Stephen's Speech Begins

This is the nineteenth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry begins Stephen’s speech before the council.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.

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3. Contents:

D)  Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Stephen’s Speech Begins (7:1-8):

1Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?" 2 And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, "Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.' 4 Then he left the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God had him move from there to this country in which you are now living. 5 He did not give him any of it as a heritage, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him as his possession and to his descendants after him, even though he had no child. 6 And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years. 7 "But I will judge the nation that they serve,' said God, "and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.' 8 Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.   (NRSV)

As Stephen’s speech is the “longest single discourse in Acts,” it must be broken into sections to examine, but also a few words must be said about the speech as a whole as we begin (Johnson, Acts, 119). Luke Timothy Johnson promises that no damage is done to the speech as a whole by breaking into parts, since the focus on historical periods and characters in the speech lends itself to discrete units. Before looking at the first of these units, dealing with Abraham, we must give an overview of the speech. While there is agreement on the topics considered in the speech, there is less agreement on the purpose of the speech and its historicity.

In terms of historicity, Johnson, whom I will quote at length, says that  

from the beginning, of course, we must listen to the speech as the creation of Luke and as serving his literary goals. It is futile and even fatuous to seek to find in these words the special theological outlook of the historical “Hellenists” represented by Stephen. Not only in style and diction, but above all in its religious perceptions, this discourse represents the special vision of Luke himself. Indeed, it is in Stephen’s speech that we find most clearly articulated not only our author’s interpretation of the biblical story, but also his understanding of how that story is continued in Jesus and the apostles. Stephen’s speech is, as a whole, the key Luke provides his readers for the interpretation of his entire two-volume narrative.” (Johnson, Acts, 119)

Johnson believes that Stephen’s speech is wholly the creation of Luke. While it would be rare to find a scholar who believes we have in this speech simply the words of Stephen, many scholars would seek a middle ground to the origins of the speech, opting neither to claim that this is a composition completely written by Luke nor entirely a speech given by Stephen. Richard J. Dillon, for one, thinks the truth falls in between, namely, that the speech combining historical summary, the addition of penitential reproaches (vv. 39-42a, 51-53),  Moses-prophet typology and formal OT citations (vv. 42b-43, 48b-50) is certainly edited and shaped by Luke but that it also contains a core of an historical event (Richard J. Dillon, NJBC, 740-41). That is my sense too.

As to the purpose of the speech, it is quite fascinating that Stephen does not actually respond to the formal charges against him, which we saw in entry 18, concerned changing the Law and Jesus destroying the Temple (Acts 6:13-14). In Acts 7:1 the high priest asks him, "Are these things so?" But Stephen never answers these questions directly. T.E. Page comes the closest to saying he does, arguing that

The speech of Stephen must be considered in reference to the twofold charge (vi. 13, 14) to which it is an answer. The argument is throughout from Scripture, and it is twofold, but the two threads are not kept distinct, but interwoven.

(1)    He meets the charge of ‘speaking against this Holy Place’ – a charge no doubt founded on the fact of his having taught that worship in the Temple was not essential to the worship of God – by shewing that the worship of God is not confined to Jerusalem or the Jewish Temple…

(2)    As regards the charge of changing ‘the customs which Moses delivered’, he points out that God had had many dealings with their fathers before the giving of the law (e.g., in the covenant of circumcision ver. 8), and that, far from contradicting Moses, Jesus is the very successor whose coming Moses had foretold (ver. 37).” (Page, Acts, 119)

Page skirts the question of the “formal” charges by arguing that Stephen in fact answers these questions theologically, and that is indeed Johnson’s approach also.

Johnson writes, “Does Stephen answer the question concerning the Law and the Temple? In one obvious sense, no, for he does not even take up the charges in the form they were made. But in a more important sense, he responds to the real issue underlying those attacks: are the Messianists renegade Jews, or do they have a legitimate reason to claim that they are the authentic realization of the people of God?” (Johnson, Acts, 119). He continues on to claim that  “readers who object that the greater part of Stephen’s speech is beside the point simply show that they have not grasped what the point is…what all such recitals have in common is the way in which they select and shape a tradition in order to justify or support  a specific understanding of it.” (Johnson, Acts, 120).

Luke’s goal in this speech is not to answer specific charges, but he “seeks to legitimate the messianic appropriation of Torah by showing how Torah itself demanded such an appropriation” (Johnson, Acts, 120). In Luke’s speech, therefore, “Abraham is not ‘your father,’ but ‘our father.’ The debate, therefore, is within the family as to what constitutes authentic family membership” (Johnson, Acts, 121).

Gary Gilbert, however, writing in the Jewish Annotated New Testament sees something else at play than legitimation of the “Messianists,” to use Johnson’s description, but a focus on Jewish disobedience and a de-legitimation of the Temple, a place where the followers of Jesus have continued to worship throughout the first chapters of Acts.

