Wednesday, July 14, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 5

The Hellenists

We have seen the essential Jewishness of Paul; and we must now turn to the other side of the picture. But before we can consider this other facet of his life, something must be said about Hellenism and the Hellenists. Acts 6 tells of a dispute that arose in Jerusalem between the so-called Hellenist and Hebrews. The descriptions do not indicate clearly who are intended but the context has helped scholars decipher these two specific designations. The Hebrews were most probably the Aramaic-speaking Jews who had become Christians. Their Judaism was indigenous to the land of Israel, was centered on the Temple, and was more resistant to Greek culture and to the acceptance of Gentiles into Judaism. Consequently after conversion to Christianity, these Hebrew Christians were inclined to maintain the importance of Jewish practices even as an expression of Christian faith (Acts 3:; 5:12). As one commentator would observe, we already “find world salvation in the horizons of the Aramaic speaking church of Jerusalem but we do not find there the enabling conditions of a mission to the world.”(1) Acts tells us that this world mission would only take place through the mediation of Greek speaking Jewish Christians whose perspectives made a mission to non-Jews possible and whose initiative made it actual.

These Greek speaking Jewish Christians would come to be known as the Hellenists. They appear to be Jews of the Diaspora, with a background of Hellenistic Judaism; i.e. they spoke Greek as their primary tongue, used the Septuagint, were comfortable in Greek culture and were willing to accept Gentile converts into Judaism. But, long before the Christian era, the phenomenon called Hellenism had already exerted its influence even on that bastion of intransigent conservatism, Judaism. Not only were the scriptures translated from Hebrew into Greek, but the very core of the Jewish religion felt in varying degrees and in many subtle ways the effects of Hellenistic ideas and philosophies. These Hellenists probably came out of the Greek-speaking synagogues that existed even in Jerusalem, catering to Jews who had emigrated to Jerusalem from outside the Holy Land. Since their perspectives originated in the Diaspora, where there was not much opportunity to get to the Temple regularly, they were less impressed about the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem When these Jews became Christians they carried over their openness to the Gentiles and their ambivalent feelings toward the Temple. The more radical among them (e.g. Stephen) began to feel that Jewish practices (especially the Temple) no longer had significance for any Christians, thus laying the foundation for the Christian mission to the Gentiles without prior initiation into Judaism.

With the execution of Stephen, one of the leading men among the Hellenist (Acts 7), the conflict and persecution of the Christians by the Jews began to broaden quickly. It is interesting to note that the first mention of Saul-Paul is found here. “Saul approved of the killing. That day a bitter persecution started against the church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the apostles scattered to the country districts of Judaea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Apparently only the radical Hellenist Christians (those who opposed the traditional Jewish institutions like Stephen) had to flee. The Hebrew Christians, although not specifically mentioned, while sometimes criticized by the Jews in the early chapters of Acts, remained largely tolerated in their Aramaic-speaking Jewish synagogues, since their Christian faith did not diminish the importance of their Jewish practices. That is why Acts records the fact that the Church in Jerusalem scattered except ‘the Twelve’ (who were Hebrew Christians). We would later find that this persecution was indeed a blessing in disguise, for it marked the beginnings of the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). The Hellenists, therefore were of decisive significance for the spread of Christianity, “both because they first formulated the gospel message in Greek, the common language of the eastern Roman Empire, and because they took their gospel from Jerusalem to other cities, and shared it with non-Jews.” Therefore, “if the (Hebrews) were the link of the earliest community with the past of Jesus, the (Hellenists) by their self-understanding made themselves the link with the future.” Ironically, although the Hellenist Christians were the most active proselytizers, the Hellenist Jews (Paul before his conversion must be counted among them) were the most active opponents of the Christian gospel (cf. Acts 6:9ff; 7:58; 9:1; 21:27; 24:19). For example, it was members of the Synagogue of Freedmen (6:9), most probably the Hellenist Jews, and not the Palestinian Jews (the ‘Hebrews’) who opposed the preaching of Stephen, instigated the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem to arrest him and finally to execute him.

