The Speeches of Acts, Part 12: Acts 7:1-53ff (concluded)

Due the length and complexity of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), I have discussed it over three parts (9, 10, 11) of this series on the Speeches of Acts; in this part I will address several key critical and interpretive issues which have thus far been mentioned only in passing:

    1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting
    2. The actual Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen
    3. The view of the Temple in the Speech (and in the book of Acts), and, finally
    4. The Speech in the overall context of Acts

1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting

A number of factors have led critical scholars to question the historicity/factuality of the Sanhedrin setting:

    • it follows a general (narrative) pattern already encountered in chapters 4 and 5; and, while certainly it is plausible that the Apostles would have had multiple run-ins with the religious and Temple authorities, the pattern is distinct enough (esp. comparing 5:17-42 with 6:8-7:1, 54-60) to suggest a literary device.
    • the Sanhedrin trial setting, especially here in chs. 6-7, is suspicious due to the clear parallels drawn with the trial/death of Jesus (outlined at the end of part 11); while this may simply represent an historical synchronicity, it is likely that conscious literary patterning is at work here (at least in part).
    • the speech, and the narrative as a whole, in some ways, makes more sense without the Sanhedrin setting (removing portions of 6:12-15 and 7:1):
      (a) the long historical summary better fits a public sermon than a (defense) speech before a tribunal
      (b) Stephen nowhere in the speech directly deals with the charges against him—more to the point, he does not address the question asked to him directly by the High Priest in 7:1
      (c) the shift between the public dispute in 6:9-10 and the appearance before the Council (6:12ff) is rather abrupt and suggests a narrative adaptation
      (d) the reaction of the audience (to the speech) and the subsequent action in 7:54-60 is more consistent with a mob “lynching” than an official action by the Council—in some ways it better fits the (popular) reaction to a public sermon given by Stephen than the Council’s reaction to a defense speech
      (e) this is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the Council is not mentioned in vv. 54-60; apart from the detail mentioned in v. 58b (possibly), there is nothing to suggest that this is an official action

Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the narrative at face value; while some literary shaping is certainly present, with omissions and simplifications of detail, none of the events described are implausible per se. Probably the most difficult (apparent) discrepancy, recognized by nearly all commentators, is the fact that Stephen’s speech really does not answer (nor even address directly) the charges against him (according to 6:13-14; 7:1). It is to this question that I now turn.

2. The Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen

As mentioned previously, nearly all commentators have noted that the speech does not seem to address the charges brought before the Council in 6:13-14 (and see v. 11) and, correspondingly, the question of the High Priest in 7:1. Indeed, the most implausible detail in the narrative is that the Council would allow Stephen to talk for several minutes, without interruption, delivering the long (and seemingly irrelevant) historical digression we find in vv. 2ff. It must be admitted that, at least through verse 34, there seems to be no clear purpose to the speech; it is just what it appears to be—a straightforward summary of Israelite history (focused on Abraham, Joseph and Moses), with a significant degree of rhetorical development in the section on Moses (vv. 17-34). This changes in verse 35, and it is to verses 35-53 that we need to look for an answer to the charges against Stephen. I offer the following expository conclusions, based on prior exegesis (cf. parts 10 and 11):

    • Moses is presented as one who receives special revelation from God (through Angelic mediation) at Sinai (vv. 30-34), which leads subsequently to:
      (i) receiving the “living words/oracles” of God at Sinai (again through Angelic mediation, vv. 38, 53)—the Law
      (ii) receiving the type/pattern for the “tent of witness” (vv. 44f)—precursor to the Temple
    • A parallel is drawn between Jesus and Moses; both are: (a) sent by God, (b) made to be a leader and redeemer/savior for the people, (c) a Prophet, and (d) ultimately denied/refused by the people
    • A parallel is also drawn between the Temple and idolatry (the Golden Calf, etc)—both are works “made by (human) hands”
    • Just as Moses was denied/refused by the people, so was Jesus—this ultimately meant a rejection of the words of God, i.e. of the Law and the Prophets

These can be distilled down to two basic accusations leveled by Stephen in this section of the speech, that the people:

    1. acted according to a mistaken conception or idea of the “house” (dwelling) of God—the Tent/Temple
    2. refused to follow the Law-giver and Prophet (Moses/Jesus), and so rejected the Law itself

The first conclusion is stated in vv. 48-50, the second especially in v. 53 (and earlier in vv. 35, 39f). These do, in fact, address the two charges against Stephen, though somewhat obliquely; he has actually turned them around into charges against his accusers! Let us revisit the original claims (according to 6:13):

    1. he speaks words against this Holy Place (the Temple), and thus speaks evil “against God” (v. 11)
    2. he speaks words against the Law (also in v. 11)

In verse 14 this is further described according to teaching that:

    1. Jesus would destroy/dissolve this Place (the Temple), cf. Mark 14:58; John 2:19
    2. Jesus would alter the (religious) customs delivered by Moses

The first claim is partially supported in Gospel tradition, and it is certainly possible that Stephen had made statements (related to Jesus and the Temple) which could be interpreted in this way (cf. below). It is hard to know what to make of the second claim, which better fits the accusations made against Paul (see Acts 21:28, etc). If there is any substance to it at all, perhaps Stephen had taught to the effect that the new (eschatological) age inaugurated by Jesus meant that strict observance of the Law was no longer required. This is only guesswork, for we have nothing by which to assess Stephen’s teaching except for the speech in 7:2-53; and, in the speech itself, he makes no statements which could be in any way understood as anti-Law. It is a rather different matter regarding the Temple, as we shall see.

3. The View of the Temple in the Speech

I have already discussed parallels drawn in vv. 35-50 connecting the Tent/Temple with idolatry. Actually, this negative assessment is generally reserved for the Temple itself, the Tent of Witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness period being treated more positively. Still, there can be no mistaking the implicit claim, regarding the (semi-)idolatrous nature of the Temple as a work (like the Golden Calf) “made with hands”. It is possible, of course, that Stephen (along with many Jews and early Christians) was not objecting so much to the Temple itself, but rather to the way it had been used and administered. This is the essence of the opposition to the Temple in the Qumran texts—it was being run by an invalid (and corrupt) priesthood. To a lesser degree, one can detect a similar emphasis in Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple (as recorded in Gospel tradition), both in the action itself and the saying which cites Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 together. However, the use of Isa 66:1-2, in the context of expounding/applying Amos 5:25-27 (along with the summary of Israelite history from the Golden Calf to the building of the Temple), strongly suggests a more fundamental opposition to the actual Temple (and the idea/conception of it). If so, this in many ways contrasts with the positive view of the Temple elsewhere presented in Luke-Acts; note:

    • The role and setting of the Temple in the Infancy narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • Compared with the other Gospels, Luke curtails the Temple “cleansing” scene (Lk 19:45f), and gives extra emphasis to the fact that Jesus was regularly teaching in the Temple precincts (19:47; 20:1; 21:37-38)
    • Luke does not include the Temple-saying reported at Jesus’ “trial” (cf. Mark 14:58 par)
    • After the resurrection, the disciples worship God in the Temple (Lk 24:53), and early Christians continue to frequent the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (2:46; 3:1-10; 5:20-25, 42)
    • Acts 6:11-14 describes the claim that Stephen spoke against the Temple as a “false” charge
    • In Acts 21:17-26, prior to Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the author takes great care to depict that the claim that Paul teaches against the Law and religious ritual is false or unsubstantiated

The presentation in Luke-Acts presumably accords with the historical reality—that the early (Jewish) Christians continued to frequent the Temple, probably until the time of its destruction (70 A.D.), though the emphasis may have been more on the Temple as place for prayer, teaching and fellowship, rather than the sacrificial cult/ritual. Many of the New Testament writings (even Paul’s letters) say little or nothing specifically about the Temple. Eventually in early Christianity, a theology of “replacement” developed, which taught that Jesus (in his own person and work) fulfills (and effectively replaces) the Old Testament religious forms—including the Temple and all of its sacrificial ritual. This is best seen in the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, all writings which likely post-date the destruction of the Temple. Luke-Acts probably also stems from this period (c. 70-80 A.D.), but, as indicated above, it demonstrates a more positive view of the physical/historical Temple.

Apart from Stephen’s speech, the nearest parallel to Acts 7:48-50 (with its citation of Isa 66:1-2) is found in Revelation 21:22, which states that there will be no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Rev 21-22 draws heavily upon the eschatological/idealized “New Jerusalem” described in Isa 65-66, and in the later prophecy the Christian theology of replacement/substitution could not be more explicit: “for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and [i.e. along with] the Lamb”. For believers, ultimately, God (the Father) and Jesus Christ are the Temple. To what extent does Stephen (and/or the author of Acts here) hold such a view? At the very least, the clear use of Isa 66:1-2 in this context would point in that direction. However, the association between the Temple and idolatry probably has more to do with polemical rhetoric (after the manner of the Prophets) than with a developed theological position. Also, one should not ignore the place of the speech in the overall context of Acts, as representing the last great episode of the early Jerusalem Church, prior to the mission into the wider (Gentile) world (see below). Acts records Paul using similar language in regard to Greco-Roman (heathen, polytheistic) religion (cf. Acts 17:24).

4. The Speech in the overall Context of Acts

As indicated above, Acts 6:8-8:1 (which includes the speech of 7:2-53) is the final episode recorded of the early believers in Jerusalem, the first major division of the book (1:128:3). The themes (and style) of Stephen’s speech then would be expected to draw upon the prior chapters, as well as to look forward to what follows. I propose these points for consideration:

    • the sequence of appearances before the Sanhedrin, from a literary/narrative point of view, serve several purposes:
      (a) they provide an effective dramatic setting for proclamation of the Gospel
      (b) they depict early believers fulfilling the pattern and example of Jesus, who also faced opposition from the religious leaders and faced a similar “trial” before the Sanhedrin
      (c) they demonstrate the increasing division/separation between the (Jewish) followers of Jesus and the rest of the (Jewish) people
    • the speech, while it may not entirely fit the Sanhedrin “trial” setting, is nevertheless appropriate here in the narrative:
      (a) it offers a definitive statement as to the place of Jesus and (by extension) early Christians within the Old Testament and Israelite history, and as the fulfillment of it
      (b) the corruption/deterioration depicted through history (leading from true revelation to idolatry) emphasizes the idea that a “new age” has dawned, reflecting the important theme of the “restoration of Israel” found in the early chapters of Acts
      (c) just as Gentiles would need to be instructed in Old Testament history, so here a summary of that history is presented prior to the inauguration of the wider mission (to the Gentiles) as recorded in chapters 8-12ff
    • the climactic position of the narrative makes a longer, dramatic speech fitting, in several respects:
      (a) it records the death of Stephen, the first Christian “martyr”, in terms somewhat similar to Jesus’ own death in the Gospels
      (b) it inaugurates a period of intense persecution, which leads to the dispersal of believers outside of Jerusalem (and Judea) and ultimately into the wider Gentile/Greco-Roman world
      (c) it marks the initial separation between Christianity and Judaism

In conclusion, it may be useful to revisit a basic critical question regarding the speeches in the book of Acts, which is especially acute in the case of Stephen’s speech—that is, the source and nature of their composition. There are two main components to Acts 6:8-8:1: (i) a traditional narrative involving Stephen (reflected in 6:8-15; 7:54-60), and (ii) the speech in 7:2-53. Nearly all scholars would, I think, agree that the core narrative stems from authentic tradition, with some degree of editing or adaptation having taken place. Opinion varies much more greatly regarding the speech; there are four main views:

    1. The speech more or less records Stephen’s actual words (with minor modification), delivered just as the narrative context in Acts suggests—this would be the traditional-conservative view.
    2. The speech is an (authentic) tradition, preserving the substance of what Stephen said (or preached) publicly prior to his death, though much of the actual wording (and style) is probably Lukan (i.e. from the author of Acts); according to this view, the Sanhedrin setting may (or may not) be authentic.
    3. The author (trad. Luke) has set an authentic Christian speech/sermon (or the substance of it) into the mouth of Stephen, inserting it into the traditional narrative and creating the seam at 6:15; 7:1 and 7:54.
    4. The speech is essentially the creation of the author of Acts, though perhaps drawing upon tradition and examples of early preaching, being inserted into the narrative much as in view #3.

