Table of Contents




The Hellenist in Acts


Twice in the book of Acts are the Hellenistic Jews mentioned: chapter 2 and 6, both times concerning complaints with the Apostles. Zondervan’s Pictorial Biblical Dictionary defines Hellenists as, “Non-Greeks who spoke Greek…Jews who made Greek their tongue, and with it often adopted Greek ideas and practices[1].” The Hellenistic Jews differed from the Hebrews in that their native language was not Aramaic or Hebrew, but Greek. They were native to Judea and Galilee but moved to Jerusalem, mostly to retire, but after converting they stayed for the teaching of the apostles. Before conversion, they likely attended synagogues where Greek was spoken. The home and birthplace of Hellenism was Alexandria, founded in the fourth century B.C. by Alexander the Great. This second city of the Roman Empire is sandwiched between Greece and the Middle East, and housed the greatest Jewish community in the Greco-Roman world. In short, the Hellenists are described as Jews that embraced Greek culture while still maintaining devotion to Judaism. Because their language was Greek, they used the Septuagint, which was first produced in Alexandria, instead of the Hebrew Scriptures. A positive effect of this is it acquainted non-Jews for the first time with the Hebrew Scriptures and thus helped prepare the Hellenistic world for the gospel [2].


Due to the saturation of Greek culture for the Hellenists, they came into contact with the Palestinian Jews, mainly the Pharisees. Racial and cultural hostility was created between these groups as the Pharisees viewed the Hellenists as second-class Israelites; this rift unfortunately bled into the church and created two contrasting influences of thought in the church. Jewish Christians embraced Jehovah or Yahweh from the Old Testament, the same God that chose His covenant people; and the Greek Christian, or Hellenist, had difficulty with the unity of God because he usually arrived at philosophical conclusions almost mathematically and logically[3]. The history behind these two cultures explains the difference in thought processes: the Jews had understood God from the beginning of His relationship to their forefathers, whereas the Hellenists came from Greek culture which was heavily tied to philosophical thought and human reasoning. Some even say that in the third century the most violent opponent of Christian reconciliation with Hellenic philosophy was Tertullian. Greek thinking had a significant influence over the Hellenistic Jews: “the task of accommodating Scripture to Greek philosophers, who – in contrast to Tertullian’s question – sought to show that Jerusalem was Athens” [4]. It quickly became a challenge to find a way to present the gospel to the Hellenistic audience.


Understanding the Hebrew and Hellenistic Jews in the church of Jerusalem gives the necessary context to understand the issues and complaints that surface in Acts 6 with the Apostles. Hellenists were definitely a minority, a small subgroup within the church in Jerusalem. The widows of the Hellenists were being overlooked (Acts 6:1), and this was brought to the attention of “the twelve” or the apostles. This complaint is legitimized in verse 2 as the apostles gather the congregation. Treatment and care for the widows and poor has always been a serious issue for the Lord. Deuteronomy 27:19 pronounces a curse on those who neglect the poor. The prophets mention several times the duty of the just to show mercy and care for the poor (Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). Although the Twelve did not directly solve the situation entirely, they assembled the whole of the disciples to address the issue. The reasoning behind this is found in verse 3: it was not desirable for the apostles to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. The apostles accepted their ministry and were dedicated and focused enough not to stray from it. This issue was handled with care considering that it very well could have caused church division with the rift between the Hellenists and native Palestinians.


Another instance where the Hellenists are mentioned is in Acts 9:28-29 where Paul speaks boldly to the Hellenistic Jews about Jesus and they try to kill him for it. These Hellenistic or Grecian Jews could very well have been among the same group that stoned Stephen back before Paul’s conversion. Luke portrays this group distinctly as tormentors of the characters in his books, and at this point in Acts they have succeeded in killing Stephen and they will eventually kill Paul as well[5]. The fact that Paul who had once been a part of them but was now preaching the gospel he so vehemently opposed must have had some bearing on the Hellenists. However, their hearts were closed to this message and they attempted to kill Paul. This fact perfectly illustrates Paul’s words in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” The message of the cross was a stumbling block for the philosophy-saturated Greek Jews, or Hellenists; the historical context of Hellenism and its strong ties to Greek culture illuminate the real issues behind the conflict between them and their encounter of the gospel preached.


Bibliography
Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Pfeiffer, Charles F. Baker's Bible Atlas. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964.
Sanders, Jack T. The Jews in Luke - Acts. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas : Word Publishing, 1995.
Tenney, Merrill C. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.



[1] Tenney, Merrill C. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967; p. 347.
[2] Pfeiffer, Charles F. Baker's Bible Atlas. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964; p. 180.
[3] Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas : Word Publishing, 1995; p. 48.
[4] Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984; p. 129.
[5] Sanders, Jack T. The Jews in Luke - Acts. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987; p. 245.