James Jordan’s 1995 article on elders and deacons contains a number of insights that fit well with data I’ve gathered from other sources. In this series of posts, I want to take the question a little further and address the origin of ordination, rereading the Biblical passages with a special eye on typology, which gives us the key to understanding what ordination does in the NT.
I like very much his suggestion that 50 is the normal minimum age for an elder; the passages he adduces show that he has read with care and sensitivity. The idea of “ruling deacons” is also a good one.
Jordan helpfully notes that many figures in the OT have “deacons” who eventually succeed them: “Joshua was Moses’ deacon; Elisha was Elijah’s deacon; Gehazi was Elisha’s deacon; Baruch was Jeremiah’s deacon.” This sort of succession is obviously relevant to the practice of ordination to eldership. Jordan notes that the NT office of “deacon” is in fact an office of “elder-in-training.” I’d add a linguistic argument: calling a man a διάκονος is rather like calling him an “assistant”: such a title ordinarily involves attachment to some other person or institution, whose ends the διάκονος is devoted to: “Is Christ a διάκονος of Sin?” (Gal. 2:17). Within the church, the natural assumption is that a deacon is an assistant to an elder, which fits with the pattern Jordan identifies with the prophets and their pupils. We might also note that the qualifications for the two offices (given in the pastoral epistles) are virtually identical, for this very reason.
I would, however, suggest that the seven men in Acts 6 are actually ordained as elders in that chapter (not, pace Jordan, as deacons): they are never called “deacons”, traditional though it is to see them as such. After their ordination, the book of Acts begins to refer to “the apostles and elders” as the ones in charge of the Jerusalem church. Before Acts 6, this locution is not found. One Anglican writer, suggests that it is a Semitism similar to “scribes and Pharisees”. In both instances, we have a more specific and less specific term, and the construction is inclusive, so that the two phrases mean “Elders who are apostles, and elders who are not”; “Pharisees of scribal rank, and Pharisees who are laymen.” Where these non-apostle elders came from is not clear, unless they were appointed in Acts 6.
I’d like to argue this point on typological grounds as well. But first, let me reiterate the historical background. The Jews of Jesus’ day had an institution in which the laying on of hands (semikah) could effect the authorization of a new Rabbi by an existing one. The act was conceptualized according to the OT pattern established by Moses, who laid his hands on Joshua. Because the verb samakh denotes a forceful leaning, not a mere laying, the metaphor is that of pressing one’s personality and power into one’s emissary. The Rabbis state that (y. Meg. 74a) “a man’s shaliach is as if he were the man himself” – so that Eliezer of Damascus had full authority to ask Rebekah’s hand for Isaac, without her parents needing to worry that Abraham might rescind the offer. Again “the Seven of a City are as it were the City” – that is, the Jewish officers in charge of administering alms did so as representatives of the entire populace. The early church’s use of the ceremony of samakh was broader than that in Rabbinic Judaism, in which it is restricted to two uses: the sacrificial cult (e.g. making the scapegoat a representative of the sinful population), and the ordination of a Rabbi. Which usage, the church’s or the Rabbis’, represents the original state of affairs, I will not argue here. It is enough for our purposes that the meaning of the ritual is the same: it makes a man a copy of the person who lays hands him.
What of the apostles? What is their relation to the church? Is it the same as that of the Seven described in Acts 6?
Quite the contrary. The apostles stand in the same relation that Jesus did, because they are His plenipotentiary representatives. Indeed, the word “apostle” is just a translation of shaliach: my Aramaic Pesshita NT with modern Hebrew translation calls the book of Acts the “Deeds of the Blessed Legates” – ma’asey-ha-shelihim”, and affixes the title “shaliach” before the names of the apostles in the titles of their books. Note well: there is no laying on of hands (semikath) when Matthias is chosen to replace Judas: the appointment is not made by men at all: “You, Lord, knower of the hearts of all, show us which one you have chosen from these two to receive a place in this ministry and apostleship…” (Acts 1:24) The choice, that is, has already been made by the Lord, whose representative the new apostle is. The church asks only for God to disclose it to them.
Let me take this passage as an opportunity to consider the typology, which I believe will confirm that the Seven of Acts 6 are not successors to the Apostles.
In this passage Peter has just cited Psalms 69 and 109: “Let his habitation be desolate” and “let another take his office (ἐπισκοπή).” The Jewish audience would have heard these as echoes of Saul’s replacement by David, the more so as the pronoun in Ps. 69:25 is singular in the LXX: “his habitation” rather than the MT’s plural “their habitation”. Both Psalms speak of those who are David’s enemy “without cause”, which would also tend to call Saul to mind.
