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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

Acts 6

Verses 1-99

6:1 7 . Murmuring about the distribution of the common fund. Measures for allaying it

By the confession of the high-priest himself (Acts 5:28 ) Jerusalem was now filled with the teaching of the Christians, and thus the first step was accomplished in the course which Christ had ordained (1:8) for the publication of the Gospel. Now, therefore, the historian of the Church’s progress turns to deal with other events and different persons, because he has to tell of a persecution which caused Christian missionaries to go forth for the next stage of the work, the spread of the faith through Judæa and Samaria (8:1). The means which God employed for this end are not such as an inventor in the second century would have been likely to hit upon, nor such as any writer who merely desired to magnify the Apostles would have adopted. A system for the more effectual relief of the widows among the congregation is devised, and an outburst of popular rage, causing the death of one of the dispensers of the relief-funds, also disperses the greater part of the Church of Jerusalem. A person who was free to choose (as an inventor would have been) would scarcely have selected one of the seven deacons for the first Christian martyr, and have left the Apostles out of sight, while giving the history of Stephen. The choice of such a writer would have surely fallen upon one of the twelve to be the first to die for the faith.

1 . And in those days ] Better, these . The narrative which follows is closely connected with 5:14, where it is said, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”

when the number of the disciples was multiplied ] Better, was multiplying . The participle is in the present tense, and its meaning should be fully expressed. It was at the time when this sudden increase was in progress that the difficulty arose which led to the murmuring. The numbers of the society increased so rapidly that the superintendence of the relief of the needy claimed the full devotion of the Apostles, and proved in the end more than they could discharge.

there arose a murmuring ] By the readiness with which the Apostles took measures to remedy what was complained of, we may infer that there had been shewn sufficient cause for complaint. This may easily have come to pass without any fault on the part of the twelve, simply from the sudden growth of the number of Christians.

of the Grecians against the Hebrews ] The first-named, who are called in the original Hellenistæ , were either Jews who had been born in countries where Greek was the vernacular, and so did not speak Hebrew, nor join in the Hebrew services of the Jews of the Holy Land, but had synagogues of their own in Jerusalem, or else they were proselytes. In either case they had embraced Christianity as Jews, for as yet the Gospel had been preached to Jews only. That provision was made for a Greek service for the foreign Jews, we may see from T. Jerus. Sotah vii. 1 (Gemara), “Rabbi Levi, the son of Hithah, went to Cæsarea, and heard the voice of the people saying the Shema (the name given to the Hebrew confession ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, Jehovah is one,’ from its first word) in Hellenistic. He desired to prevent them. Rabbi Jose heard of it and was angry, and said, Thus I say, that whosoever does not know how to read it correctly in Hebrew shall not read it at all [in that language], but does his duty [by reading it] in any language which he knows how to speak.”

the Hebrews ] These were the born Jews who lived in the Holy Land and spoke the language which the New Testament calls Hebrew.

because their widows were neglected ] The very persons who, speaking a foreign language and being desolate, would be likely to be overlooked amid the increased number of applications for help.

in the daily ministration ] The original word is the same as that which in 11:29 is rendered relief , and from the class of persons on whose behalf the complaint was made it is clear that it bears the same sense here. This word diakonia has, however, caused the name of deacons to be attached to these officers, whose appointment was at first made that they might have care of and distribute the funds contributed by the rich members for the relief of the needy. We can nevertheless see from St Stephen’s work that the labours of the seven were not confined to these duties alone, for he is a mighty preacher and endued with gifts of the Holy Ghost in the same way as the Apostles. It is deserving of notice that, before we find any special arrangements made for what we now understand by “divine service,” the regulation of the relief of those in need had become so engrossing a part of the duty of the twelve as to have thrust aside in some degree the prayers and ministration of the word, which were especially their charge. In these early days they appear to have acted according to St James’ teaching (1:27), “Pure religion ( θρησκεία ) and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

2 . Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them ] They found that there was cause for the complaint, and at once prepared to provide a remedy. By “the multitude of the disciples” we are not to suppose that an attempt was made to gather every one who in Jerusalem called himself a Christian, but that a large and special meeting was convened, before which the Apostles laid their plan. The funds had been given by various persons, and were for the common relief; it was therefore fit that a change in the distributors should be considered in common.

and said, It is not reason ] The word properly means pleasing , and the idea meant to be conveyed is that it was not meet that the Apostles should leave the higher functions to which they had been specially appointed, and spend their whole time in the business duties to which the present emergency had given rise.

that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables ] Better, “ forsake the word.” The verb in the original is a strong form, and indicates that the whole time of the twelve was being spent on this disbursement.

By tables is meant the bench or counter at which the money was distributed. Both in Hebrew and Greek bankers are “tablers.” Cf. “the tables of the moneychangers” (Matthew 21:12 ).

The word for serve is diakonein , akin to the noun in the previous verse.

3 . Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you ] The word wherefore should according to the best MSS. be but , and the end of the sentence should be “from among you.”

seven men of honest report ] Lit. attested , i.e. well reported of (as 1 Timothy 5:10 ). It is rendered “of good report” below (10:22).

