Paul the Persecutor

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?

20 thoughts on “Paul the Persecutor

  1. I think that given the fear of riots and other things surrounding the death of Jesus it is fairly certain that Stephen was stoned because he was associated with this. Similar to other politically motivated disasters that have occurred in our world’s history it’s not surprising that Stephen would be stoned for suspicious anti-Roman activity. In my personal opinion other reasons relating to the gentiles are less likely because Paul was not busy spreading the gospel to them at this time. I don’t know much about the years immediately after Jesus’ death, but it makes sense that this would be a key motivation; Stephen acted like the kind of guy who was trying to stir up something. This is purely because of the fact that he followed Jesus in his last days. As far as other reasons are concerned I am doubtful that Paul was very involved.

  2. It seems that in Acts 7 Stephen is claiming to be a prophet. Going even further this now self-proclaimed prophet tells them they have uncircumcised ears and hearts. It’s now not just a speech by a man who wants to share the messiah, but rather a personal attack on the listener. Having all of that mixed in plus having the social and religious issues happening at the same time gave them hatred and a legal reason to stone him. Just as Nick mentioned Stephen standing up preaching this probably caused a fear of riots as well. Their solution to the problem was to eliminate it altogether. What if Stephen’s preaching was right (Jesus is the Messiah) and they just killed the messiah? Fear of riots and being wrong may be an issue now too.

  3. I’d like to see some further digging and discussion in another couple (or so) posts on this topic. Lots of questions to raise and explore.

    One of them would be what significance, if any, is there to Saul being introduced precisely at THIS persecution (and execution)? And saying he was “approving.” Previously there had been persecution involving Peter and John, etc., and no mention of his involvement (nor was there later). Also “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7, right before the account re. Stephen’s death). It could be Stephen’s outspokenness and confrontation was “the straw” in and of itself. But no word Paul had been agitated by priests’ conversions, with many others. (He WAS still a “young man”… just how young and low or high in leadership status I think remains unclear… so tough to be definitive here.)

    But IF Paul, like others, despite likely sympathy with “Freedmen” or Gentile God-fearers, was bothered particularly by a Hellenistic Jew (Stephen), one has to wonder if it had something to do with the Hellenist influence of beliefs and/or culture. If indeed Paul, within a relatively short time, had a 180 degree reversal of some aspect of his beliefs/commitments, it makes sense in terms of known, common processes, that it may have been his guilt over persecution of particularly Hellenistic believers that was the trigger; also the stimulus for a focus on particularly THEIR salvation.

    This could well fit with his “conversion” (or initial “revelation of the Son in me”). A revelation was prompted for inner-conflict resolution because he was being intolerably torn between two directions. And this both theological and by way of the dual-culture, dual-loyalty issues of his hometown upbringing. As I’ve said elsewhere, I can imagine the spirit of Jesus actually being involved (tho I’m not “orthodox”) and perhaps providing the extra nudge of reversing Paul and washing out most (tho not all) of the anger and probably all of the violence. In following Jesus, he would no longer support or use violence to “do the will of God”, as Jesus would not. Unfortunately, he still retained an avenging God, which I believe was NOT the understanding and experience of Jesus…. Paul’s “salvation” (including from violence to non-violence) was substantial but not complete, as he himself believed it was not.

  4. In my comment just completed, I should qualify that it was not mainly Hellenistic Jews who Paul sought to reach… rather Gentiles. But, it was, in fact, often Jews and Hellenistic God-fearers who responded and who helped him, no doubt, with access to synagogues in major Roman cities. This is where he tended to begin a new regional outreach.

  5. Last year during Acts I was able to study the life of Stephen on one of my paper. In Acts 6:8 it states that “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great signs and wonders among the people.” I think this is the first of many reason that lead to the stoning of Stephen. As the verse says Stephen was a man full of grace. Stephen was really passionate to reach the people, he went out of his way to reach the people. Stephen could’ve easily stayed home and attempted to reach people in a less dangerous way. However, Stephen went out and performed signs and wonders among the people. performing signs and wonders in places where people did not want to receive the message made him a target. The second reason I thought of would be found in Acts 6:7 which states “so the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”. It seems that those who wanted Stephen stoned grew jealous of his wisdom and how fast he was ministering to the people. Also the amount of people who were turning to Christ because of Stephen.

