Priesthood in the New Testament Era, 4.

Stephen closed his sermon with some very offensive stuff: the LORD does not dwell in houses made with hands and so forth (he was negating the value of the temple) then he called the Jewish leaders stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, they always resisted the Holy Spirit, asking them rhetorically which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute, etc. you betrayed and murdered the Messiah. This of course made them very angry, and Stephen is stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin.[1] There are a number of parallels Luke purposely calls out between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s death. I’ll note some of these later.

The Sanhedrin was willing to leave the Christians alone, but it won’t tolerate attacks on the temple, something Stephen clearly did, and in doing so he probably expressed the view of his fellow Hellenists. Those returning from a diaspora likely didn’t hold the temple in high regard. We know in fact, that there was a very sharp division among Jews of Jesus’ time over the temple. One thing was the problem of the high priests.

An important division centered on the revolts in the second century BC when non-high priestly families took over in Palestine, and more legitimate high priests were in Egypt. The Egyptian Jews tried to build a temple there, but the high priest in Jerusalem conspired with the Egyptians to destroy that effort and they also attacked the Samaritans to destroy their temple. There was some resentment through the diaspora (probably) about paying in support to the Jerusalem temple and the associated idea that God can only be fully and rightly worshipped at the Jerusalem temple. This is the key to the dispute that generated the apostle’s intervention at the beginning of Acts 6. This dissent was the kindling of future change.[2] And Luke tells us that a great persecution arose against the church, but this is against the Hellenists—-because the authorities don’t bother the apostles. The Hebrew Christians are not bothered because of their regard for the temple, their belief in its function, and the importance of the Law, etc. The Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem are Jews, and pretty orthodox ones at that.

The Hellenist Christians were scattered from Jerusalem and these were Jews who were what may be described as “liberal.” Their attachment to the temple was minimal and even less so after Stephen. The Hellenists went to Samaria, where there was sympathy for people who didn’t value the Jerusalem temple or its Davidic heritage and meaning. Luke gives us some of the exploits of Phillip, next in the leadership line of the Seven. And Luke tells us in chapter 11 of Acts that it’s these Hellenists who first began a ministry to the Gentiles. No doubt Luke oversimplifies much of this, but the narrative makes this remarkable point about what the apostles did: the consequence of their decision for unity led in part at least to the fall of Jewish practice within Christianity, and ultimately the complete removal of Christianity as a subset of Judaism. The Hellenists carried with them the devaluing of the temple, and of Jerusalem itself. There was no way to predict this almost butterfly effect on the church that resulted from the appointment of the Seven. The apostles had no particular wish to preach to the Samaritans or the Gentiles in general. They were Jews who believed in the continuing value of the Law and the temple in their lives. They were leaders of a Jewish sect. We see more of this in the way Paul comes into Luke’s picture of the church in Acts. It seems that the Holy Spirit is largely in control, working around and through human choices, and it’s this that makes one wonder about the whole history of God’s interaction with humans and how he uses church leaders, redeploys legends, political passages, and even human prejudice.

Especially in the case of Mormonism: where does human or prophetic apprehension of the situation, and the resulting decision-making come into play with God’s plan? It seems that in many cases, where the church or church leaders see some issue as vital or necessary, the result is quite different from the expected value. One could point to the usual suspects here, but I’ll leave it to you to think about it and the circumstances of change. Puritans thought dealing with God a frightening prospect, hence the value of a closed canon. Providential process was unpredictable.

Next time, I’ll look a little further into how early Christianity tried to patch up its wounds and how that played out in priesthood.


[1] The question arises as to how they could get away with this since the Roman governor would need to approve. But the Prefect only came to town on feast days, to keep order, so they could do it without much risk (cf. Jesus).

[2] There is some hint in the Gospel of John about this, where Jesus himself actually goes to Samaria. When he meets the woman at the well, he tells her that the Jews have the right way, but that the time is coming when neither Samaria nor Jerusalem will be the place to worship. If that’s anything like what the Hellenists were preaching in Samaria, and it’s tempting to believe this, then it was “You can believe in Jesus, without Jerusalem, David and the temple.” Israel is still a theme, but it’s Abraham, and everyone can agree with that.

5 Responses to Priesthood in the New Testament Era, 4.

  1. Brian says:

    These are great, WVS! By the way, would love to have you contribute to a facebook group on the New Testament: www [d0t]facebook [dOt] com/groups/152515401862902/

  2. ricke says:


  3. WVS says:

    Thanks ricke and Brian.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Good stuff, WVS.

  5. WVS says:

    Thanks, J.

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