Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Another view of the Hebrews and the Hellenists, Part I

I am very much interested in Chapter 6-8 of Acts and particularly interested in identifying the “Hebrews and the Hellenists.” Todd Penner in his book, In Praise of Christian Origins, on page 71 citing in footnote 28, 2 Macc 4:10, 13,  suggest that Luke has given us no clues as to how he wants the reader to understand the identity of these two groups. In my opinion both the Hellenists and Hebrews are outsiders having been denied access to the Temple and have to rely upon the followers of Jesus for food and assistance. 

I do think that Luke does give us a major clue in Acts 8:2 in his use of two different hapax. I believe that Luke is telling us that Stephen died defending his traditional view of the faith.

In Acts 8:2, we read: “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.” Initially we note that the Greek word εὐλαβεῖς for devout and the Greek word κοπετὸ for lamentation are both Lucan hapax appearing only in Acts. It may be that verses 2:5 which states “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” and 8:2 form an inclusio with “devout men” as the bookends. These Jews had respect for Stephen and his views and saw him as a noble and righteous man, a man like Simeon.

This Greek word εὐλαβεῖς for devout appear in the Septuagint in two places of interest. In Lev. 15:31, the LXX states: “You shall make the sons of Israel be reverent εὐλαβεῖς because of their uncleanness.” Secondly in Micah 7:2, the LXX reading says: “For the reverent εὐλαβής one are destroyed and there does not exist one keeping straight among men.” Luke suggests that Stephen was such a devout man that devout men buried and made lamentation over him. Yet other men considered Stephen to be so unclean that they stoned him.

The Greek phrase κοπετὸν μέγαν only appears in Acts 8:2 and Genesis LXX 50:10 which is part of the narrative of Joseph burying his father in the land of Canaan beyond the Jordan at the cave that Abraham had purchased as a burial site. Luke, in alluding to Genesis LXX 50:10 in Acts 8:2, with his use of the Greek phrase κοπετὸν μέγαν is telling us he is aware of the two burial site traditions and that Stephen had used a burial tradition offensive to the temple establishment. 

As noted earlier, Luke used the Greek word for lamentation which is a hapax in Acts. This Greek phrase κοπετὸν μέγαν for “great lamentation” also appears in 1 Maccabees 2:70; 4:39; 9:20 and 13:26. The death of Mattathias is described in these words: “And he died in the hundred forty and sixth year, and his sons buried him in the sepulchres of his fathers at Modin, and all Israel made great lamentation for him.” The third and fourth citations describe the death and burial at Modin of Judas and Jonathan respectively. 1 Macc 4:39 describes how the men mourned with great lamentation when “they saw the sanctuary [at Mount Zion] desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned.”

The Hellenizers in Maccabees and in the first century include many priests and high ranking members of the temple establishment. Just as the author of 1 Maccabees refrains from accusing the leading Hellenizers of idolatry (Goldstein), so does Luke. This is surprising in light of the strong anti-idol polemic that appears throughout Acts of the Apostles. It may however explain why many priests joined the movement. They were more conservative than the ranking members of the temple establishment.

Luke intends to direct our attention to the conflict and opposition between Hellenism and Judaism that arose in the time of the Maccabees and more particularly to his identification of the Hellenists (perhaps more accurately Hellenizers) of Acts 6 with the Hellenizers of 1 Maccabees. According to historian Elias Bickerman, the Hellenizers of 1 Maccabees wanted to preserve aspects of Judaism that fit with Greek ideals, like a universal God, but to remove those parts of Jewish practice that separated Jews from others: dietary laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision.

Stephen’s last sermon is really a dialogue with more than one group. Stephen successfully challenged the Hellenizers and they complained to the temple establishment. Both the Hellenizers and the temple establishment were happy to eliminate Stephen. Saul originally challenged the Hellenizers, but he like the temple establishment also opposed Stephen, because Stephen wanted to include within Judaism those members on the fringe who were denied access to the Temple food distribution system. 

It was an unusual dialogue!

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