Home > Early Christianity, History > Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity

Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity

Publisher: Oxford University Press 2010 | 240 Pages | ISBN: 0195393325

 Recent studies have examined martyrdom as a means of constructing Christian identity, but until now none has focused on Stephen, the first Christian martyr. For the author of Luke-Acts, the stoning of Stephen– even more than the death of Jesus– underscores the perfidy of non-believing Jews, the extravagant mercy of Christians, and the inevitable rift that will develop between these two social groups. Stephen’s dying prayer that his persecutors be forgiven-the prayer for which he is hailed in Christian tradition as the “perfect martyr” plays a crucial role in drawing an unprecedented distinction between Jewish and early Christian identities.

Shelly Matthews deftly situates Stephen’s story within the emerging discourse of early Christian martyrdom. Though Stephen is widely acknowledged to be an actual historical figure, Matthews points to his name, his manner of death, and to other signs that his martyrdom was ideally suited to the rhetorical purposes of Acts and its author, Luke: to uphold Roman views of security and respectability, to show non-believing Jews to disadvantage, and to convey that Christianity was an exceptionally merciful religion. By drawing parallels between Acts and stories of the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, Matthews challenges the coherent canonical narrative of Acts and questions common assumptions about the historicity of Stephen’s martyrdom. She also offers a radical new reading of Stephen’s last prayer, showing the complex and sometimes violent effects of its modern interpretations.

Perfect Martyr illuminates the Stephen story as never before, offering a deeply nuanced picture of violence, solidarity, and resistance among Jews and early Christians, a key to understanding the early development of a non-Jewish Christian identity, and an innovative reframing of one of the most significant stories in the Bible.

The Jerusalem section of Acts is closed by the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first Jesus believer to be killed by those who resist his testimony. The story connects the death of Jesus in the Third Gospel to the conversion of the Paul in Acts, for Stephen’s death is closely modeled on the death of Jesus and closely linked to the conversion of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. As with many martyrdom tales, the precise reason for Stephen’s rejection and death is not clearly stated. Stephen is charged with speaking against the law and the temple, the central institutions of the Jewish people. But Stephen’s defense speech reveals his reverence for the law; the precise nature of Stephen’s temple criticism is diffi cult to discern; and, in any case, the narrator marks those who make the temple/torah accusation as false witnesses. The angry reaction of the crowd to Stephen’s defense speech is prompted not by proof that Stephen is against the law and the temple but by Stephen’s counteraccusation that his audience is implicated in prophet persecution and law breaking. The stoning takes place after Stephen has shared his vision of the Son of Man.

While the grounds for the martyr’s death are not obvious, the identity of the persecutors is. They are Jews living in Jerusalem, who come from the far reaches of the earth. Saul/Paul is also implicated as one who receives the coats of those stoning Stephen, his pre-conversion presence at the stoning standing as a sign of the violence of his former life, when he persecuted the church to the utmost. That the death comes by stoning makes clear that the Ioudaioi who murder Stephen are despicable rabble-rousers since, from a Roman imperial view, stoning is the crime of the barbarous. The vile persecutors serve as a perfect foil to the innocent and generous martyr who, fi lled with the Holy Spirit, prays an extravagant prayer of mercy upon them.

The death not only marks the close of the Jerusalem section of Acts but also paves the way for the mission into Judea, Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth. At the death, a severe persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem, causing all but the apostles to scatter, with some traveling as far as Antioch, the place where the disciples were fi rst called Christians. Martyrdom is not an event but a discourse. Throughout the course of Roman imperial rule of the ancient Mediterranean, hundreds and thousands of subjects were killed in state-sanctioned violence. 1 Nearly all of these subjects met their deaths without the consolation of being named and memorialized in any historical record. While all these deaths are events that “happened,” language is required, specifi cally a narrative told by those empathetic to the victim and the victim’s plight, to create a martyr. As Daniel Boyarin puts it, “For the ‘Romans,’ it didn’t matter much whether the lions were eating a robber or a bishop, and it probably didn’t make much of a difference to the lions, either, but the robber’s friends and the bishop’s friends told different stories about those leonine meals. It is in these stories that martyrdom, as opposed to execution, or dinner, can be found.”

