I have learnt that some of the Jews linked to the early Jewish council stoned St. Stephen to death and Paul as a witness. But I have a bit of confusion that who ordered the decree of Stephan's death.

  • Hello, Prashanth. Isn't saying " ... the Jews stoned St. Stephen to death ..." rather like saying "the Americans are rioting"? First Century Jews included Matthew, John, James, Peter ... Paul ... and Jesus. Jun 2 '20 at 10:15
  • @EdwinAshworth Jesus refers to "The Jews" in the Gospel of John probably without including Himself or His disciples.
    – Peter Turner
    Jun 2 '20 at 17:37
  • @Peter But the passage here expressly mentions only the members of a certain Jewish council. There are 21st Century Jews who might look in here. Jun 2 '20 at 18:58
  • Yeah, it could have framed well a bit. Updated - hope it solves the issue - thanks :) Jun 3 '20 at 7:57

Although Ken Graham offers one interpretation of the events leading to the stoning of Saint Stephen, I would like to propose an slightly different perspective which I think better fits the biblical text: Especially Acts 6-7. On an intersting note, Stephen's grave has recently been uncovered in the West Bank City of Ramallah. My simple answer regarding who ordered the stoning of Stephen would be, the governing body in Jerusalem, headed by the Sanhedrin.

Point 1: Stephen was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. Much as Jesus was arrested and taken before the high Priest, Acts 6:12 tells us that Stephen was arrested by the Elders and Teachers of the Law and taken before the Sanhedrin on specific legal charges: namely he spoke against the temple and the law, in the name of the recently executed criminal Jesus.

Point 2: He is officially questioned by the high Priest. In Acts 7:1 we read that the high priest at the time (unnamed) questions Stephen as to these specific charges. What follows is his official defense of his views.

Point 3: He charged with blasphemy and stoned in accordance with the law. At this point he seems to be declaring the divinity of Christ (7:56) and in a fury the Sanhedrin and the people take him outside of the city of Jerusalem (a procedure for officially stoning someone) and kill him. Act 7:58 mentions witnesses who lay their coats at the feet of Saul, suggesting that in accordance with Jewish law, the accusations made were given by proper witnesses as in a court of law.

Conclusion: Although certainly carried away by their emotions and their desire to defend the temple and their law, the execution of Stephen seems to follow at least several elements of legal procedure.

The act of stoning is a specific and intentional act wherein a community as a whole takes responsibility for the execution of a criminal, but while the stoning of Stephen bears several marks that indicate it was according to Jewish law (arrest, questioning, presentation of witnesses, stoning outside of the city) this doesn’t mean it was an entirely legal affair from the Roman perspective. Much like exists in many Islamic countries with significant Christian minorities, there seems to have existed a parallel system of justice which permitted Jewish authorities some latitude to act in accordance with their own laws. For example: Jewish authorities were not required to enforce tax laws and Roman Soldiers were not required to enforce sabbath laws.

It seems according to John 18:31 that among the powers which the Roman authorities had not leased out to the Jewish religious authorities, was the right to execute criminals. So, the question arises as to whether the execution of Stephen, even if according to the Jewish law, was a legal procedure in terms of Roman authority. The basic answer here seems to be that it was not legal under Roman law. However three points suggest that this still doesn’t categorize it as merely a ‘mob gone wild’.

Firstly, extrajudicial executions (from the Roman perspective) seem to have been commonplace in that time, but which where nevertheless in accordance with Jewish law. Consider the John 7:53-8:11 incident which occurs between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery – although not authentic to the earliest manuscript of John, it nevertheless represents a plausible real-life encounter within first century Palestine. Even today, cultures similar in their views of women engage in ‘honor killings’ and often receive little attention from authorities. In the same way, the killing of violators of the law – which did not threaten peace would probably be overlooked by the Romans, but this doesn’t mean that they violated Jewish law. This seems to be what Pilate says to the Religious leaders at the end of John 18:31 – ‘judge him according to your own law.’

Secondly, the difference between Jesus and Stephen mean that while Jesus’ execution may have caused Roman reprisals, the execution of Stephen would not. This source suggests that although the execution of criminals may have been common-place outside of the official Roman sanction, because Jesus was a major religious leader followed by crowds of people, the Religious leaders knew that his death would likely result in riots and uprisings.

The stoning of Stephen by the Jews was technically illegal, but the Romans had no vested interest in the matter, and the temple leaders in Jerusalem rightly felt that Rome would not respond. Jesus, on the other hand, had caught the attention of many powerful people, and the Jews would not venture to violate Roman law by executing Jesus on their own.

These would certainly draw the ire of the Roman authorities, and at that point they would not have a (Roman) legal leg to stand on. However, the execution simply of one of Jesus’ followers, was unlikely to result in any unrest and so would go unnoticed and unpunished by the Roman governors.

