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Conflict and Diversity in the Earliest Christian Community

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Vaselin Kesich

Diversity within the church has existed since its inception. Here we will examine the period "between Jesus and Paul."

From A.D. 30 to 35 the foundations were laid for subsequent Christian missions, as well as for theological reflections. The Church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the Twelve, with its decisiveness in responding to the needs of the faithful and its openness in blessing diversity in the community, prepared the ground for missionary activity in the Hellenistic world.

Our sources for the life and activity of the church in Jerusalem are Acts 1-12, a few fragments in the letters of Paul, and some references in James and Jude. Acts, the main source, has been subjected to stringent historical analysis. As Luke, the author of the book, wrote it in the last quarter of the first century, the time lag has led some interpreters to question its reliability as a source for this period. Their claim is that Acts was written to produce an idealized, generalized portrait of early Christian beginnings, which is reflected in the summaries (Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-35; 5.12-16). But far from offering an "ideal picture," Luke also revealed that the disciples of Christ after Pentecost were not always of "one accord." However, this aspect cannot be properly evaluated if it is not considered in the context of the "ideal" image of the church.

As he compiled the historical record, Luke relied upon the testimony of participants in these early events and may have drawn upon written sources. As Paul's traveling companion (Col. 4.14, Philem. 24) he was with him and James in Jerusalem (Acts 20-21). Before they reached the city they had been guests in Caesarea of "Philip the Evangelist" (Acts 21.8), one of the leaders of the Jewish Christian Hellenists. From him Luke undoubtedly received precious information about Christian beginnings, although he was not Luke's only source. In the first chapters of Acts he shows particular interest in Peter, probably on the basis of accounts which clearly reflect Peter's historical role in the Church of Jerusalem. Many scholars conclude that Luke had access to information about the church in Antioch, which was second to Jerusalem as a Christian center (Acts 6-12).

Luke was not only a record keeper of these first years of the church. He skillfully presented his facts in a theological perspective, weaving and shaping his sources, and grounding his interpretation solidly on concrete facts. Among those who defend the historicity of Acts are specialists in Roman history; A.N. Sherwin-White asserts: "Any attempt to reject the basic historicity of Acts now appears absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted."1

I

The fruit of Christ's death, resurrection, ascension and the giving of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was koinonia: community, communion, fellowship the Church. In Hebrew the corresponding term is Yahad, used in the Dead Sea Scrolls to denote "unity." With one mind (homothymadon) the members of the community "devoted themselves to apostolic teaching and fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and prayers" (Acts 2.42). The sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism served most probably as the setting for the transmission and growth of the Gospel tradition. In connection with the baptism of new converts "in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2.38) Jesus' baptism was recalled. At the time of "breaking of bread" the early Christians in Jerusalem relived Christ's institution of the Eucharist, and the events that culminated in his death on the cross.2 Although Jewish Christians attended Temple worship and practiced circumcision with other Jews, they gathered for the "breaking of bread" in their homes (Acts 2.46), which served as Christian synagogues or house churches. With the growth of the community the number of Christian places of gathering naturally increased. One of these Christian synagogues was "the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark" (Acts 12.12), to whom the Gospel of Mark is ascribed. The gathering of Jesus' followers on the day of Pentecost was probably in a private house. Jesus had celebrated the Passover and instituted the Eucharist in such a setting. The evidence from Acts points to the existence from the very beginning of a distinct Christian worship taking place in private houses.

Although Luke in Acts repeats that the earliest Christian community was of "one accord" or of one mind (Acts 1.14; 2.46; 4.24; 5.12), yet it was not without problems. Some members violated the life of koinonia. Ananias and his wife Sapphira tried to serve two masters, God and mammon, held back some of the proceeds of the land and lied "to the Holy Spirit" (Acts 5.1ff), which in this case designates the ideal community, permeated and guided by the Spirit.3

It was not the holding of property in itself which disrupted the community. The surrender of goods in the Christian community was voluntary (Acts 5.4), not mandatory. Barnabas' act of selling his field (Acts 4.37) reveals the spirit of the disciples of Christ and desire for an "economic koinonia," but Barnabas would hardly have been mentioned specifically if every member of the community had done the same.4 In contrast, in the Qumran community, after a year of probation, a member's property would be compulsorily merged with the community's.

