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Posted January 25, 2008

Book: Paul’s Social Network: Stephen: Paul and the Hellenist Israelites
Author: John J. Pilch
Collegeville, MN. 2007. Pp. 87.

An excerpt from the jacket:

Stephen: Paul and the Hellenist Israelites

It is difficult to appreciate how Stephen qualifies as a friend of someone who attended and approved of his murder (Acts 7:58: 22:20). Yet Stephen belonged to the very group of Israelites to whom Paul later brought the Good News; the Hellenists. These Israelites lived mainly outside of Palestine, thoroughly acculturated in the Greek language and culture of their habitat, and they practiced their traditions in a very modified way. These modifications created great difficulty for Stephen and other Hellenists who resumed residence in Jerusalem, as we read in Acts 6 - 7. In this account we learn who Stephen was, what he said, and how he died — all things that made a huge impression on Paul. That experience set the stage for Paul’s commissioning by the risen Jesus to evangelize Hellenists. In Stephen: Paul and the Hellenist Israelites, John J. Pilch reflects on Stephen as a Hellenist Israelite, a collectivistic person, a “deacon” (the word does not appear in Acts), and one who true to his tradition communicates with the world of God in alternative states of consciousness. Paul has much in common with Stephen, so to know Stephen is to gain a better understanding of Paul.

An excerpt from the book:

How do Stephen and his companions fit into Paul’s social network? Since Paul witnessed and approved of Stephen’s murder, how can Stephen be included in Paul’s social network? To begin with, Paul, too, was a Hellenist. According to Luke in Acts, he was born and raised in a Hellenistic Israelite colony (to use Philo’s term) in Tarsus (Asia Minor). His letters reveal a grasp of the Greek language and culture; he makes allusions to Greek literature. Still, his self-identification clearly indicates he was only minimally assimilated. In Philippians 3: 5-6 he identifies himself thus: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews: as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. He was a Hellenist who strove to maintain his Israelite identity pure and unsullied. Witnessing Stephen’s speech and death while simply minding the cloaks of those participating in the murder may have been decisive for turning Paul into a (more) active persecutor.

. . . on his journey to Damascus, Paul encounters the risen Jesusin an ASC experience that seemingly causes a sudden 180-degree turnabout in his life. However, was the change sudden, or had it already been set in motion by Stephen’s speech? Paul’s ASC experience testifies to the validity of his claim to be “blameless” in his observance of the law. In his own way, Paul is pleasing to God and favored by the deity with an encounter with the risen Jesus who is now in alternative reality. Paul the blameless Pharisee was a holy person. Even before accepting Jesus as Messiah, Paul believed God “set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace:. These phrases indicate that Paul viewed his birth as a prophetic calling. He was thus beloved of God (“called through is grace”a), favored by God (“it pleased God”), and given the ascribed honor of the specific role of a prophet (“set me apart”). Because his life was pleasing to God, it was possible for God to make contact with him in an ASC. What Paul was not prepared for, however, was the insight and instruction he would receive in this ASC.

As a result of this experience occasioned by Stephen’s defense speech and death, Paul now fully embrace the Hellenist position. He preached to Hellenist Israelite minorities living among non-Israelite majorities. So incredible was it to his audiences, that Paul himself recorded their reactions: “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”. And they glorified God because of me.”

Table of Contents:

Who is Stephen?

1. Stephen, a Hellenist

2. Stephen, a collectivist

3. Stephen, a minister (not a deacon!)

4. Stephen, a holy man and his visions