Acts 6 – Who were the Hellenistic Jews?

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews, and neither is numbered among the Twelve. It is possible these men were not followers of Jesus prior to Pentecost. Perhaps they were among the crowd who hear Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

This section is sometimes cited as an example of Luke creating a story in order to describe a smooth transfer of leadership from the Jewish followers of Jesus to the Hellenistic Jewish followers. But things are not as smooth as they appear. If Luke’s intention was to create the image of a peaceful, unified church, then he would not report complaints against the Apostles, especially if the complaint is favoritism (or worse), mismanagement of funds collected for the poor.

Hebrew and GreekActs 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was. To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts, 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

Aside from historical accuracy, does this matter for reading Acts?  I think it helps understand that the community of earliest believers were far more diverse than Acts 2-5 would imply. If Peter and John represent the only form of the early followers of Jesus, then it is hard to explain the violent suppression of Stephen. This diversity is less a “development” in the earliest church, but a factor present from the beginning.

23 thoughts on “Acts 6 – Who were the Hellenistic Jews?

  1. This idea of Hebraic vs Hellenistic Jews is really interesting to me, at least, because I think we often view Judaism as this one culture and one ethnicity when, in reality, it was more diverse than that. Even in the Old Testament history books and laws, we see mentions of foreigners among the Jews and how they should be treated among the Jewish society. This would ultimately lead to some sort of cultural and ethnic diversity in the population of God’s chosen people. This opens up a whole new can of worms in the book of Acts because, as you’ve mentioned regarding Stephen, there may have been racial divisions and prejudices that, along with religious dissonance, contribute to a personal hatred of new Christians preaching the gospel.

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  2. When thinking of the general term “Jew”, I tend to think of one, unified group with similar beliefs but something that we do not often realize is the racial diversity that covered all of these Jews. Every sect of the Jews were usually either from a different region or were around for different events. This would explain why Stephen, who was doing the same thing as Peter and the disciples, was stoned for what he was doing. Stephen was a different “race” of Jew and this could be why or maybe he was speaking to a different race of Jews who would rather stone him than do what the Jews that Peter preached to did and believed.

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    • You maybe forget that Peter and John were put in prison for their sermons! Angels intervened.

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  3. I appreciate this post! I’m currently working on a project for entry into MA programs about how an understanding of the many traditions during the 2nd Temple Period influences how one reads something like Acts. More specifically, I’m examining how the Pseudepigrapha tend to present Jewish/Gentile relations before 70 A.D.
    I like this!

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      • Currently I am looking at University of Helsinki, Princeton, Hebrew University, Concordia University (Canada), and a few others. I’ll begin nailing down the schools to apply to around May.

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  4. Realizing that there were different “types” of Jews who conducted themselves differently is very important in understanding the story of Acts and the Bible in general. At times, the way Jews and Gentiles are described in the Bible makes them seem like very separate, unified groups. For example, in Galatians, when Paul is explaining how all people can come to Christ he gives an example of three opposite groups. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) To me, verses like this give off a sense that each group has its own distinct identity or common belief. Although the Jews did have common beliefs, some of their differing views caused problems in the early church. Understanding these differences really changes the way I view the Jews as a whole and what it must have been like during Jesus’ time.

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  5. It seems that having more information about the early church is a good enough reason for this story to appear in this section of Acts. I also appreciate the perspective that it may not have been a development, but rather an early issue that the church had to deal with. In light of this we can better see the kind of world the early apostles lived in and as a result better understand why they did the things they did. In this way we can use their examples for our learning and try not to repeat things that failed for them (Romans 15:4). We can also learn how to practically apply their examples to our churches today by studying their culture more seriously.

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  6. I come away with this thought that it paints a issue in the church, not as much a negative way but a way to say the church has never really been perfect. Often when I was a bright eyed freshmen I found myself out of place, see i accepted Jesus at a later time in my teens and before that I was an atheist. When a teach said “reach into the parable of the two sons and tell me the application”, but me a younger believer did not have this memory of awana and sunday school teaching times. Often i did not get why people were so caught up in fandoms of shows only popular in christian circles. I was not the favorite and it matters now as it did then. ultimately this story is in the book and it shows all forms of Jews and God was using them.

