Who is Right--Stephen or Moses?
In Acts 7, Stephen had been accused of advocating the overthrow of the Law of Moses and speaking out publicly against the Temple. The Sanhedrin convened to discuss his fate, and to hear his defense. During his discourse, Stephen made the following assertion: “And Jacob went down into Egypt; and he died, himself and our fathers; and they were carried over unto Shechem, and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price in silver of the sons of Hamor in Shechem” (7:15-16). Various critics of the Bible have accused Stephen of having made two blatant errors. First, he apparently stated that Jacob had been buried in Shechem, whereas Genesis 49:29-30 states that Jacob was buried at Machpelah in Hebron, fifty miles away. Second, Stephen suggested that Abraham bought the tomb in Shechem, while the Old Testament notes that it was Jacob who did the buying (Genesis 23:16-18; 33:18-19; 50:13; Joshua 24:32). Who is right—Stephen or Moses?
In order to understand the situation that arose in Acts 7, some background information is necessary. The church in the city of Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds—as is evident from the fact that “the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (vs. 7). Stephen, as a dedicated worker in the Jerusalem congregation, was providing a great service for the church. But as a preacher, he also was having a powerful influence on non-Christians. The account recorded in Acts 7 indicates that he “wrought great wonders and signs among the people” (vs. 8), and must have been both logical and eloquent in his oral presentations, since the people “were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake” (vs. 10).
Some of the Greeks from the local synagogue—unable to refute his arguments defending Christianity—became jealous and bitter. Unable to disarm his magnificently stated case with reason, they decided instead to resort to false testimony and to violence. As a result, the text indicates that they
stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and seized him, and brought him into the council, and set up false witnesses, who said, “This man ceaseth not to speak words against this holy place, and the law: for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered unto us.” And all that sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel (Acts 6:12-15, KJV).
During his defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen made the statements alluded to in the question above. Stephen knew his subject matter, and knew it well. His speech—which ultimately was intended to show the rebellious spirit that had been so prevalent during the Israelites’ entire past history—was full of illustrations from the Old Testament that would have been dear to the heart of anyone professing Judaism. Consider, for example, his mentioning Jacob’s death. Everyone present would have been intimately familiar with the story of Jacob’s funeral, which was a remarkable event involving the two nations of Egypt and Israel (Genesis 50:1-13). It was then, and is now, an established fact that Jacob was buried at Machpelah in Hebron (Genesis 49:29-30).
What is the answer to the critics’ suggestion that Stephen erred when he mentioned Shechem as Jacob’s burial place, since it was common knowledge that Jacob had, in fact, been buried in Machpelah? And how do we respond when critics allege that Stephen committed a second error because he suggested that Abraham purchased the tomb in which Jacob was buried?
First, the question needs to be raised about why no one in Stephen’s audience pointed out his alleged “mistake.” Remember that Stephen was speaking before an extremely hostile crowd that was filled with knowledgeable Jews who composed the Sanhedrin—men who would have been desirous of proving him wrong since he had impugned both their motives and their integrity. But they never got their chance, as is evident from the fact that they had to suborn perjury via false witnesses (vss. 11,13) and eventually take up stones to kill him. That, then, leaves only two options as to the nature of the alleged contradictions: (1) The things Stephen said really were true, but only appear to us to be mistakes; or (2) Stephen’s statements were accurate, but subsequently were recorded or copied incorrectly.
On occasion, when the English text seems unclear or appears to contradict itself, it often is beneficial to be able to examine the original language in which the passage was written. This is one such instance. One of the leading biblical scholars (some have suggested he was the leading biblical scholar) of his day was J.W. McGarvey, whose knowledge of both the languages and the customs of the biblical lands was without peer. His 1881 volume, Lands of the Bible, was considered a classic, even in its day, and remains so today. In his commentary on the New Testament book of Acts, McGarvey provided an excursion into the Greek text that helps immensely in explaining the “contradiction” posed by Stephen’s statement.
