Strange Details in Stephen's Defense


Dennis McCallum


The defense offered by Steven in Acts 7 has confused interpreters as much as any passage in the book of Acts. In his excellent commentary on Acts, Howard Marshal says,

. . . the purpose of this speech is still much disputed. In form it is a lengthy recital of Old Testament history, discussing in detail what appear to be insignificant points and culminating in a bitter attack on the speaker's hearers. What is the speaker trying to do?" 1

later he complains,

. . .it is not clear what the theological point of the details is." 2

These are striking statements, coming, as they do, from one who demonstrates keen insight throughout the text of Acts. Yet, they are hardly unusual. Dibelius is much stronger,The irrelevance of this speech has for long been the real problem of exegesis. It is, indeed, impossible to find a connection between the account of the history of Israel to the time of Moses (7:2-19) and the accusations against Stephen. . .The major part of the speech shows no purpose whatever. . .

and finally,

The most striking feature of this speech is the irrelevance of its main section.3

Gealy asks, ". . . How are we to explain the fact that Steven does not really speak to the charges brought against him?"4 In fact, Gealy thinks that the whole text is so unrelated to the flow of the Steven narrative that 7:1-53 must be one of three conflated traditions, namely "an anti-Jewish polemic which Luke fashioned into a speech for his purposes."5 He thinks that the only point made in the speech is that the history of Israel is "a history of continual disobedience to God".6

Unfortunately, Gealy has missed the point of this brilliant speech. The speech is certainly not anti-semitic,7 and the fact that Israel was disobedient to the law, though mentioned, plays a subordinate role in the thought development. It is only certain kinds of disobedience that Stephen focuses on. In fact, this speech is the lynch-pin in the transition between Christianity as a localized ethnic religion, and a universal body.8 Stephen the Hellenist was able to see the implications of the Gospel to an extraordinary degree.9

While there are confusing sections in the speech, there are also sections that are well understood by modern interpreters. Commonly accepted motifs are:

  • The history of Israel demonstrates ineptitude (on the part of the leadership especially) in seeing the hand of God and in recognizing His agents.
  • The Temple cultus has been misinterpreted all along, and should now be set aside.10 These motifs are clearly argued in this speech. This author has no objection to either application. On the other hand, there must be more involved in the argument, because much of the detailed material in the speech does not address these two points. There is still a substantial body of detailed Old Testament material not included in the argument for these two obvious points. It is this extra material (some of it strange), that is the focus of this study.

The Missing Message

The key to understanding the inclusion of seemingly irrelevant detail in Stephen's speech is to realize that they deal with geography. The speech is overly concerned with geography, and with the people's and God's relationship to it.

It is the argument of this paper that a mistake is being made by interpreters when the second purpose of Stephen's speech is limited to answering charges regarding the temple. The nucleus of the thinking here is not only a response to the temple, but to the broader and more foundational concept of sacred space or sacred land.11 Stephen will argue that the notion of sacred land, used by God in the past for communication purposes, was not, and should not be viewed as a limitation upon Him. "God can work just fine without the use of any sacred space," is Stephen's argument.

Only this broader understanding will account for all of the material in the speech, as well as explaining the strategy Stephen follows in refuting the charges made against him. One of the charges brought against Stephen was that he speaks against, "this place," (6:13).12 Marshal thinks that the accusation that Stephen blasphemed "this holy place" (tou hagiou topou toutou vs.14) is a reference to the temple. This may be correct, even though the examples he cites do not use the word topos, but naos.13

Whether the phrase refers exclusively to the temple, or to the sacred area around it (Jerusalem, Mt. Zion or even Israel) it seems clear that the greater question of sacred space in the sense of sacred land had come up in the debate earlier.14 It would be hard to exaggerate the centrality of the sacred land of Israel in the understanding of the covenantal blessings at the heart of Judaism at this time.15 At the heart of ethnic-religious world views are the twin values of "Race and Space," or to put it differently, "Blood and Soil."

These values are hardly unique to first century Judaism. The same terms have been used to understand thought systems such as Naziism. Unfortunately, they would adequately summarize the ethos of much of modern western Christianity. These values can be dangerous substitutes for real spirituality, and may stand as barriers to a truly universal, loving, outreaching, and caring form of Christianity. Most of the book of Acts is concerned with God's efforts to overcome the inertia that emanates from the unbalanced application of these two values in the name of religion.

