Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 2.

In the sixth chapter of Acts, Luke—writing from a ca. 90 CE perspective—narrates a very old tradition about conflict and dissent in the early Christian church. When we talk of this episode, we usually ignore the meaning of the outcome, which may be the most important influence on the course of Christianity after Jesus.

Luke tells us this (Acts 6:1):

in these days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews.[1]

“Hellenists” refers to Christian believers in Jerusalem who had a Greek/Gentile/Roman Jewish diaspora background in some way, Luke doesn’t explain, but he does give some names: Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (the proselyte), all are Greek names. They are Jews, but the text draws a distinction between them and the “Hebrews,” meaning natives of the city perhaps. That both groups are Jews and Christians, is the important point. As Luke tells us about Hellenist leaders he makes sure to say that one of them was a proselyte (convert to Judaism) meaning that the rest of them were born Jews.

Thus, there is a group of Christians in Jerusalem and they are in division. One subgroup is Judean so to speak, the other not but both are Jews, both are Christians, and the whole “have all things in common.” The Hellenists had a history of being part of the diaspora, and therefore brought up to speak Greek, given Greek names, while remaining Jewish in belief, with perhaps certain differences and one of those was key to the story—how they saw the temple. The apostles, by the way, have distinctively Jewish names, their history suggests that they belong to the Hebrews faction, and this is confirmed by later events.

When does this episode take place? Apparently quite early in the life of the church, say 36 CE, about the time Saul (Paul) is converted.

In addition to the cultural differences between these two groups in the early church, there were some theological differences too, and this becomes important to the story (I apologize for teasing this until the next post). The Hebrews appear to be the dominant group in the Christian community. It seems that the Hebrews, trying to force some kind of agreement on the Hellenists, have stopped supporting the widows of the latter, widows who were completely dependent on the community—the common funds and property of the church. It’s not an unusual sort of thing—when people disagree with a church or a faction in a church, they often withhold their funds. That seems to be what happened here.

The apostles didn’t like the situation, and they called the community together to come to some kind of resolution. This kind of judgment by the whole (“multitude” seems to have a special meaning) is a feature that reappears in Acts 15, and probably it signifies the depth of the problem.

In early Mormonism, church conferences often functioned as decision/discipline bodies, and other Protestants used similar things. Indeed, the organizational layout for judgement in Doctrine and Covenants 107 may suggest that the whole church may be the final court for the most troublesome cases. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate a similar kind of function, where the community was presided over by twelve persons, representative of the 12 tribes, and three others, representative of the priestly families, and the community in this setting seems to be called by the same name as the group the apostles called together, the official church if you will. In any case, the apostles presided over the gathering, the “multitude.”

Fourteenth century rendering of the original 12. (Image: Wikipedia)

Fourteenth century rendering of the original 12. (Image: Wikipedia)

The apostles proposed a solution to the problem. They (wisely) declined to micromanage the situation, but offered a separate leadership solution to the Hellenists. The text puts it that the apostles were not going to serve tables. This meant that they weren’t going to get into these decisions of dividing funds, food, etc. The apostles told the Hellenist faction to choose seven men of good repute, full of wisdom, and the apostles would appoint them to this role. They probably didn’t have a name for the office being created, that took time, but the Seven might be thought of in terms of LDS bishops or stake presidents in some way, or traveling bishops, or some such thing—early proto-bishops in the second century usage—or as the idea occured later in the pastoral letters (Timothy). Indeed, the Seven act more like apostles later on.

The important thing is that the apostles didn’t expel the Hellenists over the unmentioned issue that created the withholding of funds from the Hellenist widows. Instead, they created a body of leaders from them, which the Hellenists chose themselves, and this in some ways diffuses the problem between the two community factions. The Hellenists got their fair portion of the community’s funds.

It is not clear that the apostles agreed with the theological positions of the Hellenists. In fact, they almost certainly did not. Whatever differences they had about their Jewish beliefs, it wasn’t worth splitting the community over it: they are common believers in Jesus (exactly what that entailed at this point I don’t think is completely clear, but at least baptism and the promise of the Holy Spirit). Put another way, the apostles decided that a plurality of belief can exist in the church, provided there was unity on some things, and further, that not splitting the body had a much higher value than a doctrinal difference.[3] What was this doctrinal difference? I think it was quite an important one at the time and it was related to the kind of Jews Christians should be.

The important conclusion of this episode is in the next post, along with some of its terrible consequences far in the future of Roman Jerusalem.

[1] The KJV reads “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The “increasing in number” portends a number of problems and challenges culminating in the gentile conversions in regions outside the Jerusalem mother church.

[2] This process was frequently used in earlier Mormonism, where election of officers was quite common, especially at a local level, but even in central offices. It wasn’t universal though.

[3] Joseph Smith’s complaint about a doctrinal difference and church discipline seems apropos (“I did not like the old man being called up for erring on doctrine“). Joseph had some charisma though, and when he died, it was pretty clear that no one had a similar cachet. Dissent was therefore less tolerated as time went on. John Turner writes importantly on this in his Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. On a modern version see the present Archbishop of Canterbury’s dilemma.

One Response to Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 2.

  1. ricke says:

    Thanks. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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