What was the ministry of the seven men in Acts 6? What precisely did they do? This article looks at three views on what their ministry may have entailed. It looks (1) at the traditional view that they served food, (2) at the view, which I hold, that they served at banking tables, and (3) at what John Collins has discovered by tracking Luke’s use of the word diakonia in the book of Acts.
Waiters or “Bankers”?
In Acts 6:1-7, Luke recounts the story of when the church in Jerusalem chose seven men to minister to the Hellenist widows. The Hellenist widows were Jewish women who spoke Greek and probably held to at least some Hellenist customs. That the seven men spoke Greek is suggested by each of them having a Greek name. These men have been traditionally referred to as the first deacons (diakonoi) of the church, this is despite the fact that Luke never calls them diakonoi. In fact, the word diakonos never occurs in the book of Acts.
It is commonly thought that the Seven functioned as waiters and served meals to the Greek-speaking widows. The NIV, NASB, and NRSV even include the word “food” in their English translations of Acts 6:1, but there is no word for “food” in the Greek text. The Greek simply states that the widows were being overlooked, or neglected, in the daily “ministry” (diakonia). The KJV translates Acts 6:1b literally as: “their widows were neglected in the daily ministration”, but it is unclear in what way the Hellenist widows were neglected.
Communal meals were a regular part of community life in the first-century church, and the church in Jerusalem seems to have had opportunities for daily table fellowship in the early weeks and months, and perhaps years, of its existence (Acts 2:46). Were the Hellenist widows not being served at these gatherings? Danker believes that “it is improbable that some widows would be deprived of food at a communal meal.”
A different scenario to that of serving meals is that the seven men in Acts 6 administered funds, not food, and that they served at banking tables rather than at dining tables. The Greek word trapezai used in Acts 6:2 can refer generally to four-legged tables or specifically to banking tables. Banks are still called trapezai in Greece today!
In the early days of the church some of the richer members were selling their property and bringing the proceeds to the apostles (e.g., Acts 4:32, 37; cf. 2:44–45). This money was then distributed to the poorer people. So, it is plausible that the Seven were distributing money to the Hellenist widows. This idea has credence when we realise that the use and context of the Greek word diakonia in the New Testament shows that it may be used for a ministry of collecting, conveying, and administering funds for charitable purposes (Acts 11:29–30; 12:25; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12–13). Moreover, the early church historian Eusebius wrote that the seven men were chosen eis diakonian huperesias eneka tou koinou, which Paul Maier has translated as: “to administer the common fund.”
Whether the seven men had a charitable ministry of administering funds or a more practical ministry of serving food, their care of the Hellenist widows allowed the apostles to spend more time exercising their ministry (diakonia) of prayer and preaching (Acts 6:1–3).
Or Preachers of the Word?
John N. Collins proposes another ministry for the seven Greek-speaking men. In his book Deacons and the Church, Collins looks closely at how Luke uses cognates of diakonia in Acts. He notes that Luke is “a skilled and sensitive user of Greek [who] shows himself to be totally familiar with all that the diakon– words stood for in the Greek language, religion and culture” and that Luke uses the diakon– words “as code words for the kind of ministry by which the Word of God is to spread from Jerusalem.”
Beginning in Acts chapter 1, Collins shows that Luke, through the mouth of the apostle Peter, referred to the ministry of the Twelve as diakonia twice, in Acts 1:17 and 25, and that this ministry entailed being “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The next instance where Luke uses diakon– words is in chapter 6. In this chapter, the ministry of the Seven and the ministry of the Twelve are both referred to by the exact same word: “diakonia” (Acts 6:1, 4). Collins notes that “Luke then closes the scene of the Seven with the tell-tale phrase, ‘the word of God continues to spread . . .’ (Acts 6:7).” (This “tell-tale phrase” also occurs in Acts 12:24.)