By speaking to the issue of sacred space, including the sacred city and sacred land of Israel, Stephen's speech lays a firm ideological foundation for the subsequent movement of the focus of God's work away from both in the following chapters. Immediately, we find Philip putting into action the lateral movement that Stephen's analysis of Scripture so beautifully justified.

Having asserted this theme, we can now briefly note how it is developed in the text of Stephen's speech.

Abraham (vs. 2-8)

That God related personally to Abraham was admitted by all. The important point to Steven is that He did so, ". . .while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran." (Acts 7:2). Indeed, He directed him to "Leave your country and your people. . ." (7:3), just as He would now direct the righteous of Israel to leave their country and their people for the sake of world-wide witness. Stephen admits that Abraham was directed to "this land" (tain gain tautain), but reminds them that he never owned a foot of ground in it (vs.5).16 Thus, Abraham was a foreigner in the promised land, just as many of the Hellenists and some Gentiles were.

One might be tempted at this point to argue that this state was hardly God's way, since the promise was still unfulfilled. But Stephen reminds them that even after the birth of Isaac, "Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own. . ." for 400 years (vs. 6). Only then would they come out of that country to serve God in "this place" (en toi topoi toutoi).17

The significance of the mention of circumcision in this context is that the covenant was being practiced while no land was owned by Abraham, thus showing that the enjoyment of this covenant was not dependent on being a native of the Holy Land.18

The Patriarchs (vs. 8-19)

The career of the patriarchs continues to demonstrate the key motifs that interest Stephen. First, they did not recognize that God was with Joseph, so they sold him.19 In the same way, the present august assembly (though certainly no greater in stature than the patriarchs themselves) may have failed to recognize God's agent again in Christ.

This part of the argument is clear. However, why include the career of Joseph during the famine? To Stephen, the important thing is not that Joseph was sold into slavery, but that he was sold into slavery "in Egypt," (vs. 9). Did this mean that because Joseph was out of the land, he was out of the center of action spiritually? Not at all. In fact, the center of action moved with Joseph. "God was with him," affirms Stephen (vs. 9).

The subsequent events surrounding the famine demonstrated that God was working through Joseph the outcast one, an Egyptian slave living outside of Israel. Indeed, God was working so effectively through Joseph that the entire family eventually moved to Egypt, and the focus of salvation history during this period shifted completely out of the promised land.

It is true that though Joseph and Jacob died in Egypt, their bodies were brought back to Palestine. Yet, according to Stephen, it was to the city of Shechem that they were taken, in the hated territory of the Samaritans.20

Moses (vs. 19-43)

Blasphemy of Moses was part of the charge brought against Stephen, so his analysis of this period in salvation history is important. The elements of the story included by Stephen focus on:

  • Moses' relation to other races (vs. 21-23)
  • The failure on the part of the people (including the leadership) to recognize him, or to obey his teaching (vs. 24-28,35,37-39) see esp. vs. 25, he "thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. and 37 "But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him. . ."21
  • Moses' and the people's relation to sacred space The last point, regarding sacred space, accounts for the seemingly strange and unnecessary material in this section. First we find that Moses "fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner," (vs. 29). It was in Midian, not in Palestine, that he saw the burning bush. It was on an unknown patch of ground somewhere near Sinai that God said, "Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground," (vs. 33). Here was authentic sacred ground if ever there was such a thing!

Yet, interestingly, no one in Stephen's day knew where this ground was. Would it be a good idea to look for the spot in the hope that it was still sacred? Not at all. The thing that made it sacred was the presence of God working there. Now that He had moved on to other work, the location of the spot was unimportant.

It would have been a serious mistake to stand around at this site when God had already moved on! In the same way, according to Stephen, God was moving in new directions as he spoke, but He was being inhibited by institutionalized foot-dragging on the part of his audience.

Stephen not only points out that Moses did wonders, but he reminds his audience of the venue for those works-- "in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert," (vs. 36).

The passage in 40-43 reporting on the practice of idol worship in the wilderness has confused many. Why should Stephen pick out this area of sin to report on? Surely there were ample examples of unfaithfulness to the law in Deuteronomy, without having to go to the book of Psalms? The answer, I suggest is that this passage is also dealing with the issue of sacred space.22

Stephen shows that the inclination of the people has always been to worship and love "the work of their own hands," (vs. 41). It was the fact that the animistic gods were tangible, visible and man-made that appealed to the ancient Hebrews, and the same features, he suggests, commended the temple and the sacred ground idea to his audience.

