Thursday, August 5, 2010

Syncrisis in the Stephen Episode

Though most of my posts at the beginning of this blog will be of an introductory nature, I thought it wise to pepper in a few posts about how the practice of rhetorical criticism, as I define it, can actually be beneficial to the NT critic.

One problem that has lingered and divided scholars for quite some time is the question of whether Luke was anti-Jewish.  Scholars come down on all sides of this issue.

Though the following example does not ultimately prove or disprove Luke's anti-Jewishness, it does, I think, speak definitively on the matter for the text in question.

One text that has been used to argue that Luke was anti-Jewish is the Stephen Speech in Acts 7:2-53.  The culmination of the speech, which leads to Stephen's stoning reads,

Acts 7:52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.
Acts 7:53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

Many take this as a condemnation of the Jews, namely, the age old cliche that "the Jews killed Christ."

But, looking at the broader context, one sees the rhetorical practice of syncrisis in this speech.  According to the progymnasmatist Theon, “Syncrisis is language setting the better or worse side by side.”

In a 2005 Ph.D. Seminar paper, I argued that Luke is not anti-Jewish in this passage, but rather is presenting a syncrisis, a comparison.  He is comparing two groups in the present time with two groups in Israel's history.  All of the groups are Jewish: some promote God's will and agenda and some oppose it.

The syncrisis looks like this in the Stephen speech looks like this:

Good: Joseph (God was with him 7:9)   
Bad: 10 Brothers (Patriarchs, Jealous, sold Joseph 7:9,thus rejecting God’s representative)

Good: Moses (God appears to him in a burning bush, sends him to liberate the Jewish slaves, raised up as a prophet, received living oracles 7:30-39)
Bad: Israelites in wilderness (reject Moses, unwilling to obey him, made a golden calf to worship, rejected the worship of God 7:35-41)

Good: Moses, David, and those who worshipped God through the tabernacle (The moving tent of testimony, used by Moses and the ancestors, built according to the plan God gave Moses. David used this and found favor with God, 7:44-46).
Bad: Soloman (Built a temple, but God does not live in temples built with human hands. Thus, Soloman rejected the tabernacle in favor of a permanent house, 7:47-49).

Good: Prophets (prophesied the coming of the Righteous One 7:52)
Bad: Ancestors (killed the prophets 7:52, thus rejecting God’s representatives)

Good: Stephen (full of faith and Holy Spirit 6:5, did great signs and wonders 6:8, face shown like an angel 6:15, sees a vision of God 7:55-56, Death imitates that of Jesus 7:59-60)
Bad: Sanhedrin (Killed the Righteous One 7:52, Kill Stephen 7:58, thus rejecting God’s representatives)  

Good: Church (Begun with the coming of the Holy Spirit Acts 2, made up of the Apostles 8:1)   
Bad: Saul (Approves of the death of Stephen 8:1, persecutes the church 8:3, thus rejecting God’s representatives)

As you can see, the Stephen speech gives six opposing groups of Jews.  Those who promoted God's will and were praised by Stephen, and those who opposed God's will and were denigrated by Stephen.  Then if one looks into the narrative of the Stephen episode, one can see that this comparison is continued by Luke, giving a comparison of two more groups.  Far from being anti-Jewish, Luke is actually claiming a continuation of the "best" in Israel's history in both Stephen and the Church.  The church therefore, far from being anti-Jewish is a continuation of God's chosen people and claims as its heritage Joseph, Moses, David, and the Prophets.  Seeing the syncrisis in this passage helps one to determine, at least in this passage, whether Luke is anti-Jewish.  In the case of this passage, I think the answer is a resounding NO!

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