The Apostolic Community
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 9 November 2015; Revised 28 May 2019
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version, © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Sources: Bibliographic data for scholarly publications cited may be found at the end of the article. References to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, are from The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75-99 A.D.) trans. William Whiston (1737); online. References to tractates of the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); online. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Vocabulary: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Christian scholars have generally assumed that the recipients of apostolic ministry and the membership of the congregations to which they wrote were mostly Gentile and that little of the apostolic letters concerned Jews. However, I believe the linguistic evidence of the Besekh supports the thesis that the communities of believers in the apostolic era had a mostly Jewish constituency.
The apostolic narratives and letters use a variety of terms to describe those who received and responded to the Good News of salvation and then formed the membership of congregations in the apostolic era (e.g., 2Cor 12:11; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). These terms reflect genuine diversity: Jews, Gentiles, circumcised, uncircumcised, men, women, slaves, and free persons. When the historical paradigm of Christianity is discarded we can recognize that the apostles in their writings describe five major categories of Jews: Judean Jews, Hellenized Jews, Hellenistic Jews, Samaritan Jews and Ascetic Jews. In addition, there were Gentile proselytes and God-fearing Gentiles.
Jews were given the priority in hearing the Good News, both in principle (Matt 10:6; 15:24; 19:28; Luke 1:30-33, 68-75; 22:30; Acts 1:6-8; Rom 1:16) and practice (Acts 2:1-11; 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8). All the apostles, prophets, evangelists who proclaimed the Good News were Jews. The church father Hippolytus (170-236) in his writing On the Seventy Apostles, identifies the seventy that Yeshua sent out in Luke 10:1 as the congregational leaders ("bishops") in major cities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The seventy men Yeshua chose were JEWS, not Gentiles. (See my commentary on Romans 16.) An intriguing piece of evidence, not considered by modern scholars, is that the early church historian Eusebius (c. 260-341 AD) said that Peter's first letter, addressed to disciples in Asia, Cappadocia, Galatia, Pontus and Bithynia (1Pet 1:1), was written to "the Hebrews of the dispersion" (Church History, Book III, 4:2).
The Greek word is Ioudaioi, pl. of Ioudaios (derived from Ioudas, "Judah"), generally defined as Judean, Jew, or Jewish with respect to descendants of Jacob (BAG). In the LXX Ioudaios first occurs in the plural to translate Heb. Yehudim (pl. of Heb. Yehudi, SH-3064), which originally referred to citizens of the Kingdom of Judah (2Kgs 16:6; 25:25; Jer 34:9). The southern kingdom also included the tribes of Benjamin and Simeon, so Mordecai of the tribe of Benjamin is identified as a Ioudaios (Esth 2:5; 6:10). The meaning of Yehudim expanded during the exile to refer to all those taken in captivity from the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah living throughout the Persian empire (Esth 8:9, 11, and 17).
Indeed, the inclusive use of Yehudim/Ioudaioi in the LXX mirrors the Aramaic form Yehudain that occurs in Ezra (4:12, 23; 5:1, 5; 6:7, 14) and Daniel (3:8, 12). Post-Tanakh Jewish literature continued this inclusive meaning of Ioudaioi to designate the covenant people as distinct from Gentiles (1Macc 2:23; 14:33; Letter of Aristeas 1:1 +34t; Josephus, Apion 1:1 +42t), often as the object of persecution and warfare (Philo, Flaccus IV.21 +26t; Josephus, Ant. X, 11:1; Wars VI, 1:2-8). Among Gentiles the ethnic term did not distinguish between the twelve tribes of Israel or sects of Judaism.
In the Besekh Ioudaios occurs 195 times and has various particular uses. The term may be a reference to:
• the tribe of Judah (John 4:22).
• a location in the territory of Judea or residents of Judea (Luke 23:51; John 3:22; 11:19; Acts 2:14).
• the covenant people distinguished from Gentiles (Matt 28:15; John 18:35; Gal 2:14).
• a pilgrim festival in Jerusalem (John 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2, 11).
• the title of the Davidic king and Messiah (Matt 2:2; 27:11, 29, 37; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26; Luke 23:3, 37-38; John 18:33; 19:19, 21).
• an individual identified as a Ioudaios (John 3:25; 4:9; Acts 18:2, 24; 19:34; 21:39; 22:3).
• the Judean authorities who opposed Yeshua (John 1:19; 2:18, 20; 5:10, 15, 16, 18; 7:1, 11, 13, 15, 35; 8:22, 48, 52, 57; 9:18, 22; 10:19, 24, 31, 33; 11:8; 13:33; 18:12, 14, 20, 31, 36, 38; 19:7, 12, 14, 20, 21, 31, 38; 20:19).
• Torah-observant Jews in a community hearing the apostolic message (Acts 2:5, 10, 14; 9:22; 10:22, 39; 11:19; 12:11; 13:5; 14:1; 16:3; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:2, 5, 19; 19:10, 13, 17, 33; 20:21; 21:11, 21; 22:12; 24:5; 25:8, 10; 28:17, 29).
• local synagogue leaders who reacted negatively to Yeshua and the apostolic message and ministry, often taking aggressive action against the messengers (John 6:41, 52; Acts 9:23; 12:3; 13:45, 50; 14:2, 4-5, 19; 17:5, 13; 18:12, 14 (2t), 28; 20:3, 19; 21:11, 27; 22:30; 23:12, 20, 27; 24:9, 18, 27; 25:2, 7, 9, 15, 24; 26:2, 4, 7, 21; 28:19).
• Torah-observant Jews who believed in Yeshua (John 8:31; 11:45; Acts 13:43; 14:1; Acts 21:20).
• a category of Jews distinguished from Hellenistic Jews (Rom 1:16; 2:9-10; 10:12; 1Cor 10:32; Gal 3:28).
In the first century the term had primarily a sectarian meaning to distinguish Torah-observant Jews from non-observant Jews, at least in regard to how the Ioudaioi defined observance (cf. John 4:9; Acts 2:5). Simply stated the Ioudaioi were orthodox Jews. I use "orthodox," because the tenets of their Judaism were governed by the Pharisee and Sadducee parties of Judea. Orthodox Jews spoke Hebrew as their primary language (cf. Acts 6:1; 21:40; 22:2) and conducted Temple and synagogue services in Hebrew. Orthodox Jews revered Moses (John 9:28-29; Acts 6:11) and recognized the authority of the written Torah (John 7:23; Acts 21:20).
They faithfully observed the Sabbath (John 5:10; 19:31, 42), kept God's prescribed festivals in Jerusalem (John 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55), followed strict rules of cleanliness (Mark 7:3; Luke 2:22; John 2:6; 3:25; 19:40), circumcised their children (Luke 1:59; 2:21; John 7:22-23; Acts 21:21; Rom 2:28; 3:1), separated themselves from non-observant Jews and Gentiles (John 4:9; Acts 10:28; Gal 2:12-14), and especially regarded the Temple in Jerusalem as the only place to worship the God of Israel with sacrifices (John 2:20; 4:20; 18:20). Generally speaking the Ioudaioi followed the traditions of the Pharisees (Matt 23:2-3; Mark 7:3; Acts 10:28; 22:3).
