Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.VI.
(1) And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied.—Better, were being multiplied, as by an almost daily increase. The length of the interval between this and the previous chapter is left uncertain. The death of Stephen is fixed by most writers in A.D. 38.
The Grecians.—The English version always carefully uses this word, and not Greeks, for the Hellenistæ or Greek-speaking Jews. These were known also as “the dispersion among the Gentiles” (John 7:35), or generally as “the dispersion,” the “sojourners of the dispersion,” those that were “scattered abroad” (James 1:1; 1Peter 1:1). Many of the converts of the Day of Pentecost must have belonged to this body; so, probably, did Barnabas and the others named in the Note on Acts 4:37. Now they were becoming a prominent section of the Church, perhaps more numerous than the Hebrews, or Jews of Palestine. They, as their name implies, spoke Greek habitually, and as a rule did not read the older Hebrew or speak the current Aramaic. They read the Septuagint (LXX.) version of the Old Testament. They were commonly more zealous, with the zeal of pilgrims, for the sanctity of the holy places than the Jews of Jerusalem itself, who had been familiar with them from infancy (Acts 21:27).
Because their widows were neglected.—The words imply something like an organised administration of the common fund: widows and their children being the chief objects of relief. The rules of 1Timothy 5:3-16, were probably the growth of a more mature experience; and here we have to think of a clamorous crowd of applicants besieging the house at which the Apostles held their meeting at the times appointed for giving relief in money, or, as seems more probable, in kind. The Twelve—singly, or in groups—sat at the table, and gave as they were able. It was like the dole of alms at the gate of a convent. Under such circumstances, jealousies and complaints were all but in- evitable. The Twelve were all of them Galileans, and were suspected of favouring the widows of Palestine rather than those of the Dispersion. It was the first sign that the new society was outgrowing its primitive organisation.
Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.(2) Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples.—The Apostles meet the crisis with singular tact and moderation. They do not resent the suspicion; they are not careful to vindicate themselves against it. They remembered, it may be, the precedent presented by the life of Moses (Exodus 18:25), and they act, as he had acted, by delegating part of their authority to others. The collective action of the multitude is strikingly in harmony with the Greek ideas attached to the word Ecclesia, as the assembly in which every citizen might take his share. Representative government might come as a necessity of later times; as yet, every member of the congregation, every citizen of the new polity, was invited, as having a right to vote.
It is not reason.—Literally, It is not pleasing, as in Acts 12:3. The word implies that they had undertaken a burdensome duty, not for their own pleasure, because they liked it, but for the good of the community.
And serve tables.—The word was used for the “tables” of money-changers, as in Matthew 21:12, John 2:15, and was, therefore, equally appropriate whether we think of the relief as being given in money or in kind.
Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.(3) Seven men of honest report.—The number may have had its origin in the general reverence for the number Seven among the Jews. Possibly, however, the suggestion may have come from the Libertini, or Hellenistæ of Rome, where there was a distinct guild, or Collegium, known as the Septemviri Epulones, or Seven Stewards (Lucan. i. 602), whose business it was to arrange for the banquets held in honour of the gods, which were more or less analogous to the Christian agapœ, on certain set days. (See Smith’s Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Art. “Epulones.” It is an interesting coincidence that they, too, had been appointed to relieve the Pontifices from a duty which they found too heavy. This view falls in with the inference as to the Roman origin of Stephen which will be found in the Notes on Acts 6:5.
Full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.—The Apostles, it is clear, did not limit their thoughts of the Spirit’s working to prophecy and the gift of tongues. Wherever wisdom, and charity, and kindness were requisite, there was need of a supernatural grace, raising men above prejudice and passion. Of these qualities, no less than of the good report, the whole body of believers were to be, in the first instance, the judges, the Apostles reserving to themselves the right of final appointment, and therefore, if necessary, of a veto. It is significant that the word “wisdom” only appears in the Acts in connection with Stephen (here and in Acts 6:10, and in the report of his speech Acts 7:10; Acts 7:22). We may, perhaps, think of James, the brother of the Lord, as led by what he now saw and heard to that prayerful seeking after wisdom which is so prominent in his Epistle (James 1:5; James 3:13-17).
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.(4) We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.—Literally, We will persevere in . . . These formed the true work of the Apostles, as afterwards of the bishops or elders of the Church. “Prayer” includes the public worship of the Church in all its various developments, as well as private prayer and intercession; the “ministry of the word,” all forms of teaching.
