Lesson 28 #BCCSundaySchool2019: “What Wilt Thou Have Me Do”

Acts 6 Acts 7 Acts 8 Acts 9

These chapters are crucial to understanding the development of the early Christian church and there is just no way to discuss everything in them. Moreover, the lesson manual is very brief, so consider this a supplement to the material in the manual. These chapters include the conversion story of Paul (Acts 9) and since that story is so well known, I’m not going to emphasize it. Instead, I will focus mostly on how these chapters deal with cultural differences in the Jerusalem church and what that reveals about how the early church was getting on in the period shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and departure. Even so, we will barely scratch the surface, yet I hope there will be something useful for the lesson this coming Sunday. One important thing to keep in mind is that Acts, like the Gospel of Luke (they likely had the same author) was written with a great deal of hindsight. I mean, much had taken place between the time of Jesus and the composing of Acts, most importantly perhaps, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. Thus, the author is including events with a purpose: to explain through early origin stories (likely the subject of preaching during the apostolic and post-apostolic years) how the church of circa 90 AD got where it was and help explain the Christian position relative to the Empire since Luke more than the other writers of the Gospels is writing to people in a broader Roman world.

In Acts 6-8 (the time period for these chapters is roughly 36 AD), Luke narrates a very old tradition about conflict and dissent in the early Christian church which leads to the death of Stephen (Acts 7), whose vision of God and Christ was a classic missionary reference in support of Joseph Smith’s first vision. When we talk of this whole episode, we usually ignore the meaning of the outcome (Acts 8), which is one of the most important influences on the course of Christianity after Jesus.

1. Transplants versus Natives

Luke tells us this (Acts 6:1): “in these days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews.”[1] “Hellenists” [Grecians in the KJV] refers to Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem who had a Greek background in some way, Luke doesn’t explain, but he does give some names: Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (the proselyte), all are Greek names. They are Jews, but the text draws a distinction between them and the “Hebrews,” probably meaning natives of the city or its near environs. That both groups are Jews and Christians, is the important point.

Thus, there are these two groups of Christians in Jerusalem, the members of both are Jews, and they “have all things in common.” This note is very important for not only the early Latter-day Saints but so many antebellum social experiments that formed a cultural milieu for those 1830s Saints—but we have no space for that. The Hellenists then had a history of being part of the diaspora, I mean Jews who were born in cities of the empire outside of Palestine. Therefore, they were brought up to speak Greek and were given Greek names, while remaining Jewish in belief, with certain differences. The apostles had distinctively Jewish names, their history suggests that they belonged to the Hebrew faction and this is confirmed by later events.

In addition to the cultural differences between these two groups in the early Jerusalem church, there were some theological differences too, and this becomes important to the story as I will show below (sections 5, 6). The Hebrews appear to be the dominant group in the Christian community. It seems that the Hebrews, trying to force some kind of agreement on the Hellenists, and have stopped supporting the widows of the latter, who were completely dependent on the community, the common funds and property of the church. It’s not an unusual sort of thing—when people disagree with a church or a faction in a church, they often withhold their economic support. That seems to be what is happening here.

2. The Fateful Act of the Apostles

The apostles don’t like the situation, and they call the community together to come to some kind of resolution. This kind of judgment by the whole (“multitude” surely refers to the entire Jerusalem church) is a feature that reappears in Acts 15, and it signifies the depth of the problem. In early Mormonism, church conferences often functioned as decision/discipline bodies, borrowing in particular from (among others) Methodist practice. Indeed, the organizational layout for judgement by the mid 1830s narrated in Doctrine and Covenants 107 (this link is my article on the subject) may suggest that the whole church is the final court for the most troublesome cases, a largely impractical feature these days. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate a similar kind of function, where the community was presided over by twelve persons, representative of the 12 tribes, and three others, representative of the priestly families, and the community in this setting seems to be called by the same name (English: multitude) as the group the apostles call together, the official church if you will. In any case, the apostles preside over the gathering, the “multitude.”

