Category Archives: Stephen


Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

by Neil Godfrey

David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina’s Oral Tradition]


Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »


The Fiction of Stephen the First Martyr

by Neil Godfrey

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 8.05.04 PMI 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.)

External evidence

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.) read more »