The Tabernacle and the Temple (vs. 44-50)

Stephen illustrates the basic difference between the outlook of man and that of God on this point, by comparing the tabernacle and the temple (vs.44-50). The tabernacle hardly fits the usual pattern for sacred space. Shrines and temples are usually built around the site of a theophany.23 A sacred grove, spring, mountain, or stone are the proper loci for religious shrines. But this shrine was mobile. The sacredness of the shrine had to do with the "pattern he [Moses] had seen," (vs.44) and the teaching value that resulted, not with its location.

Not only this, but the tabernacle sat in the barnyard of a farmer for a period of time that must have been about 400 years according to the chronology of I Kings.24 During this whole time--almost equal in length to the whole post-exilic history of Jerusalem--the location of the temple was irrelevant to God's working. Certainly the space Stephen devoted to the history of the tabernacle must relate to the over-all theme of the speech. The best guess as to the significant aspect of the tabernacle is the absence of any tie to a geographical location.

It is possible that God's refusal to let David build the temple, in spite of the fact that he was even more favored by God than Solomon, is used to show that the temple was not God's ideal. Certainly, in the original speech, Stephen cannot have failed to teach on the great text in II Sam. 7 where God declares that He has, "been moving around in a tent, even in a tabernacle." God goes on to ask, "Did I [ask] why have you not built Me a house of cedar?"25

This need not be seen as an argument that the construction of the temple was a mistake. It was not the construction of the temple that was an error, but the false interpretation of the temple that had become a deadly error.26 No doubt, it was this danger that caused God to reflect some negativity regarding the whole project. Yet, there is no actual statement to the effect that God had not ordained the temple. Rather, there is the unwavering declaration that "the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands." (vs. 48).

This was the critical misunderstanding that was inhibiting God's purposes in Stephen's day, as it still does today.

Stephen seems to have realized that he had already signed his death warrant by directly opposing the theology of the Counsel. He certainly evidences no effort at restraint in the denunciation that follows.27

Stephen's Death and Legacy

I think entirely too much importance is attached to Stephen's reference to Christ as the "Son of Man". The fact that this is the only usage of the term outside of the gospels is accounted for by the unique nature of the confrontation, including the fact that the audience is made up of Jewish Old Testament scholars. The allusion to Daniel 7:14 seems natural and realistic in this setting. It is certainly not what makes the speech important.28

The fact that the counsel stoned Stephen without Roman approval is an evident breech of Roman law, even if the crimes of blasphemy were capitol offenses. Bruce is probably correct when he observes that,

. . .during the closing part of Pilate's administration, especially when he was resident in Caesarea, the Jewish rulers knew that they could take certain discreet liberties.29

It remains possible in this author's mind that the counsel simply functioned as an illegal lynch mob.30 The main point is that the church lost a great light the day that Stephen died. Stephen was ahead of the development of many of the other leaders in the Jerusalem church in his understanding of the relationship of the gospel to the issues of race, sacred space, and the radical change in God's program with respect to the Old Testament.31 Indeed, it was Philip the evangelist, another apparent Hellenist, who in Acts 8, opens the door to Samaritans, and to the Ethiopian Eunich.

It must have seemed like an unmitigated tragedy to have lost a visionary who understood better than most of the Apostles at this time some of the most basic aspects of Christian spirituality. Yet, the narrative indicates that God was at work, even though the believers there would not have known it at the time. The cloaks were laid at the feet of one who would later demonstrate every bit as much radicalism as Stephen--Saul of Tarsus.32

End Notes

1 Howard I. Marshall, . . .The Acts of the Apostles, (Leichester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), p. 131.

2 Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 137.

3 Dibelius, in Studies in Acts, pp. 167,168 cited by Richard N. Longnecker, "The Acts of the Apostles," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Gabelein, Frank, E., Editor (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI. 1978), pp. 337,338.

4 F. D. Gealy, "Steven," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Butterick, George, Arthur, Editor, (New York, Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 442.