Indeed the noun Ioudaismos, "Judaism," first appears in the Maccabean writings for a way of life devoted to observance of Torah laws (2Macc 2:21; 8:1; 14:38; 4Macc 4:26). Those committed to Judaism were ready to die rather than transgress the commandments given to Moses for Israel (4Macc 9:1). Paul used this same term to describe his religion before his life-changing encounter with Yeshua (Gal 1:13-14) (DNTT 2:310). The same devotion could not be said of other Israelite descendants who were scattered throughout the world. The Essenes consistently avoided the term Ioudaios as a self-designation and it is not to be found in the Greek portions of the Qumran scrolls (Miller). Thus, in the Besekh the term Ioudaioi is never used to identify Hellenistic Jews, Samaritan Jews or Qumran Jews. These groups are defined below.
The second category is identified by the technical term Hellēnistēs in Acts 6:1; 9:29 and 11:20. David Flusser (1917-2000), professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, used the term "Hellenized" to describe these Greek-speaking Jews. The "Hellenized Jews" were zealous for the Temple and Torah and certain circles of them were greatly influenced by the Essenes (Flusser 75). The Hellenized Jews preferred Greek as their primary language and the Greek translation of the Torah (Septuagint) for synagogue services. In modern Judaism the Hellēnistēs could be comparable to the Conservative Jews who are very traditional but not as strict about observance of cultural practices of the past as the Orthodox Jews. The conflict described in Acts 6:1 introduces the Greek-speaking or Hellenized Jews for the first time in Acts.
The first deacons appointed by the apostles (Acts 6:5) all have Greek names, which has led Christian commentators to assume they were Hellenistic Jews (Bruce 129). This viewpoint is strengthened by the fact that the Judean Jews on the Sanhedrin believed the slander of false witnesses that Stephen had spoken against the Temple and Torah and that Yeshua would destroy the Temple and eliminate Pharisaic traditions (Acts 6:13-14) (Skarsaune 152). However, merely having a Greek name is no proof of being Hellenistic since bona fide Judean Jews like Peter and Paul had Greek names. Also, one deacon, Nicolas, was a Gentile proselyte. Luke may have coined the term Hellēnistēs to distinguish traditional Greek-speaking Jews from Hellenistic Jews who were more liberal in their adherence of Hellenistic philosophy or cultural practices.
One would think given the issue before the apostles that the other six deacons would represent both Jewish groups. The content of Stephen's speech and similarity to the review of Israel's history found in Paul's sermons in Jewish contexts would favor Stephen being a Hebraic or Judean Jew. On the other hand, Philip the evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the apostle) was very likely a Hellenized Jew and thus the logical choice to take the Good News to Greek-speaking Jews, first to the Samaritans, then to the Ethiopian eunuch and later to residents of Caesarea, a Hellenic city (Barker 284f). The description of Ananias as a disciple devoted to the Torah and spoken well of by the Ioudaioi may indicate that he was a Hellenized Jew (Acts 9:10; 22:12).
Yeshua had selected some Hellenized Jews as among the seventy he chose for a missions experience (Luke 10:1). Yeshua would NOT have chosen any Gentiles for this early mission, since the charge to the Seventy was patterned after the mission of the Twelve (Matt 10). The mission was expressly directed to the lost house of Israel and they were to avoid Hellenic cities (Matt 10:5-6), of which there were several west of the Jordan, including Joppa, Sebaste (Samaria), and Tyre (Skarsaune, Fig. 1.1, 32). The Seventy were sent to cities in which Yeshua planned to minister. There is no record of Yeshua actually going into any Hellenistic city, although he did venture into districts of such cities such as Tyre and Caesarea and the Decapolis. Hippolytus (170-235) in his treatise, On the Seventy Apostles, lists the Seventy by name and includes Luke. It is noteworthy that Luke is the only book that mentions the mission of the Seventy.
Paul had direct dealings with Hellenized Jews, first in Jerusalem (Acts 9:29) and then in Antioch (Acts 11:20). In Jerusalem the Hellenized Jews were resistant to the Good News about Yeshua and tried to kill Paul. They may have been the same group that had slandered Stephen. In Antioch Paul, assisting Barnabas, found Hellenized Jews with a more much receptive attitude and together the apostles taught the Hellenized Jewish disciples and eventually labeled them as "Messianic" ("Christians" in Christian Bibles). See my commentary on this event in my web article The First Christians.
The third category may be properly called Hellenistic Jews. The Greek word is Hellēn, (pl. Hellenés), a person of Greek language or culture (BAG). Danker adds that it is not an ethnic term restricted to Greece as a country of birth. Hellēn is derived from Hellas which in Classical Greek was a general name for all lands inhabited by Hellenes, including Ionia, as well as the name for the language of that people (LSJ). Hellēn occurs in several passages of the LXX to translate Heb. Yavan (SH-3120), a proper name for descendants of Japheth and the people of Ionia (Dan 8:21; 10:20; 11:2; Zech 9:13) or Yevanim (SH-3125, adj.), Greeks (Joel 3:6). Hellēn is also used for Heb. p'listim (SH-6430), "Philistines" in Isaiah 9:12 and for the verb yavan, "to oppress," used as an adj. of a foreign sword in Jeremiah 46:16 and 50:16.
After Alexander the Great conquered the world he and his successors sought to educate and assimilate people in the Greek way of life. All who adopted the Greek language and culture were counted as Hellēn, even though they were of a different ethnic group. The experiences of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruthlessly imposed Hellenism on Judea, banning traditional Jewish practices of Sabbath observance and circumcision, caused loyal Jews to view Hellēn as completely hostile to their way of life equivalent to "pagan" (2Macc 4:36; 11:2). The fact that many Jews were willing to abandon Torah observance and adopt Greek culture under Antiochus created a great divide among Jewish people (DNTT 2:124f).
Unfortunately, the Maccabees, so passionate in their rebellion against Antiochus themselves eventually embraced some aspects of Hellenism. The ranks of pious Jews, loyal to the Torah, were penetrated by Greek philosophy, including the idea of tradition, the immortality of the soul, and beliefs of the beyond, although Jewish teachers sought to align those beliefs with biblical revelation. Even the Rabbis understood Greek and were acquainted with Homer. The very numerous Greek loan-words in the Talmud and Midrash are evidence of the cultural interaction with Judaism. However, the development of the Pharisees pushed back against the pagan influences of Hellenism. (For more information on the influence of Hellenism on Jews see Tarn & Griffith, Chapter 6.)
Hellēn appears a total of 25 times in the apostolic writings, the first in John 7:35, the next in John 12:20 and the rest in Paul's letters (14 times) or in Luke's narratives of Paul's ministry (9 times). Most Bible versions translate Hellēn as "Greek(s)," considering "Greek" to be a circumlocution for "Gentile," but in my view should be translated as "Hellenistic Jews." First, in the Besekh Hellēn is simply not an ethnic term restricted to ethnic Greeks (or Hellenistic Gentiles in general). What would be the point for Jews to speak of Greeks anyway? The term Hellēn certainly includes Hellenistic Jews, that is, Jews who in varying degrees adopted cultural and lifestyle practices of Hellenism. For Paul, the orthodox Jew, as well as his fellow Pharisees, the Hellenistic Jews may have been the only Hellenists of whom they would have had even association.