In the seventh chapter of Acts we have “the great preaching event in the brief career of Stephen, one of the Seven” (Acts 7:2–53). Immediately following Stephen’s death, Luke records the mission of Philip, another of the Seven, who took the Word of God to Samaria. Samaria was specifically mentioned by Jesus as one of the stages, after Jerusalem and Judea, of the spread of the Christian mission (Acts 1:8). Luke ends his record of Philip’s ministry with Philip “poised at Caesarea, the port leading to Rome (Acts 8:4–14; 26–40), which is Luke’s ultimate trajectory of the Word.”
In Acts 11:29–30 and 12:25, diakonia is used for the ministry of Barnabas and Saul when they brought financial assistance from Antioch to the church in Jerusalem. Finally, in Acts 20:24 and Acts 21:19, Luke has Paul identifying his mission to the Gentiles using the word diakonia.
Collins summarises his findings on Luke’s “striking pattern of usage” of diakonia in Acts:
At the heart of Luke’s history of the Christian mission then, we have the word diakonia marking the major stages of its progress. In this narrative the term diakonia marks the beginning of the Twelve’s mission (1:17, 25), it is there at their peak in Jerusalem (6:4), it is there to mark Paul’s inclusion in the mission (20:24), and it is there when Paul completes his part of it (21:19).
The diakonia of the Seven was directly instrumental in causing the growth and spread of the Christian mission. Rather than being involved in charitable or practical work, Collins believes that the Seven were involved in preaching, and that the Hellenist widows were being overlooked in the daily ministry of the Word. He explains that, because they were Greek-speaking widows,
. . . they were neither free to attend large gatherings in the temple forecourts nor linguistically equipped to understand what these Aramaic preachers were saying when they returned from the temple to speak in the intimacy of the household (5:42). Accordingly, the Hellenist’s widows were in need of preachers who could teach them in Greek, and preferably at home when Greek-speakers came together at their tables (6:2).
If Collins is correct, this helps to explain why only the Hellenist widows, and not also the Hebraic or Aramaic-speaking widows, were missing out on daily ministry (diakonia) (Acts 6:1).
A Sacred Commission
Collins believes that the first people to read and hear Luke’s history would have related his use of “diakonia” to the usage in other Greek historical and romantic narratives where the word designated a sacred commission of some kind. The church had given the Seven a sacred commission and they seemed well able to fulfil it (Acts 6:3, 6). We are told that the men were full of the Spirit and wisdom; and their preaching and evangelistic abilities, in particular those of Stephen and Philip, far exceed the qualifications for deacons found in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, or the qualifications for many deacons today. Bearing in mind their abilities, Collins states that the Seven were “a new group of preachers”.
While the Seven were active in important ministry, it is unlikely that they held the office of deacon. They were set apart and commissioned with prayer and the laying on of hands, but this did not necessarily denote ordination into an office at this early stage of the church. In Acts 13:2–3, for example, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned for a specific ministry in response to a temporary situation, and were prayed over with the laying on of hands; but Paul and Barnabas were not office holders in the church at that time.
The seven men are never referred to as “deacons” (diakonoi) anywhere in the New Testament. Considering Luke’s care with the language, the fact that he never refers to the Seven as “deacons” (diakonoi) in Acts is significant. Luke may have written Acts sometime between AD 80–90. By the 60s, the word “deacon” (diakonos) was being used as a ministry term in some churches, (e.g., the church in Philippi), yet Luke chose not to use this word for the Seven. Therefore, it is doubtful that they were the first official deacons of the church. However, the long-standing debate continues for some. With or without an official title, the Seven were effective in their sacred ministry which facilitated the spread of the Christian message and mission.
 Diakonos (“deacon”) was Paul’s word for a minister, and he uses it with the sense of “an agent with a sacred commission.” Diakonos never occurs in any New Testament letter other than Paul’s, and it doesn’t occur at all in Luke or Acts, or Revelation. It occurs a few times in the other three Gospels in the context of Christian service (Matt. 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 12:26). Occasionally it is used for actual servants (Matt. 22:13; John 2:5, 9). (See here for every occurrence of diakonos in the New Testament.)
 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 230.