It is to be noted that the men thus appointed are never called “deacons” in the New Testament. When they are referred to again it is as “the Seven” (Acts 21:8), as though they were a distinct and peculiar body. Their functions were, of course, in some degree, analogous to those of the “deacons” of the Pastoral Epistles and the later organisation of the Church; but these, as we have seen, had their prototypes in the “young men,” as contrasted with “elders,” in Acts 5:6; Acts 5:10; and the Seven were probably appointed, so to speak, as archdeacons, to superintend and guide them. In some churches, as at Rome, the number of deacons was fixed at seven, in conformity with this precedent (so also at the Council of Neo-Cæsarea, Can. 14, A.D. 314), and they were considered, when the bishop came to be distinguished from the elders, as acting more immediately under the direction of the former, helping him in the details of his office.
And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch:(5) And they chose Stephen.—The seven who were chosen all bear Greek names, and it is a natural, though not a necessary, inference, that they were all of the Hellenistic section of the Church, either because that section had a majority, or because the Hebrews generously voted for giving them special representatives of their own. The order of names may represent the actual order of election, Stephen obtaining the largest number of votes, and so on. The position occupied by the new teacher is so prominent that we should welcome anything that threw light on his previous training. Unhappily we cannot advance beyond the region of uncertain tradition, or, at best, of probable inference. The coincidences, however, which suggest that inference are not without interest. (1) The name of Stephanus was not a common one, and appears in few inscriptions. Like so many of the names in Romans 16, however, it is found in those of the Columbarium, or burial-place, of the household of the Empress Livia. The man bearing it is described as a goldsmith (Aurifaber), and as immunis—i.e., exempted from the religious obligations of his trade-guild. He is a freed-man or libertinus. Circumstances, such as the bequest by Herod the Great of his gold plate to Livia (Jos. Ant. xvi. 5, § 1; xvii. 8, § 1), indicate an intimate connection between him and the Imperial Court, and make it probable that the goldsmith Stephanus was a Jew. The business was one in which then, as in later ages, Jews conspicuously excelled, and the exemption just mentioned may well have been, as it were, of the nature of a “conscience-clause” in his favour. The name is found also on a tablet in the museum of the Collegio Romano. (2) It is obvious that the “strangers of Rome”—the Jews from the capital of the empire—were likely to be among the most prominent of the Hellenistæ at Jerusalem. It was antecedently probable that the name of one of that body should stand first on the list. (3) When Stephen becomes conspicuous as a teacher, the synagogue which is the most prominent scene of his activity is that of the Libertines, who can be none other than the freed-men or emancipated Jews from Rome. (See Note on Acts 6:9.) (4) Jews from Rome were, we have seen, present on the Day of Pentecost, and some conspicuous converts from among them had been made before Stephen appears on the scene. (See Note on Acts 4:37.) (5) The very appointment of the Seven has, as we have seen, its origin in the customs of the trade-guilds of Rome, such as that to which the goldsmith Stephanus had belonged. Taking all these facts together, there seems sufficient ground to believe that in the proto-martyr of the Church, whose teaching and whose prayers exercised so marvellous an influence in the history of the Church of Christ, we have one of the earliest representatives of Roman Christianity. A tradition accepted by Epiphanius in the fourth century leads to another conclusion. Stephen and Philip were both, it was said, of the number of the Seventy who were sent shortly after the last Feast of Tabernacles in our Lord’s ministry into every city and village where He Himself would come. That mission, as has been said in the Note on Luke 10:1, was in its very form, symbolic of the admission of the Gentile nations to the kingdom of God; and it would seem from Luke 9:52; Luke 17:11, as if, at that time, Samaria had been the chief scene of our Lord’s ministry, and therefore of that of the Seventy. In a mission of such a nature, it was not unlikely that Hellenistic Jews should be more or less prominent, and the assumption of some previous connection with Samaria gives an adequate explanation both of Philip’s choice of that region as the scene of his work as an Evangelist (Acts 8:5) and of the general tendency of St. Stephen’s speech; perhaps also of one of the real or apparent inaccuracies which criticism has noted as a proof of ignorance either in the speaker or the writer. (See Note on Acts 7:16.) Admitting the comparative lateness of the tradition mentioned by Epiphanius, it was still antecedently probable that men, who had been brought into prominence by their Lord’s special choice, would not be passed over in such an election as that now before us; and if, as suggested in the Note on Luke 10:1, the Seventy were the representatives of the Prophets of the New Testament, then it was natural that men should turn to them when they wanted to find men “full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom.”