The apostles propose a solution to the problem. They decline to micromanage the situation but offer a kind of separate leadership solution to the Hellenists. The text puts it that the apostles are not going to serve tables. This means they aren’t going to get into these decisions of dividing funds, food, etc. The apostles say, “choose seven men of good repute, full of wisdom,” and we [the apostles] will appoint them to this role. They probably don’t have a name for the office being created, that will take time, but the Seven might be thought of in terms of LDS bishops or stake presidents in some way, or traveling bishops, or some such thing, or a combination bishop-seventy. The early proto-bishops of the second century, or as the idea occurs later in the pastoral letters (Timothy) are different from the Seven. In fact, the Seven act more like apostles as we get into chapter 8. As Luke tells us about these chosen Hellenist leaders (see their names listed above in section 1) he makes sure to say that one of them was a proselyte (convert to Judaism) meaning that the rest of them were born Jews. Traditional modern LDS mission literature cast the Seven in an Aaronic Priesthood role (something that almost surely didn’t exist in the way it does in the modern church–see the link above). This modern narrative got bolstered by the later Acts story of Phillip’s baptisms and Peter and John following in his wake, laying on hands. This gets rather complicated as far a ritual development so I’ll leave that here.

3. Compromise over the Temple

The important thing is that the apostles don’t expel the Hellenists over the unmentioned issue that created the withholding of funds/goods from the Hellenist widows. Instead, they create a body of leaders for them, which the Hellenists choose themselves, and this in some ways diffuses the problem between the two community factions. We don’t learn how these men function with regard to the whole body at Jerusalem. Do they have access to some common storehouse, or do they break off on their own? In the end, things progress to the point where that doesn’t matter. It is not clear that the apostles agree with the theological positions of the Hellenists (these differences become apparent as Stephen gets killed over them–see below). In fact, they almost certainly do not. Whatever differences they have about their Jewish beliefs, it’s not worth splitting the community over it: they are common believers in Jesus (exactly what that entailed at this point I don’t think is completely clear, but obviously baptism, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the Lord’s Supper). Put another way, the apostles decide that a plurality of belief can exist in the church, provided there is unity on some things, and further, that not splitting the body had a much higher value than a doctrinal difference.[3] What were the doctrinal differences among the Jerusalem Christians? I think they were quite important at the time and it was related to the kind of Jews Christians should be, a problem that Paul encounters a decade after his conversion as he gets out on the missionary trail (things were too hot for Paul among Christians and Jews and perhaps he hadn’t worked out his own theology to jump right in to extensive preaching after the events of Acts 9—see Galatians for example—he first spends 10 years in his home town Act 9:30).

The difficult difference that comes up in Acts 15 (Paul), where the issue was how gentiles should fit into the Christian community was a tough one but closely connected to this lesson’s material. It took a lot of time to reach a widely accepted resolution–there were ups and downs for many years (still going on in Acts 21)–and it was one with deeply troublesome consequences. But in fact, this first trouble in Acts 6-8 telegraphs the later one in Acts 15 in a profound way. The decision of the apostles resulting in the Seven is interesting because of its far-reaching positive and negative effects.

The growth in the church that Luke mentions at the outset is a natural cause of the trouble. The apostles required a more complex structure to deal with questions, problems, and immediate needs, and this begins a primitive organization for the church. You see this in early Mormonism, where at first there were two ruling persons, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, but after a year and a half, more structure and definition is required to supply the needs of the community. The changes in both cases were in response to need. There wasn’t a blueprint: it largely developed organically.

4. Only Half the Story

Now, the Hellenists have these Seven men who in effect, are like new apostles. The Seven are not called apostles, but they perform at least some of the functions that may have fallen to the apostles early on, and later their actions appear apostolic. The Seven are led by Stephen, who will shortly be stoned to death over his dissenting (from the Sanhedrin policy/leadership) Judaism (Acts 7), and this has a major effect on the Christian movement. As an aside, we don’t know what happened with the Hebrews at the time, but presumably the apostles didn’t want to be involved in the trenches with them either, and quite soon we see evidence that James (one of Jesus’ brothers) and the elders (an indication of the Hebrew Christian’s traditional Jewish beliefs about functionaries) are in place in the church and seem to be running affairs in Jerusalem (Acts 15). So it seems reasonable that the apostles gave both factions a set of leaders at the same time (when Paul later comes back to Jerusalem, it’s clear that James and the other elders are in charge there).