 Danker suggests a play on words in Acts 6:2, “involving ton logon tou theou designating a ledger entry, in which case trapeza, which is also a banker’s term, may here denote accounts.” Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 230.
 Eusebius, The Church History, (Book 2.1.1.) transl. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999), 57.
Arthur Cushman McGiffert, however, translates this phrase as “for the service of the congregation.”Eusebius, Church History, transl. Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250102.htm>
The Greek text was sourced from the Perseus Digital Library: Eusebius, “The Ecclesiastical History”, Vol 1–2 in Eusebius of Caesarea. Editors Kirsopp Lake, J.E.L. Oulton, H.J. Lawlor, William Heinemann (G.P. Putnam’s Press; Harvard University Press: London; New York; Cambridge, Mass.; 1926–1932)
 Today, the role of deacons in some Protestant churches is to attend to charitable acts or practical necessities leaving senior ministers to concentrate on a preaching ministry. However, many deacons in the New Testament and post-apostolic Church functioned as agents, messengers, and emissaries.
 John N. Collins, Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 51.
 Ibid, 52.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 54.
 Ibid, 57.
 Ibid, 57.
 Ibid, 57.
 In Acts 21:8, however, Philip is called an evangelist.
 The continuing debate about whether the Seven were official deacons stretches back hundreds of years. Writing in around AD 180, very much after the fact, Irenaeus states that Stephen (one of the Seven) was chosen by the apostles to be the first deacon. (Against Heresies 3.12.10) Chrysostom, however, writing in the late 300s, states that the Seven were neither deacons nor elders, but ordained for the specific task of ministering to the Hellenist widows (Homily 14 on Acts).
This article is adapted from a chapter entitled “Ministry (Diakonia) in the Book of Acts” from a research paper on “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40–120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea.” Other chapters can be accessed here.
Postscript: August 17 2022
Why were there no women among the Seven?
Someone asked me today why no women are among the seven chosen to minister to the widows in Acts 6. Here’s my reply.
Mary of Jerusalem is the only woman identified who ministered in some way in Jerusalem. However, I think we can imagine that Jesus’s mother, Mary Magdalene, and women like them, were in demand as ministers of some kind. We just don’t know what the women (as well as most of the men) did in Jerusalem ministry-wise. But we do know that Mary of Jerusalem held regular church meetings in her home (Acts 12:12) even though there was a current threat of deadly persecution (Acts 12:1ff).
Cultural factors may have made it more difficult for women to minister as leaders in Jerusalem. It’s as the church expanded north and westward from Jerusalem that more and more women are mentioned as ministers and leaders in New Testament churches. Women had more social freedoms in Rome, as well as in Roman colonies such as Philippi and Corinth, than in eastern provinces of the empire, and this is reflected in the church also.
So, in short, I think the seven Greek-speaking men in Acts 6 were chosen because they were the best people, spiritually and culturally, for the task of ministering to the Greek-speaking widows.
Furthermore, there may have been ministry opportunities and appointments in Jerusalem which included women that are not recorded in Acts because these appointments didn’t further Luke’s intention with his narrative. The choosing of the Seven at the beginning of Acts 6 introduces readers to Stephen, who Luke then focuses on in Acts 6–7, and it introduces Philip, who Luke focuses on in Acts 8.
Luke doesn’t record everything noteworthy that happened in the Jerusalem Church (or elsewhere). His main aim was to show how the message of Jesus spread from Jerusalem and reached Rome. Stephen’s and Philip’s ministries contributed significantly to the geographic spread of the gospel.
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Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons
All my articles on diakonoi and deacons are here.
Tabitha: An Exemplary Disciple
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders
Likewise women … likewise husbands
Paul’s Greeting – Philippians 1:1–2
Money and Ministry – Philippians 4:10–20
Philip’s Prophesying Daughters
19 thoughts on “3 views on the ministry of the Seven in Acts 6”
Very interesting, Marg! I love the way you traced the use of these words all the way back to the time the accounts were written. I’m eager to see what you write about next.
