A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
DIFFICULTIES IN ACTS 7
In the opening verses of Acts 7, Stephen has been charged with making several very glaring mistakes as he recounts the history of Israel. This Special Study explores those alleged mistakes, and the solutions that have been suggested.
I. ALLEGED MISTAKE NUMBER ONE - ACTS 7:4
The problem: Stephen seems to make the Old Testament contradict itself. Abraham left Haran when his father had died, Stephen says. On first appearances, Genesis 11:26 seems to say that Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born. Further, in Genesis 12:4 there is a statement to the effect that Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. If we add these two figures, Terah would have been 145 years old when he died. However, and here comes the seeming contradiction. Genesis 11:32 tells us that Terah was 205 years old when he died in Haran. How is this apparent discrepancy to be explained?
Proposed solutions to the problem
- Some suggest that errors at the hands of copyists are likely in recording numbers. It is noted that the Samaritan Pentateuch, in fact, at Genesis 11:32 gives the age of Terah as 145 when he died. However, the Hebrew Scriptures uniformly give 205.
- Some suggest Abraham left Haran 60 years before Terah’s death, and so it is conjectured that Stephen speaks of Terah’s spiritual death, not his physical death. I.e., Abraham was called to leave Haran and his relatives when they lapsed into idolatry.
- The best solution starts with a re-examination of the assumptions on which the alleged discrepancy claim is based.
- Genesis 11:26 only says Terah was 70 years old before he had any sons – the sons being Abraham, Nahor, and Haran. Being named first does not necessarily mean that Abraham was the first-born.
- Nowhere is it said that Abraham was the oldest son. Why then was he mentioned first, if he is not the oldest? Perhaps because he was the most important son. Abraham might be named first because God's chosen people were descended from him.
- There are many Old Testament examples where a son other than the oldest is mentioned first. The three sons of Noah are commonly listed as Shem, Ham, and Japheth, yet Ham is the youngest and Japheth is the oldest. Isaac’s name takes precedence over Ishmael’s (1 Chronicles 1:28). Judah is placed first in the list of the sons of Jacob (1 Chronicles 4:1 v. 5:1-2). Moses is named before his elder brother, Aaron. So, a son’s being named first is no proof that he is the oldest. Rather, the first-listed is the one through whom God is carrying out His plans and purposes in the world.
- There are indications that Abraham was not the oldest son. (a) Unless we assume that these three sons were triplets, we cannot assert that Terah was just 70 when all three were born. (b) Haran was apparently the oldest of the sons, for Nahor’s wife was a daughter of Haran (Genesis 11:29). Further, Haran’s son, Lot, appears to have been about the same age as Abraham given the later history of the two. (c) Abraham’s son, Isaac, married Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor (Genesis 24:15).
In other words, the author of Genesis, in his brief record, gives merely the age of the father at the birth of the oldest son, and while doing so, mentions the births of the other sons, without necessarily stipulating the birth-order of the sons.
The conclusion to the problem
Stephen may be relied on when he says that God removed Abraham from Haran into Canaan after the death of Terah at age 205 (Genesis 11:32). And if so, then the age of Terah when Abraham was born was 130 years (205 - 75 = 130).
Alford objects to this conclusion. “Terah, in the course of nature, begets his son Abram at 130; yet this very Abram regards it as incredible that he himself should beget a son at 99 (Genesis 17:1,17); and on the birth of Isaac out of the course of nature, most important Scripture arguments and consequences are founded (cf. Romans 4:17-21; Hebrews 11:11-12).” However, Abraham’s incredulity in Genesis 17 can be otherwise explained: (a) The New Testament tells us Sarah was barren, or sterile (Romans 4:19). (b) Abraham’s incredulity regarding himself could reflect the fact that, at age 99, he had now been living 13 years with a young concubine, Hagar, since the birth of Ishamel, and she had not borne him other sons (Genesis 17:24-25). (c) The “proper time of life” mentioned in Hebrews 11:11 cannot simply refer to Abraham’s age since “in the course of nature" this same Abram, long after he was 99, and apparently after the death of Sarah when he was 137, took a younger wife and begat six other sons (Genesis 23:1 v. 25:1-4).
