Acts 6-8 – A New Tradition?

Philip The DeaconIn his Beginning at Jerusalem, James Dunn collects a number of elements which make up a “Hellenist Tradition” in Acts 6-8 (243-4). Dunn’s point is to show that Luke had a cohesive source for this section Acts since the material found here is markedly different than Acts 1-5.  I agree with his evidence and think that Luke had a source for this section on Hellenistic ministry.  In the following I summarize a few of Dunn’s points with some expansions.

  • As I observed in a previous  post, language is an obvious difference.  Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem for a pilgrimage may have gathered in the Synagogue rather than the Temple to read and study Scripture in Greek.
  • There is dissension in the church.  Luke has repeatedly highlighted the unity and “one-mindedness” of the early community in Jerusalem, but now there is a serious rift between the two groups.
  • The Deacons are elected to their role by the Apostles.  There is no indication of divine appointment, as was the case when Judas was replaced in chapter 1.
  • The Deacons appear to be active in the Synagogue (6:9) rather than the Temple.  The Apostolic mission was based in the Temple courts.
  • Stephen is attacked by other Hellenists in the synagogue, not the Temple authorities.  Specifically, Stephen is accused of repeating Jesus’ threat to destroy the Temple.  More than that, Stephen is “changing the customs Moses delivered.”  The Apostles are not accused of anything like this, rather they appear to be conforming to the Traditions since they continue to worship in the Temple.
  • There is a clear negative Temple-motif in Stephen’s speech (7:46-50 especially).  This negative view of the Temple is not found in Peter’s sermons or the ministry of the Apostles.
  • God protected Peter and John when they were arrested, not so Stephen.  He is lynched by an angry mob for his sermon in Acts 7.  In contrast to the large number of converts after Peter’s sermons, Stephen has no converts and creates such tensions that even greater opposition develops.
  • I would add to this list that the ministry of Philip is Samaria is considerably different than the Apostolic mission.  Peter and John are no longer preachers in the Temple, but elders who guard the Gospel against corruption.  The Spirit moves beyond Jerusalem and a non-Apostle works miracles in Samaria.

What should we make of this evidence? While this anticipates my next post, I think that what we have here in Acts 6-8 is another strand of the early Jesus movement.  The crowds which hear Peter preach in Acts 2 and 3 included both Hellenists and Hebraists, to use the language of Acts 6:1.  While Luke is at pains to highlight the unity of the community in Acts 1-5, he does not hide the fact that there was some factionalism along cultural lines from the very beginning.

I do not think this a bad thing, the Gospel is going to be far more than a Jewish messianic sect.  Luke has already told us the Gospel would go out to the whole world, beginning with Jerusalem and the diversity of Jewish belief and practice.

Is there more in Acts 6-8 that helps to support Dunn’s suggestion that this material is a drawn from a “cohesive source” that describes Hellenistic, Jewish ministry?

7 thoughts on “Acts 6-8 – A New Tradition?

  1. P. Long added “the ministry of Philip in Samaria is considerably different than the Apostolic mission”. This one should definitely be on the list. It’s interesting to see, as P. Long stated, miraculous works and signs being performed outside of Jerusalem. Another scene that could be added to Dunn’s list is Philip and the Ethiopian. Whether he is a Hellenistic Gentile or not is not the point. Acts 1-5 ministry is done in Jerusalem. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that for that is what Jesus commanded his disciples to do. But, we see Philip doing something else here. Much different from what ministry looked like in chapters 1-5. Like others scattered, he “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). He went down into Samaria. And many believed there. He also baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. I think the significance of this story is that Philip is preaching the gospel and making disciples wherever he goes. In other words, he is reaching the ends of the earth, making disciples of all nations as Matthew 28:19 says.

  2. I am not exactly sure how Dunn’s evidence points to Stephen’s martydom. We can look back at the accusions that the High Priest and religious leaders brought against Stephen which ultimately led to his martydom. After his martydom, the truth of the Gospel is still being boldly proclaimed across the ends of the earth as John mentioned with the example of Philip and the eunach.

  3. If it was the goal/mission of the Apostles to teach the gospel in Jerusalem and that was the tradition at the time. A very interesting and difference/change from that would be Simon the Sorcerer. Simon a very powerful man in Samaria would not likely be one who would be persuaded easily which the power he had, although, Peter and John were sent by the apostles to Samaria in order to find out the status of possible converts in Samaria. In which process, they lay their hands on the men in Samaria and Simon ask how he may be able to do such a wonder. Peter and John say he has no part in “this ministry”.

    I find it interesting that Peter and John were sent into Samaria instead of sending anyone else. If they were so concerned about their mission in Jerusalem, why was this group of man such a draw for the Apostles to abandon two of them men to check it out? Peter and john didn’t even stop there, “25 After they had further proclaimed the word of the Lord and testified about Jesus, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.” So there had to be a change in the nature of the tradition or mission on this part of the apostles.

  4. Hellenistic Jews were Jews who integrated Greek thought into their Jewish religion. However, when some Hellenistic Jews became Hellenistic Christians, this caused division in the church like it did with temple and synagogue worship. I do have to wonder if the divide between the Hellenistic believers and non-Hellenistic believers was something that was acknowledged or felt in the early church or if theologians have just drawn these conclusions based on in depth research. Whatever the cause, Dunn does mention that some differences between the Hellenistic Christian believers and the non-Hellenistic believers include asking for seven elected deacons (Acts 6:3) who were “full of the spirit and wisdom” and the differences in speech, language, and where the teaching was held. Among these seven included Stephen, who was given the gift of the Holy Spirit and therefore God was with him. We see how God miraculously worked within him (Acts 6:8) and showed up at his death (Acts 7:55). All this to say, if Stephen was a Hellenistic believer, the Lord God still worked within him and still did many deeds in His name.

  5. Tradition is everything… even today there are so many traditions. Every holiday we celebrate every family has their own tradition whether that is what they eat or where they sit or what games they play it is something that too many families can’t be skipped when they gather. In Acts 6-8, we see that the Hellenistic Jews have some traditions that are “being changed”. These changes lead to the death of Stephen. Moving on from traditions I appreciate the bullet points of walking through what’s going on from your own interpretation. The questions at the end are also great to think about. All I can think about is what you said in class” the persecution of Christians is actually what we want because it is spreading out the word of God and like you say in your post “the Gospel would go out to the whole world”. This persecution is spreading out the Gospel and at the moment we might think that is bad but it is good it is reaching areas that are against tradition.

  6. This blog post is discussing James Dunn’s analysis of the “Hellenist Tradition” in Acts 6-8. The author agrees with Dunn’s evidence that Luke had a source for this section of the book of Acts, “since the material found in this section is markedly different from Acts 1-5” (Long). The post summarizes some of Dunn’s points, including the differences in language, dissension in the church, the election of deacons by the apostles, the deacons’ activities in the synagogue, Stephen’s attack by other Hellenists, the negative Temple motif in Stephen’s speech, and the different ministry of Philip in Samaria. I agree with what the post says that Luke was showing the diversity of Jewish belief and practice from the beginning. Overall, the blog post is in support of Dunn’s suggestion that the material in Acts 6-8 has been retrieved from a “cohesive source” that describes that kind of Jewish ministry. I agree that this material helps to support the idea that the gospel was going to be far-reaching, starting in Jerusalem and encompassing different cultural and belief systems.

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