Stephen's Sermon in Acts 7

Stephen's sermon to the Jews in Acts 7 is one of the favourite portions of Scripture for skeptics to attack. There are several points in it which they will claim contradict the historical accounts related in the Old Testament. However, these assaults are the result of a lack of knowledge about the context, whether textual, theological, or cultural, in which this sermon appears. They arise from a reading of the text by unbelievers who wish to dispense with trying to understand the Bible as a systematic whole, and who instead want to pull bits and pieces out of their natural contexts, claim a contradiction, and give themselves a pretended reason to not believe what the Word of God says. Below, I will address several of the more common claims to contradictions with the Old Testament history that is being related in Stephen's message, and elucidate them in turn.


Was Terah 145 or 205 When He Died?

This objection addresses an imagined contradiction between Acts 7:4 and a synthesis of several passages in Genesis 11 and 12. Acts 7:4 says, speaking of Abraham,

"Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell."

In Genesis 11:26, the Bible says that Terah was seventy when he begat Abram, Nahor, and Terah. In Genesis 11:32, we are told that "the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran". Further, in Genesis 12:4, we see that Abraham was seventy five years old when he left Haran to go to Canaan. Essentially, the matter lies in that Terah was either 205 years old when he died per Genesis 11:32, or else he was 145 years old when he died per Stephen's statement that Abraham left Haran after Terah died.

The basis for the claim to contradiction is the assumption that Stephen, in his sermon, is referring to the physical death of Terah. However, this assumption is unwarranted because Stephen's statement fits very well into a prevalent theological model presented throughout the New Testament (and which is also seen in the Old) - that of "spiritual death" or being "spiritually dead". Broadly, the idea behind this model is that those who reject (or who simply have not yet accepted) the necessity of putting their faith and trust in the Lord are spiritually dead. Though they may be physically alive, they are spiritually considered already dead.

Jesus used it to describe the friends or kin of the father of a disciple who requested that he be allowed to first bury his father, and then he would follow Jesus. Matthew 8:21-22 records this,

"And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead."

This is also paralleled in Luke 9:60. What is pertinent to this discussion is that Jesus tells this disciple to "let the dead bury their dead". While this man's father may have been physically dead, how likely is it that those who Jesus says were to bury him were also physically dead? Not likely at all, of course. Jesus is referring to them as "dead", and His intention is obviously that they were spiritually dead. In intimating this, Jesus was using typical Jewish reckoning. John Gill noted, for instance, that it was common among the Jews of those times to say "that a sinner is counted as dead", and that ungodly persons, even while they are alive, are "called dead"1. Jesus elsewhere uses this sort of reckoning to describe the condition of the prodigal son in Luke 15:24, 32, where the son was considered by his father to be "dead", and whose return to his father meant the son was "alive" again. Likewise, in John 5:24-25, Jesus uses this concept (in the converse) to describe people coming to life after believing on Him,

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live."

And again, He obliquely alludes to this concept when He said,

"And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err. (Mark 12:26-27)

Thus, the converse of the "sinner is dead while yet living" idea is presented in that the "saint, though dead, is still living".

This model is also used elsewhere in the NT (e.g. Romans 4:17, II Corinthians 5:14, Ephesians 2:1,5; Jude 12). Hence, that Stephen is using this same theological meaning for "dead" in his sermon is not difficult to imagine, as this is right in line with usage that appears throughout the New Testament. Further, though this concept is expounded most fully in the New Testament, the same model is certainly not lacking in the Hebrew Scriptures, being first laid out in Genesis 3 whereby Adam and Eve "died", but yet obviously not physically.

Another bit of evidence which suggests that this is indeed the model Stephen has in mind is found in Joshua 24. In recounting Israel's history up to that point, Joshua says,

"And Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods."

From what can be seen in Joshua 24 and in Genesis 11 and 12, Terah appears to have initially left Ur of the Chaldees with Abraham, indicating that he may have had at least superficially been a worshipper of Jehovah. Later, however, he became involved in the worship of false gods while in Haran, and became what would then be considered spiritually dead, from the perspective of a Jew in the time of Jesus. Thence, once Terah became stepped in idolatry in Haran, Abraham continued on his journey to Canaan, leaving his father, whose spiritually dead condition was not openly manifested, behind in Mesopotamia, on the other side of the flood, the Euphrates river. Stephen most likely had this specific passage from Joshua in mind when applying the concept of spiritual death to Terah, and Stephen's audience would have readily understood and accepted this verdict, as idolatry was anathema to the Jews.

As such, there is no real contradiction between what Stephen said in his sermon, and what the Hebrew scriptures say in Genesis. Terah, who apostatised into idol worship, was considered "dead" even though he was not physically dead, and this occurred about the time that he was 135 years old, when Abraham was 70, and continued to the Promised Land. Terah physically died later when he was 205, as Genesis 11:32 states, "the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran". Once all the evidence is systematically put together, we see that Stephen was merely expounding a common Jewish theological concept, one which his audience would have quite easily understood and accepted.