Most critical scholars would hold some version of view #3 or 4; my own (personal) view of the matter is closer to the moderate critical position of #2 above. Fortunately the power and effect of Scripture here in Acts (as elsewhere) does not depend on a particular view of historicity and composition, though these are important questions to address; rather, the narrative as it has come down to us—reflecting both historical tradition and inspired creative expression—speaks as a whole, the marvelous end product unique and unparalleled as a work of Christian history, and requiring no defense.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 11: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

In the previous two parts of this series (9 and 10), I examined the background and setting of Stephen’s speech, the Narrative Introduction (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1), and the Introductory Address (7:2-42a) which includes the lengthy summary of Israelite history (and the last section of which [on Moses] I discussed in some detail). In this part, I will treat the remainder of the speech, beginning with the citation from Scripture in verses 42b-43.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)

Though the length of the prior historical summary might suggest otherwise, the Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27) here is as central to Stephen’s speech as that of the prior sermon-speeches in Acts, for it begins to address (somewhat more directly) the charges against Stephen regarding the Temple and the Law. The version of Amos 5:25-27 more or less matches that of the Greek LXX, with two minor differences, and two more significant ones:

    • v. 42 has reversed the order of “in the desert” [e)n th=| e)rh/mw|] and “forty years” [e&th tessera/konta]
    • MSS B D (and several others) read “of the god” instead of “of your god” in v. 43, omitting the pronoun u(mw=n
    • v. 43 read “to worship them [proskunei=n au)toi=$]” instead of “yourselves” [e(autoi=$]
    • the conclusion of the citation, “upon those (further parts) of…” [i.e. beyond, past], Acts reads “Babylon” instead of “Damascus” in Amos 5:27, making it relate more directly to the Babylonian exile (which involved the destruction of the Temple)

The Greek version itself appears to be corrupt, having misread (and/or misunderstood) the twin references in Amos 5:26:

    1. <k#K=l=m^ tWKs! (sikkû¾ malk®½em), “Sakkut your king”
      th\n skhnh\n tou= Molox, “the tent of Moloch”
    2. <k#yh@ýa$ bk^oK /WYK! (kiyyûn kô½a» °§lœhê½em), “Kaiwan, star of your god”, or “Kaiwan your star-god”
      to\ a&stron tou= qeou= u(mw=n Raifan, “the star of your god Raiphan”

In the first expression, (a) MT twks was read rel. to hK*s% (s¥kkâ), “woven-shelter [i.e. hut, booth, tent]”, whereas it should almost certainly be understood as the Assyrian-Babylonian deity Sakkut [vocalized tWKs^, sakkû¾]; and (b) “(your) king”, where the MT ilm was vocalized/read as the proper name “Moloch”. In the second expression, it is generally assumed that an original transliteration Kaifan (Kaiphan) became Raifan/Refan (Raiphan/Rephan); in some (Western) MSS of Acts it reads Remfan (Remphan), while in B a3 it is Romfa–n— (Rompha[n]). “Sakkut” and “Kaiwan” are names of Assyrian/Babylonian astral deities (the latter [kayawânu] being the name for the planet Saturn). In the original Hebrew of Amos, the word <k#ym@l=x^ (ƒalmê½em), “your images”, despite its positioning, probably meant to refer to both deities; it is possible, of course, that there is also corruption in the Hebrew MT. Amos 5:26-27 is quoted, more or less following the MT vocalization, in the Damascus Document [CD MS A] 7:14ff, but applied in a very peculiar way (in connection with Amos 9:11).

Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50)

Also unusual is the interpretation which Stephen (and/or the author of Acts) gives to these verses, for it differs significantly from the original context (though far less markedly than that of CD). Amos 5:18-24, 25-27 is part of a series of Woe-oracles pronouncing judgment against Israel (primarily the northern kingdom, under Jeroboam II, centered in Samaria). Verses 18-20 speak of the day of YHWH, how it will come suddenly and unexpectedly—hitting God’s own people right where they live. Verses 21-24 emphasize that God’s judgment extends even to Israel’s religion: He will not accept their worship and sacrificial offering—a theme found elsewhere in the Prophets, most famously in Isaiah 1:10-17. The implication, indicated by the exhortation in Amos 5:24, is that the people are not living and acting according to justice/righteousness. This is expressed most strikingly in Jeremiah 7:1-26, where condemnation is especially harsh against those who act wickedly and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual (esp. vv. 9-11). The current corruption of religion, according to the prophet, is apparently contrasted with the wilderness period (Amos 5:25): at that time Israel did not present sacrificial offerings (those began only when the people arrived in the promised land)—a much better situation than the corrupt (and idolatrous) worship currently being offered up (v. 26)! It is not entirely clear whether or not we should take v. 26 literally: were the Israelites actually worshiping these Assyrian deities, or are the expressions meant to symbolize the idolatrous character of the ritual (corrupted by unrighteousness and injustice). Either is possible—Jeremiah 7:9-10, for example, mentions actual idolatry (Baal worship) together with moral corruption, whereas Isa 1:10ff emphasizes the ethical side.

In Stephen’s speech in Acts, a rather different point of view is implied: during the wilderness period, the Israelites did not offer sacrifices to God (even though they should have!), and instead actually practiced idolatry during those years. This idolatry began with the Golden Calf (7:40-41), whereupon God “gave them over” (v. 42) to worship the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars, etc). However, it would seem that this interpretation is not so much historical as it is rhetorical (and didactic); note the pattern, which I extend to the verses (vv. 44-47) which follow:

    • Failure to obey Moses in the wilderness—idolatry (the Golden Calf), vv. 39-41
      • The (portable) tent of witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, following God’s words to Moses, vv. 44-45
      • David and Solomon seek instead to build a (fixed) house (Temple) for God, vv. 46-47
    • The people are “given over” to more serious and persistent idolatry (leading to the Exile), vv. 42ff

The history of Israel, then, is depicted according to two different progressions—one involving idolatry and corruption of religion (the outer pair above), the other involving the building of a house (temple) for God (the inner pair). That these are meant to be understood in parallel (and corresponding terms) becomes even more clear if one includes the Scripture citation (of Isaiah 66:1-2) that follows in vv. 49-50 and present them in sequence:

    • Failure to obey Moses’ words—beginning of idolatry, vv. 39-41
      • The people are given over to more serious idolatry, v. 42a
        • Citation from Amos 5:25-27, in vv. 42b-43
    • A portable Tent, according to God’s instruction to Moses—beginnings of a “house”, vv. 44-45
      • Construction of a more permanent (fixed) house for God, vv. 46-47
        • Citation from Isaiah 66:1-2, in vv. 49-50

The interpretative key to all this is found in verse 48, which summarizes the Isaiah passage that follows:

“but the Highest does not put down house [i.e. dwell] in (buildings) made with hands…”