5 F. D. Gealy, "Steven," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, p. 442. He explains, "Obviously. . . 6:1-6 and 6:8 ff represent two different Stephen renditions, which are juxtaposed but unrelated, neither explaining or being explained by the other. . . " p. 442. However, Marshal effectively rejects this position along with the notion of Lukan forgery. Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 133,134. So also, Paul Trudinger, "Stephen and the Life of the Primitive Church" in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1984), pp. 20,21. See a short survey of source criticism attempts in Acts scholarship and their failures in Thomas Louis Brodie, "Towards Unraveling the Rhetorical Imitation of Sources in Acts: 2 Kings 5 as One Component of Acts 8,9-40," in Biblica Vol. 67 No. 1 (Winter 1986), pp. 42,43.

6 F. D. Gealy, "Steven," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, p. 442.

7 On this point see J. H. Houlden, "The Purpose of Luke," in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 21 (1984), pp. 53-65.

8 Astonishingly, Trudinger asserts that, "We may justly wonder why it is that Luke has included this section if indeed the tenor of it runs counter to the spirit of the rest of Acts." (!) Paul Trudinger, "Stephen and the Life of the Primitive Church," in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1984), p. 20.

9 On the identity of what are called "Hellenistai" in vs. 1, see F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), p. 219, "That they [the hellenists] maintained a more liberal outlook than the `Hebrews', including the apostles, is evident from the sequel to the narrative of their election."

Some more radical critics think that the "Hellenists" were a splinter group in Judaism before the time of Christ. Their "anti-temple, anti-ritualistic bias seems clear from Stephen's speech," comments Trudinger in what appears to be a circular argument. See Paul Trudinger, "Stephen and the Life of the Primitive Church" in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1984), p. 19. There is little doubt that there were more liberally minded Jews known as Hellenists, but it is not clear that they were against the Temple or ritual. The only extra-biblical evidence adduced is an alleged similarity to the spirit of the Qumran community. The parallels, however, appear superficial.

10 Gealy is convinced wrongly that Stephen thinks there never should have been a temple. F. D. Gealy, "Steven," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, p. 442. But for a more balanced appraisal see, F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), p. 223.

11 Longnecker follows a very similar line on Acts 7 in his exceptional commentary in the Expositors series. However, he does not relate to the sacred space notion, only to the area of sacred land. Richard N. Longnecker, "The Acts of the Apostles," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Gabelein, Frank, E., Editor.

12 See Doble's interesting claim that "hramata" (speak against 6:13) means to "utter oracles against". This may be a reference to Stephen's quoting Jesus' oracles against the temple in Lk. 19:41. P. Doble, "The Son of Man Saying in Stephen's Witnessing: Acts 6:8-8:2," in New Testament Studies, Vol. 31 (1985). p. 69 see fn.14.

13 Mk. 14:58, 15:29, Jn. 2:19 all use naos, but Marshall cites them to demonstrated that the phrase "tou hagiou topou toutou" means temple. Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 129. Knowling thinks the phrase could be referring also to the assembly place of the Sanhedrin, also on the temple mount. R. J. Knowling, "The Acts of the Apostles." in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Frank, E. Gabelein, Editor, (Grand Rapids MI.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), Vol. II p. 177.

14 The phrase "ho topos toutos" (this place) is found exclusively in Luke-Acts in the New Testament, (sometimes in other cases). Once it is found in and Luke (16:28), and five times in Acts (6:13,14; 7:7; 21:28 twice). In 7:7 it is clearly referring to the land of Israel (see below). In 6:13,14 it is likely that the first reference may refer to the land of Israel, and in 21:28 it is also possible that the first usage refers to the land rather than the temple. Only when "hagiou" is inserted does it become likely that the temple is being referred to exclusively, and even then there is room for doubt as noted above in note 13. Also see Knowling for a brief explanation of the textual problem with this phrase in vs. 13. R. J. Knowling, "The Acts of the Apostles." in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. II p. 177. The variant does not affect the sense of the charge against Stephen.

15 Concerning the New and Old Testament's views of the land of Israel, Brown notes, "One of the most striking differences between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. . .is the centrality of the Land in the Hebrew Bible and the apparent indifference to it in much of the New Testament." Wesley H. Brown, "Christian Understandings of Biblical Prophecy, Israel and the Land, and the Christian-Jewish Encounter," in Immanuel, No. 18. p. 87. He also cites W. D. Davies' work The Gospel and the Land, "Christ has become for Paul the `locus' of redemption. . .once he had seen in Jesus his Torah, he had in principle broken with the land. . .His geographical identity was subordinated to that of being `in Christ'. . ." p. 88.

See Davies further for documentation on Jewish reverence for the sacredness of the land. W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 1-160.