As a discourse that attempts to wrest meaning out of violence through inverting categories of strength and weakness, victory and loss, and life and death, martyrdom narratives can subvert hegemonic powers, providing a language of, and hence a means for, resistance to those facing similar violent circumstances. Recent scholarship has also shown the discourse of martyrdom to do other kinds of complicated work as well in constructing the subjectivity of those who circulate the martyrs’ stories. Reciting martyrdom tales can be a form of culture making, a means of nation building, and a process through which ethnoracial identity is constructed. Paradoxically, the anti-judgment, anti-authority alignment of Christian martyrdom discourse can work in the service of generating new sites of authority.  In the first centuries of Judeo-Christian history, martyrdom tales work toward creating the very categories “Jew” and “Christian.” The primary focus of these studies has been on texts that might be considered full-blown martyrologies, such as those found in 2 and 4 Maccabees, in rabbinic literature, and in Christian martyrdom literature from the mid-second through the fourth centuries. This book contributes to the current conversation on martyrdom, memory, and identity by bringing the story of the stoning of Stephen in Acts into this conversation.

To be sure, Stephen is not a martyr according to recent typologies of martyrdom proposed by Jan Willem van Henten or Daniel Boyarin. While later Christian tradition gives to Stephen a privileged place—in some versions, the fi rst space—in the company of Christian martyrs, one might say that his death is fi rst narrated before the elements that will constitute Jewish and Christian martyr acts of Late Antiquity have coalesced (or, following van Henten’s typology, before Christian death narratives have more completely conformed to the framework established in the Jewish martyrdom narratives of Maccabees and Daniel). The trial proceedings are not formal enough, the ultimatum is not directly given so that the persecuted might directly resist or affi rm, and erotic elements so common in later martyr texts are absent. A visionary element is present in Stephen’s cry, “‘Look’ . . . I see . . . the Son of Man” (Acts 7.56) but is not developed. Stephen is not persecuted in a “pagan” court but rather by his own people. Therefore, in some renderings, his death might fall more precisely under the taxonomy of the persecuted prophet or the noble death rather than the Christian martyr. Yet, I want to suggest that the story of Stephen occupies an important place on the path toward Christian martyrologies proper and hence is too compelling to overlook for those who recognize the identity work that such texts do.

Dating Acts

As a supporting plank in my argument that the Stephen story should be considered for its relevance to the developing second-century discourse on martyrdom, I note recent reappraisals of the dating of the canonical Acts. While this text has long been dated by common consensus to the 80s or 90s of the common era, a surge of scholarship has now converged in arguing that it isbetter understood as a product of the early second century. There is nothing in the reception history of Acts that precludes a dating to the second century rather than the fi rst, as the fi rst sustained and irrefutable witness to Acts is Irenaeus, ca. 180 CE . Recent and compelling reintroductions of the argument that Acts knows portions of Josephus’s Antiquities, as well as several Pauline Epistles, set a terminus a quo for the narrative at 100 CE . Within this possible range of dates, I assume a date in the second or third decade of the second century as most probable. As many have come to recognize, the political, social, and ecclesial issues of concern in Acts, and the rhetoric employed to address them, fit more squarely within debates of the third generation of the Jesus movement, rather than the fi rst or second. In terms of its depiction of persecutory Jews, its defense of Christians in Romanized terms, and its understanding of proof from prophecy, Acts is a document that lies close to the thought world of Justin Martyr. Its appropriation of Jewish symbols and Scriptures, its clear statement that the ministry of Paul is authorized by the Jerusalem apostles, and its solution to questions of divine judgment and mercy, and violence and peace, place the text within debates that might be considered “marcionite” in flavor.

Thus, Acts may be considered as a document near contemporary with 4 Maccabees (ca. 100 CE ) and the Letters of Ignatius (ca. 110 CE ); as a close relative of the Apocryphal Acts of Paul, both in terms of genre and dating; and not so distant from the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. 150 CE ), the text that is often recognized as the earliest Christian martyrdom narrative. Without making arguments for textual dependency among all these texts in which martyrdom fi gures, I note the usefulness of considering them as products of the same thought world, possibly the same geographic region, written under similar social circumstances. Viewing Acts as an early second-century text not only prompts reassessment of its relationship to these texts but also raises questions about what the canonical Acts does and does not say about the fate of revered fi gures of the fi rst generation of Jesus believers. If Acts is located in the second century, its silence concerning the fate of its own hero Paul—to say nothing of its silence concerning the deaths of James, the brother of Jesus, and of Peter—is especially curious. Some sixty years after their deaths, it is diffi cult to explain this silence as owing to paucity of source material. Because Acts contributes to the shaping of second-century discourse of martyrdom, the silence concerning the deaths of these early Christian leaders, Peter, Paul, and James, as well as the prominence of Stephen’s death require explanation.

