaknesses in this regard.

    You force me to reply publicly on my own blog since you appear unable to tolerate open, polite and sincere discussion that questions foundations foundations of your area.

    Your response (again regrettably laced with gratuitous ad hominem) only gives me confidence that my critique does indeed have some substance.

    With regret

    1. Well well — I have just noticed that Larry censored the following paragraphs from my reply:

      You mention Alexander by comparison. We have some histories of Alexander bringing out allusions to the conquests of Dionysus but we know — on the basis of evidence independent of the self-witness of the narratives themselves — that there is more to his conquests than such literary/mythical factors explain.

      Ditto with other ancient historians. We can discern literary artistry (emulations of Homer, even) in some of their historical works. But in every case we have more than the simple self-testimony of their narratives to give us varying degrees of confidence that they also contain historical events.

      These paragraphs were originally placed just above my final paragraph.

    2. I don’t understand how he can claim Paul’s letters as corroborating evidence. Isn’t it universally accepted that a purpose of Acts is to take all the information from Paul’s letters and harmonize it with the proto-orthodox church? Or at least co-opt it?

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