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Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews and neither is numbered among the 12.  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.”

Acts 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. (See this post on the Hellenists.)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.

08-04-05/46This 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.

We cannot make a general judgment like “all Jews from the Diaspora were more liberal” or that “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 along side 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?

The main problem Paul addresses in the book of Galatians is the status of Gentiles in the current stage of salvation history. Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? The immediate occasion for the letter is a problem with Gentiles being forced to keep the Law by some persons coming from Jerusalem claiming to have authority from James. This Jewish party accepted Christ, but they held to a keeping of the Law in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul calls this a “new gospel” that is not really a gospel.

GalatiansA secondary issue is Paul’s authority to declare that Gentiles are free from the Law. The Judaizers are likely questioning Paul’s right to teach that gentile converts do not have to keep the law. Who is Paul? Where did he get his authority? The first two chapters address this issue. Note that this is a theme that is found from the very first lines of the letter – Paul is an apostle by the authority of Jesus Christ and the Father himself!

A third issue in the book concerns the status of the Law in the new age. If Paul has authority because he is called by Jesus personally to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and if the Gentiles are really set free from the restrictions of the Law, what was the point of the Law in the first place? This is covered in the third and fourth chapters of the letter. What is missing from this letter is the status of the Law for Jewish Christians. Should a Jewish Christian continue to keep the Law? They appear to have done so, but that is not really the issue that Paul treats in this letter.

Finally, if Gentiles are freed from the Law, what is their motivation to behave in a moral and ethical way? Has Paul cut off the gentile from the Law so that they can live any way that they choose to? It appears that there were some believers in Paul’s churches who did in fact “sin that grace may abound,” or at the very least continued in some Gentile practices that were offensive to God. Rather than keep part of the Law (the so-called “moral law,” for example, or the Ten Commandments), Paul tells his readers that they are “in Christ” and that they ought to live like it. They are to “live by the Spirit” rather than the flesh. Paul covers this issue in the last two chapters of the letter.

If Paul was allowing the Gentiles freedom from the Law, this might have implied to some law-keeping Jews that they were free entirely from moral restraints. Perhaps Paul is teaching that Gentiles can accept Jesus as the Messiah and live the way that they have always lived. To a Jew, things like circumcision and food laws were very important, but true ethical living was more important.

Paul must defuse this criticism of his Gentile mission by showing that the Gentile is free from the Law, but now he lives by a new law, a Law of Christ. This new law is a law of love, a law that is guided by the Holy Spirit. The “sin list” in chapter five makes it clear that Paul is not advocating an anarchist libertine freedom, but rather a life that is led by the Spirit of God and manifest in the “fruit of the Spirit.”

As Thomas Schreiner points out in his recent commentary on Galatians, when he wrote this letter, Paul did not need to explain the situation and background to his readers (p.31). They knew what the situation since it concerned them. We are therefore at a great disadvantage when we pick up the letter to the Galatians because we have to infer the situation from what Paul says in the letter itself.

Mirror ReadingThis process of inferring a background for a letter like Galatians is known as “mirror reading.” We only have access to one side of the story. It would be ideal if we were able to read documents written by the opponents of Paul, or a letter from the Galatian churches explaining what the problem was and asking Paul for advice. In the case of Galatians, we have only Paul’s side of the story as he describes it in Galatians.

I think that there are a few other “resources” for reading the situation in Galatia that resulted in the letter Paul wrote to his churches. The book of Acts is an obvious candidate for a source, although sometimes Luke’s theological agenda forces scholars to wonder about his accuracy. In the case of Galatians, for example, there are some chronological problems, but Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches.

There are other resources that help us to accurately mirror read is the literature of the Second Temple period. Some of these are Jewish, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. There are hundreds of documents that collect Second Temple Jewish literature to help us understand the Jewish world view reflected by Paul’s letters. While Josephus may not always be accurate (especially when talking about himself), his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews are essential reading for understanding this period in history. I might recommend Paul Maier’s Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988) as a good entry point for students wanting to know more about Josephus.

Other resources are Greco-Roman. These might be less helpful, since they often reflect popular misconceptions of how Judaism was practiced in the first century. There are several excellent collections of this kind of material that save the student from having to sift through the hundreds of Loeb volumes looking for good background material. My favorite is Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans edited by Feldman and Reinhold (Fortress, 1996). Fortress also recently published Documents and Images for the Study of Paul edited by Elliott and Reasoner (2011). I have also enjoyed Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 2003).

