Stephen Condemns the Council

This is the twenty-first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry concludes 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 Concludes: Joseph and Moses (7:41-53):

41At that time they made a calf, offered a sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and handed them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: "Did you offer to me slain victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 No; you took along the tent of Moloch, and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; so I will remove you beyond Babylon.' 44 "Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, 49 "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?' 51 "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."  (NRSV)

 

Last entry, we examined the bulk of Stephen’s speech, verses 9-40, which covered the stories of Joseph and Moses. This post covers the end of the speech, 7:41-53. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. breaks down this section of the speech into three parts, calling 7:41-43 “Israel’s First Falling Away,” 7:44-50 “Israel’s Second Falling Away,” and 7:51-53 “Conclusion: Stephen’s Indictment” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 365).[1] As one can discern even from the titles of these sections, these last verses in Stephen’s speech are an unrelenting condemnation.

In Acts 7:41, “at that time they made a calf, offered a sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands, Stephen quotes either LXX Exodus 32:1 or 32:23.[2] The speech clearly references in a number of ways the entire incident found in Exodus 32 regarding the golden calf.  The phrase “reveling over their work” reflects Exodus 32:6 and “Stephen cites this incident to stress that from its origins this people has been rebellious and prone to turn to idols of its own making;” even more, “he tones down Aaron’s involvement and accuses ‘them’,” as Fitzmyer puts it (Acts,381).  According to Luke Timothy Johnson the phrase ‘make a calf’ “is based on but not found in LXX Exodus 32:4. It corresponds to the ‘things made by hand’ (cheiropoiêtai) in Acts 7:48” (Johnson, Acts, 131).

In a verse Stephen’s speech has reflected the whole of Exodus 32 and a tradition of turning away from God. This brings us to Acts 7:42a, where Stephen says, “But God turned away from them and handed them over to worship the host of heaven.” As every commentator on Acts notes, ‘God turned’ could mean that God “turned away from them” (intransitive verb) or God “turned them” towards the heavenly host (transitive verb) (Fitzmyer, Acts,381; Johnson, Acts, 131; Pervo, Acts, 189). There seems to be a definite sense that it is God who “turned away from them” on the part of most commentators, with which I agree, since it is similar to the language and theology of Wisdom 14:21-31, Romans 1:18-28, and 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, in which God turns away from those who have turned from God, leading to idolatry and subsequent immorality (Pervo, Acts, 189). The “heavenly host” referenced in Acts 7:42a is thought to reflect passages such as 1 Kings 22:19, Jeremiah 7:18, 19:13, and Nehemiah 9:6 in which stars  and other heavenly bodies, perhaps even spirits or angels, are offered inappropriate worship.

This reading is borne out by Acts 7:42b-43, which reads: “as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘Did you offer to me slain victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? No; you took along the tent of Moloch, and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; so I will remove you beyond Babylon.’” Stephen here quotes LXX Amos 5:25-27 almost exactly, the major alteration being the shift from “Damascus” in the original text to “Babylon” in Acts reflecting the actual historical experience of the nation (Johnson, Acts, 131-32). The point in Stephen’s speech is clear: “from its historic beginnings as God’s Chosen People in Egypt and its desert wanderings, ‘the house of Israel’ constantly has gone astray, and as a result it suffered exile in Babylon” (Fitzmyer, Acts,367).

The mention of the wilderness idolatry sets the stage for the next portion of the speech. Fitzmyer sums up this section from Acts 7:44-50 by saying, “In part V Israel’s falling away is further recounted in its substitution of a temple of its own making for the tabernacle made after the divine pattern and given to it by God through Moses in the desert. ‘Yet the Most High dwells not in buildings made by human hands’ (7:48). This misguided act has made Yahweh like a heathen idol. So Stephen criticizes the Jerusalem Temple” (Fitzmyer, Acts,367).  Richard Pervo puts a sharper and more poetic point on it: “By inference, innuendo and insinuation, the temple of Solomon (and its successors) is drawn into the belly of the golden calf” (Pervo, Acts, 189). Remarkably, it is not the abuse of the temple which is under attack in this speech, but the institution itself.

Stephen speaks fondly now, after attacking the wilderness idolatry of the Israelites, when he says that "Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen” (Acts 7:44). The language of “pattern” certainly has in mind the instructions for building the tent that come from Exodus 25:9 and 40, but it also replicates Platonic language found in Hebrews 8:5 and Philo of Alexandria, Moses 2.74, 76 regarding the temple (Pervo, Acts, 190). Whether Luke knew this language and tradition in Hellenistic Judaism is another question which cannot be answered definitively.

