In several letters Paul confesses that he once persecuted the followers of Jesus and caused the death of some. In Acts Luke associates this violent persecution with the preaching of Stephen, a deacon who delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7 arguing that Jesus is superior to the Temple.
The response of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogue is in fact violent: Stephen is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and executed. Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1), but if he was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear. 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 the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not standing int eh Temple courts speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there. Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove 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.
Rabbi Saul is therefore opposing the Stephen as an attack on the central institution of Second Temple Judaism (the Temple) and a particular view of the messiah held by the Pharisees. For Paul as a Pharisee, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was absurd since he was crucified, “hung on a tree.” Jesus was under a curse rather than the source of salvation. Saul likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.
But is this the whole story? Would a disagreement over who the messiah might be result in such a violent response from a Pharisee? Are there other factors which may have motivated Paul’s persecution of Stephen and the other Christ followers?