The Speeches of Acts, Part 10: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

In Part 9 of this series, I examined the overall setting and background of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

In this part I will continue with the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; cf. also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

 &Andre$ a)delfoi\ kai\ pate/re$, a)kou/sate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, cf. Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

    • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
    • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
    • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
      (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
      (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
      (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
      —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
      —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
      ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)

Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (e)n tw=| o&rei tou/tw|) we find “in this place” (e)n tw=| to/pw| tou/tw|), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

    • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
    • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
    • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [e)plhrou=to] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [plhrwqe/ntwn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

    • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
    • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236
      and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
    • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (ou!to$, acc. tou=ton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (cf. Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

    • V. 35—”this [tou=ton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [tou=ton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
    • V. 36—”this (one) [ou!to$] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
    • V. 37—”this [ou!to$] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
    • V. 38—”this [ou!to$] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun o%$ [dat. w!|]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

    • the people denied/refused [h)rnh/sato] Moses (v. 35, cf. also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
    • “leader [a&rxwn] and redeemer [lutrwth/$]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
    • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. a)poste/llw) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
    • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
    • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
    • Moses was with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church”—the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), esp. in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])…
who [o^$] received living lo/gia to give to us,
to whom [w!|] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…

The neuter noun lo/gion (lógion), related to the more common lo/go$ (lógos, “account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts unto Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (qusi/a, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, ei&dwlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [e)n toi=$ e&rgoi$ tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [e)stra/fhsan] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [e&streyen, same verb] and gives the people over [pare/dwken] for them to do (hired) service [latreu/ein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see, e.g. Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (cf. Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be discussed in the next part of this series.