Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Waiting on tables

It is not about the food. It is about the people. It is about including in your ministry all of the people of the community including those who are so downtrodden that they obtain their meals at the neighborhood soup kitchen. The Apostles conducted their own neighborhood soup kitchen available to their members.

The description of the event is clear that the widows were being neglected in the distribution of food being dispensed to the members of the community. When their spouses were alive, they did not need community support but now that they were merely surviving spouses they were neglected when they came to the neighborhood soup kitchen.

In Book of Deuteronomy, the people of God are required to be charitable to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in their midst. These provisions are reiterated throughout the biblical writings and were probably ubiquitous throughout the Ancient Near East. In Jewish society, widows were viewed as particularly needy and dependent. Yet in Acts, we read that the widows were being neglected because they are not Hebrew!

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.”

Typically, the problem is defined as related to the rapid growth of the community of the followers of Jesus. There is no suggestion at this point in time that the growth is due to the influx of Gentiles. If the Hellenists and the Hebrews and their spouses are “Jewish”, why then were the Greek widows, who may also be strangers, being neglected?

In Jerusalem there were two kinds of Jews: those who were born and raised locally and whose mother-tongue was Hebrew or Aramaic; and those who were born and raised abroad and whose mother-tongue was Greek or who were born and raised locally and whose mother-tongue was Greek. Therefore the community in Jerusalem was divided into two main ethnic groups, one Aramaic-speaking, the other Greek.

It is possible some of these Greek Jews were descendents of the Hellenizers who were despised by Palestinian Jews because they had compromised their religion. They could not speak Hebrew nor could they understand the Law of Moses when read in Hebrew. When Hellenized Jews came to Jerusalem they formed Greek speaking synagogues so they could hear and understand Moses being read. They were not accepted in the Temple. This prejudice found its way into the primitive church - Hellenized widows were being neglected.

This neglect in the serving of food may speak to a problem between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. The Hebrews were not especially fond of the Hellenists. Although the food distribution problem was solved by appointing Greek speaking individuals to assist in the distribution of food, the problem between the Hebrews and the Hellenists did not disappear. Consequently it is necessary to determine the nature of the problem between the Hebrews and the Hellenists and it ultimate resolution. There are a number of possible reasons why the Hellenized Jews were not accepted in the Temple. Circumcision and intermarriage represent two such reasons.

In 1 Maccabees, we read about some Jews who built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and "made themselves uncircumcised." Thus it is evident that there were many Jewish men in the Hellenistic period who were uncircumcised, never having been circumcised, or underwent a surgical procedure to reverse the sign of their circumcision. Therefore we must assume that there was a wide variety of Jewish views on circumcision in the First Century. The evidence for uncircumcised yet practicing Jews is indirect but unequivocal. The Jewish followers of Jesus attracted to their movements many Jews who had ceased to practice Judaism, some because they had been excluded by Jewish society and other because their occupation or their conduct had made them pariahs. The movement probably also attracted Jews who shared the Greek and Roman abhorrence of circumcision. The Circumcision Party objected to the inclusions of these Jewish males as full members of Jewish society quoting Genesis: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised on the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

Christine Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud, viewed the inevitable break between Jews and Christians as aided by Ezran ideologies that denied Jewish identity to non-native Jews and converts:

"... for the first time, the Jewish community was confronted with persons who met none of the requirements of Jewish identity: neither the sufficient condition of genealogical filiation nor the condition of moral-religious conversion as signalled by circumcision and observance of Jewish law. By no definition, then, could such persons lay claim to Jewish identity -- certainly not by those espousing an Ezran concern for genealogy and not even by tannaitic rabbis, who required, at the very least, the adoption of Jewish religious practices. And so, a new religion was born."

The Church in Antioch was founded by Hellenists who left Jerusalem after the persecution that arose over Stephen (11:19). The Church at Antioch did not consider them as bound by the Jewish law. For instance, they did not observe the Jewish dietary laws (Gal. 2:12). Was this idea in practice in Jerusalem among the Hellenists?

It is apparent that the Jews of the Diaspora were stricter, more conservative in their observance of Jewish laws than the Hellenists. This strictness has been explained by their physical distance from Jerusalem; that the Jews in Jerusalem were, relatively speaking, complacent because they had access to the temple.