  6. You asked, would a disagreement over who the Messiah might be result in such a violent response from the Pharisee? I believe it would, especially after the point that you about the social and political problems it could cause. Talking about the Messiah being crucified. This could cause problems with Rome, and them being the ones that could be blamed for it. Although you said that there is a lack of evidence, it is still a very good point. Even in our society today, if someone were to speak against something political, they would get a load of back lash from other, maybe not stoning but they would hear about it. With what he was saying could have defiantly started some riots, and an easy way to get rid of the problem would be to get rid of the person who started putting ideas in people’s heads. In all actuality he was just trying to share who the messiah was.

  7. In my opinion, it is entirely possible and even likely that any given Pharisee would react with crazy intense zeal against someone who was saying what Stephen was saying. Basically, Stephen was saying that the Jews’ special temple wasn’t a good enough dwelling place for the “Most High.” And if that isn’t enough of an insult, he added that Jesus was and is the Righteous One, then blaming them for murdering him! (Acts 7:48-51). The reaction sparked in the Pharisees is nothing we haven’t seen before. I admit, I know that many times in the Gospels, the writers report that the “Pharisees devised plans” or they “planned how they might kill him (talking about Jesus)”–I know this occurs many times in the Gospels but I usually look past them because I know what is eventually going to happen to Jesus. Anyway, most of these remarks happen at times when Jesus simply embarrasses them or challenges a simple custom such as Luke 13:17a, Luke 11:53-54, or Mark 3:6. So in my mind, it makes sense that the Pharisees would react so extremely to Stephen talking about the things he did.

  8. No one likes it when someone pronounces judgement against them, especially when that person is right. Stephen is described as a man full of God’s grace and power (6:8). I think that the reason that the crowds got so mad at Stephen was because somewhere in the back of their minds they knew that he was correct, or at least some of them did, the rest simply did not like being called on the carpet for having killed an innocent man. Even today we ignore what we don’t want to hear, when we are right or wrong, and these men stopped up their ears. There is something that happens when the Spirit of God brings conviction into people. The first is that people fall to their knees in repentance, or two, they lash out in anger. This crowd definitely did the second. The Jews thought that after the death of Jesus they would not have to deal with the fallout from His followers for long, but much to their surprise, I would think, the movement only continued to grow. With the following Stephen was amassing because of the miracles God did through him and through the preaching of the Gospel, the Jews were fed up. Especially when one who was not a scribe or priest saw fit to recount the histories to them, or to impugn their honor with regards to the Law. I think the last straw though can be found in 7:56 when Stephen says to the crowds: Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God! The Son of Man is a clear reference to Jesus, the right hand a reference to power and authority, and the fact that Jesus was standing, something that kings would do when pronouncing judgement, sent the Jews into a frenzy. Stephen was stoned by people who did not want to accept the message of the Gospel nor the One who preached it.

  9. Acts 6:3 and 6:8 – “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”

    “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.”

    It pretty much summarizes the one of the reasons why Stephen was stoned to death. The guy was defined as full of Spirit, wisdom, faith and power, plus he was the opposite style of “please don’t shoot the messenger”, hence the speech that he gave.
    Acts 7:51-53 ““You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

    Stephen knew what could be the price by following Jesus and declaring that He was the Messiah. Obviously that the crowd would be shocked by such an “outrageous” (sarcasm) declaration to the point of wanting to kill him. The number of disciples was increasing and that was a direct threat. I do think that the death of Stephen was caused also to send a message to those out there that were also proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah. If Paul was anywhere involved with it? I don’t think so! Although, I would not be surprised if he was.

  10. I think what threw Paul over the edge on Stephens speech was the fact that Stephen was speaking the truth about Jesus and Paul, being unSaved at the time, took offense because he did not know and believe the truth. Also since Paul was a huge persecutor of Christians to begin with, it might be possible that Paul just wanted to kill Stephen solely because he was Christian. Look at the persecutors of Christians today, and in history. Some do it because they hate the truth about Jesus. Some do it because they want their religion to succeed instead, and since in a sense Stephen was “threatening” the Jewish religion by preaching about Jesus, Paul might have killed Stephen because he did not want other Jews to convert to Christianity. I also think it was just a hatred in Paul’s heart that lead to the stoning of Stephen.