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  7. When I think about Judaism, I never thought about if there were divisions or not but in Acts 6:1 we see that there is a division of Jews. There are the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. There is also a problem that arises between both divisions of Jews. It appears that the widows among the Hellenistic Jews were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. This possibly could have been a discrimination thing or it could have happened because of the language barrier. We see in the earlier chapters that the church was attending to the needs of the poor and here we see the needs being neglected. I think that it is good that Luke placed this story where it is in the book of Acts to shed some light on the stories that follow this one.

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  8. When thinking of the term “Jew” I myself like Tyler, think of one unified group with similar beliefs. I tend to think that way for almost every religion. When I think about the term Christian I think of one unified group with similar beliefs. Also when reading this I see that there is dissection among the Jews. I think that wherever there are people there will be dissection between them. I say that because it is hard for people to have the same goals. Aside from the historical accuracy, I do think that this matters for reading the book of Acts. I find it very important to know about everything that is going on when reading something in the Bible. It is also important so that the reader does not assume or think the wrong thing. In this case, there are a lot of things going on. There is a dissection and discrimination going on between the Jews. So yes I think this information is valuable to know when reading Acts.

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  9. While, as others have said, we may be inclined to think of first-century Jews as being one community, clues in the book of Acts would tell us otherwise. Pentecost is a great example of this. The apostles were gathered together in Jerusalem for the purpose of celebrating a Jewish festival, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, who enabled them to preach. Near them were many other Jews (from all over the known world), who each heard “their own language being spoken” (Acts 2:6). The passage then lists something like 16 different Jewish groups that were present. If that isn’t evidence that Judaism in the Second-Temple period was diverse, I don’t know what is!

    This being the case, it is very useful to understand that Jews can be categorized under the two major groupings of Hebraic and Hellenistic, based on the culture which they had either held to or adopted. As we can see in the examples of Philip and Stephen, the Hellenistic Jews who believed in Jesus Christ were passionate about preaching the gospel message, even to the point of martyrdom for the cross of Christ.

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  10. A common thread through out humanity be it Hebrew or gentile is that one group will discriminate against another picking out physical features dress language what ever is different from themselves or the accepted norm of the dominate culture. We can look to the political setting today in the U.S. this being a election year, look at the fictionalized in fighting between gop members and the democrats. They fight with one another until a opposing force comes at them then they unify. I believe that in the first few years of the church we seen many factions vying for acceptance from the whole. In the end result the truth won out. The church established the acceptable doctrine that was pleasing to all the faction by enlarge. Others spun off and into oblivion. If in doubt look to the changing of the guard from Peter to James and son on. The church is a living breathing organism that is growing day by day.

    .

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  11. Why was there enough Hellenists to lodge a complaint about food distribution? Where did all the Hellenist widows come from? Did they wander into Jerusalem for the senior buffet? How were they able to appoint so many Greek-named men to help? And why did so many men from various geographic locations rise up against Stephen (6:9)? Seems like a lot of “foreign” Jews around Jerusalem for a long time after Pentecost.

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    • How about this: They were Christian Hellenistic Jews who were convinced Jesus was the messiah and was about to return at any moment, so why return home? Why not stay in Jerusalem until Jesus returns?

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  12. What I find interesting is not the fact that there were different sects of Judaism, but more the division between the idea of integration with the culture. It is clear even today that every religion has different aspects of conservative vs. liberal beliefs. Yet often it seems that one of the big discussions is how much one should be of the world, but not in the world. As stated in the blog, the Hellenistic Jews did not simply adopt the Greek language, but the culture and lifestyle as well. Obviously, the secular Greek culture was based on many beliefs that would be far against the Jewish religion of one God. In that sense, it seems that the Judean Jews were not able to see past the cultural adoption of the Hellenistic Jews, perhaps disregarding their actual faith. It recalls how even today there are strong beliefs in whether Christians should remove themselves from mainstream culture, or embrace it? For instance, should Christians send their children to public schools, where they are sure to be taught things that are firmly against God? Or do they send them with the hope of growing stronger in their faith? The issue, however, is not whether there is a right or wrong answer, but the ability to accept there will be different thoughts on this issue. This does not make some more religious, or some more filled with faith. And this seems to have been where the division between the Hellenist and Judean Jews lay. Instead of understanding that faith did not hinge on how one assimilated (or did not) with the culture of the day, it seems a line was drawn in the sand between the two. Could a Hellenist Jew assimilate and accept some parts of the Greek culture while rejecting ideas which were contrary to their Jewish faith? I think the answer is yes, just as much as believers today can do the same.