While it would be ideal for a reader of Galatians (or a student of Pauline theology) to have letters from the opponents, I think that there is sufficient data to support Paul’s description of the situation in Galatia as accurate.

Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians? Should we use other Jewish writings as supplementary materials for understanding this letter? What are the dangers of this approach?

When did the earliest believers begin to question the “boundary markers” of Judaism? By “boundary markers” I mean primarily circumcision, food laws and keeping Sabbath. It is not really possible to describe Peter and John as preaching to Jews in the Temple that what Jesus did on the cross freed them from the Law. One reason for this is that there were few Jews who saw the Law as a slave master from which they longed to be free. For the men worshiping in the Temple, and likely for those in the Greek-Speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen, keeping the law was a privilege given to them by God. There were likely few Jews if any who would have relished the chance to throw off the constraints of the Law. In fact, the Maccabean Revolt indicates that the majority of Jews were willing to fight in order to be allowed to keep the Law!

boundariesFor me, this indicates that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem continued to practice Judaism in every way. The question “should we continue to circumcise our children” or “should we eat prohibited foods” simply would never have come up in the early years. Jesus is Messiah and Savior, but he did nothing to cancel the Jewish believer’s commitment to the Law. Another indication of this is that many Pharisees and other “zealous” Jews joined the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:5, 21:20-21). If Peter, John, Stephen or Philip urged Jews to defect from the Law, the reaction to Paul is unintelligible.

The boundary markers only became and issue after a significant number of Gentiles joined the church, likely in Antioch first, but certainly in Paul’s first churches in Galatia. Acts 11:20 indicates that the church at Antioch limited their evangelism to Jews until men from Cyprus came and evangelized the Hellenists. The noun Eλληνιστής refers to Greek speaking Jews (BDAG), not Greeks. The ESV footnote says that the word refers to Greek speaking non-Jews, but this explanation is not correct and misses the point Luke is trying to make. The Christians at Antioch are targeting both Hebrew/Aramaic speaking and Greek speaking Jews just like what was happening in Jerusalem until the persecution scattered the believers.

Even if these Hellenists are Gentiles, it is likely that the Gentiles who were joining the church in Antioch were doing so as God-fearers. This was the recognized practice in the synagogues anyway. There was no compulsion for these God-fearing Gentiles to submit to circumcision, although it appears that in every other respect they kept the Law and traditions of the Jewish people. The fact that the apostolic representative Barnabas was pleased with the progress in Antioch indicates that the Law is still respected and kept in these Christian synagogues.

So there is really no “questioning of the boundary markers” until the first Pauline mission, when the gospel is preached outside of the synagogue and Gentiles who were not already God-fearers accepted Jesus as savior. If the story ended in Acts 11, then Christianity would have been a sect of Judaism.

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The new church was expanding into areas that the Jewish church would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law.

jerusalem-councilWe know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people that were accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law, they remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatains primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians and Colossians as well. Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age.)

Darrell Bock makes an excellent observation concerning this “council,” it ought to be called a “consultation” rather than a council since this is not anything like the later “church councils” that decided doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his doctrine that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to have it approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, he reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” accept Paul’s position on the issue.

There is some evidence that during the intertestamental period at least some Jews thought that circumcision was required for a convert to Judaism. In Josephus Antiquities 20.2.4 we read the story of Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates, who “changed their course of life, and embraced the Jewish customs.”

Queen Helena's Tomb by William Henry Bartlett.

Queen Helena’s Tomb by William Henry Bartlett.

What is interesting here is that Izates desires zealously to embrace Judaism, and decides to be circumcised. Helena and the Jewish Ananias tries to dissuade him on the grounds that he is a king, and the people will not accept the rule of a king that practices a foreign religion. Ananias seems to be arguing that if there is a mortal danger, circumcision can be ignored (if the person as a hemophiliac, for example.) Since allowing himself to be circumcised might lead to the rebellion of his people and the loss of his and his family’s life, Ananias recommends that he not be circumcised. After Izates decides to forgo circumcision, another Jew Eleazar, described as being “extremely strict” with respect to the Law, tells Izates that he is breaking the Law if he does not submit to circumcision. Izates does immediately receive circumcision, and Josephus tells us that God preserves him in the dangers he faces later in life because he obeyed the Law fully!