What we can say is that the “tent of testimony or witness” (tou martyriou) is the name derived from the LXX Exodus 27:21, 28:43, and 33:7 translating the Hebrew “tent of meeting” (‘ōhel mô’ēd). It stands in sharp contrast also to “tent of Moloch” in 7:43 (Johnson, Acts, 132). In Acts 7:45, Stephen’s speech describes how the tent of witness was “brought…in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David.” The actual events are described in Joshua 3:11-4:18, which narrates bringing the ark “across the Jordan into Canaan” (Fitzmyer, Acts,383), and in Joshua 18:1, where “the tent of witness is set up in Shiloh” (Johnson, Acts, 132). Fitzmyer also believes that the name of Joshua might be significant here because in the LXX the name becomes Jesus (Iêsous), but it would be difficult to describe this historical narrative without using Joshua’s name (Acts,383).

The tent was still there, Stephen stresses, “until the time of David, who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob” (Acts 7:45b-46).  It is true, of course that “the tent of witness is still functioning at Shiloh in 1 Sam 2:22, and when David brings the ark to Jerusalem, he puts it in a tent (2 Sam 6:17)” (Johnson, Acts, 132), but Pervo argues that “with carefully chosen words the narrator tiptoes around the biblical account of David’s unworthiness to build the temple” (Pervo, Acts, 190).

In 2 Samuel 7:1-16 David wants to build a house for God and is initially told by the prophet Nathan that he can. But God comes to Nathan by night and says that David should not for God will build him a house. “House” in this passage at various times means palace, temple, and dynastic house. For whatever reason, it was not David’s task to build a house for God, though it was his desire.

“But it was Solomon who built a house for him” (Acts 7:47), as outlined in 1 Kings 5-7.  Fitzmyer says that “in Stephen’s view Israel substituted a human construction for the divinely inspired desert tabernacle” (Fitzmyer, Acts,383), even though 2 Samuel 7:13 says about David’s son that “he shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (see also 2 Chronicles 6:9). Pervo’s language again gets to the heart of the matter: “the implication is that, if a tent were good enough for God and Moses, it should have been good enough for Solomon” (Pervo, Acts, 190).

Acts 7:48, “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands,” does support Pervo’s and Fitzmyer’s position. It is the case that even Solomon acknowledged in his dedication prayer in 1 Kings 8:27 that God does not need to live in a house and cannot be contained by it, but it does seem that throughout this passage the temple itself is criticized, not an abuse of the temple (Pervo, Acts, 190).

Stephen within the speech certainly draws on a number of passages which minimize the role and function of the temple and does not include any positive passages regarding the temple; any positive statement about worship has to do with the tent of testimony. And so the citation in Acts 7:49-50, drawn from LXX Isaiah 66:1-2, with a couple of grammatical changes (Fitzmyer, Acts,384; Johnson, Acts, 133), continues the theme of lessening the significance of the temple. The passage reads: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” (Acts 7:49-50).

The speech “reserves its criticism for the Temple and its cult” (Fitzmyer, Acts,367), which is odd since Peter and the other apostles all worship there. But the criticism goes beyond how the Temple was operating to a criticism of the Temple in and of itself, which is also more than the Qumran sectarians, for instance, who also criticized the temple in their day offered. The speech and Stephen himself, as a result, “represent the beginning of Luke’s account of the break of Christianity from its Jewish matrix” (Fitzmyer, Acts,368).  While I take issue with the claim that at this early stage we have “Christianity” and “Judaism” as separate entities, Stephen’s criticism is harsh, for his position is not just that the people of Israel have disobeyed God, but that their institution is false and improper. Jesus and Stephen fit in the line of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, but the present Judeans and the Temple do not.[3]

The criticism of the temple is also a means of criticizing its current leaders and their practices.  Fitzmyer says of Acts 7:51-53 that “Stephen concludes his speech by indicting contemporary leaders of Israel. He bursts into an invective that is directly related to the central argument of his defense, but after rehearsing Israel’s past stubbornness and its reluctance to fulfill its true calling, he accuses these leaders of resisting the Holy Spirit… That is why they have not recognized ‘the coming of the Upright One,’ Jesus of Nazareth” (Fitzmyer, Acts,367). Johnson supports Fitzmyer, writing “the speech takes another rhetorical turn to direct denunciation” (Johnson, Acts, 133), as does Pervo, who says “the attack here becomes direct” (Pervo, Acts, 192).

Stephen speaks directly to the council when he says in Acts 7:51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” According to Stephen the council represent idolatrous Israel, while he represents faithful Israel. So they are a part of the same family, but not the good part. Johnson states that the phrase “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” drawn from Leviticus 26:41, is “tantamount to a charge of not belonging to the people,” but I would argue that it is a claim of the council belonging to the unfaithful part of the family (Johnson, Acts, 134). The council is “forever opposing the Holy Spirit,” “just as their “ancestors used to do,” a passage likely based on Isaiah 63:10 (Johnson, Acts, 134), because they do belong to the same people and the same God.

