Hebrew        'Jews and Greeks'        Hellenists  Grecians     Greeks            hellEnistEs   hellEn 

An examination of commonly held views with a re-appraisal of ACTS ch.15, based on a scrutiny of associated scriptures.


Antioch --- that ancient metropolis of Syria --- will always be recollected by the student of the New Testament as that place where the disciples were first called "Christians".  It has not been generally appreciated, however, that this same city was also the first -centre where an uncircumcised people came under, and responded to , the proclamation of the gospel of the Grace of God.   This fact emerges from a close study of the history of the Acts Period, and its implications concern not only the Council of Jerusalem but have a bearing on the character of those churches coming under the teaching of the Apostle Paul during his earlier ministry.

In Samaria the active evangelical work began at about the same time as that in Antioch.  But the Samaritans, with their adherence to the tradition of the Pentateuch, would most likely have practised the rite of circumcision --- a probability supported by the absence of any record of censure by Judaean circumcisionists. As to Antioch, and the earliest evangelisation of the Greeks as well as Jews there, it is stated in Acts 11:20-21 concerning this preaching by "men of Cyprus  and Cyrene" that "a great number that believed turned to The Lord" [i.e. 'returned to Jehovah' Greek: epitrepsen]

To the church in Jerusalem the report from Antioch about the Greeks, evidently was considered to be unprecedented, as certainly it was. Thus it came about that that notable Levite of Cyprus, Barnabas, was commissioned to go to Antioch to investigate. Whether he reported back then to Jerusalem we are not told, but it seems that he almost immediately enlisted the active help of the then recently converted Saul of Tarsus to labour with him in this new field.

In process of time, therefore, it could be recorded that "there were at Antioch ----- prophets and teachers, Barnabas and Symeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen the foster brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul" Acts 13:1.  The precedence over Saul here of the first four may indicate their longer experience in ministry; for Symeon, Lucius and Manaen could well have been those pioneers from Cyprus and Cyrene who first spoke to the Greeks.   The linking of Symeon with Barnabas may mark him out as a fellow Cyprist; or perhaps his surname, Niger, suggests an association with North Africa, where Cyrene was. [and still is, though now spelled Cirene].  

It is fairly certain that the martyrdom of Stephen occurred in 36ad; for in that year Pontius Pilate was recalled to Rome, leaving the way open for the Jewish leaders to disregard the prohibition against their putting anyone to death  which had been imposed in 30ad.  By this reckoning the evangelising of the Jews and the Greeks at Antioch began possibly in 37ad, at around the same time that the Samaritans were being evangelised by Philip, he being no doubt the Hellenist ex-deacon who would have been obliged to flee from Jerusalem, rather than the Apostle [for it appears that the 'twelve' were not molested at this time, due probably to a directive of the Sanhedrin under the influence of Gamaliel].

It was, therefore, probably some eleven years after the work in Antioch began, being "no little time" after the return of Barnabas and Saul from their only joint missionary tour around 48ad, that certain believing Pharisees came to Antioch and introduced dissention by teaching that the non-Jewish disciples must be circumcised for salvation. Much controversy developed over this proposition, which was strongly resisted by Paul and Barnabas, so it was arranged that they and "certain others of them" from Antioch should go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders "about this question"; Acts 15:2.

Although the sending of this delegation appeared to be yielding ground to the Judaisers, Paul asserts that he, at least, "went up by revelation" taking Titus, Gal 2:1. So Titus evidently was one of those "certain others" who with Paul and Barnabas went up from Antioch to Jerusalem, and doubtless was presented as a typical uncircumcised believing Greek.

At Jerusalem it appears that the 'council' meeting was preceded by a general public hearing at which, according to Cunnington's translation of the Western readings from Codex Bezoe[ms. D],  "They that charged them to go up to the elders, namely, some of the Pharisee's sect who had accepted the faith, rose up saying that it was necessary to circumcise and to keep the law of Moses", Acts 15:5.  Also before the convening of the Council meeting it seems that Paul had a private session with those of repute to explain his 'gospel', Gal 2:2, a probability supported by the brevity of the statements of both James and Peter at the final meeting.

Doubts were expressed by some that the visit to Jerusalem which Paul mentions in Galations can refer to this so-called council of Jerusalem. Yet reflection on the brief account in Acts ch.15 does suggest the probability of details similar to those given in Galations chapter two, especially that of a prior private meeting with some apostles and elders. Only such an event would explain the obviously already settled dispositions of both Peter and James in the midst of the contentious atmosphere of the council meeting; and a pre-arranged plan of procedure appears to have been agreed upon, judging from their short speeches which respectively introduced and closed the reports of Barnabas and Paul.

