Tag Archives: Stephen

The Fiction of Stephen the First Martyr

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 »

Stephen — The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 2

Stephen disputing with Jews of the synagogue of the Freedmen and others in Jerusalem - by Vittore Carpaccio

Following from The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in Acts – 1 . . . .

Stephen makes a most awkward fit into the narrative that follows the Acts 6:1-7 when we try to make sense of the account as history. There are two options that I see:

  1. Either the author of Acts is attempting to weave a narrative about Stephen that he has inherited from a tradition that is incompatible with his propaganda narrative about the growth of the church
  2. Or the same author or redactor who made a botch of trying to reverse the traditional order known to Mark and Matthew of Jesus appearing first in the Capernaum synagogue and later facing opposition in his hometown — an attempt that led to a number of anomalies and loose ends in his narrative — finds himself in Acts in something of a similar pickle with the way he attempts to explain a persecution event that is quite implausible historically with incompatible fictions.
  3. Or I am sure there are any number of other alternatives but I’m only counting to two for purposes of this post.

In this post I explain the argument for the first option as it appears in Paul and James by Walter Schmithals and conclude with a few thoughts from the alternative argument.

For Schmithals there is “no doubt for his account of Stephen’s martyrdom . . . Luke is making use of an existing tradition.” The reasons?

  1. The mention of the Hellenistic Jews who dispute with Stephen (Acts 6:9) is not accounted for by anything that has preceded (Stephen himself is not introduced as a Hellenist Jew).
  2. The description of Stephen as a powerful preacher is inconsistent with his introduction in 6:1-7 where it is the apostles whose job is to preach leaving the task of almsgiving to Stephen and his fellows. read more »