Archive for December 2008

Acts 7

December 7, 2008

In this chapter of Acts, Stephen is tried by the Sanhedrin [1]. In answer to the charges laid by members of the Synagogue of Freedmen [2], he re-tells the story of the Jewish people, then presents the accusation to the Jewish leaders that they are prideful and irreligious [3], resistant to the urgings of the Spirit of God, murderous of the prophets, murderers of Jesus, and ultimately lawless. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen sees Jesus, the glory of God, and God Himself. When he tells the crowd what he sees, they become enraged, cover their ears and yell, rush at him, drag him out of the city and stone him [4]. Stephen, however, is no longer at their mercy. He asks Jesus not to hold the crowd responsible for his murder, commends his soul into the hands of Jesus, and “falls asleep[5].” 

In this chapter, we also meet Saul.  We are told that the witnesses against Stephen lay their clothes at Saul’s feet as the crowd is stoning Stephen and that Saul gives his approval to the stoning of Stephen.

So, there are three central issues. How does Stephen’s telling of the story of the Jewish people compare and contrast with scripture as we have it?  What is Stephen’s experience of God? And what is Saul’s role in Stephen’s death? 

As to the first, consider Stephen’s version of Jewish history. It begins with the departure of Abraham from Mesopotamia (Iraq) to live in Haran in Chaldea (Syria) and then to Canaan. In Canaan, God foretells Abraham of the future enslavement in Egypt and teaches him the rite of circumcision. Abraham circumcises Isaac, Isaac fathers Jacob, and Jacob becomes the progenitor of the twelve tribes. He calls the children of Jacob “the twelve patriarchs,” and says that “the patriarchs” sold Joseph into slavery. This is an odd locution that implies that Joseph was not a patriarch. Stephen tells of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt, the famine, the arrival of 75 of Jacob’s family in Egypt (Gen. 24 says 70; Ex. 1 says 75), and the burial of Jacob and his sons in a cave in the land (Stephen calls it a tomb) that in Schechem Abraham purchased from Hamor (Genesis says it was Ephron the Hittite).

Stephen turns to the story of the genocide ordered by the new Pharoah in which the Hebrews are told “to throw out their newborn babies.”  Exodus says they are instructed to throw the babies into the Nile. The adoption of Moses, his training, his slaying of the Egyptian, and his flight from Egypt follows the account in Genesis closely. It specifies that Moses thought that the Hebrews would recognize that God had chosen him, but Exodus does not claim this. Fleeing to Midian, Moses waits 40 years for God to speak to him through the burning bush. Stephen says that Moses led the Israelites for 40 years, though it was longer. He calls the visitation on Mt. Sinai that of an angel, though Exodus is clear that this is God Himself. Stephen recounts the Golden Calf, but then says that God turned against the Israelites by turning them over to the worship of heavenly bodies, a point that is not found in Exodus. Stephen quotes from Amos, but the quote is loose. The first line matches, but the second line mentioning Molech and Rephan is found only in the Septuagint, and in the third line Stephen says the exile is “beyond Babylon,” while Amos says it is “beyond Damascus.”  Stephen then finishes the account by focusing on the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon’s building of the Temple, and a repudiation of the Temple as the dwelling place of God based on Isaiah 66:1-2.

Clearly there are major differences between the Jewish scriptures that Stephen knew and the scriptures that are accepted today. Some of the differences are due to the currency of the Septuagint Bible, which is widely regarded as flawed and which has been replaced by more modern translations. But some variations could be due to oral traditions.

As for Stephen’s experience of God, it is more direct than any other character in the Bible, except perhaps Moses. He is not only filled with the Holy Spirit, but he actually sees God (and Jesus) in Heaven. He is so intoxicated with the experience of the divine that he does not feel pain, fear, or anger from being stoned. Instead, he is able to forgive his enemies even as they are killing him. And he does not die, but rather falls asleep. 

Saul’s role in the stoning of Stephen is presented as relatively benign. We are not told that he casts a stone or orders any stone to be cast. But what does it mean that those who are stoning Stephen lay their clothes at his feet? And was he a member of the Sanhedrin?  It seems unlikely that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, since they were elders, some perhaps drawn from the high priest’s clan and they would have been expected to be men of learning, probably not associated with a trade of questionable purity like tentmaking. As for the laying of clothes at Saul’s feet, it certainly meant that he was trustworthy and of too high a station to participate in the stoning directly.

1. The nature of the Sanhedrin is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia
2. Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia
3. Acts 7: 51 “Uncircumcised in heart and ears” echoes Jeremiah 4:4
4. No judgment is issued by the religious court, so stoning cannot be an acceptable punishment. 
5. This is the first instance of dying being termed “falling asleep” (other instances occur in 1 Cor, 1 Th, and 2 Peter).  This portrayal of death is not typical of other Jewish scripture.  In the gospels, falling asleep is associated with inattention or sloth, as when the disciples fall asleep at Gethsemane.
6. The irony of Stephen, an ordinary man, lecturing the religious leaders of Jerusalem on theology is very rich. If there is any point to God’s expenditure of one of His early workers on scolding the Sanhedrin, it may be in illustrating that Truth is freely available through the Holy Spirit. The licensure of holiness through the Temple and the religious bureaucracy is completely void of meaning.