I was introduced to the work of Shelly Matthews through the Acts Seminar Report. She is one of the Seminar Fellows. I have since read — and enjoyed very much — her historical study Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity.
Shelly Matthews is one of the few theologians I have encountered who demonstrably understands the nature of history and how it works and how to apply historical-critical questions to the evidence. She is a postmodernist (and I’m not) but I won’t hold that against her. At least she understands and applies postmodernist principles correctly — unlike some other theologians who miss the point entirely and resort to trying to uncover “approximations” of “what really happened” behind the fictional (and ideological) narratives in the Gospels and Acts.
Matthews is critical of the way scholars have with near unanimity assumed that the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts is based on some form of bedrock historical event:
- How else to explain the sudden propulsion of Jesus followers beyond the limits of Palestine?
- (Recall that the Acts story tells us it was the death of Stephen that instigated the wider persecution of the “church”, and persecution led to the scattering of the believers, and that scattering led to the proclamation of the message beyond Judea.)
- How else to explain the conversion of Paul?
- (Recall that Paul — originally “Saul” — was one of those persecutors and it was his “Damascus Road” experience that brought him to heel and turned him from persecutor to missionary.)
Those are the twin (prima facie) arguments that have assured scholars that the Stephen event is historical ever since they were made explicit in the nineteenth century by Eduard Zeller (son-in-law of F. Baur).
But let’s save the discussion of method and criteria of historicity till last this time (or maybe a follow up post). To begin with we will set out the grounds for questioning whether the Stephen narrative in Acts owes anything to some historical “core” event. The question of the historicity of Stephen’s martyrdom is not the primary theme or interest of Shelly Matthew’s study (as its title indicates) but she does address it as part of her larger discussion on historical-critical inquiry and the way scholars have culturally fallen under the spell of the fundamental narrative outline and ideology of Acts. (Her discussion could equally well apply to the question of the historicity of Jesus but I think we need to wait for scholars to come to grips more generally with critical and methodological questions about Stephen before taking that step.)
Outside of Acts there is not a whisper of awareness of the martyrdom of Stephen until Irenaeus talks about it around 180 CE. And Irenaeus is clearly using Acts itself as his source. (Recall, too, that the Acts Seminar has concluded that Acts itself was written in the second century.)
Paul mentions in his letters several persons who were part of his life and that appear in Acts but he nowhere indicates that he ever owed his conversion to the events initiated by the martyrdom of Stephen — a martyrdom that he reportedly witnessed as an accomplice.
Clement of Rome and Polycarp wrote of Christian martyrs but appear to have never heard of Stephen.
If Stephen’s martyrdom had indeed been the first, and if indeed it had been the spark that initiated such a significant train of events as the expansion of Christianity and the conversion of an accessory to Stephen’s lynch mob, Paul, this silence is indeed unexpected and does cry out for an explanation.
Further, the later account of the martyrdom of James in Hegesippus (known from Josephus) is almost the same story as the martyrdom of Stephen. (Robert Price similarly refers to other scholars who have also noted the way the Stephen story is a variant of the martyrdom of James the Just.) So what is going on here? Matthews comments:
[T]his companion story suggests that while the motifs concerning the way the first martyr dies are crucial to the construction of group identity for early Christians, the precise identity of the first martyr is fungible. (p. 18)
Time for a little redaction criticism. The idea is that if we peel away what Luke added to his source then we are left with nothing but the source and the source is for some uncertain reason understood to be an account of “the historical event”. After outlining what scholars generally take to be “core” data sifted from Luke’s supposed “redactions”, Matthews alerts us to the arbitrary nature of the entire exercise:
Part of the difficulty with this barebones sketch of what happened (martyrdom) to whom (Stephen), by whom (a mob of riotous Jews) for a certain reason (religious disagreement centering around temple and torah), as has been quite persuasively argued by Todd Penner, lies in the fact that upon careful scrutiny each decision about what is kernel and what is chaff seems in the end arbitrary. This is not to deny the existence of sources for Luke but to suggest the impossibility of pinpointing them. (p. 19)
For example, the consensus (Matthews herself points out that it is the consensus) is that the historical reasons Stephen was killed had to do with some form of accusation that he provocatively attacked the law and temple. But why select that element as “bedrock”, Matthews asks. Surely it is just as reasonable to imagine the author himself creating those charges against Stephen in order to make Stephen appear to be walking more closely in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus, recall, was subject to those same charges in the Gospels.
