Acts 6:8-15 Stephen performs many great signs and wonders but is opposed by members of the so-called ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’ – Jews from Cyrene (the capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica in modern-day Libya), Alexandria (in Egypt) and from the Roman provinces of Cilicia and Asia (see Map 16). Stephen is hauled before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy.
Acts 7:1-60 Stephen (a more radical Greek-speaking Jew) defends himself admirably. He explains how Jesus’s coming was foretold by Moses and the prophets (see Deuteronomy 18:15) and how he was rejected by the more traditional Hebrew-speaking Jews. When he glances up and says “Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at God’s right side” (Acts 7:56), they are furious. They drag him outside and stone him to death on the grounds of ‘blasphemy’ (severe disrespect for God).
As with Jesus, the Jews have no legal authority to carry out a death sentence. But Stephen is executed illegally during a power vacuum that has occurred between the departure of Pontius Pilate as Roman governor and the arrival of his successor.
Stephen is thought by many to have been stoned to death in the Kidron Valley just outside the Lion Gate or St Stephen’s Gate at the north east corner of the Temple Mount. However, the 6th century church built by the Byzantine Empress Eudocia in memory of St Stephen was located near the Damascus Gate to the north of the city, and this may well be where Stephen met his death. The more recent St Stephen’s Church, built alongside the Nablus Road in 1900, is on the site of the original Byzantine church.
St Stephen's Gate, Jerusalem
The believers are scattered
Acts 8:1 Following Stephen’s death in 35AD, the more radical members of the young church in Jerusalem are persecuted by the staunchly traditional Jewish hierarchy. Most of the Greek-speaking believers are scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria, while the twelve apostles – who are more traditional Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews – are able to remain in Jerusalem.
Acts 11:19 Some of those persecuted after Stephen’s death travel as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the message among fellow Jews in these cities (see 1 on Map 17).
Map 17 The believers are scattered after Stephen's death
Acts 11:20 Other Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene (in Cyrenaica – modern-day Libya) go to Antioch in Syria and begin speaking to the Greek-speaking Gentiles as well as to fellow Jews (see 2 on Map 17).
The Letter of James was probably written at this time, following the persecution of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem and their dispersal throughout Judaea and Samaria and to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch in Syria following Stephen’s death in 35AD (see Acts 8:1, 11:19 & James 1:1). The letter is written to Jewish Christians (the ‘twelve tribes’) who have been ‘scattered among the nations’ (see James 1:1). It provides guidance for everyday living in accordance with Christian attitudes and beliefs, and stresses the need for practical actions to accompany faith in Jesus Christ.