Monday, 7 December 2015

Mythmaker: The Stephen Story

Stephen is the first Christian martyr. But is the account in Acts 7 reliable? Hyam Maccoby thinks not. The problem lies with the attribution of this execution to the Sanhedrin.
"The Sanhedrin was a dignified body that had rules of procedure, and did not act like a lynch mob. It would not suddenly switch the charges against a defendant, or drag him out for execution without even pronouncing sentence or formulating what he had been found guilty of."
The charge brought against Stephen - the same one that was brought against Jesus - was speaking against the temple. In fact Maccoby asserts that the Stephen account "is simply a double or repetition" of the earlier account. Both in Stephen's trial and in Jesus' this charge "is forgotten when the defendant bursts out during the trial with what is regarded as a blasphemous statement."
"Formal procedures are then thrown to the winds and the defendant is found guilty of an alleged crime committed during the trial itself, and different from the crime for which he was brought to trial in the first instance. This travesty of legal procedure in a body like the Sanhedrin... is clearly fictional."
What about the division scholars find between the Hellenistic faction, represented by Stephen, and the Jewish faction led by James and Peter? Maccoby is having none of it. This is simply a case of which language was spoken. The Hellenists were Greek speakers. The real division was between the 'activist' Nazarenes - the anti-Roman faction - and the quietist Nazarenes - those content to wait and hope for their lord's return without upsetting apple-carts in the here and now.

So what really happened? Maccoby is of the opinion that the story is not in fact created out of the whole cloth, and attempts to reconstruct the actual event. Paul was indeed involved in the execution of the radicalized Stephen, but was acting as an extra-juridical enforcer for the High Priest, a Roman collaborator. In this reading Stephen was seen as "a dangerous anti-Roman agitator." This seems to me a step too far into speculation, but does not undercut the critique that has already been offered. The Sanhedrin/Pharisee connection does indeed seem highly problematic.

(This is the ninth part of a review of Hyam Maccoby's 1986 book Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.)


  1. Some say that those who were rich and interested in the Christian mythology commissioned and paid for books to be written -- some of which have been included in the New Testament. Of course, it appears only 4 out of the 40 or so gospels, many of which may have been commissioned in such a way, made it to canonization.

    Acts begins, "The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,". This is apparently in reference to Luke 1: "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed."

    This more than suggests that "Luke" (perhaps a pseudonym) wrote both the gospel and Acts. The gospels seem to have been written quite a time after the epistles of Paul and also seem to have been written to refute what Paul wrote. Acts would have been written even later.

    With these as assumptions as to the generation of the New Testament, is there any real reason we should believe that Acts had any historical accuracy, especially in light of what Hyam Maccoby has brought forth?

    It's been nearly 2,000 years after the supposed events were to have occurred. When we can't even necessarily agree as to what happened during the Kennedy assassination a mere 5 decades ago, why would we give any credence at all to the fabulous myths and stories contained in Acts at all?

    It's another one of these "after it gets started and the founders of the movement die, the movement changes and grows even if it can be proven false". You know, like British Israelism and Scientology.

    This is all very interesting and certainly enables us to "grow in grace and knowledge" (maybe without the grace) and certainly has provided a valuable insight into the development of Scripture, even if it was based on nothing.

  2. I notice that many of the articles you present suggest that the Biblical narrative is inaccurate because it shows groups of people behaving in ways that were unusual or even irrational at the time. What you fail to take into account is the fact that the very presence of God and/or The Holy Spirit tends to bring out fury and irrational thinking in the minds of those diametrically opposed to God's way. It has always been such.

    Thus, such mob mentality behaviors are NOT as unlikely as you would have us believe. I have seen this personally, and it is impressive.