Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity

Overview

Recent studies have examined martyrdom as a means of constructing Christian identity, but until now none has focused on Stephen, the first Christian martyr. For the author of Luke-Acts, the stoning of Stephen— even more than the death of Jesus— underscores the perfidy of non-believing Jews, the extravagant mercy of Christians, and the inevitable rift that will develop between these two social groups. Stephen's dying prayer that his persecutors be forgiven-the prayer for which he is hailed in Christian tradition ...

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Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity

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Overview

Recent studies have examined martyrdom as a means of constructing Christian identity, but until now none has focused on Stephen, the first Christian martyr. For the author of Luke-Acts, the stoning of Stephen— even more than the death of Jesus— underscores the perfidy of non-believing Jews, the extravagant mercy of Christians, and the inevitable rift that will develop between these two social groups. Stephen's dying prayer that his persecutors be forgiven-the prayer for which he is hailed in Christian tradition as the "perfect martyr" plays a crucial role in drawing an unprecedented distinction between Jewish and early Christian identities.

Shelly Matthews deftly situates Stephen's story within the emerging discourse of early Christian martyrdom. Though Stephen is widely acknowledged to be an actual historical figure, Matthews points to his name, his manner of death, and to other signs that his martyrdom was ideally suited to the rhetorical purposes of Acts and its author, Luke: to uphold Roman views of security and respectability, to show non-believing Jews to disadvantage, and to convey that Christianity was an exceptionally merciful religion. By drawing parallels between Acts and stories of the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, Matthews challenges the coherent canonical narrative of Acts and questions common assumptions about the historicity of Stephen's martyrdom. She also offers a radical new reading of Stephen's last prayer, showing the complex and sometimes violent effects of its modern interpretations.

Perfect Martyr illuminates the Stephen story as never before, offering a deeply nuanced picture of violence, solidarity, and resistance among Jews and early Christians, a key to understanding the early development of a non-Jewish Christian identity, and an innovative reframing of one of the most significant stories in the Bible.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The big circle of her argument takes up the problems of normatively seeing ourselves as innocent victims, of sanctifying violence, and, specifically, of narrating violent deeds of others as justification for violence. Any who are not uncomfortable about one or more of these issues are not listening. . . . Perfect Martyr is a scholarly book that also faces pressing contemporary issues."—Review of Biblical Literature (reviewed by Richard Pervo, author ACTS: A Commentary)

"Seldom have I learned so much from a book and simultaneously dissented so much. The book is a pearl of research, thoroughly and astutely annotated. Matthews makes the best case I have read for a second-century anti-Marcionite setting for Acts."—Review of Biblical Literature (reviewed by Robert Brawley of McCormick Theological Seminary)

"Theoretically sophisticated and historically grounded, Shelly Matthews' Perfect Martyr is the most compelling study ever produced of Stephen, Christianity's first martyr. More than that, it exposes the ideological investments of the author "Luke" who establishes his Christian self-identity at the expense of the fictitious Other, the fabricated figure of the violent Jew."
—Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Building upon her earlier ground-breaking study of women in the Lukan narrative, here Shelly Matthews pushes the envelope even further. Through a detailed study of the texts and traditions related to Stephen, she shows how early Christian self-definition is predicated on the disfiguration of the other. One will not think about early Christian constructions of and interactions with Judaism in the same way after encountering such thoughtful and engaging analysis."
—Todd Penner, author of In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic Historiography

"Perfect Martyr is an innovative and utterly persuasive reading of the account of the death of Stephen in the New Testament. Matthews shows how the narrative insulation of Roman authorities from culpability produces Jewish guilt and Christian innocent victimhood simultaneously and asks trenchant questions about the theological reverberations of this troubling rhetorical move across time. A must read for scholars and non-specialists alike."
—Elizabeth A. Castelli, author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making

"Brilliantly challenging regnant scholarly assumptions concerning the historicity of the stoning of Stephen, Matthews shows how this narrative perfectly encapsulates the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Luke-Acts and traces its seminal role in the construction of Christians as distinct from Jews and of Jews as murderous and savage. Matthews's important contribution to the study of early Jewish-Christian relations thus also demonstrates a broader truth: the act of narrating the violence of others is a potent strategy for legitimating one's own use of violence."

—Ra'anan S. Boustan, author of From Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism

"Perfect Martyr is a sophisticated academic study of great value to scholars and graduate students...."—CHOICE

"[T]his is an elegant book that offers a fresh, thoughtful, theoretically and methodologically sophisticated reading of the depth of Stephen in Acts...It is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the rhetoric of Luke-Acts, Jewish-Christian relations, and early Christian martyrdom."—The Journal of Religion

This book is wonderfully enhanced by Weimer's use of primary and secondary literature on the religious history of early New England and the historiography concerning the larger Western apocalyptic tradition. The number of pages Weimer devotes to discursive footnotes is quite astounding: the text itself is 149 pages, the annotation 57. Many of these notes contain highly instructive primary quotations related directly to arguments in the text."—New England Quarterly

"Well-researched, well-written, and ambitious in its scope. The monograph will certainly demand an attentive hearing from scholars in Acts, but Matthews also effectively challenges a wide swath of students of the New Testament and early Christianity to reassess one of the most important yet problematic questions in our scholarship."—Biblical Interpretation

"Matthews shows immense control over the secondary and ancient sources. It is also a rhetorically effective—and affective—volume."—Interpretation

"Sophisticated and powerful...The book is a compelling turning point in discussions of Jewish-Christian relations in Acts. Anyone with interest in how one group constructs itself in opposition to another, both in scripture and in present contexts, should read it."—Religious Studies Review

"A scholarly presentation, radically challenging the commonly accepted position of Stephen's narrative among scholars and laypeople...The presentation is appealing for both scholars and others without much knowledge of technical jargon."—Missiology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199924653
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/29/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Associate Professor of Religion, Dorothy and B.H. Peace Chair in Religion, Furman University

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Table of Contents

Introduction: First Martyr
Chapter One: Situating Acts
Chapter Two: Perfect Martyr: Situating Stephen within Acts
Chapter Three: Disrupting Acts: Reading Stephen alongside James, the Brother of Jesus
Chapter Four: ''Father, Forgive Them:'' The Place of the Perfect Prayer in the Construction of Christian Identity
Epilogue

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