8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Reflections & Commentary
The seizing of Saint Stephen is a story that Luke tells with enough detail that one needs to read slowly through the passage, as to not miss any important facet of the story.
The first detail that Luke provides is that Stephen was not just another ordinary member of the Christian community. He was known throughout the people as a man of power.
“a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people”
So, the Jewish leaders were not indiscriminately picking people to harass. They were looking to take out the play makers. Like the previous dealings with the disciples, the Jewish leaders assume that taking out the group leaders will dissolve the movement. This tactic thus far has not proven to be affective. Why they think it will work still, even after they’ve seen it fail, is difficult to know.
Luke’s second bit of detail is about the people who rose up to complain about Stephen. Luke refers to them as “members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen“. Who exactly was Luke referring to? Were these Roman slaves who were now free? Were they Jews who believed in hedonism? Were they prisoners that have been set free? Luke gives a little help to answering this question in the next sentence; “Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia“. These Freedmen were part of the North African and Western Asian Jewish diaspora. The people named by Luke are from two different synagogues. We know this because the locations are thousands of miles apart, yet they both synagogues contained Jewish Freedmen. The diasporic Freedmen existed in both synagogues, as they were the natural product of the diaspora.
Philo speaks of these Jews as former slaves who were brought into Rome and lived near the Tiber River.
How then did he look upon the great division of Rome which is on the other side of the river Tiber, which he was well aware was occupied and inhabited by the Jews? And they were mostly Roman citizens, having been emancipated; for, having been brought as captives into Italy, they were manumitted by those who had bought them for slaves, without ever having been compelled to alter any of their hereditary or national observances. (156) Therefore, he knew that they had synagogues, and that they were in the habit of visiting them, and most especially on the sacred sabbath days, when they publicly cultivate their national philosophy. He knew also that they were in the habit of contributing sacred sums of money from their first fruits and sending them to Jerusalem by the hands of those who were to conduct the sacrifices. (157) But he never removed them from Rome, nor did he ever deprive them of their rights as Roman citizens, because he had a regard for Judaea…. (Philo, Legato ad Gaium 13:155-156)
These Jews were likely part of the Jewish expulsion from Rome that took place under Tiberius, in 19 CE. Tacitus describes them as being “tainted with superstition” which was a reference to their religion. They were expelled to Sardinia.
There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia, to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy, unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites. (Tacitus 2.85)
The Island of Sardinia was west of Italy, nowhere near Northern Africa or Western Asia. So, were the Freedmen of this island the same as the Freedmen that rose up against Stephen? It’s quite possible that Luke is referring to 3 groups of people, or that the Freedmen from Sardinia migrated after being expelled to the island. Additionally, there was a later expulsion of the Jews from Rome who were partly made up of Freedmen. Where they ended up in the diaspora is hard to know except that it appears that some ended up in Northern Africa and South West Asia (Turkey).
But why would these Freedmen start a quarrel with Stephen? I think the answer is more obvious than it might first appear. They were previously enslaved by Rome. They wanted no beef with the leaders that had set them free. The preaching of Jesus in any location near the Jewish Freedmen would have set off alarm bells, and aroused fear that another Roman crackdown was coming. So, they did what anyone would do in that situation; they took Stephen to the Sanhedrin for court.
However, Stephen uses his platform (despite it being in captivity) to preach the gospel (yet again) to the men in the Sanhedrin council. A gospel they surely are tired of hearing about.