The evangelist Luke, in Acts, does not cover up or minimize the "unpleasant disturbances" in the life of the Jerusalem church. With the growth of the community, inevitably other problems confronted the disciples of Christ. They had to deal with them, for the future of the Christian mission and expansion depended upon their solution.

II

Before Pentecost the group of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem had been rather small. Of these, the Twelve had from the very beginning been the most prominent. With them were Mary the mother of Jesus, the women who had followed Jesus during his public ministry, and his brothers. The community was in all "about a hundred and twenty" (Acts 1.14-15). After Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost and his call to repentance and baptism "in the name of Jesus Christ," there were added to the disciples of the Risen Christ "about three thousand souls" (Acts 2.41). Whether or not we take these numbers literally, we cannot doubt the considerable growth of the primitive Christian community on the day of Pentecost. And with this increase in numbers the Christian group soon after experienced dissatisfaction and complaints in its ranks.

The opening verse of Acts 6 points to division as one consequence of this growth; it speaks of "Hellenists" and "Hebrews." The existence of these two distinct groups characterizes the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. The Hebrews were Jewish Christians who spoke almost exclusively Aramaic, and the Hellenists were also Jewish Christians whose mother tongue was Greek. They were Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, who returned to settle in Jerusalem. To identify them, Luke uses the term Hellenistai. When he had in mind Greeks, gentiles, non-Jews who spoke Greek and lived according to the Greek fashion,then he used the word Hellenes (Acts 21.28). As the very context of Acts 6 makes clear, the Hellenistai are not Hellenes. Much later the term Hellenistai reappears in the fourth century, but it is now synonymous with Hellenes, gentiles who are not Christians.5 In Acts Hellenistai refers either to Jewish Christians or to Mosaic loyalists (Acts 9.29) who were recognized as distinct groups in Jerusalem.

There were undoubtedly Hebrews who knew and spoke some Greek. The disciples from Galilee, Peter among them, as fishermen had had contacts with the inhabitants of Decapolis whose language was Greek. When some Greeks (Hellenes) expressed a desire to see Jesus, they approached Philip (Jn. 12.20f). Paul was at home in both languages. While some Hebrews could cross the language barrier, the same could not be claimed for the Hellenists.

The Hebrews and the Hellenists in the Jerusalem Christian community (koinonia) are characterized as disciples (mathetai) of Christ. This word appears in the Gospels and Acts, never in Paul. A disciple is one who is utterly committed to the person from whom he received a call. They follow Jesus, believe in him, and recognize his voice and teaching. And to follow him means readiness for sacrifice. Paul had fellow workers; only Jesus could have mathetai.

As Acts 6 reports, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution, probably meaning "in the giving of sustenance to the poor and needy." The Twelve took the complaint of the Hellenists seriously and dealt decisively with the discontent that was endangering the koinonia. They summoned the body of the faithful (plethos) and asked them to select "seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6.3) to serve tables (diakonein trapezais), whom they, the Twelve, would appoint for this duty. And when the plethos put forward seven Hellenists, the Twelve "prayed and laid their hands upon them" (Acts 6.6).

The roles of the Twelve and of the "multitude" (plethos) are clearly defined in the appointment of the Seven. The undisputed leaders, the Twelve, and the community of believers were participating in the decision-making process. The Twelve took the initiative, approved and ordained the seven worthy Hellenists whom the community had picked out from among themselves. The consent of the faithful was indispensable.

