By Rev. Assoc. Prof. Anthony Gooley
Before hearing from Anthony below, a reminder that you can see him speak as well as Dr Phyllis Zagano at our webinar for the Feast of St Phoebe, on this Saturday at 10am AEST. If you have registered, please make sure that you have received the Zoom link by email. Try checking your junk folder – I am sorry if there have been any technical issues. If you have registered but not yet received the link, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will send it directly. We have received a large number of registrations already, so if you still wish to join us, please register before we need to close registrations. Thank you, Elizabeth.
If you read my last contribution, then you will know that since the 1940’s the words “food” or “funds” and similar kinds of words have been added to the text of Acts 6:1-7. None of these words are found in any ancient Greek manuscript of Acts or in any translation in any language prior to the 1940’s. How and why, they were added in recent history is central to understanding some distortions that have occurred in the theology of diaconate and ministry generally. Before we continue you should know that such words have no place in these translations now and need to be removed.
The story begins in Germany in the 19th century. A Lutheran Pastor Theodore Fliedner and his wife Friederike established a hospital and nursing ministry with a focus on the urban poor. Initially they invited women to join this work and later they would invite men. The work of these women and men focussed on nursing and charitable care of the poor and marginalised. The women they called deaconess’ and the men deacons. The Fliedner’s chose this title because of their interpretation of Acts 6:1-7.
These women and men lived in communities or Deacon Houses, prayed together, and wore distinctive dress, they were not ordained. In Roman Catholic terms they might be compared to members of a Religious Institute, such as the Presentation Sisters or the Marist Brothers. A new word in German, diaconie, was coined in the late nineteenth century to express this kind of Christian social work. In time institutes of learning and training in nursing and social work to prepare deacons and deaconesses for this diaconie were established throughout Germany and Nordic countries and these were called Diaconic Institutes.
A scholar who was working on a dictionary of the Greek New Testament, Wilhelm Brandt, was a chaplain to the Deacon House movement. When he came to the diacon group of words he did not develop his definition of this word group based on any research of the ancient Greek usage but on his experience of the deacon house movement and the German diaconie or Christian social and charitable work. He saw the deacons and deaconess’ doing charitable and social for the poor and lowly, and so he wrote that the diacon word group was associated with lowly service, humble care, and concern for another, especially their material needs.
Before we go any further it is important to note that there are several words in this diacon group. One of which is our word for deacon, but it also includes our English words; ministry, minister, to minister and ministerial. Brandt’s definition would eventually have an impact on all these words as scholars began to argue (based on Brandt’s error) that the early Christian community had specially chosen words associated with lowly service for their ministry words. They went even further with deacons, assuming that they must be the lowliest of all and focussed on humble care of others who are in need.
Brandt’s non-scholarly definition enter the most influential theological dictionary of the New Testament now referred to as BDAG from the initials of its creators. During the twentieth century this definition came to influence those who were working on new translations of the Bible. When they came to Acts 6:1-7 they added words previously never found in any translation to make the text agree with the dictionary. Because the dictionary said that the diacon words were about lowly service and charitable care for the poor and marginalised they wanted the story to communicate that.
In Acts 6 the Greek speakers complain because their widows were neglected at the daily diaconia. To supply a meaning for the complaint aligned with dictionary, that the translators have at hand, they want to make the story about charity and social concern for another, because they see a diacon word. They add “food” or “funds” and similar terms to indicate a material need and a charitable response. They also add a tiny preposition, “on” between minister tables or make the phrase ‘to minister’ become “wait on” tables. We are thus primed to see the seven chosen in Acts 6 as similar to waiters, servants or charity workers.
The non-scholarly definition of the diacon word group enters the discourse about deacons, about ministry and, Biblical translations, a bit like a virus starts a pandemic. Before long the virus has infect the theology of diaconate, documents like the World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, influential texts on ministry by O’Meara and Osborne and papal discourse including encyclicals like Deus Caritas Est and almost everything you will ever read about deacons and the theology of diaconate.
John N Collins provides a cure for this virus. In 1990 he published the very first scholarly study of the diacon word group in his book Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources. He asked a very simple question; how did the ancient Greeks use and understand the meaning of the diacon word group? He looked at Biblical and non-Biblical texts to see how Greeks used the diacon word group. He discovered that the word group never included any idea of charitable concern or care for another or humble service, let alone what we would call a waiter.
In another post on this blog, I will have more to say about what John N Collins discovered in his research and why this is such a significant discovery. If you want to read more about these ideas you can also read my book, Deacons Today: New Wine, New Wineskins. Coventry Press.