Monday, December 24, 2007

Brief History of Jewish Christianity in Palestine and the Diaspora, Part One: Jewish Christian History in the New Testament Period (2.1)

I wish to sketch out a brief history of Jewish believers in Jesus and more specifically Jewish Christians, whom we had defined as those who are ethnically Jewish and maintain a Jewish lifestyle (see point 1 the question of definition in the earlier posts). But it will not be my intention to provide a detailed account of the history of the Jewish believers in Jesus. Instead I wish to make several points that I think are important that arise from our sources, in the first instance the New Testament.

J. Carleton Paget is quite right to state “In the beginning all Christianity was Jewish Christianity”.[1] And even at the earliest stage there is evidence in Luke’s account that there were diverse groupings of Jewish Jesus-believers in Jerusalem, based especially on cultural background. Luke refers to what appears to be two main groups with the terms “Hebrews” (NIV: "Hebraic Jews") and “Hellenists” (NIV: "Grecian Jews") (Acts 6:1). These terms refer to the language and culture of the Jews in question. Those who were so-called “Hellentists” were Diaspora Israelites who had migrated back to Palestine in order to be in the Land and near the Temple. Presumably they were motivated by the desire to more wholly live a Torah-observant lifestyle. Whereas the Hebrews were native born Judeans and Aramaic speakers.[2]

In the history of scholarship on early Christian history since Baur, these two groups have been assumed to be the earliest expression of the ideological divide within Christianity between those who believed in a Torah-free Gospel and those who didn’t, the Hellenists representing the former group and the Hebrews the latter. However, there is no foundation for this viewpoint as Bauckham and others[3] have pointed out and what’s more it is likely that the Hellenists were even more zealous for the Torah than the Hebrews.
It is not recognized enough that Saul of Tarsus was a “Hellentist” since he was a Diaspora Jew born in Tarsus and his first language was likely Greek. His Diaspora Jewish background likely provides the appropriate context for understanding his zeal for both the “traditions of fathers” (Gal 1:14) and for the persecution of the church (Phil 3:6). What’s more it is certainly the reason (either his, his parents or both) for his move to Jerusalem as a young man and perhaps also his study under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

The implication of this first observation is that even at the earliest stage, when the only form of Christianity was Jewish Christianity, diversity existed. Later of course the diversity took a pronounced turn when the mission to the Gentiles got underway. At that point a new theological divide arose. It should be recognized that at the earliest stage the diversity was primarily cultural and did not have negative consequences of the later theological division. The problems between the groups seemed to be related to practical "pastoral care" issues--care of widows, etc. Moreover, this latter division did not form along cultural lines, but was the result of a difference in the interpretation of Torah and its application or non-application to Gentiles, a difference which it seems transcended issues of culture creating division even among Hebrews. Presumably the same is true for the Hellentistic Jews, although little evidence is either way is extant, save the Apostle Paul. There is no positive evidence that supports the oft-made claim that the Hellenists were primarily responsible for the Gentile mission after being scattered as a result of persecution (see Acts 8:1).

[1] Carleton-Paget 1999:742.
[2] Bauckham 2006:63.
[3] Bauckham 2006; Hill 1992.
Works Cited
Bauckham, Richard. 2006. James and the Jerusalem Community. In A History of Jewish Believers in Jesus: The First Five Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik:55-95. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Carleton-Paget, James. 1999. Jewish Christianity. In The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period, ed. William Horbury, W. D. Davies and John Sturdy, 3:731-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, Craig C. 1992. Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


Richard Fellows said...

Hi Joel,

Thanks for these thoughts. I tend to agree with you. Baur has cast a long shaddow, I think.

I wonder, however, whether you are correct to say that Paul was already a young man when he arrived in Jerusalem. You wrote: "What’s more it is certainly the reason (either his, his parents or both) for his move to Jerusalem as a young man to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)." Acts 22:3 says that Paul was "brought up" (ANATEQRAMMENOS)in Jerusalem. This seems to suggest that Paul was a child when he came to Jerusalem. There is another line of reasoning that confirms this, I think.

Double names were rare in the Diaspora, as Margaret Williams has recently shown (The use of Alternative Names buy Diaspora Jews in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, Journal for the study of Judaism 38 (2007)). Also, there is not a single case in the Diaspora of a double name where the two names were chosen to be phonetically similar, whereas this practice was common in Palestine. Therefore, it seems to me that Paul was given the name "Saul" when he moved to Jerusalem (not at birth as is normally assumed). Now, it seems that he was given the name "Saul" because it belonged to the most famous member of this tribe. This naming COULD have happened at any age, but I think it is more likely to have happened when he was an child or infant. As someone gets older they develop their own characteristics and reputation and these can provide plenty of inspiration for the choice of names. It's a small point, I suppose, but I think it further suggests that Paul was a child when he came to Jerusalem.