III

Who were these new leaders, appointed for the group of Hellenists, and what was their role in the community? All of them had Greek names. They were not native Greeks, gentiles, but Jews, except one, "Nikolaos, a proselyte of Antioch" (Acts 6.5). The two most prominent among them were Stephen and Philip. The reason given for their selection was to "serve tables." That expression may cover many duties related to economic and financial matters. In addition to caring for the poor and needy, it is clear from Acts 6-8, Stephen and Philip were engaged in preaching, teaching and baptizing. Luke tells us that they were evangelists and preachers. Stephen "did great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6.8), and Philip proclaimed Christ in Samaria and on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he baptized the eunuch (Acts 8.38). They were engaged in the service (diakonia) of the community.

The term diakonia is used in Acts 6, but not diakonos. As a distinct group in the hierarchy, diakonos is used only once in Paul's undisputed epistles. He addressed Philippians to "the saints in Christ Jesus . . . with the bishops and deacons (episkopois kai diakonois)." Even here the ministry of diakonos is hardly defined. The term has the meaning of minister or attendant. Nothing is said about the function of deacons in the church of Philippi. In 2 Cor. 3.6 Paul identifies himself and those around him as "ministers (diakonoi) of a new covenant," and in the same epistle (2 Cor. 11.23), attacking his opponents, he writes, "Are they servants of Christ (diakonoi Christou)? I am a better one." He is a better diakonos than they are. In these two examples the title diakonos stands for "the office of preacher and missionary."6 Also in later writings of the New Testament ascribed to Paul or his influence, such as 1 Timothy, the functions of deacons are not mentioned. It is only noted that they "must hold the mystery of the faith with clear conscience" (1 Tim 3.9), which does not distinguish them from any other ministry in the church.

The Seven were appointed probably to be local leaders, administrators in the Christian Hellenist community. The Twelve were in charge of the community of Hebrews as well as of Hellenists, and it appears that they "ordained" from both groups helpers as local leaders. The role and duties of the Seven would correspond to the tasks performed by the elders (presbyteroi, Acts 15.4, 22).7 The appearance of the leaders on a local level reflects Jewish practice (Deut. 16.18). The appointment of the Seven recalls the appointment of the seventy helpers for Moses in Num. 11. Not satisfied with manna, the Israelites in the wilderness complained and asked for meat. "Why have you treated your servant so badly?" Moses asked the Lord. These people, Moses continued, "are too heavy for me . . . . For they come weeping to me and say 'Give us meat to eat!'" (Num. 11.11-13). The burden of Moses was lightened with the appointment of the seventy elders, on whom the Lord put "some of the Spirit" that was on Moses. In Acts the complaints of the Hellenists murmuring over food distribution led to the appointment of the Seven.

Some commentators, noting this similarity, question the historicity of Acts 6, while others, although emphasizing this similarity, note that we are dealing with historical facts and not with Luke's invention. They suppose that Luke used this particular mode of composition to stress the importance of the selection of the Seven. Here it is not a question of invention but of interpretation. What Luke records regarding the selection of the Seven is based upon his sources, and in composing it he wants to bring out as forcefully as possible the meaning of the appointment of the Seven in the life of the new covenantal community. He was not only acquainted with the Old Testament scripture but also possessed an intimate knowledge of the primitive Christian church. He gives the names of the Seven, who thereupon become a distinct group in the apostolic church. When Paul and his companions came to Caesarea on his last visit to Jerusalem they stayed with "Philip the Evangelist, who was one of the Seven" (Acts 21.8). On the basis of the so-called "we" section of Acts (Acts 20-21) Luke was with Paul in Caesarea and in Jerusalem. He presumably learned from Philip, if he had not already been acquainted, about the circumstances that led to their selection and appointment.