Second, the hermeneutic Law of First Mention has relevance to this discussion. According to this principle the first mention of a subject indicates its inherent meaning for the occurrences that follow. The first mention of Hellēn in the Besekh occurs in John 7:35 where the term is associated with the Diaspora. The term Diaspora occurs in passages of the LXX that speak of the removal of Israelite peoples from the Land and scattering them into other lands (Deut 28:25; 30:4; Neh 1:9; Ps 147:2; Isa 49:6; Jer 15:7; 34:17; 2Macc 1:27) The term occurs only three times in the Besekh (also Jas 1:1; 1Pet 1:1), all as a technical term for lands outside Israel where Jews resided. In other words, the "Diaspora" is a term that only has relevance to Jews. The term does not refer to dispersion of Gentiles.
Third, when Yeshua and the apostles wished to refer unambiguously to bona fide non-Jew Gentiles they used the term ethnos (e.g., Matt 10:5; Rom 1:5). Paul uses ethnos in this manner 48 times in his letters. Although not recognized by Christian lexicons readers of Paul's letters should consider the likelihood that Paul uses Hellēn-Hellenés to designate Hellenistic Jews. After all, Hellēn only defines a person by culture, not place of birth. We should note that Hellenistic Jews are never called Ioudaioi in Scripture and if the word Hellēn does not include them then there is no reference to such Jews in the Bible. It is fair to say that the number of Hellenistic Jews in the Roman Empire was equal to or even greater than Judean Jews. The Ioudaioi and Hellenés are frequently contrasted (16 times total: Acts 14:1-2; 16:1, 3; 18:4, 19:10, 17; 20:21; Rom 1:16; 2:9-10; 3:9; 10:12; 1Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; Gal 3:28).
Most of our sources concerning Hellenistic Jewry come from Alexandria (Flusser 73). Philo Judaeus (c. 25 BC - AD 50), a Hellenistic leader there, taught with considerable influence. His many writings may be found here. The son of a rich family Philo's acquaintance with Judaism was actually meager, but he presented himself as a Jewish philosopher. Philo would later be of great interest to the Church Fathers of Christianity. According to Flusser the Hellenistic Jews did not belong to the higher strata of society and were not generally well-educated (74). They showed no interest in the classics of Greek literature, and what they knew of Greek philosophy they learned from popular works and from the discourses of philosophical teachers.
In contrast to the Judean Jews and the Hellenized Jews, both strong supporters of Torah and Temple, the Hellenistic Jews lived by values and practices unacceptable to Jewish orthodoxy. The differences went deeper than the language they spoke. To Judean Jews the ideas of Greek philosophers were abominations and syncretism in any form was tantamount to treason with the enemy. Hellenistic Jews had a tendency toward universalism and they tolerated religions around them. Many Hellenistic Jews adopted Greek customs, formed trade associations, passed decrees and prepared documents in Greek form, and gave titles and honors to women. Some tolerated mixed marriage, dropped circumcision, and even in some places adopted Greek cults (Tarn & Griffith 223-227).
The diversity among Hellenistic Jews does not mean that they were all no better than pagans. In John 12:20 a number of Hellenistic Jews came to Jerusalem to worship at the feast of Passover. By law they could not have entered the Temple or partaken of the Passover meal without being circumcised. These Jews were probably God-fearing Hellenistic Jews as those Paul encountered in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4). Being "God-fearing" probably means that while they had discarded what they considered the legalism of the Pharisees they still worshiped and served the God of Israel and lived by His standards of morality. When Paul uses the term Hellēn to refer to Hellenistic Jews he is not casting them all in the same mold.
God-fearing Hellenistic Jews could be comparable to the modern Reformed Jews who respect the Torah and rabbinic traditions, but treat them more as guidelines than axioms for obedience. However, most Hellenistic Jews were much more like modern secular Jews who make no effort to practice Jewish traditions, and may in fact be atheistic in belief as Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.
The history of the Samaritans is bound up with the founding of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the death of King Solomon (c. 931 BC; 1Kgs 11−12), its decline and eventual destruction by Assyria in 722 BC. The Assyrians deported many of the residents and replaced them with pagans from five different locations (2Kgs 17:24), some of whom intermarried with Israelites left in the land. According to the Kings history the Assyrian immigrants were attacked by mountain lions, and they decided to convert to the God of Israel. As a result the King of Assyria appointed an Israelite priest to educate them in Torah religion (2Kgs 17:25-28). Even with this social upheaval there is no evidence that all northern Israelites were exiled or totally assimilated into a Gentile culture and ceased to exist. Members of the northern tribes still participated in the pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem after the Assyrian occupation (cf. 2Chr 30:1, 21, 25; 31:1; 32:17, 23; 34:9, 21; 35:17; 36:13).
The tendency of Bible scholars to regard the Samaritans in Yeshua's time as non-Jews is due to a variety of factors. First, they are not called "Jews," so they must not be Jews. This mistake owes to the failure of recognizing that the term Ioudaios (pl. Ioudaioi), "Jew(s)," refers to Judean Jews as a religious expression, and Ioudaioi is never used as a label for Samaritan Jews. Of course, Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots are never called "Jews," but they were clearly Jewish. Richard Coggins writes, "The Samaritans are best understood as a conservative group within the total spectrum of Judaism. This rather clumsy definition is necessary because of the ambiguity of the word "Judaism" (OCB 671). The Samaritans shared the beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism of the day and reverenced holy traditions set forth in the Torah. In modern Judaism the Samaritan Jews might be comparable to the Karaite Jews, who regard the written Torah as the only authority for Jewish practice.
Second, there is the failure to recognize that the use of "Samaritan" by the apostles (Luke 9:52; 17:16; John 4:39, 40; Acts 8:25) and Yeshua (Matt 10:5; Luke 10:33) demonstrates their respect for the people as well as the belief that they were descendants of the northern tribes. The Samaritan woman referred to Jacob as "our father" (John 4:12) and Yeshua did not dispute the fact. Yeshua said that he came only for the lost house of Israel (Matt 10:6; 15:24) and so he ministered in Samaria (John 4:39-43), healed a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:16), honored a Samaritan for his neighborliness (Luke 10:30-37), and praised a Samaritan for his gratitude (Luke 17:11-18). He also rebuked his disciples for their hostility toward the Samaritans (Luke 9:55-56).
Third, there is the failure to understand that the apostles interpreted the Great Commission to "make disciples out of all nations" (Matt 28:19) solely in terms of making disciples of Jews. The beginning point, Jerusalem, and the next place Judea would certainly be Jewish, so the rest of the itinerary of Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) must likewise focus on Jews. Thus, Philip, a deacon, opened a mission in Samaria (Acts 8:5) and then Peter and John proclaimed the Good News in many Samaritan villages (Acts 8:25). The Good News did not go to the Gentiles until God specifically commanded Peter to go to Cornelius and it was such a "big deal" that Peter was called before the elders in Jerusalem to explain himself (Acts 10:28; 11:2-3). There was no such concern about witnessing to the Samaritans, because they were Jewish.
Luke never mentions Samaria or Samaritans in his narratives of Paul's journeys nor does Paul mention Samaritans by name in his letters. Of course, when Paul traveled from the Diaspora to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26; 15:2; 21:15-17; Rom 15:25; Gal 1:18; 2:1) he would have traveled through Samaria. There is support for the probability that Paul ministered among Samaritans. The recent discovery of a marble inscription, written partly in Greek and partly in a Samaritan form of Hebrew and Aramaic, testifies to the presence of Samaritans in Thessalonica (HBD). So, it is very likely that the God-fearing Hellenists or Hellenistic Jews who responded to Paul's message in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4) were Samaritans.