You write that it is certain that the PURPOSE of Paul's move to Jerusalem was so that he could study under Gamaliel. Could you provide evidence for this?

Anyway, I look forward to your further posts in this series.

Richard Fellows.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your thoughtful response and I trust that you will read my comments here. First, the early life of Paul is shadowy at best and this must be admitted. Our evidence is scant at best. Yet I think Saul likey had three names not just two as was typical of Roman citizens in the first century, although the third we do not know. He was likely given the Hebrew name "Saul" because he was of the line of Benjamin and "Paul" as his Roman name, perhaps in honor of the family's patron who granted them Roman citizenship.
So I am of the view that Saul and Paul were given to him at birth, although this clearly cannot be proven. It is certainly not the case as many casually Bible readers and church goers think that Saul's name was changed to Paul at his conversion. This argument, is made also by John McRay has written about this in his recent book on Paul.

Second, as for the verb "to be brought up" in Acts 22:3 there is, as I am sure you know, wide debate about how young Saul/Paul was when he came. Paul's letters combined with Luke's account of his missionary work show a man with a immense agility in negoitating the Greco-Roman world. Paul clearly is familiar with Greco-Roman culture, philosophy, literature and rhetoric which suggests some early Greco-Roman education. Others have observed this similarly (see Van Bruggen's recent book on Paul as one example).

Third, in reading back over my post I realized I might have said more than I wanted to in the line about Paul's or his parents motivation. I meant to say, and will revise it, that the Diaspora zeal was the motivation for moving to Jerusalem and perhaps his study under Gamaliel. I did not wish to make Acts 22:3 carry the weight of Paul's motivation for being in Jerusalem.

Thanks again. I look forward to any further "push backs" on these additional comments.

I really appreciate your interest in this important topic.

Richard Fellows said...


thanks for the reply. I take your point about Paul's familiarity with Graeco-Roman culture. How sure can we be that Paul could not have received a Graeco-Roman education in Jerusalem or indeed in Cilicia after his conversion?

Some further reflections on his names. The usual assumption, which I share, is that Paul was his cognomen. "Saul" would then be a bi-name or signomen. This means that there are actually probably at least two names that we do not know: his praenomen and his nomen. This assumes that every citizen carried the three names, which is not quite true, I think. Incidentally, I was persuaded by Judge (who shows that Paul and his closest colleagues had high class Latin names) that we should not doubt that Paul was a citizen (see Tyndale Bulletin 56.1 2005).

Anyway, I do not quite follow your logic. I agree that Paul was probably given the name "Saul" because he was of the tribe of Benjamin, but I am not sure that this allows us to determine WHEN he received that name. Am I missing something?

Margaret Williams was only able to find 54 diaspora Jews in antiquity who had double names. This is a tiny fraction. Also, as I mentioned, there is not one example of a case where the names are chosen to be similar in sound. Also, I do not have the statistics, but Bauckham remarks that "the name jSaul is very rare among diaspora Jews but relatively common in Palestine". For these reasons I think it is hard to believe that Paul was given both names at birth.

Now, after Paul arrived in Jerusalem he would surely have been given a Hebrew/Aramaic name. As Bauckham points out, Latin names were relatively rare among Jews in Palestine because they were associated with the occupying power. Therefore, Paul, being a loyal Jew, would surely have been given a good Jewish by his parents or teacher after moving to Jerusalem. Therefore, we have no reason to suppose that he was called "Saul" at birth. Or have I missed something?

I concede, however, that this has only a minor bearing on the question of his age when he moved to Jerusalem.

I tend to agree that it is unlikely that he was given the name "Paul" after becoming a Christian. While I believe that renaming was quite common among the leading Christians in the first century, I know of no case where the new name was Latin. However, I do not completely rule out the possibility that he took the name "Paul" because he considered himself the "least of the apostles", and Sean Mcdonough has breathed some new life into this theory (JBL 2006).

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...


Thanks for your follow up. What I am arguing is that Saul’s family was so devout, like other Diaspora Jews, they brought their son (or Saul chose this path) to Jerusalem “to be brought up”. His Diaspora Jewish background would have contributed to his zealousness for the Torah and for the removal of blasphemers (i.e. Chrstians). This is my main point and these other issues—issues I might add that are often not much more than shots in the dark—do not undermine this point, at least to my mind.