IV

The growth of the koinonia in Jerusalem, the persecution of the Hellenists, and the spread of church missions beyond the city followed the appointment and activity of the Seven. The number of disciples considerably increased and "a great many of the priests (hiereon)" joined the Christian community (Acts 6.7). Where did these priests come from? Nothing is said or revealed in Acts. If they came from the official priesthood, one can conclude that the Christian movement had even penetrated the Temple. Or perhaps these priests had belonged previously to the priestly group of Essenes. The Christians were acquainted with the Essenes, having met and observed them in the city of Jerusalem itself. The Essenes were not living only in the wilderness, but in a number of towns in Judaea. According to Josephus they were living in Jerusalem in a very closed community, where they had probably settled after the 31 BC earthquake, which had disrupted their lives at Qumran. It has been argued, on the basis of some archeological findings, that Essenes settled on Mount Zion, which also became the center of Jewish Christianity. This shared proximity facilitated contacts and influences between the disciples of Christ and the Essenes.8

Whether these priests, who became disciples, members of the koinonia, came from the Temple or from the Essenes, they did not perform a special "priestly" role in the church. In the church of the New Testament, hiereus (priest) is never used for an office holder. The author of Hebrews applied the term to Christ, who is "high priest (archierea) of our confession" (Heb. 3.1). The expression "royal priesthood," used in 1 Pet. 2.9, does not refer to one who holds an office in the church but to God's people. The term hiereus (priest) was used for an office holder in the church "only in the last quarter of the second century A.D.," with the final separation of the church from the synagogue; it occurred with "growing recognition of the Eucharist as a sacrifice."9

Stephen's preaching and evangelizing were met with persecution of the Christian Hellenists by other Greek-speaking Jews who had remained loyal to the Law. They disputed with Stephen and his followers, who made inroads into their synagogues. The synagogue of the freedmen is mentioned in Acts 6.9: "Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the freedmen (libertini), and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen." They could not all have been members of the same synagogue. The passage suggests that diaspora Jews returning to Jerusalem would keep contact with Jews from their own regions and places in the Hellenistic world which they had left. Each group would try to organize its own house of worship. Some of these house synagogues were more open to new ideas and criticism of the Jewish institutions than others. The Alexandrian Jews were more receptive to Christians than those from Asia Minor. The Hellenists from "Cilicia and Asia" were probably the main opponents and persecutors of Stephen. Paul, who was born at Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 22.3), was before his vision and conversion a Mosaic loyalist, as were many other Hellenists from "Asia." It is worth noting that later, in 58 A.D., Paul's life was in danger when "the Jews from Asia had seen him in the Temple." They laid hands on him, claiming that he was an opponent of the Law and the Temple (Acts 21.27ff). This same faction, the Asian Jews, was the one that had attacked Stephen about twenty-five years before. And once again their accusations were centered upon the Law and the Temple.

These accusers, the Mosaic loyalists, brought charges against Stephen that he spoke "blasphemous words against Moses and God" (Acts 6.11). The accusations were not entirely false, for Hellenists who had joined the church looked critically upon the Law. The baptism of the eunuch by Philip illustrates their attitude toward the Law. The Ethiopian eunuch was not a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. According to the book of the Law he could not be included in the assembly of God, as he could not be circumcised (Deut. 23.1, Lev. 21.17-23). Philip, a Christian Hellenist, goes beyond this legal requirement. At a time when the Christians in Jerusalem were Jewish Christians, observing the Law and attending the Temple, Philip baptized a eunuch, who could not be a Jew under the Law (Acts 8).

The second accusation against Stephen refers to the Temple. "False witnesses" heard him saying that "Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us" (Acts 6.14). This accusation was also not a complete invention. Stephen saw clearly the meaning and consequences of Jesus' teaching, as well as of his death and resurrection (Mk. 14.58, Jn. 2.19). He spoke about the Temple in such a way that he provoked a violent reaction among the loyalists. The critical attitude toward the Law led to a negative evaluation of the Temple. Stephen described the Temple as "made with hands" (cheiropoietos), a phrase known to those in the Hellenistic world who opposed idolatry. The Jews in diaspora used the same word to condemn paganism. By applying this expression to the Temple, Stephen identified the place as an idol. "The most High does not dwell in houses made with hands" (Acts 7.48).10