So, when the evidence for this first alleged discrepancy is examined, we find that the critics are not justified in accusing Stephen of making a mistake.
II. ALLEGED MISTAKE NUMBER TWO - ACTS 7:6
The problem: Stephen’s words are interpreted so as to make him say that the captivity in Egypt was 400 years in duration. In fact, some parallel texts seem to agree with this, including Genesis 15:13-14 according to the traditional interpretation and Exodus 12:40-41 in the Masoretic text. However, there is considerable evidence that the captivity was but 215 years in length. Is Stephen right or wrong? Is the traditional interpretation wrong?
There is strong evidence for a 215-year captivity
1) In Galatians 3:17, Paul says that it was 430 years from the time the promise was given to Abraham until the Exodus and the giving of the Law on Sinai. 215 of those years would have elapsed from the time the promise was given until the entry into Egypt. (Isaac was born 25 years after the promise was given, per Genesis 12:4 and 21:5. Jacob was born when Isaac was 60, per Genesis 24:26. Jacob was 130 when he entered Egypt, per Genesis 47:9. Add these figures, 25 + 60 + 130, and you get 215.)
Josephus says the Israelites left Egypt 430 years after Abraham came to Canaan, but 215 years after Jacob removed to Egypt.
2) The correctness of the Hebrew text at Exodus 12:40 has been questioned. The LXX, according to the Vatican codex, inserts “and in the land of Canaan,” so that the whole verse makes the stay in Egypt and in Canaan to be but 430 years. A similar reading (though not verbatim) is to be found in the Alexandrian codex, in the Coptic version, and in the Samaritan Pentateuch (the latter reads “in the land of Canaan and the land of Egypt”).
3) The genealogical listings are somewhat troublesome if the period of the sojourn in Egypt is more than 215 years. It is said that from the account which Moses has given of the lives of certain persons it would seem clear that the time which they spent in Egypt was not 400 years. For example, (a) It appears Kohath was born before Jacob went into Egypt (Genesis 46:8,11). Kohath lived 133 years (Exodus 6:18). Amram, Kohath’s son and the father of Moses, lived 137 years (Exodus 6:20). Moses was eighty years old when he was sent to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:7). The entire time period thus included, counting the time which each father lived after his son was born, is but 350 years. (b) Alford calculates that Levi lived in Egypt about 88 years. Jochebed is expressly stated to have been the daughter of Levi (Numbers 26:58), and so must have been born within 88 years of the entrance into Egypt. Moses was 80 at the Exodus. If we have “x” as Jochebed’s age when Moses was born, then 88 + 80 + “x” = the length of the captivity in Egypt. “X” would have to be 232 if the captivity were 400 years long, or 262 if the stay were 430 years. It is doubtful that Jochebed was 232 or 262 years old when Moses was born. If the stay in Egypt was but 215 years, then Jochebed would have been about 47 when Moses was born.
There is, on the other hand, just as strong evidence for a 400-year captivity
1) Both Genesis 15:13-14 and Acts 7:6 – according to traditional interpretation – speak of a 400-year captivity. The terminology in both places appears to apply to Egypt, and not to Canaan, for the patriarchs were not enslaved or afflicted in Canaan. If the Hebrew text of Exodus 12:40-41 be taken as it stands (and only one late Hebrew manuscript reads differently), it fixes the duration of the captivity at 430 years.
2) The expression “fourth generation” in Genesis 15:16 is taken to be identical with the preceding time period (“400 years” of verses 13-14). Gesenius and other Hebrew scholars understand the term to be equivalent of a century. Leupold writes, “... we see the word reckons a hundred years to a generation. Such a computation, according to chapter eleven, is not out of place, especially if one considers that Abram himself lived to the age of 175 years.” Gesenius says, “... from the longevity of the patriarchs, in their time [a generation] was reckoned at a hundred [years]; and in like manner amongst the Romans, the word seculum originally signified a generation, and was afterwards applied to a century ….”