Stephen in Acts’ Construction of Categories

As is now commonly recognized, identities do not emerge whole and contained at fi xed points in time but rather are constructed over time through social and linguistic processes. This construction requires the imposition and continual maintenance of boundaries among social groups whose identities would otherwise remain in fl ux. The work of Daniel Boyarin especially has enabled scholars to understand the development of identities from the time of the Jewish Jesus movement to the time in which Christianity came to be spoken of as a religion that was not-Judaism, not as the birth of a religion at a fi xed point in time but rather as a massive unwieldy construction project. This construction involved constant negotiation across a number of sites where struggles played out over the precise architectural nature of the edifi ce and required the concurrent construction—over the same centuries, with related elements of contest and struggle—of Judaism as something Christianity was not.

Adopting the model and terminology employed by Boyarin, one might say that the author of Acts is an early border agent working to fi x barriers and hence to construct two unifi ed and distinct social/religious entities called Judaism and Christianity (or better, working to fi x barriers between his version of Christianity, with Judaism on the one side and heresy on the other). But he is an early player, laying bricks in his particular region of the ancient Mediterranean for the “borderline” between Judaism and Christianity that will not be firmly and broadly erected for some centuries.

While Acts lays foundation stones for the edifice of a version of Christianity that is not-Judaism—a version so like that of many of our Protestant Christianities that is naturalized and nearly unquestionable—it should also be noted that its author is not in full possession of the categories that later constructors of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism will eventually possess. That is, Acts does not own the fully stocked semantic toolbox available to later constructors of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism, one that would enable him to confidently name fellow believers as “Christians/not Jews.”

Boyarin, along with scholars including Jan Willem van Henten, and Judith Lieu have come to recognize that martyrdom narratives are key sites for identity construction among Jews and Christians. Readers of these narratives of men and women who choose to die rather than compromise their identities are instructed in what makes one Christian, what makes one Jewish. It is my contention that Acts’ story of the martyrdom of Stephen participates in both a peculiar and a pernicious construction of Christian and Jewish identities. It is peculiar because it stands at odds with numerous martyrdom traditions concerning the earliest believers of Jesus. It is most obviously pernicious because of its anti-Judaism. 19 An analysis of both its peculiarity and its anti-Jewish edge occupies a large portion of subsequent chapters. To introduce the problem here, I identify a number of overlapping themes by which the Acts narrative, in general, and the Stephen story, in particular, tell a story of Christian origins that is problematically framed and ethically troubling.

The Swift, Linear, and Violent Break

In the past several decades, scholars of ancient Jewish–Christian relations have compiled a number of arguments demonstrating that, the angry rhetoric of the Adversus Judaeos literature notwithstanding, Jews and Christians in the ancient world did not always live in enmity. To name a few, Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilken have read John Chrysostom against the grain to fi nd Christians in Antioch keeping kosher, meeting with Jews in the synagogue, and fi xing their Easter celebrations according to Passover; E. Leigh Gibson argues that Jews in Smyrna invited Christians into their synagogues at the time of Pionius (ca. 140 CE ), noting that shelter there might have been extended as “an alternative to the grim choice between martyrdom and execution”;  Daniel Boyarin argues that rabbinic literature hints at Rabbi Eliezer’s pleasure concerning the teaching of Jesus; and Annette Yoshiko Reed speaks of the irenic tone of the fourth- and fifth-century redactions of the Pseudo-Clementines, in which the Jewish Christians acknowledge both the Torah and Jesus as distinct but legitimate paths to salvation. These recent studies highlighting porous boundaries, common alliances, and occasional irenic relations cut deeply against the grain of the Acts narrative.

Both the chain of succession established in Acts—from Jesus, to Stephen, to Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles—and the geographic progression of “the Way”—from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and unto the ends of the earth— have served to support linear models of Christian origins by which Christianity emerges and diverges from Judaism quickly and decisively. To be sure, Acts’ view of Jews and Jewish symbols contains complications of its own, which will be subject to considerable analysis below. Here, I note in brief that, in spite of the narrative’s repeated loops back to Jerusalem, where Paul’s mission to the Gentiles receives the blessing of Jewish Jesus believers (15.1–29) and where myriads of such believers are said to reside (21.20), Paul’s fi nal speech to the Jews in Rome suggests a decisive break between Jews and Gentile followers of the “Way” within the lifetime of Paul himself (28.25–28).