Philip.—The coincidence of name with that of the Apostle and with two of Herod’s sons indicates that the name was as common as that of Stephen was rare. Of his previous history we know nothing, except the tradition that he also had belonged to the Seventy. His long-continued residence at Cæsarea just suggests the probability of an earlier connection with that city. The fact that he had four grown-up daughters when St. Paul came to Cæsarea makes it probable that he was married at the time of his appointment.
Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas.—Of these four nothing is known, nor are there any materials even for probable conjecture. The name of Nicanor was memorable as that of the great enemy of Judah, who died in battle fighting against Judas Maccabæus. It appears, later on, as borne by a Jewish friend of Titus and Josephus (Wars, v. 6, § 2). That of Timon had been made conspicuous by the philosopher of Phlius and the misanthrope of Athens.
Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch.—Next to the first two names on the list, the last is that to which greatest interest attaches. (1) It is the first appearance in the history of the Christian Church of the city which was afterwards to be the mother-church of the Gentiles. (On Antioch and its position, see Note on Acts 11:19.) Here it will be enough to note that there was a large Jewish population there, and that Herod had gained the favour of the city by building a splendid colonnade along the whole length of its chief street. (2) The name had been made memorable by Nicolaus of Damascus, who wrote a long and elaborate history of his own times, and pleaded for the Jews before Augustus and Agrippa (Jos. Ant. xii. 3, § 2; xvi. 2, § 3; 9, § 4). He appeared at Rome again as counsel for Archelaus, and was for many years the confidential friend and adviser of Herod the Great (Jos. Ant. xvii. 9, § 6; 11, § 3). Finding, as we do, an adopted son of Herod’s at Antioch (Acts 13:1), and a proselyte of that city bearing the name of his chosen companion, there seems some ground for assuming a link connecting the three together. (3) In any case Nicolas is memorable as the first person not of the race of Abraham named as admitted to full membership in the Church. He may have sacrificed to Apollo, or taken part in the licentious festivals of the grove of Daphne. The word “proselyte” is taken in its full sense, as including the acceptance of circumcision and the ceremonial law. He was, in technical language, a proselyte of Righteousness, not of the Gate. Had it been otherwise, his conversion would have anticipated the lesson taught afterwards by that of Cornelius. (4) The name of Nicolas has been identified by an early tradition as the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitanes condemned in Revelation 2:6. He, it was said, taught men “to misuse the flesh” (Clem. Alex. Strom, iii. 4, p. 187; Euseb. Hist. iii. 29). Some contended that he meant by this that it was to be subdued by a rigorous asceticism: others, that he held it to be a proof of spiritual progress to yield to sensuous impulses, and yet remain pure. The traditions are not of much value, and another interpretation of the name of the sect is now very generally adopted (see Revelation 2:6); but the fall of one of the Seven into the error of overstrained rigour, or a reaction from it, is not in itself inconceivable. In the New Testament we never come across his name again.
Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.(6) When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.—This is the first mention of the act in the New Testament. It had had an analogous meaning in the ritual of Israel (Numbers 27:23) in acts of blessing (Genesis 48:13-14) and the transmission of functions. Its primary symbolism would seem to be that of the concentration for the moment of all the spiritual energy of prayer upon him on whom men lay their hands; and so of the bestowal of any office for which spiritual gifts are required. It had been used in the Jewish schools on the admission of a scribe to his office as a teacher. It soon became the customary outward and visible sign of such bestowal (Acts 13:3). Instruction as to what it thus meant entered into the primary teaching of all converts (Hebrews 6:2). It was connected with other acts that pre-supposed the communication of a spiritual gift (1Timothy 5:22). Through well-nigh all changes of polity and dogma and ritual, it has kept its place with Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, among the unchanging witnesses of the Church’s universality and permanence, witnessing, as in Confirmation, to the diversity of spiritual gifts, and, as in Ordination, to their connection with every special office and administration in the Church of God.
And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.(7) The word of God increased.—The tense indicates gradual and continuous growth. The fact stated implies more than the increase of numbers specified in the next clause. The “word of God” is here the whole doctrine of Christ as preached by the Apostles, and, we must now add, by the Seven who are commonly known as Deacons, and there was, as the sequel shows, at this stage, what we have learnt to call an expansion and development of doctrine.
