The birth of Christianity, part 07
As a first, there are two Saint Stephens. One being the first and sainted king of Hungary and the one I'll be discussing here, the Stephen who is generally considered to be the first Christian martyr. Over the centuries, the term 'martyr' has gotten a predominantly religious meaning. Originally, it simply meant 'witness' in a judicial context. In this sense, Stephen certainly wasn't the first. But as a legal witness to the Christian faith, the term is very appropriate. The historicity of this character is quite a different matter and is the subject of this article.
The only source for information about Stephen comes from the Book of Acts chapters 6, 7 and 8 with another reference to his death in chapter 11. The Wikipedia page on ‘Saint Stephen’ gives a decent overview of all what can be said about the life of this Stefanos, which isn’t very much. What the Book of Acts tells us is:
The Hellenized Jews choose 7 men to serve as deacons, listed in this order: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus from Antioch (Acts 6: 5)
Stephen is full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6: 8)
Members of the synagogue of the Freedmen, Cyrenian (Libyan), Alexandrian Jews and Cilicia and Asian Jews argued with Stephen but felt humiliated by his wisdom, to the point that they accuse him of blasphemy and drag him before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6: 9-12).
In his defense against the accusations, Stephen gives a chapter long monologue about Israel’s history and concludes by calling the members of the Sanhedrin betrayers and murderers (Acts 7: 1-53)
Stephen is dragged outside the walls of Jerusalem and stoned to death (Acts 7: 58-60).
Devout men bury Stephen and made loud lamentation over him (Acts 8: 2)
A final reference is found in Acts 11: 19.
In spite of the well-known traditions surrounding this Stephen, it’s very difficult to find any historical corroboration outside the New Testament for this character. There would have been many ways for the author of the Book of Acts to date the character Stephen much more firmly in “real history”. But he doesn’t. When the author of ‘Luke’ introduces his gospel, he claims that “I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1: 3-4). The importance attributed to Stephen doesn’t seem to hinge on his identity, or what miracles and signs he allegedly performed as no details are given about these aspects of the character. Acts’ chapter 7 however is entirely devoted to this obscure character. As summarized in point 4 above, Stephen defends himself by giving a summary of the Old Testament history of the Jews. This hardly seems to be relevant to the accusations against him and seems really superfluous when you consider the audience he is addressing. If anyone would have known the history contained within Torah, it would have been the Sadducees and Pharisees of the Sanhedrin.
Moreover, consider the circumstances preceding this chapter on Stephen. Luke is placing the Sanhedrin trial of Stephen right after the very Sanhedrin that decided not to persecute the “Christians”. In the same way we started this series with: when it doesn’t make any sense at first reading, we should take that as a warning that there is more than meets the eye. The trial of Stephen and his stoning take place, right after, or around the same time of the aforementioned Sanhedrin in which the Book of Acts makes reference to 3 characters that are historically attested to outside of the New Testament: Gamaliel, Judas the Galilean (the “first Zealot”) and Theudas.
The Theudas Problem
The Theudas problem is the reason why I highlighted the statement from Wikipedia that the Book of Acts is the only source for information about Stephen. Wikipedia’s authors of the page on Saint Stephen are potentially contradicted by Wikipedia’s authors of the page on Theudas. This Theudas problem is caused by the discrepancy between the chronology of the Book of Acts and the chronology given by Flavius Josephus. It is only a problem however if you look at those chronologies through the glasses of contemporary Christian tradition. A summary is given by Wikipedia’s page on Theudas, but I’ll elaborate somewhat on the statements in Wikipedia’s page. The root of the problem is caused by the passage in Acts 5 where Gamaliel advises the Sadducees and his fellow Pharisees of the Sanhedrin not to persecute the disciples of Jesus and basically leave it up to god to see whether they will pose a threat in the future or not. Summarized by this citation from Wikipedia:
“The difficulty is that Gamaliel, speaking before the year 37, is described as referring to the rising of Theudas, linking it to the revolt of Judas of Galilee at the time of the Census of Quirinius decades before, in 6 CE. However, Josephus makes clear that the revolt of Theudas took place around 45, which is after Gamaliel is said to have spoken, and long after the time of Judas the Galilean.”
