Immigrants and welfare in Jerusalem—Acts 6:1-6

A conflict arose between the Hellenist and Hebrew Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in Acts 6:1. Most of the Hellenists spoke only Greek, having originated in the Diaspora. They included “Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia” (6:9). These immigrant Jews remained loyal to the temple; most settled in their ancestors’ homeland precisely because they retained respect for its institutions and customs. This conflict in the church thus pitted local Judeans against immigrant coreligionists.

Today we read about conflicts between local people and immigrants in many places, and it is helpful to understand that such conflicts are not new. (Lest I be accused of simply pandering to the news cycles, I started with the biblical text before and during the writing of my Acts commentary, published in 2012-2015, and only after my initial exegesis did I consider analogies and applications.)

Analogies today can help make their predicament in the text feel more concrete. For example, many people from former French colonies have migrated to France and found less opportunity there than they had expected. (A closer ancient parallel to that in the first century would be the many provincials who settled in Rome, but that would be background for a different lesson.) Some, in fact, have found discrimination, something that my wife experienced during her education in France (though she also received great blessings from others there). Or we may consider Latino/a immigrants in the United States, some even with ancestral ties to parts of the U.S. that were once part of Mexico. (That was nearly two centuries ago—about twice as long as a Roman general had deported Judeans to Rome before the scene in Acts 6.)

Any such analogies have weaknesses; boundaries within the empire were porous for travel, for example, but those who were not indigenous to a city could remain “resident aliens” rather than citizens for generations! The analogies do, however, help us to feel more concretely the sorts of feelings reflected in Luke’s description of the text, and that he might have expected his audience to feel. Much of Luke’s audience probably lived in urban areas with significant populations of resident aliens. The churches would include a mixture of both resident aliens and long-time citizens, with the former probably predominating (at least in Roman colonies, where most Jews and Greeks were resident aliens). Because many were gentiles and all lived in the Greek-speaking Diaspora, however, they would probably identify first of all with the Hellenists rather than the Hebrews.

In the Jerusalem church, the immigrant widows complained that they were not receiving their fare share of the community’s care for needy widows (6:1). Back then, most women could not earn very much, and most widows were dependent on their social networks for support. Based on biblical teaching about caring for widows, Jewish communities provided for their own widows. But in this period, the support seems to have been local, through relatives or local synagogues. But Hellenists, some of whom settled in Jerusalem in old age, probably had a disproportionate number of widows. Certainly they had fewer local relatives to support them. Not surprisingly then, Hellenist widows received less support. And, not unlike today, problems from the wider society also could impact the church.

Luke emphatically favors concern and respect for widows (Luke 2:37; 4:25-26; 7:12; 18:3-5; 20:47; 21:2-3; Acts 9:39-41). At the same time, his term for their “complaining” is not a positive one, either in his work (Luke 5:30; 15:2; 19:7; cf. 12:13) or in biblical precedent (see Exod 16:7-9, 12; 17:3; Num 14:27, 29; 16:41; 17:5, 10; Ps 106:25). If the term suggests that their approach to the problem was less than ideal, perhaps they did not try to raise the problem with the leadership (not that leadership always listens).

In whatever manner we construe their complaining, however, it soon becomes clear that the apostles consider their cause to be just (or, at the very least, not worth dividing over, Acts 6:3).

Even though Luke does not explicitly identify the Galilean apostles among the “Hebrews” against whom the widows complained, the apostles were in charge of the food distribution program (Acts 4:34-35), so they bore ultimate responsibility for solving the problem. Luke may use the massive growth of the church (6:1a) to help explain how the apostles had missed the problem, but what is clearer is that they move quickly to remedy the situation.

The apostles hand over the food distribution program to others. Matters had grown too large for personal attention even to each of the sick who needed healing (Acts 5:15-16; cf. Luke 5:15-16, 19; 8:19; 19:3), so the apostles follow Jesus’s example and delegate (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1-2). (One may compare how inappropriate complaints in Num 11:1 nevertheless led to the appointment and Spirit-filling of seventy elders in Num 11:16-17. The apostles, however, most clearly evoke Exod 18:19-21; Num 27:18-20; and Deut 34:9.)

These were not simply any new leaders, however. Although only a minority of Judean residents had Greek names, all seven of the new leaders have Greek names (Acts 6:5). They are not only Hellenists, but very conspicuously Hellenists. The community selected (6:3, 5) and the apostles blessed (6:6) members of the offended minority group.

But again, these were not merely any members of the minority group, but those whom both groups could trust to put God’s work first and to act fairly (6:3). The church was growing in cultural diversity and needed culturally diverse leaders (cf. 13:1); whoever was truly full of the Spirit and wisdom could be trusted in the other matters. (Genuine fullness of the Spirit needs to be spiritually discerned, but it is not limited by culture or ethnicity.)

Why appoint diverse leaders? Perhaps for the peace of the community. Or perhaps because those culturally closer to the situation could more readily see needs that Hebrew “blind spots” had missed. Or perhaps both. In Acts 8, the culturally sensitive Hellenist Philip paves the way for Peter’s ministry to Samaritans and Gentiles. In Acts 15, the church seeks a consensus solution, at least sufficient for working agreement.

I know from experience that if I state applications here that I think should be obvious, some will protest and accuse me of mixing my opinions with Scripture. So instead, I offer an invitation. Pray about what I have highlighted in this passage. Ask the Lord what he may want you to do about it.


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