Exegetical Exercise (Acts 6 1-8)

Painting by Carpaccio of the consecration of St Stephen
Consecration of St Stephen (and the other deacons) amongst a crowd of onlookers

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, August 6, is Acts 6:1-8. Here’s the text (Inclusive Bible version), and my notes:

1In those days, as the number of disciples grew, a dispute arose between the Hellenistic Jews and those who spoke Hebrew, that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2The Twelve assembled the community of disciples and said, “It’s not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Look around among your numbers for seven people who are acknowledged to be deeply spiritual and prudent, and we will appoint them to this task. 4This will permit us to concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5The proposal was unanimously accepted by the community. They selected Stephen, full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenias, and Nicolaus of Antioch, who had been a convert to Judaism. 6They were presented to the apostles, who prayed over them and laid hands on them.

7The word of God continued to spread, while at the same time the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased enormously, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

8Stephen was filled with grace and power to work miracles and great signs among the people.

This is one of those texts where the English translations really obscure some things that are going on in the underlying Greek. This version explains in its translation of v1 something that is stressed in various commentaries: that the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews” were two different groups of Jewish believers, who presumably spoke different languages (in today’s world we might say, “at home,” though that might not be precisely accurate for the 1st century). Literally “they began to grumble-mutter-speak in secret-whisper, the Hellenists against the Hebrews” because “they were overlooked” (a verb that is rooted in theoreō, the same word that gives us our English word “theatre,” a place where people look at something …) in the “service of the day” (the diakonia, which as a matter of fact has a specific meaning of tasks related to the preparation and service of food, food-service – it is the verb used to describe what Martha is doing when she is distracted by her many tasks and wants some help from her sister in Luke 10:38-41), “their widows.”

So, whoever is responsible for making this daily “service” happen is not noticing (the theoreō part) the Greek-speaking widows. Maybe – if those days are anything like these days – because they don’t know them as well, maybe because whoever is doing this work are Hebrews and the communication network runs better and quicker among the other Hebrews, so the word gets around better about who needs what, and they just don’t know or think to ask about and so are less aware of “the others” … so then the “Penelope was missed again” remarks and the “Yes, and what does it take to get someone on their ‘list’ anyway” complaints and the miffed parking lot meetings start up … there is a whole church drama and conflict-in-the-making packed into v1.

And then there is the thing about diakonia, which occurs three times in this passage, and is translated in this version “[daily] distribution of food” (v1), “wait [on tables]” (v2) and “ministry [of the word]” (v4). The disciples don’t want to do food service because they want to do word service, which is a different kind of food service.

Once again, because this issue is well-known, we could notice the ways that the English words for translating diakonia have radically different levels of prestige attached to them in our ordinary usage. We don’t normally think of “ministers” in the same category as “wait-staff,” for instance. But it’s just one word being used in all cases. Especially in Greek, which is one of those languages that likes to have about 10 different words for every idea just to capture all the shades of meaning, if the text uses the same word for things we think of as different, that’s something to notice.

The author does seem to be making a point: In v2, diakonia is used really without qualification as to object [but it distinctly implies something to do with literal food]; in v4, the specific object is “tables”; in v7, the specific object is “the word.” But what is the point? Possibly, that there’s service; and then, there’s the question of what specific task(s) it performs? Or, what may be slightly different, that there’s food service, and then, there is not living by bread alone?

There are a lot of people in this short text: disciples (v1, v2, v7), Hellenistic Jews, Hebrew-speaking Jews, the Twelve, the assembly – in v2 with and in v5 without the qualification “of disciples” (literally the “plēthos,” something like “the crowd” or “the full group”), the people with qualifications, 7 named nominees, the Holy Spirit (explicitly attached to Stephen), the apostles (presumably a synonym for the Twelve), and priests. It makes the text feel very crowded. Of course, numbers in the community are increasing.

Maybe “the Twelve” (v2) creates a contrast in emphasis with “the apostles” (v6), who we think are the same people; maybe in v2 “the Twelve” who do the calling of the crowd of disciples are acting as community leaders – trying to head this conflict off at the pass – while in v6 “the apostles” are now more distinctly visible as the ones “sent” to preach and teach, now that this burgeoning and developing community has a little more formal structure and a little more policy.

The Twelve recommend searching for/selecting some people who are “acknowledged” to be (literally, a word related to the word “martyr” – they have witness borne of them to the effect that they are) full of the spirit and of wisdom. Could there be a little foreshadowing of Stephen’s upcoming “witness” here? Stephen is certainly called out specifically in v5 as being an exemplary character who meets the criteria established by the Twelve, and then again in v8 he is “full of grace and power,” and if we already know this story then we know he is going to become the “first martyr” (literally, “witness”) in the next chapter.

The Twelve say they are going to devote themselves to prayer and the service of the word, and then they pray (v6), and use their hands, not for carrying food but for ritually preparing these people who are going to be carrying food, to be “bread for the world” so to speak.

So is it significant that in v7 “priests” are mentioned specifically as people who are part of the multiplication in the number of the disciples? Because “priests” do, literally and concretely, prepare food in the course of their official ritual responsibilities. It just seems that these verses are deliberately calling attention to a complex network of parallels, and distinctions, among food, word (and presumably, Word), service, sacrifice, and the conduct of worship.

Insofar as this is yet another text about “calling,” it seems to be more than just Stephen’s “call narrative.” The Twelve call together all the disciples; the disciples (or, the Nominating Committee?) call the nominees. We recall that the Twelve were called by name earlier in this story, by Christ; now, this crowd (that is increasing sort of the way rising bread increases, and that we might think of as “the body of Christ”) is calling some people by name to pass loaves around …

3 responses to “Exegetical Exercise (Acts 6 1-8)”

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