“…they bring him {Stephen} before the council where they present false witnesses who charge him with saying things against the Temple and law (6:8-15; see Mark 15:46 for a parallel in Jesus’ trial). Stephen launches into a speech, the longest in Acts, that rehearses Israel’s history, beginning with Abraham. The speech develops two themes that become a major part of the larger Lukan narrative, particularly in its representation of Jews. First, it highlights Jewish disobedience. The speech, rather than offering any response to the high priest’s question, rehearses major events in Israel’s sacred narrative. After mentioning Abraham, Joseph, and other early ancestors, the focus shifts to Moses and the continual disobedience of Israel. The speech presents Moses’ story in terms of Israel’s primal disobedience to God and God’s messengers, and it identifies the present generation as persisting in the same spirit. By contrast, Nehemiah 9 also combines historical review with rebuke of the people’s rebellious nature, yet God is merciful and faithful to the covenant (see also Ps 78).  Second, the critical references to the building of the Temple elevate the value of God’s universal presence over a possible implicit belief that God is particularly present in the Temple. Stephen’s consequent martyrdom continues the parallel with Jesus in his quotation from Ps 31.6 and his plea for forgiveness of his persecutors (Lk 23.34, 46).” (JANT, 211)

While Johnson is correct that Stephen presents his speech in the context of “our father,” the subsequent split of the disciples of Jesus from Judaism leaves already in Acts a presentation of the Jews as disobedient and the Temple as in some ways irrelevant. These are themes we must pay close attention to throughout the narrative of Acts.

As to the content of this section of Stephen’s speech, it is centered on Abraham’s story (references to Abraham in Luke’s story occur in Luke 1:55, 73; 3:8, 34; 13:16, 28; 16:22-30; 19:9; 20:37; Acts 3:13, 25; 13:26), though Johnson makes the insightful comment that it is God who is truly the main actor in 7:2-8 not Abraham (Johnson, Acts, 114). God had in mind what was to take place with Jesus, the Messiah, so “for Luke the story of Abraham reaches its true fulfillment only now in the messianic realization of the promise” (Johnson, Acts, 121).  It is fair to say, however, that in Luke’s Acts and Stephen’s speech, everything reaches its fulfillment in Israel’s history only now with Jesus.

Stephen says that “the God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2). The “God of Glory” (Ὁ θεὸς τῆς δόξης) might be compared to the Shechinah, “the presence of God” who “was believed to rest especially on the mercy-seat between the cherubim” (Page, Acts, 120), but “doxa” (glory) in the LXX is often used for the Hebrew “kavod,” “the divine attribute of honor or worthiness” (JANT, 210). “Kavod” is more likely since Stephen is going to argue in this section that God’s presence in the Temple is not essential and is reported to have left the Temple in Ezekiel 10:1-19. This image is more probable to explain a rarely used term, found only in LXX Ps 28:3. More often one finds the phrase, the “glory of the Lord” (Exodus 24:16; Leviticus 9:6) or the “glory of God” (Ezekiel 10:19) (Johnson, Acts, 114).

While it is true that Acts 7:2, “Luke’s sequence of events does not agree with the LXX of Gen. 11:3-12:5” (Johnson, Acts, 115), the more significant issue is that Mesopotamia and Haran refer to “locations outside Israel; Stephen points to God’s freedom of action in self-revelation apart from those in the land of promise” (JANT, 210-11).

Acts 7:3, in which Abraham is told to “leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you,” is a close quotation from LXX Genesis 12:1 (Page, Acts, 119; Johnson, Acts, 114) and has similar phrasing to Hebrews 11:8 (“Whichever I will show you”). Abraham leaves his country of the Chaldeans and “after his father died” (based on Genesis 11:26-12:4), “God moved him” to the Promised Land, which builds on LXX Genesis 12:5 (Johnson, Acts, 115).

Luke writes that God “did not give him any of it as a heritage, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him as his possession and to his descendants after him, even though he had no child” (Acts 7:5). Other than in this passage, the language of “inheritance” and “promise” is only found together in 2 Maccabees 2:17-18 (Johnson, Acts, 115). But these promises in general are located in Genesis 13:15, 15:7, 17:8, and 48:4.

Acts 7:6, “And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years,” is a free rendering of Genesis 15:13. And though in Acts 7:7 Stephen says that “I will judge the nation that they serve,” there is no mention in the speech of “the punishment of the Egyptians and the plunder of the Israelites” (JANT, 211). It is further mentioned that “after that they shall come out and worship me in this place,” but the 430 years as given in Exodus 12:40 and Galatians 3:17 is not noted.

Finally, the Abraham section ends with Acts 7:8, “then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.” This covenant sealed with circumcision is mentioned in Genesis 15:18, 17:1-4, 10-13, 21:4. Stephen’s speech recounting Israel’s history has started and there is nothing odd or strange in it to this point. Clearly, it is all about the end point of this shared history for Stephen.

Next entry, Stephen continues his speech.

John W. Martens

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