When the time arrived for the council to meet, "the apostles and elders gathered together to consider this matter".  Then "after there had been a long discussion", Peter stood up and briefly reminded them of his own experience in earlier days when Cornelius and his associates received Divine approval by the evident gift of the Holy Spirit. This, suggested Peter, demonstrated that, whether for those who were Jews or for those of the nations, salvation was by grace alone and not conditional upon the rites of the Law.  Peter had wisely selected his moment; for the debaters were silenced and the assembly then listened attentively while Paul and Barnabas "rehearsing what signs and wonders had accompanied their ministry among the nations, these being evidence of the Divine approbation of the work. Just as Peter had made a summary statement on behalf of the 'apostles', so it was for James to sum up as representing the 'elders' --- for doubtless this was the brother of Jude, the son of Zebedee having been slain by Herod a few years before. James stated that Symeon "has narrated how God first looked to take out of the nations a people for His Name", Acts 15:14[Bowes], and that this was in concord with the prophets he quotes. 

The generally accepted view is that in referring to Simeon, James meant Simon Peter; for the latter had spoken about his being sent to certain of the nations in the early days. But this is refuted by the following arguments: 

[a] Peter's credentials among those present were so established, and his Caesarean ministry so acceptable, that he was able to temper the proceedings by referring to these earlier events. The controversy was clearly not about the settled issue of Cornelius. So James, who was not even an apostle, was unlikely to be bringing forward scripture references to support Peter, who was not in need of it. Yet James was certainly boosting the case previously made out by one named Symeon; 

[b] The few sentences expressed by Peter cannot justly be described as 'narrating', 'rehearsing', recounting or unfolding, any one of which might suitably translate exEgeomai [Eng: 'fully told'], the Greek word used by James here and of Paul and Barnabas in verse 12;

[c] The blessings of Cornelius and his friends through Peter's ministry does not merit the description of God visiting to take out of nations a people for His Name, especially as extension of this work never took place among the Roman garrison or elsewhere; 

[d] No unambiguous instance can be shown in the N.T. where Peter is ever called Symeon. In the third edition of his New Testament in Modern Speech, Weymouth has a note to the effect that the two names have different derivations. Symeon or Simeon is a Hebrew name in Greek form. Simon is a purely Greek name used by the classical writers as early as the fourth century BCE. That the two names are to be distinguished is exemplified in the Apocrypha[RV] relative to the family of Judas Maccabeus; for though his great grandfather was Symeon, his brother was called Simon[Macc 2:2 RV]

[e] When Paul was doubly named by The Lord, it was in Hebrew Acts 26:14. If Simeon had been Peter's Hebrew name, as alleged, would not he too have been named instead of 'Simon, Simon'? Luke 22:31. Why is not the Hebrew 'bar-jona' preceded by Simion ? Matt 16:17. 

Now though the description of "rehearsing" or "unfolding", i.e. not applicable to the brief observations of Peter, it could be applied to Barnabas; for he with Paul; certainly had rehearsed at Jerusalem, in Samaria and in Phoenicia the good response of the work among the nations from which he was acquainted from its beginnings at Antioch. Acts 15:3,4 & 12. But there were those whose knowledge of the first evangelising of the Greeks at Antioch predated that even of Barnabas, namely those "men of Cyprus and Cyrene" who began it. If any of these were still in Antioch at the time they would have been obvious persons to include among those "certain others of them" who travelled up to Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas. Such men are named in Acts 13:1; and here we see Symeon Niger --- a man whose presence in the delegation is compatible with every Scriptural statement and most probable on account of his pioneer ministry in Antioch.

Luke, of course, compiled his treatise mainly for theophilus, so often did not mention names or incidents not relevant to his purpose. For instance he does not mention the deducible fact that John Mark returned with the party to Antioch after the council was over. So that Luke's omitting to state that Symeon Niger went up to the Council of Jerusalem does not invalidate the real likelihood that he was there and that it was he to whom James alluded.

Those to whom the "men of Cyprus and Cyrene" spoke in Acts 11:20 are called Greeks[hellEn] as read in the R.V. and several other versions. But in the Authorised Version and many others the verse has Hellenists or Grecians [hellEnistEs]. This is based on a variation in the Greek text, for which there are important manuscripts and reputable editors to support either. But the correct reading is not too difficult for the Bible student to establish from Scripture itself. 

Grecians, or Hellenists, were in every sense Jews but had only limited or no understanding of the Hebrew language, and to accommodate them there were separate synagogues where Greek only was spoken. Other Jews, who had understanding of Hebrew, associated with normal synagogues where that tongue was spoken. These latter are called Hebrews in Acts 6:1 so as to distinguish them from the Greek speaking Jews called Hellenists.

Now the Revised Version in Acts 11:20 reads "Greeks", being supported by the RSV. Weymouth, Cunnington, Moffatt and NIV. That this is correct can be substantiated aside from textual grounds by the following arguments:

[1] Unless these uncircumcised Greeks are here spoken of for the first time, there is no mention in the Acts of their being introduced to the church at Antioch --- the very place which attracted the Pharisaic legalisers attention, and the centre from which Paul and Barnabas received their commission for their wider work among both Jews and Greeks. 