The conflicting chronologies are perhaps better visualized as follows:
Book of Acts order
Judas the Galilean
Execution of Simon and James the Zealots
Judas the Galilean's death
Gamaliel's advise in the Sanhedrin
Robbing of Stephen
Stoning of Stephen
The crux of the problem seems to be reduced to the question which one of the authors has got it right. I could go into the sources on both sides of the answer Wikipedia is using, but it is telling how easily the matter seems to be settled by Christian ‘authorities’. The laziest answer referenced by Wikipedia is, surprise, surprise, from the Anglican bishop Paul Barnett who thinks it is very unlikely that the author of Acts could have been wrong about a contemporary of his; while it is very possible that Josephus was wrong about a contemporary of his. This statement flies in the face of everything we know about the works of Josephus and the New Testament. I also have some questions as to why the citation above concludes that this alleged speech from Gamaliel would have been before the year 37 AD and could not be placed anywhere between 37 and 52, the assumed year of Gamaliel’s death. Another possibility offered is that the Book of Acts is talking about another revolt led by an unknown Theudas (which is kind of a contradictory statement to begin with). But if this is an important enough revolt to be remembered by the author of Acts – through the mouth of Gamaliel -, who writes years after Flavius Josephus, then why would Josephus not mention it? Not only would be the author of Acts be even more removed in time from the event than Josephus, which increases the chances that he may have it wrong; but Josephus dates almost every character he describes, whereas Luke or the author of Acts gives next to no historical references of his characters. It is significant that the Gamaliel in Acts says that Judas the Galilean was killed. If this was known to the Pharisees contemporary to Gamaliel, then how could this not be known to Josephus, who was a contemporary of Gamaliel and a Pharisee who may have actually been present at the Sanhedrin in question? But let’s take the proposal that Acts may have been talking about another “famous enough Theudas” of the first century BC, while conveniently not mentioning the famous Theudas of the first century AD, and throw that back to its proponents. Why would you assume that the book of Acts is talking about Gamaliel the Elder? Because those who do, do so because they assume this Sanhedrin must have taken place very shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and at the latest around 52 AD, the agreed upon date of death of Gamaliel. The book of Acts, how convenient again, does not identify its Gamaliel. Note how Gamaliel is shown to be a Pharisee and mere member of the council, as opposed to the high priest and his associates who called and presided over the Sanhedrin. This would be a strange way to present Gamaliel, as according to the Talmud he was no mere member of the Sanhedrin; he was its president and therefore called the Nasi (Prince). An earlier Christian source, who claims to be a student of this Gamaliel, is the self-appointed apostle Paul. And this is where our Stephen comes in. Right after the Sanhedrin agrees with Gamaliel to not persecute the “Christians”, they drag Stephen out of the city and stone him to death (Acts 6,7 and 8: 1-4), upon which event Paul becomes a relentless and ruthless killer of “Christians”. If this Sanhedrin indeed decided to leave the “Christians” be, then why does Acts almost immediately continue describing the persecution of “Christians”?
I highlighted above that the crux of the problem seems to be reduced to the question whether Josephus was right or the author of Acts. But the problem is caused by assuming that this Sanhedrin took place in 37 AD. As pointed out, Gamaliel the Elder was Nasi of the Sanhedrin up until 52 AD. This would allow this particular meeting of the elders to have taken place in same year... and it would resolve the conflict. Whether or not Acts is talking about the same Theudas / Thaddeus as Josephus is no longer a problem. Neither is the question which Gamaliel is speaking in Acts 5, even if it could still be either one of them.
Having appealed to the Book of Acts as well as entertaining the time shift, we may have to take a second look at the traditional Pauline chronology and see if this would still match up with the above conclusion (* see also the remark in notes). Because of the format of a blog post, but mostly lack of time, I hope to come back to Paul later on. In this post I will reconnect with the goddess briefly discussed in "Triplets and Trinities", Athena and her patronage of...
Lord of war!
The Book of Acts deals with the acts of Peter to a small extent, but is mostly about Paul. It is no surprise either that like the gospel of Luke, it makes ample use of literary devices, such as mimicking or paraphrasing part of Paul’s travels with the Odyssey. One could even entertain the thought that the entire Book of Acts mirrors its structure to Virgil’s Aeneid. While it recounts some isolated altercations between Paul and the communities he interacts with (although Paul seemed to antagonize everyone he ever engaged with), the book seemingly completely ignores the background against which Paul’s ministry is taking place. Looking at Acts, one might think that apart from the ripples caused by Paul, all is well and tranquil in the pond, while in reality all over the Levant, from Syria to Alexandria (Egypt) Jews and gentiles are at each other’s throats, civic unrest is spreading like wildfire and violent outbreaks are rapidly spiraling out of control.
