WHEN THE LORD JESUS was passing through the region of Tyre and Sidon a Canaanite woman begged Him to heal her daughter. “But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Matthew 15:24). Although He went to areas where non-Jews were numerous, His call was first and foremost to the Jews. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how, after Pentecost, the disciples of Christ took the Gospel beyond the house of Israel as well.
The Apostles’ ministry was extended beyond Galilee and Judaea “because of the persecution that arose over Stephen” (Acts 11:19). Outspoken in his profession of faith in the risen Christ as “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56) before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was stoned to death. The Jewish leaders then tried to exterminate the Jerusalem Christians. “… and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…” (Acts 8:1)
The disciples traveled even further in preaching that Jesus was the Messiah. In Acts 11:19 we read that they went “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” where the Lord Himself had never gone. These regions were not Jewish areas, but they each had Jewish communities, made up chiefly of merchants and dating back hundreds of years before Christ.
When the scattered disciples began preaching Christ in the Jewish communities of Cyprus, Phoenicia and Syria they likely did so in Aramaic. Although Hebrew was the classical language of Israel, it had been replaced as the chief language in everyday speech, especially in Galilee and Samaria, by Aramaic. Hebrew was still spoken in Judea, but in a form influenced by Aramaic.
Who Were the Hellenists?
Since the first disciples of Christ were from Aramaic-speaking Galilee, their ministry consisted in “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them [the disciples] were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:19, 20).
The Hellenists were those Jews who retained their Jewish religious practices but identified with the Hellenic culture of the Roman Empire. Their everyday language was Greek. It was for Hellenists like these that the Scriptures had been translated into Greek, beginning in the third century bc.
Hellenists were, of course prominent in the Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean region, but there was also a Hellenist community in Jerusalem, perhaps started by Jews returning home from the cities of Egypt or Syria. By the time of Christ the Jewish elite, the rulers, the high priests and many of the Sanhedrin had long been Hellenized, often adopting Greek names and other practices. In 2 Maccabees 4:9 we read how the high priest Jason had established a gymnasium in Jerusalem for training in Greek-style games.
There were followers of Christ among both the Aramaic-speaking Jews (the “Hebrews”) and their Greek-speaking brethren. But there were often bad feelings between the groups. The apostles had instituted the order of deacons precisely because “there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” of alms (Acts 6:1).
Because the Jerusalem community already contained Hellenists, many commentators contend that it was not the Hellenists or Hellenized Jews (Hellenistas), whom the disciples evangelized in Antioch, but the Hellenas, the Greeks, meaning pagan Greeks who were not members of the Jewish community at all. This was the view of Eastern commentators such as Eusebius, John Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Oecumenius. In addition this is the reading of the Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Vulgate Bibles as well.
This reading is confirmed in Acts 15 which tells of the apostolic council at Jerusalem and the conflict which occasioned it. “And certain men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). If the believers at Antioch were Hellenists (Hellenized Jews) they would have been circumcised already. Clearly these were formerly pagan Greeks who had come to believe in Christ.
Who Were the Proselytes?
The Acts of the Apostles tells of another group among the people who had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11).
Proselytes were Gentiles who had completely accepted Judaism. Once they were circumcised and immersed in a mikvah (ritual bath), they were bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish religion, and were considered full members of the Jewish people. Their religion was Judaism, but not their ethnicity.
The proselytes’ presence in the city at this time was in response to a precept in the Torah which states: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord
your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the Lord
empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord
your God which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16, 17). One of these feasts is Shavuot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which is observed seven weeks after Passover.
While the Feast of Tabernacles was being celebrated in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Christ. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).
Who Were the “God-fearing”?
Members of another group found a home in the early Church as well. These were the “God-fearing” Gentiles who lived in Israel and observed some of its customs, but were not considered proselytes because they had not accepted to be circumcised. They were not bound the precepts of the Torah but were held to keep the “Noahide Laws,” which godly people observed before the time of Moses. These laws are: Do not deny God.
Do not blaspheme God. Do not murder. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. Do not steal. Do not eat from a live animal. Establish courts/a legal system to ensure obedience to these laws.
Gentiles who observed these laws were considered righteous and deserving of a place in the world to come. The centurion at Capernaum whose servant was dying was described by the Jewish elders in this way “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5).
This practice seems to the basis of how the apostles solved the issue of the formerly pagan Greeks of Antioch. As they wrote to the Antiochians, “The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:23, 28, 29).