The apostles stand above both groups, not precisely as everyday leaders, but as symbols of the whole. Recall that they are very deeply associated with Israel, they are the ultimate judges of Israel according to the words of Jesus, and this probably played a large role in how the Jewish church saw them. Even the Book of Mormon regards the Nephite 12 leaders as “disciples” not using the word apostles for them. And the infant ecclesiology of the 1830 church does the same thing: there will be 12 disciples established “like mine apostles” but the founding revelation (D&C 18) never names them as apostles. Even Paul, at the end, after all he went through over Gentile converts, his dismissal (in Galatians) of the “pillars of the church”—he cares nothing for them in his anger over what he saw as a betrayal of their (the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem) agreement over the requirements of Gentile converts (no circumcision, Jewish feasts, etc.), does not relinquish the overriding importance of Israel when he engages an olive tree parable (Romans 11), much like that of the Book of Mormon in Jacob 5. This persisting racial identity politics takes a long time to dissipate or at least be reinterpreted, spiritualized, and that turns out to have terrible aspects.[4] The 1830s church works out a solution: everybody is an Israelite (though not Jews) in effect.

Again, the fascinating thing about this moment in Acts 6 is how the apostles deal with this conflict, which is really based on dissent from what is the majority. Unity is more important. And it may set some precedent, because something similar happens later. But as I noted, choosing the Seven has a dark side. One wonders how things might have evolved if various dissenting movements in Mormonism had stayed together in some way, with some compromise or other (Emma, Rigdon, Wight, etc.). What might have happened? In the case of the early Christians the consequence was profound.[5]

5. Stephen Expresses the Complaints of the Diaspora

What happens after the apostles (it’s not clear that the whole group isn’t involved here, actually) lay hands on the Seven? Nothing easy. Stephen begins preaching, and he is a powerful speaker, but he seems to offend other Hellenists (not Christians) in some way (possibly they want to distance themselves from the Christian subset of Jews) and the offended ones accuse him of blasphemy, one of the more serious charges one could face. They accuse him of speaking against Moses and the LORD. This stirs up the Jewish elders who bring him before the Sanhedrin. There are false witnesses against Stephen, and they accuse Stephen of saying Jesus will destroy the temple (undoubtedly connected to Jesus as the temple and the prophecy mentioned in the stories about Jesus’ trial before the same body found in Mt 26, Mk 14, Jn 2). At this point, Stephen gives a long sermon. And the end of the sermon is highly impolitic, given the audience, and I think what Stephen articulates at the end of his sermon was at the heart of the original schism in the Jerusalem church that led to the Seven being appointed in the first place.[6]

Stephen’s sermon (Acts 7) gives an account of Israel’s history (importantly, it seems to be drawn from different sources—it differs in a number of ways from the KJV Old Testament. Scholars see elements of the Greek OT and Samaritan thought in Stephen’s preaching, and the latter was bound to anger the Sanhedrin. Some have wondered if Luke is presaging here what happens to the Hellenist Christians later. Possibly Luke thought of Stephen as a model for how the church eventually evolved (Luke, again, is writing many decades after this incident, so perhaps he is using his narrative to explain in part what the church became as I mentioned above, and that is reinforced with his calling out Saul/Paul at the succeeding events).

As noted, Stephen closes his sermon with some very offensive stuff: the LORD does not dwell in houses made with hands and so forth (he’s talking down the value of the temple) then he called the “jury” stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, saying they always resist the Holy Spirit, and he asks them rhetorically which of the prophets “did your fathers not persecute,” etc. you betrayed and murdered the Messiah—oh boy. This, of course, makes them very angry, and Stephen is stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin (and Paul participates).[7] There are a number of parallels Luke purposely calls out between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s death which I won’t go into here but they are worth noting as you read.