Jewish asceticism was a common phenomenon in the first century, which as a minimum would include self-denial and fasting, but many groups chose to make lifestyle choices that involved limiting diet to vegetables (Rom 14:2) and refraining from marriage (1Tim 4:3). Ascetic groups are not mentioned by name, but three may be identified. First, there were Jews who took the vow of the Nazirite (Num 6:13-14; Acts 18:18; 21:23-24; cf. Nedarim 10a), which meant letting one's hair grow without cutting and refraining from grapes and products derived from grapes. Second, Philo reported that a Jewish ascetic group in Egypt, the Therapeutae, were vegetarians, but this diet resulted from their commitment to temperance and simplicity in all things as the best expression of living by Torah and pursuing spiritual virtues (On the Contemplative Life, 4:34-39).
Third, the Essenes are the most well known community of Jewish ascetics in the first century. Ancient sources describe them as a tightly knit group of men, possibly celibate, who practiced communal ownership of property (Harrington). Josephus identified the Essenes as one of the principal Jewish parties and noted that the lifestyle of the Essenes was stringent (Wars II, 8:2-13; Ant. XVIII, 1:5). The Essenes held many beliefs in common with the Pharisees, such as rewards and punishments after death and the reality of angels. In fact, Josephus says that while the Pharisees believed in angels the Essenes in particular preserved the names of the angels.
Paul likely had contact with the Essenes since there was an Essene quarter in Jerusalem, the presumed site of Yeshua's last supper. The nucleus of the Essene movement in Jerusalem was made up of self-proclaimed priests, about 50 of whom are believed to have lived in the Essene Quarter between 30 B.C. and A.D. 70. Celibate, these Essenes adhered to purity laws far stricter than those followed by Sadducean priests. See two informative articles on the Essenes in Jerusalem: Bargil Pixner, Jerusalem's Essene Gateway: Where the Community Lived in Jesus' Time.
Some scholars believe Yochanan the Immerser spent time with the Essenes before commencing his ministry as Messiah's forerunner ("the word of God came to Yochanan in the wilderness," Luke 3:2), but Scripture and Jewish literature make no mention of his association with the Essenes. However, the disciples of Yochanan that Paul met in Asia (Acts 19:1-4) may have been Essenes since they knew only the immersion of repentance, a practice of the Essenes, and not Yochanan's revelation of Yeshua as Messiah.
Paul warned the Colossians against any philosophy, including Jewish asceticism, that judged others for what they ate and drank and advocated excessive humility, i.e., many fastings (Col 2:8-18). (The Greek word in Col 2:18 for humility, tapeinophrosunē, comes from the verb used in the LXX of Lev 23:27 for the humility or fasting required on the Day of Atonement.) Similarly, in his letter to Timothy, Paul remonstrates against those who advocate abstinence from marriage and certain foods (1Tim 4:1-5), and there he labels the belief as a demonic doctrine.
As Paul's letters demonstrate there were Jewish ascetics in early congregations. He used expressions associated with the Essenes, such as "sons of disobedience" (Eph 5:6; Col 3:6), "sons of light" and "sons of darkness" (1Th 5:5), a contrast found in the War Scroll (1QM). The expression "sons of God" comes from Jubilees 22:11 and frequently in the book of Enoch, both of which were very influential for the Essenes.
Tens of thousands of Jews, representative of all the foregoing groups, chose to believe that Yeshua was their Messiah and became the nucleus of congregations in the apostolic era. In particular, the epistles of Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude were written to Messianic Jews, not "Christians" as commonly defined today.
Hebrews: The letter titled "Hebrews" was apparently a kind of open letter intended to be circulated among Messianic Jewish synagogues or groups in the Diaspora. The title "To the Hebrews" is found on the oldest MSS. The subject matter concerns both Messianic Jews and unbelieving Jews. The use of "Hebrews" is appropriate to the universal appeal of the letter. "Hebrews," meaning as it does descendants of the first Hebrew, Abraham (Gen 14:13; cf. 2Cor 11:22), avoids the rivalry of sectarian groups within first century Judaism. (See my article Hebrews: An Introduction.)
James: The letter titled (or mislabeled) "James" was written by Jacob, the half-brother of Yeshua, who addressed the missive to the "twelve tribes in the Diaspora" (Jas 1:1). The twelve tribes is an ethnic label identifying the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. References to the twelve tribes occur six times in the Besekh (Matt 19:28; Luke 23:20; Acts 27:6; Jas 1:1; Rev 7:4; 21:12) and the tribes are listed in Revelation 7:5-8. (See my web article The Twelve Tribes of Israel.) Diaspora is a technical term for the lands outside of Israel where Jews lived. This term has no relevance to Gentiles. (See my commentary on the letter of Jacob.)
1 Peter: The first letter of Peter is addressed to sojourners in the Diaspora (1Pet 1:1), so like the letter of Jacob, Peter wrote to Messianic Jews. Throughout the letter Peter employs theological terminology and parabolic descriptions familiar to Jews, as well as quoting and alluding to many passages in the Tanakh. The fact that Peter uses the term "Christianos" in 4:16 does not mean that the letter recipients were not Jewish. See my introductory article The Letters of Peter: First Peter.
2 Peter: The second letter of Peter is addressed to disciples having the "same faith" as his. Peter also identifies its recipients as the same people who received the first letter (2Pet 3:1). The letter's content relies on biblical and apocryphal sources with which Jews were familiar. See my introductory article The Letters of Peter: Second Peter.
Jude: The short letter penned by Jude (Heb. Y'hudah), the half-brother of Yeshua, does not seem to name its recipients, although the address to "the called, beloved of the Father and kept for Messiah Yeshua" has special relevance to Israel. Jewish identity of the recipients is also indicated by the allusion of shared history (verse 5; cf. Jas 1:1; 1Pet 1:1) and the material quoted from the Tanakh and even non-canonical Jewish literature (verses 9 and 14). See my commentary on Jude.
The fifth category are Gentiles known as proselytes. Gentiles have dwelled or sojourned with the Jewish people since the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 12:38, 44). These Gentiles are identified in the Tanakh by the term ger (SH-1616), variously translated as "alien, foreigner, immigrant, sojourner or stranger " in English Bibles. In its earliest usage (Gen 15:13; 23:4; Ex 2:22) ger meant a foreigner or a temporary non-resident with limited rights. The term retains this meaning throughout its occurrences in the Torah. In 80 of the 92 occurrences of ger in the Tanakh the LXX renders the word with prosēlutos.
The Greek word prosēlutos (SG-4339, "proselyte") is a technical term invented by the Jewish rabbis who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. The term occurs nowhere in secular Greek literature (DNTT 1:360). Prosēlutos occurs only four times in the Besekh (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43). After the exodus from Egypt ger-prosēlutos simply meant a non-Israelite dwelling among the Israelites (Ex 22:21; 23:9, 12; Lev 16:29; 17:8). Accepting the God of Israel meant not only a change in worship, but a change in lifestyle. The proselyte was to be present at the reading of the Torah (Deut 31:12), demonstrating his willingness to be bound by its demands (TWOT 1:156). The declaration of Ruth, "Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16) typified the sentiment of many of those joined with the people of Israel. During the time of Solomon considerable numbers of men identified as prosēlutos served as laborers in building the temple (2Chr 2:17-18), but this label in that time says nothing of their religious commitment.
