Melkite Greek Catholic Church
WHEN THE LORD JESUS was passing through the region of Tyre and Sidon a Canaanite woman begged Him to heal her daughter. “But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Matthew 15:24). Although He went to areas where non-Jews were numerous, His call was first and foremost to the Jews. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how, after Pentecost, the disciples of Christ took the Gospel beyond the house of Israel as well.

Aramaic/Hebrew-Speaking Jews

The Apostles’ ministry was extended beyond Galilee and Judaea “because of the persecution that arose over Stephen” (Acts 11:19). Outspoken in his profession of faith in the risen Christ as “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56) before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was stoned to death. The Jewish leaders then tried to exterminate the Jerusalem Christians. “… and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…” (Acts 8:1)

The disciples traveled even further in preaching that Jesus was the Messiah. In Acts 11:19 we read that they went “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” where the Lord Himself had never gone. These regions were not Jewish areas, but they each had Jewish communities, made up chiefly of merchants and dating back hundreds of years before Christ.

When the scattered disciples began preaching Christ in the Jewish communities of Cyprus, Phoenicia and Syria they likely did so in Aramaic. Although Hebrew was the classical language of Israel, it had been replaced as the chief language in everyday speech, especially in Galilee and Samaria, by Aramaic. Hebrew was still spoken in Judea, but in a form influenced by Aramaic.

Who Were the Hellenists?

Since the first disciples of Christ were from Aramaic-speaking Galilee, their ministry consisted in “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them [the disciples] were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:19, 20).

The Hellenists were those Jews who retained their Jewish religious practices but identified with the Hellenic culture of the Roman Empire. Their everyday language was Greek. It was for Hellenists like these that the Scriptures had been translated into Greek, beginning in the third century bc.

Hellenists were, of course prominent in the Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean region, but there was also a Hellenist community in Jerusalem, perhaps started by Jews returning home from the cities of Egypt or Syria. By the time of Christ the Jewish elite, the rulers, the high priests and many of the Sanhedrin had long been Hellenized, often adopting Greek names and other practices. In 2 Maccabees 4:9 we read how the high priest Jason had established a gymnasium in Jerusalem for training in Greek-style games. There were followers of Christ among both the Aramaic-speaking Jews (the “Hebrews”) and their Greek-speaking brethren. But there were often bad feelings between the groups. The apostles had instituted the order of deacons precisely because “there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” of alms (Acts 6:1).

Because the Jerusalem community already contained Hellenists, many commentators contend that it was not the Hellenists or Hellenized Jews (Hellenistas), whom the disciples evangelized in Antioch, but the Hellenas, the Greeks, meaning pagan Greeks who were not members of the Jewish community at all. This was the view of Eastern commentators such as Eusebius, John Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Oecumenius. In addition this is the reading of the Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Vulgate Bibles as well.

This reading is confirmed in Acts 15 which tells of the apostolic council at Jerusalem and the conflict which occasioned it. “And certain men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). If the believers at Antioch were Hellenists (Hellenized Jews) they would have been circumcised already. Clearly these were formerly pagan Greeks who had come to believe in Christ.

Who Were the Proselytes?

The Acts of the Apostles tells of another group among the people who had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11).

Proselytes were Gentiles who had completely accepted Judaism. Once they were circumcised and immersed in a mikvah (ritual bath), they were bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish religion, and were considered full members of the Jewish people. Their religion was Judaism, but not their ethnicity.

The proselytes’ presence in the city at this time was in response to a precept in the Torah which states: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16, 17). One of these feasts is Shavuot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which is observed seven weeks after Passover.

While the Feast of Tabernacles was being celebrated in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Christ. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).

Who Were the “God-fearing”?

Members of another group found a home in the early Church as well. These were the “God-fearing” Gentiles who lived in Israel and observed some of its customs, but were not considered proselytes because they had not accepted to be circumcised. They were not bound the precepts of the Torah but were held to keep the “Noahide Laws,” which godly people observed before the time of Moses. These laws are: Do not deny God.