Also see Richard N. Longnecker, "The Acts of the Apostles," p. 339.

16 On the chronological problem regarding the death of Terah see Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 135.

17 Gen. 15:13,14 Abraham was apparently standing near the Oaks of Mamre when God said this. This would be near Hebron, well outside of the site of Jerusalem, but within the land of Israel.

18 Similarly, Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 137.

19 The jealousy evident in the patriarchs was also the driving force behind the persecution of Jesus according to all of the Gospel authors.

20 Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, "the interest in Shechem and the emphasis upon it is remarkable in a speech addressed to Jews in Jerusalem, but they certainly could not contest the fact of Joseph's burial in the hated Samaritan territory." p. 139. If Stephen erred in detail here (see Marshall above), such an error might not pose any more problem for the inspiration of Acts than those cases where the disciples erred in the gospels (Compare Mt. 17:13 with Mk. 9:13). The author of Acts is not asserting these facts, he is merely reporting a synopsis of the speech accurately.

21 Note that in vs. 37 Stephen cites the well known Messianic prediction that "God will send you a prophet like me from your own people,"(Deut. 18:15). The implication here is that King Messiah would be like Moses in all respects, including regular rejection by His own people.

22 This point is missed by Longnecker. Richard N. Longnecker, "The Acts of the Apostles," pp. 343,344.

23 Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion. (The World Publishing Co.,Cleveland OH, 1958), p. 370. A "Heirophany" is a manifestation of, or an encounter with, the sacred.

24I Kings 6:1.

25II Sam. 7:7.

26 Compare Paul Trudinger, "Stephen and the Life of the Primitive Church" in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1984), p. 20. "The building of the temple . . .is another example of Israel's sin. The building of the temple is right on a par with the making of the golden calf, to Stephen's way of thinking." Here Trudinger woodenly equates the misunderstanding of the temple with the building of it. See more correctly, P. Doble, "The Son of Man Saying in Stephen's Witnessing: Acts 6:8-8:2," in New Testament Studies, Vol. 31 (1985). p. 79. This essay has limited value, especially the unconvincing comparison of Stephen's speech and Wisdom. Even Longnecker thinks that vss. 44-47 express "disapproval" on Stephen's part for the temple. Richard N. Longnecker, "The Acts of the Apostles," p. 346.

27Modern critics have argued that the death of Stephen reflects the, "beginning of an imatatio Christi motif in the biographies of the saints." If so, it is probably because of the influence of the Stephen text on later writers. Marcel Simon cited in Paul Trudinger, "Stephen and the Life of the Primitive Church" in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1984), p. 20.

28 So argues P. Doble, "The Son of Man Saying in Stephen's Witnessing: Acts 6:8-8:2," in New Testament Studies, Vol. 31 (1985), p. 69.

29 F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), p. 226.

30 This is denied by Bruce. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, p. 226, but no reasons are given. For a curious but not very credible analysis of the martyrdom of Stephen see Thomas Louis Brodie, O.P., "The Accusing and Stoning of Naboth (1Kgs. 21:8-13), as One Component of the Stephen Text (Acts 6:9-14; 7:58a)," in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol.45, pp. 417-432. The author's effort to demonstrate that the narrative portions of the account are adapted by Luke from the Naboth narrative is completely unconvincing.

31 Stephen, as a member of the "Hellenistic" group in the Jerusalem church, was probably less encumbered with the ethnocentricity, ritualism, and traditionalism of the "Hebraic" group in the Jerusalem church. The fact that Steven was chosen to rectify the inequity between these two groups suggests that, for whatever reason, he was more free of the race and cultural prejudice that was still present in the Jerusalem church at this time.

Bruce avers that, "Stephen's attitude to the Temple betokens a much clearer appreciation of the incompatibility of the old order with the implications of the teaching of Jesus than appears to have been common among the early disciples in Jerusalem." F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, p. 223.

Marshal concurs, "It would seem likely that Steven went much farther that the twelve in emphasizing this teaching [on the temple]." Howard I. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 128.

32 He refers to this event calling Stephen God's martyr in Acts 22:20. Note also the charges brought against Paul in Acts 21:27ff, he preaches, "against our people, against the law, and against this place". Paul used arguments that were similar to Stephen's, and may even have quoted him. See Acts 17:24-26 along with the excellent comments by R. J. Knowling, "The Acts of the Apostles." in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. II p. 373.