Who Bought What From the Hittites?

Another charge leveled against Stephen's sermon is that in vv. 15-16, he confounds certain events appearing in the Hebrew Scriptures. This passage reads,

"So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers, and were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem."

However, in Genesis 23:16-18, Abraham is said to have purchased the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, from Ephron the Hittite. In Joshua 24:32, we are told that it was Jacob who purchased a field from the sons of Hamor [Emmor], the father of Shechem [Sychem].

To understand what is involved in this portion of the sermon, we need a little background information about Stephen's audience. Acts relates to us that Stephen's original dispute was with certain Jews from Cyrenacia, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, as well as members of what was called "the synagogue of the Libertines". It was these who bribed false witnesses to testify against Stephen, and it was these who brought Stephen up before Caiaphas and the council in Jerusalem. What needs to be understood about these particular opponents of Stephen is that not only were they Jews, but they were HELLENISTIC Jews. We are told that this crowd consisted of Jews from several places where Hellenism was strong. Alexandria, of course, was the second city of the Empire, and was a noteworthy centre of Hellenistic learning. It also had a large Jewish colony which was to a greater or lesser degree influenced by the Hellenism of the city and the rest of Egypt. Likewise, Cyrenacia, modern Libya, was a thoroughly Hellenistic region, having been colonised by Greeks at Cyrene centuries before. Asia refers specifically to Asia Minor, where such notable Greek cities as Ephesus, Miletus, Pergamon, and Thyatira were located, and was also long renowned as a centre of Greek civilisation. Cilicia was the region around Tarsus in Asia Minor, and was also heavily Hellenised. Lastly, the members of the "synagogue of the Libertines" were Jewish men who either were, or were the descendants of, freed slaves. In the Roman Empire, slaves were often tasked with the duty of educating and tutoring the children of the rich, and as such, many of them were thoroughly trained in the arts and rhetoric of Greco-Roman society.

What all of this means is that a large portion of Stephen's audience, especially those who were the instigators of the affair and who would have been the ones Stephen was continuing to try to reach, were Jews who were thoroughly acquainted with Hellenistic culture and technique, as was common among Jews living in Greek areas. This is important to remember because what we see taking place in Stephen's sermon in vv. 15-16 is a common rhetorical device that was used in oratory and writing at the time of this sermon. This device was known as "telescoping", and involved the brief mentioning and uniting of related events which nevertheless may have occurred at different times or places. It was employed generally when the speaker needed to impart a large amount of information in a short amount of time.

What we see in this passage is simply that either Stephen in his sermon, or Luke in his recounting of the sermon, is telescoping the events of Abraham and Jacob together, as they are essentially similar subject matter, and are related chronologically and historically. Again, let us remember who Stephen's audience were - Hellenistic Jews who would to a certain degree have been Hellenised. As such, they would have been more receptive (and perhaps would subconsciously expect) a presentation in a Hellenistic style of rhetoric. It is doubtful that Stephen's audience would have even thought twice about Stephen's supposed error - they would have recognised the oratory device, and filled in the unspoken details themselves from their tacit knowledge of the stories and texts in question. This is made all the more likely because of the fact that most ancient cultures utilised high-context communication. Whereas we, in our low context society, feel the need to explicitly spell out exactly what we mean and leave little to the tacit knowledge of our audience, the ancients left much of the context of their words unspoken. The hearers or readers were expected to fill in the details from what they already knew, as Stephen would likely have expected his audience to do in this situation.

Of course, this telescoping device was not solely limited to Hellenistic venues. Hints of it also seem to appear in the Hebrew scriptures. We see it somewhat in Joshua's sermon in Joshua 24, such as where Joshua appears to get his chronology backwards in vv. 11-13. The creation account in Genesis 1, where the events of the sixth day, especially the creation of Adam and Eve, are telescoped together and the much greater detail appearing in Genesis 2 is left out. Despite (though not necessarily contradictory to) all the emphasis that has been laid out about the Hellenism of Stephen's audience, we can see that Stephen's sermon delivery is firmly in the Hebrew tradition. Sermonry through the recounting of historical details and progression, especially as they apply to God's dealings with the nation of Israel, are a programmatic Hebrew method of exhortation. This methodology is used extensively by Moses (e.g. Deut. chs. 4, 29, 32), is the basis of Joshua's sermon in Joshua 24, forms the basis of Psalm 78, and is found elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. This same sort of Hebraism appears elsewhere in the New Testament, such as in Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 11.

Thus, Stephen's sermon was fully in line with both the Hebraic and Hellenistic traditions of his audience, and his meaning would have been easily recognised by the members of his audience. While this telescoping appears to modern, low-context observers as wrong, it is incorrect to say that this is a "contradiction" or "error" given what has been said above. This only *appears* to be a contradiction because our modern minds are not conditioned to recognise and expect Hellenistic modes of speech.