What about the Hellenists? Are their views traceable to the "liberal" views of community espoused by the writers of Joel, Ruth and Jonah? Did the conflict that erupted when Stephen preached his last sermon arise out of the devout Jews and proselytes from every nation coming into contact/conflict with the many priests who became Christians? We have four clues whose significance becomes apparent after reviewing evidence from the Dead Sea Scroll. 1) Acts 2:5 "Now there were living in Jerusalem devout Jews drawn from every nation under heaven . . . ." Is the text variation "devout men" of any significance? 2) Acts 2:11 "visitors from Rome, both jews and proselytes." 3) Acts 6:5 Nicolaus, one of the Seven who was chosen to serve in the Jerusalem was a proselyte. 4) Acts 6:7 "and very many of the priests adhered to the Faith."

Schiffman in his discussion of the Book of Jubilee (Second Century B.C.E.) indicated that the author placed certain of his teachings in the mouths of the patriarchs using the example of the prohibition of intermarriage:

“And if there is any man in Israel who wishes to give his daughter or his sister to any man who is from the seed of the gentiles, let him surely die. . . . And also the woman will be burned with fire because she has defiled the name of her father's house. . . . (Jubilee 30:7)”

Schiffman states: "The author strong stand against intermarriage should be seen in the context of extreme Hellenization going on in contemporary times. Nonetheless the author is echoing the traditional Jewish prohibition of mixed marriages, to which he has added extremely harsh penalties, as is his tendency throughout."

According to Schiffman, the text of the Halakhic letter reconstructed by Qimron from six fragmentary copies concern laws, inter alia, condemnation of mixed marriages. Schiffman in his discussion of "Other Laws in the Temple Scroll" indicates passages in the Temple Scroll seem to indicate that all marriages between Jews and gentiles were prohibited (Temple Scroll 57:15-17).

"No doubt non-Jews would have been prohibited from entering the temple since even proselytes were forbidden entry into the middle Court until the fourth generation (Temple Scroll 39:5-7). Indeed, in the End of Days, non-Jews as well as proselytes were to be excluded from the sanctuary described in Florigium."

Paul's views on marriages and sex have produced an outpouring of writings. His theory of status quo said that if you are married, you were to remain married even to a heathen but that divorce desired by the heathen partner was permitted. If you were not married, you should remain single. These views were based on Paul's belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. For our purposes, we are interested in his rather liberal view regarding marriage to non-Christians. There has always been a conflict in Israel concerning intermarriage presumably with the proponents thereof citing the examples of Moses marrying Zipporah, Joseph the daughter of the Pharaoh and the story of Ruth. The bottom line is that intermarriage was a prominent issue in first century Judaism and it would be surprising if the issue did not surface in the early Christian community in Jerusalem.

The Book of Jonah provides another clue. The Book of Jonah is usually cited as the source for that passage in Matt. 12:39-41 as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days so Jesus was in the belly of the earth for three days before He was raised from the dead. The story of Jonah has a larger significance for our understanding of the Lucan (and Pauline) vision of a universal church.

The Book of Jonah was written in the post‑Nehemiah period (fourth century B.C.E.) after the return of Jewish leaders from the exile into which they had been cast by the Babylonian conquest of Palestine in the early sixth century. This book was a gentle satire on a type of self‑righteous Jewish religious exclusivism that had arisen after the return.

The Book of Ruth demonstrated the compassion of Yahweh to those foreigners who had been drawn into the community through marriage. The Book of Joel provided bold new expression to the eschatological dimensions of Yahweh's presence in the world.

The Books of Joel, Ruth and Jonah were a reaction to the reforms and visions of Ezra and Nehemiah of separateness of the people of Judah from the other people of the world. This different vision of God as the compassionate and righteous Lord of all people was the biblical legacy to the Lucan and Pauline communities. It included the notions of Israel as a "light to the nations" (Isa. 49:6), of the temple as a "house of prayer for all peoples" (Isa. 56:7), of all nations of the world contributing their children to the priesthood of Yahweh (Isa. 66:18-21), of offerings being made to Yahweh "from rising of the sun to its setting" (Mal. 1:11), of a Moabite woman being adopted and protected by the Yahwistic community (Ruth), of a pagan king repenting and appealing to the mercy of Yahweh (Jonah 4:6-9), and of Assyria and Egypt joining Israel in becoming "a blessing in the midst of the earth" (Isa. 19:24).

