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As I stated in the previous post, many Pauline scholars prefer to call Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus a “call” rather than a conversion from one religion to another. This events similar to a prophetic call of an Old Testament prophet similar to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.

Stendahl, for example, argued Paul never left Judaism. He remained a faithful Jew, fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles.” In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God. He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah. Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism.

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets.

The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key. Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul. Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.

However, I do think that it is problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

Using modern Christian categories like “conversion” and “call” to describe Paul’s experience is a mistake. Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history. As we read the story in Acts, what is radical about Saul’s conversion at this point in the story? If you bracket out what we know Paul is going to say later in Galatians, to what extent is Acts 9 a calling or a conversion?

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  To what extent did was Paul “prepared” for his encounter on the road to Damascus?  Certainly Paul thought that God had prepared him to preach the grace of God (Gal 1:15), but this question usually is more interested in Paul’s psychological state of mind when he met Jesus.

The Wretched Man

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has framed this discussion of Paul’s conversion in much different terms than the traditional view of Paul would have allowed. (I summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.) Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Rom 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl.  Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification.  In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars have made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology. This leads to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism – Jews become proto-Pelagians, Paul is Luther bashing the RCC’s.

Judaism is thought to be the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity and Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism.  Sanders changed the debate by arguing that the questions posed by the protestant / RCC debate have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period.   For Sanders, this totally obscures what was actually happening in the first century and how Christianity developed out of Judaism.  In addition, Sanders points out that the protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Sandmel, for example), he was incoherent or inconsistent.

According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not Paul!  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

Is Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (55)?

In an earlier post I speculated on Paul’s access to wealth during his ministry.  While Paul seems to be willing to live in whatever circumstances his mission require, that mission required a great deal of wealth. He travels with an entourage.

John Polhill speculated that Paul may have been from a wealthy family based on his citizenship.   In order to “buy” a citizenship, one might need to spend 18 months wages or more on the necessary bribes in order to receive the honor.  The fact that Paul was a tent maker from Tarsus may imply that he worked with the costly material cilcium, used for both tents and saddles.

Martin Hengel thought that Paul’s education may be a hint at his social status.  If he came to Jerusalem at a young age, then he was likely from a “well-to-do” family which could afford to send a son to study on Jerusalem. Certainly Schnabel finds this a clear hint that Paul’s family may have had some wealth. It is possible that his family was well-connected among the aristocracy in Jerusalem, permitting them to obtain the services of Gamaliel as a teacher for the young Paul.  Perhaps he was on the fast-track to leadership in the Sanhedrin, explaining why he had access to the High Priest when he wanted to persecute believers in Damascus.

One key bit of evidence is that Paul sponsored a vow in Acts 21.  The Nazarite vow was a Jewish tradition that was supposed to be a deeply spiritual exercise.  To sponsor such a vow would be an indication of Jewish loyalty and fidelity to the Law.  For example, Agrippa I sponsored vows for several young men in order to show his personal loyalty to the law (Josephus, Antiq. 19.294).  Since the expenses for the vow itself could be high, wealthy men could show their support by paying the expenses for one or more men completing their vow. While it is possible Paul took this money from the collection he delivered to Jerusalem, that is not stated in the text.  In any case, taking money intended for the poor in Jerusalem to sponsor the vow does not seem appropriate, the money ought to be come form Paul’s own pocket.

To what extent does Paul’s wealth effect the way he did ministry?  Modern evangelism is often targeted on the “down and out,” people who on the fringes of society.  This is very much like Jesus, and perhaps Peter in Act 9.  Did Paul target wealthy, higher class people (ie., Roman citizens) because he was a wealthy Roman citizen?

Ekhard Schnabel asks this question in Paul the Missionary (44, cf. Early Christian Mission, 2:927-928).  There are rally two questions here.  First, what was the theological motive for Paul’s persecution?  Second, what drove him to pursue Jesus’ followers to Damascus?

Some scholars 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 not concerned with food traditions.  This too is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  These two issue are a problem only when a significant number of Gentiles were saved, and especially Gentiles who were not God-Fearers before accepting Jesus as Savior.

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.  Remember that the factors which will eventually result in the Jewish War are already in the air some thirty years earlier.  Paul may have been concerned for sparking a revolution by teaching that Jesus is a resurrected King who will return and establish a kingdom.