Isa 66:1-2 is part of an eschatological/idealized vision of a “new Jerusalem” in 65:17ff, where the people live in peace and harmony in relationship with God. Verses 1-4 of chap. 66 shift the focus to religious worship, questioning the very purpose and value of the Temple and its ritual. Acts cites vv. 1-2a precisely according to the LXX, except for ti$ to/po$ (“what place”) instead of poi=o$ to/po$ (“what sort of place”). The two principal nouns in v. 1—oi@ko$ (“house”) and  to/po$ (“place”)—are commonly used of the Temple. Verses 3-4 identify the ritual sacrifices (offered at the Temple) with outright wickedness, to the point of referring to the (prescribed) ritual as a “miserable” (/w#a*) and “detestable” (JWQv!) thing—both words can be euphemisms for idolatry. This echoes a regular prophetic theme that religious worship is worthless (even detestable) in God’s eyes if it is not accompanied by (personal and communal) righteousness and justice, or if it is similarly corrupted by idolatrous behavior; Jeremiah 7 provides perhaps the most striking example (see above). Isaiah 66:1-5 has a clear parallel earlier in the book (Isa 1:10-17), only here we find a more direct declaration of true worship (in 66:2b):

“This (is the one) I will look on [i.e. give attention to]—to (the one who is) humble/lowly and stricken of spirit/breath and trembling upon my word”

This very much prefigures the language of Jesus in the Beatitudes (and elsewhere in his teaching), and it is significant that Jesus himself says very little about the Temple and its ritual—the few statements which are preserved in the Gospels tend to be critical, such as the citation of Hos 6:6 in Matt 9:13; Mark 12:33 par and the sayings associated with the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-17 par (citing Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11). Keep in mind that in John’s account of the Temple “cleansing”, Jesus uttered a saying similar to that reported during his ‘trial’: “loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again)” (Jn 2:19). Of course, such a claim was also part of the charge against Stephen (Acts 6:13-14).

This brings us to a key motif in Stephen’s speech: the idea of the Temple as something “made with hands”; note the references:

    • the charge against Stephen in Acts 6:13-14 echoes the saying of Jesus reported at his trial (and partially confirmed by John 2:19); the Markan version of this saying has an interesting detail (italicized):
      “I will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine made with hands [xeiropoi/hton] and within three days I will build another house made without hands [a)xeiropoi/hton]” (Mk 14:58)
    • in the speech (7:41), the Golden Calf (and, by extension, any idol) is cited as “the works of their hands” (ta e&rga tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n)
    • the Tent of Witness (v. 44f), i.e. the Tabernacle, is viewed positively (much moreso than the Temple) in the speech, yet it too is something “made” (poie/w); in the Life of Moses II. 88, Philo refers to the Tent with the same expression “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
    • in verse 48, the Temple is specifically referred to in terms of a house “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
    • the citation of Isa 66:2a [LXX] in verse 50, by contrast, refers to God as the one whose hand (xei/r) has “made (e)poi/hsen) all these things [i.e. all creation]”

The statement in verse 48 was a truism actually well-understood by ancient people—that the invisible, transcendent Deity did not “dwell” in human-built shrines in an actual, concrete sense. This was admitted by king Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, as recorded in 1 Kings 8:27 (cf. 2 Chron 2:6; Jos. Ant. 8.107). A physical temple or shrine represented a religious accommodation toward human limitations, a way for human beings to relate to God in time and space, by ritual means; however, like any human institution (even one divinely appointed), it was prone to corruption and abuse. Temple priests (and/or the religious-political leaders who controlled them) were often powerful (even wealthy) persons who exercised considerable influence over ancient society. Jesus’ harshest words were directed toward the religious leadership, and the fiercest opponents of Jesus (and early Christians in Jerusalem) were the “Chief Priests” who controlled much of the Temple establishment. Beyond this, however, we do find here, to some degree, strong criticism against the Temple itself, which I will discuss in the next (concluding) part of this series on Stephen’s speech.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53)

Instead of the exhortation in the sermon-speech pattern, we have here a harsh and vehement accusation toward those in the audience (the Sanhedrin), which proceeds along three points (still drawing upon the historical summary):

    1. they “fall against” [i.e. resist/oppose] the holy Spirit—as their fathers did (v. 51)
    2. they became ones who betrayed and murdered the “Just One” [Jesus]—as their fathers pursued and killed the prophets (v. 52)
    3. they received the Law (as a divine revelation), but did not keep it—along with their fathers (implied) (v. 53)

Several of the expressions in verse 51 are taken straight from the Old Testament:

The particle a)ei (“always”, i.e. continually, regularly) connects the current people (esp. their leaders) with those in the past who rebelled against God. Opposition to the Holy Spirit (by persecuting the Christians) is the most prominent, immediate transgression—from this, Stephen works backward:

Verse 52—their role in the death of Jesus (“the Just [One]”, di/kaio$, cf. 3:14), which has led them to become “betrayers” (prodo/tai, [ones] giving [Jesus] before [the Roman authorities]) and “murderers” (fonei=$)
Verse 53—even prior to this, by implication, they had not kept the Law (of Moses); it is not certain just what is meant by this: from an early Christian standpoint, rejection of Jesus was tantamount to rejecting the Law and Prophets, but whether he is charging them otherwise with ethical or ritual transgressions is hard to say.
For the idea of the Law having been delivered by heavenly Messengers (Angels), cf. Deut 33:2 LXX; Jubilees 1:27-29; Jos. Antiquities 15.136; Galatians 3:19; Heb 2:2 and earlier in Acts 7:38.

Narrative Summary (7:54-8:1a)

The reaction is similar to that in Acts 5:33, with the same phrase being used:

and having heard these things, they were cut/sawn through [diepri/onto] in their hearts…”

In the earlier narrative, Gamaliel is able to prevent the crowd from taking violent action (5:34ff); here the hostility builds as they “grind/gnash their teeth upon him”. Verse 55 picks up from 6:15, emphasizing that Stephen was under the power of God (“full of the holy Spirit”), and stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] into heaven, he saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right-hand of God. The image of Jesus having been raised and exalted to the “right hand” of God in Heaven was an important piece of early Christian preaching (influenced by Psalm 110:1), as seen previously in Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31. It is hard to say whether there is any special significance to Jesus standing (normally he is described as seated), but it certainly adds to the dramatic effect, and may draw greater attention to the “Son of Man” connection.