We would also find in Acts the record that the apostles are closely associated with Jerusalem and the Jewish People (3:12, 25f; 4:2, 8, 10; 5:12f; 20, 25; 10:42; 13:31). Their witness and teaching is crucial to the foundation of the church among the Jews. It is not they, but ordinary believers who, due to persecution are scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria and who go about evangelizing (8:1, 4). Eventually these disciples travel as far as Antioch, where some of them begin to speak to Greeks also (11:19ff). Although Luke emphasizes Peter’s conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, as a special breakthrough for the mission to the Gentiles, Luke did not suppress the historical circumstances that the initiative for preaching to Gentiles did not come from Peter. In fact, as this has already been pointed out above, this mission to the Gentiles goes back to the dispersion of the Jerusalem Hellenists (cf. Acts 8:4). At Antioch Paul and Barnabas later teach and preach the word of the Lord ‘with many others’ (15:35; cf. 13:1). Neither evangelism nor teaching the word is confined to a select few. For example, like the apostles, Stephen does great signs and wonders among the people (6:8) and gives a Spirit-filled exposition of the scriptures with prophetic authority (6:10; 7:2-53). Philip proclaims Christ, performs signs and miracles, experiences the leading of the Spirit and expounds scripture to lead his audience to faith in Jesus (8:5, 26-40), just as the apostles did. Even an ordinary believer like Ananias sees a vision, and is sent by the Lord to lay hands on Saul (9:10-19). Luke, however, portrays Paul as having a distinctive role in the mission to the Gentiles, comparable to that of Peter and the Eleven in relation to Israel. Luke is concerned to portray the unity of his mission with that of the mission of the Twelve (cf. 9:27-29; 15:1-35), just as in the Gospel he emphasized the unity of the missions of the Twelve and the Seventy.(2)

The transition from a pure mission to the Jews to a mission to the Gentiles conducted by Hellenists should be understood not as a one-time event, but rather as a process.(3) First, they turned their attention to Greek-speaking fellow Jews (other Hellenists – cf. Acts 6:9). The first more organized mission outside Judaism in the narrower sense occurred among the Samaritans (8:4-25), who could, however, still be viewed as members – albeit partially apostate – of the holy people Israel. From these Greek-speaking synagogues, the Hellenists then reached the circle of ‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 8:26-39), that is, those Gentiles standing in variously intensive connections with Judaism.

The Hellenist Jews of the Diaspora generally found themselves also within all the classes of Greek society, having settled widely within these territories as far back as 587 B.C., when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and sent many of the Jews into exile. The Jewish communities had learned to live in such cities by separating themselves from others, although there would have been relatively more interaction with the non-Jewish Gentile population and Hellenist culture than would the Jewish communities in Palestine. It was clear that the Hellenistic Jews were much more exposed to the contemporary philosophies of the Roman Empire than their brothers in Jerusalem. Greek philosophy had been flourishing for at least four hundred years before Paul. Philosophic discussion was, of course, prevalent among the aristocracy in important centers like Athens and Tarsus, but it was an important topic in all the cities of the empire and, in popularized version, was part of the conversation at all levels of society.

In general, the Hellenist Jews were an accepted part of the Roman Empire and participated actively in city life, though they were not always fully understood and sometimes shunned behaviour that they could not accommodate to their beliefs, e.g. participating in emperor worship; entering military service; support of local pagan temples etc. The gathering places for these Hellenistic Jews were the synagogues, which served not only as places of worship, but also as schools and community centers. They also provided places of contact for visitors to a city and for travelers in search of work. The strong moral standards of the Jews and their monotheism also attracted Gentiles toward the religion, and the Hellenist were much more open to converts than were the Hebrew or Aramaic speaking Jews in Jerusalem. Thus, there were frequently Gentile sympathizers worshiping with the Jews in their synagogues. It must be noted that not all these Gentiles formally converted to Judaism. Those who did were called proselytes and they underwent official initiation into Judaism (for men this meant circumcision). Those who did not were called ‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 8:26-39) and they shared in Sabbath worship or other Jewish activities without becoming Jews. Thus, through the synagogue we may envisage that Paul’s preaching reached beyond the Jews to begin touching even the Gentile world.

1. Ben F. Meyer, The Early Christians: Their World Mission & Self-Discovery (Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc, 1986) 67. For a detailed discussion of the Hellenists, see Chapter V.
2. Andrew C. Clark, “The Role of the Apostles” in I. Howard Marshall & David Peterson (Ed),
Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmaans, 1998) 182.
3. Rainer Riesner,
Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy and Theology (Grand Rapids: W.M. Eerdmans, 1998) 109.

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