Date: Sat, 7 Feb 1998 13:07:01 -0500
To: "Mahlon H. Smith" 
Subject: Hebrews and the Hellenists

Dear Mahlon,

I have not forgotten about our recent very interesting discussion about
the Hellenistic deacons. In fact, I've asked about this subject on the
Acts-L, and Mikeal Parsons, a member of that list, recommended to me the
following book by Hill. This book I, in turn, can recommend to anyone,
since it seems like a solid piece of scholarship. So here's a sort of a
review I've written about it. I hope you enjoy it. I'll be grateful for
any corrections or criticism from you or other listmembers. 

Hill seems to accept that the ordination of the 7 deacons was historical.

Best wishes,


THE 12 APOSTLES AND THE 7 DEACONS: Ferdinand Baur, and
the tangled tales of the Book of Acts
by Yuri Kuchinsky


Hill's book, based on his Oxford dissertation under E. P. Sanders,
deals with what is and is not historical in the Book of Acts. While it
is a general trend in NT scholarship to see the Acts as containing
much unhistorical material that is pretty obviously a creation of
Luke, and to privilege the Epistles of Paul in preference to Acts as
the historical source, still many scholars believe that _there are_
some valid historical materials in Acts. Thus, it is believed that
Luke, in composing the Acts, used certain quite reliable earlier
historical sources. In particular, this applies to how the Acts
describe the developments in the early Jerusalem Jesus
movement, and to certain tensions that occurred there between
the original Aramaic speaking followers of Jesus, and the Greek
speaking Jewish believers, known also as the Hellenists. Also,
these reliable sources of Acts seem to provide some highly
valuable details about one important historical question, namely,
How exactly did the early Christian faith first spread outside of
Israel to Syria, and to other Greek-speaking areas of the Roman
Empire. In this area, the Acts seems to provide an important
correction to the picture we may derive from the Epistles of Paul,
especially in regard to Paul's own role in all this. 

Hill's book on the whole is a very credible effort, and a valuable
contribution to the debate in this area.

The thesis that there was a clear division within the early church
between the Hebrews and the Hellenists was first formulated by
the Tubingen scholar Ferdinand Baur back in 1831. As Hill notes,
Baur's thesis became very influential, and it still seems to be
generally accepted by the scholars working in this area today. In
his book, Hill provides an impressive overview of all the
scholarship in this area. 

In his time, Baur suggested that the earliest split within the Church
was the one that separated the Hellenistic (Greek speaking)
followers of Jesus, of whom Stephen was the most prominent,
from the more "conservative" Aramaic-speaking group of the
earliest followers in Jerusalem. Thus, the ordination of the 7
deacons in Jerusalem, as described all too fragmentarily in the
Book of Acts (Acts 6:1-7), was an expression of those tensions.
Stephen's martyrdom soon followed, and then came the expulsion
of the Hellenists from Jerusalem (these developments are also
discernable in certain passages in the Acts). Thus the message of
Jesus was spread for the first time to the Jewish diaspora,
especially to Antioch, and also, thereby, this message was then
preached for the first time to the Gentiles. And so, the
Jewish/Gentile barrier was crossed for the first time.

Hill's stated purpose is to provide, in his book, a corrective to these
very influential and widely accepted views of Baur, and he is
conscious that the opinion he is proposing is pretty well a minority

     Baur's reconstruction of the early church ... elicited an
     extraordinary response; indeed, it may be said that through it
     Baur succeeded in setting the agenda for much of
     subsequent New Testament scholarship. (p. 8)

Hill provides a long list of modern scholars strongly influenced by
Baur. And in particular, Hill argues extensively against Hengel,
Baur's one quite prominent modern follower.

     Without question, the most influential contemporary advocate
     of a view of the Hellenists consistent with that of F. C. Baur is
     Martin Hengel. (p. 15)

Hill makes many good points against Hengel, who clearly needs
some correction. 

(Hengel now has a new book that came out after Hill's book was published,

       AUTHOR: Hengel, Martin.                                      
        TITLE: Paul between Damascus and Antioch : the unknown years
                   / Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer.         
    PUBLISHED: London : SCM Press, 1997.                            

