By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. [1 John 3:16-18 (ESV)]
In Acts 6, Luke writes about a problem with the Hellenistic Jewish believers. Meaning “to speak Greek” or “to make Greek,” Hellenism describes Jewish assimilation to the Greek language, manners, and culture. The process started in the 4th century BC with Alexander’s conquest of Palestine when Greeks settled into the land and, at the same time, Jews dispersed throughout Greek empire.
By the 1st century, there were two distinct groups of Jews living in Jerusalem. The first, the “Hebrew” Jews, were those who prided themselves on the fact they’d always lived in the land of the Patriarchs. (By that time, Babylonia and Syria were considered an extension of that land.) Having been born in Palestine, these Hebraic Jews spoke Palestinian Aramaic and/or Hebrew, used the Hebrew Scriptures, lived in or near Judea, observed Jewish customs, and regularly worshipped at the Temple. The other group, referred to as “Hellenized” Jews, consisted of Jews who once lived among Gentiles in Greek cities or Roman colonies. Coming from places like Crete, Cyrene, Alexandria, Cicilia, and Asia, they spoke the Greek language, were more influenced by the Greek philosophers, and used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Septuagint. Less observant of the Jewish customs and oral traditions that had developed over the centuries in Judea and Babylonia, Hellenists often were clean shaven. Like many immigrants, they settled in areas populated by others like them and had their own synagogues in which they worshiped.
While no less Jewish than their brothers, these Hellenists were looked down upon because they came from other parts of the world. Customarily, pious elderly Jews who were not from Judea would come to Jerusalem so they could die in the land of their people. Although these newcomers came to Judea out of devotion to Jehovah and the Torah, the Hebraic Jews suspected them of being more Greek than Hebrew and considered them outsiders. The Talmud says the Pharisees considered any Jew not native-born a “second-class Israelite.”
The vast majority of Jesus’ first followers were Hebraic Jews and the new church was led by them. Nevertheless, both Hebraic and Hellenized Jews would have been among the 3,000 who became followers of Christ on Pentecost. In Jewish law, a woman did not receive an inheritance and, if widowed, became dependent on relatives and the community for support. Because so many of the foreign Jews returning to Jerusalem were elderly, there was a disproportionate number of Hellenist widows in their community. Strangers in a new land, the widows had no relatives at hand to care for them as would the Hebrew widows of the longtime residents. Moreover, by choosing to become Christ followers, they may have lost any assistance they might have received from their Hellenist synagogue.
Although the Torah commanded caring for widows and Jesus instructed us to care for the needy, the Hellenist Jews in the new church complained that their widows were being neglected in the food distribution. While the slight may have been the result of the church’s rapid growth, it was deeply felt and threatened the message and unity of the new church. In an example of godly wisdom and Christian unity, the church quickly addressed the problem and commissioned seven men to meet the community’s needs. The standard Greek names of all those chosen indicate the church intentionally chose Hellenists to right the wrong that had been done.
The early church’s neglect of those widows may have been inadvertent but it also may have indicated a larger conflict between two groups with vastly different cultural backgrounds. I wonder if the Hebrew Jews’ long-held contempt for the foreign-born Hellenists (“second-class Israelites”) truly ended when they became Christ followers. Could some people have carried their pre-conversion bias into the church when they became believers? With all of the prejudice, stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, and animosity we have in today’s world, I must ask if we’ve brought any of that into today’s church, as well.
Do we truly love our neighbor and welcome the stranger no matter what their citizenship standing, economic level, political viewpoint, nationality, race, sex, language, or background? We should!