Rabbinic tradition distinguished two kinds of proselytes.
Gate Proselyte (Acts 13:43): Heb. ger ha-sha'ar, "proselyte of the gate" (Ex 20:10, Deut 5:13-14, 14:20-29, 16:10-14, 24:13-14, 26:11-12, 31:11-12), was a "resident alien," or half-convert, who lived in the Land of Israel and was expected to obey many Torah commandments. Gate proselytes were not circumcised and thus were not allowed to share in the Passover sacrifice. However, they were expected to abstain from work on the Sabbath and to remove leaven from their homes during Passover. In the time of Yeshua rabbinic law required that in order to be recognized as a "gate proselyte" the person had to publicly assume, before three "haberim," or men of authority on the Torah, the solemn obligation not to worship idols, an obligation which involved the recognition of the seven Laws of Noah as binding (Ab. Zarah 64b). The Noachide Laws as defined by Jewish tradition required the practice of justice and prohibition of idolatry, murder, blasphemy, sexual promiscuity, theft, and eating flesh taken from a live animal (Sanh. 56a; Yeb. 48b; cf. Acts 15:19-20).
Righteous Proselyte (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5): Heb. ger tzedek (or ger ha-b'rit, "proselyte of the covenant"), was a Gentile who chose full identification with Israel (cf. 2Chr 2:17-18; Esth 8:17), and, if male, submitted to circumcision in accordance with the Torah (Ex 12:48). Rabbinic Judaism later added immersion as a requirement (Yeb. 46a). The circumcised and immersed male proselyte was considered as a "child newly born" (Yeb. 22a). A righteous proselyte was bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Torah (Ex 12:19, 43-49; 20:10; Deut 1:16; 5:14; 14:21; 26:10-11; 31:9-13), and considered a full member of the Jewish people. A righteous proselyte could participate fully in all religious festivals and enjoyed all the legal rights and privileges accorded native Israelites (Deut 1:16; 5:13-14; 10:18-19; 14:29; 16:11-14; 24:14, 17, 19-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; 28:43). In terms of piety a righteous proselyte lived as a Judean Jew, including wearing tzitzit ("fringe, tassel," Num 15:38-39; Menachot 43a). Thus, we find righteous proselytes in the Temple crowd that heard Peter on Shavuot (Acts 2:10).
In the land of Israel both categories of proselytes were granted the same legal protections as native Israelites. It should be noted that no proselyte of any kind was ever called a Jew, probably because of the ethnic definition of Y’hudi, the distinctive promise of the land of Israel to the Jews in perpetuity and the special relationship of the Jews to the Torah (cf. Gal. 5:3) (Stern 339). Proselytes had no inheritance rights in the Land promised to the Israelites. Only in the age to come will proselytes be granted land among the tribes of Israel (Ezek 47:22-23). God never required Gentiles to be circumcised to receive salvation and the issue was settled at the Jerusalem Council. While some modern Gentile Christians might view themselves as spiritual Jews by virtue of being grafted into Israel and possessing circumcision of the heart, the apostles never made such an application to Gentile believers.
The last category has a broad and diverse meaning. The Greek word ethnos, often used in the plural (ethnoi), originally referred to a number of people or animals forming a group, then later strictly of humans as a people group. Mounce gives the root meaning as multitude or company. In the Tanakh the term "nations" (Heb. goyim) is used for people groups defined by language and culture, including descendants of Isaac and Jacob and the nation of Israel (cf. Gen 10:5; 12:2; 17:4; 18:18; Ex 19:6; Deut 4:6; Ps 106:5; Isa 9:1; 42:1, 6; Jer 5:15; Ezek 4:13; 36:13-14; Mic 4:2-3).
The term is used often in the Besekh for "Gentiles" in contradistinction to Jews and Israel (e.g., Matt 5:47; Acts 2:27; 21:21; 26:17; Rom 3:29; 9:24; 11:25; 1Cor 1:23; Gal 2:14-15), but is also used of the Samaritan Jews (Acts 8:9) and Israel (Matt 21:43; John 18:35; Acts 24:10, 17; 26:4; 1Cor 10:18). Often ethnos is used in a geographical sense with a diverse population that would include descendants of Jacob as residents or citizens (Matt 12:21; 24:14; Acts 17:26; Rom 1:5; 16:26; Gal 2:9; 1Tim 3:16). Just as the plural Ioudaioi can mean Jews, Judeans or more specifically the Judean authorities (i.e., Sanhedrin), so the context must be examined to determine the meaning of the ethnos. The word does not have a particular religious meaning. Paul as appointed as a shaliach to the nations (Acts 9:15) and his personal mission was to represent the Messiah and bring about the obedience of Gentiles to the faith of Israel (Rom 1:5) and to the ethical precepts of Torah (Rom 8:4).
In the first century many Gentiles expressed a deep interest in learning about Judaism. Wherever there was a Jewish synagogue there was also a devoted body of Gentiles attached to it (Schurer 2:308, 312), which was a testament to the effectiveness of Jewish proselytizing activity, especially by the Pharisees (cf. Matt 23:15). Besides "proselyte" the apostolic writers use three other descriptions to identify Gentiles that demonstrated some level of commitment: Israel-lovers (Grk. agapaō, Luke 7:4-5), God-fearers (Grk. phobeomai, Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26), and God-worshipers (Grk. sebō, John 9:31; Acts 17:17; Lydia, Acts 16:14; and Titius Justus, Acts 18:7).
The distinction between these categories is not always clear, but they all loved the Jewish people, believed in and prayed to the God of Israel, attended synagogue worship, kept at least the moral code and other Jewish traditions in varying degrees, and gave alms and other financial support to the Jews. In any event, Paul does not use these distinctive labels of Gentiles in his letters, but simply included them in his general endearments as "beloved of God" (Rom 1:7), "all who call on the name of Messiah Yeshua (1Cor 1:2), "faithful in Messiah Yeshua" (Eph 1:1), and "faithful brethren" (Col 1:2), and of course would be included in the general address "to the congregation."
The important thing to note is that the Gentiles whom Paul taught already had some Jewish influence as intimated at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:21). Lystra and Athens are the only places where Paul preached to pagans with no prior knowledge of the God of Israel. Among pagans Paul had little success. The end result is that we may say with confidence that in the apostolic era the Body of Messiah was very Jewish.
The apostles used a variety of terms to refer to the organized groups of believers and disciples within the cities in which they served and to which they wrote: "synagogue" (Jas 2:2), "assembly" (Heb 12:23), "body" (Eph 4:12), "building" (1Cor 3:9), "congregation" (Rom 16:1), "kingdom" (Rom 14:17), "temple" (1Cor 3:16-17) and a "spiritual house" (1Pet 2:5). In addition, Jewish disciples were known as The Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22; cf. John 14:16; 2Pet 2:21) or Natzratim or Notzrim (Nazarenes, Acts 24:5). Considering that the letter of Jacob ("James") was likely the earliest epistle then his use of "synagogue" (Grk. sunagōgē) as the assembly of disciples is significant (Jas 2:2).