As the two clauses stand in our version, “he died, himself, and our fathers; and they were carried over into Shecham,” there can be no doubt that “himself ” and “fathers” are common subjects of one verb “died,” and that the pronoun “they” before “were carried” refers to both alike. But it is not so in the original. The construction is different. The verb rendered died is in the singular number, eteleutasen, and it agrees only with autos, himself. The plural substantive “fathers” is not the subject of that verb, but of the plural eteleutasan understood. The construction having been changed with the introduction of the plural subject, it follows that the plural verb metetéthasan, “were carried,” belongs to fathers, and not to Jacob. The two clauses, properly punctuated, and with the ellipsis supplied, read thus: “and he died; and our fathers died, and were carried over into Shechem.” With this rendering and punctuation, which are certainly admissible, the contradiction totally disappears; and if the passage had been thus rendered at first into English, a contradiction would not have been thought of (1892, p. 121, emp. added, italics in orig.).
McGarvey’s point was this. If Jacob was buried at Machpelah in Hebron (and of that there is no doubt, since Genesis 49:29-30 so states), then Stephen must have been saying that it was the fathers alone who were buried in Shechem, not Jacob. This is quite possible. We know that at least one of the fathers—Joseph—was buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32). And while the Old Testament does not record the burial places for many of the other patriarchs, we can glean some information from secular history on the subject. In his discussion on Acts 7, the well-known commentator Albert Barnes mentioned that some Jewish historians (e.g., Kuinoel) held to the view that the fathers were buried at Shechem (1949, p. 124). In addition, Jerome, a fourth-century writer from Palestine, stated: “The twelve patriarchs were buried not in Arbes [Hebron—AB/KB], but in Shechem” (as quoted in Barnes, p. 124).
[The idea that the patriarchs were buried in Shechem, however, was neither popular nor representative of the common Jewish thought of the day. In fact, Josephus and other Jewish historians suggested that the fathers were buried at Hebron. And there is a very good reason why they would say such a thing. The Samaritans—the Jews’ bitterest rivals—had seized Shechem. The proud Jews, therefore, would have done anything—perhaps even going so far as to falsify history—to keep from having to admit that their ancestors were buried in their enemy’s land. This actually lends credibility to Stephen’s statement. Given the choice of two answers, one popular but untrue, the other true but unpopular, Stephen doubtlessly would have chosen the latter.]
But what may be said regarding the second mistake that Stephen is supposed to have made—that Abraham bought the tomb in Shechem, whereas the Old Testament states that it was Jacob who did the buying? The possibility exists that this is a case which falls into the second category mentioned above—i.e., that Stephen’s statements themselves were accurate, but subsequently were recorded or copied incorrectly. Various scholars (Adam Clarke, J.W. McGarvey, Albert Barnes, et al.) have presented a good case for the idea that the mistake should not be attributed to Stephen, but rather to a copyist’s error.
However, there are other possibilities that are equally plausible. McGarvey correctly observed: “Two statements are contradictory not when they differ, but when they cannot both be true” (1886, 2:31). Here we have just such an instance. These two accounts do not conflict; rather, they only differ. Consider all the facts as we know them: (1) Abraham bought a field and a cave in Hebron (Genesis 23:17); (2) Abraham bought a sepulcher in Shechem (Acts 7:16); (3) Later, Jacob bought a parcel of ground or a field (Joshua 24:32) also in Shechem (Genesis 33:19). It could be that Jacob merely bought the land whereupon the sepulcher of his grandfather stood. This explanation certainly is feasible.
Yet there is still another prospect. We know that Abraham lived for a time in the land of Shechem, even building an altar there (Genesis 12:5-6). We also know that Jacob went to Shechem and set up his tent there about 185 years later (Genesis 33:18). Perhaps in the intervening time period, the native people had taken back the land, and, rather than fighting to reclaim what already was his, Jacob simply bought the land back peaceably. Thus, the land would have been purchased twice—first by Abraham, and then, almost two centuries later, by Jacob. This, too, appears to be a logical reconciliation of the facts.
Barnes, Albert (1949 reprint), Barnes Notes—Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
McGarvey, J.W. (1892), New Commentary on Acts of Apostles (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
McGarvey, J.W. (1886), Evidences of Christianity (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).