A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.—The fact is every way significant. No priest is named as a follower of our Lord’s. None, up to this time, had been converted by the Apostles. The new fact may fairly be connected with the new teaching of Stephen. And the main feature of that teaching was, as we shall see, an anticipation of what was afterwards proclaimed more clearly by St. Paul and (if we assign the Epistle to the Hebrews to its probable author) by Apollos: that the time for sacrifices had passed away, and that the Law, as a whole, and the ritual of the Temple in particular, were decaying and waxing old, and ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13). We might have thought this likely to repel the priests, and to rouse them to a fanatic frenzy. We find that it attracts them as nothing else had attracted. To them, it may well have been, that daily round of a ritual of slaughtered victims and clouds of incense, the cutting-up of the carcases and the carriage of the offal, had become unspeakably wearisome. They felt how profitless it was to their own spiritual life, how little power there was in the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). Their profession of the new faith did not necessarily involve the immediate abandonment of their official function; but they were drifting to it as to a not far-off result, and were prepared to meet it without misgiving, perhaps with thankfulness, when it became inevitable.
And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.(8) Stephen, full of faith and power.—The better MSS. give, “full of grace and power.”
Did great wonders and miracles.—Better, as preserving the familiar combination, wonders and signs.
Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.(9) Certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines.—The structure of the sentence makes it probable that the Libertines, the Cyrenians, and the Alexandrians attended one synagogue, those of Cilicia and Asia another. Each of the names has a special interest of its own. (1) The Libertini. These were freed-men, emancipated Roman Jews, with probably some proselytes, descendants of those whom Pompeius had led captive, and who were settled in the trans-Tiberine district of Rome in large numbers, with oratories and synagogues of their own. When Tacitus (Ann. ii. 85) describes the expulsion of the Jews under Claudius, he speaks of “four thousand of the freed-men, or Libertine class,” as banished to Sardinia. From this class, we have seen reason to believe, Stephen himself had sprung. Andronicus and Junias were probably members of this synagogue. (See Note on Romans 16:7.)
Cyrenians.—At Cyrene, also, on the north coast of Africa, lying between Egypt and Carthage, there was a large Jewish population. Strabo, quoted by Josephus, describes them as a fourth of the whole (Jos. Ant. xiv. 7, § 2). They were conspicuous for the offerings they sent to the Temple, and had appealed to Augustus for protection against the irregular taxes by which the provincial governors sought to intercept their gifts (Jos. Ant. xvi. 6, § 5). In Simon of Cyrene we have had a conspicuous member, probably a conspicuous convert, of this community. (See Note on Matthew 27:32.) Later on, clearly as the result of Stephen’s teaching, they are prominent in preaching the gospel to the Gentiles of Antioch. We may think of Simon himself, and his two sons Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), as probably members of this society.
Alexandrians.—Next to Jerusalem and Rome, there was, perhaps, no city in which the Jewish population was so numerous and influential as at Alexandria. Here, too, they had their own quarter, assigned to them by Ptolemy Philadelphus, and were governed, as if they were a free republic, by an ethnarch of their own (Jos. Ant. xiv. 7, § 2). They were recognised as citizens by their Roman rulers (Ibid. xiv. 10, § 1). From Alexandria had come the Greek version of the Old Testament, known from the legend of the seventy translators who had all been led to a supernatural agreement, as that of the Septuagint, or LXX., which was then in use among all the Hellenistic Jews throughout the empire, and largely read even in Palestine itself. There, at this time, living in fame and honour, was the great teacher Philo, the probable master of Apollos, training him, all unconsciously, to be the preacher of a wisdom higher than his own. The knowledge, or want of knowledge, with which Apollos appears on the scene, knowing only the baptism of John, forbids the assumption that he had been at Jerusalem after the Day of Pentecost (Acts 18:25), but echoes of the teaching of Stephen are found in that of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and it is not improbable that thoughts had been carried back to Alexandria by those who had thus been brought under his influence.
Of them of Cilicia.—Here we feel at once the interest of the name. The young Jew of Tarsus, the disciple of Gamaliel, could not fail to be among the leading members of this section of the second synagogue, exercising, in the fiery energy of his zeal, a dominant influence even over the others.
