The Temple authorities cracked down on the Nazoreans. Peter and the Apostles were rounded up and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. The majority of its members favored a drastic sentence. It was the influential Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, who took the initiative of securing their release. He ordered the defendants to be put out so that the court members could consult in camera. Then he gave his opinion. If this new “way,” as it was known, was not of God, then it would fail on its own, as had other movements in the past. “I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go,” Gamaliel said. “For if this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself” (Acts 5: 38-39). Gamaliel reminded the chamber of past revolutionaries who made Messianic claims: Theudas, who with his 400 members were crushed by the Romans; Judas the Galilean, who at the time of the census perished with his followers. His movement came to nothing. Gamaliel cited the suppression of these factions to persuade the Sanhedrin that false Messiahs come and go and that they disappear, without the intervention of the authorities. “If this movement of the Galileans comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them,” he said. “You might even find yourselves fighting God.” He succeeded in his argument. After recalling the Apostles, they had them flogged, ordered them to stop speaking about Jesus, and released them. “So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the Name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus” (Acts 5:41-42).
Not everybody in the courtroom was convinced of Gamaliel’s counsel. One of the rabbi’s pupils, who had sat at his feet as the master taught on the steps of the Temple, reacted vociferously to the Rabban’s counsel. This was Saul, a young Pharisee who came from Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor, the Roman province of Cilicia. Saul was proud of being a Roman citizen. He was a Jew first, “a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage,” a Pharisee, and a Roman citizen and he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5).
Saul was brought up as a strict Jew, a Pharisee, one of the “separated ones” whose aim was to practice Mosaic Law blamelessly. His primary language was Greek, and it was in the standard Greek version of the Bible, crafted in Alexandria between 287-284 BC, known as the Septuagint, that Paul studied the Scriptures. Growing up he was apprenticed to the family business, the textile industry, which specialized in the manufacturing of tough goat-hide fiber used in crafting tents. Tentmaking was a lucrative industry. The nomadic peoples throughout the Mediterranean and in the far-away deserts of Arabia and Sinai, patronized his family’s business, and also the Roman army that needed tents for soldiers on bivouac. Tarsus affected a vibrant scholastic atmosphere, said to rival centers of learning at Athens and Alexandria. Proud Pharisee. Speaker of Greek, the lingua franca of the world he knew, and a Roman citizen: at 30 years old Saul returned to Jerusalem and occupied himself with the crucial affairs of the Temple and the politics of a region subsumed by Roman occupation.
The tolerant wisdom of Saul’s professor Gamaliel (believed to be a disciple of Christ like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) disturbed the intense Cilician and he resolved to take the law into his own hands. Among the followers of Jesus – to Saul’s chagrin – were two of his relatives, Andronicus and Junia. Active in the synagogues at this time was an outstanding young man, about Saul’s age, named Stephen. Stephen was described as being filled with grace and power, possessing superb masculinity and great ability as a preacher. He was one of the seven Greek-speaking disciples chosen by the Apostles to assist with the distribution of food to widows. These servants looked after the needs of the Greek-speaking dispossessed members of the Jerusalem community of Christians. The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews that the needs of their constituencies were being neglected. Peter put out a statement: “It is not right for us to neglect the Word of God to serve at table. Let us select seven reputable men, filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2-4). Stephen was the first to be chosen and worked signs and wonders among the people. He earned an impeccable reputation in Jerusalem.
The success and popularity of Stephen attracted the attention of the authorities, including Saul. Partly due to jealousy, and in fidelity to the Law, Saul and his associates from the temple devised a plan to stifle Stephen. The synagogue Saul and Stephen attended, one of hundreds of synagogues in the city, was the Synagogue of the Freedmen, attended by Hellenized Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, and Saul’s home province of Cilicia. Twice weekly its members debated in Greek on the identity of the Messiah. Stephen took to the pulpit fully prepared and his opponents “could not withstand the spirit and the power with which he spoke” (Acts 6:10). He bested many attendees in debates and they grew to hate him. Saul not only bristled with jealousy because Stephen was a superlative preacher but was outraged over the content on Stephen’s sermons. Stephen argued that the new covenant brought by Christ was needed because Jews had failed to adhere to the old covenant given by God. Stephen’s detractors devised a plan of action – violent action – to silence him and expel him from the synagogue. Saul knew that the group needed to act quickly. A Roman from a well-governed province, he realized that a Roman governor would not issue a death decree over a doctrinal disagreement in a synagogue. He discovered a loophole. Now was the time, during the interval between the outgoing governor Pilate and his replacement Marullus. The governor’s seat in Caesarea was empty. Pilate was insensitive toward the Jews and rarely hesitated to order a crucifixion so it is likely that the Jews could have persuaded Pilate to give the order to kill Stephen. Marullus would not assume his post as procurator until the following year (AD 37). Thus Saul and his cronies found an opportunity to assassinate Stephen. The logical place to hatch their plot was at the Freedmen. They instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” Things grew ugly and Saul and his companions instigated the men, the elders, and the scribes, accosted Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
Stephen was charged with blasphemy and sedition, the same charges levied against Jesus, and ‘arraigned’ before the Sanhedrin. There in the courtroom a procedure not unlike Jesus’s trial unfurled. Saint Luke parallels the martyrdom of Stephen with the death of Jesus. False witnesses testified against Stephen, saying, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law. For we have heard him claim that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 13:14). The charges that Stephen depreciated the importance of the Temple and of Mosaic Law and elevated Jesus to a stature above Moses (6:13-14) were in fact true. Only Stephen wished to convince his compatriots that the appearance of Christ meant that the covenant was fulfilled – the kingdom of heaven was open to all men and women. He held fast to the words of Jesus who spoke of the coming persecutions: “They will seize you and persecute you, they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, they will have you led before kings and governors for the sake of my name. It will lead you to giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself will give you the wisdom in speaking, that all your adversaries will be powerless to refute or to resist.” These words Jesus spoke in Jerusalem days before his death.