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  13. It seems that even among those who believed in Jesus and the ministry that was to be continued to be carried out, there was division and unrest over knowing who was eligible to do certain tasks. It seems that between the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews, there was a misunderstanding as to what was expected of each group as the diversity of the early church meant that a lot of cultural aspects were being brought together. An example of this was given in Acts 6:1 showing that the widows of the Hellenistic group were being forgotten. Polhill notes that this passage seems to be only one of many serious theological frictions that were happening between the two groups (2092). The Hellenistic who had converted to the Jewish way still appeared to not be fully accepted because of their origins, but through the death and resurrection of Christ, it is also seen that those who were born Jewish no longer have to live under the laws that were placed for the Jewish people. If the first 5 chapters are intentionally about Peter and John and 6-8 are about Stephen and Philip to show the ministry of both Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews, then it seems that Luke is trying to tell his readers that each group is now as equally important as the other.
    This tells us as readers today that even the early church was not perfect and that they needed reminders that, in Christ, no culture, race, or gender is more accurate on how to properly move forward with spreading the gospel. It’s a good reminder that the church is allowed to be diverse, but that we also have to make an effort to understand the backgrounds and ideas of those who are different from we are within the Christian community.

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  14. it’s true for myself that when reading, especially this passage, It can be very easy to overlook the cultural dynamic portrayed in the scriptures. Especially in this passage. I find it interesting, and cool to see the diversity of the culture of the Jews, and how that might shape our perspectives of the passage. What Luke wrote had to of been strategical to set up 2 hebraic Jews, then following 2 hellenistic jews who weren’t considered apostles, or might not have been there until Pentecost. Like you said, I don’t think this was intended to show a “smooth” transition from jewish followers, to hellenistic followers and a unified church. If this was his intent, he proably would have strayed from speaking of conflict and issues they were having. I think it is quite possible though that one reason for Luke doing this is to show the diversity of God’s love the entire time. Like you had said, not a development, but what it already is. A diverse group in of itself that, although has struggled with favoritism, God’s love does not. And his open arms are equally for all those who believe in Him.

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  15. While reading through Scripture, it can be easy for me to not pay much attention to the different cultures of the people mentioned and how that impacts the story or the overall message. Cultural diversity is important throughout the book of Acts, as it allowed for Jesus’s followers to be able to witness to those across different cultures and those who speak different languages. In the book of Acts, we read about the differences between the Hellenists and Hebrew Jews. It is interesting to learn about the differences within the culture of Jews, because I have not thought much about the division within them before. Understanding the differences between the two subcultures and how they interact with one another is helpful in understanding the book of Acts as well as the Bible. Polhill (2008) states, “The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora (‘dispersed’ Jews living outside Palestine). … The Hebrews were native Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic as their primary language and had attended the Hebrew-speaking synagoges” (p. 2092). As P. Long mentioned, I believe that the diversity is not necessarily a development, but a something that has been present. However, it is not always implied in Acts 2-5. Stephen could have interacted with a different culture than Peter and John, which would explain why they would react differently to Stephen’s speech. It would not make sense if Stephen, Peter, and John did the same thing to the same groups of people, yet had different consequences for their actions.

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  16. The idea of Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews is a very interesting topic because it showed that there is diversity between Jews. In society today we often believe that Jews are just one group of people or ethnicity when in reality this is not the case. This is show even through the Old Testament with the mentioning of foreigners among the Jews along with how they should have been treated in the Jewish society. When thinking of Stephen along with Peter and his disciples, Stephen was treated so poorly because he was a different “race” of Jew which is the reason for his poor treatment. The people were not open to someone looking different than them preaching which could be why he was stoned to death. Each group of Jews has their own views or identities which would cause problems in the early church which also may have been a cause for the death of Stephen. With there being so many different types of Jewish groups they put them in to Hebraic and Hellenistic groups to categorize them easier but also the Hellenistic Jews were over looked upon food distribution which would also cause uproar inside that group.

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