Commentary on Acts 7:55-60
Stephen is recognized in the church as the first or “proto-martyr.”
Before considering details in the lectionary text for the day, Acts 7:55-60, we would do well to ask: Why was Stephen martyred? For the contemporary Christian audience, it is crucial to observe that in his speech, Stephen is not pitting Christianity over against Judaism as though they were two distinct religions. The debate depicted by Luke in Acts 6-7 is an intra-Jewish struggle over identity and the continuing role of Temple and Law; to label it otherwise is anachronistic.
In his speech, then, the Lukan Stephen employs a rhetorical device known as an encomium/invective synkrisis (or comparison) in which Stephen draws on Israel’s Scriptures and Story for both positive and negative examples in order to refute the charges that the Christian “Way” represents a radical departure from the worship of and covenant with Israel’s God. Stephen needed to supply a competing version of the story that was coherent and compelling. And so he does: throughout their shared history, Stephen counters, exemplars who followed God’s way can be found.
There are in Stephen’s version of Israel’s history two Jewish groups: those who accept God’s message and messengers and those who reject them. The comparison Stephen develops in Acts 7 aligns Stephen and the church with Abraham, Joseph, the prophets, and Jesus. His opponents are aligned with the Egyptians, Joseph’s brothers, the rebellious in the wilderness who disobeyed Moses, and the ancestors who killed the prophets. For Luke, rather than rejecting God’s house or God’s law, the followers of the Way are in line with the faithful in Jewish history who have sought to keep covenant with God. Stephen’s words enrage his interlocutors, and they put him to death by stoning. Stephen thus becomes the first martyr of the Church.1
Much has been made of the meaning of Stephen’s name (“crown”) with regard to his martyrdom.2 The Venerable Bede’s comments are typical: “It was fitting that in the first martyr he should confirm what he deigned to promise to all those handed over [to martyrdom] for the sake of his name” (Commentary on Acts 6:10). An 18th century St. Stephen’s Day anthem proclaims:
First of martyrs, thou whose name
Doth thy golden crown proclaim
… First like him in dying hour
Witness to almighty power;
First to follow where he trod
Through the deep Red Sea of blood;
First, but in thy footsteps press
Saints and martyrs numberless.3
Stephen remains an important figure in the history of the church, as a quick survey of the reception history of several key points in Acts 7:55-60 demonstrates.
Several early interpreters commented on the fact that Stephen sees Christ standing, rather than sitting, at the right hand of God (7:55, 56). Ambrose observed: “Jesus stood as a helpmate; he stood as if anxious to help Stephen, his athlete, in the struggle. He stood as though ready to crown his martyr. Let him then stand for you that you may not fear him sitting, for he sits when he judges” (Letter 59; cf. Augustine, “Sermon: On the Birthday of St. Stephen,” Works of St. Augustine III/9 126-27). Elsewhere Ambrose puts the point more succinctly: “He sits as Judge of the quick and the dead; he stands as his people’s Advocate” (De fide iii.17).
John Calvin, on the other hand, deems the discussion regarding the differences between Christ sitting (in judgment) or standing (as here, in advocacy) as “too subtle”: whether “Christ is said to sit or stand at the right hand of God the Father … the plain meaning is this, that Christ hath all power given to him” (Commentary on Acts 7:54-58; 239).
Despite the hostile violence wrought against him, Stephen prays for his enemies. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) greatly admired and often appealed to the example of Saint Stephen in his writings.4 His son-in-law and first biographer, William Roper, recorded these words by More after he was tried in Westminster Hall on July 1, 1535, and condemned to die. According to Roper, More found the presence of Saul (Paul) at Stephen’s death (7:58; 8:1) to be a poignant, yet hopeful detail :
More have I not to say (my Lords) but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue their friends for ever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation (William Roper, The Life of St. Thomas More, paragraph 5-7).
For Søren Kierkegaard, the words of forgiveness uttered by Stephen explained one of the last details of the text: “he fell asleep” (7:60b). When he had said this, he fell asleep. What was it he said? He said: Father, do not hold this sin against them. This, then, is the formula — then one falls asleep; as we tell a child to say his prayer aloud and go to sleep — so he went to sleep, he went to sleep saying this. He prayed for them. He had prayed for himself again and again; his whole life to the very end, his sufferings, were praying for himself.
Now there is only a moment left, a minute: he prays for his enemies … we learn from him — to pray for ourselves, to pray for our enemies — and then to fall asleep … For 1,800 years he has been famous and eulogized; but he cares nothing about that — he sleeps (Journals and Papers 4.329-30).
Material adapted from The Acts of the Apostles. Paideia Commentary Series. Eds. Mikeal C. Parsons and Charles H. Talbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2008. Used by permission.
1 The preceding two paragraphs are based on Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 107-08. Used with permission.
2 The following material is based on research done for Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons, The Acts of the Apostles Through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell Commentaries; Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, forthcoming).
3 Cited in David L. Jeffrey, ed., “Stephen,” A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 735.
4 J. R Cavanaugh, “The Saint Stephen Motif in Saint Thomas More’s Thought,” Moreana 8 (1965): 59-66.