The break is not only swift but also contingent on violence for, as I will demonstrate in greater detail in another chapter, the parting is ignited by Stephen’s death at the hands of the riotous mob of Jews. Eusebius reinscribes Acts’ narrative by which originary martyrdom is linked to the creation of two distinct social groups by noting that Stephen’s death ignites the “fi rst and great” persecution of one distinct social group, the Jerusalem ekklēsia , by another, “the Jews” ( Hist. eccl . 2.1.8). 24 While recent scholars of early Jewish–Christian relations, adopting images used also by the rabbis and the church fathers before them, have invoked a story of gestation and birthing to speak of the origins of and contests between Judaism and Christianity—the rivalry of Jacob and Esau begun in the womb of their mother—Acts tells a more deadly story: the parting is ignited by bloodshed. Thus, in J. B. Lightfoot’s nineteenth-century study of Acts, the significance of the parting is not captured by imagery of an actual birth but rather by sacramental language fusing the imagery of birth and death. “The Church of the Gentiles,” he notes, “was baptized in the blood of Stephen.”

Polarized, Uncomplicated Identities

As exemplified in the violent murder of Stephen and its connection to the persecuting- Saul-turned-persecuted-Paul, Acts constructs Jewish and Christian identity along a simple binary: to be a non-believing Jew is to be an agent of violence; to be a Christian is to suffer. 26 The extreme polarity between these two subject positions is heightened by Stephen’s dying forgiveness prayer for his persecutors. This extravagant prayer of mercy uttered by the dying victim on behalf of the villainous Jews marks the martyr as bound by a new and superior ethic. In Acts’ construction, this distinctively merciful response is the inverse of the merciless deeds of the Ioudaioi ; the peaceful Christian and the violent Ioudaioi are constructed in tandem.

Owing to the reinscription of the violent Jew–violated Christian binary in modern scholarship, the assertion that the first killers of “Christians” were “Jews” is one of the fundaments of the master narrative of Christian origins, standing largely uninterrogated into the twenty-first century. The influence of the lurking violent Jew, so distinctive to Acts’ account of Christian beginnings, helps to explain the numerous modern histories of early Christianity in which scenarios of widespread Jewish violence against Christians seem otherwise gratuitous. One thinks of the understanding of the Jew as the fons persecution is articulated in the influential works of Adolf von Harnack and W. H. C. Frend. 27 This sentiment has been echoed recently by H. W. Tajra, who, in spite of not being able to cite any specific textual evidence in support, imagines that the execution of the Apostle Paul in the Roman capital owes chiefly to influential Jews in the Roman synagogue who desire his death and who manipulate Roman officials to sate that desire.

The reflexive reliance on this binary is problematic on a number of grounds. For one, it erroneously reduces the multiplicity of first-century Jewish experience under empire—a complex of alliances, negotiations, and antipathies—to a simple tale of conflict between two opposing sides. A related problem in depicting first-century “Jews” and “Christians” in this polarized way is that it forecloses the possibility of imagining that belief or disbelief in Christ was only one of many identity markers among first-century Jews. In the following pages, I will suggest that a better historical narrative than the one offered by Acts would evoke some of that multiplicity, imagining, for instance, situations in which Jesus believers and other Jews formed alliances, marshaled resistance, and/or faced common suffering from imperial overlords. Such an alternative narrative might also make space for imagining that a particular Jew’s assent to messianic claims for Jesus need not have been a singular identity marker, adversely affecting every interaction with other, non-believing, Jews.

The Masking of Imperial Violence

In contrast to legendary accounts of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, where Roman officials assume the central villainous roles, the death of Stephen takes place outside of any Roman interest or agency. In large measure, Romans are bracketed from the violence animating the entire book of Acts. Tellingly, in Acts’ version of Paul’s trials and imprisonments, the Romans serve to rescue Paul, not to inflict harm upon him. The message that “Romans do no harm” occludes the role of this ancient imperial power in the violence enacted upon colonized peoples of the Mediterranean, including Judeans. Another way to name this problem is to note that Acts makes claims of agency in Stephen’s death that have long been made about Jesus’ death—the Jews alone are the agents of death. While post-Holocaust scholarship on Gospel passion narratives has underscored Roman agency, whether through Pontius Pilate or the grinding wheels of the “Roman imperial system” as the first cause of Jesus’ death, the Acts narrative has not been subject to the same scrutiny.