In the years after the return of the exiles, there developed another vision of community among some of the Jewish groups that ethnic membership in the elect in the absence of good moral behavior was insufficient for salvation. This message espoused in the story of Jonah and the whale as well as in the Books of Joel and Ruth provided biblical support for Luke's universalism. It is also provides insight to the events of Acts 6 and why Stephen's last sermon provoked such a reaction.

This discussion suggests that the conflict in the sixth chapter of Acts may deal with intermarriage. This excursion into the Dead Sea Scroll community is intended to show the beliefs of the members of the early Jerusalem Church regarding intermarriage; and to establish that these ideas, that had to have time to develop for Luke to write about them, in fact had existed in the community for a long time. When these clues are combined with Stephen's attack on the Temple, and the different vision of Jonah and Ruth, it becomes apparent that the devout Jews and proselytes of Acts 6 have been excluded from the Temple. Among such excluded people, the status of the Temple is downgraded. When Stephen suggested that the very existence of the Temple is idolatrous he echoed the sentiments of many devout Jews and proselytes from many nations who were excluded from the Temple because of intermarriage. This trouble was created by the breaking of the boundary lines that defined Judaism.

It was Ezra and Nehemiah who first prohibited intermarriage for all Jews. Jubilees and Miqsat Ma'aseh Torah (4QMMT) are two texts which, in Hayes’ view, prohibited intermarriage as a result of Ezran influence. Hayes also indicated that in her reading of Paul, mixed marriages are identified as a sexual sin, as porneia. Paul instructed his followers: “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

Stephen’s Sermon is based upon the Levites’ Prayer in Nehemiah 9. Newman provides a summary for the prayer:

9:5 Levitical exhortation and introductory blessing;
v.6 affirmation of God as creator;
7-8 God’s choice of Abraham and covenantal grant of land;
9-12 account of Exodus from Egypt;
13-14 gift of Torah at Sinai;
15-21 wilderness wandering, Israelite disobedience with molten calf incident;
22-25 conquest and settlement of the land;
26-31 disobedience during period of judges and monarchy leading to exile;
32-37 present circumstances of slavery in their land leads them to confess their sinfulness in the present as in the past.

The prayer in Nehemiah 9 in its introduction includes the phrase “The host of heavens worships before you.” Newman believes this is an allusion to angelic liturgy and the priestly account of creation. Stephen begins his sermon, “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham . . . .” Although the reference to “The God of glory” may allude to angelic liturgy, there is no question that Luke states that the law was delivered to Moses by angels. Later in his sermon, Stephen says: “But God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven.” This statement immediately follows “they made a calf in those days.”

Just as there are two parts to the prayer in Nehemiah, the historical recital (9:6-31) and the prayer proper (9:32-37), there are likewise two parts to Stephen’s sermon, the historical recital and the prayer proper. In this prayer, Exodus is a principle of faith and testimony to God’s greatness, a view that Stephen also shares. The Levites’ prayer and Stephen’s sermon are characterized predominantly by the greatness and transcendence of God and the failure of the Israelites to uphold the covenant and the resulting need for repentance. In a manner that is decidedly more deuteronomistic in language and theme than priestly, Nehemiah ties Israelite obedience or disobedience to possession or loss of the land. Not only does Luke follow the general outline of the prayer in Nehemiah, he includes some of its themes and exact phrases, which reveals his awareness of the prayer.

Just before Nehemiah mentioned the molten calf, he said, “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey thy commandments.” Nehemiah also stated: "Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against thee and cast thy law behind their back and killed thy prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to thee, and they committed great blasphemies.

Stephen’s sermon included: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." Although in the preceding quotation, the polemical phrase “your fathers” appears, the sermon includes eight “our fathers.” Nehemiah included the phrase, “our fathers” five times. Since “our fathers” appears a total of fourteen times in Acts, the polemic use of “your fathers” in this instance is probably an indictment of the audience listening to Stephen.

This concluded the historical recital, which is unusual in that, there is no statement about the taking of the land which is the standard terminus in the other summary accounts of biblical history. Of course, unlike the standard accounts, this account was interrupted because the people became so enraged they stoned Stephen. Yet Stephen’s introduction of moral failure was not a novelty in the standard accounts. Nehemiah did the same in verses 16, 18, 26 and 29. Luke included in verse 37 a remarkable quotation from Deut 18:15: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, 'God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.'”