Finally, since Stephen seemed to be speaking along the exact same lines as Jesus who was recently executed, it is possible that the Romans, if they got wind of the execution of Stephen merely saw it as the stamping out of the final embers of the “king of the Jews” as so viewed it as sanctioned under their condemnation and execution of Jesus. At the very least, it is possible they did not view this execution as a threat to their authority or to the state of the Pax in Palestine.

  • 1
    How do you square this with John 18:31 where the Jews say they don't have the right to execute anyone?
    – curiousdannii
    May 31 '20 at 8:06
  • I considered addressing this but there seem to be two options, neither of which is clearly the right one, true they don't have the right to execute anyone under 'roman' law but either (1) we can say [I prefer this answer] they executed Stephen according to Jewish law but NOT Roman law, or (2) because Stephen is saying the same thing as Jesus and an associate of him, perhaps the legal sanction which allowed Jesus' execution extended to Stephen as well. At the very least, this latter point could allow Rome to overlook their taking 'the execution of the law' into their own hands.
    – ninthamigo
    May 31 '20 at 9:57
  • 1
    But there was no legal sanction for Jesus's execution by the Jews, which is why the Romans executed him.
    – curiousdannii
    May 31 '20 at 11:19
  • 2
    @curiousdannii your question is the one I had as well. I then thought of the occasion when the Jews nearly stoned Jesus. John 8:59. It seems that the stoning of Stephen was an illegal impetuous act. biblehub.com/acts/7-57.htm
    – Kris
    May 31 '20 at 11:33
  • @Kris Illegal, though not anything the Romans would have cared about afterwards (unless Stephen had been a Roman citizen, which is probably not the case.)
    – curiousdannii
    May 31 '20 at 11:35

Who ordered Saint Stephen to death?

No individual person ordered St. Stephen to be stoned to death. If in fact someone had ordered Stephen’s execution, I believe St. Luke would have named that individual in the Book of Acts.

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him. - Acts 7:57

Moreover, the Jews themselves made a point of making known the Roman authority in regards to executing someone to Pilate himself when they wanted Jesus put to death!

31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. - John 18:31

General consensus has it that the crowd spontaneously has him stoned. St. Stephen’s words in themselves infuriated the the Jews listening to his words. In today way of thinking, I would suspect that the modern phrase that it was due something like to a spontaneous local public uprising in the affair of St. Stephen’s stoning.

Simply put St. Stephen’s words infuriated the Jews standing before him.

It is equally possible that some members of the Jewish Sanhedrin or even the high priest that year, could have influenced the decision made by the crowd, for some of them were present!

The stoning of Stephen

Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. However, Stephen looked up and cried, "Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!" He said that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God.[9][Acts 7:54] The people from the crowd, who threw the first stones laid their coats down so as to be able to do this, at the feet of a "young man named Saul" (later known as Paul the Apostle). Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers be forgiven, sank to his knees, and "fell asleep".[Acts 7:58–60] Saul "approved of their killing him."[Acts 8:1] In the aftermath of Stephen's death, the remaining disciples fled to distant lands, many to Antioch.[Acts 11:19–20] - Saint Stephen

Knowing that the Jewish nation was under Roman occupation; they did not have the right to put any man to death. Thus, it only makes sense that his death was due to a popular uprising, thus keeping both the High Priest and the Jewish Sanhedrin away from being considered as ignoring the Roman authority’s powers.

Seeing that the high priests could easily be deposed by Roman authority, it would be highly unlikely that Caiaphas would have been willing to to implicated in Stephen’s death in 34 AD.

In any case he was eventually deposed in 36/37 AD.

Joseph Caiaphas

Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, by marriage to his daughter. He was appointed by the Roman governor Valerius Gratus in AD 18 (Jos Ant 18:2:2), and ruled as high priest for eighteen years. This was the longest reign of any high priest in New Testament times. He remained high priest under Pontius Pilate, and was finally deposed in AD 36 by Vitellius, the governor of Syria. He was replaced by Jonathan, another son of Annas (Jos Ant 18:4:3). Pontius Pilate was removed from office a few months before Caiaphas, after killing large numbers of Samaritans (Jos Ant 18:4:2). Caiaphas was replaced by Jonathan, another son of Annas

  • Did you meant to say that Luke would have identified the individual? May 31 '20 at 1:22
  • @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- Good point!
    – Ken Graham
    May 31 '20 at 1:36
  • I'm wondering, how does a popular uprising "keeping both the High Priest and the Jewish Sanhedrin away" fit with the fact that Acts 7:1 cites the High Priest questioning Stephen after he has been brought before him?
    – ninthamigo
    Jun 1 '20 at 17:21
  • @ninthamigo Neither of the two major entities, ordered the killing of Stephen, although they were both present! Thus keeping out of Rome’s touch!
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 1 '20 at 21:52
  • 1
    @ninthamigo My response can stand on its’ own merits!
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 2 '20 at 10:40

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