Libertines

LIBERTINES (Gr. Libertinoi). Probably originally captive Jews brought to Rome by Pompey in 63 b.c., liberated subsequently, and repatriated to Palestine, where, presumably, they built a synagogue still occupied by their descendants a century after Pompey’s Palestinian campaign (Acts.6.9). These people were Roman citizens. There seems to be some evidence for a synagogue of Libertines at Pompeii. There is no substance in the conjectural alternative explanation that the Libertines were natives of “Libertum” near Carthage. The place is unknown to history or geography. The explanation adopted goes back to Chrysostom.


Sometimes this refers to a Jewish synagogue group mentioned in Acts 6:9 KJV, but it is more commonly associated with two groups of opposition to Calvin in Geneva. The first-not known as Libertines in their century-were Genevan patriots and influential families (the Perrins, Favres, Vandels, Bertheliers, etc.) who led the republic to independence and the Reformation. They resented the dominant influence of Calvin and “foreigners” in Genevan affairs. A bitter struggle with Calvin ended in their complete disgrace in 1555. The second group, called Libertines by Calvin, were spiritualists, professing a pantheistic, antinomian creed, denying evil, and rejecting all formal Christianity. They came to Geneva from France, but Calvin traces their beginnings to one Coppin of the Netherlands. They were suppressed in Geneva in 1555.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

lib’-er-tinz, li-bur’-tinz (Libertinoi): These were among Stephen’s opponents: "There arose certain of them that were of the synagogue called (the synagogue) of the Libertines, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen" (Ac 6:9).have a deeper and nobler meaning than is generally conveyed by the English word. In Pr 11:25, the liberal soul (nephesh berakhah) means a soul that carries a blessing. In Isa 32:5, the American Standard Revised Version has "bountiful" where the King James Version has "liberal," and in Isa 32:8 "noble" takes the place of "liberal" (nadhibh). The principal Greek words are haplotes literally, "simplicity," "sincerity," and charis, "grace," "favor." In 1Co 16:3, "bounty" substitutes "liberality." It is well to bear in mind that a Biblical liberality can spring only out of a noble soul, and is Godlike in its genesis and spirit.

1. "Synagogue of the Libertines":

How many synagogues are denoted? The answer may aid in the interpretation of "Libertines":

(1) The words may be read as denoting one synagogue (Calvin). However

(a) the number of worshippers would be extremely large,

(b) the bond of union is not obvious,

(c) rabbinic tradition speaks of 480 synagogues in Jerusalem.

(2) The double ton ("of them") seems to denote two parties, the one consisting "of them that were of the synagogue called (the synagogue) of Libertines and Cyrenians and Alexandrians," the other "of them of Cilicia and Asia", (Winer, Wendt, Holtzmann). But the second ton is dependent on synagogue. "As Cyrenians and Alexandrians both belong to towns .... a change of designation would be necessary when the Jews of whole provinces came to be mentioned: this being the case, the article could not but be repeated, without any reference to the ton before" (Alford).

(3) There were three synagogues:

(a) that of the Libertines,

(b) that of the Cyrenians and Alexandrians and

(c) that "of them of Cilicia and Asia" (Alford). There is no grammatical reason for this division, but it is based on an interpretation of "Libertines." There were "Libertines," Africans and Asiatics.

(4) Each party had a separate synagogue (Schurer, Hausrath). The number of worshippers, their different origin and connections, and the number of synagogues in Jerusalem give weight to this view.

2. Interpretation of "Libertines":

(1) They are "freedmen," liberated slaves or their descendants. Against this it is held that the Greek equivalent (apeleutheroi) would have been used in this case. However, the Roman designation would be common all over the empire. In what sense were they "freedmen"? Various answers are given:

(a) they were freedmen from Jewish servitude (Lightfoot);

(b) they were Italian freedmen who had become proselytes;

(c) they were "the freedmen of the Romans" (Chrysostom), the descendants of Jewish freedmen at Rome who had been expelled by Tiberius. In 63 BC Pompey had taken prisoners of war to Rome. These, being liberated by those who had acquired them as slaves, formed a colony on the banks of the Tiber (Philo, Legat. ad Caium). Tacitus relates that the senate decreed (19 AD) that a number of Jewish Libertines should be transported to Sardinia, and that the rest should leave Italy, unless they renounced, before a certain day, their profane customs (Ann. ii, 85; see also Josephus, Ant, XVIII, iii, 5). Many would naturally seek refuge in Jerusalem and build there a synagogue.

(2) They are an African community. There were two synagogues, one of which was Asiatic. In the other were men from two African towns (Cyrene and Alexandria), therefore the Libertines must have been African also, all forming an African synagogue. Various explanations are given:

(a) They were inhabitants of Libertum, a town in Africa proper: an "Episcopus Ecclesiae Catholicae Libertinensis" sat in the Synod of Carthage (411 AD).

(b) Some emend the text; Wetstein and Blass, following the Armenian VS, conjecture Libustinon, "of the Libystines." Schulthess reads for "Libertines and Cyrenians" (Libertinon kai Kurenaion) "Libyans, those about Cyrene" (Libuon ton kata Kurenen) (compare Ac 2:10).

These emendations are conjectural; the manuscripts read "Libertines." It seems, therefore, that 2, (1) (c) above is the correct interpretation.

See also

  • Freedman