This is the seventeenth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This post examines a conflict between Hellenists and Hebraioi, both groups of Jesus’ disciples divided on linguistic grounds, and the choosing of seven to serve the needs of the Hellenists’ community. According to tradition the seven were the first seven “deacons,” but the text does not bear this out unequivocally.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.
D) Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Hellenists, Hebraioi and Seven Chosen to Serve (6:1-7):
1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (NRSV)
This section is set in the context of rapid growth, “when the disciples were increasing in number” and “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). The needs of the community outstrips its administrative abilities as Luke Timothy Johnson says (Johnson, Acts, 105). The Hellenists “complained” to the Hebraioi. The word for “complained” is gongysmos, “murmuring” (Page, Acts, 116). Johnson notes that the word as used in the LXX refers to the Israelites’ grumbling against God in the wilderness (Johnson, Acts, 105), but there is a major exception in Acts compared to the Israelites in the wilderness: the Hellenists appear to be correct to grumble.
The groups themselves are both groups of Jewish Christians, but one group speaks Greek and the other Hebrew or, more likely, Aramaic (JANT, 209; Page, Acts, 116; NJBC, 739; Johnson, Acts, 105). There is evidence for Greek speaking synagogues in Jerusalem at that time, especially inscriptional evidence (see NJBC, 739 for details on the inscriptional evidence). This scene, therefore, represents a conflict amongst Christians in Acts, which appears to be based upon linguistic differences. This scene of conflict runs counter to the ideal picture of the early Church that Luke is often said to present. But Luke is not shy of presenting conflicts between individual Christians or within the community, although Dillon attributes this conflict to the source material, which certainly Luke is dependent upon (NJBC, 739).
Dillon sees Luke as accurately reporting the reality of a split between Hellenists and Hebraioi, but not how “this other constituency emerged” or how its leadership was constituted, and by “other” he means Hellenists as the Hebraioi represent Jesus’ apostles (NJBC, 739). Dillon argues in fact that
the conflict of which we are told so little was not the cause of the appointment of new leaders after all, but rather the result of an already existing division in the Jerusalem church, with one segment led by the Twelve, the other by the men we are meeting here for the first time (v 5). The features of the account that make these newcomers subordinate to the Twelve, obtaining the lesser ministry of table service (v 2) by the imposition of the apostles’ hands (v 6), are likely the result of Luke’s editing. (NJBC, 739)
Dillon might seem to push the evidence too far –I am not certain that a conflict existed prior to the issue concerning neglect of the “widows” – but it must be noted that no one among the Seven ever does wait on tables in Acts and the only two of the Seven we will meet again and in significant detail – Stephen and Philip - are engaged in preaching the Gospel.
“The daily distribution of food” would be linked to the Christian community as such not to the broader Jewish community (NJBC, 740), but such daily distribution was found in numerous Jewish communities (Johnson, Acts, 106). “Neglect of widows” should be seen as neglecting the poor or marginalized in general among the Hellenist disciples and this omission runs contrary to communal assistance which is at the heart of the community, as seen particularly in Acts 4:32-37 (see Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (13)). Such neglect of widows and others is spoken against in Deuteronomy 24:17-21, Isaiah 10:1-3 and Zechariah 7:10 (JANT, 209). More than this Johnson sees such neglect as shorthand for overlooking one’s covenantal responsibilities, “a fundamental betrayal of covenant loyalty” (Johnson, Acts, 105).
Upon being confronted by the Hellenists on this matter, “the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables’” (Acts 6:2). What is sometimes overlooked is that there is a clear acknowledgement by the Hebraioi that the Hellenists are correct. Johnson says it is not a moral failing, but administrative oversight based upon the rapid growth of the community and this seems to be borne out by the quick decision in favor of the Hellenists (Johnson, Acts, 106).
Johnson also thinks that Luke’s use of plêthos, “assembly” or “multitude,” translated as “whole community,” is intended to indicate that this is a deliberative body, an official gathering making this decision (Johnson, Acts, 106). In agreement with this, Page suggests that the Greek phrase ouk arestin estin (oὐκ ἀρεστόν ἐστιν), “it’s not right,” that is, not right for the apostles to neglect the word of God to wait on tables, indicates an authoritative decision (Page, Acts, 116).
