The Hellenicist School
In Acts 6:1-5, Luke writes that Greek-speaking Followers felt that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of alms. A full council of the community’s elders was convened, and it was decided to select seven lay members of the Greek-speaking community to oversee the distribution of alms to their own members.
The seven members mentioned in Acts 6:7 (Stephen, Philip, Prochoros, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaos) all have Greek names.
Jews who were native to Galilee and Judea wore middle-eastern clothes, had Jewish names, spoke Aramaic, and maintained a middle-eastern lifestyle. However, there were a large proportion of people whose families had dispersed around the Mediterranean, adopted western clothing, had Greek names, spoke Greek as their first language, and maintained a western-influenced lifestyle. These Jews were known as Hellenists.
It was from this Hellenist Jewish community, resident in Judea, that Stephen and the others originated. At the start they were elected to be civil administrators among Greek-speaking Followers, but I have a suspicion that other issues would have inevitably arisen, due to differences in outlook between Hellenist and native Jews, and eventually they would have developed a distinct identity. This would, in time, have led to the formation of a separate school.
It is interesting to note that Luke implies that a full council meeting was convened (Acts 6:2). In Luke’s account, the council was convened to deal with who would administer funds, but it may have been more serious than that. For example, Luke covers up the episode of Paul’s dispute with the Jerusalem council. He implies that the issue was resolved, and everyone went away happy and reconciled. However, in the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul implies that the meeting did not go well. In fact, he can barely contain his anger.
I think that the Hellenist episode is similar. I think what really happened, is probably that disputes arose which were so serious in nature, that the only solution was to give the Hellenists permission to form their own movement and administer their own affairs. This movement I have called the Hellenicist school.
The fact that they were a separate group with a distinct identity, is suggested by the persecution and pursuit of Followers after Stephen’s death. It would seem that not all Followers were persecuted, only the Hellenicists (Acts 8:1).
The Hellenicists held to a strong rejection of the Temple and all it stood for, as evidenced in Stephen’s speech before he was stoned to death (Acts 7). However, another group were faithful to the Temple (Acts 1:14). These two groups, holding such diametrically opposing views on the Temple, could not possibly have belonged to the same school. I believe that those who were faithful in attendance at Temple prayers were the Emissarians; they remained in Jerusalem and were not persecuted by Paul. Those completely opposed to the Temple were Hellenicists.
The Hellenicists were sought out by the High Priest’s police under a general persecution. Hellenicist Followers first dispersed around Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1), and then further afield (Acts 11:19) to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch in Syria.
A distinctive feature of Hellenicist belief was a fierce messianism. When Paul went to stay with the Hellenicists in Antioch, he converted them to his teaching, and they became known by the Greek term for messianists, “Christians“.
Paul began relaxing some of the Jewish rules for converts, and he was recalled to Jerusalem to explain his actions to the Council of Elders. Luke covers up this episode in Acts with a full reconciliation between Paul and the Council, but what probably really happened was more significant. Having converted the Antiochene Hellenicists to Christianity, Paul’s Christians (“Believers“) inherited a place on the Council of Elders in Jerusalem. Rather than making up after the big meeting, Christians were expelled from Judaism altogether in the late forties CE.
Consider it: In Acts 15, Ya`aqov Nasi, the leader of the Follower community, gives to Paul instructions to follow the Noahide laws (the minimum ethical rules that Gentiles were to follow in order to be deemed righteous). He would not be giving such instructions to Christians if they were still considered part of the Jewish community, otherwise he would be instructing Paul that his believers should adhere to the whole of the Torah. In other words, the leader of the Follower community, after the meeting, considers Paul and his Christians to be outside of the Jewish community altogether.
And why else would Paul’s companion Barnabas be so angry with Paul and part company with him? Why else would some Followers of Hebrew descent in Antioch want to return to the authority of the Jerusalem Council? They returned because they felt Paul had gotten them excommunicated, and it was more than they could bear to think that they had been placed outside of their own people because of what Paul had done.
And what became of the Hellenicists in history? After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, their members were probably dispersed among the Gentile Christian and Nazarene Jewish communities. Their messianism would have eased their entry into those two communities.