Tuesday, 21 August 2012

On the Risks of a Dead Carpenter Knocking Down a Temple

I was pondering - as you do - the trial of Stephen in the book of Acts, 6-7.

And I was reflecting that the account may or may not be tidied up, enriched or full of the things the author thought Stephen should have said. Great people in great events are often too busy at the time to hire a speech-writer, jokesmith, and person-who-looks-out-for-stupidity. And in these recession-struck times, it turns out some American politicians can't afford the last of these, either.

So if you were a historical great leader, your half-time team-talks necessarily consisted of "Essex - you done great. But look out for the Breton archers - they're sitting in the "hole" and looking to get in behind the back four. Falstaff - you need to get tighter on their cavalry. Forlorn Hope - oh, yeah, never mind." But if you were smart you hired Shakespeare to turn it into "Once more unto the breach, dear friends..."

In the same way, I don't know whether Stephen's defence to the somewhat unlikely charge of "saying that rabbi we killed the other week is going to destroy the temple" was as Luke has put it. It might be literally true - and if so may give Julian Assange a fighting chance if he ever comes to leave the Ecuadorian embassy to fight his case. "Your honour, in my defence I would like to say - In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angy, and been widely regarded as a bad move..." If he kept that up, all the way through Plato, Aristotle, Magna Carta, the Speaker standing up to Charles I, the Tolpuddle Martyrs.... the chances are, at their current birth-rate, there'd be nobody left in Sweden by the time the extradition hearing was over.

But in Stephen's case, I really hope it's literally true that his defence was the whole of the history of Salvation, from Abraham to Jesus. I love the idea of some Sanhedrin lawyer objecting - "I don't see what Joseph's falling-out with his brothers has to do with the case at hand" and Stephen explaining that it was everything to do with the case at hand - it's all about God's hand, working in history - leading up to this day.

Strikes me that if Stephen's defence had instead been "What, you reckon me saying a dead carpenter is going to knock down the Temple is a crime? Tell me - just how convinced are you that Jesus hasn't risen from the dead?" he might have got out of there alive. But instead he chose to tell the whole story of salvation. And they killed him for it.

So I reckon there's two lessons to be learnt here. One is, people don't like being told they're on the wrong side. And the other is - unless you're a king with Shakespeare as your speech-writer, keep it snappy.


  1. I've never been convinced Stephen is trying to defend himself. To me his speech is saying "kill me if you like, I'm still more Jewish than you are". It is very nearly, very smug and bound to irritate. Those who wish to model their lives on the early Church, take heed.

  2. There's sometimes a fine line between bloody-mindedness and a saintly presentation of the truth. Look at Galileo and Pope whatever his name was. If either of them had been a pleasant, easy-going sort of person, there wouldn't have been nearly as much fuss over certain scientific ideas.

    On the other hand, sometimes it's the brusque people who get everyone's back up who actually get things done and make a difference in the world. Only among the Beaker Folk, perhaps, do sweetness and light and soft fluffy bunnies and tea lights prevail.

    And, as a friend said to me when I expressed the hope that I'd eventually become one of those sweet old ladies, "Cheryl, that sweetness and light stuff is HARD. I'm going for being ordinary and sometimes bad-tempered."


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