Lectionary Year A
April 28, 2002
Acts 7:55-60

Step IV: Context

A. Primitive Christianity

(JFC) The early Christians evidently needed narrative accounts of the progress of the movement in which they lived their lives and served their God. The many stories, speeches, sermons, events and encounters depicted in the Book of Acts must have been appreciated by early, naturally, rather immature, believers. Martyrdom must have been of some considerable interest to these primitive followers of the Jesus movement, too, for, as Revelation 12:10b and 11 attest, "the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them (the true believers) day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death." We read, in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, an article by W. H. C. Frend on "Martyrdom", "by the end of the first century AD, suffering, witnessing, judgment and ultimate triumph have been welded together in the single concept of martyrdom." Some would have considered Jesus' death to have been as a martyr. As in Acts 7:55, where Stephen is described as filled with the Holy Spirit, so Jesus is said to be filled with the Spirit in Luke 4:1 and, as in the vision Stephen has in the next verse, in Luke 22:69, Jesus is seated at God's right hand and called the Son of Man. Luke 4:29 reports the priests ran Jesus out of town and prepared to throw Him off the cliff, similar to Stephen's getting stoned outside the city. And, in Luke 23:34, Jesus' prayer might be the basis for Stephen's in Acts 7:60.

B. Old Testament and Judaism (JFC) At Isaiah's call scene in 6:1, we get the picture of God "sitting on a throne high and lifted up . . ." poetically like the scene Stephen reports he saw in the first verse of our lection. Job (16:10) seems to get treatment comparable to Stephen's in the 57th verse of our pericope. And, Leviticus 24:14 and Numbers 15:35 give the directive to take those convicted outside the camp so those who have heard the charges can stone them, as Deuteronomy 17:7 prescribes. Psalm 31:5 might be a prayer similar to Stephen's.

"The theme of visionary experience preceding martyrdom is found in Jewish literature," according to Baird in The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. From quite early in the second century CE, Baruch sees the heavens open, as does Stephen in the first verse of our lection at hand, and Baruch (II.22.1) receives strength and hears a voice "from on high", saying to him, "Baruch, Baruch, why are you disturbed?" So, evidently, God continues to appear in such visions and speak, as well.

C. Hellenistic World

(JFC) What would the Hellenists do with the phenomenon of martyrdom, beside discuss it and/or debate its value? Do they agree with Camus' statement, "Men are really never willing to die except for the sake of freedom . . ."? They regarded freedom quite highly, did they not? And/Yet, these Greek philosophers might object to the harsh treatment Stephen got outside the city that day. They were far from favoring any violence, weren't they? Then, surely, they could have approved of Stephen's prayer for the stoners' forgiveness. They were just that compassionate were they not?

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