In the Loeb Edition of Josephus there is a lengthy footnote on this story. A few scholars have drawn attention to the fact that the debate between Ananias and Eleazar reflects the two schools of rabbinic thought in the first century, that of Hillel and Shammai, with respect to circumcision. In Talmud Yebamot 46 a there is a description of a Rabbi Joshua who taught that only baptism was necessary for a Gentile convert, and the Rabbi Eleazar who argued that circumcision was necessary for the Gentile convert. J. Klausner argued that the dichotomy between Joshua and Eleazar is similar to that of Paul/Barnabas and Peter/James (as suggested by Klausner), but this may be reading the Paul / Peter relationship as a strict dichotomy alá Bauer.

Does the story of Izates indicate that Hellenistic Jews were more liberal on circumcision than Palestinian Jews? Assuming that Ananias is a Hellenistic Jew and Eleazar is a Palestinian Jew, Schiffman (127) notes that the argument has been made that Hellenistic Jews did not require circumcision. But this is not the case since Ananias never argues that circumcision for a convert is not required, but that in this case there is an acceptable and legal “out” of Izates that will perhaps preserve his life. Josephus’ comments at the end of the story make it clear that he approves of Izates’ decision to be circumcised. This brief survey indicates that the practice of circumcision was one of the most important issues to Jews of the first century. Even for a Gentile convert, circumcision was required in order to be part of the “people of God.”

Does this story from Josephus help illustrate what is at stake in Acts 15 and Galatians?

Bibliography: Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127; J. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (1943), 39-40.

The first major controversy the early church had to contend with strikes the modern reader a bit strange.  Rather than debating who Jesus was or beginning to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem to solve was the status of the Gentile who has put their faith in Jesus.  Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, then at what level ought they keep the Law? Are they “God Fearers”?  Perhaps there is an implied secondary status for the Gentile who believes in Jesus as savior but does not fully convert to Judaism and keep the Law.

Why was circumcision of Gentiles such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul begins to have success among Gentiles and establishes several churches that have mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. That these churches included some Gentiles who were not previously “God Fearers” seems to be clear from the response Paul gets in Lystra.

GalatiansBased on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision.  Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora.  After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.

Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.

This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94.  Some of Marital’s comments on circumcision are so crude the original Loeb translators did not translate them into English so as not to offend sensitive readers, choosing instead to translate them into Italian.  A new edition of Marital has been produced for the Loeb series by D. R. Shackleton Baily which not only translates these epigrams, but seems to strive to offend!)

Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening in the present age, the “church” is not a form of Judaism, nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew or Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.”  This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later.  One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

In both Acts and Galatians it is clear that there are some Gentiles who want to keep the Jewish Law. There were some Gentiles like Cornelius who worshiped and served the God of Israel and kept some forms of Jewish practice. Practices like Sabbath and food taboos were in some ways easy to adopt (especially in one was a retired soldier or independently wealthy). While circumcision was almost universally mocked by the Roman world, there were still some Gentiles who submitted to the ritual in order to fully convert to Judaism.

KosherThere might be several motivations for Gentiles who want to adopt Jewish Law. First, to accept Jesus as Savior is to reject pagan gods. By rejecting pagan gods, the Gentile converts severed many social ties and joined a religious movement unlike the rest of the ancient world. If a Gentile was fellowshiping in a Jewish Christian community, it is possible that they looked at the church as a new family.  Recall that Jesus did say that those who “do his will” are his family members.  Jewish law and traditions were very family orientated and provided a kind of “new family” for people who might have been rejected by their own families and friends.

Second, as Ben Witherington suggests, by accepting Jesus as messiah and Savior, they have also turned their backs on the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman world. This would include any ritual observances associated with those gods. There are virtually no rituals in the Christian church other than an initiation ritual and a shared meal.  There are no sacrifices or liturgy to follow, no festivals, feast days, temple or central gathering places.  The Jewish Law, in Witherington’s view, provided an opportunity for Gentile believers to concretely express their Christian identity (Galatians, 362).

Third, new religions were suspicious in the Roman world. A convert to Christianity might have a hard time explaining that they have joined a new religion that was less than 50 years old! Most of the mystery cults that were popular in the Roman world tried to connect their rituals back to ancient legends or even Egyptian gods. Since Judaism was an ancient religion, Gentile converts could avoid the charge that they were accepting a new religion, a “superstition” which was suspect in the Roman world.