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.  In addition, Schnabel points out that any theology which saw Jesus as Savior is not compatible with the view that salvation comes through faith expressed in obedience to Torah.  A simple example from the gospels will illustrate this point.  When the rich you man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he understands this in terms of obedience to the foundation of the Law (ie., he keeps all the commandments).  This is not to say Judaism was a “works for salvation” religion, but that one was right with God because God has given Torah and individuals come to God through the perfection of the Torah.

These early followers of Jesus claim that there is no other name by which a person can be saved (Acts 4:12).  Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 concludes with a contrast between the Torah and Jesus. 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.

Lambert Sustris - Ethiopian Eunuch 1After a period of ministry in Samaria, Philip is lead by the Spirit to a road heading from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he encounters an Eunuch from Ethiopia.

That this man was in Jerusalem and is reading a scroll of Isaiah indicates that he is a Jew, despite the fact that he is living in Ethiopia. Some (older) commentaries argue that the Ethiopian was a Gentile. Since there is no church that develops from his conversion, there is not a problem integrating him into Israel as a convert to “Jewish Christianity.” Most important, the conversion of Saul in the next chapter heralds the beginning of Gentile mission.

But as Darrell Bock points out, Luke makes Cornelius significant as the first Gentile convert, albeit as a God-Fearer (Acts, 338). As with the Samaritans, we are geographically moving outward from Jerusalem, but also culturally. If the Samaritans are the fringe of Judaism, so too would be a Gentile convert from Ethiopia, a land that was considered to be the very “ends of the earth” (Witherington, Acts, 290, citing Herodotus, Hist 3.25.114, Strabo, Geog. 1.1.6).

The fact he is reading from Isaiah is an indication that the man is at least a Jewish convert.  A scroll of Isaiah would have been a costly book and quite large. Either this is a purchase for his synagogue, or he is reading and extract from a larger scroll. In addition, he is reading aloud, often associated with memorization of the text (m.Aboth 6.5). The scroll could be in Hebrew or Greek, the text as cited in Acts follows the LXX, but the sense is the same in the Hebrew.  If he were reading a section of Isaiah in Hebrew, then this is confirmation that the Ethiopian was a Jew (although the language of the scroll does not matter)

He is described as a Eunuch and in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is not the same as the modern country, but biblical “Cush,” south of Egypt, in the central Sudan. It is a five month journey from Jerusalem to Cush through inhospitable desert. Presumably he was either in Jerusalem from Passover, stayed through Pentecost and is only now returning home to Ethiopia. He is traveling south to the coast. Gaza is the last place to stop for water before the road turns south for the Egyptian desert (Bock, Acts, 341).

The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53, the great servant song.  The identity of the servant was an open question in the first century, but few would have identified the servant as the Messiah.  Philip uses the ambiguity of the text as an opportunity to explain that Jesus of Nazareth is the suffering servant.

When Philip approaches the Ethiopian, he asks if he understands the text. The Ethiopian states humbly that he cannot understand unless he has a guide – the purpose Philip has been brought to the place. The question the man concerns the subject of Isaiah 53. Jews in the Second Temple period would have that the passage described either Isaiah or some other person (like a new Elijah); if the messiah was in view, it was not a suffering messiah at all.

Philip “begins with that very passage” to explain the gospel with the Ethiopian. Philip identifies Jesus as the innocent sufferer of Isaiah 53, making it clear that the new age described in Isaiah 56 has begun – that even Eunuchs may enter into complete fellowship with God in worship.

If the Eunuch is in fact from an Ethiopian family of Jewish proselytes, then Philip is extending the Gospel into new a social and cultural context, but he is not yet reaching out to the Gentiles. But he is doing ministry like Jesus did, finding Jews who were on the margins of what it meant to be Jewish from the perspective of the Temple aristocracy, the Pharisees and others at the center of Jewish faith in Jerusalem.

After the execution of Stephen, Luke tells us that a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, presumably led by Saul and other Hellenistic Jews from the synagogue of the Freedmen. Philip, introduced in Acts 6 as a deacon, now functions as an evangelist in Samaria. Like Stephen, he appears to have been a leader among the Hellenists. He goes into the region of Samaria and has great success as an evangelist.

Among those who believe is a man named Simon, who is described as a magician (verses 9-13). Justin Martyr describes Simon as a source of a great deal of heresy in the early church. While it is impossible to confirm anything he says, Luke describes him here as a man who had functioned as a first century magician who used these skills to draw people to himself. A Magus could be a respectable class of scientific advisers to leaders, but often they were quacks and charlatans.

