March 9, 2010

Situating Stephen's Speech - 1

Ancient History writers often had to invent speeches. Obviously, they didn't have live audio recording. But neither did they have to purely invent. Writers could reconstruct speeches from interviewing the hearers. And sometimes more.

Our first point, then, is that ancient textual speeches aren't always pure-fact or pure-fiction. Like most human claims, they bear shades of the truth. Thucydides' work was generally much less fictitious than Herododus' was. Likewise, Polybius also built from first hand experience and live witness testimony. And in the 2nd century AD, Dio Cassius had more than enough evidence on Augustus' actual thoughts and opinions to have crafted some pretty believable content - at least - into the speeches he wrote for Augustus.

These were hardly uniform procedures. In early histories, Josephus has people say things he couldn't possibly have known about. But when Josephus worked from Nicolas of Damascus' first hand accounts, his renderings of Nicolas' own speeches must have been fairly close (in many respects) to the actual speeches that Nicolas actually gave.

Not that Nick-o couldn't have embellished his own record to make himself look good, of course: "And then I told Caesar..." Propaganda, no doubt, always begs to be doubted. But how much can ever be proven? Or disproven?

I will admit this much right from the start: Stephen's speech in Chapter 7 of Acts absolutely does fulfill literary and theological needs fitting with Luke's agenda. There's no question about that.

But I will argue this much right to the end: Having agendas doesn't force one to fabricate details. If you happen to have all the cards, then you simply have no need to bluff.

Now. Even supposing that, kindly, as a plausible option, many questions remain: precisely HOW could Stephen's speech be historical? How much of what Luke wrote could possibly be close, at all, to whatever Stephen actually said? How could Paul, as Luke's source, have remembered the content of one particular speech for so many long, drama-packed years? For that matter, why would that speech have been memorable at all, at the time, for the persecutorial Paul?

In other words - if the speech truly happened, and if it merely happened to give Luke such a perfect display piece for what his composition required at that point - then, even still - how on Earth did Paul remember [at least the core and basic thrust of] what Stephen said, when Stephen was so much Paul's enemy at that point? How could Paul have remembered so many particular elements [of what could easily have seemed to be, apart from Luke's surrounding literary context, a very generalized survey of Jewish history]? And - to the ultimate point of this inquiry - why on Earth would Stephen have spoken that [or something or anything like that] particular speech, in the first place?

I'm completely assuming, of course, that the event sequence of Acts 6-7 is historical. No, I won't bother defending that. If you can't entertain this one assumption for the sake of the rest of my argument, that's totally fine. Really, have a nice day. But for anyone game enough to consider these questions, stay tuned.

Or maybe re-read my last post for a hint at what I'll be suggesting...


Scripture Zealot said...

"How much of what Luke wrote could possibly be close, at all, to whatever Stephen actually said?"

Divine inspiration?

Charles Savelle said...


Two quick thoughts:

(1) As Jeff has noted, inspiration should be considered(cf. John 14:26).

(2) It should be noted that the first century was an oral and aural culture.

Bill Heroman said...

That's one option, Jeff. But I don't suppose God put Luke in a trance and dictated the precise words. Or that Stephen was necessarily speaking Greek to the Sanhedrin that day, to begin with. (The gentile was a full proselyte. He may have also been bilingual.)

As a reader, and as a believer, I do treat what Luke wrote as if it's precisely what Stephen said. In other words, it's what Luke said Stephen said, and that's good enough for me.


Did LUKE himself expect us to treat the speech like a word-for-word transcript? Or does God? To some extent, my answer is both Yes and No.

In the end, Jeff, I think attempting to be BOTH faith-based AND critically-minded about this (as much as that's possible) may bear some fruit worth eating here.

Give it a whirl. (?)

Bill Heroman said...

Charles: maybe God inspired Paul to remember, and Luke to record from Paul's memory. (?)

I'm trying to be a reasonable conservative here. Maddening as that may be. There's a method in't. ;-)


On oral and aural, are you suggesting that people were more accustomed to memorizing what they heard? If so, I somewhat agree, but that alone doesn't explain why a particular speech (of all the ones Paul heard in his years at Jerusalem) would have been so memorable.

So, Charles, what else were you getting at?

Bill Heroman said...

Edit, near the bottom:

How could Paul have remembered so many particular elements [of what could easily have seemed to be, apart from Luke's surrounding literary context, a very generalized survey of Jewish history]?

Sorry, left off half a sentence. That's kind of key, actually. said...

you repeated that last sentence you posted twice

i tend to think most of the speeches in acts are more like summaries though parts are or may be verbatium.

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks, Brian. Fixed.

And thanks, twice. I can definitely go with that assessment of things. Well put.

Eddie said...

Hi Bill,

A few things to consider might be: was Stephen the only believer in Christ present in the Sanhedrin, and/or was his speech before the Sanhedrin similar to arguments he was willing to present to all Jews, especially Grecian Jews, on other occassions? In other words, he may have presented the same argument before on a number of occasions, until the Grecian Jews got fed up with his having the upper hand. His argument is a simple one. He showed how God didn’t need a Temple to speak to his people—Jew or Gentile. In each case that he brought up, God spoke to his servants without there ever being a Temple. This is an argument Jesus himself presented in John 4. Much of the Scriptural references are from the Septuagint. It wouldn’t need anyone with a photographic memory to reconstruct what Stephen said before the Sanhedrin. Word for word? Perhaps not, but certainly point for point wouldn’t be difficult at all.

Concerning Stephen’s argument having to do with the seven Ushpizin taking up about 95% of Stephen's speech in Acts 7 (a point from your previous blog), I have Stephen being killed about the time of the Day of Atonement in 34 CE. If, as you seem to imply in your previous blog, the modern tradition has ancient foundations, Stephen’s points in Acts 7 would be very familiar to his audience. They could very well have been remembered by Paul or anyone else who witnessed the event, and his being killed near the season of Sukkot would have made his speech all the more memorable.

Have a great day.


Bill Heroman said...

Eddie, you're right where I'm heading. I must ask, did you get there before reading these posts, or because of them? Because if you're already ahead of me... we need to compare notes!

Send me an e-mail or message me on Facebook. My phone # is also on FB.

Thanks, brother.

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