The real problem for some Gentile converts to Christianity is that there is nothing about being a Christian that is externally obvious.  One could identify a Jewish person as a Jew with a glance, but Christians had no distinctive dress or behavior that sets them apart as Christians. Christians were distinct in that they honor Jesus as God and Savior and (at least in theory) do good to all people. If a Christian gives alms to the poor, they are even forbidden to take credit for that act of mercy!  The question of how one defines their new faith in Jesus as savior for these new Pauline churches is going to be very difficult.

This is one of the most important applications of the letter to the Galatians in a modern church setting.  Very few people would argue that Christians ought to be keeping the whole law (although there are a few). More likely is the claim that one must do a series of rituals in order to be right with God, or that one must subscribe to a particular doctrinal formulation, or that one must avoid certain lifestyles or behaviors. Paul never says that one must act like a Christian in order to be right with God – one is right with God because they have been adopted into God’s family and they are his children.

Paul is not talking about a religion in Galatians, but rather a relationship with God.

When Paul encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately goes to the synagogues in Damascus (Acts 9:19-25).  These are the synagogues which had likely informed the Sanhedrin that Hellenistic Jews were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and were expecting Paul to arrive and argue against the Hellenists who have recently arrived from Jerusalem with this new idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.

BenTal SignInstead, the content of Paul’s message is that Jesus was in fact the Son of God (Acts 9).  This is a messianic title drawn from Psalm 2.  Jesus was the long awaited son of David, the ultimate heir of the Davidic Covenant.  That Paul preaches Jesus is as the Son of God is significant because it is the first time such language has appeared in Acts; it will appear a second time in Acts 13:3.  This is likely a clue that the synagogue speech in Acts 13 is intended as representative of Paul’s speech before Jews in a synagogue. Paul’s presentation in the synagogue was the exact opposite of expectations – It is little wonder that there was a strong reaction in the synagogues against Paul!

After his encounter with Jesus, we might have thought Paul would have returned to Jerusalem and immediately confronted the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, the very people approved of Paul’s mission to Damascus in the first place. But he does not return to Jerusalem for three years and, according to his own testimony on Gal 1:16-17, when he did go up to Jerusalem, it was only for a short visit of fifteen days.

As Martin Hengel points out, Jerusalem is where the apostles are to be found, not Galilee or elsewhere in Judea.  If Jerusalem was the focal point of the messianic preaching of the apostles, why did Paul not immediately go there and work with Peter and John in the Temple courts.  Rather than go to Jerusalem, Paul goes into “Arabia” for three years.

Hengel and Schwemer suggest three reasons for Paul’s activities immediately after his conversion.  First, Paul was a zealous persecutor of the church and he transferred that zeal into preaching the gospel.  He met a resurrected and glorified Jesus who commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles.  It is only natural that he would want to immediately begin this new task, given to him by his Savior.

Second, belief in an imminent return of Jesus meant that evangelistic activity needed to cover as wide an area as possible.  Evangelism in Jerusalem was already underway and the apostles were stationed there to continue their work.  Later in his career Paul will constantly move out into un-reached areas of the world, creating strategic bases in larger cities from which the local churches can continue the work of evangelism.  For Paul, Arabia was an unreached area and he was uniquely suited to the task as a Hellenistic Jew.

Third, it would have been extremely dangerous to return since he has “switched sides” and now was a passionate supported of Jesus as the Messiah.  While Paul is not described as avoiding persecution, he may have thought that it would be better to have success elsewhere rather than go and be executed by his former masters!

Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1997), 94.

In the book of Acts, the Saul is introduced rather dramatically.  After Stephen delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7, he is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and stoned.  This is not a legal action, it is a lynching!  Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1).  Whether Saul was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear, but the verb can be used for legal approval (1 Mac 1:57).  Saul is described as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534).  What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

PhariseeIt is important to observe that Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem, in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not in the Temple speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there.  Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove that Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship.  While we cannot know this for certain, it is not unlikely that Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue because he was from Tarsus (Cilicia is specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9).  Stephen’s powerful argument that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53) pushed the crowd to attack Stephen, Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.

Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and importing them into Acts 7.  For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.

Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws.  This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  This is an issue in Galatians, but that is perhaps 15 years after the stoning of Stephen and concerned Jews and Gentiles eating together.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as an attack on the central institution of Second Temple Judaism (the Temple) and a particular view of the messiah held by the Pharisees. That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.

Paul may have described himself as a “reformer” within Judaism of the Second Temple,  working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. If this is true – is it possible that he continued to think of himself as a “reformer of Judaism” after his Damascus Road experience?  Or was that encounter with the resurrected Jesus so shocking that everything Paul thought changed?

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