As for the issue of names we are discussing--and I will admit a less than fully-studied understanding (it appears you are more well read on this issue), I think you are not giving enough weight to the uniqueness of Saul Paul: Saul’s family was both Diaspora Jewish and Roman. With respect to the latter, it is not insignificant that Saul was born into Roman citizenship--this was the "purest form" of citizenship so to say. Furthermore, Jews with Roman citizenship were surely not commonplace in the first century, which is the likely the reason the soldier was so surprise to discover Paul was a Roman (Acts 22:26-29).

Thus, perhaps the rarity of double names discovered by Williams is consistent with this picture: Paul would indeed have been somewhat of an exception in his first century context. What's more since Paul calls himself a "hebrew of hebrews" (Phil. 3:6), by which I think means among other things that he knew Aramaic and did not assimilate into the Hellenistic culture, I assume that his family had close ties with Palestine. On a side note, it is interesting to me to observe how Paul attempted to distance himself to some degree from his Diaspora background when he wished to appeal to Jews (Acts 21-22) or make a polemical statement (Phil 3).

In addition, as far as education goes, it would seem to me to be much more likely that he was given a formal Greco-Roman education not in Jerusalem, but in Tarsus of which he continued to claim to be a citizen even later in his life (Acts 21:39). While obviously the former is possible, it would make more sense that he had some formal education before going to Jerusalem. But this is not a falsifiable claim admittedly.

The bottomline I think is that these "assumptions" cannot be proven since we have such little evidence to go on. So I am willing to hold these disputed points with a level of humilty, besides knowing that I need to read more widely--which seems always to be the case.

Well this is good conversation, thank you and happy holidays

Richard Fellows said...

Joel, thanks for that.

Returning to your main thesis for a moment, I really like your suggestion that the Hellenists were those who had migrated from the Diaspora to Palestine for religious reasons. I suppose this means that they may have been quite atypical of diaspora Jews in their religious zeal. As an example of this type of selectivity, we can observe that Jews today in West Bank settlements often have views on zionism etc that are not at all representive of the views of Jews in the countries that they came from.

On the subject of Paul's name, "Saul", you suggest, I think, that it was Paul's parents' zeal for Hebrew culture that caused them to give him a Hebrew name, in addition to his Latin names. This is possible, I suppose. However, I remember reading that the language of a Jew's name did not correlate with his/her religious zeal. Unfortunately I do not remember the reference. Also, it is interesting that the seven who are named in Acts 6:5 all have Greek names, and they are presumably Hellenists. So, if Paul was a Hellenist, why was he given a Hebrew name, but none of the seven were? My suggestion is that it is because the seven had Greek birth names (which would be acceptable in Jerusalem), whereas Paul had Latin birth names (which would not). It is only a suggestion, though. Also, I think it is still the case that no Hebrew name has been found in Tarsus.

A statistical analysis will be easier after the publication of more volumes of the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names and Tal Ilan's diaspora volume of her Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Meanwhile I will try to get hold of a copy of Margaret Williams's recent work on Hebrew names in Asia Minor. I think she argues there that Hebrew names there belong largely to the centuries after the NT.

Is there any way to guess what the attitude of Jews in Tarsus towards Gentiles would have been? In Antioch the Jews were very accepting of Gentiles in their communities (so Josephus). In south Galatia, on the other hand, I think the Jews were much more conservative (they persecuted Paul and they required that Timothy be circumcised). Tarsus was geographically half way between Antioch and Galatia.

Happy feast of Stephen.

Richard Fellows. said...

It has always seemed strange to me that those chosen to 'wait on tables' (Acts 6.2) should 'be full of the Spirit' (Acts 6.3). It would seem that with this attribute, the 'seven' were chosen to 'wait on' the Lord leading daily prayers attended by the 'brothers', not to do any 'daily distribution of food'. The appointment of the 'seven' would then have released others (I presume the writer and one or two others) from that responsibility so that they could spend more time speking to the priests (Acts 6.7). Thus the idea of Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews was a later addition, and the earliest 'Christians' did not differentiate themselves so.

Eric Sowell said...

Hey Joel, long time no see...

This has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the post or the comments, but I thought I would point out something. When you click on one of the footnote links to take you to the footnote at the bottom, blogger is asking you to sign in. I'm assuming this is not what you intend :)