1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Stephen, St

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STEPHEN, the "proto-martyr" (as he is called in certain MSS. of Acts xxii. 20), in some senses the greatest figure in primitive Christianity prior to Paul's conversion, was one of "the Seven" (xxi. 8, nowhere called "deacons" ) set over the "daily ministration" towards the needy members of the Jerusalem community. But, like Philip and perhaps others of his colleagues (vi. 3), he had higher gifts than his office would suggest. We read that he was "full of faith and of the holy Spirit"; and as his spiritual power seems to have shown itself in mighty deeds as well as words (vi. 5, 8), he became a marked man in Jerusalem. Himself a Jew of Greek culture, he naturally tried to win over his fellow Hellenists (vi. 9).

It is here that Stephen's advance upon the Apostolic teaching becomes apparent. His special " wisdom " lay in greater insight into the merely relative nature and value of the externals of Israel's religion, and particularly those connected with the Temple. His fellow Hellenists were as a body eager to disprove the feeling of the native "Hebrews" that they were only half Jews; accordingly reaching which minimized the value of the sacred "customs which Moses had delivered" (vi. 14) — • by making salvation turn immediately upon faith in Jesus as Messiah — would cause deep resentment in such circles, in spite of their more liberal attitude to things non-Jewish. They may have met Stephen's appeal for faith in Jesus as Messiah by saying that full fellowship with God was theirs by observance of the Mosaic customs, centring in the Temple, which in Jerusalem overshadowed men's thoughts touching the Divine presence. To this he would reply by warning them in Jesus' own words, supported by those of the prophets, that the heart is the true seat of the Shekinah; and that if they refused God manifest in His Messiah, the final embodiment of Divine righteousness, no holy "customs" — no, not the Temple itself — could save them from the displeasure of the living God. Nay, God might have to make good Messiah's words as to His person being more essential to fellowship with God than the Temple itself (cf. Matt. xii. 6), which might even be destroyed, as it had been in the past, without loss to true religion. In all this he was but reasserting the prophetic rather than the scribal view of the Mosaic Law and its institutions, viz. that the inner spirit, that which could be written on the heart, was the only thing really essential. But they could not rise to this conception and treated his words as "blasphemous against Moses and against God," and roused "the people and the elders and the scribes " against him.

He was seized and brought before the Sanhedrin on the charge of speaking "against the Temple and the Law" (vi. n-14). His defence against this twofold charge took the form of a survey of Israel's religious past, with a view to show: (1) that " the God of Glory" had covenant relations with their fore-fathers before they had either Holy Place (Land or Temple) or Law (vii. 1-17); (2) that the first form of visible meeting place between God and His people was far other than that for which absolute sanctity was now claimed. Nay, the form of " the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness" (no Holy Land) had more divine sanction[1] than any later Temple (44-47) ; (3) that, after all, the presence of "the Most High" was in no way bound up with any structure of human hands, as Isaiah witnessed (48-50). The moral of all this was plain: Israel's forms of fellowship with the Most High had all along been relative and subject to change. Particularly was this so with the external forms of cultus then represented by the Temple. Hence there was no " blasphemy" in suggesting that in the Messianic age yet another change might come about, and that observance of Temple services could prove little as to acceptance with God. But there is another and more actual line of pleading. This is found in the elaborate section dealing with the person and work of Moses, the great lawgiver (17-38) — a section full of extra-biblical touches — followed by one on Israel's hardness of heart towards him and the " living oracles" he mediated, together with its result, the Exile (39-43). Pure and original Mosaism, embodied in Moses and his ministry to Israel, is represented as something which in its full spiritual intention had been frustrated by Israel's stiff neckedness (39, 42 seq.). The figure of Moses is made to stand forth in ideal outlines, the thinly-veiled Christian application shining through. " This is that Moses who said unto the children of Israel, 'A prophet shall God raise up unto you . . . like unto me.' This is he that was in the Church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; who received living oracles to give unto us: to whom our fathers would not be obedient, but thrust him from them, and turned back in their hearts. . ." (38 seq.). Here we have the very situation as between Stephen and his hearers; and it is made unmistakable by the speaker's closing words (51-53). They will have nothing to say to the greater Mediator of the Divine oracles in Messianic clearness and power. But if so, the reason is not their fidelity to the Mosaic Law, but their infidelity to its spiritual substance. Had they kept the Law dutifully they would have believed on Him in whom true Mosaism was fulfilled and transcended.

In all this there are points both of contact and divergence between Stephen and Paul. Alike they are champions of the "spirit" against the "letter"; and alike they tax unbelieving Judaism with failure to keep the Law in its real sense. But here difference begins. Quite apart from the externalism of Temple worship, to which Paul never alludes, they start from different conceptions of the Law. Stephen, the Hellenist, views it idealistically and with the spiritual freedom of the prophets and of Jesus Himself. But Paul took it more strictly (see Paul). Thus in spite of general kinship of spirit, Stephen is not really Paul's forerunner. He has no sense of antithesis between law and grace; and he makes no reference to the Gentiles. It is rather the author of the Epistle to Hebrews (q.v.) who recalls Stephen. Both deal largely with the Temple and its worship; both expose the externalism of the legal rites of Judaism, as tending to spiritual unreality; and both view the Gospel as the sublimation of the Law on ideal lines. Only, the later thinker contrasts even pure Mosaism with the Gospel of Christ, as old with new, as the Covenant of shadow with that of reality.

As to the authenticity of Stephen's speech, it is generally admitted to be accurate in substance, if not in the words that he uttered. We may suppose it lived in the memory of some associate in such discussions, who would often repeat its tenor in his work as one of the preachers scattered (viii. 4, xi. 19) by the persecution which Stephen's preaching brought on the Jerusalem community, particularly on its Hellenistic section as most identified with the revolutionary aspect which faith in Jesus the Nazarene now for a time assumed in public esti- mation (contrast ii. 47). It would finally be committed to writing, largely because it was so representative of the Hel- lenistic view of the relations of Judaism and Christianity. As such it was given prominence in the book of Acts — a work which shows the greatness of the contributions to the Apostolic age not only of Paul, but also of the Hellenists, those mediators between Jews and Gentiles. Possibly also Paul had spoken in Luke's hearing of Stephen's martyrdom and his own close relations to it (vii. 58, 60, cf. vi. 9).

Stephen's actual martyrdom is described as tumultuary in character, though the legal forms of stoning for blasphemy were observed (58). This is quite consistent with a trial before the Sanhedrin; nor is it inconceivable that an act exceeding the rights of that body under the Romans should have taken place at the impulse of religious fanaticism. Our knowledge of Jewish history is not full enough to warrant denial of the historicity of this feature of the narrative simply on the score of its illegality. Neither is there good reason to assume that the hearing before the Sanhedrin is a touch added by the author of Acts to the source on which he has drawn in the main.

Literature.— All requisite materials will be found in articles in the Ency. Bib. vol. iv., and Hauck's Realencykl. f. protestant. Theol. u. Kirche, vol. xix. The former in particular examines the Midrashic elements (adding to or diverging from the O. T. data) in Stephen's speech, the linguistic features of Acts vi. 1, viii. 3, and various theories as to the source or sources used therein. It also refers to the worthless legends touching Stephen's death and the finding of his relics, collected in Tillemont, Memoires (Eng. ed., 1735). PP- 353-359.

  1. The solemn language in v. 44 suggests that to Stephen, as to the writer to the Hebrews (and perhaps Hellenists generally), the Biblical Sanctuary, as corresponding to the heavenly archetype, was more sacred than the Temple of Herod, which owed what sanctity it had to the older features it still preserved.