The Next Faithful Step
The Hellenistic Widows
In the first chapters of Acts, Luke depicts the start-up of the new Christian Church in the power of the Spirit as a joyful, unified, and growing community (e.g., Acts 2:41-47). Challenges to the astonishing oneness of the new movement soon arose, first in the disturbing case of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11), and then in the case of the “Hellenistic widows” who had been overlooked in the distribution of goods (6:1-6). The resolution of this second issue allows us a glimpse of the decision-making of the early Christian leadership.
What is meant by “Hellenistic”? Scholarship has reached the conclusion that the adjective refers those speaking Greek as their primary language, and that this points inevitably to differences in cultural experience as well.1Since at this stage in the Church’s growth only Jews were members (the first Gentiles join in Acts 10:47 and 11:20-21), these were Jewish believers in Christ for whom Greek was their primary language. Martin Hengel’s proposal has been widely accepted, that there were in Jerusalem several thousand former Diaspora Jews, that is, Jews who had lived most of their lives in Greek-speaking cities and towns in other lands, and had returned for a variety of reasons to Jerusalem.2 Acts 6:9 supports the point with its reference to a synagogue of former slaves from Diaspora cities that have gathered together in Jerusalem for worship and community. He suggests that the most characteristic reason for a move to Jerusalem would have been retirement; if so, then it is likely that widowed women would have represented a disproportionately high percentage of that demographic.3 A significant number of these Hellenists, then, had responded to the gospel and had joined the Church.
What was the problem reported in Acts 6? It was actually two-fold. Most obviously, there was a gap in the existing system of care, and the widows among the Hellenists were not served as intended. But Luke’s mention of the “murmuring” of the Hellenists against the Hebrews indicates a second, related problem. Some versions translate this as a “complaint,” though the Greek term implies a misdirected rather than a straight-forward protest (compare John 6:41, 43). It recalls the “murmuring” of the Israelites in the desert (e.g., Exod. 15:24) and insinuates underlying tensions.
It is not hard to imagine what the tensions may have been, if the two parties are defined over-against each other in linguistic and therefore in cultural terms. A Jew from Alexandria, arriving in Jerusalem after a life of tensions in a sometimes hostile Graeco-Roman environment, might discover that life in the Holy Land was less than ideal, and that the locals seemed to lack sympathy, and the sophistication of their counterparts back home. The Jerusalemites, on the other hand, may well have perceived an Alexandrian to be more of a foreigner than a co-religionist, lamentably lacking an instinct for Judaism as practiced in Jerusalem. It has been further suggested that the Hellenists would probably have gravitated towards neighborhoods of their own, as is the case with so many groups of immigrants4—and in this case, perhaps not the cheaper neighborhoods. This would have impeded understanding between the groups, and it may have been a factor in the actual neglect of the widows if they lived in an area less convenient for delivery of goods. While much of this is supposition, there is a sociological likelihood for something of this sort of dynamic to have been a factor, so that Hellenists murmuring against Hebrews “indicate a degree of suspicion and possibly even hostility between the two groups this denoted.”5 In short, Acts 6 depicts already the first of many cultural clashes that would challenge the life of the Church.
What was the Church’s response? The Twelve responded to the problem by calling for the appointment of the Seven, for “it is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on tables” (6:2). Some details about this action, however, come clear only upon closer scrutiny. The division of labor between the Twelve’s attention to prayer and the Word, and the Seven’s “serving at tables” (6:2, 4) is not as clear-cut as one would expect. Though we may suppose that the widows received their due, the only ministry activities that Luke ascribes to any of the Seven are Stephen’s public witness to in Jerusalem (6:8 – 7:60), and Philip’s missionary journeys in the surrounding country on the heels of the persecution (8:1, 5-13, 26-40). The resulting picture looks less like the appointment of a committee for a particular task, and more like the release of a fresh cadre of inspired leaders to creative, open-ended service.
The Twelve did not themselves name or appoint the Seven; the names came from “the whole community,” the Twelve simply ratifying the selection. Further, the Seven were apparently all Hellenists. Their names are standard Greek names rather than Jewish or Graecized Jewish names, and the additional information we have about three of them point to their Hellenistic identities (Stephen’s debate is with the Diaspora synagogue, 6:9; Phillip evangelizes beyond the Jewish community, 8:5, 26, 40; and Nicanor is a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch, 6:5). Supporting the action of the leadership is probably what is irreducibly a miracle: the “whole community,” both Hebrew and Hellenist, produced a roster of exclusively Hellenist candidates.
The response, then, took seriously both aspects of the problem. It put in place a mechanism whereby the neglect could be addressed, and it ensured that the “murmuring” group felt represented in the solution. “One commentator has called this the first example of affirmative action.”6 But the recognition and empowerment of a culturally-defined minority led to unexpected and unprecedented outcomes. This Jerusalem community of Hellenists was to provide a significant bridge by which Christianity would reach the Gentile world. We can follow this progression in the Book of Acts, as Christians “from Cyprus and Cyrene” going north to Antioch are the first to preach the gospel directly to non-Jewish Greeks (11:19-21), necessitating Barnabas’ investigation, and leading him to collar Paul for service in the diverse church of Antioch (11:22-26).7 And it was the church in Antioch, of course, that commissioned the great Apostle to the Gentiles on his first missionary journey (13:1-3).