THE OLD TESTAMENT historical psalms offer plenty of examples in which writers review the shared history of the Israelites for some special theological or ethical purpose. Something similar occurs when 1 and 2 Chronicles retell 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, so as to focus on the southern kingdom and on certain theological perspectives. This form of address continues in certain New Testament sermons. Paul in Pisidian Antioch begins the historical recital with the Exodus, and aligns his storytelling priorities to show that Jesus really is the promised Messiah (Acts 13:16ff). Here in Acts 7, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, begins with Abraham.
What are the advantages of this approach? And what does Stephen, in particular, set out to prove?
One of the advantages is that historical recital gains the attention of the audience — and in this case the audience was overtly hostile and needed calming. Their personal identity was bound up with their national history; initially, at least, this recital was bound to be soothing, to establish common ground, to show that Stephen was within the pale.
A second advantage lay in the fact that the shift that Stephen was trying to establish in the minds of his Jewish audience was big enough that it could only be adopted within the framework of a changed world-view. In other words, not only Jesus’ identity, but even more, his death and resurrection, could not finally be accepted by thoughtful Jews unless they perceived that this is what Scripture teaches — and this point could not easily be established unless it was anchored in the very fabric of the Old Testament storyline. So the story had to be told and retold so as to highlight the most important points.
One of the points that Stephen makes as he retells the story emerges slowly at first, then faster and faster, and then explosively. That point is the repeated sin of the people. When Stephen begins the story, at first there is no mention of Israel’s evil. Then the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers is briefly mentioned (Acts 7:9). Corporate wickedness re-surfaces in Moses’ day (Acts 7:25-27, 35). Now the pace quickens. The people refused to obey Moses “and in their hearts turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). The golden calf episode is brought up, and likened to idolatry in the time of Amos (Acts 7:42-43). We skip ahead to David and Solomon, and the insistence that God cannot be domesticated by a building. Finally there is the explosive condemnation not only of past generations of Israelites who rejected God and his revelation, but also of all their contemporary Spirit-resisting descendants (Acts 7:51-53).
What bearing does this point have on the lessons we should draw from the biblical history?