We also have the most happy coincidence that the name of the first martyr, Stephen, means “Crown” — the very reward for those who die for Christ. Given Luke’s love of symbolic names we may well be suspicious that this character is another construction of his — the paradigm of the Christian martyr. Or suppose Luke saw the name, Stephen, in a source. How could we know if Luke was not inspired to write a story of martyrdom as a result of his being attracted by the potential meaning of the name?
Ancient historians (and novelists) prided themselves on their ability to convey stories with touches of verisimilitude. Accordingly there can be no real way for us to sift such a narrative of theirs between “core historical events” on one side and “creative embellishments” on the other.
There are other internal clues that are not directly addressed by Shelly Matthews as such.
One of these is an absurdity singled out by Robert M. Price:
Luke’s reduction of the Jewish Sanhedrin to a howling lynch mob is not to be dignified with learned discussion. (The Amazing Colossal Apostle, p. 2)
Verisimilitude indeed for an anti-Semitic author and audience — a bigotry more typically found in the second century than the first.
Another detail commonly noticed is the contradiction found following Stephen’s stoning: the church as a whole being is so severely persecuted that it must scatter beyond to new territory, yet the twelve leaders remain curiously untouched and able to continue unmolested in Jerusalem. We may well ask, Did Stephen’s death really spark a wider persecution and scattering of the church or didn’t it?
If Luke did create Stephen and his martyrdom, why did he do so? How does Stephen function rhetorically in the narrative of Acts?
Here we edge closer to Shelly Matthew’s special interest. She spells out in detail the various ways in which Stephen is such a perfect rhetorical fit in the larger narrative. I am sure many readers will have sensed some of these points for themselves as they have pondered on the text.
Stephen’s “Rhetorical Fit”
Stephen stands as a pivot or gateway between the time of Jesus and the Jerusalem apostles and the broader mission of the church to the Gentiles led by Paul.
- He emerges in the midst of a conflict between two Jewish groups, Hebrews and Hellenists; compare Paul being at the centre of conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers.
- Just as the Jerusalem apostles were confronted by the temple leaders and as Paul faced hostile synagogues, Stephen first faces controversy in the synagogue and is subsequently tried by the Sanhedrin and high priest.
- The seven names in the list in which he first appears (Acts 6:5) conform to the larger plot-line of Acts: beginning with Stephen to the Greek speaking Jews and concluding with the evangelization of Gentiles at Antioch.
- The opponents of Stephen come from far and wide: Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia. The first in this list can be either Libyans or “Libertines”. Either this extends the geographic extent of his opponents or signifies that it crossed class boundaries as well. Compare Paul facing the opposition of peoples as far as “the ends of the earth”.
- Before the death of Stephen the history of the church centred upon Jerusalem; following his death we follow the action into Judea, Samaria and the “ends of the earth”.
- His death marked the beginning of the fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy (1:8) that the disciples were to spread out through Samaria and the rest of the world; as a direct consequence of his death persecution fanned to the rest of the church; and that led to the scattering of the believers; and that in turn led to the wider proclamation of the gospel. After Stephen we move out from Jerusalem and find Philip preaching in Samaria, Paul being converted, Peter on a mission into Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea, and unnamed disciples converting people in Antioch — where the term Christian was coined to describe them.
- One vital function of the Stephen episode is the way it serves to establish the clear distinction between Jews and Christians.
