Acts 6 – Were Diaspora Jews “More Liberal”?

JosephusWe cannot make a general judgment like “all Jews from the Diaspora were more liberal” nor “all Jews from Jerusalem were more conservative.” These categories are derived from modern, western ways of dividing an issue into opposing, black and white categories and highlighting the contrasts.  It is entirely possible a Jew living in a Roman city was very conservative on some aspects of the Law even though he lived and worked alongside Gentiles.

Paul is the best example of this since he was a Jew from Tarsus, fluent in Greek but also able to call himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3. He was certainly quite conservative with respect to keeping the law and traditions of the people.  Yet he was a Roman citizen and seems to have had little problem functioning in the Greco-Roman world.  On the other hand, The High Priest, the Sadducees and Herodians appear to have been more relaxed concerning some aspects of the Law and had no real problem ruling alongside of the Romans. But they were still concerned with keeping the Law and maintaining the Temple.  It was therefore possible to be “extremely zealous” in the Diaspora and extremely lax while worshiping in the Temple regularly.

Some in the Jerusalem community in Acts 6 are more committed to a Jewish Christianity and are finding differences with the Jews who are more Hellenistic in attitude. This leads to the appointment of the deacons, but does not solve the ultimate problem. By Acts 11 Jews living in Antioch are willing to not only accept Gentiles as converts Christianity, by Acts 13 Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles who are not even a part of a synagogue!

Since these Hellenistic Jews are more open to Gentiles in the fellowship, the more conservative Jews in Jerusalem begin to persecute the apostolic community even more harshly, leading to the death of Stephen and the dispersion of the Hellenistic Jews.

The text in Acts 6 does not imply that the problem was theological – it was entirely social (Witherington, Acts, 250). Some of the Hellenists felt slighted because their poor were not supported at the same level as the non-Hellenists. The word Luke uses (παραθεωρέω) in Acts 6:1 means that one “overlooks something due to insufficient attention” (BDAG).  The neglect may not be intentional, but it was a very real problem which the Apostles needed to deal with quickly.

As we read Acts 6, how deep is the divide between these two groups?  Looking ahead at what happens in Antioch, in Galatia, and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), does this “Hebrew” vs. “Hellenist” divide foreshadow bigger problems?

7 thoughts on “Acts 6 – Were Diaspora Jews “More Liberal”?

  1. The difference between these groups is based upon their tradition and experience. This is where the divide is and I think that the Hellenistic Jews are more open to working and interacting with Gentiles. Much like Christian’s today, we are to live in the world, bit not to be a part of it. Unlike the Hebrew Jews who isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Much like certain Christian groups today; they don’t socialize much outside of their group. These people’s traditions demand that they don’t socialize outside of their race because it makes it difficult to “stay clean” and the Hellenistic Jews are considered as sinful because they are “sinning” by mixing with Gentiles.
    The foreshadow problem was that they couldn’t find common ground in their faith. The other problem was that the Hebrews didn’t want anything to do with the Gentiles and now we are called to ministry to them.

  2. The difference between these groups is based upon their tradition and experience. This is where the divide is and I think that the Hellenistic Jews are more open to working and interacting with Gentiles. Much like Christian’s today, we are to live in the world, bit not to be a part of it. Unlike the Hebrew Jews who isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Much like certain Christian groups today; they don’t socialize much outside of their group. These people’s traditions demand that they don’t socialize outside of their race because it makes it difficult to “stay clean” and the Hellenistic Jews are considered as sinful because they are “sinning” by mixing with Gentiles.
    The foreshadow problem was that they couldn’t find common ground in their faith. The other problem was that the Hebrews didn’t want anything to do with the Gentiles and now we are called to ministry to them.

  3. I think it is very ironic how in the previous chapters the Christians wanted to share their possessions with the poor. However in this chapter, the Christians are greedy and don’t want to share what they have with the poor. I think that cultural and tradition differences is what separates the two groups. One group the Hebrew Jews, remained in the land, kept their tradition and continued to speak the language. On the other hand, the Hellenistic Jews came in and took over their traditions. Also they probably didn’t speak the language or dress like them. The Hebrew Jews probably looked that Hellenistic Jews as a lower class and didn’t respect them. That type of thinking is probably one of the reason of where the divide came from.

  4. The Diaspora Jews were Hebraic people who resided outside of Jerusalem or Israel, which might lead some people to believe that this group of people would be more “liberal” than Jews who lived in Jerusalem or Israel. However, this distinction is not historically or scripturally accurate, leaning too much upon modern separations of liberalism and conservatism in our distinctive world. As Long notes, Paul is an excellent example of a great and conservative Jew who resided outside of Israel and Jerusalem. He was a Roman citizen who spoke fluent Greek, yet was quite conservative in relation to Jewish tradition and law, more so than his own teacher Gamaliel! Furthermore, The Sadducees and the High Priest seemingly had little problem becoming more permissive of liberal views of the law and having a relationship with the Romans. They still kept Jewish tradition and law quite tightly, but it was not unheard of or unlikely to find conservative Diaspora Jews and more liberalized temple-attending Jews.
    Acts 6 discusses how the difference between the Jerusalem-based Jews and Diaspora Jews who held more Hellenistic attitudes led to problems and difficulties. These issues resulted in the establishment of Deacons who would overlook these issues for the apostles, who could not give the necessary attention to the topic. The differences originated from the feelings of the Hellenistic Jews, who thought their poor people were not as attentively cared for as the non-Hellenistic Jews. Whether purposefully or due to simple ignorance is unknown, but interestingly, it was not a theological difference but a social issue that divided the people. Overall, this is all put together to say that regardless of potential hardship or early disagreement, it is not correct to simply assert that Hellenistic Jews were more liberal than temple-attending Jews.

  5. I think that sometimes it is easy to make that mental association that because something is separated from the source, it might lose its essence and strength. In this case, we might think that Diaspora Jews are more liberal because of their geographical distance from Jerusalem, but Long just easily pointed out that the opposite might be a better assertion of the case. Even today we can see examples of this. For many years, US was a leader in sending missionaries to other countries. While I can easily go to church wearing sweatpants and the like here, in Latin countries that would be way more frowned upon. So, the influence of older American Christianity is still present there, while in US things have moved on. I would imagine devout Diaspora Jews would do their best to preserve their culture and it would not change and update in accord with the developments in Jerusalem. Then it becomes a big challenge when these more conservative Hellenists Jews hear about the Gospel. Their reaction tends to be more drastic and intense, as we see in the case of Stephen. As for the issue between Hebrews and Hellenists in Jerusalem, it seems to be more of lack of attention than an intentional affront, as explained by Long. But the divide between Jews and Greeks later in Acts has more to do with Jewish believers being concerned that Gentile believers were not practicing the customs of the Law like a Jew or a Proselyte would. In Acts 15, we see both Jews from Jerusalem and from the Diaspora proclaiming that Gentile converts should be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Maybe this could still be seen as conservative versus liberal, but I would suggest it should be seen as a difference between the Judaic practices and the liberty found in Christ.

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