6. The Natives Remain But the Hellenists are Forced Out of Jerusalem–The Original Problem

Now, the Sanhedrin is willing to leave the Christians alone, but it won’t tolerate attacks on the temple, a boundary Stephen forcefully breached, and in doing so he surely expressed the view of the Hellenists. Those returning from a diaspora likely didn’t hold the temple in high regard. We know in fact, that there was a very sharp division among Jews of Jesus’ time over the temple. One thing was the problem of the high priests. An important division here centered on the revolts in the second century BC when non-high priestly families took over in Palestine, and more legitimate high priests were in Egypt. The Egyptian Jews tried to build a temple there, but the high priest in Jerusalem conspired with the Egyptians to destroy that effort and they also attacked the Samaritans to destroy their temple project. There was some resentment through the diaspora (probably) about paying in support to the Jerusalem temple and the associated idea that God can only be fully and rightly worshipped at the Jerusalem temple. This appears to be one key to the dispute that generated the apostle’s intervention at the beginning of Acts 6. This dissent is the kindling of future change.[8] And Luke tells us that a great persecution arises against the church, but this is almost surely against the Hellenists because the Jewish authorities don’t bother the apostles at all and clearly the other Hebrew Christians are not touched, surely because of their regard for the temple and their belief in its function and the importance of the Law, etc. Indeed, as Luke notes at the end of his Gospel, after Jesus’ goes into heaven, the apostles go and worship in the temple. And elsewhere in Acts we see Peter and John worshipping in the temple and the Saints and others lined their path where they walk believing that Peter’s very shadow, should it fall on them, would heal them (Acts 5:15).

For the apostles apparently, though they are constantly in Solomon’s Porch, belief in Jesus was more important than unity over the value of the Temple in Jerusalem. The apostles balancing of the issues was and is a useful and unifying thing in some ways. The downside was this: tolerating Jews with different beliefs within the church body meant that those Christians brought conflict with other Jews in Jerusalem, who were not Christians but who shared doctrine with the Hebrew Christians (namely, the value of the temple). That kind of conflict can bring trouble for the whole church, and we see this happen and it has, as I said, unforeseen consequences.

The Hellenist Christians are scattered from Jerusalem and these are Jews who are what may be described as “liberal.” Their attachment to the temple is minimal and may be even less after their forced exit from Jerusalem. The Hellenists go to Samaria, where there is sympathy for people who don’t value the Jerusalem temple OR its Davidic heritage and meaning (See Gospel of Matthew for the opposite point of view). Luke gives us some of the exploits of Phillip, perhaps next in the leadership line of the Seven. And Luke tells us in chapter 11 of Acts that it’s these Hellenists who first begin a ministry to the Gentiles. No doubt Luke oversimplifies much of this, but the narrative makes this remarkable point about what the apostles did: the consequence of their decision for unity led in part at least to the fall of Jewish practice within Christianity, and ultimately the complete removal of Christianity as a subset of Judaism. The Hellenists carried with them the devaluing of the temple, and of Jerusalem itself. There was no way to predict the sort of butterfly effect this decision had on the church that resulted from the appointment of the Seven. The apostles had no particular wish to preach to the Samaritans or the Gentiles in general. They are Jews who believe in the continuing value of the Law and the temple in their lives. They are leaders of a Jewish sect if you will. We see more of this in the way Paul comes into Luke’s picture of the church. It seems that the Holy Spirit is really largely in control, working around and through human choices, and it’s this that makes one wonder about the whole history of God’s interaction with humans and how he uses church leaders, political passages, and even human prejudice. This is the biblical picture of God’s dealing with the future: he’s the ultimate tennis player–he can always return the serve generated by the free acts of his creatures.

7. What is the Long Term Plan of God?

Especially in the case of modern Latter-day Saints: where does human or prophetic apprehension of the situation, and the resulting decision-making come into play with God’s plan? It seems that in many cases, where the church or church leaders see some issue as vital or necessary, the result is quite different from the expected value (I use the term advisedly!). One could point to the usual suspects here, but I’ll leave it to you to think about it and the circumstances of change.

[1] The KJV reads “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The “increasing in number” portends a number of problems and challenges culminating in the gentile conversions.

[2] This process was frequently used in earlier Mormonism, where election of officers was quite common, especially at a local level, but even in central offices. It wasn’t universal though.