The prayer of Acts 1:24 addresses God as the “knower of hearts”, καρδιογνῶστης, reminiscent of YHWH’s words to Samuel during the choice of David from among Jesse’s sons: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but YHWH looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7) Then, too, the disciples ask God to “show which one you have chosen (LXX: ἐκλέγομαι).” The same verb occurs three times in 1 Sam. 16:8, 9, 10: “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” The anointing of David by Samuel was done in the name of the Lord, not in the name of the people of Israel. He is “God’s anointed,” and represents the Lord to the people. Let us recall that this is precisely the position that Paul represents himself in as “an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal. 1:1). One might even read Paul’s statement as a technical explanation: he is not a shaliach sent (Heb. shalah) from a man, i.e. as a representative of a man; nor was he made a shaliach through a man, i.e. by any man’s samakh.
By contrast, the language of Acts 6 indicates that the Seven are representatives of the people, and not of the apostles or of God (except in the sense that all believers are, of course). I have previously pointed out that, as D. Daube rightly notes, the most straightforward reading of the Greek in Acts 6:5-6: “and the word was pleasing in the sight of all the multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip et al., whom they set before the apostles and having prayed, laid hands on them.” There is no change of subject in the Greek: οὓς ἔστησαν ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀποστόλων, καὶ προσευξάμενοι ἐπέθηκαν αὐτοῖς τὰς χεῖρας. The subject of “set them before the apostles” is still the subject when we get around to the participle “praying” and “they laid hands on them”. There is no οἱ δὲ or similar change of subject.
It may be objected, of course, that such a flag is not necessary for a change of subject. There are other verses in the Bible in which the subject is clearly different for a second verb, without any particle to denote the change. But again, the typology clarifies matters.
Acts 6 is full of echoes of OT scripture that together flesh out a clear typology of ordination, making plain that the Seven represent the people. The main parallel is Numbers 27:22-23, the ordination of Joshua: “And Moses did as the Lord had commanded him, and taking Joshua, he set him before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and laid his hands on him, and commissioned him…” A glance at the LXX reveals that this verse has provided a model for Acts 6:5-6:
καὶ ἐποίησεν Μωυσῆς καϑὰ ἐνετείλατο αὐτῷ κύριος, καὶ λαβὼν τὸν ᾽Ιησοῦν ἔστησεν αὐτὸν ἐναντίον Ελεαζαρ τοῦ ἱερέως καὶ ἔναντι πάσης συναγωγῆς καὶ ἐπέϑηκεν τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ ἐπ’ αὐτὸν καὶ συνέστησεν αὐτόν, καϑάπερ συνέταξεν κύριος τῷ Μωυσῇ.
Note that it is Moses who picks Joshua. He then sets him before Eleazar, who does not ordain him, but oversees the ordination. Moses them lays his own hands on Joshua, and commissions him, i.e. makes him his representative.
So in Acts 6: the people (or more likely, their chosen go-to guys, not the whole multitude) choose the Seven and set them before the apostles. The apostles oversee the choice, but do not make it. Nor do they ordain. The people ordain, laying their hands on the Seven.
Why? Because the Seven have been selected to do a job which the apostles explicitly state is not the job of apostles:
“it is not pleasing for us to abandon the Word of God to serve tables. Brothers, look out from among yourselves seven men full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we [sc. apostles AND people] may set over this need. But we (ἡμεῖς δὲ) will continue steadfast in prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
It would therefore be totally inappropriate for the apostles to lay hands on the Seven. Had they done so, they would have made the Seven copies of themselves, appointed to do the same job as themselves, i.e. prayer and the ministry of the Word. But that is not the need of the hour. Rather, the need is that the people themselves should attend to the needs of the church’s members. Not without reason do many interpreters point to the Talmud at this point: “The Seven of a City are as it were the City.” Alms and charity are not a function of leaders, but of the people themselves.
I would note a few other typological confirmations of the fact that the Seven were elders. In Exodus 18, the elders of the people appointed by Moses are said to be ἄνδρες δυνατοί; Stephen later is “full of grace and power (δύναμις). Daube points out that just as Stephen is falsely accused of blasphemy against Moses, so in Numbers 11, Eldad and Medad continue prophesying and incur a similar charge. The appointment of the Seven is caused by the increase in the numbers of the disciples (πληθυνόντων τῶν μαθητῶν); so also is the appointment of the judges in Deuteronomy (1:10-15). In short, we have a Jewish problem, and an old-fashioned Jewish solution.
In conclusion: the grammar of Acts 6:6; the modeling of the act of ordination on Moses’ appointment of Joshua in the presence of Eleazar; the typology linking the Seven to the judges and elders under Moses; and the subsequent references to the otherwise unknown “elders” in the rest of Acts all point to the Seven as elders, not deacons, representing the Christian people in Jerusalem, ordained by the people, and not by the apostles.
In my next post, I will consider some other instances of laying on of hands in the NT, and the status of Timothy and Titus in the church.