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Discrimination and the Seven Servants

William Still, in his sermon on Acts 6:1-7, mentioned that the problem of the discrimination against the Greek speaking Jewish widows by the Hebrew speaking Jewish widows was met by the choosing of the seven wise men, all of whom had names with Greek etymological derivations. He made the fascinating observation:

The seven may have been the most spiritual men in the fellowship, and therefore they might have been expected to be the most fair minded, but they had all of them Greek names. This doesn't necessarily mean that they were all Greek speaking Jews, but they probably were. One was even a Gentile convert to Judaism mentioned last, Nicholas from Antioch. But Stephen obviously was the first and most outstanding...These seven were chosen by the church. Were they all chosen because they were all Greek named, and may very well have been Greek speaking? And if so, as the scholars believe, was that a good thing to answer what was likely to have had a degree of bias in it with a bias on the other side? Would the twelve have chosen differently than the whole church?

Thomas Peck, the old Southern Presbyterian theologian, came to a somewhat different conclusion concerning the choosing of seven men who had Greek names. He wrote:

The proposal of the Apostles pleased "the whole mass;" they proceeded to the ballet, and seven men were chosen, all of them "Grecians," if we are to judge by their names. They were intended to silence the murmuring of the "Grecians."  But how about the Hebrews? They must have had their deacons already, else the appointment of the seven Grecians would have given rise to a murmuring of the Hebrews against the Grecians. It would seem then that this is not the record of the origin of the deacon's office; there must have been some such office in the Synagogue, and the deacon, like the elder, passed over into the church without special notice of the transaction.

Derek Thomas comes to a conclusion that is a bit more nuanced still. He suggested:

They all have Greek names. Now, if half of them had Greek names, we wouldn’t say anything about it, but they all have Greek names. And it seems to me...[that] if the problem existed amongst the Hellenistic widows and the Hellenistic party, it looks as though the church said ‘You sort it out amongst yourselves.’ And you know, when somebody’s complaining that they’re not getting enough, how wise a strategy is it to make that person in charge, and to see how difficult the task can actually be. It’s worked on more than one occasion! I just think this is brilliant!

So in light of the different conclusions of these three men, the following questions need to be answered:

1) Did the church meet the bias shown toward the Hebrew speaking widows by choosing seven Greek speaking deacons?

2) If those responsible for the daily distributions were Hebrew speaking men did this fact play into the bais shown? In other words, did the language barrier play a role in the discrimination? Was it unintentional? If so, was the chosing of Greek speaking Jewish men to serve the  Hellenist widows flow out of a pragmatic need to be able to communicate with them.

3) If so, was this wise? Was it as Still suggested a wrong decision to answer bias with bais? Or, was it, as Thomas says, a strategy to show the Hellenists how hard difficult it is to distribute in an impartial manner?

4) Is this the beginning of the deaconate? If not, as Peck suggests, was there already an office of deacons comprised of Hebrew speaking Jewish men? The argument for this conclusion would be built on the fact that there had to be men carrying out the daily distributions that was the basis of the initial complaint.

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