Does the article you cite as source say anything about women and ministry? I’d be curious to know Collins’s views on this after the summary you gave.
Thanks Becky. I’m writing about diakonoi (deacons) in Paul’s letters at the moment. But it will take a while before it is post-worthy.
Karin: The information from John Collins comes from his book Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2002) (I am also currently reading his book Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford University Press, 1990)) I have found his views on women in ministry to be along egalitarian lines, which may be especially problematic for him as he is Roman Catholic.
In between the preface of Deacons and the Church and chapter 1, Collins has a paragraph with the title “A note about women, the church and this book”. Here it is in full:
“Roman Catholic women and women of other churches who feel that authorities in their churches discriminate against them on the basis of gender in matters of ministry may come to his book looking for support in their struggle to achieve gender equality in ministerial appointments. They will find, however, that the book does not address the issue directly except in so far as women occasionally occur in the sources. The book needed to do no more than that, however, because the ancient Christian language of ministry, diakonia, is gender inclusive. Accordingly every implication for ministry today that arises from the consideration presented in the following pages is equally applicable to men and women.”
I think this answers your question. I’m thankful for all the scholars who are on record as being for equality in ministry.
Just struck your site in passing. Very bright. And your contribution on Acts 6 balanced and open – and you report so well on the issues.
In case this is not evident, I am the Collins you report on in regard to diakonia. You do a good job… but the subject is huge (it has engaged me – in spite of my 30 years in high school teaching – since I began my PhD in London in September 1971).
My latest publication, for those who would like to consult it on the web (from all those booksellers), is Diakonia Studies: Critical Issues in Ministry. The last chapter is on deacons. But much else about the crisis in theology of ministry in the preceding 13 chapters.
Sadly, books do not come cheap – and they often keep their authors poor.
Hi John, I’m delighted that you left a comment. I own two of your books and have read several of your articles.
This post on the Seven was adapted from chapter 3 of a 20,000 word assignment I recently submitted. Chapter 2 was all about how some of the major Greek-English lexicons and dictionaries have dealt with the diakon-words. In chapter 2 I wrote about how Brandt influenced Beyer and others, and how your research influenced Danker. The remainder of the assignment was an investigation of roles of the diakonoi mentioned in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers. Your research played an important part of my assignment.
By the way, I’m an Aussie too. And I’m studying at Macquarie University.
For anyone interested: Here is a link to John Collin’s new book Diakonos Studies: Critical Issues in Ministry on Amazon.
The kindle version is here.
On Acts 13:2-3, I read Acts 13:1 as indicating that the list of men were elders in the congregation, some with a ministry of prophet, some with teacher, and some perhaps both. I do not see any offices, however.
I agree: roles and functions perhaps, but not offices at this stage of the church’s development.
It is difficult to identify what we might call ‘office’ among functions and functionaries mentioned in the New Testament. In relation to the first century, however, we definitely identify ‘roles’ and, perhaps more significantly, a sense of the need for ‘activity that is mandated’. This is part of the significance of the Greek term diakonia and its cognates. While we need to accept that these terms take their meaning exclusively from the context in which they occur, they always imply an action under the mandate of another person or of a community or institution. (Incidentally, across ancient literature the terms never designate acts of lowly loving service.) These few observations, incidentally, now rest not only on my linguistic account (1990: Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources), but on Danker in his 2000 edition of the Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich lexicon and, more significantly, on the independent research of Dr Anni Hentschel of Frankfurt Uni in 2007 (Diakonia im NT) and 2013 (Gemeinde, Ämter, Dienste: Perspektiven zur neutestamentlichen Ekklesiologie).
Interestingly the latter title includes the term “Ämter”, normally translated ‘offices’ in English, and thus is one of the few German studies these last 20-30 years to signal a discussion of ‘Ämter’ instead of insisting on the other term “Dienste” (normally in English ‘services’).
Thanks for this, John.
I haven’t heard of Anni Hentschel or her work. Is any of her work translated into English?
