This is the twenty-second entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry considers Stephen’s martyrdom.
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.
D) Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40): Stephen’s Martyrdom (7:54-8:3):
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died. 1 And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. (NRSV)
This is a major turning point in Acts as Gary Gilbert notes in the Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT, 214) and Luke Timothy Johnson in his commentary on Acts (Johnson, Acts, 141). We will return to how this is a turning point for the church and its growth, but for now we should mention that it is also a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish authorities and the church.
Richard Pervo says that “Stephen’s prophetic denunciation of the Jewish people for killing prophets is verified by the audience reaction. They kill him. The martyrdom of Stephen has been shaped to conform to the passion of Jesus” (Pervo, Acts, 195). How does this shaping take place? Pervo lists six elements in common with Jesus’ trial and death: 1) the absence of a formal sentence; 2) a climactic son of man saying; 3) a reference to garments; 4) the final words in a loud voice and prayer; 5) the prayer for forgiveness of enemies; 6) burial by devout person. He also believes that Luke is responsible for this parallelism and that he is not dependent upon a secondary source (Pervo, Acts, 195). I will quote him at length:
Into this thin porridge of visible data about Stephen’s end, Luke has stirred two ingredients, one encapsulating the story of Jesus, another introducing what will be his major character. The repetitions permit two literary touches: the “hearts and ears” of v.51 are echoed in v. 54 (“hearts”) and 57 (“ears”). The response confirms the reproach. The old theory that Luke blended two accounts, one describing a lynching, the other condemnation by the Sanhedrin is left without a basis. The alternatives are these: a formal trial that led to the execution of Stephen by the approved penalty of stoning or a lynching that Luke transformed into a Sanhedrin trial, with the motives of constructing a martyrdom like that of Jesus, reviling the high court, and providing opportunity for suitable oration. The latter solution best fits the data, scanty as they are. Tradition evidently viewed Stephen as the victim of a mob of Greek-speaking Jews. For the author of Acts, his enemies had to be the same as those who handed Jesus over to death and nearly executed the apostles. (Pervo, Acts, 196)
Pervo, therefore, sees the lynching of Stephen as extra-judicial, by a mob, and the account of the council trial added to this primary historical data. The data, are, however, “scanty.”
After Stephen completed his speech, the council “became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (Acts 7:54). This “rage” repeats the same response by the council to a speech of the Apostles in Acts 5:13 (diaprionto, “they were infuriated,” literally, as Johnson says, “they were ripped through their hearts”) (Johnson, Acts, 139; Pervo, Acts, 197). The “grinding” of teeth is often found in the LXX (Job 16:9, Pss 34:16, 36:12, 111:10) as an action of the wicked in response to the righteous and in Matthew (8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 24:51) it is an action performed by those excluded from the kingdom of heaven (Johnson, Acts, 139).
Yet, Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56). Pervo is insightful when he says that the vision and saying vindicate both Stephen and Jesus “against their critics,” for it is proof of Stephen’s righteousness and right belief and of Jesus’ resurrection (Pervo, Acts, 197).
The image of Jesus “at the right hand of God” is derived from Psalm 109:1 (a passage used as a proof text in Luke 20:42), but a major question for many commentators is why is Jesus standing instead of sitting as in Psalm 109. Many suggestions have been offered, but Johnson mentions that it might simply indicate a posture of welcome or acceptance to Stephen as he faces his death and this makes the most sense of this data (Johnson, Acts, 139).
The reference in Acts 7: 56: when “the heavens” are opened is “similar to Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:21” (Johnson, Acts, 139). And as with Jesus’ baptism, a revelation takes place. Indeed the “opening of heaven” is often a prelude to visions (LXX Is 63:19; Rev. 4:1) and the heavens will later open for Peter too in Acts 10:11 to receive a vision of what food may be eaten (Johnson, Acts, 140).
Stephen’s spirit filled countenance however does nothing to assuage his accusers and “they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:57-58).
The blocking or covering of “their ears” is “presumably to protect them from blasphemy” (Pervo, Acts, 198). Since the ears of the council are described as “uncircumcised” in Acts 7:51, Johnson sees the blocking of the ears as an action which indicates their “uncircumcised” ears (Acts, 140). The fact that the council charges Stephen “all together” (homothymadon) points to their unanimity. In fact, homothymadon is a word often used to demonstrate unity, as in Acts 2:46, 4:24, and 5:12 (Pervo, Acts, 198; Johnson, Acts, 140).
When Stephen is “dragged…out of the city” it might reflect Luke 4:29 and the attempt of the Nazareth synagogue to kill Jesus or Paul’s stoning in Acts 14:29, but Johnson does note that m. Sanhedrin 6:1 “legislates that the person to be stoned should be taken outside the court” and cites Leviticus 24:14 as proof text for bringing the person outside the camp (Johnson, Acts, 140; Page, Acts, 129). “Stoning was,” after all, “the main method of execution in the Tanakh (e.g., Lev.20:2); here, however, it seems to be a spontaneous mob action, like a lynching” (Gilbert, JANT, 213). This seems to be the case.