The number seven was no doubt fixed on because that was the number of persons chosen to manage public business in Jewish towns. See Mishna Megillah iii. 1, “The men of the city who dispose of city marketplaces may buy with the price thereof a synagogue, or if they sell a synagogue, they may buy an ark (to keep the Law in), or if they sell an ark, they may buy wrappers (the ornamental and costly covers in which the Law was rolled) for the Law, and if they sell these wrappers they may buy books (i.e. the Prophets and the Hagiographa), and if they sell books they may buy a copy of the Torah, but if they have sold a Torah they may not buy books,” and so on in the contrary order.

On this ordinance it is said, T. B. Megillah 26 a, “Raba says, This is only applicable when the seven good men of the city sell anything in the presence of the men of the city.”

full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom ] The best MSS. omit holy . Read, “full of the Spirit, &c.” They were to be approved both by God and man. Men could judge of their wisdom, and God had in these days shed forth the Spirit on many.

whom we may appoint over this business ] While leaving to the assembled brethren the selection of the men, the Apostles keep some control still with themselves. They certainly would judge best concerning the spiritual fitness of the chosen seven.

4 . But we will give ourselves continually ] The Greek word is used several times in describing the earnest conduct of the disciples. Thus (1:14) “these all continued with one accord in prayer,” and (2:42) “they continued stedfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine.” So 2:46, and St Paul employs it (Romans 12:12 ), “ continuing instant in prayer.”

to prayer, and to the ministry of the word ] Which explains what is meant by “leave the word of God” in v. 2. Here again we have the word diakonia to describe the Apostle’s duty of preaching and teaching. Each office was, if duly performed, a part of the service which was laid upon the whole Church. Cp. Milton, Sonnet xix. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

5 . And the saying pleased the whole multitude ] There was clearly no thought of neglecting any, and when the oversight was known and a remedy proposed all were rejoiced thereat.

and they chose Stephen , &c.] If we may conclude about the men who were chosen from the names they bear, every one of the seven was of the Grecians. The names are all Greek, and such a choice marks the desire of all the Church to put an end to every cause of complaint, and as it were to say, We know that as we should not wilfully overlook a Greek who was in need, so no Greek Christian would of purpose neglect a Hebrew widow, and to shew our trust we choose Greeks to have the whole oversight of this duty.

Of the men who were chosen, except Stephen, we hear in future only of Philip (8:5) as a preacher in Samaria, and he is supposed to be and probably is the same person as “Philip the evangelist” mentioned 21:8.

There is a tradition that Nicolas was the originator of that error of the Nicolaitanes against which St John speaks in such condemnatory terms in the Apocalypse (Revelation 2:6 , Revelation 2:15 ). But even in the early ages of the Church there was much uncertainty about this matter, and there is no trustworthy evidence for connecting this Nicolas with the licentious body whom St John condemns. (See Burton’s Eccl. Hist . p. 364.)

Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch ] Some have thought that, from this description of Nicolas, he was the only proselyte among the seven, but the distinction of such a special addition may have been given to him because he came from Antioch, while the other six were of Jerusalem.

6 . whom they set before the apostles ] That they might confirm, as they had proposed to do, the selection made by the whole congregation.

they laid their hands on them ] As a solemn dedication of them to the work for which they had been chosen. Cf. Numbers 27:18 , Numbers 27:23 .

7 . And the word of God increased ] i.e. was more widely spread now that the Apostles were freed from secular cares, and left to give themselves unto the ministry of the word. (Cp. for the expression 12:24, 19:20.)

a great company of the priests ] To these men the sacrifice would be greater than to the ordinary Israelite, for they would experience the fullest weight of the hatred against the Christians, and would lose their status and support, as well as their friends. This is no doubt the reason why such special mention is made of them.

were obedient to the faith ] As faith in Christ was the first demand made from those who desired to enter the new communion, it is easy to understand how the Christian religion gained from the earliest times the name of “the Faith.” Cf. 13:8, 14:22, 16:5, 24:24.

8 15 . Of Stephen’s Preaching, Arrest and Accusation

8 . And Stephen, full of faith ] The best MSS. read grace .

and power ] i.e. of working miracles. He at least among the seven appears almost as largely gifted by the Holy Ghost, as were the twelve.