The term "synagogue" (Grk. sunagōgē) signified a gathering-place or place of assembly and in the rest of the Greek apostolic writings refers to the place at which Jews gathered for worship and learning as well as the congregation that met (Acts 6:9; 9:2). Sunagōgē occurs 56 times in the Besekh, primarily in the apostolic narratives, but not at all in the writings of Paul. The origin of the word sunagōgē dates back to the 5th century BC and in ancient times was used to refer to any collection of things or people. Sunagōgē had a particular usage by Gentile trade guilds to refer to both their business meetings and religious feasts. In the LXX sunagōgē occurs 225 times and is generally used to translate the Heb. words qahal (a summons to an assembly, Ex 16:3) and edah (the assembly or congregation of Israel, Ex 12:3) (DNTT 1:292ff).
The earliest archaeological evidence for the synagogue, found in Egypt, is dated to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC (OCB 722). The origin of the Jewish synagogue is not known for certain, but scholars generally date its beginning during the Babylonian exile. Pious Jews, far from their native land, without the ministry of the Temple, no doubt felt the necessity to gather on the Sabbath in order to listen to the word of God and engage in prayer (cf. Ps 137; Jer 29:7; Ezek 14:1; 20:1; Acts 16:13). Eventually meetings came also to be held on other days, and at the same hours as the morning and evening services in the Temple. According to the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 B.C. - A.D. 50) synagogues were houses of prayer and schools of wisdom (On the Life of Moses , 39).
As Jews emigrated west synagogues followed. In any community where at least ten Jewish men lived, the Jews would meet together for study and prayer and eventually build a sanctuary (Heb. shul) for their meetings. In Israel where the Sadducees exercised supervision over the temple, Pharisees supervised the learning of Torah in the synagogue. By the first century, synagogues, especially in the Diaspora, emerged as the central institution of Jewish life as a place where study, worship, exhortation, celebration, and various other kinds of meetings take place. Ceremonies were conducted in full view of the participants, with the masses of people no longer being relegated to outer courtyards, as was the case in the Jerusalem Temple (OCB 722).
Moseley, citing the Jerusalem Talmud (Meg. 3:1; Ket. 105a; Sot. 7:7, 8; Yom. 7:1) says there were between 394 and 400 synagogues in Jerusalem during the first century (8), although one might infer from the Babylonian Talmud that the number 394 was the sum total of synagogues, houses of study and schools in Jerusalem (Ket. 105a). There were certainly many synagogues, especially in each quarter of foreign Jews residing in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2:5, 9-11; 6:9) (Jeremias 62). Jacob's reference to the Messianic synagogue (Jas 2:2) indicated a congregation of believers in Yeshua, predominantly Jewish, expressing their New Covenant faith in a way retaining most or all of the prayers, customs and style of non-Messianic synagogues.
Paul spent a great amount of time teaching in synagogues (Acts 13:5, 14-15, 43; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19, 26; 19:8). While the word "synagogue" does not appear in his letters, the verb sunagō, which means to bring together in a collective manner (from which "synagogue" is derived) is used a few times. The verb occurs in Acts 14:27 and Acts 20:7-8 of a meeting on the first day of the week that Paul led. Paul also uses the verb one time of being assembled in a congregational meeting (1Cor 5:4). The use of the verb hints at the fact that when believing Jews separated themselves from unbelieving Jews they in effect formed Messianic synagogues.
The most common term used in the Besekh letters for organized followers of Yeshua is the Greek word ekklēsia, commonly translated in Christian Bibles as "church." The word ekklēsia means assembly, gathering, meeting, or congregation, and the term is used for both local congregations in cities or territories (Rom 16:1; 1Cor 1:2; 16:19; 2Cor 1:1; Gal 1:2, 22; Php 4:15; Col 4:15; 1Th 1:1; 2Th 1:1; Phm 1:2; Jas 5:14; 3Jn 1:6, 9, 10; Rev 1:4, 11, 20; 2:1, 7, 11, 17, 23; 3:1, 6, 13, 22; 22:16) and the universal Body of Messiah (1Cor 10:32; Gal 1:13; Eph 1:22; 5:25; Heb 12:23). It's noteworthy that ekklēsia does not appear in 2 Timothy, the letters of Peter, the first two letters of John nor Jude.
The popular interpretation of ekklēsia as "called out ones" is based on etymology and not usage, and thus has little value in understanding the word in its biblical context. In the LXX ekklēsia renders the Heb. qahal (DNTT 1:292-295), which means assembly, convocation, or congregation (BDB 874). In the Tanakh qahal denotes the people of God in a corporate sense, often in the context of being gathered for worship or instruction (Deut 4:10; 31:30; Ps 35:18). When Paul used ekklēsia he most likely intended the meaning of the familiar Hebrew word. Paul was certainly not thinking of a later ecclesiastical organization with hierarchy centered in Rome or in any other Gentile city.
The English translation of "church" was first introduced in the Wycliffe Bible (1395, "chirche"). The Tyndale Bible (1525), the Miles Coverdale Bible (1535) and the Bishop's Bible (1568) rendered ekklēsia as "congregation," but the Geneva Bible (1587) returned to the word "church" and from that time this has been the word used in Christian English Bibles. As the instructions of King James to the translators of the 1611 KJV show, the reason for using "church" was to maintain the ecclesiastical language of Christianity. The English word "church" comes from the Old English cirice, circe "church, a public place of worship for Christians (Online Etymology Dictionary). In English usage the term does not denote a place of worship where Jews are gathered.
"Church" is not an accurate translation of ekklēsia, but the decision to use it created a permanent wedge between Christianity and its Jewish roots. Everywhere in the apostolic writings ekklēsia refers to either the entire Body of the Messiah, the sum total of the Jewish and Gentile believers in a particular city, or the disciples meeting together in someone's home. Most importantly, the term emphasizes a spiritual bond based on common trust in the God of Israel and His Messiah. The congregation is the place where the gifts of the Holy Spirit find expression and fulfill their function of edifying fellow members.
By the first century A.D. there were numerous Jewish settlements in Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy and the islands of the Aegean, that had resulted from emigration (sometimes voluntary and sometimes forced) from Babylon (Tarn & Griffith 219). Josephus reported that "the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers" (Ant. XI, 5:2). All of these settlements became the starting point for the apostles to proclaim the fulfillment of prophetic promises, since the Good News was for the Judean Jew first (Acts 1:8; Rom 1:16).
The Besekh provides several clues to the strength of the Jewish membership in the early Messianic congregations. However, the population of Messianic Jews at the time of Paul's letters was quite large. Luke provides a specific census when Paul came to Jerusalem and Jacob reported that there were "many tens of thousands" of Jewish disciples (Acts 21:20; CJB, CEV, MW). The CJB translates Grk. Ioudaiois as "Judeans" in the verse instead of "Jews" to assign the census to the local population. The Greek word in the verse for the number is muriades, the plural form of murias, which in ordinary usage equaled 10,000 (BAG). Idiomatically, then, the plural form can refer to a very great number, tens of thousands (Rienecker 1:321). Christian Bibles generally diminish the number with "thousands."
The census of Messianic Jews is directly related to the large population of Jews in the world. Josephus, the Jewish historian, reported that "the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers" (Ant. XI, 5:2). Josephus also quotes the Greek geographer Strabo as saying: "It is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that has not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them" (Ant. XIV, 7:2). To extrapolate a worldwide Messianic Jewish population at this time can be only a guess, but consider this census data.