By the time Stephen gets to the question of Acts 7:52, “which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers,” we can imagine that Stephen’s fate is sealed. Certainly the “killing the prophets” motif is common in the Old Testament (Fitzmyer, Acts,385), emerging in Elijah’s complaint to God in 1 Kings 18:4, 13, 19:10, 14, but given that it is directed at Stephen’s accusers alone, how could they respond with equanimity to it? It is also a theme of Luke’s in the Gospel (Luke 6:23, 26), in which the true prophets are killed and the false prophets “treated well” (Johnson, Acts, 134). The climax of Stephen’s charge, as Fitzmyer says (Acts,385), is that the council are “betrayers and murderers.” The charge is similar to that made by Peter in Acts 3:14 (entry 9). Finally, Stephen’s speech ends by saying, “you are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:53). Fitzmyer, Acts,385 sees this charge as added to “compound the guilt of such religious authorities,” but we can also say it covers both main pillars of religious life for which the council was responsible: Torah and temple. According to Stephen, they have botched it all.

But even if it is the case that Stephen’s speech is highly critical of temple and Torah, is that the main point?  Richard Pervo says that “those who hold that Stephen’s speech is critical of temple and Torah have a better argument than their adversaries, but that argument is largely extraneous to the author’s project…The temple is long gone and this is no tragedy, for it belonged to an earlier era. The world is God’s temple” (Pervo, Acts, 193).

Pervo argues that 7:2-53, as a whole, is “not an effort to deal with issues between Christians and Jews. It justifies the separation of the two bodies in the light of subsequent intra-Christian debate” (Pervo, Acts, 193). Of this I am not certain only because I am not certain even in Luke’s day we are yet dealing with Christians and Jews or even have a sense of who represents the Jews as a whole. Luke gives us a window into that early debate by arguing that the followers of Jesus are the true Israelites. History, naturally, will allow us to see the separation between “Church” and “Synagogue” but I am not convinced we see that separation yet. Luke’s point is only that a new stage of Jewish history has arrived and those who follow Jesus are the inheritors of that history, the faithful family members. As Fitzmyer states, “the notion that the contemporary Judeans have consummated the rebellion of previous generations in Israel thus becomes a point of controversy between Christians and Jews, and it will continue long beyond Luke’s day. Yet Stephen’s accusation is hardly different from the accusations uttered by the Essenes of Qumran against the rest of the people in Judea” (Fitzmyer, Acts,367). We are still witnessing an internecine debate with Stephen’s speech, though with dire repercussions as history would move forward.

 

Next entry, Stephen is martyred.

John W. Martens

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[1] For Fitzmyer Acts 7:1-8 isPart I of the speech, Part II is 7:9-16, Part III is 7:20-38, while Part IV is 7:41-43 and Part V is 7:44-50. He does not mention 7:51-53 as Part VI in his breakdown of the speech on page 365, but he does refer to it as Part VI in his discussion on page 367. Although these final verses comprise short sections of the speech as a whole, Fitzmyer sees them as highly significant parts of the speech. As I mentioned in entry 20, Richard Pervo, Acts, 171-174 makes no divisions in the text, until verse 54, treating 7:2-53 as one unit.

[2] For those just beginning with the commentary, LXX is the short form for the Septuagint.

[3] Does this mean that Luke has a separate source for Stephen’s speech, since the criticism of the Temple goes beyond the positive portrayal of the apostolic worship there? Fitzmyer, Acts,368 believes that these details of the speech might have “been inherited by Luke from a preexisting source” and that is a possibility, but as Fitzmyer himself says this is now “the turn” against the Temple and its cult and so it could be a part of the larger schema of Acts itself.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
norman ravitch
2 years 4 months ago
Biblical scholars find much to worry about in Luke's Acts of the Apostles. It contradicts much of what Paul wrote about his own career in preaching the Gospel as he understood it. Luke had several motives we might worry about. He wanted to convince public opinion that Christianity was no threat to Roman power as Jewish messianism indeed was, the result of which was to denigrate the Jews and their concerns to an excessive degree, encouraging a development of anti-Judaism which in the long term was bad for Christianity. This along with Matthew's love-hate relationship to the Jews because of the rabbinic exclusion of Jewish-Christians from the synagogue and John's very un-Jewish concentration on Jesus as pre-existent became the bedrock of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Of course Vatican II heroically tried to turn this around and did a great deal in reducing anti-Jewish feelings among Catholics. But every time one reads of hears about Paul's battles with Jews in the Acts of the Apostles it becomes hard to remain philo-Judaic. Of course the Gospels and Acts were written so long after the Jews had rejected the Pauline message of Jesus (not perhaps the original message of Jesus) that there is no way to clean them up. Christians have to live with it. So do Jews. Jews have suffered more from its distortions than Christians to be sure.

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