I am also very thankful for the work on diakonia by John N. Collins. My MA thesis was on Mary and Martha Luke 10:38-42. I was delighted with the insight from Collins book that diakonia refers to a variety of work. There is no evidence in the text that Martha was overly involved with duties as a hostess.There is no mention of food or a troop of disciples descending unexpectedly upon her house. Martha was over involved in the diakonia duties she took on in her Jewish community, whatever they may have been:caring for, teaching, and leading the early Jesus-followers.She was burnt-out, or maybe she just wanted her sister back home. There is also no evidence that Mary is actually on the premises. Mary was out in the countryside evangelizing with Jesus.Jesus knew where she was and Martha asked him to bring her sister back to her. Jesus says her “choice is good, and will not be taken from her.” This is further explained in my book, The New Perspective on Mary and Martha, Wipf & Stock 2013. The result is a much more empowering Mary and Martha!
Wasn’t Mary with Jesus, sitting at his feet? And wasn’t Jesus on the premises? (Luke 10:38-39)
I can well imagine that Martha and Mary were active in ministry. I have a theory that they were part of an ascetic Jewish group in Bethany that ministered to the poor (which I write about here.) But considering that Martha had just welcomed Jesus as a guest, I can also imagine that she was busy being hospitable to her new guest.
I’m happy to learn more about this.
I have been enjoying your blog from the beginning.It is wonderful to write to someone in Australia from Denver, USA!
I have posted a paper on my blog
http://stromerhanson.blogspot.com/2014/11/a-new-perspective-on-mary-and-martha.html that explains my new look at Luke 38-42.
My exegesis has been approved by Greek scholars much better than me. Basically, “she received him” is from P75 which is the oldest text.Luke 38-42 is filled with many variants.
“Into (her) the house” was added later. She “received him” can mean she received him as a believer. Whether or not she offered him hospitality is unimportant, but she was overwhelmed by “much service” of some other kind. “She had a sister who also was one who sat at the feet of the Lord.” The participle parakathestheisa with the feminine “who” in brackets in the UBS, makes the participle substantival meaning “one who is a sitter.” In other words, both Mary and Martha were known as “sitters at the feet” or disciples. Mary is not necessarily sitting at his feet at that moment. I think Mary is gone, following Jesus in evangelism. Jesus visits Martha by himself. Then she implores him to tell her sister to come home to her. That is the source of her extreme worry. Jesus’ final statement is that Mary has chosen “good” and he is not going to force her back to Martha.This reinforces the Lukan theme of forming new families and giving up those things (people) that are most important to us to further the kingdom.
The best explanation of this is in my book, “The New Perspective on Mary and Martha,” available in the CBE catalog. All the best the Australia and keep posting, Mary
This is very interesting.
I’ve read your previous articles on Mary and Martha, but I found this one especially helpful in understanding your perspective. I’m still digesting the information.
The use of the imperfects in Luke 10:39 and 40, in my mind, give two options for translation: They refer to an ongoing action, or to one that has just begun. And I’m not sure how to take it in these verses.
Food for thought!
(I’ve left a similar comment on facebook.)
As Mary obviously well knows, the seemingly simple matter of the presence of the Greek term diakonia in the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10:38-42) has become quite a complex one. In the following extract I was reviewing Anni Hentschel’s book of 2007 “Diakonia im NT” but within the context largely of the rather hostile views of Luke being sustained in scholarly comment by mainly (but not exclusively) femaile exegetes. I present it here, not to resolve a dispute, but to extend a little the parameters of the discussion. Sorry if it comes over as too heavily academic.
Martha, Mary, Jesus and diakonia (Lk 10:38-42)
extract from John N Collins, Diakonia Studies (New York: OUP, 2014) 28-30 and previously published as part of an article in Ecclesiology 5.1(2009) 69-81.
…over the last twenty years women theologians in particular have turned a blinding light on Luke’s attitudes to women, and, unexpectedly perhaps, claim to have discovered revealing and allegedly damning indications in Luke’s use of the diakonia words of a post-Pauline exclusion of women from ministerial roles in the community.