An article on "Population" in Encyclopedia Judaica states that a census of Jews taken by Emperor Claudius in A.D. 48 found no less than 6,944,000 Jews within the confines of the empire and that shortly before the fall of Jerusalem the world Jewish population exceeded 8,000,000, of whom probably not more than 2,350,000–2,500,000 lived in the land of Israel. The article also notes that Jews in Alexandria constituted some 40% of the 500,000–1,000,000 inhabitants. Thus the Jewish community in Alexandria numbered 200,000–400,000 and the Jerusalem community "may well have been smaller" (Stern 300). Stern in his commentary on Acts 21:20 explains the significance of the census combined with the meaning of the Greek word muriades.
"What proportion of the Jews of Jerusalem were Messianic? The word "muriades" in this verse, if taken literally, necessarily means at least 20,000 Messianic Jews. Twenty thousand, the minimum number of Messianic Jews, is 5% of 400,000, the maximum population of the city. Thus at least 5% of the Jews of Jerusalem were Messianic. If we carry this exercise in mathematical logic one step further and assume that 5% of the world Jewish population was Messianic, we can deduce that there were at least 400,000 Messianic Jews alive in the world before the fall of Jerusalem.
"Moreover, archeological data yield much lower figures for city populations. Magen Broshi, curator of Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, estimates the city’s population at the end of King Herod the Great’s rule at 40,000, and before the destruction of the Second Temple at 80,000; these figures do not include the "suburbs" outside the city walls ("Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem," pp. 10–15 in Biblical Archeology Review 4:2, 1978). If there were 80,000 Jews and 20,000 Messianic Jews, the Messianics constituted a quarter of the city’s population! … But there were many muriades, which must mean more than the minimum of 20,000. There could have been 30,000, 50,000 or more Messianic Jews in Jerusalem when Sha’ul arrived. In this case the world figure could well approach the million mark." (301)
If muriades is not taken literally, then nothing can be deduced about Messianic Jewish population in the first century. The assumption of superior Gentile numbers in early congregations has no biblical or historical evidence to support it. While the Besekh provides no data on congregational membership, the record of Acts is that the Good News went first to the Jews (i.e., "Judeans"), according to Yeshua's commission, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Galilee and synagogues of the Diaspora. Gentiles who responded to the message of salvation were either proselytes or worshippers at synagogues. Then, when the number of Hellenistic Jews (mislabeled as "Greeks" in Bibles) is considered the membership of Messianic congregations in the apostolic era was primarily Jewish.
As Stern insists, the burden of proof falls on those wanting to discount the literal meaning of the census in Acts 21:20. Luke clearly employs numbers literally when describing the size of the Messianic Community and uses nonnumerical terminology when speaking less precisely about its growth (Acts 2:41). The word muriades can be satisfactorily rendered "tens of thousands" everywhere it occurs in the plural form (Luke 12:1; Acts 19:19; Heb 12:22; Jude 1:14; Rev 5:11; 9:16).
Christianity has ignored Paul's own testimony about his group affiliation. He did not deny the charge of Judean Jews that he was a "ringleader" of the Nazarenes, but declared, "I worship the God of our fathers in accordance with the Way (which they call a sect). I continue to believe everything that accords with the Torah and everything written in the Prophets" (Acts 24:14 CJB). So, again we may say with confidence that Paul's faith community was very Jewish.
Various descriptive terms are used for members of the congregations in the apostolic era.
The first and most frequent term used to describe followers of Yeshua is "disciple" (Grk. mathētēs). The label occurs over 260 times and only in the apostolic narratives. The term means one who learns through instruction from a teacher. The noun mathētēs corresponds to the Heb. talmid, which in the first century referred to a devoted pupil of a Torah scholar. Being a disciple of Yeshua required four particular qualities: sacrifice, commitment, humility and obedience. In the biographies of Yeshua "disciple" refers primarily to the twelve apostles Yeshua chose, but in Acts the term occurs 30 times for an individual or groups of followers of Yeshua in various localities. Yeshua had commanded his apostles to "make disciples" (Matt 28:19), and they were highly successful in that enterprise. While mathētēs does not occur in the apostolic letters the concept is implied in the many exhortations to learn from Yeshua's example and the instructions of Scripture.
The second most frequent term for Yeshua followers is "brethren," which occurs 103 times in Paul's letters, 17 times in James, 3 times in Peter's letters, 16 times in John's letters, once in Jude and 5 times in Revelation. The Greek word adelphos, lit. "of the same womb," in secular Greek meant "brother or male sibling." Adelphos primarily refers to blood siblings or fellow Israelites. In the LXX adelphos renders Heb. ach, a male sibling, whether of mother or father (first in Gen 4:2), a blood relative (Gen 13:8), member of the same tribe (Num 16:10), and members of the same people group that share the same ancestor (Gen 9:5; Ex 2:11). Usage in the Besekh has the same range of meaning as the Hebrew ach. So adelphos primarily refers to blood siblings, relatives or fellow descendants of Jacob (Matt 4:18; 5:22-24; Mark 3:22; Acts 1:14; 3:22; 7:13; 1Cor 1:1; 2Pet 3:15). In the apostolic letters adelphos, often in the plural, also has the added spiritual meaning of a fellow disciple of Yeshua (e.g. Rom 14:15; 1Cor 3:1; 8:11; Gal 1:2; Php 2:25; 1Th 2:3; 3:6, 22; Heb 2:11; 3:1; 10:19; Jas 2:1; 4:11; 1Pet 5:12; 2Pet 1:10).
Generally Christian interpreters treat the plural adelphos in the epistles as equivalent to "fellow Christians," which would include Gentiles. After all Yeshua had said, "whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother" (Matt 12:50). However, Yeshua said those words in a Jewish context and meant those words in reference to his Jewish audience. The use of the plural adelphos in fact hints at the primarily Jewish constituency of congregations. In Paul's ministry the use of "brothers" may have held a progressive meaning for Paul as a Pharisee. Given that Judean Jews would never call Hellenistic Jews "brethren," Paul's graciousness toward Hellenized and Hellenistic Jews is remarkable. Also, Paul's use of "brethren" toward those whom he had formerly persecuted indicates how far Messianic believers had come in accepting him.
The second most frequent term is a Jewish expression "holy ones," occurring 41 times in Paul's letters, once in Jude and 13 times in Revelation. The Greek term is an adjective hagioi, pl. of hagios, which means set apart for dedication to the interests or expectations of God and therefore holy or sacred (Danker). The hagios word-group translates the Heb. qadôsh, "holy," and its derivatives (DNTT 2:224), which means to be separated from what is common, unclean or contrary to God’s holiness. In the Tanakh the term is used for the nation of Israel as the people of God (Deut 7:6; Job 15:15; Ps 16:3; 34:9; 89:5, 7; Dan 7:18, 21-22, 25, 27; 8:24; Zech 14:5). The label originated when God called Israel to be a people consecrated to worship and obey Him. The term succeeds in having a corporate meaning as well as an individual meaning.
