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Stephen

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Stephen

    The first Christian martyr, Stephen appears only in Acts. He is first mentioned as one of the seven appointed to ensure equitable distribution of food between “Hebrews” and “Hellenists” (Acts 6.1–6). The seven were probably leaders of the Hellenistic group in the Jerusalem church.

    According to Acts 6, in an explicit literary parallel to Luke's story of Jesus, Stephen was charged with blasphemy and summoned to defend himself before the supreme Sanhedrin (Acts 6.8–15).

    His defense (Acts 7.2–53) is a detailed exposition of the teaching that had provoked the charges against him. The speech may be regarded as a manifesto of early Hellenistic Christianity or at least of one phase of it. It does not represent Luke's point of view: for most of Luke's narrative, his appraisal of the Temple is much more positive than Stephen's. Quoting the scriptures in support of his position, Stephen argues that to speak of the Temple as an institution to be destroyed or superseded was not to commit blasphemy, because God is independent of any building. It was commonly held by many early Christians that in Christ the Temple order had given way to something better, but Stephen's assertion that the Temple was a mistake from the beginning is without parallel in the New Testament. The position nearest to it is in the letter to the Hebrews, but its author simply ignores the Temple and bases his exposition of the high‐priestly ministry of Christ on the biblical account of the wilderness tabernacle.

    Stephen was apparently found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death. His execution took the form of a judicial stoning, carried out in accordance with the Law (Lev. 24.15–16). Those who bore witness against him had the duty of throwing the first stones (see Deut 17.7); on this occasion “a young man named Saul” guarded their cloaks as they did so, and thus Paul makes his first appearance.

    Analogies have been found to Stephen's position among the Samaritans, the Qumran community, and the Ebionites. These groups, for various reasons, expressed a negative attitude to the Jerusalem Temple and its ceremonial. But Stephen's critique is distinctive; not only is it rooted in the preexilic prophets but it has a new basis in the Christ event. The radical Hellenistic theology represented by his speech survived particularly in Alexandrian Christianity, where its best‐known expression is the letter of Barnabas (late first/early second century CE).

    Stephen's impeachment and execution are said to have precipitated a persecution of the Jerusalem church, especially its Hellenistic members, who were forced to leave Jerusalem and Judea. But they preached the gospel wherever they went. Stephen's fellow‐almoner Philip preached it in Samaria; others, unnamed, preached it to the Greeks of Antioch. Stephen's blood proved to be the seed of gentile Christianity.

    F. F. Bruce

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    Oxford University Press

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