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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?

Stephen is arrested on false charges and put on trial (Acts 6: 11-15). The false charges against Stephen concern his attitude toward the Law and the Temple. Luke is clear that these are false charges against Stephen. He is not against the Law or the Temple.

Stoning Stephen RembrandtThe charges are similar to those brought against Jesus when he was before the Sanhedrin. Ben Witherington observes that Luke is patterning the death of Stephen after the trial and execution of Jesus.  There are at least ten things the two trials have in common, and two which only appear in Luke/Acts. First, both Jesus and Stephen commit their spirit to God and second both pray for forgiveness for his accusers.

This is an important observation since in the Gospels the Jewish people reject Jesus as the Messiah, in Acts they are rejecting the promised Holy Spirit, the foundation for the Messianic Kingdom.  Both rejections are punctuated by an execution of an innocent man. This in no way says anything about Stephen being exactly like Jesus. It is significant, however, that the first time a Jesus-follower is executed he dies just like Jesus did.

As for the charges, perhaps Stephen used Jesus’ statement that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days or his prediction the Temple would be destroyed in the near future in his preaching in the Synagogue. This could have been used against him in the same way Jesus was accused of threatening the Temple. Both Jesus and Stephen stand within a grand tradition of offering a critique of the Temple and the Priesthood. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible frequently condemned the priests and Temple worship (Jer 7, for example). The Essenes represent a Second Temple period critique and condemnation of the worship nearer the time of Jesus. A Jew saying the High Priest and Temple was corrupt was not particularly revolutionary–but to say the work of your teacher replaced the work of the Temple would have been radical.

Stephen represents a different strata of Second Temple period Judaism which has the potential to be more open to the gospel of Jesus as Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God.  But just like the Judean Jewish leadership, the synagogue of the Hellenists resist the Holy Spirit as well.  Stephen is therefore arrested like the Apostles have been before.

But in this case, Stephen gives a lengthy prophetic sermon condemning the Jewish aristocracy for their resistance against the Holy Spirit, leading to his dramatic execution at the end of chapter seven and the equally dramatic introduction of Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church.

Here is a problem for the readers of Acts.  Luke chose to place this story where he did, balancing his historical, literary and theological motives. Is this solely a critique of the Temple? What is happening in the unfolding story of salvation history in Acts 6-7? What is Luke’s point in placing this arrest, prophetic speech and lynching of Stephen at this point in his narrative?

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews and neither is numbered among the 12.  Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

Acts 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. (See this post on the Hellenists.)This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). 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. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

08-04-05/46This 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 language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

We cannot make a general judgment like “all Jews from the Diaspora were more liberal” or that “all Jews from Jerusalem were more conservative.”  These categories are derived from modern, western ways of dividing an issue into opposing, black and white categories and highlighting the contrasts.  It is entirely possible a Jew living in a Roman city was very conservative on some aspects of the Law even though he lived and worked along side Gentiles.

Paul is the best example of this since he was a Jew from Tarsus, fluent in Greek but also able to call himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3. He was certainly quite conservative with respect to keeping the law and traditions of the people.  Yet he was a Roman citizen and seems to have had little problem functioning in the Greco-Roman world.  On the other hand, The High Priest, the Sadducees and Herodians appear to have been more relaxed  concerning some aspects of the Law and had no real problem ruling alongside of the Romans. But they were still concerned with keeping the Law and maintaining the Temple.  It was therefore possible to be “extremely zealous” in the Diaspora and extremely lax while worshiping in the Temple regularly.

Some in the Jerusalem community in Acts 6 are more committed to a Jewish Christianity and 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.

The text in Acts 6 does not imply that the problem was theological – it was entirely social (Witherington, Acts, 250). Some of the Hellenists felt slighted because their poor were not supported at the same level as the non-Hellenists. The word Luke uses (παραθεωρέω) in Acts 6:1 means that one “overlooks something due to insufficient attention” (BDAG).  The neglect may not be intentional, but it was a very real problem which the Apostles needed to deal with quickly.

As we read Acts 6, how deep is the divide between these two groups?  Looking ahead at what happens in Antioch, in Galatia, and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), does this “Hebrew” vs. “Hellenist” divide foreshadow bigger problems?

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.

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.

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