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Cloaks and Violence: A New Proposal on Acts 7:58

February 7, 2012

In the latest issue of Expository Times (vol 123, 2012, pp. 113-18), Brice Jones offers an intriguing (and to my mind fully plausible) proposal for the meaning of the curious action of the crowd involved in the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7:58.   They “laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  

Noting the difficulties in interpreting this action acknowledged by commentators, Jones points to several instances in other ancient literature where people take off their cloaks before engaging in a fight or some other violent action.  As he puts it, the message of the action in these texts seems to be:  “The coats are off; it’s about to get messy!”

More specifically, Jones offers two proposals.  First, the depiction of the crowd in Acts 7:58 laying down their cloaks at Saul’s feet probably means that Saul is depicted as “the ring leader of the mob,” the one who prompted the stoning by the crowd.  Secondly, Brice judges that the motif of removing the cloak here and elsewhere should be understood as an ancient gesture indicating impending actions of a combative or violent nature. 

I find his case persuasive, except on one point:  It’s not quite accurate to describe the crowd as a “mob”.   In an important (but often overlooked) study, Torrey Seland traced references in ancient literature to the “Phinehas” episode (Numbers 25:6-13) and the succeeding tradition of “Phinehas zeal”, which involved situations in which devout Jews were entitled (indeed, directed) to take violent action against fellow Jews who openly flouted Torah in some major way:  Establishment Violence in Philo and Luke: A Study of Non-Conformity to the Torah and Jewish Vigilante Reactions, Biblical Interpretation, no. 15 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995).

Seland proposes that in Acts 7 we have, not a lynch mob, but an instance of this kind of semi-judicial (“vigilante”) action.   This actually chimes nicely with Jones’s proposal that Saul is presented as instigating and in some sense authorizing the stoning of Stephen in this scene.

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  1. Robert Wetmore permalink

    My guess (again I am reading this in my own present cultural environment) is that it could be both a mob vigilante experience but it could also be the collective identity of those who guard the faith approved or directed by a respected religious teacher. In Pakistan (where I teach Christian Studies at a University here), there is a holy obligation to punish those who question the faith. Religious leaders here are enormously influential in directing religious passion into violence. Spontaneous violence or planned actions are both seen as necessary at time to defend God’s righteousness. It is a relational culture (which I have read repeatedly is true also of 1st century Mediterranean Culture) so that each person acts as an expression of the group. In this situation, Paul would not be the ringleader but rather as religious authority figure whose condemnation of Stephen carries special weight with the entire group and legitimizes their violence. In my culture here, our Imaams sometimes get their hands dirty in doing violence, but perhaps if the author is correct, the respect afforded a religious teacher would mean that he would not participate.
    My culture is pretty violent here right now and obviously a South Asian context is different from first century Judaism. I have often noted, however, the seeming similarities between the two cultures.

    • Such comparisons can be helpful, especially to those whose cultural experience makes it difficult to engage that of others. I would, however, urge that we work also very closely with the evidence, and Torrey Seland’s book notably gathers it up: There was a “Phinehas” tradition in which devout Jews were to police any outrageous violations of Torah by fellow Jews. This, I am persuaded, is the key cultural factor to take into account in the opposition of Saul/Paul to the early Jewish church and in the Stephen episode.

  2. Robert permalink

    Seland’s reading, seems quite reasonable, but it seems to me that the fact that one has more cultural backing or is grounded in some ancient tradition does not, in my view, obscure the fact that both readins catalogue the event as an act of violence. That said, it’s worth noting how the Western cultural imagination colors our interpretations. In this case, Saul is imagined as some sort of God Father figure who controls a group of mobsters.

    • Hmm. Well, in my view scholarly readings should be controlled by relevant evidence. And we should try to read texts in their own cultural setting first, before we let our imaginations run wild. In this case, Phinehas-action isn’t criminal activity, or pure mob-violence, but is treated (e.g., by Philo, a cultured Jew of Alexandria) as a solemn obligation to be taken on only by a devout Jew, and only for the most serious of public flouting of Torah.

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