The accusations against Stephen were specific and, soon after, his martyrdom followed. After his lynching, the Hellenists scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria, but the Twelve were not persecuted and remained in Jerusalem (Acts 8.1). Following the death of Stephen, Saul/Paul "laid waste the Church" (Acts 8.3), committed the disciples to prison and consented to the death of many (Acts 26.10). The persecution of the Hellenists brought an unexpected expansion. The spread of the Christian Church in the short period between the death and resurrection of Jesus (30 A.D.) and the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus (c. 35) was phenomenal. Christian communities were organized in Samaria. The church in Antioch, a major city of the East, must have been founded by 35, before Paul's conversion.11 It is probable that Christian missionaries before Paul did not require circumcision of Gentiles (Acts 15.1, 5).

Apparently there were Christians in the city of Damascus even before the expulsion of the Hellenists from Jerusalem. Paul went to Damascus to persecute those who belonged to "the Way" (hodos, designating Christians in Acts, 9.2). Who had founded the church in Damascus? There are also references to Christian communities in Galilee (Acts 9.31). Acts is silent about the missionaries who worked in these areas. On the basis of these references and despite many unsolved questions, we may conclude that even before the Christian Hellenists were driven out of Jerusalem there had been highly successful missionary activities outside Jerusalem and Judaea. Could they be brothers of the Lord, whom Paul refers to as missionaries (1 Cor. 9.5)? An evaluation of all existing references to them in the documents of the first and second centuries might throw light on their special contributions in the post-resurrection period.

V

The earliest Christian church was a complex phenomenon. Cultural and linguistic diversity between the Hebrews and the Hellenists in the church of Jerusalem necessitated the existence of separate Christian synagogues and worship. Christians were worshipping separately from other Jews from the very beginning, even while joining them in Temple worship.12 Christians meeting in house churches devoted themselves to breaking of bread and prayer in two languages, Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek.

The unquestioned leaders of the Church were the Twelve. On their initiative the hierarchical structure of the Church developed organically. The Seven became the local leaders for the Hellenists, as presbyteroi, (elders) were for the Hebrews. The believers took part in the decisions that affected the life of the community.

The church in Jerusalem was a spectrum of diversity. H.G.N. Flew's aphorism, "God made spectrum; man made the pigeonholes" is aptly applied to the early church of Jerusalem.13 Yet there was an underlying unity behind all the diversity. Christians became disciples of Christ by baptism in his name. They heard the Gospel, the Word of Truth, and committed themselves to be the Lord's witnesses in Jerusalem and to the end of the earth (Acts 1.8). Their witness to and experience of the resurrection became "the mother of christological reflection and thus of early Christian theology generally."14 These earliest Christians indicated the road to be taken in order to reach the gentile world. Before Paul's vision and baptism (Acts 9.18) they understood that the universal Gospel is not only for Jews but for Gentiles as well.


1 A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963, p. 189.

2 Bo Reicke, The Roots of the Synoptic Tradition, Philadelphia, 1986, p. 66.

3 In Paul "Christ" sometimes designates the community of believers (1 Cor. 6.15; 8.12; 12.l2), for the church is the presence of Christ and in the church his saving love is manifested.

4 The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) 44.36.

5 Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983, p. 8.

6 Helmut Koester, History, Culture and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982, vol. II, p. 90.

7 NJBC 80.15.

8 See my article, "The Historical Jesus: A Challenge From Jerusalem,"
St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, vol. 30, No. 1, 1986, p. 26.

9 Daniel Harrington, Light of All Nations, Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1982, p. 134.

10 James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977, pp. 267ff.

11 H. Koester, op. cit., pp. 91-92.

12 M. Hengel, op. cit., p. 42.

13 See Craig Hill, Hellenists and Hebrews, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1992, p. 196.

14 M. Hengel, op. cit., p. 45.

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