This appears to be what Simon is, since he is amazing people for a long time in the Samaritan town. In Simon’s case, he seems to have been able to perform a number of miracles by which he was able to gain a following among the Samaritans. Luke does not tell us what is motivation might have been, but there is a connection between magic and money in other contexts in Acts (13:6-8, 16:18-19, 19:14-19), so it is possible that Simon was functioning as a miracle worker in order to make money.

My Favorite Magician

My Favorite Magician

Keener points out a number of comparisons between Philip and Simon. Both work wonders and draw crowds. Simon is a “great power” (8:10) and Philip preforms “great powers” (8:13). Both amaze the Samaritans, Simon with magic (8:9, 11) and Philip with miracles (8:13). Simon, however, attempts to make himself something great, while Philip acts only “in the name of Jesus” (8:12,16). This is the first of several confrontations with magicians Luke describes in Acts. Paul will be opposed by Elymas, a Philippian slave girl is possessed by “the spirit of python” so that she acts as an oracle, and the Sons of Sceva attempt to cast out demons and are beaten, resulting in the burning of magical scrolls by some Ephesian Christians (Keener 2:1499).

Why is there an interest in magic in the book of Acts? One reason is the ancient world was obsessed with magic. Magic was an attempt to manipulate spirits and force them to act in ways religion did not (Keener: 2:1500). While moderns think of magic as a “trick” or an “illusion,” the ancients understood magic as a way of dealing with reality. Love potions and curses were available for purchase in places like Ephesus, fortune-tellers were in the marketplace to help you make decisions, and people bought charms and spells to protect them against evil spirits. If Philip the Evangelist did miracles, it would be very easy to confuse them with magical practices.

How does the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 function as a warning against magic? Or was the story intended to explain to Christians the source of the disciples’ power? Perhaps this is a good passage to think about application: Luke meant for his readers to understand something about the practice of magic in the first century, but how do we draw application to modern, western cultures where magic is not practiced? Is this a story which would be more quickly applied in an African environment than an American college campus?

This persecution is directly related to the death of Stephen in chapter 7. Since Stephen’s sermon was a statement of judgment against the leadership of Israel for their resistance to the Holy Spirit. There is a progression of resistance in Acts 1-8.  First the apostles are warned, then they are arrested and beaten, then Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin, and lynched.  Now the whole church of Jerusalem is being suppressed.

Saul is the ringleader of this persecution – he begins to “ravaging the church” (ESV). This verb (λυμαίνω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it had the sense of a violent oppression (1 Chron16:10) or even rape (Judith 9:2, 4 Mac 18:8). Keener indicates the word can be applied to torture as well (2:1484). It seems odd from a modern, western perspective to employ violence to suppress sub-group within a religion, although there are plenty of examples of violent clashes between various Christian groups over the centuries. The fact Saul will use such violent measures against the Jesus movement indicates he thought it was a dangerous belief which had to be suppressed by any means. (Saul is just as zealous as those who persecuted Peter in Acts 5, see my comments on that passage).

DandelionBut who exactly is scattered? The apostles are not “scattered,” but remain in Jerusalem. Since Saul led the group which killed Stephen, it seems as though conservative Hellenistic Jews are continuing the persecution.  Since Stephen and Philip are examples in Luke of Hellenistic Jews who have accepted the apostolic message, it also seems likely that this persecution targeted Hellenistic Jewish believers.

Keener recognizes the Hellenists were the special targets of persecution, although Luke says Saul was attaching “all the church.” Keener sees this as another example of Luke’s hyperbolic use of “all” in both the Gospel and the book of Acts (2:1468). Some Hebrew Christians may have been effected even if Saul targeted the Hellenists.

The people persecuted are scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria.”  This may indicate that those who lived relatively nearby left Jerusalem and simply returned to their homes on account of the persecution.  We will find out later that these Hellenistic Jews went as far as Antioch and Damascus as well.

Why do the apostles stay in Jerusalem? It is quite possible that the apostles took Jesus’ final commission to them seriously and stayed in Jerusalem because they were to evangelize the world starting in Jerusalem. If the persecution that Luke describes in Acts 8:1-3 targeted Hellenistic Jews, then it is possible that the Apostles were not seen as a threat.  F. F. Bruce thought the apostles felt their duty remained in Jerusalem in spite of persecution (Acts, 162-3). There is no indication that Saul was hunting down people like Peter and John, but rather those who were associated with Stephen – Philip for example.

Is there enough evidence to decide Saul was targeting only Hellenistic Christians (like Stephen and Philip)? If he was targeting Hellenists, what was his motivation?

