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