Further Authorizations and Reinscriptions

I have already made some reference to the manner by which anti-Jewish rhetoric in Acts is reiterated by subsequent interpreters. Because of the highly charged significance of the “Hellenists” in modern constructions of Christian origins, I conclude this section by considering at greater length how the anti-Judaism of the Stephen pericope is authorized and reinscribed in the racially inflected discourse of the nineteenth century concerning Hellenists and Hebrews.

The great conundrum at the heart of nineteenth-century supersessionist Christian self-understanding is the inescapable fact that the earliest Christians were Jews. Susannah Heschel has demonstrated with acuity the anti- Jewish racism and anxiety infusing many premodern and modern Christian attempts to grapple with that conundrum, especially as it pertains to Jesus’ Jewish identity. 30 An explanation is needed for how the Savior of the West is born into an inferior racial group. As Heschel notes, attempted solutions to the problem of Jesus’ Jewishness range from arguments that Jesus, born of “the virgin womb of the God of Judaism,” comes into the world detached from and unscathed by the “Pharisaic Judaism” of his day, to arguments that Jesus was racially Aryan.

Nineteenth-century scholarship on Acts attempts another way out of the conundrum, through a particular racial/religious coding of the Stephen narrative. A key interpretive move of this reading is the superimposing of nineteenth-century constructions of the (Western)Christian and the (Eastern) Jew onto the terms Hellenist ( Hellēnistēs ) and Hebrew ( Hebraios ) that appear in the Stephen narrative (Acts 6.1). To be sure, the author of Acts himself is also attempting to work his way out of a Jewish/Christian conundrum, and these early modern interpreters are responding to markers in Acts suggesting both that believing Gentiles have replaced non-believing Jews as the rightful heirs to the promises of Israel and that Stephen plays a pivotal role in that replacement. However, by racially inflecting the categories Hellenist and Hebrew, and by imposing them even upon Jesus believers who are Jews , modern interpreters have inscribed the distinctions and boundaries between Jews and Christians more starkly than the author of Acts himself. That is, in the Acts narrative, there is an interstitial category and an interim period in which one can be coded positively both as aJew and as Jesus believer. In contrast, nineteenth-century interpreters of Acts, through coding Jewish Jesus believers as either Hebrews or Hellenists, the former trapped in Judaism and the latter liberated into Christianity, collapse the interstitial space.

I summarize the contours of this nineteenth-century reading here, with primary focus on the foundational work of F. C. Baur on Acts. This is not to deny that Baur had at least as many detractors as disciples in the nineteenth century, particularly among those who resisted his reading of Acts as a compromise document hammered out between Gentile and Jewish factions of Christianity. Yet, as a number of recent monographs have demonstrated, Baur’s foundational work, heavily influenced by Hegel’s racially inflected notions of the gradual self-revelation of Spirit in human history, sets the parameters for the debate on Stephen’s significance and holds enduring influence.

Stephen is first introduced in Acts among a group of seven appointed to serving tables as a means of solving the dissension that has broken out within the church between factions named Hellenists and Hebrews (6.1–6). The narrative does not specify what makes (Jewish)Hellenists distinct from (Jewish) Hebrews, nor does it explicitly identify Stephen himself as a Hellenist. 33 Yet, because Stephen bears a Greek name, because he argues in a synagogue with members of the Greek-speaking Diaspora, and—most crucially—because he speaks with wisdom and the Spirit against the temple and the law, he is coded as a Hellenist. Likewise, though the narrative does not explicitly indicate that the apostles are “Hebrews,” majority nineteenth-century Acts scholarship assumes that the Twelve are representative of the “Hebrew” outlook, one that is Jerusalem located, temple focused, law abiding, and Aramaic speaking. Since the question of Gentile believers is not introduced in Acts until the Gospel spreads from Jerusalem into Samaria and beyond (Acts 8.1ff.), it is clear that both the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews” in Acts 6.1–6 are Jesus-believing Jews. But nineteenth-century commentary generally elides this fact, reading Hellenist as Christian and Hebrew as Jew.

