Early Christianity
Hellenists and Hebrews

   The debate which inspired the innovations of Paul of Tarsus and radically changed the face of Christianity was that between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. For many centuries, that debate has been regarded as a volatile and sometimes violent debate; historians have begun to question whether or not such a conflict even occurred. At some level, however, there emerged doctrinal and social friction between Christian communities composed of Hebrews and those composed of non-Hebrews, mainly Greeks. That conflict, at whatever level it was played out, eventually resulted in Paul's formulation of Christianity as a universal religion and a reorientation from eschatological concerns to concerns over personal salvation.

   Much of our history of the very earliest years of Christianity after the death of Jesus come from two texts: a history written by Luke, The Acts of the Apostles, and a shorter history written by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians. After the death of Jesus of Nazareth, very few of his followers stuck with the new religion. The group which kept this small number of followers together were called the apostles of which there were twelve in number; in Christian history, they were the closest followers of Jesus of Nazareth. It's possible, though, that their importance in maintaining the religion following the death of Jesus of Nazareth provoked the later histories to overdetermine their direct relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. Be that as it may, all of these apostles working tirelessly to continue the religion were Hebrews, and some, such as James, the brother of Jesus, were devoutly invested in Jewish practice, ritual, and law.

   They faced a fundamentally different task than Jesus of Nazareth. Whereas Jesus of Nazareth was largely concerned with teaching ethics and preparation for the coming judgement, the apostles had more practical concerns—how do you keep a community together based on principles derived from the teachings of Jesus? It was clear that such communities should be egalitarian and non-materialistic. Entry into the earliest Christian communities involved giving up one's wealth to the common society of Christians and living communally and equally with others.

   These small societies were at first entirely composed of other Jews, so the bulk of the laws and practices of these communities were derived from Jewish law. But some Jews entering these communities were Hellenized Jews; they were fluent in Greek language and culture and considerably less invested in Jewish life and law.

   Equal in authority to the Twelve Apostles were a group called the Seven in the histories. The original apostles, it seemed, were less interested in the day to day governance and finances of the Christian communities than they were in teaching, thinking, and, in a couple cases, writing. That job fell to another group, the Seven, who administered the communities, handled the finances, and organized charity, such as feeding the poor and caring for the sick. The most pressing problem faced by the early Christian communities was the large number of poor that those communities had to take care of; it was this need that prompted the Twelve to appoint the Seven as, you might say, administrative assistants.

   One figure looms large among the Seven: Stephen, who is a "Hellenist" in Luke's history. What "Hellenist" means is subject to great dispute; it seems to mean only that he was a diaspora Jew fluent in Greek culture and language, as opposed to a Palestine Jew raised in largely Hebrew traditions—hence Palestine Jews are called "Hebrews" in Luke's narrative. It's unclear if the Hellenists and the Hebrews have radically different takes on Christianity or if they had uniform viewpoints within their own separate groups—what is clear, though, is that the ideas of Stephen ignited a debate that would continue for several decades and threaten the very unity of this fragile, early church.

   Stephen got into serious trouble somehow through his preaching, probably by offending other Greek-speaking Jews. He had offended them sufficiently that he was hauled up in front of the Jewish religious court, the Sanhedrin, and whatever he said there was sufficient to garner his execution either officially or in a mob action, thus making him the first Christian martyr and gaining him his title, Stephen Proto-Martyr. His speech in the Sanhedrin wass critical of both Jewish Law and the Jewish temple—he criticized, however, the lack of sincerity among the Jews in following the Law and practicing temple worship rather than the institutions themselves. These accusations began a process of criticizing or defending Jewish Law and Jewish ritual within the Christian community; the perception, however, that Christians were criticizing the Law led to a Jewish crackdown on Christian communities—Luke calls it a "severe persecution." This persecution—the first in Christian history—was severe enough to break up the Palestinian Christian communities and impel the Twelve to break up.

   The greatest and one of the most zealous of these persecutors was Saul of Tarsus, who would later become the apostle Paul. After he is converted, he takes up the cause that seemed to be initiated by Stephen when he criticized Jewish law and practice. Shortly after the beginning of his apostleship he converts the first non-Jew—Cornelius—to Christianity.

   The controversy that would thrust Paul center-stage was a split between the church in Jerusalem and the church at Antioch, in Asia Minor, which largely consisted of diaspora Jews. The Antiochene church had also admitted non-Jewish Christians and a dispute arose over whether or not Jewish Christians should eat at the same table as Gentile Christians who did not follow food preparation prohibitions—who sat, therefore, at an unclean table.

   Now the rituals of early Christian communities were very simple; the only real important rituals were the eating of a common meal, called the agapé, or "love feast," and a celebration of the Last Supper of Christ called the eucharist. So the controversy over sitting at the same table with Gentiles wasn't about just eating dinner—it cut to the very heart of Christian religious community.

   Now the mission to the Gentiles did not start out with the intent of criticizing or rejecting Jewish law and ritual, but the controversy at Antioch demanded either the assertion of Jewish law in the Christian community or, on the other hand, criticizing or rejecting part of it. The problem wasn't the Gentiles, the problem was Jewish Christians. For the mission to the Gentiles accepted that Gentiles would not have to obey Jewish law; if, however, Jewish Christians sat down to the same table as Gentiles, they would be breaking Jewish law. So the Apostle Peter and Barnabas, the head of the Antioch church, simply decided that Jewish Christians should not eat with Gentile Christians. The problem was added to when Jewish Christians also demanded that Gentiles be circumsised, a demand that the Gentiles did not want to comply with.

   Eventually, Paul, the strict Pharisee, would argue that the Gentile church is a distinct entity; its non-allegiance to Jewish laws, such as circumcision and dietary laws, were allowable and justified by the spirit of Christianity. Thus, the debate between Hebrews and Hellenists, which probably didn't take place, was provoked by a criticism, not of Jewish practices, but Jewish sincerity in those practices by a Greek-speaking Jew. The debate would end with the formulation of a Gentile church independent of Jewish law, a church largely composed of Greeks. It was this church, not the Hebrew church, that became the origin of Christianity as a world religion.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-31-98