This is the eighteenth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This post examines Stephen’s preaching and the plot to arrest him and bring him before the council. Stephen is one of the seven who has just been appointed to serve the practical needs of the Hellenist community, but when we first see him here, he is engaged in evangelism.
D) Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Hellenists, Hebraioiand Seven Chosen to Serve (6:8-14):
8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (NRSV)
As Luke Timothy Johnson says “the problem of this passage is therefore this: there is no obvious connection between the purported role of the seven and their actual function. They were supposed to be in charge of community possessions but they turn out to be prophetic preachers” (Johnson, Acts, 111). This is indeed the case, but Johnson also argues that there is no discrepancy here, but that “authority over material possessions” is a sign of “spiritual authority” (Johnson, Acts, 111). That is the case for Luke, yet there is still an abrupt and disjointed transition literarily, as the task for which the seven are appointed is never undertaken by them, at least not in the text. It is a transitional passage, but the transition is awkward.
Instead, Stephen is shown as a prophetic figure, an evangelist, who is treated in much the same way as Jesus was and the way in which the apostles have just been: “they set up false witnesses;” and “brought him before the council;” since “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:10-13).Stephen, for instance, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8), just like the apostles in Acts 2:43, 4:30, and 5:12.
It is interesting that opposition to Stephen comes from diaspora Jews not Jerusalem Jews, as the names imply: “then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen” (Acts 6:9). The synagogue might indicate an actual structure, or the persons who assemble, the congregation (JANT, 210). What do these fellow diaspora Jews argue about with Stephen? We are told that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:10), but the content of what Stephen preached is only revealed later. Yet, when the content is revealed it is in the context of “false witnesses” (Acts 6:13), who argue that “this man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us (Acts 6:13b-14).
The two basic claims – 1) “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place” and 2) Jesus “will change the customs that Moses handed on to us” – coincide with charges made against Jesus at his trial and in his ministry. So, although Luke writes that “they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God’,” it is possible that the opponents of Stephen are simply putting a negative spin on things that Stephen did indeed say, since the charges against Jesus had a basis in reality, though misunderstood or misrepresented. Claiming Stephen said “blasphemous words” is, of course, more than “negative spin,” but a charge worthy of death (Leviticus 24:16).
As Johnson says, not having heard from Stephen creates a dramatic situation: “will Stephen confirm these charges?” (Johnson, Acts, 113). Johnson goes on to say that Stephen will not speak against “Moses and God,” but he certainly might speak against the Temple hierarchy and the Law as understood by the religious leaders. Stephe, as a result, is brought before those leaders, since the members of the synagogue of the Freedmen “stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council” (Acts 6:12). This verse offers a final matter of interest, and that is that “the people” (ho laos) are said to be against Stephen as well as the religious authorities. Up until now the people have been on the side of the apostles in these clashes of authority. Is this a change in the narrative? In the positive growth of the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem? Or to whom the message will be directed? So far we have spent our time in Acts in Jerusalem but that will soon change. But Stephen, faced with this threat to his life, is calm, guided by the Spirit, he has "the face of an angel" (Acts 6:15).
Next entry, Stephen is before the Council.
John W. Martens
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