How Many Children of Israel Came Into Egypt, 70 or 75?

The claim to contradiction rests on the statement by Stephen that 75 of Joseph's kindred were in Egypt in Acts 7:14, while Genesis 46:27 says that 70 children of Israel came into Egypt.

As with the last claim, we need to keep in mind just who constituted Stephen's audience. His audience was made up of Hellenistic Jews, many of them former slaves who may very well have been tutors or others well-versed in Hellenistic learning and culture. As such, the Bible that these people would have been most well acquainted with would have been the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures - the Septuagint. This can be said especially for those from Egypt and Cyrenacia, the regions where the LXX was first translated, propagated, and where it had the most lasting traction.

This acquaintance with the LXX would likely also have extended to Stephen, who was a Hellenistic Jew (c.f. Acts 6:1-6, though his name would also likely indicate it). The fact of their acquaintance with the LXX bears on the present discussion because we see that what Stephen is doing in his sermon at this point is referring to the reading of Genesis 46:27 found in the LXX. The LXX, in its translation of Genesis 46, includes in the reckoning of Jacob's descendants five persons who do not appear in the corresponding listing of the Hebrew text. These persons were sons and grandsons of Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.

While the LXX introduces a textual irregularity at this point, Stephen's exposition from the LXX is done in such a way as to both connect his audience with the version of the Scriptures they would be most familiar with, while also subtly correcting the Septuagint's textual impropriety and affirming a meaning in line with the Hebrew reading. We should note that in Acts 7:14, the text does not say that 75 people came INTO Egypt with Jacob. It says that when Joseph gathered ALL his kindred together to him, that there were 75 total. The number given by the LXX is not incorrect as far as the total number of Joseph's kindred, only in saying that this 75 all came into Egypt. Stephen here actually corrects the LXX while using it, to bring its meaning in line with the Hebrew original.

We see then, concurrently, that Stephen also does not contradict the plain statement of Genesis 46:27, for that text says only that 70 souls of the descendants of Israel came into Egypt, including Joseph and his two sons born to him. Stephen says that 75 were gathered together to Joseph, which per the LXX would include the sons and grandsons of Ephraim and Manasseh. Logically, there is no contradiction, for the one reckons those who came into Egypt, while the other reckons the total number of Israel's descendants, without specifying that they all came into Egypt, whom Joseph assembled unto himself. Hence, what we see between Genesis and Acts is an actual difference in who is being counted, not a contradiction. Stephen uses the number given in the Septuagint, likely because this is the one his audience would know, but yet also uses it in such a way as to be complementary with the Hebrew reading, not contradictory to it.2

How Many Years Did the Israelites Spend in Egypt?

The final so-called contradiction which will be addressed in this article is that which is said to appear in v.6 where Stephen says that Israel had spent 400 years in Egypt, versus the figure of 430 which is given in Exodus 12:40.

This is perhaps the easiest of all the presumed errors in Stephen's sermon to answer. The claim rests on nothing more than a failure on the part of the critic to read the pertinent texts closely. Looking at Stephen's statement again....

"And God spake on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years."

....we see that Stephen specifically says that 400 years was the time in which the children of Israel were in bondage in Egypt. He nowhere intimates that this was necessarily the full period of time which the Israelites spend in Egypt, either in bondage or as freemen. Conversely, Exodus 12:40 indicates that 430 was the number of years total spend in Egypt. As Exodus 1:8 shows, Israel spent an indeterminate (from that verse) period of time in Egypt before "another king" arose to power who "knew not Joseph". This period of time, presumably, makes up the difference between the 400 years of Acts 7 and the 430 years given in Exodus.

Conclusion

As can be seen above, the claims of error and ahistoricity that are so often advanced against Stephen's sermon (and derivatively, the veracity of the New Testament as a whole) by Jewish "anti-missionaries" and other skeptics are baseless. Each and every so-called contradiction has a perfectly reasonable and logical answer which becomes apparent when the sermon and Stephen's statements are taken in their natural and historical context. A critic looking to attack the authenticity of the New Testament will certainly have to look elsewhere than this passage.

End Notes

(1) - J. Gill, Exposition of the Bible, at Matthew 8:22, citing Tzeror Hammor fol. 6.2, T. Bab. Beracot fol. 18.2, etc.
(2) - It is not possible to resolve this apparent contradiction by appealing to an indeterminate number of wives for Jacob's sons to fill the discrepancy out. Genesis 46:26 specifically says, "besides Jacob's sons' wives", thus positively excluding them from the reckoning. Also, v. 7 specifically lists who is being counted in the reckoning - only sons, sons' sons, daughters, and sons' daughters. As well, that sort of appeal leaves too many unanswered questions and assumptions to bring any sense of surety to the answer. We also note that Jacob's own wives are nowhere counted in the reckoning - the only females listed are descended from Jacob, not congenerational.