This persecution is directly related to the death of Stephen in chapter 7. Since Stephen’s sermon was a statement of judgment against the leadership of Israel for their resistance to the Holy Spirit. There is a progression of resistance in Acts 1-8. First the apostles are warned, then they are arrested and beaten, then Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin, and lynched. Now the whole church of Jerusalem is being suppressed.
Saul is the ringleader of this persecution – he begins to “ravaging the church” (ESV). This verb (λυμαίνω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it had the sense of a violent oppression (1 Chron16:10) or even rape (Judith 9:2, 4 Mac 18:8). Keener indicates the word can be applied to torture as well (2:1484). It seems odd from a modern, western perspective to employ violence to suppress sub-group within a religion, although there are plenty of examples of violent clashes between various Christian groups over the centuries. The fact Saul will use such violent measures against the Jesus movement indicates he thought it was a dangerous belief which had to be suppressed by any means. (Saul is just as zealous as those who persecuted Peter in Acts 5, see my comments on that passage).
But who exactly is scattered? The apostles are not “scattered,” but remain in Jerusalem. Since Saul led the group which killed Stephen, it seems as though conservative Hellenistic Jews are continuing the persecution. Since Stephen and Philip are examples in Luke of Hellenistic Jews who have accepted the apostolic message, it also seems likely that this persecution targeted Hellenistic Jewish believers.
Keener recognizes the Hellenists were the special targets of persecution, although Luke says Saul was attaching “all the church.” Keener sees this as another example of Luke’s hyperbolic use of “all” in both the Gospel and the book of Acts (2:1468). Some Hebrew Christians may have been effected even if Saul targeted the Hellenists.
The people persecuted are scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria.” This may indicate that those who lived relatively nearby left Jerusalem and simply returned to their homes on account of the persecution. We will find out later that these Hellenistic Jews went as far as Antioch and Damascus as well.
Why do the apostles stay in Jerusalem? It is quite possible that the apostles took Jesus’ final commission to them seriously and stayed in Jerusalem because they were to evangelize the world starting in Jerusalem. If the persecution that Luke describes in Acts 8:1-3 targeted Hellenistic Jews, then it is possible that the Apostles were not seen as a threat. F. F. Bruce thought the apostles felt their duty remained in Jerusalem in spite of persecution (Acts, 162-3). There is no indication that Saul was hunting down people like Peter and John, but rather those who were associated with Stephen – Philip for example.
Is there enough evidence to decide Saul was targeting only Hellenistic Christians (like Stephen and Philip)? If he was targeting Hellenists, what was his motivation?
12 thoughts on “Acts 8:1b-4 – Persecution Scatters the Disciples”
I suppose there is decent evidence that Saul was targeting strictly Hellenistic Jews, seeing how he was not targeting people like Peter and John, but more like Stephen and Phillip. It would make sense because it was directly after Stephen gave his speech and fell to his death at Saul’s feet that Saul began to ferociously persecute Christians. It would make sense that he might associate other Christians with the kind of person Stephen was. His mind may have been set on the lie that Stephen was speaking horrible nonsense and that he deserved to die, so people just like him should die as well. I believe that Saul also may have been targeting Hellenistic Jews because he was, in fact, a Hellenistic Jew himself. Perhaps he did not want Hellenistic Jews to be seen as Jesus followers and so he went out of his way to persecute those who were Hellenistic and followers of Jesus. An example of this might be if a fellow Christian says they are Christian but they are a hypocrite, not following the commandments or not really doing anything pertaining to Christianity (1 John 4:20, Matthew 7:5, James 1:26). As practicing Christians, we would not want non-believers to associate ALL Christians with this person, thinking that we are all hypocrites. I think Stephen possibly ignored the disciples such as Peter and John because they were not of his kind so they were not giving Hellenistic Jews a bad reputation. They were still sharing the gospel and preaching the name of Jesus, but they were not associated with Saul in any way shape or form and Stephen was, just by being a Hellenistic Jew.
