Following from The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in Acts – 1 . . . .
Stephen makes a most awkward fit into the narrative that follows Acts 6:1-7 when we try to make sense of the account as history. There are two options that I see:
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.
The author has added the details of Stephen being tried before the council and of his speech to the tradition he received about him.
Noteworthy in this connection is also the paucity of any reference in the speech to the accusations to which he was supposedly responding (Acts 6:11).
Stephen’s martyrdom is said to be tied directly to the launch of a mass persecution upon the entire church in Jerusalem — Acts 8:1.
Since Luke always presented Stephen to his readers as a representative of the whole Jerusalem church, the persecution must in consequence strike the church as a whole. That is what Luke supposes in 8.1: ‘they all were scattered’. (p. 19)
But here is the problem.
Now we know that Stephen by no means represented all the Jerusalem Christians, but only the Hellenist section of them. [Note that all 7 appointed in Acts 6:5 bore Greek names and were chosen in response to complaints by Hellenists that their widows were being overlooked.] We know in addition that the relationship of this section to the ‘Hebrews’ was not free from tension. So we must allow for the possibility that the persecution only struck the Hellenists. (p. 19, my emphasis)
It might be helpful to read the account in Acts at this point. It explains how the dispute against Stephen could be initiated by Hellenists with the consequences of Stephen’s death being the persecution of the Hellenists:
8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.
11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous[c] words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.
Then follows Stephen’s long speech that culminates in his martyrdom and the persecution on the church generally (or only the Hellenist branch of it according to Schmithals).
Acts 8:1 makes it clear that the twelve apostles were not scattered. They were not subject to this persecution.
At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
This is taken as clear evidence that the persecution was not directed against “the Hebrews” but only against “the Hellenists”. For Schmithals (and no doubt many others) it is “quite unthinkable” that the whole church be scattered while the apostles remained untouched.
Further, if there were such a persecution and the “whole church” driven out from Jerusalem we are faced again with a silence in the evidence that renders such an idea impossible (Schmithals, p. 19):
Neither in Acts nor in the Pauline letters is there preserved any trace of a tradition from which we might conclude that the original church had been obliged to leave Jerusalem in the early days as a body, and had only been allowed to return again later.
Luke points out that the twelve apostles remained in Jerusalem as a gentle way of passing over the fact that not the whole church was persecuted but only the Hellenists — and that the Hellenists were led by Stephen. The Hebrew faction escaped any trouble.
This is a topic on which I have only limited reading and realize I may be covering only a small facet of the arguments out there. I have other references close by but not the time to read them all and put together an argument that takes such a wide range of views into account.
The next part of this series will examine the explanations for the real differences between the Hellenists and Hebrews in Acts 6. But it may be a few days before I can complete it.
So however premature it may be here is my own take on the above:
What strikes me about this analysis of Schmithals is that it is like so many other similar attempts to explain biblical texts from the perspective that they must be attempting to re-write historical traditions. Meanwhile in other journals and books we read of literary critics showing that these texts are something quite (or at least somewhat) different.
What happens if we stop here to think of the symbolism in the name of the first Christian to receive the martyr’s crown? (Stephen means crown.) Consider also those studies that have shown influences upon Stephen’s words and fate with the misadventure of Jesus himself? And let’s not forget the critical arguments that call into question the very existence of a body of twelve apostles. But above all note Luke’s purpose — to demonstrate that Jerusalem has been the authoritative base for the foundation of the church in these twelve apostles.
Luke needs the twelve to stay in Jerusalem to maintain the authoritative status of the “catholic” tradition he is propagating. He also needs to reduce the role of Paul to one of subservience to the Jerusalem church for the same purpose. Thus while Paul is the apostle to the gentiles he is not responsible for opening the door to the gentiles. That was Peter’s job, and in Stephen and others we see a gradual step towards gentile inclusion (first through proselytes) into the church.
All of these are well known (at least among literary critics) aspects of Luke’s agenda for Acts.
Most important also is the implausibility of this sort of mass persecution upon the church so early in its history. Luke uses the persecution motif to regularly propel the gospel to new areas. This is only the beginning of a pattern to be repeated through to the final chapters. Given the wide-ranging views of Second Temple Judaism — including views that the physical temple was corrupt or to be avoided — there is nothing in Stephen’s speech that can plausibly account for his martyrdom at the hands of a Jewish council.
Acts was a product of the mid-second century. The earliest evidence we may have for Jewish rejection (excommunication — not murders) of their Christian brethren may be from around the 90s as apparently testified in the Gospel of John and the Birkat Ha-Minim.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!