We are going to explore some topics today that is as relevant to helping us to understand the Book of Acts as they are challenging to stay focused and to digest. We’re also going to discuss things about the Jewish religious institution that most Jews don’t know much about such as the neglect of the Greek widows.
For instance, culture and its associated language determine how we perceive the world and how we communicate about those things. In the case of the Bible (especially the New Testament), culture and language affect even the use and meaning of rather common words and terms.
Using modern day examples of what I’m getting at, what the word justice means in the Kingdom of Jordan is nothing like what it means in America. The value of life in Egypt is entirely different than it is in Israel. The definition of ethics and morals in Brazil is not the same as it is in Canada.
And as concerns the Bible it goes so far that what various Bible characters mean by the words they use changes depending on the era, on what their political, regional, and religious affiliations are, where they are from and who they are talking to at times.
Early in the Bible (in the Old Testament), the issue of cultural differences as it shapes worldview is fundamental: pagan versus not pagan. And at that time that meant Hebrews as opposed to everybody else. Words and terms were pretty static, and so their meaning could be applied more universally. The Cultural change occurred very slowly.
As we page through the Bible things, accelerate. We see the Hebrews begin to interact more with Gentiles, and then later as the Israelites form national coalitions with former enemies intermarriage becomes the norm. And then later still as the Jews are exiled and forced to live among and mix in much more intimate ways with gentile cultures in the Babylonian and Persian Empires, the lines blur further between Jewish and gentile society and so the meanings of terms and words gets much more complicated.
If we had retained the Apocrypha in our Bibles, then we could further follow the progress of the Israelites when the complexities of their society increased as living among gentile cultures became permanent, even a desired thing.
Years before Christ a major split had occurred in Jewish culture: there were now the Diaspora Jews versus the Holy Land Jews, and they had distinct societal differences and life philosophies.
By the time we opened the first pages of the New Testament and immersed in the era of the Roman Empire, we are dealing not only with a world cultural milieu that resembles London or New York City; we have the Jews themselves broken into many factions. Each of them holding widely different beliefs, having conflicting agendas, depending on various sources of documents, doctrines and religious authority figures to obtain spiritual direction. Even at times insisting on using a particular language while shunning others as heresy.
What I’ve just explained to you is the intricate backdrop of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation. Among Jews there was not just one point of view nor was there a single unified Jewish culture.
What we must realize is that whatever composite mixture the Biblical New Testament Jewish society was it in no way resembled the worldviews prevalent in the West today; so what they had in mind by what various people said often gets lost in translation or is heavily filtered through a Western mindset as we read the Bible.
So today within the context of Acts chapter 6 we’re going to explore some cultural issues that are not meant to complicate or confuse us. But rather to untangle Scriptural difficulties (and sometimes seeming Scriptural contradictions) and explain better what our various characters in the Book of Acts meant by what they said, and why they thought the way they did. Without understanding this, modern Believers will make incorrect assumptions that result in dubious doctrines that can lead us well away from the truth. So open your Bibles to Acts chapter 6.
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Acts 6:1-6 (NKJV)
As this chapter begins we’re given a rough time frame; it is around the time when Peter and the disciples are arrested by the Sanhedrin and then flogged for preaching the Gospel and doing miracles in the name of Jesus. So the setting for this chapter is still Jerusalem, as it has been since Acts chapter 1.
Take note: even though all the disciples are Galileans, just as their Lord and Master Jesus was also from the Galilee, the nucleus of their new sect is in Jerusalem. And this makes sense because Jerusalem was the religious power center for much (although not all) of Judaism. And for the 12 disciples and the new Believers and also for the Romans, these members of the sect called The Way were not seen as a new religion but rather as a relatively small but quickly growing movement of Jews within Judaism. However not everything was going well.
The first verse of Acts 6 explains that there was growing antagonism between two factions that composed the Believers in Jerusalem. And the main bone of contention had to do with a perceived unfairness with the distribution of support to widows based on whether they were Hellenists or Hebrews.
The first thing to tackle is what the author Luke had in mind when he referred to one group as Hellenists and the other as Hebrews. And this represents the first of the troublesome cultural differences among Jews that I spoke of earlier, which we need to be aware of to understand the make-up of the early Believers in Christ better.
In Greek the words are Elleniston (which we translate into English as Hellenists), and Ebraious (which we translate into English as Hebrews). And this is the first time in the New Testament that we find the term Hellenists. And while there are some disagreements among Bible scholars on the finer details of what this term means to communicate, at the least Hellenists means people whose first language is Greek.
Further, it means that these people have, to some level or another, adopted Greek and Roman cultural viewpoints (called Hellenism). These Hellenist Believers are still Jews, but most likely are Diaspora Jews who either made the Torah ordained pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Shavuot. And as a result of the remarkable Pentecost experience of the arrival of the Holy Spirit, they decided to remain permanently in the Holy Land. Or some were those who formerly lived in foreign lands but for whatever reasons had relocated to Judah at an earlier time.