At the heart of argumentation to this effect is the linguistic connection between the Martha and Mary scene at Luke 10:38-42 and Acts 6:1-6. The diakonia that Jesus dissuaded Martha from would not be her busyness in her waiting upon him but an allusion to the diakonia of the word that the Twelve were involved in (Acts 6:4); the latter was the same diakonia that leading women in Paul’s communities are known to have engaged in and that the later church of Luke’s generation took away from them.
The point should be made about this line of argumentation, however, that all the scholars involved, although writing in the1990s, were interpreting diakonia without having to hand the re-interpretation published in my Diakonia of 1990. Accordingly, working from a base where diakonia represented demeaning tasks reserved to slaves and women, they could forcibly draw attention to the predominance of such a role for women in the gospel narrative while in Acts the same word took on an altogether different colour as applied exclusively to men in their divinely or ecclesially designated tasks for the spread of the gospel. The contrast between the two usages could thus be argued to speak poorly of Luke’s attitude to women. The disparagement of Luke in this regard could hardly be more strongly expressed: ‘a formidable opponent’ who built ‘oppressive dynamics’ into his gospel and who colluded with ‘the phallocentric citadel’ and indulged ‘hegemonic rhetoric’ against women.
Altogether contrary to this line, however, my re-interpretation of 1990 had revealed Luke as the Christian writer with the most sensitive awareness of the place of the diakonia words within the Hellenistic literary world. In this light one has the greatest difficulty envisaging Luke presenting a scene of hospitality in the house of Martha and Mary in which he had in mind – and expected his Hellenistic readers to understand – that the diakonia words had a reference beyond table service. In her Double Message – even though written without reference to the re-interpretation of 1990 – Turid Seim considered that attempts to demonise Luke were ‘based on assumptions of a universally-diffused technical use of the diakon- terms’ that are ‘problematic’. The grounds of Seim’s disquiet were, I believe, fully exposed in Diakonia, and were subsequently examined within the challenging context of the feminist readings of the Martha and Mary story.
For her part, Hentschel recognises Seim’s reservations (e. g., p. 247), but appears to be unfamiliar with relevant writings of my own post-1994. It would also seem that her extensive critique of Luke 10:38-42 was originally part of an earlier enquiry into gender balance among roles in early Christian communities (p. 239 n. 273) where interpretation might be led less by semantic considerations than by a particular stream of tradition criticism that sought an aid to elucidation at this point in the ill-founded semantic tradition of Beyer’s interpretation of diakonia strongly represented in feminist writings over that decade, pre-eminently in Schottroff, as reported also by Hentschel (pp. 16-18).
In her attempts to clarify the relationship between the Seven and the Twelve (Acts 6:1-6, pp. 318-46), within the parameters long set by a largely German scholarship, Hentschel refuses to see ‘the daily diakonia’ (6:1) and the diakonein trapezais (6:2) as instances of diakonia expressing some form of practical charity. Instead, consistent with her emphasis on diakonia as expressing authoritative activity, she sees Luke dividing the originally dual responsibility of the Twelve for ‘Word’ and ‘Deed’ into separate responsibilities for the Seven (‘Deed’) and the Twelve (‘Word’). That Acts has nothing further to say of the Seven’s activity in ‘Deed’ but only in ‘Word’ (Stephen; Philip) suggests to Hentschel that this arrangement is wholly a Lukan fiction aimed at disguising a pre-existent ministry of the ‘Word’ carried out by the Seven among the Hellenists. To canvass the existence of this would be an embarrassment to Luke in his determination to reserve the ‘Word’ to the Twelve.
