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The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication

November 12, 2014

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).

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  1. 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.

    • Neil: I fear that you pose a false dilemma. Of course, the speeches in Acts (especially the speeches) are constructions by the author, and intended to serve the author’s larger narrative purposes. Indeed, if you read more carefully my posting and responses to other comments, you’ll see that I refer to the speech as the product of the author. My point in the initial posting is that *in Acts* there isn’t “evidence” of some major theological division in the Jerusalem church, the “Hellenists” being some supposedly progressive group anticipating Paul’s supposedly anti-temple and Torah-free gospel (the latter another dubious scholarly view).
      Some scholars (including yours truly) would also contend that even the sort of historical narrative described by Penner may preserve information useful for “what really happened” type queries. How do we know? By looking for any corroborative evidence, just as all other historical work proceeds.
      BTW: Penner is a former (brilliant) masters-degree student of mine from my days at University of Manitoba.
      For reviews of Penner’s book, see, e.g., the following:

      • Thanks for the reply, Larry. I should point out, however, that I certainly did not overlook your reference to the speech as being a product of the author, by the way. I would expect that virtually all critical scholars would take that position.

        I am not sure where my posited false dilemma lies, however. My comment was suggesting a view from a perspective that possibly nullifies the competing views (no schism/schism) that you were addressing.

        (I’ve read the reviews, thanks, and have posted on Penner’s book myself on my own blog, by the way.)

      • Neil: My apology if I misunderstood your earlier posting, in which, citing Penner’s emphasis on the Stephen speech as the creation of the author of Acts, you then seemed to me to conclude that it was thus pointless to try to fathom anything historical from the text. If that is what you meant, that is the false dilemma: A rhetorically crafted text may still very well be capable of being mined for historical information.

      • Griffin permalink

        Wouldn’t focusing just on Acts be misleading historically? Since all the rest of History suggests a strong and often violent conflict between traditional or zionistic Judaism, vs. the Greek and Roman empires? As in the Maccabean Revolt; and the occupation of Jerusalem by Rome c. 64 BC; and then the burning of Jerusalem by Rome, 70 AD?

      • Griffin: Scholars don’t “focus just on Acts”. They bring to bear all relevant data, if they’re good scholars. But the successive Jewish revolts against Rome don’t particularly help us in judging what Christology the “hellenists” of Acts may have held.

      • Brett permalink

        Larry H: As you rightly noted, if our goal is to see the broader picture and to gauge the historical accuracy of this text – which would be the larger goal of many of us – it is important to compare the information derived 1) just from the text itself, to 2) what larger historical studies tell us. While that larger History suggests that there were indeed often many conflicts between Jewish culture, Israel and Judah, and surrounding empires; especially Greeks and Roman.

        Possibly the scholarship that sees a schism in Acts, is thinking about this larger picture. Which would suggest that there would likely be conflict between Zionist, patriotic Jews, and those who would of necessity have collaborated to some degree with local Greek or Roman rulers, like Pontius Pilate. Or Hellenized locals, like Herod. In this case, information only faintly found in the text itself, would however be highlighted by larger historical context, outside the text proper.

      • Yes, Brett, and that is exactly what scholars in NT/CHristian Origins do, day in a day out, analysis of NT texts in the wider context of the Roman world, and all the dynamics involved (which is why the subject-area is so demanding in terms of texts, languages, etc.).
        But those who posed a schism in Acts (e.g., F.C. Baur and subsequently) weren’t particularly drawing upon wider generalized data about “Hellenization”, and those who criticized the idea weren’t ignorant of the matter.
        A hard, controlled linguistic study of the data simply shows that the term “hellenistes” = a person affecting or adopting some or other aspects/feature(s) of Greek culture. And from the sentences in which the term is used, the more plausible judgement is that, in the case of the “hellenists” of Acts, these were Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora, who moved to Jerusalem precisely because of their traditionalist leanings. (Had they been more “radical” hellenizers, e.g., adopting other gods, etc., they wouldn’t have moved to Jerusalem!)

      • That is indeed correct — a “rhetorically crafted text may still very well be capable of being mined for historical information” — no doubt.

        The difficulty I have, however, is as I attempted to point out in my initial comment (obviously ineptly, so I must apologize) is this: If we have an adequate explanation for certain content in a narrative (i.e. a theological/rhetorical explanation) then what need is there to continue to look for additional explanations that are not themselves evident in either the text or beyond?

