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Today's Study

Acts 8:1: All Were Scattered?

The persecution in Acts 8:1 raises some questions. Didn't a major Jewish leader call for tolerance in Acts 5? And isn't it strange that when the church was persecuted the leaders of the church would be allowed to remain?

More is going on in this passage than meets the eye. Returning to Acts 2:42 and 3:1, we note that the apostles (and the church in general) had been born within Judaism and lived their lives as pious Jews. They attended the temple at the three times of prayer (morning and afternoon sacrifices and again at dusk) and followed the other pious practices of good Jews, such as generous charity. What distinguished them was their belonging to a fellowship that believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, or deliverer, of the people, a fellowship that ate meals together and followed the living direction of this Jesus through the Spirit.

Because they were a growing popular religious movement, they threatened the temple hierarchy (who were not in any way popular). The priestly leaders of this hierarchy in turn arrested and persecuted the apostles (Acts 4:1; 5:17, both of which name the Sadducees as the source of persecution). But in order to convict them before the high court, the Great Sanhedrin, the Sadducees had to convince the Pharisees, who were also part of the court, that the apostles were guilty of some major crime, such as blasphemy. The Pharisees certainly rejected the beliefs of the church, for they were a fellowship still awaiting the appearance of the Messiah, believing that Jesus had been rightly executed for blasphemy. Gamaliel's defense of the apostles in Acts 5:34-39 shows a typical Pharisaic attitude: as long as the Christians are living like pious Jews, there is no need to attack them. Orthopraxis (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right teaching) was the Pharisees' main issue. As they saw it, the church was not doing anything wrong; it was just wrong-headed. The apostles were beaten (perhaps "just for good measure"), but nothing else happened.

In Acts 6 we discover two groups in the church, the original Aramaic-speaking group, among whom were the apostles, and a new group of Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians. This group perhaps began with some of those converted at Pentecost and grew as other pilgrims were converted when they visited the city. Due to their linguistic differences such Jews went to separate synagogues in Jerusalem. Within the church they probably met in separate house churches. Stephen belonged to this Greek-speaking group.

Stephen was arrested for "speaking against [the] holy place and against the law" (Acts 6:13). In his defense he argued that Israel had at every turn rejected God and his messengers, including Moses and especially Jesus. He also argued that the temple was not where God lived, but was another example of Jewish disobedience (Acts 7:48-50). This was enough to unite the Pharisees with the Sadducees in lynching Stephen, for they saw in this statement the implication that temple worship, one of the pillars of Judaism, was not important. (In fact, another Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian, the author of Hebrews, later argued that the Pharisees' worst fears were in fact true. Jesus had superseded the old system.) Thus Christians do not need to follow Jewish customs. To the Pharisees, this was teaching Jewish-Christians to do something wrong and would lead to the defiling of the nation and the delay of the coming of Messiah; it was far worse than being wrong-headed. One of the leaders in this execution was Saul, a Pharisee (Acts 7:58; 8:1).

This background explains the persecution. In the eyes of the authorities the Greek-speaking Christians (already suspect because they came from outside Palestine and spoke only Greek) were the problem. They were persecuted and scattered, pursued as far as Damascus (Acts 8:1; 9:1-2). But the Aramaic-speaking Christians, including the apostles, were not suspect. Were they not known to be people of exemplary piety, frequently in the temple? The persecutors, principally the Pharisees, did not consider them in the same category as their Greek-speaking brothers and sisters.

Persecution would come to the Aramaic-speaking Christians about a decade later (Acts 12), but even then it would come from Herod, not from the Sanhedrin, and would not be enough to drive them all out of Jerusalem. They would remain until the Romans began to surround the city in the war of A.D. 66-70. In the providence of God, then, the Greek-speakers, linguistically and culturally equipped to fit into other areas from which many of them had originally come, were scattered to bring the gospel to the Roman world. At the same time the core of the church remained in Jerusalem to carry on the Jewish-Christian mission in the very heart of Judaism.