[2]  Most of the Antioch Jews would have been Hellenists, so that no point would be made by stating that some "spoke to the Hellenists also". 

[3]  The evangelising of Hellenists evidently had been taking place in Jerusalem without leading to concern, the dispute, that led to the seven deacons being appointed, having concerned administration, not evangelising. So a repetition at Antioch would not hove aroused exceptional interest at a tine when Pliillip's remarkable work among the Samaritans was going on, nor would it  have justified an investigative visit by Barnabas. 

[4]  As indicated above, the contextual association of Hellenists is not "Jew" but "Hebrew".  But it is Greek that is compared with and set against "Jew"; for out of the 27 occurrences in the NT of "Greek"[hellEn], there are 20 places were "Jew" is associated in the context. 

However, it need not be supposed that the Revisers were influenced by such considerations in deciding that the true text read hellEn, and so ought to he rendered "Greeks". Their decision was likely  to have been based on textual evidence only. The manuscript sources available to the producers of the King James Authorised Version were limited, and they may not deserve censure for employing "Grecians" here; though their word seems to be an innovation, for Wyclif. Tyndale, Cranmer and the Geneva Version had all earlier used "Greeks" in this place. Individual translators, however, are prone to be swayed by things other than textual probability;  and the presumed relevance of 2Peter 1:1 to "Symeon" in Acts 15:14 seems to have influenced quite a few of them. 

It appears that zeal for the Apostle's reputation lies behind the textual --Variant of "Symeon" as-against "Simon" in 2Peter 1.1. The former indeed has the support of the Alexandrinus and-the Sinaiticus Codices but the latter is supported by the equally esteemed Vaticanus Codex, there being many MSS with either reading. "The narrative of Acts 15 probably persuaded the NEB to adopt "Symeon" for 2Peter 1:1. This urge for accommodation is so strong that, in order to achieve uniformity with "Simon" in 2Peter 1:1, the translators of some versions, e.g. Sharpe, Bowes. Darby, Wilson, TEV and NIV exceed their legitimate role and become interpreters, putting "Simon", for "Symeon" in Acts 15 where the Greek text is not in question. The Vulgate even has put "Simon" for Symeon Niger in Acts 13. So it is gratifying that the majority of translations, with the AV, RV, ASV, RSV and NAS, do give what are quite certainly the correct renderings of Symeon (or Simeon) in chapters 13 and 15 of Acts, and of Simon in 2Peter 1:1. 

Now that it has been shown that the Symeon alluded to could not have been Peter, but most probably  was Symeon Niger, the Council of Jerusalem can be approached with a fresh insight. It has been noted that the assembly was brought to its orderly conclusion by the initiation of Peter, followed by the rehearsing of evidence by Paul and Barnabas, and then finally closed by James. But Peter had not opened the entire session; he rose to speak after "much debate" had been going on. In fact it seems that only Peter's brief intervention brought about and permitted the "hearkening to Barnabas and Paul, declaring as many signs and wonders as God did among the nations through them". 

The narrating, rehearsing or recounting by Symeon, to which James alludes, must have occurred during the preceding debate, perhaps even contributing to its agitated atmosphere. That was when he "declared how God at first did look after to take out of the nations a people for His name" Acts 15:14. Young Peter,  many years previously, had been sent to a Roman centurion; but the first time a people from among the nations had received Divine blessing was when the Greeks of Antioch responded to the evangelising by the "men of Cyprus and Cyrene", more. than a decade before that Council met. Evidently Symeon, with the expository skill for which Hellenists were renowned and which he had used in Antioch, Phoenicia and Samaria already, had presented the Scriptures with such telling effect --- showing how God was taking out of the nations "a people for His Name" --- that the Pharisaic element was aroused, if not to an uproar, then certainly to "keen controversy", as Moffatt has it.

So adequately had Symeon established his case from the inspired writings that Peter sees no need to explain, as on a previous occasion, that "this is that which hath been spoken through the prophet". Instead he supports the recounting by Symeon of the first visitation of the nations by instancing how an earlier contentious case involving one of another nation was resolved on the basis of Divinely attested signs. Paul and Barnabas then recount the evidence of the signs and wonders that had testified Divine approval.

By the time James rose to address the assembly there was nothing to add to the line of argument proposed by Peter; for the previous two speakers had shown exhaustively that the Divine seal had been given to their ministry, just as it had been in Peter's own case with Cornelius. James thus limits his comments to the Scriptures, and draws on the context of those passages, which presumably Symeon had advanced, to show their compatibility with the recognised hope of the Jews in the restoration of the Davidic dynasty and the historic House of Judah, from which the Jewish nation mainly traced its origin. Each in their turn, viz. Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James, had vindicated the claims of Symeon  that the blessing of Greeks, first at Antioch and later elsewhere, was a visitation by God to take from "among the nations" a people for His Name.

To be continued *

Maurice Lloyd Glasgow.

* Unfortunately this cannot be, because the author 'died' in 2001.

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