8. Early Church: Languages

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Early Church: Languages

Let me talk just a little about the bilingual nature of the church now. The average early Christian was Jewish, born in Palestine, and his native language was Aramaic. There, however, is a group in Jerusalem in the early months of the church whose native language is not Aramaic. In the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts, we read about a group of Hellenists (Hellene is the word for Greece). “Now in these days, when the Apostles were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.’ And what they said pleased the whole multitude and they chose ….”

Now this must have involved Christians, because the apostles are asked to mediate the argument. There are Hellenists and Hebrews – Hellenist Christians and Hebrew Christians. Does it mean they’re Jewish (Hebrew Christians) and Greek (Hellenist Christians)? No, that’s not it. The difference between these is the language between them. So we find in Jerusalem a group of Christians that are Greek-speaking (Hellenists), and a group that are Hebrews that are Aramaic-speaking. And this split comes up between them, and the say, “Our widows are not getting a fair shake with regard to the deacons’ fund (there not being a deacons’ fund yet), in comparison to your widows,” and so we have an interesting resolution. “Let’s appoint seven people to do this – we can’t involve ourselves in all this. We need to devote ourselves to preaching and evangelism and so forth.” And so they elect these people, and here are the people: “…Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus ….” What do you notice about the names – Roman or Greek? They’re not Jewish--there are no Levis here, no Jacobs. They are Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, “a proselyte of Antioch” (in other words, he was actually a Greek who was converted to Judaism up in Antioch). So you have now the church making an interesting resolution. They said, “You Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, you Hellenists, are upset about the funds and how they’re distributed – you take care of it.” It’s hard to complain; it solves the resolution rather easily.

My daughter and her husband and their children are missionaries in the Ivory Coast, which is going through a terrible time of struggle and chaos. And it’s interesting their [i.e., the Ivory Coast’s] first president was the president for about 40-some years. He was not what you would call a democrat – it was not a democracy quite in the normal sense. They had elections and so forth, but he pretty much ran the show. But what he did, he ruled very wisely, because when parties of opposition protested, he put them immediately on the cabinet in charge of the issue. How can they complain now? The result was that it kept order in the country. When he died, his successor would put them in prison, and now you have chaos. So what they [i.e., the apostles] do here is, they bring the opposing party and put them in charge of the issue. “And the word of God increased, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem….”

Now, you have this Hellenist group which can only understand Greek. What does that tell you about the Gospel traditions which are not in Greek? They have to be translated for them, right? And, notice where they’ll be translated – in Jerusalem, in the presence of people, many of whom are bilingual. So the translation of the gospel materials from the language of Jesus into the Greek language takes place very shortly in Jerusalem for the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians there. And the result of that is that talk about the corruption of translations is simply nonsense. All of that takes place in Jerusalem among the eye witnesses who were present, some of whom were bilingual, and so forth. That translation takes place very, very quickly.

One of the people of that group – one of the leaders, one of the seven, is a man by the name of Stephen, and Stephen is the first Christian martyr. And we talked about the Hellenists in Chapter 6 – the word Hellenist here refers to Jewish Christians whose language is Greek. There are other Hellenists in Jerusalem who are not Christians – in other words, the word can also be used for Greek-speaking Jews who are not Christians. The existence requires a translation of the gospel, a translation to Greek, along with practices, and so forth.

Now, Stephen and his martyrdom – there’s something very unusual about the martyrdom of Stephen. Let me get to the end of this, and then we’ll talk about what particularly brought this about. In Acts 8 after the martyrdom of Stephen, we read in 8:1 of how Paul was consenting to his death. “And on that day, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” What seems strange about this persecution? If you were persecuting the church, who are the ones you go after first? The apostles. But here, everybody flees, but the apostles stay in Jerusalem. And they apparently don’t have a great persecution. This is a strange persecution – people flee but the apostles stay in Jerusalem.

Now, with regard to Stephen, what it is that causes his martyrdom, is helpful in understanding why the Jerusalem church, (who are Hebrews primarily) stay, but the Hellenists flee. If you look at his sermon, he says “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, even as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a temple for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’” What does that sound like? What’s Stephen doing? It’s a put-down of the temple. “’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 your fathers not 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 do not keep it.’ Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him,” and so forth, and they martyred him. What Stephen is doing is minimizing certain things that are the essence of Judaism.

What is a Jew in the time of Jesus? What gives us as Jews unity? Descendants of Abraham (but Samaritans are descendants of Abraham, too); descendants of Jacob, maybe (that’s more careful). That’s a problem in Israel even today. Any Jew in the world can immigrate to Israel. About ten years ago there was a big, horrendous fiasco because this Jew was immigrating to Israel and they wouldn’t let him. He said “The constitution says I can come here, and I’m a Jew, and I want to come here.” He said, “My mother and father are Jewish, so I’m Jewish, so I want to come.” And the government said, “Yeah, but you’re a Jesuit priest.” And then, all of a sudden the religious issue came up, all sorts of Jews in Israel said, “Well, what has that got to do with being a Jew?” If you’re an atheist, can you be a Jew? Yeah. Well, what is a Jew? It has something to do with Abraham, but not always – it has something to do with faith, but what about all the atheist, agnostic Jews? And a very orthodox Jew wouldn’t accept any other Jew, religious or not, as being a real Jew. The problem was the same in the first century – is a Jew one who accepts only the Pharisee doctrines, or the Sadducee doctrines? … Or the Essene/Qumran doctrines? … Or no doctrines? And so, the thing that unites Jews is not orthodoxy (orthodox doctrines), but orthopraxy (similar practices). And so, what unites Jews are things like the temple, which unites all Jews everywhere (they always send the temple tax), keeping the Passover, keeping the Sabbath, circumcising your children, and so forth.

And so it’s these practices of Jewish things that make a Jew. But now you have Stephen saying “You don’t need a temple – this is made by hands. Before that there was a tabernacle.” And so he’s minimizing one of the unifying factors. He also talks about circumcision, saying that you don’t need to be circumcised, essentially – that unites Judaism. So if you take away the temple, if you take away circumcision, if you take away kosher living, what do you have left? And the Hellenists are raising these questions. And so this is very threatening, and persecution comes upon Stephen.

But the apostles don’t raise those issues, so they’re not the threatening group. So there’s persecution upon Stephen but not upon the others. And the result is that you have the spread of the church going on through this persecution process, and the gospel is expanded to other parts of the world.