Stephen presented a brilliant, impassioned defense, so brilliant that many in the courtroom thought that he not only looked like an angel but that he spoke like an angel. In his speech he reviewed Salvation History from the days of Abraham to those of King David and his son Solomon. “David found favor in the sight of the Lord and asked to build a house for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him. Yet the Most High God does not dwell in a house made by human hands. ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what sort of house could you build for me or what is to be my resting place?’” (Acts 7:46-50; cf Is 66:1,2) Opposition exploded. Those who listened took Stephen’s sermon to be an attack on the Temple, though the writer of Isaiah was a Temple worshipper himself. Not satisfied with his statement, Stephen turned to ad hominem. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your ears and in your hearts, you always oppose the Holy Spirit. You are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did they not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have become. You received the law as transmitted by angels but you did not observe it” (Acts 7:51-53).
The words Stephen spoke cut to the heart. Infuriated, the men ground their teeth and rushed upon him. Stephen gazed at the sky and saw a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God the Father. Seeing this, he proclaimed, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (7:56). Jesus made a similar statement to the high priest: “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds in glory with the angels” (Lk 23:69; Mk 14:62; Mt 26:64). The witnesses and the judges in the courtroom cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears so they would not hear the blasphemy, and rushed upon the saint.
The outcome, of course, was inevitable. The Jewish religious court as in the case of Jesus could only find a man worthy of death: the order of execution had to come from the Roman governor, but there was no provincial procurator. Saul and his cronies knew they could dispense with the formality and hinged the execution on this technicality. They chased Stephen from the city to a hill east of the great north road, in the Kidron ravine, the traditional site of Gethsemane. There they stoned him to death, the prescribed penalty for blasphemy. Here Saul and Stephen faced one another again: Saul in robes of spotless white, phylacteries widened, and wearing glittering jewels, feeling masterful and confident. Stephen in soiled and bloodied robes, equally confident, and disturbingly serene. They were two splendid personalities who recognized each other’s superiority. “Confess your sin,” Saul commanded him. Stephen remained silent. The Pharisee ordered the prisoner to be stripped. The witnesses identified themselves and laid their outer cloaks on the ground near Saul’s feet so that their arms would not be encumbered as they hurled stones at the saint. Saul issued the order: “Stone him.” Stoning is a protracted and brutal form of capital punishment and Saul was forced to observe how Stephen bore it: with tranquility and faith. He died, as did his Lord, with prayers of forgiveness on his lips. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell to the ground and died. He died, but his example and teaching continued to speak across eternity. “If Stephen had not prayed to God, the Church would not have Paul” (Augustine).
The stoning of Stephen greatly empowered Saul, who went on the offensive against the Hellenist Christians in the city, a house-to-house inquisition in which he took the lead. But it also disturbed him, that he could use his influence and power to condemn Stephen whom he knew to be a holy man. He admitted that to himself now. He saw elements of Stephen in himself: devotion to his community, superior in intellect, knowledge of the Scriptures, and fidelity to God. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over his body. Pandemonium broke throughout the community. Many followers of the Way fled Jerusalem; only the Apostles remained in the city. Before the body of Stephen had grown cold, Saul began to persecute other members of the church. Entering house after house he dragged men and women out and handed them over to the authorities for imprisonment. The author of Acts no doubt wanted to suggest that the death of Stephen helped to prepare the conversion of Saul, who becomes the Apostle Paul. The Spirit lured Saul toward that destiny. Luke describes the immediate result as a general exodus from Jerusalem of the disciples of Jesus: widespread persecution was directed toward the Hellenist section of the Church. The disciples scattered not only throughout Judea and Samaria (‘the whole Samaritan community received the Word of God’) but they carried the gospel from Jerusalem across the Mediterranean, to “the ends of the earth.”
At first Saul limited his persecution to the Hellenist Christians; the Hebrews were not targeted because their views on the Law and the Temple remained orthodox and the Twelve took no public stance regarding Stephen’s murder; they remained underground. It would have been imprudent (and dangerous) for them to publicly condemn the execution. None of this was lost on Saul. He and Stephen both perceived that the Christian movement contained the seeds of doctrinal divergence from Judaism. Saul admitted that much. Yet he remained devoted to the Law as the way to salvation (Gal 1:13-14), accepted the task of crushing the Way insofar as it detracted from the Temple. His opposition to Christianity demonstrated how difficult it was for him to accept the messianism that differed from his expectation of salvation. The leaven was at work. Saul the prosecutor was by the grace of God being transformed into the man that God wanted him to be, preordained him to be. He consented to Stephen’s execution, and it was the prayers of Stephen that brought Saul into the church, where he came to see the face of a crucified Lord praying for his captors. For his actions Saul received commendation from the Sanhedrin, his peers, from all quarters – except one: his conscience.