The pond is in fact in absolute turmoil and, if the New Testament is indeed more compatible with the history of the 60’s rather than the 30’s, the world of the Jews and their immediate neighbors is seeing the literal end of days. Sons rise up against their fathers, brothers against brothers… it would be only so long before the forces of good are fighting the forces of evil in a literal Har Megiddo (Armageddon): the First Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD. Finding the true identity of a historical Jesus and his apostles is not like trying to finding a needle in a peaceful haystack; it is finding grains of sand in the sandstorms blowing over the Judean world.
The context surrounding Stephen's trial is in short: persecution before, persecution after (even when the Sanhedrin decided against persecution). Luke claims to give an ‘orderly account’ or history of Israel, not only by his own handwriting, but also through the mouth of Stephen. The character Stephen himself may even be a summary embodiment of the birth of Christianity. The pivotal point in Israel’s history is of course the death and resurrection of the Jesus character. Jesus’ death is not only his own, it is also the end of the old Israel (the old woman with the twelve years long bleeding – the twelve tribes) and the birth of the new Israel (the twelve year old girl resurrected by Jesus – from sleep or mortal sickness depending on the reading). The Stephen character himself is the end point to drive that story home: at the end of the history, he himself is accused of blasphemy and killed. Stephen is portrayed like Jesus during his passion (suffering) and uses the almost identical words:
The Stephen of Acts is a summarized version of Jesus of the gospel. Luke is definitely giving us an “orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,” (Luke 1: 1), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is always giving us a linear chronology. In Acts, the history seems to follow a circular pattern, centered around the character "history ends and renews with".
The clues are not limited to the above. Jesus is sentenced before the Sanhedrin inside the city of Jerusalem but driven a short distance outside of the city for his execution. Stephen is sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem but dragged outside of the city walls for his execution.
Within the bigger circular structure, “Luke” uses the literary style of chiasm and I’m willing to bet he is doing the same within the first Sanhedrin where Gamaliel is featured. It may appear to be a mistake on his part to us, but if it is, it seems to be a rather deliberate and repeated one.
Within the New Testament, the name Stephanos may appear only in the Book of Acts, but its equivalent Stephanas appears decades earlier in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (in casu 1 Corinthians 1: 16). Based on the letters we have, the master of the household converted by Paul, Stephanas, is the third named convert by Paul and perhaps even the first. Is Luke basing his Stephen on the Stephen of Paul’s letter? It may not be a 100 % match, nor does it need to be.
Stephen is the first martyr in the traditional Christian martyriology and also the “first witness” to Paul’s Announcement, or one of the first. Per Paul’s 1 Corinthians, Stephen is a household master and if he is converted to Paul’s Announcement, then it is safe to say that his wife, children and servants would have followed the pater familias’ religion, whether by choice or by necessity. It would have instantly turned him into a deacon of his ‘church’, regardless of the size of that kyriakon. Thus, he perfectly fits the bill of being a Hellenistic Jew referred to by Acts 6: 1. He is portrayed as “a Jesus” in Acts, as Jesus is technically the first Martyr (witness) of the gospels. When we look at the list of the seven deacons given in Acts 6: 5, he is placed first. But even the names of the deacons are remarkable. On their own the names may not carry any special meaning, but the names of the seven deacons combined are quite interesting.
I try to be as careful as possible before drawing any conclusions, but given all the above and everything we have written so far about the ‘history in disguise’, I really don’t think these names are coincidental.
The list seems almost a highly condensed story or description of the main character of the gospels: the Anointed / Crowned king, lord of hosts or leader of the armies of the lord, son of king David dancing and singing before the Ark (and god) being brought to Jerusalem after his victories against Israel's enemies, worthy of worship by all the faithful, loyal people who will be victorious over.... death... or the Romans? The last is of course open to interpretation. Is the message a strictly "religious" one, a political one or is the latter a consequence of the first?
Is Stephanos the same as Stephanos and Stephanas?
I cannot factually state that the Stephanos mentioned by Josephus is the same Stephen in Acts. Even the proposition that the author of Acts may merely have used the character as an inspiration is quite an assumption. The appearance of any particular name in two different texts doesn’t mean anything by itself. Are their reasons to think that both authors are talking about the same character?
Excluding the Stephanas of Paul’s letter, the name Stephanos is quite unique, both in the New Testament and in Josephus’ books. There are lots of Matthews, Josephs, Johns and in Josephus’ books even a few dozen Jesuses, but the name Stephanos only refers to one character in Luke’s and Josephus’ works respectively. If we look at the context (and chronology) of the Stephanos in Josephus, we can summarize from ‘War of the Jews, book 2, chapter 12’ as follows
After the death of Herod, king of Chalcis, his nephew Marcus Julius Agrippa II also known as Herod Agrippa II becomes the new ruler of the small Syrian kingdom. Territorial power over Judea was exerted by Ventidius Cumanus, who succeeded Tiberius Julius Alexander as third procurator of Judea, but Herod Agrippa II was granted rights over Jerusalem’s Temple.