Although I do not think an individual can say for certain whether Saul was only targeting Hellenistic Christians, like Stephen and Phillip, and not any other type of Christians, such as Peter and John who were Jewish Christians, I do see the points one can make in favor of Saul only persecuting Hellenistic Christians. This is first seen from the point I made above. In Acts, the documentation shows that Saul went after Hellenistic Christians such as when he approved of Stephen’s execution (Acts 8:1). Next, one can say Saul targeted Hellenistic Christians because he was a Hellenistic Jew himself. It is known that Saul himself was a Hellenistic Jew because by tradition the Greeks gave their children their names associated with their place of birth thus ‘Saul of Tarsus’ (Barnes, n.d.). Therefore, his motive to persecute Hellenistic Christians could have been because they were completely turning their faith around and believing in Jesus when he thought this was incorrect. “…Stephen is characterized as a powerful prophetic figure who is filled with the Spirit and thereby performs signs and wonders (Jipp, 2018).” This is seen when Saul asked the high priest for letters to capture anyone following “the way” (Acts 9:1-2). Using the phrase “belonging to the way” shows he did not agree with what his fellow Hellenistic Jews were starting to convert to because he gave them a new name to call them by.
Be that as it may, I also believe one can make the point that Saul did not just target Hellenistic Christians but anyone who was a follower of Christ. In Acts 8:3 it states that Saul persecuted all of the church when it states “…Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” When Saul was sending these men and women to prison this was when he was in Jerusalem after many scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Hellenistic Christians) besides the apostles. Therefore, I believe Saul was going after anyone who claimed to a believer of Jesus. Even the apostles, such as Peter and John, would have to fear for their lives when they stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:2). However, since they were the apostles I believe their faith was bolder and they believed in past scriptures telling them persecution was part of being a Christian and that was why they were willing to stay even when Saul could have captured them (Matthew 5:10-12; 5:44, and Luke 6:22).
Barnes, R. (n.d.). The Apostle Formerly Known as Saul. Retrieved from http://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/39791
When it comes to why the apostles stay in Jerusalem the answer is simple, it was because of obedience. Jesus tells them to stay and they do. When the Holy Spirit arrives we start to see another level of confidence from the apostles. They have confidence and boldness in the things they are sharing. They begin to do great things by healing and sharing with everyone the good news of Jesus Christ. It is when they start to confirm prophecies that they start to ruffle the feathers of the high priests. There were those that scattered in fear because of their lack of faith and boldness. How often do we see this today? We see Christians all the time that lose their focus and fall from their walk. the important thing in my experience is that we pick ourselves back up and know that Christ is with us to the very end.
Stephen had this strength in knowing that Christ was bigger than anything the high priest was going to throw at him. it is with this knowledge that he was in total peace at the end of his life.
I feel that he had the full intentions to target the Hellenistic Christians. They felt that they were committing blaspheme for the things that they believed. Stephen is speaking with boldness and the truth hurts sometimes. The reason Saul felt he had grounds to attack them because he felt that they were attacking his beliefs.
The part about the post that really made me think was the fact that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem even with everything that was happening to people like them. People were getting tortured and killed because of their beliefs and for being a Christian, but they still stayed because they took Jesus’ final commission very seriously. Saul is literally searching for people like them because he wants to suppress this Jesus movement. This makes me think about how much I am willing to sacrifice for my faith. I am lucky enough to not have been born in a time or place where it is life threatening to be a Christian. I was born in a country where it is a very common thing to be a Christian yet it is still easy enough to set it to the side at times and focus on other things as my identity. On the other hand, these guys were willing to give up their lives to follow what Jesus wanted from them. I think this is a very good lesson I can take away from looking at this passage.