Do not blaspheme God. Do not murder. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. Do not steal. Do not eat from a live animal. Establish courts/a legal system to ensure obedience to these laws. Gentiles who observed these laws were considered righteous and deserving of a place in the world to come. The centurion at Capernaum whose servant was dying was described by the Jewish elders in this way “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). This practice seems to the basis of how the apostles solved the issue of the formerly pagan Greeks of Antioch. As they wrote to the Antiochians, “The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:23, 28, 29).
ARGUMENTS ABOUT RELIGION are a favorite Middle Eastern pastime. Some are simply talk for talk’s sake: my faith is the oldest, the truest or the best. Sometimes these disagreements have become causes for acrimonious divisions between believers as the number of Jewish, Christian and Muslim factions show. One of the most vehement in the ancient world is mentioned in the Gospel passage about the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42): the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. The division between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to the division of David’s kingdom into northern and southern realms after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, was overrun by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. The South was called Judah and its inhabitants ultimately became known as Jews. The southern kingdom would remain until conquered by Babylon almost 200 years later. The Samaritans claimed that they were the true Israel, descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who survived the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. To this day Samaritans prefer to call themselves Istraelites (the word Samaritan means “Keeper of the Law”).There was reputedly one million of them in the 1st century AD. Only c. 750 remain as a distinct community today. Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. This is why the Samaritan woman responded to Jesus’ request for a drink by saying, “‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Given this relationship, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was especially forceful. Samaritans only accept as Scripture the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah (the Law), rejecting the authority of other sections of the Old Testament (the prophetic/historical books) as well as the Talmud, a principal source of Jewish Tradition. Their text of the Torah differs from that used by the Jews as well. The Samaritans claim that their version of the Torah was the original and that the Jews had a falsified text produced by Ezra during the Babylonian exile. Modern Scripture scholars point to considerable editing of the Jewish Scriptures at that time; perhaps the Samaritans have a point.

Question of the Temple

Both Jews and Samaritans believed that God had a unique dwelling place on earth. It was there that the glory of God was manifested just as it had been to Moses on Mount Sinai. They disagreed, however, on the location of this holy place. Jews looked to Jerusalem, where Solomon had built his temple before the division between northern and southern kingdoms. Samaritan worship was focused on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem (modern Nablus), which they asserted was the original sanctuary, in use since the time of Joshua. This was the place, they believe, where Abraham was commanded by God to offer Isaac, his son, as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). When the Jewish leadership, which had been deported to Babylon in the 6th century BC, were allowed to return, they rebuilt the Jerusalem temple and codified their Scriptures and ritual practices. While in earlier centuries sacrifices were regularly offered in shrines associated with Abraham and other early figures, the newly emergent Jewish leadership insisted that the Jerusalem temple was only legitimate place of sacrifice. In the first half of the 5th century BC the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim and offered sacrifices there. This temple was destroyed in 128 BC by the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus who captured Samaria and enlarged the Jewish kingdom. Samaritans were not associated with the Jewish revolts against the Romans so, while the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 135 AD, the Samaritans were allowed to remain. The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was rebuilt at that time and remained until the 5th century AD when the Samaritans revolted against Rome. They were defeated and barred from Mount Gerizim. Samaritans continued to oppose Rome; they were recognized as a legitimate community under Islam. While they never rebuilt their temple, they still celebrate Passover every year at the “altar of Abraham,” at their ancient temple site.

Christ and the Temple Question

In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman He touched on the issue of the temple. The woman said, “‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…’” (John 4:19-23). Jesus dismissed the importance of a physical temple as necessary to worship God. God’s relationship with mankind was changing. When Jesus was in the Jerusalem temple He made this cryptic announcement: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21). The place of sacrifice would not be in a shrine or a temple; it would be the very body of Christ Himself. Here the one definitive sacrifice would be offered for the forgiveness of the sins of all mankind. While Christ’s earthly body would be the temple of His sacrifice on the cross, His spiritual body, the Church would also share in His role as the new temple of God. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, it is a temple made up of living stones, the first of whom is Christ, the Head of the Body. And so it is as the temple of the Living God that we are reminded, “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Those who are united to Christ in baptism become this holy priesthood whose sacrifice of praise, the Divine Liturgy, whose alms, whose gifts of fasting and other offerings are united to Christ’s own sacrifice. The community of Christians throughout the world is the spiritual house built of living stones and joined to the Precious Stone chosen by God.

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