Q: #495. Who were the Hellenists in (Acts 6:1)(Acts 9:29)(Acts 11:20)?
A: When Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.) was attempting to “conquer the world,” he expected the places he conquered to adopt and love the Greek culture. Many Jews were a part of the lands he conquered, and many did indeed choose to adopt the language, customs, and culture of the Greeks. Those Jews (or anyone) who did so were called “Hellenists” (KJV uses “Grecians.” See note at bottom.), which simply means “to adopt the Greek way of life.” Even though they weren’t “born” Greek, they chose to live as Greeks.
On the other hand, there were also Jews who refused to become Hellenists. They chose to keep the Hebrew customs and culture, as their forefathers did. They continued to speak Hebrew / Aramaic, and strictly follow the Torah. Hellenistic Jews did not feel the need to follow the Hebrew way so strictly. They were not as concerned with “keeping the law,” and following the ways of their forefathers. They were more tolerant and open towards Gentiles as well.
As one might expect, these differences often resulted in conflict between the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. Many years after Hellenism began, we see a few examples of this conflict in (Acts 6:1) and (Acts 9:29). However, in (Acts 11:20-21), we see that “a great number (of Hellenists) believed, and turned to the Lord” after hearing the Lord Jesus preached.
It should also be noted, that the beginning and rise of Hellenism occurred during what Christians often call the “Intertestamental Period.” This was the period of time between the events of the Old and New Testament, and is generally considered to be a little over 400 years. They are called the “400 silent years” because there was no prophetic word from God during this time.
However, during this time, as time passed (several generations), many Hellenistic Jews lost their ability to speak or read their native Hebrew language. Partly because of this, King Ptolomy II (after Alexander the Great had died) requested that 70 (possibly 72) Jewish scholars translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. The result of this work was called the Septuagint, the oldest translation of the Old Testament in the world. This translation became very popular, and scholars say that a number of New Testament quotes of the Old Testament were actually taken from the Septuagint. (Of course, the Hebraic Jews chose to use the traditional Old Testament written in Hebrew.)
***UPDATE NOTE: After writing this study, I did an expository study on (Acts Ch. 11). In (Acts 11:19-21)(KJV) we see the following:
“Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. (20) And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians (Hellenists other versions), preaching the Lord Jesus. (21) And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.”
As I mentioned above, “Hellenists” were “Jews” who adopted the Greek way of life after their land had been conquered by the Greeks. “Grecians” on the other hand, were people who were “born Greek.” “Grecians” were “Gentiles,” not Jews. I use the above verses to show this more clearly. In (Acts 11:19), we see that “those who scattered abroad after the persecution (in Jerusalem: see Acts 8:1-4) preached the word to… the Jews only” (Jewish Christians preaching to Jews). In (Acts 11:20), we see that those they preached to were “Hellenists,” which fits with “preaching only to the Jews.” However, if they preached to “Grecians,” as the KJV says, then it would mean that they were preaching to Gentiles instead of Jews. Therefore, I believe the KJV wrongly uses “Grecians” in the verses in Acts.
The Greek words for “Hellenists” (Gr. “Hellenistes” – “a Greek speaking Jew”) and “Grecians” (Gr. “Hellenikos” – “from Hellen, a non-Jew: – Gentile, Greek) are similar, but different. (Definitions from Strong’s Concordance.)