[3] Joseph Smith’s complaint about a doctrinal difference and church discipline seems apropos. Joseph had some charisma though, and when he died, it was pretty clear that no one had a similar cachet. Dissent was therefore less tolerated as time went on. John Turner writes importantly on this in his Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. On a modern version see the present Archbishop of Canterbury’s dilemma.

[4] An unfortunate result of the eventual split between Judaism and Christianity is the terrible narrative that surfaces among Christians that the Jews, as a whole, carry ever continuing guilt for executing God (the Book of Mormon speaks out against this), and this story continues through the Reformation and into the twentieth century. Some of the language employed by even the greats like Augustine and Jerome is terrifying, advocating slavery, forced migration. Hilary: “before the Law was given, the Jews were possessed of an unclean devil, which the Law for a time drove out, but which returned immediately after their rejection of Christ.” Hilary’s Commentary on Matthew, XII, 22. Marcion is the most extreme view theologically: throw out Jewish Law, liturgy, priesthood, AND scriptures. John Chrysostom: “it’s incumbent on Christians to hate the Jews because God has always hated the Jews.” Aquinas: “it’s perfectly licit to hold the Jews in slavery because of what their ancestors did to Jesus.” By the fifth century, Christian motivated laws essentially deprive Jews of nearly any benefit of citizenship, forcing them into ghettos. Probably the disappearance of Jesus’ statement from Lucan manuscripts “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” was a result of later preaching against the Jews, especially post-Julian, when Christians become politically dominant. Jerome wrote that Jews have the Mark of Cain, and must be beggars and be examples of depravity for Christians to look upon. The great evils of the Nazis was the sharp end of this theological spear, as it partook of the racial theories that fruited from it in the nineteenth century. For a much broader treatment up to the fifth century CE, see James Everett Seaver, The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (Lawrence, KS: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1952).

[5] A much later example is Luther’s case, where his ally in the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon, tried to get the parties to consider what they had in common, rather than what separated them. (Wikipedia has an account.) The things they could agree on at that point were quite strong. Probably 90% in favor of unity. But perhaps the inertia of a large body played too much of a role in any possible resolution. The consequences were brutal.

[6] There is this tradition around the Seven being “deacons” in some sense analogous to that of our deacons (the Greek term appears in the text in fact). There was a post-apostolic thing like this, but assigning the formal title in those terms to the Seven is misleading I think.

[7] The question arises as to how they could get away with this since the Roman governor would need to approve any death penalty. But the Prefect only came to town on feast days, to keep order, so perhaps they could do it without much risk (cf. Jesus).

[8] There is some hint in the Gospel of John about this, where Jesus himself actually goes to Samaria. When he meets the woman at the well, he tells her that the Jews have the right way, but that the time is coming when neither Samaria nor Jerusalem will be the place to worship. If that’s anything like what the Hellenists were preaching in Samaria–and it’s tempting to believe this–it could be something like “You can believe in Jesus, without Jerusalem, David, and the temple.” Israel is still a theme, but it’s Abraham, and everyone can agree with that. This may also suggest that the “well story” of John is not historical but a post Jewish war back-reading.


  1. Bro. B. says:

    As usual, you’ve presented a very comprehensive summary that is so complete it’s kind of hard to respond to. This particularly caught my eye, ‘One wonders how things might have evolved if various dissenting movements in Mormonism had stayed together in some way, with some compromise or other (Emma, Rigdon, Wight, etc.).” I think the present day Church might be richer for it and certainly more diverse. I suppose there are enough challenges as it is, being a worldwide church.

  2. I thought this was an extremely valuable contextual framing that was lost on me when reading the chapters by themselves. I’m sending this to my friends to read! Thank you so much for the insight on this. It’s incredibly fascinating to me!

  3. Ryan Mullen says:

    Great write up. I have a few questions on alternate points-of-view:

    (1) Reading Julie Smith’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark, I’ve been struck by how Jesus is antagonistic toward the temple and its leadership. Now reading your post, it appears the apostles were quite supportive of the temple. Any tips on how to reconcile these contrasting depictions?