And this distinguishes the Hellenists from the Hebrews who were the native Holy Land Jews. The Hebrews spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic or likely both languages, as they were similar.
I’ve explained in other lessons that languages are invariably linked to culture. So there were built-in cultural differences between the Greek speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews.
In fact, I think it is reasonable to assume that there was a definite language barrier that often created frustration and misunderstanding between the two groups of Christ-followers.
And to use modern terms to help us understand the unease between the two groups, the Hellenist Jews were closer to what in our time we might call Liberal Christians versus the Hebrew Jews that we might equate to Conservative or Fundamentalist Christians.
For anyone who has been fortunate enough to spend time immersed into modern Israel’s vibrant society, the issues among Jews who hail from different languages and cultures are very much on display. The result is distrust and constant collisions between the cultures.
When one has to deal with the government agencies (which in Israel is a given), and especially when dealing with the national healthcare system, it is often chaos because so much of Israel’s population cannot speak Hebrew.
And also because often the social and governmental structure of wherever these Jews have migrated from is entirely different from that of Israel and so they can’t make any sense of how the system works. So things can quickly dissolve into frustration, anger and a lot of shouting. And this is what we see happening here in Acts chapter 6.
But what exactly is the issue of the widows that has so many Believers unhappy?
The matter of widows in ancient times is another thing that Western culture doesn’t understand, but since the situation with widows is often brought up in the Bible, then let’s take a few minutes to get a handle on it.
Obviously, there was no government welfare system in those days to care for orphans, the disabled, the unemployed, or for poor widows. Rather that responsibility fell mostly to the religious system and personal charity. However since a widow is the result of a marriage situation, then there were legal sanctions involved.
At the core of most marriages between Hebrews was the “Ketubah,” the marriage contract. And this is not a marriage license. Rather it is a standard legal agreement that states how property is handled. During the time of the marriage, what happens to the assets if the marriage is dissolved, and especially how a widowed wife is supported should the unfortunate occasion arise (and it frequently occurred because the wives were always much younger than their husbands).
Legally, within first-century Jewish society, a widow by definition possessed a valid Ketubah. Unlike in modern times in Western culture where typically a wife inherits her deceased husband’s property by default unless there is a will or prenuptial agreement that says otherwise, in ancient times a woman had no rights of property inheritance and no amount of legal paperwork could change that.
Therefore the Ketubah spelled out the terms for her support by the deceased husband’s family who would inherit the husband’s property.
One of the marriage contract principles was that the widow was to be cared for at a level that would allow her to maintain similar living standards that she had been enjoying with her husband.
Usually, this involved the widow getting to keep the house that she and her husband resided in. The property could be designated for use for her support; however, she didn’t receive ownership of the property. It is only the income from the property that she could receive and it was up to the husband’s family, to be honest, and diligent in the property administration.
However, if she remarried, all rights to income ceased because she would have received a new Ketubah from her new husband thus void the former Ketubah. Some widows received a comfortable living. But the orthodox Jews had little if any property and so a widow was often left without much, if any, support. Thus the Torah Laws commanded that the local community provides her food and a modest means of support.
However, from a government standpoint, this support was considered voluntary charity and could not be compelled. Thus the widow had to rely on the goodwill of her family and her community. If none was forthcoming, she was in a dire situation.
Typically in the New Testament era the religious entity that oversaw a widow’s support was the Synagogue. The Temple had not played a significant role in that matter since before the exile to Babylon. If there were a dispute, it would have been directed to the Sanhedrin.
In our story, the 12 disciples felt that the complaint that the Hellenist widows were receiving less than the Hebrew widows was legitimate, so they took action. A general meeting of the local Believers was called to work it out. As is typical of congregation’s people first look to the leadership to be the ones to handle matters.
But the 12 disciples told the congregation that they didn’t think it right that they should take time from studying and teaching God’s Word to “serve tables.” To serve tables doesn’t mean to be waiters. Rather serving tables means to take on the responsibility of overseeing food distribution.
However, as our story demonstrates, congregation leaders need to have the starch to stand up and say that they cannot and must not try to do everything; the congregation has duties as well.
And it seemed right to the disciples that food distribution to the widows was an appropriate thing for the congregation to handle. And it was decided that the congregation would select seven men of unusually good character to supervise the matter. The 12 disciples, if in agreement, would then officially appoint them and consecrate them to service with the laying on of hands (semichah).
What is interesting is the seven they chose; every one of them had Greek names. In fact, one named Nicholas was a Gentile by birth and had been living in Antioch of Syria, but had converted to Judaism, meaning he had, in fact, become a Jew.
So it appears that the seven chosen might have all been from the Hellenist faction, who were the ones making the complaint? Since the complaint came from the Hellenists, it seems the Hellenists were given the job of solving it.
One thing I’d like you to notice: if it is so that all 7 were Hellenists then it means that Stephen who would soon be persecuted and martyred was also a Hellenist Jew.