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. Continue reading “The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 3”


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. Continue reading “Stephen — The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 2”


The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 1

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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? Continue reading “The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 1”