    • Elizabeth, I hope you don’t mind a caring “correction”. Your phrasing seems to be making Saul the killer (maybe just a slip) or at least an instigator. While that IS possible, the Acts text suggests he was more a supporter who accepted what was happening. And Paul himself never admits to murder (or killings) that I recall, tho he certainly did admit to persecution and imprisonments. YOU (or anyone) may certainly correct me if that is wrong.

  11. Why did Saul, who later goes by Paul, persecute the church so strongly? Was it really just disagreement over Jesus being the Messiah that lead to such a violent response from the Pharisees? Is it possible there were other factors which may have have motivated Paul to persecute Stephen and other Jesus followers? Those are the questions I will answer. Firstly, Paul was an extremely zealous individual when it came to his religious beliefs and upholding the Laws in the Torah. Longenecker and Still said this about Paul, “his excessive religious devotion and fervor prompted him to take extreme measures to eradicate the nascent Jesus movement,” (TTP, 39). Paul had been strictly raised to obey the Law, so anyone opposing it, or trying to lead other Jews away from following its traditions, would have been seen as a threat. Paul clearly felt the Jesus followers would corrupt the rest of the Jewish body loyal to the ways of their fathers and the Law brought to them by Moses. Going off of what I just said, I think the Pharisees in general felt threatened as well by the newly emerging group of Jesus followers. They were trying to get people to wait for a different Messiah, were the ones that instigated the death of Christ, and never liked the things Jesus used to say in regards to the Pharisees. It is likely that most of Pharisees had not really known much about what Jesus taught. However, if they had heard of his disapproval towards how the Pharisees were acting, it would have made them feel like their ways and authority were in danger. I think that those feelings of irritation and fear toward the Jesus followers, plus how they were gradually growing in number, was what caused such a harsh reaction against them from the Pharisees. Going along with that, Stephen had been trying to share the news about Christ, and had tried telling everyone they had missed out on the Messiah. As Long said in his blog, Strphen was telling them that Israel had rejected the true Messiah, which in turn would have made those with authority among the Jewish come across as in the wrong. All these circumstances are what lead to why Paul persecuted the church so strongly before his conversion, why the Pharisees responded so violently, and why Stephen had been stoned by Paul and the Jews.

  12. Saul was the Pharisee of Pharisees and had so much zeal; it doesn’t surprise me that he approved of the stoning of Stephen. Stephen was speaking so boldly about Christ and was doing miracles (Acts 6:8) which interested the Jews, but they did not like it. He was speaking to Diaspora Jews, and Saul was a Diaspora Jew as well, so perhaps Saul felt the need to “stick up” for them, like he needed to protect “his kind,” so he just approved of killing Stephen. These Jews (including Saul) did not believe in Jesus, and Stephen was speaking to many who belonged to the synagogue of Freedmen, so they were really offended by what he said, even though they were the ones to rise up and start the dispute with him (Acts 6:9). Then, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking,” which just made them mad (Acts 6:10). Even though they saw him perform miracle after miracle, they did not believe what he had to say, but they still couldn’t refute the truth he was speaking. I think between the miracles and the wisdom “they could not withstand,” it just made them all incredibly angry so they stoned him, and Saul, still not believing in Jesus, wanted him to be done away with, too.

  13. Dr. Long, I am enjoying your articles on Paul! Have you read “Observations on the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul” by George Lyttleton?

      • I’ve not encountered this… Interesting period for “critical scholarship”. I’ve not studied the era much, but I think 1754 is pretty close to the date of authorship of Reimarus’ famous, influential work… but I don’t recall just when it was published… posthumously, of course… he knew the trouble it would raise. (I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment.) But not long after, other German “higher scholars” emerged. Not many know that the British “branch” of this included some pretty deep work by Joseph Priestly who is noted more as a scientist (from earlier), less as a biblical scholar. He influenced Jefferson a lot; and via Jefferson also Adams later in life, post presidency. This is documented some in a fascinating (if a bit difficult) work by Jonathan Z Smith, titled “Drudgery Divine”. Fascinating history, as well as theology! (I’ve wandered far, I know… stream of consciousness – sorry!)

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