I'm going to bed in a few minutes while my wife and step-daughters head out to the midnight showing of New Moon. When they get back, we'll pile into our Armada and head for New Orleans and my yearly pilgrimage to the Society of Biblical Literature convention. I'm quite honored to have a small part in one of the Philo sessions. I'll attend the Hebrews Group. There are a couple nice dinners, breakfasts, and coffees with old friends from home and abroad. The books are always probably the biggest highlight.
I am giving a paper in the Book of Acts section. I'm quite excited about the idea and will probably try to publish it. I offer the final section in its current form:
3. The Post-70 Context
In a very real sense, we do not need Hebrews to take our interpretation of Stephen’s speech to the next level. The dating of Acts is generally accepted as subsequent to AD70 and the temple’s destruction, so we can fairly assume that Stephen’s speech would have cued in its audience the memory of that event. Similarly, it would have been difficult for a post-70 audience not to hear in Stephen’s indictments of Israel an accusatory explanation for why God had let the modern Babylon—Rome—enslave God’s people again. The rejection of Moses in the speech would have easily translated into broader Israel’s rejection of Jesus, the prophet like Moses. Indeed, the author has deliberately changed the Septuagintal text of Amos 5:25-27 from “Damascus” to “Babylon,” not only to invoke the image of the Babylonian captivity as a consequence of Israel’s disobedience, but perhaps also because the Jews had begun to use “Babylon” as a code name for Rome after Rome destroyed Jerusalem, just as the Babylonians had earlier done.
Although these observations can stand on their own, it is a particular reading of Hebrews that has led us personally to recognize these dynamics. The idea that Hebrews might date to the aftermath of the temple’s destruction is of course heavily debated. Nevertheless, some recent treatments have pondered how Hebrews might read if its rhetoric were taken not as a polemic against participation in the Levitical cultus but as a kind of consolation in the absence of one. The sermon locates itself in second generation Christianity (e.g., Heb. 2:3) and seems to imply that the founding leaders of its community were martyred for their faith (cf. 13:7). Although we cannot know for certain, Rome is the favorite suggested destination for those who hazard a guess, based on 13:24. The only martyrdoms of local Christian leaders we know of in Rome took place in the 60s, particularly after Nero blamed Christians for the fire of Rome in AD64.
If we look to some time thereafter, when a believing community in Rome might have faced discouraging times, not long after Jerusalem’s destruction or perhaps later during Domitian’s reign are what comes to mind. It is at this point that we begin to pay special attention to statements in Hebrews like, “We have here no remaining city” (13:14) and “they are seeking a homeland” (11:14). It must have been devastating for Christians to see the conquered Jews paraded through the streets of Rome and then put to death after the destruction of Jerusalem. After all, Christianity was still Judaism to its believers. What would these believers now do for atonement without a temple? The author admonishes them to have confidence that full atonement—in fact the only atonement that had ever been truly effective—is found in Christ’s sacrifice. They can have boldness to enter into the true sanctuary in heaven for atonement by means of the blood of Christ (e.g., 10:19).
Whenever one dates Hebrews, most would place it prior to Acts. If it was written not long after the destruction of Jerusalem, the two might date within a decade of each other. Given this apparent proximity in time and content, it becomes much more plausible that the author of Acts has portrayed Stephen somewhat like the author of Hebrews, one of his contemporaries, than that the author of Hebrews independently stood in a particular, continuous theological tradition going back to the historical Stephen, who lived perhaps forty years before. What does such a scenario look like in terms of the interpretation of Acts 7, and does it seem to clarify the subtext of Stephen’s sermon or cloud its most likely meaning?
First, when Acts is read in a post-AD70 context, Stephen’s sermon seems less unique and discordant with some other features of Acts than at first might suggest itself. The author, for example, clearly would locate himself and his audience within “the times of the Gentiles,” a period during which Jerusalem was destined to be “trampled on” (Luke 21:24). In this light, the climactic ending of Acts in Rome takes on an explanatory dimension. God turns to the Gentiles for the time being because the Jews have rejected the gospel (e.g., Acts 28:25-28). Paul’s statement here is reminiscent of Stephen’s indictment in 7:51-53. The recurring rebellion of the sons of Israel in Acts 7 comes to mirror the later rejection of Jesus and to explain implicitly why, once again, God had allowed yet another Babylon to destroy Jerusalem. These indictments, however, are not anti-Semitic. They are after the fact explanations of what had already happened to Israel, just as we would argue Hebrews is more a consolation in the absence of a temple than a polemic against one.
In this context, Stephen’s implicit indictment of the Jewish leaders’ over-valuing of the temple in Acts 7 becomes far more an after the fact explanation for the temple’s destruction than a condemnation of the temple per se while it was standing. We thus find no contradiction between the generally positive view of the temple we find elsewhere in Acts. Indeed, we find no clear indication that the author of Acts thought the Jerusalem temple was gone forever. What we find is an explicit condemnation of those who betrayed and murdered Jesus, the prophet like Moses (e.g., 7:52). Those who accuse Stephen are thus false witnesses because Stephen is not speaking against the temple itself, but against those who, perhaps like the revolutionaries of the Jewish War, could not distinguish between the temple in Jerusalem and God’s ultimate dwelling place in heaven.
At the same time, we do seem to find tensions between the theology of the author of Acts and that of the author of Hebrews. The basic thrust of Hebrews is that no Levitical blood sacrifice has ever truly atoned for any sin (e.g., Heb. 10:5). The blood of Jesus, offered by way of an eternal spirit, is the only truly effective sacrifice for all eternity (e.g., 9:14; 10:14). Acts, by contrast, pictures apparently regular participation in the Jerusalem temple, likely including sacrifices, even by Paul himself (cf. Acts 21:24-26), while apparently downplaying the tradition of Christ’s death as a sacrifice or ransom (e.g., compare Mark 10:45 with Luke 22:27). Similarly, it is not difficult to imagine that the historical Stephen actually was remembered as indicting the temple administration in some way, as Jesus apparently did, even if it is unlikely Stephen had nearly as fully developed a “replacement theology” for the temple as the author of Hebrews eventually developed.
We would argue that this overall conception of Acts 7 provides the fullest and richest understanding of its meaning both in its historical and literary contexts. Historically, we have the oral tradition of Stephen's martyrdom, likely associated with certain indictments he had made of the temple leaders and perhaps the fact that they put Jesus to death. Historically, we also have the time in which Acts was written a decade or so after Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Further, we have the perspective of the author of Hebrews, a rough contemporary of the author of Acts. Although the emphases and thinking of the author of Hebrews differed slightly from the perspective the author of Acts took in his history, the author of Acts saw in him a relevant model on which to base his portrait of Stephen.
Literarily, then, the author of Acts went about presenting Stephen in these chapters. Having planned Luke with Acts in mind, he omitted in Luke 22:66-71 the story of the false accusations against Jesus in Mark 14:57-59 and saved them instead in relation to Stephen. Then in keeping with good ancient historiography, he fashioned Stephen's martyrdom speech both with a view to Stephen's memory but most importantly with a view to imply an explanation for the current state of Israel with both city and temple destroyed. Acts 7 is thus no general run through the story of Israel but a presentation of key vignettes meant to reflect its current situation. And we suspect very strongly that the author of Hebrews, or someone quite like him, helped the author of Acts to present Stephen in a way that would speak directly to his Christian audience some fifty years later.