From Jerusalem To Rome: Stephen

My dear readers, finally, we can go back to the series that was paused because of the holidays – to comments on the book of Acts.  I would like to remind you why I have chosen this particular book to discuss. More often than not, the book of Acts is perceived as a demarcation line, as a declaration of separation from anything Jewish. Even though the entire New Testament has largely been misread and misunderstood, the Book of Acts is especially crucial for understanding this parting of the ways. And at first glance, even the very structure of this book proclaims this big separation: the narrative starts in Jerusalem, and ends in Rome! The book is very clear indeed: the message of Jesus has to go to the Gentiles as well – it has to spread from Jerusalem to Rome – and in this sense, the itinerary is set.

We all know, however, that any navigator can take us to the same destination by very different routes. Moreover, if we miss a turn or take a wrong turn, our navigator recalculates in order to get us back to the right way (some even say, “Recalculating”). Maybe, some wrong turn was taken on this road from Jerusalem to Rome? It looks like some recalculating may need to be done here, in order to get us back on the right track.

My goal is to demonstrate the Jewishness of the book of Acts by demonstrating its first-century Jewish historical and cultural context. We have already begun to read this book together, we have looked at the first two chapters so far, and today will continue from Chapter Three. As a reminder, my intention is to point out only those details that pertain to the Jewish context and are not obvious to a Christian reader.

Am ha-Aretz”

In Acts 3, we read about the great miracle that Peter and John performed: they healed a lame man in the Temple. People around were amazed, seeing this man healed, and Peter responded to them with a speech, preaching once again, salvation in Jesus: ”Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this?… The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus… And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know”[1].

“Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.  However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand”[2].

What happens the next day? We read that many Jewish leaders, “rulers and elders and scribes,” gathered together against Peter and John. The leaders began to inquire by what power, or by what credentials, Peter and John had healed the lame man.  Peter answered them with a great speech, and the leaders were truly amazed by his boldness since they perceived the Apostles as “uneducated and untrained men”. Why did they perceive them as “uneducated” and what did that actually mean?

Luke’s mentioning of “rulers and elders and scribes” probably means a convening of the Sanhedrin. Representatives of these three groups composed the so-called “Great Court”. At this time, in spite of Roman occupation, the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was still the highest judicial, political and administrative authority in the Land. The apostles presumably were standing in the center of the court, the interrogating members of Sanhedrin sitting around them.

The Greek expression for “uneducated and untrained men” here refers to the Hebrew term “am ha-aretz”, literally, “people of the Land”. This term was applied to uneducated Jews, who didn’t receive systematic training in the Bible or the traditions of Pharisees or Sadducees. They were considered ignorant in the Torah and negligent in their observance of the commandments. The members of Sanhedrin could easily see that these Galileans were “am ha-aretz” because of their accent and vocabulary.

Jewish people have always had high regard for education, and education usually meant primarily education in religious matters. Little would be expected of the untrained am-haaretz – least of all, religious speeches. No wonder the leaders “marveled” and “could say nothing[3].  We have to be aware of the Jewish ideas of the time, in order to recognize the radical novelty of the New Testament.

 

Stephen

The next person we meet in Acts is Stephen. Stephen is first mentioned in Acts, 6 as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food to poor members of the community. There is an interesting detail here: since another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically called “a proselyte”, it’s assumed that Stephen was Jewish. Was he indeed? Can we gather some hints from his famous speech in Acts 7?

Stephen was accused of having spoken blasphemy by declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs of Moses. He was taken to the Sanhedrin, and when asked by the high priest, he made a long speech in reply, reviewing Jewish history from the time of Abraham. Some details in his speech, however, are remarkably different from the traditional biblical text. Why? Didn’t Stephen know his Bible?

Based on the peculiarities of Stephen’s speech, some scholars believe that Stephen was a Samaritan.  For instance, Stephen says that Abraham went to Canaan “when his father was dead”. According to Torah, Terah was 70 when Abraham was born and 205 when he died: he died at 205[4]; therefore, he was alive and well when Abraham, at the age of 75, obeyed God’s call. However, in the Samaritan Pentateuch Terah dies at 145, not 205 – maybe this was the text that Stephen used!

Tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans were particularly high in the first half of 1 AD. You probably remember the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the very appearance of the Samaritan was absolutely striking for Jesus’ listeners, and the fact that this Samaritan proves to be a neighbor, while the priest and the Levite fail, directly challenged the contemporary Jewish interpretation of the word “neighbor”. If Stephen was indeed a Samaritan, it would have been an amazing testimony of the uniting power of Jesus’ message.

