Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Stephen’s Sermon: Is it based upon the Levites’ Prayer in Nehemiah 9?

Newman provides a summary for the prayer:

9:5 Levitical exhortation and introductory blessing

v.6 affirmation of God as creator

7-8 God’s choice of Abraham and covenantal grant of land

9-12 account of Exodus from Egypt

13-14 gift of Torah at Sinai

15-21 wilderness wandering, Israelite disobedience with molten calf incident

22-25 conquest and settlement of the land

26-31 disobedience during period of judges and monarchy leading to exile

32-37 present circumstances of slavery in their land leads them to confess their sinfulness in the present as in the past

The prayer in its introduction includes the phrase “The host of heavens worships before you.” Newman believes this is an allusion to angelic liturgy and the priestly account of creation. Stephen begins his sermon, “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham . . . .” Although the reference to “The God of glory” may allude to angelic liturgy, there is no question that Luke states that the law was delivered to Moses by angels. Later in his sermon, Stephen says: “But God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven.” This statement immediately follows “they made a calf in those days.”

Just as there are two parts to the prayer in Nehemiah, the historical recital (9:6-31) and the prayer proper (9:32-37), there are likewise two parts to Stephen’s sermon, the historical recital and the prayer proper. In this prayer, Exodus is a principle of faith and testimony to God’s greatness, a view that Stephen also shares. The Levites’ prayer and Stephen’s sermon are characterized predominantly by the greatness and transcendence of God and the failure of the Israelites to uphold the covenant and the resulting need for repentance. In a manner that is decidedly more deuteronomistic in language and theme than priestly, Nehemiah ties Israelite obedience or disobedience to possession or loss of the land. Not only does Luke follow the general outline of the prayer in Nehemiah, he includes some of its themes and exact phrases, which reveals his awareness of the prayer.

Just before Nehemiah mentioned the molten calf, he said, “But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey thy commandments.” Nehemiah also stated: "Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against thee and cast thy law behind their back and killed thy prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to thee, and they committed great blasphemies.

Stephen’s sermon included: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." Although in the preceding quotation, the polemical phrase “your fathers” appears, the sermon includes eight “our fathers.” Nehemiah included the phrase, “our fathers” five times. Since “our fathers” appears a total of fourteen times in Acts, the polemic use of “your fathers” in this instance is probably an indictment of the audience listening to Stephen.

This concluded the historical recital, which is unusual in that, there is no statement about the taking of the land which is the standard terminus in the other summary accounts of biblical history. Of course, unlike the standard accounts, this account was interrupted because the people became so enraged they stoned Stephen. Yet Stephen’s introduction of moral failure was not a novelty in the standard accounts. Nehemiah did the same in verses 16, 18, 26 and 29. Luke included in verse 37 a remarkable quotation from Deut 18:15: “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, 'God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.'”

There is one more interesting similarity. “The sweep of the recital in Nehemiah from creation to life in the land,” according to Newman, “reflects a view of history consonant with the priestly composer.” The composer of Nehemiah 9 rewrote scripture changing the maker of the molten calf from Aaron to the people. Luke in agreement says, “They made a calf in those days.”

Why does Luke use the prayer of Nehemiah as his outline?

Because Stephen’s sermon is the longest speech in Acts, it may also be the most important. Numerous scholars have studied the speech and attempted to make sense of it. To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Luke used Nehemiah 9 as his outline. Soards does note “Comparable biblical summaries of history are found in the Septuagint in Deut 6:20-24; 26:5-9; Josh 24:2-13; Neh 9:6-31; Psalms 77; 104; 105; 135; Wisdom 10; Sirach 44-50; Jdt 5:6-18.”

In verses 36 and 37, Nehemiah presents the belief in the continuing exilic status of the people of God and that the exilic status did not end with the return of the exiles. Although Stephen does not mention the exile, he does proclaim that the deliverance, yet to come in the time of Nehemiah, has arrived. He introduces the deliverance with these words previously quoted: “God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.”

The second reason relates to the Festival of Sukkoth which is the occasion for the prayer in Nehemiah. I suggest Stephen is thinking about Sukkoth because his sermon is being delivered shortly before the Festival of Sukkoth.

I have previously noted that Jonathan is the High Priest in 7:1 who asks: "Is this so?" Since Jonathan served as the High Priest for only five months, I identified the stoning of Stephen as the reason for his removal using by analogy the information in Josephus for the stoning of James by another High Priest who happens to be a relative of Jonathan.

On my view, the stoning of Stephen occurs during the high priesthood of Jonathan. The high priesthood of Jonathan can be precisely dated using the information from Josephus. For Josephus, there are three great holidays: the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, also known as Pentecost and Sukkoth, when all Jews were enjoined to travel to Jerusalem to perform the necessary sacrifices and rites at the Temple. Since Josephus mentions that Jonathan is appointed High Priest at the time of Passover, his removal by Vitellius either occurred at the time of Shavuot, seven weeks later or Sukkoth, five months later. In the very next sentence, Josephus reports the death of Tiberius. After requiring the people take an oath of fidelity to Caius, Vitellius directs the army to go home and take their winter quarters there. In agreement with Jeremias, Sukkoth is the more likely ancient festival being identified by Josephus.

Therefore we can conclude that Luke, in using material from the prayer in Nehemiah, intends to tell us that we can date the stoning of Stephen as an event occurring just before the Festival of Sukkoth in 37 CE. This is confirmed by the information derived from Josephus.

Copyrighted 2006


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