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In the book of Acts, the Saul is introduced rather dramatically.  After Stephen delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7, he is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and stoned.  This is not a legal action, it is a lynching!  Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1).  Whether Saul was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear, but the verb can be used for legal approval (1 Mac 1:57).  Saul is described as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534).  What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

It is important to observe that Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem, in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not in the Temple speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there.  Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove that Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship.  While we cannot know this for certain, it is not unlikely that Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue because he was from Tarsus (Cilicia is specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9).  Stephen’s powerful argument that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53) pushed the crowd to attack Stephen, Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.

Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and importing them into Acts 7.  For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.

Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws.  This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  This is an issue in Galatians, but that is perhaps 15 years after the stoning of Stephen and concerned Jews and Gentiles eating together.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as heretical.  That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.  He likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.

Stephen is arrested for speaking out against the temple and the Law of Moses. While Luke is clear that these are false charges, it is possible that Stephen has preached something which could have been taken as “against the temple and the Law.” There is no indication in Acts that the anyone “spoke out against the Law” among the apostolic community, they continued to worship in the Temple and most likely keep all of the Works of the Law which were expected of them as Jews. Sometimes scholars have speculated that Stephen, as a Hellenistic Jew, was already starting to give up elements of the Law, as if he were a forerunner of Paul’s theology in Galatians. There is nothing here that would give that impression, except the false witnesses.

St Stephen Fra AngelicoTo speak out against the Temple was not an offense worthy of death. There were in fact many critics of the Temple in the first century, including the Qumran community which separated itself entirely from Temple worship on the grounds that the Temple used the wrong calendar and was therefore celebrating Passover on the wrong day! If Stephen did speak out against the Temple, he is no different than Jeremiah, who condemned the Temple, the priesthood, and the worshipers of not doing true worship (Jer 7, for example), and Jesus himself who called the Temple a “den of thieves”! In addition, there are a number of Second Temple period books which also condemn the priesthood as corrupt.

If the audience could agree with most of Stephen’s sermon, it is his conclusion that angers them so greatly. This generation is just as stiff-necked, therefore they are under the same judgment! (7:51-53) The conclusion to this sermon draws on themes found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Resistance to the apostolic message represents resisting the Holy Spirit. The people are called stiff-necked. The word appears only here in the New Testament and it appears 8 times in the LXX, usually in the context of covenant unfaithfulness (Ex 33:3, 34:9 and Deut 9:6). To be “stiff-necked” means to be stubborn, obstinate, or rigid” (HALOT). They are also described as having “uncircumcised hearts.” This phrase is also associated with covenant unfaithfulness, see Jer 9:25, Lev 26:41, Jer 6:10, Ezek 44:7, 9. Stephen says that this generation has always resisted the Holy Spirit. “Resistance” is a rare word in both the New Testament and the LXX, appearing only here and Num 27:14, where it describes the rebellion of the people in the Wilderness of Zin.

Stephen accuses the present generation of the same hard-headed resistance to the word of God which was demonstrated by the worst of Israel’s kings. Those who persecuted the prophets would include Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom, Manasseh in the south (who was reputed to have killed Isaiah and any other true prophet who challenged him), but also the temple authorities who persecuted Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke against the Temple and was nearly killed, Jesus also challenged the Temple and was killed.

The most stinging part of this critique is that these prophets predicted the coming of the messiah and were silenced by the appointed authorities of the nation. Most likely the Sanhedrin would have agreed with Stephen on this point, the prior generations were corrupt – but not so the current administration. This generation has done the same to the Righteous One himself!

What other elements of Stephen’s speech resonate with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible?  Obviously he alludes to the Hebrew Bible extensively in the speech, but us he intentionally connecting his audience with the “wilderness generation”?  If so, what was the point of this allusion?

In the book of Acts, the Saul is introduced rather dramatically.  After Stephen delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7, he is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and stoned.  This is not a legal action, it is a lynching!  Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1).  Whether Saul was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear, but the verb can be used for legal approval (1 Mac 1:57).  Saul is described as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534).  What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

It is important to observe that Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem, in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not in the Temple speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there.  Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove that Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship.  While we cannot know this for certain, it is not unlikely that Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue because he was from Tarsus (Cilicia is specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9).  Stephen’s powerful argument that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53) pushed the crowd to attack Stephen, Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.

Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and importing them into Acts 7.  For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.

Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws.  This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  This is an issue in Galatians, but that is perhaps 15 years after the stoning of Stephen and concerned Jews and Gentiles eating together.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as heretical.  That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.  He likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with th followers of a condemned Rabbi.

One of the frustrations of studying Acts is that we have very little to help develop a chronology of events after the resurrection until the death of Herod in Acts 12.  To complicate matters, it is likely that Luke presents overlapping stories.  The events of chapters 2-5 are a complete until, the events of chapter 6-8 do not following immediately after, but take place at about the same time. The difference is in the social and cultural location of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, to the Hebraist and to the Hellenist.

The situation which gave rise to the Deacons implies that 6:1 occurs some time after Pentecost.  People are living in common and have been selling property and distributing food to the poor members of the community.  The phrase “In these days” is used by Luke occasionally to signal significant stages in the story.  In Luke 6:12 the phrase appears before the appointment of the 12, and in Acts 11:27 it appears as a reference to the prophets going from Jerusalem to Antioch.

It is also a fact that the activity of Stephen at least must pre-date Paul’s conversion, since he is instrumental in the death of Stephen.  Luke places his section on Philip between the introduction of Saul / Paul in 8:1 and his conversion story in chapter 9.  This creates some narrative tension. The reader only knows that there is a great persecution and that the Hellenistic Jews have been forced out of Jerusalem.

Given these factors, James Dunn suggests that Stephen’s ministry began no less that 18 months after the resurrection (Beginning at Jerusalem, 257).  Perhaps this range can be narrowed a bit.  I am inclined to think that the appointment of the Deacons must have taken place fairly early since there are thousands of followers of Jesus after the two sermons Acts 2 and 3.  Luke tells us that the initial crowd included Diaspora Jews from every part of the Empire.  This means that the group which turns to Jesus as the Messiah in Acts 2 and 3 undoubtedly included people from the Diaspora who were visiting Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost.  A major reason the believers live in common almost immediately (2:42-47) is that some of these people chose to remain in Jerusalem rather than return home after accepting Jesus.

If Peter and John went daily to the Temple courts and reasoned with the (Aramaic speaking) Jews there, it seems reasonable that there were some (Greek speaking) Jews who went to the Synagogue of the Freedmen and reasoned with the Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:8-9).  The seven Deacons were chosen because they already “men of repute, full of the Spirit.”  They were already leaders within the community of Believers, reasoning with Greek speaking Jews.

Stephen’s dispute in the Synagogue, then, may have begun much earlier than we normally think, perhaps only a few months after Pentecost.  Luke indicates that his ministry in the Synagogue was ongoing, rather than a single sermon (notice the imperfect verbs in verses 8 and 10).  While Peter and John are in the Temple every day reasoning with people from the Scriptures, Stephen (and others) are in the Synagogue reasoning from the Greek Scriptures.  The difference is the conservatism of these Greek speaking Jews, who react more violently to Stephen’s preaching.

Aside from historical accuracy, does this matter for reading Acts?  I think it helps understand that the community of earliest believers were far more diverse than Acts 2-5 would imply.   If Peter and John represent the only “flavor” of the early followers of Jesus, then it is hard to explain the violent suppression of Stephen.   This diversity is less a “development” in the earliest church, but a factor present from the beginning.

Stephen is arrested for speaking out against the temple and the Law of Moses. While Luke is clear that these are false charges, it is possible that Stephen has preached something which could have been taken as “against the temple and the Law.” There is no indication in Acts that the anyone “spoke out against the Law” among the apostolic community, they continued to worship in the Temple and most likely keep all of the Works of the Law which were expected of them as Jews. Sometimes scholars have speculated that Stephen, as a Hellenistic Jew, was already starting to give up elements of the Law, as a sort of proto-Paul. There is nothing here that would give that impression, except the false witnesses.