In later Jewish literature the plural hagioi is used for the Jerusalem priestly community (1Macc 1:46; 3Macc 2:2, 21; Tobit 12:15) and members of the Hasideans, forerunners of the Pharisees (1Macc 7:17). The "holy ones" were noted for their faithfulness to Torah-observance and willingness to suffer martyrdom. The community of Qumran described itself as "the holy ones of His people" (1QM 6:6), "we, your holy people" (1QM 14:12), "separate from the session of perverse men" (1QS 8:13) and the "Yahad [unity] of Holiness" (1QS 8:21) (TDSS). In 1QS 8:21 the Essenes defined the Yahad of Holiness as those who walk blamelessly as God commanded. Paul addressed some of his congregational letters to the "holy ones." (Eph 1:1; Php 1:1; Col 1:1) and in other letters he refers to members of the Body of Messiah as "holy ones" (Rom 16:15; 1Cor 14:33; 2Cor 13:13; Eph 3:8; Php 4:21; Phm 1:5; Heb 13:24). These congregations were well acquainted with the LXX and the usage of hagioi for the holy ones of Israel would have significant meaning for the Jews in the congregation.
The "'holy one" shares a likeness of nature with Yeshua, but apostolic usage never intended the label of "holy ones" in any elitist sense. The historical restriction of "saint," from the Latin sanctus, in Christianity to designate only the apostles and later Christian leaders acclaimed for their ministry and miracles is unfortunate and misleading as to the meaning of the term in Scripture. In fact, the word "saint" is so associated with its usage in Christianity, that it has lost all its Jewish significance in the English language. When a Christian reads "saints" in his Bible he naturally thinks "Christians," however it is defined in his denomination.
The true "holy ones" are those who have accepted the truth of the Good News of the Messiah, repented of their sins, put their trust in the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua for their sins and separated themselves to be faithful to their Lord (Col 1:2). Being a "holy one" is a high level of devotion to which all disciples are called (Rom 1:7; 1Cor 1:2; Eph 1:18). The "holy ones" are those who are wholly His and who seek to live by His Torah standards (Eph 5:3-16; Rev 12:17; 14:12).
The "holy ones" comprehend the full measure of the love of God in Messiah (Eph 3:18-19). The "holy ones" are to receive prayer support in the Body of Messiah (Eph 6:18). The "holy ones" care for the needy within the Body of Messiah (Rom 12:13; 16:2). The "holy ones" are fit to hear and decide disputes between believers (1Cor 6:1). The "holy ones" are bold intercessors so that their prayers are remembered in Heaven (Rev 5:8; 8:3-4). It is the "holy ones" for whom the Spirit intercedes according to the will of the Father (Rom 8:27). In the last days the holy ones, like the heroes of the Maccabean era, faithfully obey the commandments of God and remain loyal to Yeshua in the face of death (Rev 12:17; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6).
The "holy ones" certainly includes Gentile believers who have been grafted into the Jewish root and made members of the Commonwealth of Israel (Acts 15; Romans 11; Ephesians 2), but the term is used in a number of passages that only Jewish people can be intended (Matt 27:52; Acts 9:13, 32, 41; Jude 1:3). Paul also uses "holy ones" to refer to Messianic Jews, whether Messianic Jews in Judea and Jerusalem (Acts 26:10; Rom 15:25-26, 31; 1Cor 16:1; 2Cor 8:4; 9:1, 12) or Messianic Jews as distinguished from non-Jews (Eph 2:11-20; 3:8, 18; Col 1:26; Heb 6:10; 13:24). It is probably in regard to the offering raised to support Messianic Jews in Judea in a time of famine that Paul compliments letter recipients for their "love for the holy ones" (Eph 1:15; Col 1:4; Phm 1:5; Heb 6:10). Sometimes Paul refers to the "holy ones" in such a way that a separate group seems to be intended (2Cor 1:2; Eph 1:15; 2Th 1:10). Noteworthy is that Paul does not use the word "disciples" in his letters, which Luke does use in his narratives of Paul's journeys.
Another important term is "beloved," Grk. agapētos, which means held in affection, esteemed, dear. The adjective over 25 times in Paul's letters, 3 times in James, 8 times in Peter's letters, 10 times in John's letters and 3 times in Jude. The adjective is drawn from the verb agapaō, which means to have such an interest in another that one wishes to contribute to the other's well-being, even if it means making a personal sacrifice to do so. Those labeled agapētos are beloved of God (Rom 1:7; Eph 5:1), especially the Jewish people (Rom 11:28). The adjective is often used in direct address, usually to the group followed by an exhortation (Rom 12:19; 1Cor 10:14; 15:58; 2Cor 7:1; 12:19; Php 2:12; 4:1; Heb 6:9). The term is also used many times to describe personal affection for individuals (Rom 16:5, 8, 9, 12; 1Cor 4:17; Eph 6:21; Col 1:7; 4:9, 14; 1Th 2:8; 2Tim 1:2; Phm 1:1, 16; 2Pet 3:15; 3Jn 1:1).
Modern believers often refer to members of congregations in the apostolic era as "Christians" and generally think of Christians as Gentiles in contrast to Jews. The label (Grk. Christianos; pl. Christianoi) occurs only three times in the Besekh, but it is used in a Jewish context. The descriptive noun, first appearing in Acts 11:26, was probably coined by Paul during his ministry with Barnabas among Hellenistic Jews in Antioch. Those who accepted the message of the Messiah Paul gathered and taught and then called Christianoi. The noun Christianoi ("Christians") corresponds to the Heb. M'shichim (Messianics), lit. "anointed ones." Thus, the label not only says something about whom they follow, but something about themselves as well. Indeed, the universal experience of the ones who followed Yeshua is their anointing with the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 4:27; 10:28; 2Cor 1:21; 1Jn 2:27).
In Acts 26:28 King Agrippa used the term Christianos with the apostle Paul who was on trial, demonstrating its cultural acceptance as a useful label for devotees of the one called Christos or Messiah who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. The last occurrence of Christianos is in 1Peter 4:16. For Peter a Christianos is someone who serves in the name of the Messiah, but then he then adds the dimension of suffering. Two important facts need to be considered, one from the biblical context, that Peter's letter was written to Messianic Jews, and the other from the historical context, that the suffering mentioned was caused by unbelieving Jews. For a complete explanation of the biblical meaning of Christianos see my article What is a Christian?
Ant.: Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.), Antiquities of the Jews. Online.
BAG: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Barker: William P. Barker, Everyone In the Bible. Fleming H. Revell Co., 1966.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981. Online.
Bruce: F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1954. (NICNT)
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.
Flusser: David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, Adama Books, 1987.
HBD: Holman Bible Dictionary. Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1991.
Jeremias: Joichim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Fortress Press, 1975.
LSJ: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Rev. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. Clarendon Press, 1940. Online.
Miller: David M. Miller, The Meaning of Ioudaios and its Relationship to Other Group Labels in Ancient 'Judaism.' Currents in Biblical Research 9:98-126, September 2010. Online.
Moseley: Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. Lederer Books, 1996.
Mounce: William D. Mounce, Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. 2011. Online.
OCB: The Oxford Companion to the Bible. ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Schurer: Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. 4 vols. trans. Peter Christie. T&T Clark, 1885.
Shulam: Joseph Shulam, A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans. Lederer Books, 1997.
Skarsaune: Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Tarn & Griffith: Sir William Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization. 3rd Edition. Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1952.
TDSS: The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. Rev. ed. Trans. Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr. and Edward Cook. HarperOne, 2005.
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