 

[1] Acts 3:12-14

[2] Acts 4:1-4

[3] Acts 4:13,14

[4] Gen.11:26,32

 

I would like to remind you, dear friendsthat eTeacher offers a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament. . As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information!  Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them  here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys Fox

    Thanks Julia
    It never ceases to amaze me how much the two treatments are tied together and many Christians never see it .
    I believe that God wanted Abraham to leave his father and kinsman so they wouldn’t influence him into worshipping idols . I was told that in the original Hebrew God told Abraham to go to himself or in other words to find his own beliefs and the true God would be his guide ..I believe that Abraham followed God’s orders .However he did take Lot with him and God didn’t object to that . I believe that when Lot’s father died Abraham become guardian to Lot because it was a brother’s duty to care for a deceased brother’s family .
    I can’t believe that Abraham was born when Terah was 70 because that would mean he only had one son when he was 70 . I believe that it was the youngest son that was born when he was 70 the older two were born before . Please let me know if I’m wrong .
    May the God of Abraham bring wonderful joy to you Dearest Teacher and all the world as well

    1. Gladys Fox

      Sometimes I love Spell Check and sometimes I don’t . It should have been the word Testaments not treatments .

    2. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Gladys, I am always happy when people see how the two Testaments are indeed tied together – and you are right, many Christians don’t see it all. You are also right regarding God’s call to Abraham: in Hebrew, God’s words do mean “go to yourself”, at least, they can be interpreted like this. I also wrote about it at some point, in one of my articles about Abraham, here is a quotation: “Lech lecha” might be read as “go to yourself”. This is what God says to every one of us through these words: Lech Lecha, go to yourself, go inside yourself! Even those who are not called to leave their home or land, God sends on this inward journey of faith: go to yourself – towards your soul’s essence, towards your ultimate purpose, to that precious inner land that you don’t know yet – but I know and I will lead you there!

  2. Nick

    Our perceptions of scripture are so subjective! Thanks for making us more“informed consumers” of it-a little closer to the objective truth, we pray.
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for these words Nick! I so hope and pray that it’s true, that my articles indeed bring the readers “a little closer to the objective truth” !

  3. Luis Anderson

    Thank you for your post. As usual, it caused me to read once again the account of Abram. I read an English translation of the Bible, specifically the NIV, although I have several translations that I use for reference. According to the NIV, Genesis 11:26, “After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.” As I understand this verse, Terah was at least 70 years, perhaps more, because unless the three sons were triplets, they had to have been born at least a couple years apart. Again, according to the NIV, Genesis 11:31, “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Vs 32, “Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.
    This account does not say that Nahor, his wife, his wife’s sister Iscah, and one would assume the rest of Nahor’s family went with Terah. I interpret these verses to imply that Nahor and the rest of the family remained in Ur.
    Genesis 12:1 in the NIV version uses an interesting tense of the verb to say. It reads, “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.’” (Emphasis is mine). A strong argument can be made that the LORD said this to Abram when he lived in Ur. Certainly, Ur was Abram’s country, his people were also those from Ur, and his father’s household certainly were at least partially Nahor and his family. The verse does not say to leave his father, so it explains why his father went along. To me it’s obvious that Terah, Abram, Sarai, and Lot were the only ones that left Ur and arrived in Haran.
    Genesis 12:4,5 tells us that Abram left as the Lord had told him and took with him his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions and all the people they had accumulated while in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. These verses do not say that Abram’s father Terah went with him nor that he was left behind. My personal opinion is that Abram would not have left his father in Haran all by himself; therefore, I understand these verses to mean that Abram left Haran after his father had died. Of course, this leaves us with the issue of Abram having been 75 years of age when he left Haran. The only way I can reconcile Abram’s age is to say that he was born when Terah was 130 years old, which is certainly after Terah was 70 years old. So, maybe Steven saw things the same way.
    I realize the possibility that the translation in the NIV might not be accurate. The Kind James version does not say “After Terah was 70 years old”. It does say, “And Terah lived 70 years and begat, Abram, Nahor, and Haran.” One has to ask himself why the NIV included the word “After” if the Hebrew does not say so or at least implies it. Perhaps the translators may have also thought as I said above, there is no way that Terah would have had all three sons when he was 70 years old unless they were triplets.
    I apologize for the lengthy comment. Thank you, again.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Luis. I am glad you check different translations because each translation has its own downsides. For instance, when you write “Genesis 12:1 in the NIV version uses an interesting tense of the verb to say” – it’s just a choice of the translators, there is just a regular “biblical past” tense in Hebrew in this verse. And you are right, it’s not clear at all “why the NIV included the word “After” if the Hebrew does not say so or at least implies it”. So, keep checking different translations – and of course, any knowledge of Hebrew is very helpful!