Acts 8:1b-4 – Persecution Scatters the Disciples

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).

DandelionBut 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?

4 thoughts on “Acts 8:1b-4 – Persecution Scatters the Disciples

  1. 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.

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  2. 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).

    References
    Barnes, R. (n.d.). The Apostle Formerly Known as Saul. Retrieved from http://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/39791

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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