The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication
It is a curiously widespread assumption that there was some major theological divide in the Jerusalem Jesus-movement (church) between the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists,” but that is also a dubious assumption, as shown some time ago now in an important (but often overlooked) study: Craig C. Hill, Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division Within the Earliest Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). One reviewer (James W. Thompson) wrote: “The scholarly world will learn from this book that we can no longer speak of the radical division between the Hebrews and the Hellenists.” It would appear, however, that the lesson is still to be disseminated and absorbed.
In Acts (and that’s largely where the argument turns) the only indication of differences in the Jerusalem church is in 6:1-7, which merely states that the “Hellenists” (i.e., Greek-speaking Jews, likely from the Diaspora and resettled in Jerusalem) complained that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. Hardly evidence of some major ideological division! If one wishes to treat this reference as a historical report, there are obvious reasons that such a problem could have arisen: e.g., linguistic and cultural differences. No need to manufacture some major theological divide.
Likewise, it is a fallacy to assume that the persecutions depicted in Acts fell solely (or even disproportionately) on the “Hellenist” members of the Jerusalem church. The reference to a major persecution in Jerusalem in Acts 8:1-3 makes no such division. Instead, it claims, “all except the apostles were scattered” (v. 1). Sure, Acts features the martyrdom of Stephen, and he’s described as prominent among the “Hellenists” (Acts 6:8–7:60). But Acts also mentions the arrest and interrogation of Peter and John (“Hebrews”, 4:1-22), an imprisonment of “the apostles” (5:17-42), the execution of James Zebedee (another “Hebrew”, 12:1-5), and another imprisonment of Peter (12:6-11), which surely depict opposition against Jerusalem Jesus-followers irrespective of their language preferences.
Those who assert a theological difference typically make the Stephen narrative the key evidence, but that’s not a secure basis. First of all, the opposition against Stephen is depicted as coming from fellow “Hellenist” Jews from the Diaspora, not from “Hebrews” either in or outside of the Jerusalem church (6:8-9). Second, the charges against Stephen are variously depicted as “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (which isn’t all that clear), and the claim (NB: by what the author says are false witnesses) that Stephen was saying things “against this holy place and the law” (6:13). On this basis (especially and oddly on the basis of what the text depicts as false testimony), Stephen’s speech is then read as some sort of diatribe against the Jerusalem Temple and the Torah, and this is supposedly the emphasis that made him and “Hellenist” members of the Jerusalem church distinctive and odious.
But, if you read Stephen’s speech without first assuming what it’s about, I’d say that one has a sustained diatribe about Israel’s failures to recognize God’s revelations, Israel’s disobedience to God, not particularly a focus on Temple and Torah as something to shed.
Moreover (and more importantly), Acts depicts the climactic offence in the Stephen narrative (that generates an enraged group to kill him) as his statement about Jesus’ exalted place in heaven “at the right hand of God” (7:55-57). This is what triggers the crowd to drag him off for stoning, and it’s clearly a Christological claim, not some supposed condemnation of Temple or Torah.
As for Paul’s early opposition against the Jesus-movement, Acts depicts this as done (or at least beginning) in Jerusalem (e.g., 9:19-21), and Paul himself depicts Judean Jesus-circles as amazed that “he who formerly was persecuting us [NB] is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:21-23). (Paul’s statement that “I was unknown in person [τω προσοπω] among the churches of Judea” [v. 22] in context seems to mean that he was not known among them at that point as the advocate and fellow believer he had become.)
The widespread assumption that “Hellenists” held some kind of distinctive theological position at odds with “Hebrews” in the Jerusalem church seems to go back to F.C. Baur (early 19th century). For some scholars subsequently, such as the great Martin Hengel, the “Hellenistis” have played a crucial role as what I have called “proto-Paulinists” (see my discussion in Lord Jesus Christ, 206-14). But this seems to me to rest upon a rather shaky foundation of unexamined assumptions and unduly bold constructions.
Paul gives no hint that his opposition against “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13) was generated by anti-Temple or anti-Torah stances. By all indications he was opposing Jesus-followers because of their Jesus-devotion. And that’s how Acts treats the matter as well in the speeches ascribed to Paul: Acts 22:19 (his actions against those who believed in Jesus), Acts 26:9-11 (acting “against the name of Jesus,” and attempting to “force them to blaspheme,” which I take to mean renouncing Jesus).