- After the death of Stephen, the use of hoi Ioudaioi increases dramatically, becoming Acts’ preferred term of vilification for those who persecute and/or desire the persecution of Jesus followers (e.g., 9.23, 12.3, 12.11, 13.50, 14.5, 14.19, 18.12, 20.3, 20.19, 23.12, 25.24, 26.21). Concurrent with the increase in negative employment of the phrase hoi Ioudaioi in Acts after the Stephen episode is the abrupt cessation of sympathetic depictions of Jews as ho laos —the people of God. In the Jerusalem chapters, ho laos is portrayed positively, as open to the messengers of the Way. The people are convinced by the apostles and serve to protect them from a malicious leadership (e.g., 4.17, 4.21, 5.13, 5.26). However, once they are stirred up against Stephen in 6.12, “the people” lose their receptivity and act only with hostility toward the apostles. Thus, as Augustin George notes, after the death of Stephen, “the Jews,” are no longer “the people” of God. Their agency in the death of Stephen is integral to the making of hoi Ioudaioi . (pp. 67-68, my bolding)
- Stephen is in the same line of persecuted prophets as was Jesus, and as began with the martyrdom of Zechariah. In Luke 11 Jesus made Zechariah’s role (the one killed between the altar and the temple) paradigmatic.
- Stephen also fulfills the Deuteronomic pattern — that is, Israel kills the prophets and then suffers as a consequence — just as do Jesus before him and Paul after him.
- Like Jesus when facing his own execution, Stephen, modeling Jesus’ own death:
- speaks before the Sanhedrin
- speaks of the eschatological Son of Man at the right hand of God
- commends his spirit to the Lord at the moment of his death
- Moreover, just as Jesus prefigures Stephen, so Stephen prefigures Paul:
- note how Paul is explicitly linked to Stephen twice, once at his martyrdom and again in his speech from the temple steps.
- Stephen also functions to undermine the Jewish juridical process, an important theme for Luke who more generally seeks to show respect for Roman authorities while denigrating the Jewish ones as barbaric by contrast.
Forgive them, Father . . .
Absent from the above list is the notice that Stephen repeated Jesus’ famous words calling for forgiveness upon the Jews. Shelly Matthews chooses to devote the final chapter to a discussion of this detail. It is not as innocent or noble a prayer as the author wants us to believe.
Matthew’s interprets the prayer as ultimately serving a most pernicious function. It sets Christians apart as the ultimate in godly perfection, all-merciful and gracious even towards enemies. That is, it sets them apart from the Jews who are depicted as hard-hearted, implacable, without excuse any more (they had since learned that Jesus was resurrected and seen the signs of the miracles, so they were really without excuse by now), and incapable of being forgiven. Forgiveness of the Jews requires the repentance of the Jews. That message has been made clear up till now in Acts. While Luke places such a perfect prayer for a perfect saint in the mouth of the ideal Christian martyr, in his narrative presentation he leaves no room for forgiveness (or repentance) of the Jews. They have closed their ears to Stephen and want him dead when he proclaims his vision of Jesus Christ in heaven. There is a clear disconnect between the way the merciful prayer epitomizes Christians as saintly and the way the Jews are portrayed as wicked killers who even hate the very thought of what is required to be forgiven.
The prayer has served to entrench respective stereotypes of Christians and Jews, or more specifically, it has served to draw a sharp distinction between morally superior Christians and degenerate, murderous Jews.
So Stephen’s prayer does serve one of Luke’s core ideological agendas, though not a particularly noble one by our standards.
Is this conclusion justified?
So we have good reasons for questioning whether Luke based his narrative on a real event. We certainly see very good reasons why he might have wanted to create the scene just the way it appears. It very happily fulfills several rhetorical and ideological agendas of the author.
Was it coincidentally historical, too?
In a follow up post I’ll discuss Shelly Matthew’s postmodernist historiographical approach and historical critical method more generally. We will see how both open up entirely new insights into the nature of what biblical scholars have long considered their “primary evidence” for Christian origins and also into how genuine historical criticism, consistently applied, can expose the ideological and cultural assumptions that currently control their interpretations and assumptions.