To my mind, however, the problems resolve themselves when we attribute to diakonia in Acts 6:1-6 the values intended by Luke. Hentschel’s sociocultural observations about Hellenists and traditional Jews already point strongly in this direction. The ‘daily diakonia’ in which the Hellenist widows are overlooked is indeed an authoritative activity, as she argues, but not of a different kind from that identified in Acts 1:17,25. It is simply a continuation of that apostolic commission among the Aramaic-speaking Jews in the temple and in house after house ‘every day’ (5:42). The Twelve just cannot cope, however, with the demands of a ‘daily’ bilingual ministry, and respond to the Hellenists’ complaint by asking them to put forward Greek-speaking preachers who might ‘carry out the task’ in the domestic situation (‘at tables’) to which the Greek widows are mostly confined.
As I was reading the resources for my essay I came to a realisation that, apart, from Paul, the New Testament writers are reluctant to use ecclesiastical titles or descriptions for women.
For instance, the Galilean women who follow Jesus, and Mary and Martha, behave as disciples but are never called disciples. Admittedly Tabitha is called a disciples in Acts, but no woman is called a teacher or prophet in Acts, unlike some men. I wonder if this is deliberately done, especially if we consider that Philip’s daughters were prophets and Priscilla (and Aquila) taught.
I’m still inclined to believe that Martha was serving in a domestic sense in Luke 10:39-40 (cf John 12:2), but I do not hold to this view dogmatically.
I think it’s ironic that we have been in contact within days of me handing in my research assignment. (It was a 20,000 word essay, submitted on the 6th of November.) I would have loved to run some ideas past you.
I appreciate your comments on this page.
Thanks, Marg. But I will be briefer this time. And thanks to Mary for making her paper available on her website. Well written with a strong connection with the Greek text. A major impact upon the whole story has got to be, however, a more reliable understanding of the Greek diakonia word. I note Seim’s and Hentschel insistence that Luke was the best equipped Greek writer of gospels, and I could illustrate also how sensitive he is to cultural values carried by terms in his language.
In the instance of diakonia in this story of hospitality it is unthinkable that diakonia can be designating anything other than service at table. However, the term here (or anywhere else in Greek literature for that matter) does not (and cannot) designate preparation of a meal; it must designate that movement of delivering the courses to those at table (or couch! In fact, the courses often came in on mini-tables or trays with short legs). The toing and froing involved meant that Martha was missing out on what Jesus was actually saying, and this was getting to Martha…
We are not to conclude, however, that Mary exemplifies what Luke expects women to do or be in discipleship: silent listeners. Rather, Luke is demonstrating that Mary exemplifies what disciples are called to be: ‘to hear what you hear’ (Luke 10:24), and proclaim what they believe (as the other woman – the one with the menstrual disorder – was made to do ‘in the presence of all the people’ at Luke 8:47).
If you access my selected bibliography in Diakonia Studies (2014), and can still access a decent theological library, you may be interested to consult the following articles on women in the early tradition: 2005a; 1999; 1998a.
Seim makes a unique observation, that the early use of diakon-words by Luke describes the behavior of women: Luke 4:39, 8:3, and 10:40. Note they are serving from their own resources and/or in their own house. Another verb, etoimazō is used by Luke to describe meal preparations (Luke 22:13), but which he did not use in these texts.
The main characters of the parables of Luke 12:37 and 17:8 are male masters and servants. In Luke 22:27 it is Jesus himself who is the servant of all. In other words, as women were habitually accustomed to serving, so should all people willingly serve self-sacrificially. In Luke’s history of Jesus’ ministry, diakonia is first found in the description of women’s activities, then used in parables as teaching material, and finally the ideal behavior for leaders. All people are to undertake leadership as “service.”
As best I understand diakonia now, all serving from foot-washing to prophecy is performed with the attitude displayed Jesus.
As an aside, I have always been relieved that the appointees of Acts 6 were not women, but men to serve tables. We would really be permanently restricted to table-duty! The insight that trapezai equals bank-work really makes sense. Another paper I presented at SBL at Denver University last spring is posted on my blog.http://stromerhanson.blogspot.com/ Is anyone from Australia coming to San Diego for the SBL conference? I would love to meet them.
In responding to Mary’s post of 11/19/14, I remind other readers that my comments arise from a massive research project into usage of diakonia within 800-years of ancient Greek literature and inscriptions. This was at the University of London King’s College (in the first half of the 1970s, mind you). My interpretive comments here are made on the basis of insights about the semantic behavior of diakon– words that I gained there.