And of Asia.—The word is taken, as throughout the New Testament, in its later and more restricted sense, as denoting the pro-consular province so called, including the old Lydia and Ionia, and having Ephesus as its capital. Later on in the history, we find Jews of Asia prominent in their zeal for the sacredness of the Temple (Acts 21:27).
Disputing with Stephen.—The nature of the dispute is not far to seek. The tendency of distance from sacred places which are connected with men’s religion, is either to make men sit loose to their associations, and so rise to higher and wider thoughts, or to intensify their reverence. Where pilgrimages are customary, the latter is almost invariably the result. Men measure the sacredness of what they have come to see by the labour and cost which they have borne to see it, and they resent anything that suggests that they have wasted their labour, as tending to sacrilege and impiety. The teaching of Stephen, representing as it did the former alternative, guided and perfected by the teaching of the Spirit, was probably accepted by a few in each community. The others, moved by their pilgrim zeal were more intolerant of it than the dwellers in Jerusalem, to whom the ritual of the Temple was a part of their every-day life. Those who were most familiar with it, the priests who ministered in its courts, were, as we have seen (Acts 6:7), among the first to welcome the new and wider teaching.
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.(10) They were not able.—Better, had no strength; the verb being somewhat more forcible than that commonly translated “to be able.”
To resist the wisdom and the spirit with which he spake.—It is remarkable that Stephen is the first Christian teacher of whom “wisdom” is thus specially predicted. In the Gospels it is ascribed to our Lord (Matthew 13:54; Luke 2:40; Luke 2:52); and we read of “the wisdom of Solomon” (Matthew 12:42). In a writer like St. Luke, it implies something higher even than the “consolation” or “prophecy” from which Barnabas took his name—wider thoughts, a clearer vision of the truth, the development of what had been before latent in hints and parables and dark sayings. The speech that follows in the next chapter, may be accepted as an example, as far as circumstances allowed, of the method and power of his general teaching.
Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.(11) Blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.—The words indicate with sufficient clearness the nature of Stephen’s teaching. The charge was a false one, but its falsehood was a distortion of the truth, as that against our Lord had been. He was accused of blasphemy in calling Himself the Son of God; making Himself equal with God (Matthew 26:63; John 5:18); threatening to destroy the Temple (Matthew 26:61)—each of the counts in the indictment resting on words that He had actually spoken. And Stephen, in like manner, was charged with offences for which there must have seemed colourable ground. He had taught, we must believe, that the days of the Temple were numbered; that with its fall the form of worship of which it was the representative would pass away, that the Law given by Moses was to make way for the higher revelation in Christ, and the privileges of the elect nation to be merged in the blessings of the universal Church. In this case, accordingly, the antagonism comes, not only or chiefly, as in the previous chapters, from the Sadducean high priests and their followers, but from the whole body of scribes and people. Pharisees and Sadducees, Hebrews and Hellenistæ, are once more brought into coalition against the new truth.
And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:(13) Against this holy place.—The new feature of Stephen’s preaching comes into greater prominence.
For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.(14) This Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place.—The accusation rested in part on the words of John 2:19, partly on the prediction of Matthew 24:2, which Stephen must have known, and may well have reproduced. It would seem to the accusers a natural inference that He who had uttered the prediction should be the chief agent in its fulfilment.
And shall change the customs.—The words seem to have been used in a half-technical sense as including the whole complex system of the Mosaic law, its ritual, its symbolism, its laws and rules of life, circumcision, the Sabbath, the distinction of clean and unclean meats (Acts 15:1; Acts 21:21; Acts 26:3; Acts 28:17).
And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.(15) Looking stedfastly on him.—St Luke’s characteristic word. (See Note on Acts 1:10.)
Saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.—We can scarcely be wrong in tracing this description to the impression made at the time on St. Paul, and reported by him to St. Luke. It must be interpreted by the account given of angels as appearing in the form of “young men” (Mark 16:5), and so throws some light upon St. Stephen’s age, as being, probably, about the same standing as St. Paul, and implies that his face was lighted up as by the radiance of a divine brightness. The phrase seems to have been more or less proverbial. In the expanded version of the Book of Esther, which appears in the LXX., she says to the King, as in reverential awe, “I saw thee, O my lord, as an angel of God” (Esther 5:2). In 2Samuel 14:17, the words refer to the wisdom of David rather than to anything visible and outward. Here the impression left by St. Luke’s narrative is that the face of St. Stephen was illumined at once with the glow of an ardent zeal and the serenity of a higher wisdom.