In describing his vision (v. 56), Stephen refers to Jesus as the Son of Man (ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), the only use of this title in the New Testament by someone other than Jesus himself. This is curious, and may reflect authentic historical detail, however, it is just as likely that the reference is primarily literary—to enhance the parallel between the trial/death of Jesus and Stephen; note:

    • the setting before the Sanhedrin
    • the (false) charges, and their similarity—6:11, 13-14; Mark 14:55-58 par
    • mention of the Son of Man at the right hand (of God)—v. 56; Luke 22:69 par
    • the prayer, after Psalm 31:6—v. 59; Luke 23:46
    • the loud cry before death—v. 60; Luke 23:46
    • the prayer for forgiveness—v. 60; Luke 23:34

There certainly would seem to be some degree of conscious patterning here. The dramatic moment leading to the execution (by stoning) is described vividly in verse 57:

“and crying (out) with a great voice, they held together their ears and with one impulse [o(moqumado/n] rushed (ahead) upon him…”

The adverb o(moqumado/n was used repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; cf. also 8:6; 15:25) as a keyword to express the unity and solidarity of believers in Jerusalem; here it is used in an entirely opposite sense—to depict a (unified) opposition against Christ (cf. also 18:12; 19:29). Here, opposition has finally broken into open violence against Christians. The mention of Saul in 7:58 and 8:1a sets the stage for the intense, if short-lived, persecution which follows (8:1-4; 11:19a).

By way of conclusion, I will discuss some key points of criticism and overall interpretation of the speech in the next part of this series.

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.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 9: Acts 7:1-53ff

The great sermon-speech of Stephen in Acts 7 is by far the longest in the book and serves as the climax of the first division (Acts 1:1-8:4)—the story of the early believers in Jerusalem. The persecution recorded in 8:1-4 sets the stage for apostolic mission outside of Judea and the mission to the Gentiles. Stephen’s speech is part of a larger narrative arc, from 6:1 to 8:4:

    • Introductory Narrative (6:1-7)—Stephen and the Seven “deacons”, with summary in verse 7
    • Main Narrative (6:8-15)—the story of Stephen: his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin, which serves as a narrative introduction to the speech
    • The Speech of Stephen (7:1-53)
    • Continuation of the Narrative (7:54-8:1a)—the crowd’s reaction and the death of Stephen, which serves as a narrative summary/conclusion to the speech
    • Concluding Narrative (8:1-4)—onset of persecution and the dispersal of believers out of Jerusalem and Judea

There are several details in this narrative which indicate that it is transitional between the story of the early Jerusalem believers (centered around Peter) in chapters 1-5 and the missionary outreach which follows:

    • Stephen is a member of a second group of (seven) men who serve a ministry and leadership role in the congregation, separate from the (twelve) Apostles (6:2-3ff).
    • Though not Apostles, men such as Stephen still share in the miracle-working gift and power of the Spirit (6:8); more than simply waiting on tables (v. 2ff), Stephen was capable and empowered to teach and preach. It is specifically said of him that he was “full of trust (in God) [i.e. faith] and (the) holy Spirit” (v. 5) and “full of favor (from God) [i.e. grace] and power” (v. 8), and that he spoke “with wisdom and (the) Spirit”. Philip, another member of the Seven, has a similarly prominent role in Acts 8.
    • Stephen (and apparently the rest of the Seven) are connected with the “Hellenists” (6:1). Though its precise meaning is disputed, here the term “Hellenist” (transliteration of  (Ellenisth/$, “Greek” or “one who speaks Greek”) probably refers to Jews (i.e., Jewish Christians) who primarily (or entirely) speak and read in Greek. Most likely this includes many Jews from the surrounding nations (the Diaspora) who came and dwelt (“put down house”, 2:5) in Jerusalem and were among the early converts (2:6ff, 41).
    • In verse 9ff, Stephen is shown in close contact with other Hellenistic Jews (from the Diaspora), indicated as being members of several different groups—Libertini (free Roman citizens in Italy), and people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia (i.e. in Asia Minor). Here “synagogue” (sunagwgh/) refers not to a building, but to a congregation that meets together for worship and study. Probably five different congregations (along national/ethnic) lines are meant; though it is possible that the last four groups were all part of the Libertini. This detail echoes the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, as well as foreshadowing the upcoming dispersion (“diaspora”) of Christians into the wider mission field.

Stephen’s speech, though familiar, is probably not so well-known as one might think. It is actually highly complex, especially when looked at within its context in the book of Acts. Despite its length and complexity, it still fits the sermon-speech pattern I have been using in discussing the speeches of Acts:

    • 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.

 Narrative Introduction (6:8ff; 7:1)

The main narrative is divided into two parts: (1) the arrest of Stephen with his appearance before the Sanhedrin (6:8-15) and (2) the death of Stephen (7:54-58), with the speech occurring in between. 6:8-15 effectively serves as an introduction to the speech. Much as in chapters 3-4, 5, the miraculous, Spirit-filled ministry of the early Christians (vv. 8-10) provokes a hostile response from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Stephen, like Peter and the Apostles, is seized and brought before the Council (the Sanhedrin) for interrogation (v. 12; cf. 4:1-6; 5:17-18ff). Stephen’s opponents, it is said, “threw (in) men under(neath)” (i.e., acted underhandedly, in secret) to make claims against him; this, in turn, “moved [i.e. stirred/incited] the people together” to act, as well as the religious leaders (elders and Scribes) who had him arrested, and brought (“into the [place of] sitting togther”, i.e. the Sanhedrin) to face additional charges. Three specific claims or charges against Stephen are mentioned:

    1. “we have heard him speaking words of (abusive) slander uttered unto [i.e. against] Moshe [i.e. Moses] and God” (v. 11)
    2. “this man does not cease speaking words uttered down on [i.e. against] [this] holy (Place) and the Law” (v. 13)
    3. “we have heard him recount/relate that this Yeshua the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this Place and will make different [i.e. change/alter] the customary/usual things that Moshe gave along to us” (v. 14)

The dual charge in vv. 13-14 is said to have been made by “false witnesses”—this, along with the mention of dissolving/destroying the Temple, establishes a clear and obvious parallel with Jesus’ “trial” before the Sanhedrin as narrated in the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 14:56-59 and the par Matt 26:59-61); there is also an echo of the High Priest’s question to Jesus (Mark 14:60 par) here in Acts 7:1. These correspondent details have led many (critical) scholars to the conclusion that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) has consciously patterned the narrative framework after that of Jesus’ trial (note the similar framing in chs. 4-5), and that the Sanhedrin setting is secondary (and artificial) to the basic narrative and the speech of Stephen. I will address this point further on.