        If the rhetorical craft itself provides an explanation for certain content in a text then on what basis do we seek additional explanations that rely on assumptions that take us beyond that text and for which we have no independent attestation?

      • Neil: The point I’m not getting over is that “rhetorical craft” is one thing, but not the whole thing. When a lawyer argues for or against an accused in court, that’s “rhetorical craft”. But it doesn’t mean that a crime hasn’t been committed, or that the accused might or might not be guilty.
        So, in ancient texts, when someone crafts a figure’s speech (e.g., Alexander, or Julius Caesar, or some military leader, or whomever), there is still the question of whether the writer is drawing upon tradition about that figure. So, Occam’s razor is a valid tool, but not to be used to cut away at the bone!

      • Let’s broaden the scope beyond Acts for a second.

        Even looking just at the Bible itself, we see many Jews in this time who were extremely influenced by Greek and Roman culture. Including Herod. But if Herod is included as a Hellenist, then we can suddenly see massive cooperation – alternating with massive conflicts – with Zealots.

      • Uh, yes, but the blog posting was about what/who the “hellenists” in Acts were. That various people “hellenized” in various ways is not under dispute.

      • 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.
        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.

      • 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.

  2. Dr. Hurtado, I take your point that the evidence as flimsy (cf. Hill’s work as well as Todd Penner’s In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic Historiography) and I know you probably address this in Lord Jesus Christ, but what do you make of the point in Stephen’s speech that seems to suggest that God does not need a house made with hands (7:48). Is this a hint of a polemic against the Jerusalem Temple (an idol built by human hands?) that jars with the presentation in Acts in the early chapters of the attitude of the Jerusalem apostles to the Temple and leads some scholars to believe Luke has toned down some of the distinctive beliefs of the Hellenists? Further, despite the fact that Peter is credited with the first Gentile convert, is there some hints that Philip and other scattered Greek-speaking Jews beginning to pave the way for a wider outreach in Acts 8-9? I think you might be right in critiquing the use of the “Hellenists” as proto-Paulinists who are the link between the Jerusalem Church and Paul.

    • Michael: The ref to the Solomonic temple (Acts 7:48) seems to be the final instance of what forms the climactic accusation in 7:51ff, that Israel has “opposed the Holy Spirit” over many generations, persecuting prophets, etc. That, it seems to me, is the emphasis of the speech. The brief reference to the Temple in vv. 48ff hardly justifies the sweeping conclusions of some. Acts gives no indication of any sentiment in anyone in the Jerusalem church that the Temple was now invalidated or anything like that. If you want to speculate that Acts has “toned down” some Temple polemic, you’d need to provide some corroborating evidence of such a polemic.
      Acts presents the Philip incident, the Samaritan story, and the Cornelius story as foretastes of the Pauline Gentile mission, likely attempting to make it less of a discontinuity than it might otherwise seem. There may well have been prior and other efforts to evangelize Gentiles (esp. those already attracted to the synagogues in various cities). But Paul seems to have espoused a more programmatic approach that generated opposition.

  3. Thank you Larry, I’ll need to get Hill’s book. Certainly no ground for positing a theological dispute. Yet the question of “Hellenists” has come up a few times lately as we’ve been reading through Acts in our local Bible study.

    Is it reasonable to assume that Luke, the only NT writer who uses this term, has a single meaning of “Hellenists” in mind, consistent in its three appearances (Acts 6:1, 9:29, and 11:20)? It seems that in 11:20 the nuance is to Gentiles rather than Greek-speaking Jews, as the contrast there is between Ioudaioi and Hellenists (cf: 11:19) rather than Hebrews/Hellenists.

    On the other hand, these could also refer to two communities of Israelites, with Judean/Jew serving synonymously with “Hebrew.”

    • Rob: The term “hellenistes” (translated “Hellenists”) essentially designates Greek-speaking people. In the references to “Hellenists” in the Jerusalem church, Acts seems to mean Greek-speaking Jews, the “Hebrews” being Aramaic-speaking Jews. In Acts 11:20, we’re probably looking at Greek-speaking Syrians (in Antioch), i.e., locals who took up Greek language and other cultural elements.

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