    (2) The Peter-James-Paul power dynamic is fascinating, and as far as I know there’s not much evidence on how that played out. We get a few glimpses in Acts 15 and in Galatians, but these both heavily favor Paul’s perspective. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and whatever records James’ faction might have had there means his perspective will likely remain a mystery. The Roman Catholic tradition leans toward Peter’s leadership not only for his role as an apostle, but because he was the first bishop of Rome. Latter-day Saints also favor Peter, though I suspect this is in some part due to the Quorum of the Twelve’s ascendency after the succession crisis of 1844. In forming your views on Peter, James, and Paul, have you considered theories that Peter was the relatively powerless one? For example, that James replaced Peter as the leader in Jerusalem and Peter fled to Rome, but found Paul’s Christianity firmly entrenched there and couldn’t gain a following. If so, why do favor the reading you expressed above?

    Thanks again for the OP.

  4. Bro. B., I think it might be richer, Rigdon had stories few others could tell had he been willing to play the role.
    Thanks, LL. I hope it’s useful.
    Ryan Mullen: I think it’s important to remember that the Gospel writers chose stories with purpose and with long lead time, beyond just testimony of Jesus. Mark, at least to me, is pretty negative about everything. No one comes out, even Jesus, clean (for Jesus, it’s the report of Gethsemane and the clear weakness, near failure there), and everyone else, Jews in general and the apostles are weak and fail. He ends out with the women who are asked to tell what they’ve seen but they fear and run off telling no one. It’s the gospel of failure. So I think, at least this is one way to look at it, that Mark is telling the story to fix the notion, for the betrayed and betraying Christians during Nero, that no one is perfect and that God can work through the weakest of people. That’s just my opinion, of course, Julie Smith’s work is excellent. For Latter-day Saints, Peter’s position as chief was in place at least by 1834 and then solidified by 1835. Your point about the apostolic succession is well-taken though. As far as a historical Peter, well, winners tell the story.

  5. Thank you! to all who post about this year’s Sunday lessons. Your insights make my scripture reading far more meaningful.

  6. Thanks TinaR, it’s Michael Austin’s fault. He forced us all to do something.

  7. Phenomenal post. The way you were able to provide context is very much appreciated. I’ve never thought before that Acts has a “victors write the history” angle to it. Now I do.
    I was thinking about the organization of the seven this week. It’s kind of the opposite of how we think it should have happened. There was a need and instead of the Priesthood leadership issuing callings, the Priesthood leadership asked the congregation to pick men within certain criteria and then the Priesthood leadership set them apart. It’s a nice solution to a problem, but I can’t help but wonder if the Apostles were supposed to have issued callings, instead of setting apart the results of an election. Jesus spent 40 days with the Apostles; did he not go over church organization during that time?
    Another thing is that it seems odd to me how the Apostles are at the temple. Were they expecting to take over temple leadership eventually? Did the Apostles understand that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled, and if so, what were they doing at the temple? I realize that the temple leadership had them arrested a few times, and beat up, but they didn’t seem to ban these Christians; why not?
    Again, thanks for the post.

  8. Thanks, jader3rd. As far as early apostolic practice, it’s important not to overlay current church policy/understanding/tradition onto 36AD. If comparison is needed, it’s probably more useful to think of early Latter-day Saint notions over against what was happening in ancient Jerusalem and those early notions take some work to extract from current narratives). Those are pretty coherent with few exceptions. The ancient Christians were largely considered a Jewish faction who went by the name “the way” (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23) probably taken from Isa 40:3. It wasn’t until the turn of the century when Jews had largely expelled Christians from their synagogues (see Gospel of John [ca. 100AD] which uniformly calls Jews by the distancing term “the Jews” as though wholly other).

  9. Bro. B. says:

    Jader3rd, I don’t know if it was a rhetorical question but I suppose for one thing. that according to Acts 5, the angel that sprung them from jail told them to go teach at the temple. Also I suppose it would be a way to convert Jews. But I too wonder what they thought about the control and future of the temple. Jesus had told them it would be destroyed but it seems to have remained important to them if not to the Hellenists.

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