There is one more interesting similarity. “The sweep of the recital in Nehemiah from creation to life in the land,” according to Newman, “reflects a view of history consonant with the priestly composer.” The composer of Nehemiah 9 rewrote scripture changing the maker of the molten calf from Aaron to the people. Luke in agreement says, “They made a calf in those days.”

Why does Luke use the prayer of Nehemiah as his outline?

Because Stephen’s sermon is the longest speech in Acts, it may also be the most important. Numerous scholars have studied the speech and attempted to make sense of it. To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Luke used Nehemiah 9 as his outline. Soards does note “Comparable biblical summaries of history are found in the Septuagint in Deut 6:20-24; 26:5-9; Josh 24:2-13; Neh 9:6-31; Psalms 77; 104; 105; 135; Wisdom 10; Sirach 44-50; Jdt 5:6-18.”

In verses 36 and 37, Nehemiah presents the belief in the continuing exilic status of the people of God and that the exilic status did not end with the return of the exiles. Although Stephen does not mention the exile, he does proclaim that the deliverance, yet to come in the time of Nehemiah, has arrived. He introduces the deliverance with these words previously quoted: “God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.”

Consequently, we can say that different groups in the first century of the Common Era had strong opinions about intermarriage. We can also say that Luke was familiar with Nehemiah 9 having used it as his outline for Stephen's sermon and was also familiar with Jubilees. Book of Jubilees makes Pentecost the most important of the annual festivals on the Jewish liturgical calendar. According to Jubilees, the Feast of Pentecost was instituted in connection with Noah and was to be celebrated annually in perpetuity. Of further interest Luke, but not Matthew, includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus. Since Luke has emphasized Noah and the Noachic decree, he may have used the Book of Jubilees as a source. Paul was familiar with Nehemiah and with 4QMMT since he used the phrase "works of the law" five times in Romans and Galatians and this phrase appears nowhere else except in 4QMMT. Thus Luke and Paul were familiar with the writings about the prohibition of mixed marriages. It is now apparent that Stephen's sermon alluded to Nehemiah 9 because both situations related to mixed marriages.

Luke wants us to understand that there are two groups of people with different cultural and/or ethnic backgrounds sharing community resources resulting in some discontent. Intermarriage occurs between people of different backgrounds, languages and culture because of opportunity to meet and interact. Children are born of such relationships and some children may be denied access to benefits because they are different and not accepted. Spouses die and surviving spouses may be treated as outsiders and denied access to benefits.

Scholars have suggested that the Sermon was temple critical and/or temple establishment critical. Stephen responds to the practice of exclusion from temple participation by emphasizing the greatness and transcendence of God, a God so great it does not reside in a temple made with hands. By inference God has no desire or need to exclude anyone from temple participation. Furthermore, the sermon makes the point that God performed “wonders and signs” but the response was to build a calf demonstrating that the temple establishment was a “wicked tenant” from the beginning. The prophets called the people to repentance but they responded by killing the prophets. God invites participation by all his people; the temple establishment excluded people and animals with blemishes.

In Nehemiah 9, intermarriage is the sin which is the context for the prayer yet there is no mention of this particular sin anywhere in the entire prayer which was delivered shortly after Sukkoth. Intermarriage separates one from the covenant community and makes one a permanent exile, a person unable to participate in the ingathering of the exiles.

In verses 36 and 37, Nehemiah presents the belief in the continuing exilic status of the people of God and that the exilic status did not end with the return of the exiles. Although Stephen does not mention the exile, he does proclaim that the deliverance, yet to come in the time of Nehemiah, has arrived. He introduces the deliverance with these words previously quoted: “God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.”

In Nehemiah 9, according to Mark Throntveit, the prayer serves to motivate the people into making the proper response so lacking in the historical survey. Stephen, in using Nehemiah as his outline, also sought to obtain the proper response. It was not meant to be.

However Stephen makes a remarkable request. Although there had been no call for repentance and forgiveness, this final appeal to the “Lord” is for the forgiveness of those who rejected Jesus for eating with sinners and are now killing Stephen for waiting on tables for sinners.

Copyrighted 2007


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