9 . Then there arose certain ] It is better to render the connecting particle But , it is no note of time.

of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines ] Lit. of them that were of the synagogue called , &c. The number of synagogues in Jerusalem was very great. The Libertines were most likely the children of some Jews who had been carried captive to Rome by Pompey (b.c. 63), and had been made freedmen ( libertini ) by their captors, and after their return to Jerusalem had formed one congregation and used one synagogue specially. There is an interesting illustration of this severance of congregations among the Jews from a like cause in the description of the modern Jewish communities in Malabar and Cochin. It is in a MS. in the Cambridge University Library (Oo. 1. 47) which was written in 1781. “At this time are found in their dwelling-places about forty white householders, and in all the other places are black Jews found, and their forefathers were the slaves of the white Jews, and now the black Jews as found in all the places are about five hundred householders, and they have ten synagogues while the white Jews have only one. And the white Jews dwell all together and their ritual is distinct from that of the black Jews, and they will not count them [the black Jews] among the ten [necessary for forming a congregation] except a few families of them; but if any of the white Jews go to their [the black Jews’] synagogues, they will admit him as one of the ten.”

and Cyrenians ] Read, and of the Cyrenians . On the Jews in Cyrene see 2:10 note.

and Alexandrians ] Read, and of the Alexandrians . There were in Christ’s time, and had been long before, as we learn from the account of the Septuagint translation, Jews resident in Alexandria. In the Talmud we are told that they were very numerous. Thus T. B. Succah 51 b it is said, “Rabbi Jehudah said: He that hath not seen the amphitheatre at Alexandria (apparently used for the Jewish worship) in Egypt has not seen the glory of Israel. They say it was like a great Basilica with gallery above gallery. Sometimes there were in it double the number of those who went out from Egypt, and there were in it seventy-one seats of gold corresponding to the seventy-one members of the great Sanhedrin, each one of them worth not less than twenty-one myriads of talents of gold, and there was a platform of wood in the midst thereof, and the minister of the synagogue stood upon it with flags in his hand, and when the time [in the service] came that they should answer Amen, then he waved with the flag and all the people answered Amen.” In spite of the exaggeration of the numbers in this story we may be certain from it that there was a very large Jewish population in Alexandria, and that they were likely to have a separate synagogue in Jerusalem. For another portion of this story see note on 18:3.

and of them of Cilicia ] Cilicia was at the S.E. corner of Asia Minor. One of its principal towns was Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul, and there were no doubt many other Jews there, descendants of those Jews whom Antiochus the Great introduced into Asia Minor (Joseph. Antiq . xii. 3. 4), two thousand families of whom he placed there as well disposed guardians of the country.

and of Asia ] See note on 2:9.

disputing with Stephen ] The original word is used frequently of the captious questionings of the Pharisees (Mark 8:11 ), and the scribes (Mark 9:14 ), with Jesus and His disciples.

11 . Then they suborned men ] Suborn = to provide, but nearly always used in a bad sense. Subornation of perjury is the legal phrase for procuring a person who will take a false oath.

which said , &c.] The charge here laid against Stephen is afterwards defined. Blasphemous words against Moses and against God Was the construction which these witnesses put upon language which had probably been uttered by Stephen in the same way as Christ had said (John 4:21 ), “The time cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.”

12 . And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes ] of whom the latter two classes had already been exasperated against the Apostles. And now that it was told them that the glory of the Temple was spoken against, the common people would be readily roused, for the Temple was the object of great admiration and pride, as we can see from the words of Christ’s disciples (Matthew 24:1 ).

and came upon him ] As the scribes and Pharisees upon Jesus in the Temple (Luke 20:1 ).

and caught him, and brought him to the council ] A fit prelude to their still more violent proceedings after Stephen’s defence was ended (7:57).

13 . and set up false witnesses which said ] Their falseness consists in the perverted turn which they gave to the words of Stephen. Though we have no words of his hitherto recorded, we can see from the character of his defence in the next chapter that he must have been heard to declare that the worship of God was no longer to be restricted as it had been to the Temple at Jerusalem. And just as in the accusation of Christ (Matthew 26:61 ) the witnesses (called, as here, false, and for a like reason) perverted a saying of Jesus, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” which St John (2:21) explains, into “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days,” so the words of Stephen which spake of a worship now “to be bound to no fixed spot, and fettered by no inflexible externality” (Zeller), were twisted into blasphemy against the Temple and the law, called in v. 11 blasphemy against Moses and against God; and by the use of these two phrases as equivalent the one to the other, they shew us how God and Moses meant for them no more than their Temple and its ritual.

This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words ] The best authorities omit blasphemous .

14 . for we have heard him say ] No doubt there was some handle afforded by Stephen’s words for their statement.

that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place ] What the tenor of Stephen’s language must have been may be gathered from 7:48, “The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” And to Jewish people at this time to sever worship from Jerusalem was the same thing as to destroy the Temple. The attempt which has been made to shew that the charge against Stephen is merely a reproduction of that made against Jesus is seen to be futile when we observe that in Stephen’s case the witnesses know nothing of “the raising up again of the temple,” and that Stephen himself, by not contradicting but explaining their accusation, in his defence points out that their statement had a widely different origin from that which gave cause to the accusation of Jesus.

15 . And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him ] As they would naturally in expectation of what he was about to say in his defence.

saw his face as it had been the face of an angel ] Either because of the calm dignity which Stephen’s natural look displayed; he was calm and undisturbed, confident in his good cause and supported by the Spirit: or as his gaze soon afterwards (7:56) beheld the open heavens and the glory of Christ enthroned on high, it may be that the sense in this verse is also supernatural, and that the face of Stephen was already illumined with the radiancy of the new Jerusalem.

For the expression cp. 7:20 note.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Acts 6". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.