But the views of Hengel did not change substantially, I believe, from what
he published before.) 

In particular, one serious problem with Hengel's theories is that he
defends the accounts in Acts portraying Paul as active in Jerusalem early
on in persecuting the Church. While Hengel tends to accept these as
historically reliable (pp. 34-5 in Hill), Hill, to his credit, doesn't. As
Hill says, this picture contradicts rather strongly with what Paul himself
wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians.

     I am inclined to agree with those who see in Gal 1:22 an
     insurmountable obstacle to the belief that Paul persecuted
     the church in Jerusalem. (p. 29, n. 41)

But when all is said and done, the larger thesis of Hill, in so far as
it is negative and anti-Baur, may seem somewhat problematic.
This is what Hill seems to argue against in his book,

     The prevailing interpretation of Acts 6:1-8:4 holds that the
     Hellenists and Hebrews were separate, ideologically based
     parties within the earliest Jerusalem church. (p. 3)

Hill disagrees rather strongly with the above. He thinks the two
parties in Jerusalem were not so different ideologically after all.
Well, he may be right here up to a point. But the danger in
rejecting Baur's thesis too strongly is that, if we do so, we may be
left without any means to solve certain tantalizing mysteries in
regard to historical and doctrinal development within the early
movement. (I will come back to these questions later on.) This
danger is the proverbial danger in possibly throwing out the
theoretical baby together with the bathwater in which it was
bathed. Indeed, the fact, continuously pointed at by Hill, that there
was much diversity in the early Church should not be taken to
mean that there were no conflicts within the early Church!
Sometimes Hill may seem to be neglecting this rather obvious 

In any case, the positive argument of Hill's book is this,

     The primary thesis of this book is that the complex or
     pluralistic perspective is as true to early Jewish Christianity as
     it is to first-century Judaism generally. This is the positive
     counterpoint to the negative argument made concerning the
     inadequacy of the Hellenist-Hebrew dichotomy. ... Put simply,
     the situation was complicated -- much more so than previous
     scholarly constructions would lead us to believe. (p. 4)

Well, this makes sense to me on the whole. True, recently there's
been a lot more awareness about the complexity of the religious
situation in Israel in the first century CE. I agree that, especially
since the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the scholars should
no longer be talking about "the early conflicts between Judaism
and Christianity", but rather they should really be considering
various Judaisms that existed at that time over against a variety of
Christianities existing then. Baur's thesis indeed was somewhat
simplistic in this regard.

It needs to be said that, to his credit as an objective scholar that he
appears to be, Hill seems to accept broadly a number of important
points Baur was making in his time. In particular, Hill accepts that
the Hellenists _were_ important in the first opening up of the
Church towards the Gentiles,

     That the mission to the Gentiles should have begun and
     found its focus in Antioch does not contradict the thesis of
     this book. After all, whom else would we expect to evangelize
     the Gentiles if not those who lived as their neighbours and
     spoke their language? That the mission to the Gentiles was a
     bold step cannot be denied. (p. 106)

So, in trying to provide a corrective to Baur, Hill does accept quite
a lot of what Baur, Hengel, and others have to offer. Hill's critique
focuses mostly on the finer details of these ideas, trying to emend
them rather than to reject them. Thus, Hill accepts that the 7
deacons were probably ordained,

     The event it [the text of Acts 6:1-7] records is (as I shall argue
     below) historically probable. Moreover, the account supplies
     us with sufficient independent information to be considered
     credible -- or, at least, to deserve the benefit of the doubt. (p.

So Hill accepts that Luke, the author of Acts, may have been
working with some valid historical sources in composing his
narrative of these events.

In general, I tend to agree with a lot of what Hill is saying in his book.
Yes, there was a lot of pluralism in first century Israel, and, yes, the
ideological opposition between the Hebrews and the Hellenists may have
been rather overdrawn by many scholars, especially in the past. Yet I also
believe we should be able to accept much of what is valid in Baur, as Hill
actually does, without also having to accept his perhaps too
black-and-white dichotomy that he perceived in the earliest movement. In
other words, to argue for what is valid in Baur does not at all mean,
contra Hill, that one should also be arguing for the sharp ideological
distinctiveness between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. Where Hill may be
weak is in his not being attentive to the fact that _there were_ some
differences there. 

