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The Speech of Stephen

Does the speech of Stephen, the longest speech recorded in the book of Acts, offer clues to the allegedly distinctive theology of the Hellenists? Does it attack the Mosaic Law and the Jerusalem Temple? Here is the evidence on both sides:

  • Stephen is accused by “false” witnesses of claiming that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the Mosaic customs (Acts 6:13-14). Did the author of Acts suppress the legitimate grounds for these charges or were these clearly false accusations that were brought up in order for Stephen’s innocence to shine all the brighter?
  • Does Stephen stress divine activity among the heroes of the Hebrew Bible outside of the “Promised Land”: Abraham is located in Mesopotamia and Haran (7:2-5), Joseph in Egypt (7:9-16), the burial site of the Patriarchs in Shechem (7:16), the Israelite slaves in Egypt (7:6, 35-36), and Moses in Egypt and the wilderness (7:17-38)? Or does this over-read the geographical notices? Did Stephen want to rehearse the salvation history laid out in the Jewish Scriptures that he shared with his interlocutors before he gets into his polemical counterargument about how the consistent rejection of divinely-authorized messengers culminated with Jesus?
  • Before Jesus (7:52), Stephen emphasizes the prior rejection of Moses (7:27, 35), the golden calf incident (7:39-41), and the sin of idolatry that lead to the Babylonian Exile (7:42-43). Thus, Stephen counters that his opponents are the real antinomians (7:51-53) and there may be no deprecation in the statement that the law was given through the mediation of angels (7:38, 53; cf. Jubilees 2:1; Galatians 2:11; Hebrews 2:2).
  • Does Stephen contrast the tent that God directed Moses to build (7:44) with the “house” that Solomon built (7:47), with the latter act treated as equivalent to building an idol with “human hands” (cheiropoiētos) (7:48)? Was no contrast intended between the tabernacle and the temple, but the temple only became an idol when the divine presence withdrew from it in response to the peoples’ disobedience? Or is describing the temple as a house “made with human hands” just a neutral description and is Stephen only reiterating the scriptural point that no temple could literally contain the deity (cf. Isaiah 66:1-2; 1 Kings 8:27)?
  • Was Stephen put to death because of his attack on the temple, his lofty statement about how the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus) is standing at the deity’s right hand, or his prophetic indictment against the religious authorities that he claimed had divine authorization?
  • Saul’s persecution campaign commences with Stephen’s martyrdom and results in the scattering of all the Christ followers throughout Judaea and Samaria with the exception of the apostles (8:1). Does this indicate that Saul’s actions targeted the Hellenists, sparing the twelve apostles as they belonged to the Jerusalem-loyal faction of the “Hebrews,” or is this statement only made to show the courage of the apostles?
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