The Greek phrase diakonein trapezais (διακονεῖν τραπέζαις), “wait on tables,” probably reflects the theme of service to the community. “To wait” is not, therefore, “table service per se, but providing service to the community, especially its poor (which may be financial help)” (JANT, 209-10). Why might it include financial help and not simply service of distribution of food? “Wait on tables” may equal “keeping accounts” because trapezais is also used of a money changer’s table (Matthew 21:12) and a trapeizitês is a name for a banker (Page, Acts, 117). Whether it is distribution of food or more broadly financial service, “this is not a reference to the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist,” but something broader (JANT, 210).
The Apostles agree that the Hellenists should “select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word” (Acts 6:3-4). All of those chosen have Greek names, which lends credence to the Greek-Aramaic linguistic split and all the men obviously coming from the Hellenists.
More significantly this decision leads to what has traditionally been understood to be the choosing of the first seven deacons. The men chosen have to be martyroumenous (μαρτυρουμένους), “of good report” (Page, Acts, 117), which means having one’s character vouched for (Johnson, Acts, 106). Page argues there is no textual authority for considering them deacons, as they are only called to wait on tables (Page, Acts, 116-17), but quite clearly that is not what they do as we will see later in Acts. Stephen, one of the seven, will be presented as the Church’s first martyr in the passages which follow based on his preaching (6:8-7:60), while Philip will be an evangelist who breaks down boundary lines in his evangelization (8:26-40).
Quite clearly the deacons do not simply wait on tables. “The division of labor does not hold: none of the seven serves food, and both Stephen and Philip pray and preach” (JANT, 210; see also NJBC, 740). “The problem of the passage is therefore this: there is no obvious connection between the purported role of the seven and their actual function” (Johnson, Acts, 111). But Johnson believes the issue disappears when we remember the relation in Luke’s writing between “authority over material possessions” as linked to “spiritual authority” (Johnson, Acts, 111). Service is spiritual authority in early Christianity, Johnson argues.
Nevertheless it is an open question as to whether we have here the founding of the office of deacon, for though the verb “to serve” (diakonein) appears here, they are not called “deacons” but simply “the seven” (Acts 21:8), a number which might be based on that of a Jewish town council (Deuteronomy 16:18; NJBC, 740). Dillon does believe, though, that Luke might have in mind a connection to the later diaconate spoken of in Philippians 1:2 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 12, but that they are not called “deacons” here for the good reason that they do not serve in that capacity (NJBC, 740).
The choice of seven men is then made, since “what they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5). All the names are Greek, as noted above (Page, Acts, 117; NJBC, 740), but we only hear of Stephen and Philip again. Still, whatever became of the seven as a group, what was said “pleased the whole community” and “the community once divided is now united” (JANT, 210).
Then, “they had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6). The laying on of hands (epethêkan; ἐπέθηκαν), which was found in Judaism prior to Jesus and the early disciples, is a “sign of appointment for divine service” (JANT, 210; see Numbers 27:28, Deuteronomy 34:9, and in the NT 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:22, 2 Timothy 1:6). It can also be a sign of blessing (see Genesis 48:14-20 and Matthew 19:13; Page, Acts, 117). “The Jewish ritual expressed both transfer of function and bestowal of powers” as it must do here also coming from the Apostles to the Seven (NJBC, 740; Johnson, Acts, 107). For Richard Dillon it also shows the subordination of the “originally independent Hellenistic leadership” to the Twelve, although I am not convinced subordination is at the heart of this narrative (NJBC, 740).
This section ends with a summary statement, so common in Acts, that “the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Note how the Gospel is said to spread among the Jewish population, a population which Acts will later indicate has not accepted the Gospel. It is clear from these early chapters in Acts, however, that the growth in Jerusalem was rapid.
This growth includes priests, which indicates that some Jewish leaders were open to the Gospel and the Jewish authorities were not united in their opposition to Jesus. Indeed, opposition from priests is seen immediately preceding this account in Acts 5:17 (Acts of the Apostles Commentary (15)), yet it clearly did not include everyone (JANT, 210).
In fact the number who became disciples is said to be a “crowd” (ochlos; ὄχλος) of priests. The priests are said “to be obedient” (hypakouô; ὑπήκουον) to the faith, the same verb used for instance to describe Jesus’ behavior to his parents after being found in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:51). Those who follow Jesus, including the priests, are here described as “the faith” (tê pistei; τῇ πίστει), equivalent to “the community of faith” (Johnson, Acts, 108). Though a conflict begins this account, it was due to rapid growth and the same account ends with the continued rapid growth of the disciples, even among the priests.
Next entry, Stephen preaches and encounters opposition.
John W. Martens
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