Though “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul,” this does not seem to imply a formal trial just Saul’s presence and participation. The Greek for coats is himatia, the outer cloaks, which are laid at Saul’s feet. According to Johnson, in Acts the laying of something before someone indicates authority (see Acts 4:35, 37, 5:1) (Johnson, Acts, 140). Richard Pervo however takes another tack: “And how was Paul transformed from “hat-check boy” to a prime agent of persecution within a few days?” (Pervo, Acts, 199-200). The truth clearly lies somewhere between these two portrayals: Saul might not yet have formal authority, but mob violence is a fluid reality and Saul could have moved quickly from interested bystander to major participant.
Saul’s introduction here is interesting because a first time reader of Acts would not know he is soon to become a major figure. Indeed Acts is our only source for Saul as a name of Paul, as it does not appear in any of his letters. Saul is also described as a youth (neanias), a word in Greek which generally points to the late teens, and which Pervo suggests indicates his inexperience, intimating that his will be a story “of his learning and growth” (Pervo, Acts, 198).
While Stephen is being stoned, “he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:59-60). Pervo says that “Stephen appears unfazed by this brutal assault…in typical martyrological style” (Pervo, Acts, 198). The truth is that Stephen is presented in imitation of Jesus: “receive my spirit” is parallel to Luke 23:46 ("Father, into your hands I commend my spirit") and is also related to LXX Psalm 30:6 (Pervo, Acts, 199; Johnson, Acts, 140). And “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” is parallel to Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”) (Pervo, Acts, 199). When Stephen falls to his knees it represents “body language of submission and prayer” and his openness to God’s path not his own, in imitation, again, of Jesus (Johnson, Acts, 140).
Stephen’s death is not described in much detail, nor does the narrative linger over it except for Acts 8:2: “Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.” The focus is that “Saul approved of their killing him” and “that day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). This is stressed again in Acts 8:3 when “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
Even though it seems these verses should not begin a new chapter, Pervo argues that “this section is one of Luke’s hinges” (Pervo, Acts, 199). Why a hinge? Persecution launches new missions says Pervo. Saul supported Stephen’s death (Pervo, Acts, 200), he “approved of their killing him.” And in Acts 22:20, when Paul recounts this event, he uses the same verb syneudokeô (“agreed with”) as in Acts 8:1 (Johnson, Acts, 141).
In Acts 8:2, “Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.” Johnson sees this again as “another echo of the Gospel story,” calling to mind Joseph of Arimathea as a pious man (Luke 23:50), with the lamentation recalling the women who mourned Jesus’ death (Luke 23:27, 48) (Johnson, Acts, 141). The word for “devout” (eulabeis) only appears three other times in the NT: Luke 2:25 (Simeon) and in Acts 2:5 and 22:12, where it speaks of devout Jews (Page, Acts, 130). T. E. Page takes this mean that those who buried Stephen, whatever the unanimity described in Stephen’s death, were not necessarily followers of Jesus.
Yet, “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). The word for “ravaging,” elumaineto, is a strong word which indicates insult as well as physical injury (Page, Acts, 130).
Richard Pervo, as noted above, sees the basic narrative as a Lucan composition, but so, too, he argues the “great persecution” is a Lucan creation (Pervo, Acts, 200). While there is clearly Luke’s hand in the composition of this narrative, that seems a step too far, especially given that Paul himself will speak of his own persecution of the church on more than one occasion (see Galatians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9). Seeing Luke shape the material is one thing, but claiming that the persecution is also a concoction goes beyond the evidence, unless Pervo’s claim is simply that the persecution was not as widespread as Luke claims.
Again, I quote Pervo at length:
“Problems arise from the abundance of narrative claims. Despite the “great persecution,” right-thinking Jews did not approve of Stephen’s execution. All but the apostles fled, but Paul can still find believers to incarcerate. Questions include: How could approximately twenty thousand refugees find sanctuary in “Judea and Samaria”? Why did the persecutors neglect to attack the apostles, who were well-known from their earlier encounters with the authorities (chaps. 3-5)? And how was Paul transformed from “hat-check boy” to a prime agent of persecution within a few days?” (Pervo, Acts, 199-200).
I rather think Pervo has exaggerated a number of claims. Let me answer with my own questions. In the midst of a “great persecution” does everyone agree with it? Might some disagree but remain silent? The apostles might have fled, but why could Paul not still find people to incarcerate, even if unjustly or on suspicion? Or might he track them even to Damascus? Who said there were 20,000 refugees? Not Acts. Perhaps the persecutors wanted to go after easier targets after striking out with the apostles? And though Pervo’s description of Paul as a “hat-check boy” is hilarious it might not exactly capture his role or the chronology, which Luke might simply have collapsed, as narrative writers often do.
The reality is, as Johnson assets, the story of Stephen is “the first major transition in the Acts narrative. The Jerusalem story is effectively ended” (Johnson, Acts, 141). Gary Gilbert agrees, saying that “for the first time the church experiences widespread opposition, and because the persecution drives followers out of Judea, it gains a presence outside of Jerusalem. Both themes dominate the rest of the work” (JANT, 214). They are, however, grounded in real events and due to Stephen’s death, we are moving on to a new stage in the story of the early church in Acts.
Next entry, Simon Magus of Samaria.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word
 See Pervo, Acts, 195 for a list of parallel biblical passages from Luke and Acts.
 See Johnson, Acts, 139, for many other suggestions as to what Jesus’ standing might mean.
 Stephen’s intercessory prayer is also possibly modelled on Isaiah 53:12 (Gilbert, JANT, 213). See Pervo’s discussion on Luke 23:34 also and whether it is authentic to Luke’s Gospel (Pervo, Acts, 199).