And here, some general background will be useful. Generally it is
believed that Jesus, himself, preached his message only to the
Jews. The earliest movement was entirely a Jewish movement. At
some point, the Gentiles were included in the movement. When,
and in what circumstances did this happen? This is one important
question where Baur's work is very helpful in being able to provide
some answers.

Our NT narratives, Mk the earliest among them, create the
impression that the opening to the Gentiles was accomplished by
Jesus himself. This should hardly be accepted as historical. It is
more reasonable to suppose that this opening took place some
time post-Easter (and as we have seen above, Hill accepts that
this may have happened in Antioch).

And another background matter also needs to be clarified.
Namely, was the message of Jesus spread privately or publicly?
This is not really such a simple question. Certainly, that Jesus
himself was preaching in public, at least from time to time, is likely.
How else should he have been crucified? But it also seems very
likely that, post-Easter, his followers did not preach his message
publicly at first, at least not in Jerusalem. For one thing, quite
naturally, they would have been rather afraid to do this. Their
proselytizing could have only been private at the early stage, or so
it seems. (This happens to be the view of the French biblical
scholar Alfred Loisy who worked early in this century.) 

But, also, at some point, the message _was_ proclaimed publicly.
And Stephen was likely to have been the first to do it. Loisy thinks
it was Stephen and his followers who were bold and enthusiastic
enough to go beyond private proselytizing, and to tell the world
openly the Good News that they felt the need to spread about. Hill
neglects to deal with this important distinction between public and
private proselytizing in his book.

To summarize, two important questions need to be asked by any scholar
interested in finding the historical truth in this area.

1. Whose idea was it originally to include the Gentiles into the
movement, i.e. to open up the Church to the Gentiles? 

The Hellenists must have played a very big role here, and Hill
actually accepts this. Certain relaxations around the Torah
observance accompanied this development, most likely.

2. Who was the first to preach the message of Jesus openly rather
than privately post-Easter, especially in Jerusalem?

It was most likely Stephen and his Jewish Hellenistic followers, the
seven deacons. That Stephen is named in the Acts at the head of the
list of these deacons is significant.

That Stephen was martyred primarily as a result of these
developments seems to be pretty clear. And so, contra Hill, the
tension between the Hebrews and the Hellenists must have been
quite important in any case, and should not be overlooked.

Hill also devotes a considerable portion of his book to the analysis
of what happened after the Hellenists were expelled from
Jerusalem. The beginning of the Jesus movement in Antioch must
have followed soon after, and Hill accepts such a sequence of

But in this regard, the role of Paul must be considered anew. Paul,
of course, seems to declare himself quite unambiguously in his
Epistles as the "Apostle to the Gentiles". But how did he get to be
the Apostle to the Gentiles? And what did this term mean at the
time, in any case? In this area, Hill's analysis is also pretty solid.
His reconstruction of the Pauline chronology seems well based. 

The general conclusion that one may reach from all these
considerations is that Paul was not really the Apostle to the
Gentiles, at least not early in his career, certainly. In the beginning
of his career he was clearly a junior member of the church in
Antioch. And this church was almost certainly under the leadership
of Barnabas for many years. (Hill seems to think that Barnabas
was on the whole on good terms with Jerusalem.) 

So it is clear that Barnabas was the earliest Apostle to the
Gentiles, if there indeed was any such one Apostle. How exactly
had Paul managed to claim this exalted title for himself would be
very interesting to look into. But this, naturally, will raise a related
question, Whether or not he really did so in his life-time? Or was
this title perhaps attributed to him posthumously by his later
followers, who also may have added a few key passages here and
there to his Epistles? Nevertheless, all this is already beyond the
scope of the present essay. 

Best wishes to all,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient 
 in Toronto 	 | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
	      -=-=- -=-=-

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