In the conclusion to his sermon, Stephen claims the current generation is just as stiff-necked and rebellious as the Wilderness generation, and will therefore fall under the same judgment (7:51-53). The conclusion to Stephen’s sermon draws on themes found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

  • First, 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).
  • Second, they are also described as having “uncircumcised hearts.” This phrase is also associated with covenant unfaithfulness (Jer 9:25, Lev 26:41, Jer 6:10, Ezek 44:7, 9).
  • Third, the people are resisting 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. The present generation has not accepted the word of God as it has been revealed to them.

Stephen therefore claims the leadership of Israel has the Law but they refuse to obey it. Is it true that Israel has not obeyed the Law? One might argue that they have kept most of it since they do the sacrifices correctly and practice the Works of the Law which sets them apart as Jews (Sabbath, circumcision, etc.) But as the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus have all pointed out, the external doing of the Law means nothing if there is not a change of heart – sacrifice without obedience with worthless.

StephenStephen 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. Persecuting and killing the prophets who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. 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. That Stephen refers to Jesus as the Righteous One he is emphasizing the fact that he has suffered and died innocently, at the hands of the men assembled to hear this speech! Little wonder they react with such fury.

Finally, Stephen accuses the Sanhedrin (and that entire generation) receiving the Law, but not keeping the Law. They had the Law and the Prophets which testified to the coming of Jesus, yet when he came he was not accepted, but rather he was executed as a criminal. The speech is therefore not critical of the Law or the Temple; it is a stinging condemnation of the people who had received the Law in the first place.

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?

Craig Keener asks an intriguing question in his section on the arrest of Stephen. The crowds at the Temple held Peter and the Twelve in “high esteem” as they taught daily at Solomon’s Porticio (Acts 5:13). When the High Priest sends guards to arrest them in Acts 5:26, they “were afraid of being stoned by the people” so they did not use force to bring Peter and John to the Sanhedrin. But where is the crowd when Stephen is arrested?

Keener suggests the content of Stephen’s reaching is the reason people do not support him quite the way they supported Peter. Peter directly confronted the High Priest, but did not condemn the Temple or worship at the Temple. Luke is clear these are false charges (μάρτυρας ψευδεῖς), but it is possible Stephen preached something which could have been taken as blasphemy “against the temple and the Law.” He offers an example another prophetic voice who attacked the Temple during the First Jewish Revolt. Jesus ben Annanias publically declared the Temple would be destroyed and was arrested and flogged (Josephus, J.W. 6.300-309, Keener 2:1322). Later Paul is under threat for challenging the authority of Artemis in Ephesus (Acts 19). To attack a central cultural symbol like the Temple will result in violent reprisals.

By way of analogy, a political commentator might offer a scathing critique of the President or Congress. They might question policies and decisions, accuse them (often falsely) of all sorts of “crimes and misdemeanors” in op-ed pieces or the daily talk shows. Most of the time Americans will tenaciously defend their right to free speech, even if they disagree with the content of the speech. But if a political commentator attacks the idea of America or burns a flag on TV, or crosses some politically correct line in the sand, their support will erode rapidly.

This appears to be the issue with Stephen. Everyone in Second Temple Judaism could complain about the High Priest, everyone thought the aristocracy is corrupt. But Stephen is saying the worship in the Temple is not acceptable to God (and perhaps has not been acceptable for a very long time). This is an attack at the most important cultural symbol in first century Judaism—the Temple.

the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1604The non-reaction of the crowds might reflect their belief that Stephen too far in his prophetic condemnation and they simply ignored him. (This is often the best strategy when a political commentator “goes too far,” just ignore him!) Another factor that should not be overlooked is the location of Stephen’s ministry, the Synagogue of the Freedmen. He is not teaching this in the Temple courts, standing with Peter in Solomon’s Portico and declaring the Temple is no longer a valid place to worship God. He is in a Hellenistic Synagogue.

I suggested earlier the Diaspora, Hellenistic Jews who worshiped in this synagogue may have been “more conservative” than those worshiping in the Temple Courts. At the very least, they appear to be far more sensitive to attacks on the Temple. Stephen does not have the tacit support of the Pharisees and priests in the Temple not the popular support of the crowds who may have enjoyed Peter’s jabs at the High Priest and his cronies. He is attacking a central symbol of Judaism in front of the people most likely to violently defend those symbols.

To what extent is Stephen’s speech a kind of prophetic condemnation of the Temple? But does he actually speak out against the Law or Moses? It is hard not to read later Paul into this sermon, but we have to keep Galatians out of Acts 7. Just how far does Stephen push the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

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Christian Theology

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