Upon a scandalous provocation by a Roman legionnaire, an “Intifada” breaks out in the temple, swiftly spreading throughout the entire city. Cumanus sends in the garrison of the Antonine fortress which drives the Jews out of the Temple. This only adds to the chaos and violence.
Soon after or perhaps as an immediate consequence of the consternation caused by the revolt (Josephus’ text leaves this open to interpretation), robbers attack a servant of Caesar on the road to Beth-Horon, seizing the furniture “he was carrying”. This servant of Caesar is a man named Stephanos. Cumanus sends out his troops who in retaliation “go round about the neighboring villages”. While (probably) pillaging those villages, a soldier tears a Torah copy into pieces and throws it into a fire. This sets off yet another violent response and some of the Jews travel all the way to Caesarea Maritima to plead / complain with Cumanus. To appease the Jews and prevent further escalation of the violence, Cumanus has the soldier who destroyed the Torah executed. This apparently calmed the storm somewhat, but it was just a lull in between thunderstorms.
This incident is followed by the Samaritan-Galilean conflict we mentioned in the previous post with regards to John and James, the sons of Thunder.
There is very little in the description given by Josephus that would justify equating "his" Stephanos with the Stephanos in Acts. It's a little easier to do so with the deacon mentioned by Paul. But even if the chapters of Acts are built upon or inspired by a real person, it is clear that the character is highly fictionalized to fit the allegorical structure used by "Luke". To me, this king, whether crowned or anointed, reads as a summarized version of a "Yahweh saves", savior or Yoshua. If this is correct, and I admit it is an 'if', it leads to a whole new series of questions, which I will not be getting into here. Why, at least according to Luke's Acts, is it the stoning of Stephen that introduces us to Paul? Who were these (at least 7) "Christian" churches in Asia and Cyrenaica that dragged Stephen in front of the Sanhedrin? When looking at Acts 11 and following, Luke's chronology of the spread of "Christianity", or at least "the Way" as it was still called up until that point, just doesn't make any sense, especially compared to the dating given by the Pauline epistles. Time allowing, I will delve into the one character that comes closest to the origins of the religion we have come to know as Christianity: Saul of Tarsus.
The more I get to know and learn about the gospels and not in the least the one according to Luke and the Book of Acts, the more I come to appreciate the literary brilliance of these epic stories. Brilliant in their use of literary techniques, allegory, symbolism, puns and epic structure, but mere stories. As difficult as it may already be to reconstruct the earliest history of Christianity based upon them, I find it increasingly difficult to detect a real Jesus at the start of it all. It is not for lack of trying and we may still look at some possibilities in coming posts. Until then,
Darryl P.A, 08 June 2022
Notes, sources, references:
(*) Given the numerous discrepancies between the Book of Acts as a source on Paul and the letters by Paul himself, I may have to come back to the questions about the historicity of this passage in Acts. Given the nature of 'Acts', I share the apparent academic view that Paul's letters, or at least what little historical data we can derive from them should take precedence over the chronology of Acts, which even on its own is already questionable enough. Investigating these letters to reconstruct a Pauline chronology will undoubtedly be a big task on its own so there's no telling when I will get back to this article to adapt it if need be. As stated earlier, this series of articles is as much a reflection of my own learning process. Any editing of this post in function of future results, will be clearly indicated.
Wikipedia, “Saint Stephen”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Stephen Consulted 04, 05, 06 April 2022
New Advent.org, Catholic Encyclopedia, “St. Stephen”, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14286b.htm Consulted 04 April 2022
Turkey Tour Organizer, “Seven Churches of Asia”, Turkey Tour Organizer blog, https://www.turkeytourorganizer.com/blog/seven-churches-of-asia Consulted 04 April 2022
Wikipedia, “Seven churches of Asia”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_churches_of_Asia Consulted 04, 05 April 2022
BBC, “How does someone become a saint?”, 27 April 2014, BBC.com > news> world > Europe https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27140646 Consulted 04 April 2022
Orthodox Church in America, “Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen”, 27 December 20115, https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2015/12/27/103659-protomartyr-and-archdeacon-stephen Consulted 04 April 2022
“The Theudas Problem”: described as part of the Wikipedia page on “Theudas”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theudas
Wikipedia, “Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_reliability_of_the_Acts_of_the_Apostles#Acts_5:33-39:_Theudas
Comet P1/Halley, as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch Large Scale Penomena Network
Comparative tables by author