It does appear that the persecution is directly aimed at the Hellenistic Christians. In Acts 4 when Peter and John are arrested, they are subsequently released with no harm done to them. In chapter 5, while the apostles are beaten upon their arrest, they again are released. However, suddenly with Stephen, there is no mercy. While there may not be concrete evidence to prove Saul was only targeting the Hellenistic Christians, this sudden shift to extreme persecution does lend to that theory. As for his motivation, I think that because Saul was in his own way an “extreme” religious Jew, he believes this persecution was necessary to stop those who were leading others in what he would say was heresy. In Acts 22:3 while giving his testimony he says he was educated “according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (ESV). While it is true that a modern, western perspective cannot fathom using violence to “encourage” others to remain true to their faith, clearly this is not always the case. Looking back through history, one can see examples of how an ideology can become so distorted to the point where violence becomes the way to “silence” the opposers. It seems that Saul has become so entrenched in the ideology of the orthodox Judaism, that he found violence to be the only way to silence something he believed was dangerous to the faith. It is interesting to me however, that the apostles appear to remain neutral from this persecution. Polhill states that the apostles “retained their authority over the entire church” (2097). While they were not Hellenized Jews, I would think that those who are the authorities, or ringleaders, of this new movement would still pose a threat to Saul?
Polhill, J.B. (Ed.). (2008). The Acts of the Apostles. In ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles.
As I was reading Acts 8 and this blog, I found it more and more intriguing that the Apostles stayed in Jerusalem, rather than fleeing the persecution of Saul. To me, I tend to lean towards the idea that Saul was significantly persecuting more Hellenistic Jews rather than the Apostles themselves. We know from Acts 1:8 that the gospel will go out to the ends of the earth and Saul was a big “help” in scattering the Jews allowing for the gospel to spread farther and farther.
So again, as P. Long stated above, why did the Apostles stay in Jerusalem and why did Saul heavily persecute Hellenistic Jews? I think partly the Apostles, through the Holy Spirit, knew they needed to stay in Jerusalem for a bit longer to continue witnessing. After Saul’s conversion, we see him preaching in the synagogues of Damascus and after that he goes to Jerusalem, attempting to join the disciples and speak with the Apostles (9:20-27). Speaking with the Apostles was a tremendous moment for the early church, because the man who was persecuting the Jews was now fully converted. If the Apostles had not remained in Jerusalem, Paul would not have found them, thus his conversion would have been word of mouth passed along, rather than the Apostles, starters/leaders of the mission, seeing Paul as a changed man. God was working all things out for his glory. With Saul no longer ravaging the church and the brothers sending him out, Christianity was spreading rapidly (9:30-31).
I think Saul partly persecuted Hellenistic Jews, because he was considered one of them. He was a Greek-speaking Jew and thus considered a Hellenist (Polhill, 2008, p. 2098). Maybe he was jealous or afraid of what the witnesses might tell people. It amazes me that Saul persecuted his own people, was converted, and then became the prime leader of the Gentile outreach. The only thing I can say is that God is amazing. He uses terrible people to accomplish his great plan.
I think it is fair to say that Saul was strictly targeting Hellenistic Jews because he was fine with the death of Stephen. But I believe that the main reason that they continued to stay in Jerusalem was because Jesus told them to do so. They were obedient to Jesus and what he had to say which then caused Saul to continue to persecute them. They knew that Jesus was more powerful than any High Priest which is why they continued their stay. This is also why Stephen was put to death because of his faith to Jesus and he knew that he was saved and was the reason he did not leave when he was about to be stoned. Stephen knew where he was going in the end along with the other Hellenistic Jews that continued their spreading of the Word. The issue that I find with the ones who scatter is that they did not have full faith in Jesus and did not believe that Jesus was the biggest thing in their lives. This applies to the modern day as well as we as Christians will run and hide when something is thrown at us along our walk but we must remember than Jesus is with us and will guide us along our walk of faith.