It is possible to summarize and simplify the charges against Stephen:

    1. he says harsh and evil things against Moses and God
    2. he speaks against the Temple and the Law of Moses (i.e. the Old Testament / Jewish Law)
    3. he says that Jesus will abolish/destroy the Temple and alter the religious customs (rel. to the Law of Moses)

The first claim should probably be viewed as a vulgarized or simplistic form of the last two, which themselves appear to be parallel versions of the same idea—the abolition of the Temple and the Law. But what exactly is involved? Elsewhere in early Christianity, we find two related claims made (against Jesus and Paul):

    • In Synoptic tradition, as indicated above, witnesses at Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Council claimed that Jesus said:
      “I will loose down [katalu/w, i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine ‘made with hands’ and through [i.e. within] three days I will build another ‘made without hands'” (Mk 14:58)—the Matthean version is simpler:
      “I am powered [i.e. able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and, through [i.e. within] three days, to build the house (again)” (Mt 26:61)
      Mark and Matthew say that these were “false witnesses” (as in Acts 6:13); however, Jesus is recorded as saying something similar in John 2:19:
      “Loose [lu/sate] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it”
      I have discussed this saying at some length in an earlier article.
    • In Acts 21:27-28, upon the occasion of Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the claim is made against him that:
      “This is the man (the one) teaching every(one) everywhere against the People and the Law and this Place…”
      The reaction to Paul may simply be due to the way he dealt with Gentiles (in relation to the Law); however, his complex (and controversial) arguments in Galatians and Romans, especially, could certainly be viewed by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as speaking against the Law.

The charges against Stephen seem to be a combination of these—i.e., (a) he was repeating a saying/teaching of Jesus similar to that of John 2:19 (cf. also Mk 13:1-2 par), and/or (b) he was teaching that the ‘new age’ in Christ meant that it was not necessary to observe the Law and/or Temple ritual. There is no way of knowing for certain whether either of these were fundamental to Stephen’s own argument—Acts 6:10 provides no information; all we have to go by is the speech in 7:2-53. This is most significant, since the High Priest asks Stephen directly whether these charges are true: ei) tau=ta ou!tw$ e&xei, “if these (things) thus hold (true)?” (7:1) One might expect that Stephen would address the charges in defense; but his response provides a most interesting answer, as we shall see.

A final detail in the narrative here is in 6:15:

“And stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] unto him, all the (one)s sitting down in the (place of) sitting-together [i.e. council, Sanhedrin] saw his face—as if the face of a (heavenly) Messenger!”

This precedes the High Priest’s question and heightens the drama greatly; it also foreshadows the conclusion to the narrative in 7:54ff, with Stephen’s vision of the exalted Christ (Son of Man) in Heaven at God’s right hand.

The remainder of Stephen’s speech will be discussed in the next part of this series.

April 15 (2): Acts 7:55-56

This is the last in the series of daily notes for Easter Season, during which we have explored the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and John. Today’s note is on Acts 7:55-56—the last Son of Man verse in Luke-Acts, and one of only four occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” outside of the Gospels (the others being Heb 2:6 [quoting Ps 8:4ff] and Rev 1:13; 14:14 [referring to Dan 7:13]).

Acts 7:55-56

Most of the Son of Man sayings in Luke relate either to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, or (2) his exaltation to Glory (and future return in Judgment). As I have previously discussed, the use of “son of man” in the first instance would seem to identify Jesus specifically with humankind in its mortality (weakness, suffering and death); in the second, he identifies himself as the Divine/Heavenly figure (of Daniel 7:13ff) who will appear at the end-time Judgment by God. These two aspects of the expression “Son of Man” are present during the night of Jesus’ arrest and “trial” before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22:22, 48 and Lk 22:69), and also in the Angelic announcement of Lk 24:7 where the predictions of Jesus’ Passion (Lk 9:22, 44-45; 18:31-33) are connected with the Resurrection.

When we turn to the book of Acts, the theme of Jesus’ suffering (and death) continues—both with regard to the message that is proclaimed by the disciples (Acts 1:16; 2:23ff; 3:13-15, 17-18; 4:10, 27-28; 5:30 etc), and as a pattern for their own experience of suffering and persecution (cf. throughout chapters 3-7), predicted by Jesus himself (Lk 12:11-12; 21:12-19). So also the theme of Jesus’ exaltation (cf. below). Acts 7:55-56 represents the climactic moment of the Stephen narrative, which spans chapters 6-7:

  • 6:1-7: Introduction, setting the stage for the conflict
  • 6:8-15: The conflict with Stephen, including his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin
  • 7:1-60: The Sermon-Speech and Execution of Stephen
    • 7:1: The question of the High Priest to Stephen, which serves as the immediate narrative introduction to the Speech
    • 7:2-53: The Sermon-Speech of Stephen
    • 7:54-60: The response to the Speech and Execution of Stephen
  • 8:1a: Transitional verse, mentioning Saul/Paul’s role in the execution
  • 8:1b-4: Narrative summary describing the onset of Persecution (led by Saul)

Of the three major scenes in Acts which show the early believers in conflict with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42), it is the Stephen narrative which most clearly follows the pattern of Jesus’ Passion. The parallels (some more precise than others) may be outlined as follows:

  • Stephen was “full of faith/trust and the Holy Spirit” and “full of the favor (of God) and power” (Acts 6:5, 8)
    —Jesus likewise, at the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4:1), was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”; cf. also Lk 4:14 and Lk 1:15, 17; 2:40.
  • Stephen did “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8)
    —Cf. especially the notice of Jesus’ miracles in Acts 2:22
  • It is stated that Stephen’s opponents “did not have strength to stand against the wisdom and the Spirit in which he spoke” (Acts 6:10)
    —Cf. Luke 20:26, etc; 21:15
  • The accusation of blasphemy (i.e. insult/slander against God) (Acts 6:11)
    —The declaration of the High Priest (Mark 14:64 par), implied in Lk 22:71
  • Stephen’s opponents “stirred together” the crowds etc. against him (Acts 6:12)
    —The Jewish authorities “shook up” the crowds against Jesus (Mark 15:11, not in Luke)
  • “They seized him and led him into the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12b)
    —Cf. Luke 22:52, 54, 66; 23:1, also the specific mention of “Elders and Scribes” (Lk 22:66)
  • False witnesses give testimony, involving the Temple (Acts 6:13)
    —False witnesses against Jesus rel. to the “Temple-saying” (Mark 14:57-59 par, not in Luke)
  • The claim that Jesus would destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14)
  • Stephen stands in the middle of the Council (cf. Luke 22:66)
  • The question by the High Priest regarding the truth of the accusations (Acts 7:1)
    —The specific question in Mark 14:60 par (not in Luke); cf. also Mk 14:61 par; Lk 22:67, 70
  • Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:55-56)
    —Jesus’ answer to the Council regarding the Son of Man (Lk 22:69 par; in Matt/Mark, seeing the Son of Man)
  • The reaction of the Council (including tearing their garments) (Acts 7:52; Mark 14:63-64 par, cf. Lk 22:71)
  • Stephen is taken outside of the city to be put to death (Acts 7:58, cf. Lk 23:26, 33)
  • Stephen’s dying words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
    —Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God to forgive those putting him to death: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
    —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34 [not in some MSS])
  • After Stephen’s death “there came to be… a great persecution upon the Church” (Acts 8:1)
    —After Jesus’ death “there came to be darkness upon the whole land” (Luke 23:44)