To speak out against the Temple was not an offense worthy of death. There were in fact many critics of the Temple in the first century, including the Qumran community which separated itself entirely from Temple worship on the grounds that the Temple used the wrong calendar and was therefore celebrating Passover on the wrong day! If Stephen did speak out against the Temple, he is no different than Jeremiah, who condemned the Temple, the priesthood, and the worshipers of not doing true worship (Jer 7, for example), and Jesus himself who called the Temple a “den of thieves”! In addition, there are a number of Second Temple period books which also condemn the priesthood as corrupt.

If the audience could agree with most of Stephen’s sermon, it is his conclusion that angers them so greatly. This generation is just as stiff-necked, therefore they are under the same judgment! (7:51-53) The conclusion to this sermon draws on themes found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Resistence to the apostolic message represents resisting the Holy Spirit. The people are called stiff-necked. The word appears only here in the New Testament and it appears 8 times in the LXX, usually in the context of covenant unfaithfulness (Ex 33:3, 34:9 and Deut 9:6). To be “stiff-necked” means to be stubborn, obstinate, or rigid. (HALOT). They are also described as having “uncircumcised hearts.” This phrase is also associated with covenant unfaithfulness, see Jer 9:25, Lev 26:41, Jer 6:10, Ezek 44:7, 9. Stephen says that this generation has always resisted the Holy Spirit. “Resistence” is a rare word in both the New Testament and the LXX, appearing only here and Num 27:14, where it describes the rebellion of the people in the Wilderness of Zin.

Stephen accuses the present generation of the same hard-headed resistence to the word of God which was demonstrated by the worst of Israel’s kings. Those who persecuted the prophets would include Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom, Manasseh in the south (who was reputed to have killed Isaiah and any other true prophet who challenged him), but also the temple authorities who persecuted Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke against the Temple and was nearly killed, Jesus also challenged the Temple and was killed.

The most stinging part of this critique is that these prophets predicted the coming of the messiah and were silenced by the appointed authorities of the nation. Most likely the Sanhedrin would have agreed with Stephen on this point, the prior generations were corrupt – but not so the current administration. This generation has done the same to the Righteous One himself! At this point Stephen joins the Apostles instating that the execution of Jesus was in fact killing the Messiah.

Luke dramatically introduces Saul as a member of the group which executed Stephen. Saul is mentioned here as having approved of the death of Stephen and he is possibly the ringleader of the persecution which breaks out as a result of the stoning of Stephen.

Just to stimulate my thinking for Sunday night I gave some though to the first few verses of Acts 6.

The end of Acts 5 read like a summary statement of the first movement of the book of Acts, and to a large extent the release from prison after Gamaliel’s speech marked an important moment for the Jerusalem community.  But there was more to that community than just the Jews from Jerusalem; many Diaspora Jews attached themselves to the apostolic movement.  The reason the apostles appoint deacons in chapter 6 is because Greek widows do not seem to be getting the same treatment as the “Hebraic Jews” (as the NIV translates 6:1).   The word “Jew” does not appear in then Greek, but Greek and Hebrew does.  Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem.

This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was.  To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish lifestyle.  There was something of a spectrum of practice, with the Qumran community on one end (extremely traditional, so that the Temple was too sinful for them), and someone like Philo of Alexandria’s nephew on the other (who totally abandoned his Jewish heritage in order to be a part of the Hellenistic government of Egypt) on the other end.  Most Jews, even in Jerusalem, found themselves somewhere between these two extremes.

What is happening in the Jerusalem community is that those who are more committed to a Jewish Christianity are finding differences with the Jews who are more Hellenistic in attitude.  This leads to the appointment of the deacons, but does not solve the ultimate problem.  By Acts 11 Jews living in Antioch are willing to not only accept Gentiles as converts Christianity, by Acts 13 Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles who are not even a part of a synagogue!  Since these Hellenistic Jews are more open to Gentiles in the fellowship, the more conservative Jews in Jerusalem begin to persecute the apostolic community even more harshly, leading to the death of Stephen and the dispersion of the Hellenistic Jews.

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Phillip J. Long

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