I have already noted in regard to the Martha/Mary story (Lk 10:38-42) that we are to read the diakonia there in the light of what we can discern of Luke’s literary credentials, namely, that he was the NT writer who was the most sensitive to cultural values carried by Greek words of his time and tradition. This is the basis of my (and Seim’s and Hentschel’s) conviction that Martha’s diakonia resides in her delivery of courses of a meal to the guest Jesus. No more on that.
Another conviction is that Luke’s gospel narrative contains no indications that his invocation of diakon– terms is influenced by anything other than what the individual passages required. The gospel narrative displays no hidden didactic undercurrent carried by diakon– words and issuing ultimately in a message about ‘the ideal behaviour for leaders’. In each of the half dozen passages – exactly in accord with usage within Hellenistic and Classical sources generally – the author’s choice of the term and the meaning as well as the cultural value intended by the author is determined exclusively by the immediate context.
A separate note about diakonia and the footwashing (John 13). This scene has rightly become one of the most eloquent ikons of Jesus, and powerfully characterizes the iconography of the modern deacon (see the pervasive deacon logo of basin and towel). In the whole scene (13:1-11), however, no diakon– term appears. Even when Jesus initiates teaching on the significance of the footwashing in the following segment (13:12-17), and mentions in our translations ‘servants are not greater than their master’ (v. 16), the author’s term for ‘servant’ is not a diakon– term but the standard term for a ‘slave’: doulos.
In fact, no writer of ancient Greek would use a diakon– term for the activity of washing feet because the semantic range of the Greek term does not stretch that far. A diakon– term can apply only to activities embracing notions of toing and froing, of agency, mediation, and the like. The domestic diakonos is one who fetches, but the term is not part of everyday usage (while doulos, pais and other terms were).
Further, the diakon– terms in Jesus’ teaching at John 12:26 (whoever serves/diakon me must follow; where I am, there will my servant be…): Jesus has been talking of moving on to the Son of Man’s destiny (23-24); this of course is his death. His image of disciples ‘following’ is the image of the peripatetic teacher whose students accompany him and remain available to him not only to teach but also to be sent on his errands, hence diakon-. The same concept repeats in similar teaching about ‘servants/doulos‘ and ‘messengers/apostolos’ in 13:16.
Finally, again about the ‘serving/diakon at tables’ in Acts 6:2. Some (including Mary) refer this to banking tables/trapezai (a legitimate use of the latter word). The ‘serving/diakon’, however, in my view cannot refer to dining tables (or banking tables) because the context of Luke’s narrative from 1:1-6:7 is about the mandate to proclaim the gospel and about the cohesion and mutual care within the believing community. (How could Luke turn around at 6:1 and claim that some widows were overlooked in daily care? People had dropped dead (Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5) for violating the basic call of discipleship to unity and mutual support.
To ‘serve/minister at/ diakon tables’ means instead ‘to carry out one’s ministry at tables’, the ministry in this case being in this case to provide the Greek widows with the word of the Gospel: hence the Greek-speaking men selected by the community. Same usage occurs in relation to deacons at 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13: ‘let them minister’ and ‘they that minister well’ (using Tyndale’s 1534 translation because our contemporary bibles are confused about this ‘service/diakonia’ syndrome that we are caught up in here. (With this comparison of Acts 6 with 1 Tim I am not implying that the Seven in Acts were deacons like those in 1 Tim; as I wrote earlier and as is widely agreed here the Seven were not deacons, and, for me, were a team of Hellenistic preachers.)
Again, longer than is comfortable for some, I am sure. But my name gets thrown around a bit without necessarily being aligned with what I actually think or have claimed. (But please do not see this as directed towards Mary.)
Hi Mary, There are usually quite a few scholars from Australia who go to the SBl conference. I know that several people from Macquarie University go to SBL each year. Michael Bird usually goes too. Plus others.