Stephen’s position as Hellenist makes possible a bridge between (the Hebrew) Jesus and (the Hellene) Paul, thus enabling Christianity’s escape from the shackles of fleshy Judaism into the Spirit of freedom. In Baur’s schema, Stephen receives the higher consciousness first possessed by Jesus and then confronts Paul with it, making possible Paul’s conversion from Jew to Christian, a conversion of a full 180 degrees: in Stephen, whom [Paul] had persecuted he had been confronted with the idea which to a Jew was most of all intolerable, which set aside the Jewish particularism, and substituted for it a universalism, in which Jew and Gentile stood with equal privileges side by side, he could now in the revulsion of his consciousness adopt without any further mediation the exact opposite of all that he had hitherto clung to with a true Jew’s feelings and instincts .

Though Baur wavers over the question of whether Stephen or a later hand is responsible for the speech as recorded in Acts 7.2–53, he nevertheless finds it a fitting reflection of Stephen’s higher religious consciousness. Stephen’s speech lays bare “the grossness of the people’s perversity, ingratitude and disobedience, with that overwhelming bias towards materialism which the people had always manifested” 35 and levels a scathing critique against temple worship, which signifies the coarse materiality and inflexibility of Judaism. The temple stands as a place in which “the external, visible, and tangible machinery of worship assumed an overwhelming preponderance, and ceased to be a living and flexible expression of that invisible Ideal.”

Against the Hellenist Stephen and his championing of the Spirit of freedom stand not just the hostile and non-believing Jews but even the apostles themselves. The Twelve, as “Hebrews,” prove as moribund as the rest of their race. Stephen stands alone, “[waging] this fresh and so momentous battle against the enemy; and while he considers the Temple worship, with all its outward forms, as a thing already antiquated and in ruins, the Apostles always remain immovably true to their old adherence to the Temple .” Through attributing to the Jerusalem apostles themselves this state of lethargic imprisonment to the flesh, Baur moves significantly beyond the schema of Acts in his denigration of the Hebrew/Jew, for however much Acts privileges Paul above the Twelve, these Jerusalem apostles yet hold authorizing roles in the Acts narrative. Baur elides this authorizing function, so that Christian Spirit transfers from Jesus directly to Stephen to Paul, avoiding the taint of the Hebrew apostles altogether.

Another way in which nineteenth-century readings inscribe the Jew–Christian divide even more starkly than the Acts narrative itself concerns the question of the “severe persecution” arising against the Jerusalem church at Stephen’s death (8.1). As already noted, key to Acts’ own construction of the two distinct social groups, Jews and Christians, is the sculpting of the former as persecutors and the latter as persecuted. To be a nonbelieving Jew is to inflict violence upon Christians; to be a Christian is to be subject to Jewish violence.

This distinction already inscribed in Acts between the murdering Jew and the victimized Christian, coupled with the tendency to read “Hebrews” in Acts as Jews and “Hellenists” as Christians, results in a widespread exegetical consensus that the severe persecution following Stephen’s death affected only the Hellenist wing of the church and not the Hebrew. The thin thread of text on which this very large scenario unfolds is one phrase in 8.1: “That day [of Stephen’s death] a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside” (emphasis added).

That is the clause in which it is reported that the apostles remain in Jerusalem, while the rest of the church scatters, is taken to mean that no part of the “Hebraistic” church was persecuted in the fi rst place. 39 In Acts’ construction of the persecutor–persecuted binary, a Jew may fall within the category of the persecuted so long as that Jew believes in Jesus as the apostles obviously do (cf. the persecution of Apostles in 5.17–40, 12.1–5). But the widespread acceptance of the “Hellenist-only” persecution scenario in modern biblical criticism suggests among scholars a strong inclination to withhold from the Hebrews the privilege of being counted among the persecuted—that is to say from the authentically Christian—subjects.

To summarize up to this point, the Acts narrative, in general, and the Stephen story, in particular, participate in an anti-Jewish construction of Christian origins. Owing to the wide-ranging influence of the Acts narrative, this anti-Judaism has been reauthorized and reinscribed in much modern biblical scholarship. One aim of this book, therefore, is to draw attention to the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the narrative and its continuing effects. A further aim is to decenter this narrative of Jewish violence, free from Roman involvement, by considering alternate models for writing the history of violent encounters among Jews and Christians under empire. But this is a difficult task—indeed, in the end it might be considered a quixotic undertaking—owing to the tenacious hold of the Acts narrative on collective Christian consciousness. It is to the question of this collective Christian consciousness that I now turn.

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