I personally do not believe there is enough evidence to prove that Saul was targeting Hellenistic Jews. In Acts 8:2 we see that Saul dragged off men and women and was ravaging the church. It does not specify what part of the church. It appears that Saul was just leading a crusade against the Christians. It was just so that Stephen was a man that was one of few faces that was leading in a powerful way for the Christ followers. Saul then just seized his opportunity and tried to kill off and frighten Christians into not preaching anymore. Although I do not believe he was just targeting Hellenisitic Jews I do believe that his motive was to his fleshly desire to not be wrong. Stephen was speaking truth and the Pharisees did not like to be wrong. I also believe that the amount of change and upheaval the disciples and leaders of the Christian church were causing was quite intimidating to Saul and the other Jewish leaders. It just seems that they were trying to hold their ground and they sought violence to shut up the Christians.
The persecution and scattering of the disciples is always a sobering and somber reminder for me whenever I read it. The disciples , some of who once did ministry with Jesus himself, are now in retreat so to speak, they are losing the battle. In a way, it feels like the heroes are losing. It truly reminds me of the epic cinematic event that is Avengers: Infinity War. The good guys are losing. The struggle for the apostles to follow the last words and commands of Jesus while still remaining alive and doing effective ministry is quite evident here. When it comes to Saul, I don’t think there is enough evidence to suggest he was targeting only Hellenistic Jews. It’s quite difficult to say for certain if this was his true motivation or not. His connection to the approving of Stephen’s killing seems to support this theory, yet later on in Acts 8, Saul supports persecuting the church as a whole. When it came down to it, Saul sought to kill Christians to feed his selfish desire of the flesh, he was intimated by challengers and had to have his way. Needless to say, Saul was a nasty man before he came face to face with Jesus.
I want to think that at the end of it all, God was in control of the events that were all meant to spread the gospel. The courage shown by Stephen, the persecution of the church all, led to gospel of the church. Targeting Hellenistic Jews again fell into God’s plan as the Hellenists were the class of people to question Jewish culture in favour of Greek philosophy. To that extent the middle to upper class citizens could be considered as the societal influencers of the day whose conversion had a greater impact in leading the society on a way to conversion. Most of the converts in the book of Acts were relatively well to do people like the tax collectors, the Centurion etc.
The evidence in the book of Acts makes me believe that Saul initially targeted Hellenistic Christians, or Greek-speaking Jews, who followed Jesus. According to the book of Acts, Saul was a devout Jew and was present at the stoning of Stephen and approved of his death, later on he sets out to arrest and bring Christians to Jerusalem to be punished. I do not know for sure what motivated Saul to target Hellenistic Christians but there are several things that may have played a role. One idea is he saw the Hellenistic Christians as a people who could ruin the pureness in Jerusalem because they were incorporating Greek ideas into their beliefs and worship. Another idea is that he saw them as a threat to keeping the Jewish community stable because their teachings were attracting Gentiles and dividing the jews. It was also interesting to me that Saul’s views and motivations changed completely after his conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. After this event, he became one of the most passionate evangelists for the Christians by spreading the message of salvation through Jesus to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
The persecution is related to Stephen’s death and Saul as Long’s blog says is the “ringleader of this persecution” that takes place in Acts 8. It says, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). In Long’s blog post, Acts 8:1b-4, the word ravaging means “in the LXX…the sense of violent oppression or even rape.” So Saul was ravaging the Hellenistic Jewish believers because he was furious that Stephen blamed his people for the resistance of the Holy Spirit.
Meanwhile, the apostles never dispersed and scattered to other cities like “Judea and Samaria” to stay safe (Polhill, 2008, p. 2096). The apostles stayed in Jerusalem. There are a couple of possibilities as to why they did not scatter. They may have taken the words of the commission all very seriously to the extent they truly thought they had to start in Jerusalem to evangelize. Or they felt their duty was to stay in Jerusalem and keep evangelizing because it is where it was needed most at that time. I do not think there is enough reason to factually state that Saul was only ravaging Hellenistic Jewish believers because it would seem as if he would ravage anyone who stood in his way especially when you are so mad you gnash your teeth. However, I do think that in Acts 8, the apostles stayed in the city of Jerusalem to allow people to see how God protected them during this awfully violent time after the death of Stephen the first martyr. It shows that God is constantly with us protecting His children if we allow Him.