We all know the words of Jesus to his disciples at the beginning of Acts: they should be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. Accordingly, the book of Acts can be divided into two parts. The first, chapters 1–12, describe the events that take place in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Peter is the central figure of these chapters: “he delivers speeches, performs healings and, as the climax of this section, baptizes the first Gentile convert, the Roman centurion Cornelius.” Of course, we remember that Philip had previously baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (8.26–40), but Peter baptizing Cornelius and reporting it to his Jewish brethren officially opens the door for Gentiles to be included in the community of believers.
Therefore, beginning from chapter 13, the focus of the book shifts to Paul – the Apostle to the Gentiles. We witness his missionary activity in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and Greece, his arrest, questioning before Roman and Jewish authorities, his journey to Rome, and his preaching in Rome. Thus, Acts presents a picture of the church expanding in full accordance with Jesus’ words: from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the “ends of the earth”. Who were those first believers in Jesus outside of the Land, then? How did they live and believe?
Surprisingly, from the book of Acts, we understand that the “first church”, the first community of the early followers of Jesus outside of the Land of Israel, still comprised mainly of Jewish believers and was still a synagogue. The first “to the ends of the earth” community of believers that we meet in Acts, is the community in Antioch. What do we know about the church in Antioch?
In chapter 11 we read that “those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” and that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” Then we read that, upon hearing these reports, the Jerusalem congregation sends out Barnabas to Antioch, and Barnabas brings Paul there. “So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people.”
We are now in chapter 13, entering the second part of the Acts, which recounts the expansion of the church “to the ends of the earth”. This chapter begins with Luke reintroducing the community in Antioch:
Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
Of all the names listed by Luke, we know for sure that both Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were Jewish believers in Jesus. Who were the others?
Who was Simeon who was called Niger? Simeon is a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew name Shimon. “Shimon” was a very popular Jewish name in the 1st century, both in the Land of Israel and in Diaspora. He might have been a proselyte from Africa, which would explain why he was called Niger, but he would not have the name “Shimon” if he was not part of the people of Israel.
We can probably say more about “Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.” who is also listed among the prophets and teachers of the Antioch congregation. Manaen is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Menachem (Comforter). Who was this Menachem? Surprisingly, we discover references to this man in the several Jewish texts of the time, and the first thing we understand from all these references is that the man was Jewish.
According to Joseph Shulam, Babylonian Talmud may have been referring to the same Menachem in this comment: “Hillel and Menachem did not differ. Menachem went forth, Shammai entered.” In order to understand this quote, one has to know the history of the Second Temple period: Hillel and Shammai, the well-known rabbis of this time, were co-heads of beit din (the court). Probably, this Talmudic text says that before Shammai joined Hillel, Menachem was co-head of the court, along with Hillel.
Some scholars have interpreted this text as depicting Menachem’s departure to join the Essenes. This interpretation is based on Josephus’ note in his Antiquities of the Jews: “There was one of these Essenes whose name was Menachem.” Josephus writes that this Menachem led “an excellent life” and that God gave him a prophetic gift: he prophesied Herod’s ascension to the throne when “he was a child”.
If we accept this interpretation, we will agree that all three texts speak of the same Menachem who was connected to “Herod the tetrarch”. First, together with Hillel, Menachem served as co-head of the court; his spiritual quest then probably took him to the Essenes; then finally, this boyhood companion of Herod Antipas became one of the leaders in the Antioch congregation, and became known to Christian readers by the name Manaen.
The last one whom Luke lists among the “prophets and teachers” in Antioch, is Lucius. “Lucius” was a common Latin name, definitely not a Jewish name, and one may suggest that Lucius was not Jewish. On the other hand, he may have been a Jew born in the Diaspora, like Saul, having both Jewish and Roman names. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that in Romans 16:21 Paul calls some Lucius, his kinsman (probably the same Lucius).
Thus, of the five prophets and teachers in the first church in Antioch, four were definitely Jewish believers in Jesus, and the last one may have been Jewish also. However, much more important is the fact that these first believers lived as members of God’s people, members of Israel. They lived according to an agreed-upon set of ethical norms, in a context broadly shaped by the Jewish Scriptures. “The activity of prophets, the description of what went on in the congregational meeting as ‘service,’ and fasting as a religious practice…. the reading of the law and the prophets” – all these correspond with known synagogue practice. From Luke’s description, we understand that, with all the profound differences that faith in Jesus would make, outwardly the gathering and fellowship of the early church was no different from a synagogue. And it really could not be otherwise: synagogue was the only place of study and worship for all who believed in the God of Israel – all the other temples and places of worship were pagan. There were no other valid communities of believers, so at this point, a synagogue was the only place where Jewish and Gentile believers would gather together to read Scripture and worship God. This is exactly what we see in the community in Antioch – and we will continue to see it throughout the entire book of Acts.
 Acts 1:8
 The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 198). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Acts 11:19,21
 Acts 11:26
 In the original language of the text, the word “Niger” is best translated as “black.”
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15:10:5
 G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (p. 582). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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