From a narrative standpoint, these parallels illustrate vividly the disciple following in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of death (Lk 5:11, 27-28; 9:23, 57-62; 18:22, 28; 21:12-19; 22:39, 54; 23:27, 49 pars; cf. also Mk 10:38-40, etc). Let us compare specifically the Son of Man parallel:

Jesus’ saying (Lk 22:69):

“From now on, the Son of Man will be sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the power of God”

The formula in Mark/Matthew is:

“[From now] you will see the Son of Man sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the Power, and coming with/upon the clouds of Heaven

The declaration by Stephen (in Acts 7:56) is:

“I behold the heavens opening through and the Son of Man standing out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of God

The preceding narrative in verse 55 adds the following details: (1) he saw the glory of God, and (2) Jesus is specifically identified as the Son of Man (“Jesus standing at the right hand of God”).

The use of the verb dianoi/gw (“open through[out], open thoroughly”) is interesting, as it appears to be a favorite of Luke’s—7 of the 8 occurrences in the New Testament are in Luke-Acts, and five of these refer to the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, and of coming to faith, etc. Note:

    • Luke 24:31—”and their eyes were opened through [dihnoi/xqhsan] and they knew upon [i.e. recognized] him…”
    • Luke 24:32—”Were our hearts not burning [i.e. being set on fire] [in us] as he spoke with us in the way, as he opened through [dih/noigen] to us the Writings [i.e. Scriptures]?”
    • Luke 24:45—”Then he [i.e. Jesus] opened through [dih/noicen] their mind for th(eir) bringing together the Writings [i.e. understanding the Scriptures]”
    • Acts 16:14—”a certain woman {Lydia}… of whom the Lord opened through [dih/noicen] (her) heart”
    • Acts 17:3—Paul gathered through [i.e. discussed, argued] with them from the Scriptures, “opening through [dianoi/gwn]…that it was necessary for the Anointed (One) to suffer and stand up (again) out of the dead, and that this Yeshua is the Anointed (One)…” (cf. Luke 9:22; 24:7, 26, 46)

The early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) are still connected in many ways with the Gospel narrative, so it is fitting perhaps that they close with this vision by Stephen of the Son of Man, a fulfillment of the sayings by Jesus such as that in Luke 22:69. His vision confirms the reality of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and of his identity as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. Christ’s presence in heaven at God’s right hand was a common motif in early Christian tradition (Acts 2:25, 33ff; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3, etc), largely influenced by Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13). The remainder of the book (chapters 8-28), on the other hand, narrates the spread of Christianity outside of Judea, out into the wider Greco-Roman world, and thus focuses more precisely on the message (the Gospel) of Jesus, and how people respond to it. If Stephen saw a vision of heaven “opened”, that is, the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, so also do believers have their hearts and minds “opened” to the truth, and, in turn, proclaim the message of Christ to others, “opening” and explaining the Scriptures.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 1)

The second Day of Christmas (Dec 26) is also the holy day (feast) of St. Stephen—deacon of the earliest church and first Christian martyr (Acts 6:1-8:1f). Sometimes his martyrdom is associated thematically with the “massacre of the Innocents” (Matthew 2:16-20), but otherwise there is little connection between Stephen and the Infancy Narratives. As I am going to be treating Stephen’s speech (or sermon) in detail as part of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; here I will discuss only the theme of the Temple (7:44ff), as the Jerusalem Temple plays a key role in the Lukan Infancy narratives (ch. 1-2).

The view and place of the Temple in early Christianity is an extremely complex question, one particularly complicated by several historical factors:

  • Jews of the period (such as the Community of the Qumran texts), occasionally leveled strong criticism against the current priesthood and Temple cult (though not necessarily the Temple itself); these critiques have a biblical basis, and can already be found in the Old Testament Prophets (see below).
  • The conflicts between Jews and early Christians, often resulted in harsh polemic, some of which is preserved in the Gospels and New Testament itself; this must be judged and analyzed most carefully.
  • Portions of the New Testament were written in the shadow of the Jewish Revolt (66-70 A.D.) and the destruction of the Temple—this event would have a profound effect on Christian views of Judaism in the late-first and early-second centuries (see esp. the Epistle to the Hebrews and the so-called Epistle of Barnabas).

The relationship of Jesus himself to the Temple is also hotly debated in many quarters; however, at least two points are fairly certain (on purely objective grounds):

  • Jesus acted in a symbolic (and shocking) fashion on at least one occasion in the Temple—the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple, recorded in all four Gospels (Mark 11:12-19 par.; John 2:12-22). The precise interpretation and significance of this event is still disputed, with three different explanations offered in the Gospels themselves (Mark 9:17 par.; John 2:[16], 17; and John 2:18-22).
  • Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-2 par.); this is confirmed, presumably from a separate line of tradition, in the Passion narrative of Jesus’ appearance before the high council (Sanhedrin) (cf. Mark 14:57-59; 15:29 and par.). Underlying the charge against him at the ‘trial’ must be a saying akin to that in John 2:19, which implies not only the destruction of the Temple but that Jesus will raise/build it again (“made without [human] hands”, a)xeiropoi/hto$ in the claim of Mark 14:58). Interestingly, Luke does not include this claim (regarding the Temple) in his account of the Sanhedrin session (see below related to this point).

In Stephen’s conflict with the Jewish authorities and crowds, there may have been a similar “threatening” statement regarding the future of the Temple, judging from the claim recorded in Acts 6:13-14; this claim has two parts:

(a) he utters words against [this] Holy Place [i.e. the Temple] and the Law, and
(b) he says that Jesus will

[i.] unloose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this [Holy] Place and
[ii.] alter the customs which Moses has passed down.

