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Stephen was one of seven disciples in the New Testament who were assigned to watch over the temporal needs and welfare in the Church. He was “full of faith and power” and “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). As Stephen was out among the people, some individuals from the local synagogue began “disputing” with him, but “were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:10). They stirred up a larger group of those willing to accuse Stephen, who testified that they had “heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God” (Acts 6:11). Standing before the council, they bore false witness against him, further accused him of blasphemy and associated him with popular accusations against Jesus of Nazareth.
These men were clearly intent on bringing an accusation against Stephen that would merit him being put to death. Anciently, the charge of blasphemy was punishable by death and seems to have involved a broad range of possible offenses or perceived insults against God and/or the Jewish religion in general. For example, those who cursed the name of God were to be put to death by stoning (Leviticus 24:10–16). But there was also precedent in the Law for stoning an individual who “sins defiantly,” because they “blaspheme the Lord” and “have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands” (Numbers 15:30–31).
Jesus had been similarly sentenced to death for blasphemy after He gave a rather cryptic answer to Caiaphas’s question of whether He was the Messiah, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63–66). Jesus did not answer “yes” or “no” directly but paraphrased several scriptures, combining elements of Daniel 7:13 (“the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven”) with Psalm 110:1 (“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand”). Critics had tried to stone Jesus for blasphemy before, including for claiming to be the Son of God and to be one with Him (John 10:30–36).
We are not told exactly what Stephen had been teaching when he was seized by the mob and brought before the council. His testimony to the council, however, emphasized their failure to keep the Law given to Moses and to follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost in recognizing Jesus as the Righteous One, the Messiah (Acts 7:51–53). This accusation “cut them to the heart” and they “gnashed on him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54).
This story has many parallels with the account of Abinadi in the Book of Mormon, who was sentenced to death, essentially for declaring that the king and his priests were not obeying the Law of Moses and for testifying of Christ (Mosiah 12:29–37; 16:13–15). However, the text does not say that Stephen’s words, to this point, brought upon him a conclusive conviction or death sentence.
What caused the people to cry out in rage, drag Stephen out of the city, and brutally stone him to death was his witness of the (at least partial) fulfillment of what Jesus had earlier told Caiaphas. Stephen announced that he had just seen “the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). That is when his accusers could no longer hold back. They cried out and rushed to seize him. Stephen’s paraphrase of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1, together with the implication that Jesus was sitting on the right hand of God, was apparently what the Jewish leaders felt they needed to convict him of blasphemy and sentence him to death, just as Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had done with Jesus.
For later Rabbis in the 2nd Century AD, the idea of a divine or angelic being who was essentially equivalent in power to God (the “two powers in heaven” belief) was a very serious heresy.1 Yet this idea was not universally condemned around the time of Christ, as can be seen by the writings of Jewish scholars such as Philo, as well as texts such as the Similitudes of Enoch (in 1 Enoch) and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.2 The mere fact that Jesus used Scripture to speak of such a figure was therefore probably not worthy of a death sentence.
What made Jesus’s—and Stephen’s—use of this scriptural imagery blasphemous was likely Jesus’s application of it to Himself. For the Jewish Leaders, the idea that a mortal man, particularly one whom they both knew and despised, would declare Himself to be the Son of Man—a being who would come flying in the clouds of heaven to bring judgment—was apparently tantamount to declaring Himself to be equal with God.3 This seems to have been the case in John 10:33, when the people informed Jesus that they were stoning Him “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).
It is possible that the Jewish leaders saw Jesus’s claim as similar to that of the tyrannical king (Lucifer) in Isaiah 14, who “said in [his] heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God … I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High” (Isaiah 14:12–14). A man who made such a claim was, in their view, the epitome of pride and would certainly “be brought down to hell” (Isaiah 14:15).4 However, the Jewish leaders clearly did not understand the nature of the exaltation of Man that is taught in the scriptures and which Jesus understood very well. Jesus knew who He was and what blessings were in store for Him and for all those who believed in Him.
Stephen was an example of the believers –– and one who was a witness of Jesus’s exaltation to the right hand of God. The Greek word martyros means “witness.” This is the origin of the word martyr, which in English contains the additional concept of one dying for his or her testimony. As one who died for testifying of things he had both heard and seen, Stephen became the first Christain martyr. Appropriately, the name “Stephen” (stephanos) means “crown” in Greek. Although he was convicted of blasphemy and stoned to death by those who would not believe his testimony, Stephen most certainly earned the “crown of life” promised to all those who are “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10).
1.For a couple of relatively brief explanations of this belief (or heresy, for some), see Bogdan G. Bucur, “‘Early Christian Binitarianism’: From Religious Phenomenon to Polemical Insult to Scholarly Concept,” Modern Theology 27:1 (January 2011):102–120; Darrell Bock, “Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 17.1 (2007): 53–114. Broader treatments of the general topic can be found in Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977); George W.E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003); Gabrele Boccaccini, ed., Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007); Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992); John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star (2nd Ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010); Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008). The notion of a human becoming an exalted divine-mediator-figure did have precedent as an acceptable belief, at least in some branches of ancient Judaism. See, for example, this lecture by James R. Davila on “Enoch as a Divine Mediator”: http://otp.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/divine-mediator-figures-course/enoch-as-divine-mediator/. See also Prof. Davila’s lecture on “Melchizedek as a Divine Mediator”: http://otp.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/divine-mediator-figures-course/melchizedek-as-a-divine-mediator/. Also, Andrei A. Orlov, “Moses as an Angel of the Presence,” and many other articles found on this webpage: https://www.marquette.edu/maqom/.
2.See, for example, Bock, “Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus,” 77, ff.
3.Bock, “Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus,” 74–81.
4.That accusations of blasphemy were often viewed in light of Isaiah 14:12–14 can be seen in the later rabbinic texts, including: Exod. Rab. 15:6, 21:3; Lev. Rab. 18:2; and Num. Rab. 9:24, 20:1. See Bock, “Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus,” 80. As Morna Hooker explained, “To claim for oneself a seat at the right hand of power, however, is to claim a share in the authority of God; to appropriate to oneself such authority and to bestow on oneself this unique status in the sight of God and man would almost certainly have been regarded as blasphemy.” Hooker, The Son of Man in Mark (London: SPCK, 1967), 173, as quoted in Bock, “Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus,” 81.