Commentary on Acts 6:1-7
As the new community grew so did its need to develop new structures. With its growth came a more complex membership. It is likely that some time had elapsed between today’s passage and those we were reading during the past week.
For the first time, the word ‘disciples’ is used to describe those who had become believers in Christ; up to this it had only been applied to those who had been with Jesus in the Gospel.
The issue in today’s reading is that the Greek-speaking Jewish members began complaining that their needs were being neglected by the Hebrew-speaking Palestinian members, from which the founding core came.
At this stage of its development, the Church was still entirely Jewish in its membership. However, they were divided into two distinct groups:
- There were the Hebraic Jews, who spoke the Aramaic and/or Hebrew languages of Palestine and kept strictly to Jewish culture and customs.
- The Greek speakers (or Hellenists) were “overseas Jews”, scattered over the Mediterranean lands and had often largely become culturally and linguistically Greek (in the way, for instance, overseas communities become assimilated in the U.S. or Western Europe). They would have had their own synagogues (which Paul used to visit on his missionary journeys) where the Bible would be read in Greek. Not surprisingly, it was from this group that the main missionary initiatives would come, e.g. the Jews from Antioch rather than those from Jerusalem.
However, it is possible that the Hellenists were not Jews from the diaspora but were Palestinian Jews who only spoke Greek. The Hebrews were Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic/Hebrew but may also have known some Greek. Both belonged to the Jerusalem Jewish Christian community.
In either case, it is possible that the Greek speakers were to some extent looked down on by Aramaic/Hebrew speakers. (Overseas Chinese, for instance, can have a similar experience when faced with their Chinese-speaking counterparts from the ‘homeland’.) This seems to be what was happening here. Even at this early stage in the life of the Church, we can see the ugly head of ethnic-cultural divisions surfacing.
From its very beginnings, the Church has consisted of flawed human beings. It should never cause us any surprise and it does not weaken the central message of the Good News.
In general, however, the purpose of the passage seems to be to introduce Stephen as a prominent figure in the community. We will meet him again in the readings of Monday and Tuesday next week.
In particular the Hellenists complained about the neglect of the widows in their group. Widows were among the most pitied group of people in Jewish society at that time. They were not necessarily old but they had lost their husbands and remarriage for nearly all of them was out of the question. In the absence of any kind of social welfare, their only means of support was the charity of their community.
The apostles felt that this kind of material responsibility was not really theirs. In the beginning, the apostles were responsible for church life in general which included both the ministry of the word (evangelising) and the care of the needy in the community. As the community grew, this clearly became more and more difficult a responsibility for such a small number of leaders. It was time for delegation and applying the principle of subsidiarity!
So it was suggested that the Greek-speaking community choose carefully selected people from among themselves to take care of these needs. This met with general approval and seven men were chosen. Not surprisingly all of them have Greek names and all, except for one, Nicholas of Antioch, who was a convert, were born Jews. It is significant that a proselyte was included in the number and that Luke points out his place of origin as Antioch, the city to which the Gospel was soon to be taken and which was to become the “headquarters” for the forthcoming Gentile missionary effort.
It is also worth noting that it was the community who chose the seven men but that it was the apostles who ‘ordained’ them by prayer and a laying on of hands. These are the first recorded ‘ministers’ appointed in the Christian community and the pattern of their formal initiation will become the norm: the apostles prayed and laid their hands on them – as we see in Acts and the letters of Paul. This still is done in the conferring of ministries today. At this stage they are not actually called ‘deacons’ but the word diakonia (diakonia), meaning ‘service’ is used twice in the passage.
Finally, as was mentioned, we will be hearing more about Stephen next week and, later on, Philip also.
In the meantime, the number of Christians continued to increase enormously. Now, even some of the priests, probably Sadducees, were being converted to faith in the Risen Jesus. They were now prepared to give up the temple sacrifices and rituals around which their lives up to now centred to be replaced by the new liturgical celebration, centred on the community Eucharist, which would be celebrated wherever Christians gathered together.
Given the limited human and material resources of the early community, it is amazing how its message was wholeheartedly accepted by so many. The finger of God was certainly there.