This ‘trial’ matches that of Jesus’ before the Sanhedrin in many ways, and the narrative may have been consciously shaped to this end by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The high priest asks Stephen “if these things (said about you) should be held thus [i.e. are true]?” and this is the setting which introduces the famous speech of chapter 7—a sermon couched within a history lesson. Many scholars have noted that the long summary of Old Testament history is a strange response for such a setting, and, indeed, seems not to answer the high priest’s question in v. 1. However, if one studies the speech itself closely, there is an implicit answer by the time one reaches verse 44. Note the following:

  • The section on Moses (vv. 30-38) presents an entirely positive view of the Law and “customs”, at least as it they are described in v. 38, in light of the Sinai revelation—that Moses “received living words/accounts [lo/gia] to give to us”. This concludes what may be deemed the first (positive) half of the speech, centered upon the Patriarchs (Abraham–Moses).
  • The remainder of the speech (vv. 39-53) emphasizes the negative side of Israelite history, which starts with a failure to obey the revelation given to Moses (v. 39). There are three sections to this half of the speech:
    • The idolatry of Israel in the wilderness (vv. 39-43), which ends with a quotation from Amos 5:25-27
    • The building of the Temple, contrasted with the (divinely ordained) Tent (vv. 44-50), which also ends with a quotation (Isaiah 66:1-2)
    • An extremely harsh condemnation of Israel’s disobedience (vv. 51-53)
  • The concluding words in verse 53 especially make clear that what is at issue is not the Law (of Moses) as such, but the people’s refusal to obey it.

The real difficulty (and ambiguity), however, comes just at the point of verse 44—that is, the place and nature of the Temple. The logic of vv. 43-44 seems to work at two levels:

  • The Tent (Tabernacle) is contrasted with the idol-worship during the wilderness period—both are according to a tu/po$ (“stamp, pattern”): the idols according to the figures [pl.] of pagan deities (v. 43), the Tent (skhnh/) according to the pattern [sing.] which Moses saw revealed by God.
  • The Temple appears to be set parallel to the idol-worship of the wilderness period: just as Israel failed to obey the divinely-established Law and followed after idols (vv. 39-43), so Israel failed to continue with the divinely-established Tent and had (under Solomon) a Temple built (vv. 44-50).

This last point many traditional-conservative commentators would dispute, for it runs contrary to much of the Old Testament with its strong emphasis on the positive, divinely-authorized nature of the Solomonic Temple; and yet a comparison of verses 39-43 and 44-50 would seem imply, at the very least, some sort of criticism against the Temple, especially if one looks at the similar positioning of the two Scripture passages: Amos 5:25-27 (which condemns idolatry and the “shrine” of ‘Moloch’) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (which questions the necessity and value of a “house” for God).

Interestingly, much of this ambiguity surrounding the Temple actually exists within the older strands of Scripture going back (very nearly) to the time of David and Solomon. Consider:

  • In Solomon’s prayer of dedication (cf. esp. 1 Kings 8:27ff), he asks much the same question we see in Isa 66:1-2ff. Only the emphasis in the former passage is one of humility in the face of God’s greatness, requesting the Almighty to condescend to be present with his people on earth. In the latter passage, the very Temple cult or ritual is debased in comparison with the importance of personal character and right behavior before God (see Isa 1:10-17ff for similar themes).
  • The oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel 7: verses 1-7 appear to oppose the idea of building a permanent ‘house’ for God, while verses 11b-16 seem to support the building of such a house (Temple). Many critical scholars hold that an earlier anti-Temple oracle has been joined with a pro-Temple one, by means of vv. 8-11a to create a harmonious whole. It is a matter of considerable debate; traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the harmonious (or harmonizing) view of the ‘final’ text as original and authentic. For a good overview of the classic critical position (and variations thereof), along with some detailed notes, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard:1973, 1997), pp. 241-261.

If one were to read Acts 7:44-50 in light of (the critical interpretation) of 2 Samuel 7:1-16, one would detect a similar emphasis: the Tent as a moveable (and temporary) dwelling was God’s intention, rather than a (permanent) house of cedar and stone. If this is the direction of Stephen’s argument, it may explain a curious textual variant in Acts 7:46 (variation unit in italics):

…David, 46who found favor in the eye/face of [i.e. before] God and asked to find a tent for the house of Jacob

This seems to be the best reading, supported a wide range of early witnesses (Ë74 a* B D sahpt al), while other manuscripts and versions read “…for the God of Jacob“. Most likely, scribes found the idiom “house of Jacob” difficult to understand in this context and “corrected” it to “God of Jacob”. But what does it mean to have a tent “for the house of Jacob”? If one understands “house” as a euphemism for the Temple, an intentional contrast may be at work here—as if to say: the Tent is for the people (of Israel), not for God (who has no need of a tent-dwelling), so that they can worship Him; to make the dwelling permanent (and ornate) may put Israel on the path toward a kind of idolatry. A developed, commercialized Temple ritual only increases the danger for priestly corruption and abuse, which was indeed a common complaint in the New Testament period. When one adds to this the fact that the priests and religious authorities played a role in Jesus’ execution, and were now persecuting his followers, the polemic force of Stephen’s speech here can be appreciated. In a purely Christian sense, spiritualizing the argument, we might say that as believers we ourselves, and together, are the (true) Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21).

Of the four Gospels, Luke has the most positive overall presentation of the Temple. As indicated above, the Lukan account of Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin does not include the claim about destroying and rebuilding the Temple, nor does it contain any such saying of Jesus (John 2:19); however it does contain the “cleansing” scene (though much shorter, Luke 19:45-46) and the prediction of destruction (Luke 21:5-6). In between these two episodes, Luke specifically indicates that Jesus taught in the Temple every day (19:47-48, cf. partial parallel in Matt 21:14f, 23 and Mark 13:1 par.). Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were in the Temple “through it all (i.e. continually)”, blessing (and praising) God. The apostles are likewise recorded worshiping in the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff), while Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continue to frequent the Temple (Acts 21:26ff).

The Temple plays an even more prominent role in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is the setting of three major espisodes:

  1. The heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) appears to Zechariah while he serves in the Temple, in the Sanctuary (Holy Place), at the time of prayer (probably during the afternoon/evening sacrifice), to announce the coming birth of John (Luke 1:5-25).
  2. The infant Jesus is ‘presented’ at the Temple, where Mary and Joseph encounter two devout figures (Simeon and Anna) who represent Israel’s faith and ‘Messianic’ hope (of which Jesus is seen as the fulfillment) (Luke 2:22-38).
  3. The boy Jesus in the Temple (“…it is necessary for me to be in/among the [things] of my Father”) (Luke 2:41-50)

The significance of the Temple in the Lukan Infancy Narrative will be discussed in more detail when we come to the key passages in chapter 2—vv. 22ff, 41ff—in subsequent notes.