3) The Vulgate and Syriac versions, and the Targum of Onkelos agree with the Hebrew text of Exodus 12:40.
4) There is some evidence that the genealogical tables in the Pentateuch are incomplete. For example, at the first numbering there were 8,600 male Kohathites (Numbers 3:28). Kohath was a son of Levi, and the grandfather of Moses. Kohath had four sons (Exodus 6:18, 1 Chronicles 6:18). One of these sons was Amram, who in turn had two sons and six grandsons, as far as the Scripture record goes. In order to reach the 8,600 total, are we to believe the other three sons of Kohath averaged 2,866 male descendants, or are we to recognize that the genealogies are abbreviated (cp. Matthew 1)?
5) Some allege that there is still a problem with age, even if the 215-year captivity is accepted. For example, Cook’s note reads, “... in order to make out 215 years [for the sojourn in Egypt] it is necessary to assume that Levi was 95 years old when Jochebed was born, and that Jochebed was 85 years old when she became mother of Moses. This ... involves two miracles, for which there is no authority in Scripture.”
6) Interestingly, Josephus twice speaks of a 400-year captivity, and some take this as an indication that many in his day believed the captivity was long rather than short.
7) It is asserted that Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:17 can be harmonized with the idea of a 400-year captivity, even though he expressly states that it was 430 years from the promise to Abraham to the Exodus (a calculation which would make the captivity itself but 215 years in length). It is suggested that Paul simply quotes from the LXX of Exodus 12:40 as he writes to the Galatians. The LXX, it will be remembered, favors the 215-year captivity. The supposition is that Paul quoted the LXX, rather than the Hebrew text, so that he would not surprise or perplex his readers by referencing a number of years different from that which they were accustomed to find in their Greek Bible, even though a quotation from the Hebrew might have added to the force of his argument.
Proposed solutions to the problem
(A) A great number of commentators decide in favor of the Hebrew reading of Exodus 12:40, and therefore reject the LXX reading. Thus, Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:17 is taken to be a deliberate understatement of the duration of the captivity. Such a line of argument makes the Genesis 15 passage normative, and then interprets all passages in its light. The result is a 400-year captivity.
(B) Some writers recently have begun to question the traditional interpretation given to Genesis 15:13ff. Starting with the assumption that Paul is right in assigning a period of 430 years from the time the promise was made until the giving of the Law at Sinai, they then interpret all the Old Testament passages in that light. Such an approach suggests that the LXX of Exodus 12:40 is correct. The key problem passage to this approach is the Genesis 15 passage itself, which must be interpreted so as to harmonize with a 215-year captivity. For example, Atkinson has written, “How then are we to read the four hundred years of this verse? It seems difficult to take the words [of verse 13] ‘a land [that is not theirs]’ as referring to anything wider than Egypt ... [Thus,] the meaning of the words ‘four hundred years’ seems to be, ‘and they shall afflict them until a time, which is four hundred years from now.’” 400 years from the time God was speaking to Abraham would include but a 215-year captivity. Perhaps Atkinson is pointing us in the right direction as he interprets Genesis 15:13-14 and the way Stephen quotes it in Acts 7:6 in light of Paul’s clear statement in Galatians 3:17. Likely, this is the right way to harmonize and understand the various Biblical passages.
In any case, Stephen was merely quoting the Old Testament as it read in the Hebrew Scriptures, and should not be held accountable for a mistake, when the mistake may be merely in our interpretations of certain relevant passages.
III. ALLEGED MISTAKE NUMBER THREE - ACTS 7:14
The problem: Stephen is said to make a mistake in putting the number of Jacob’s family at 75, whereas the text of Genesis 46:27 makes the number 70, including two who had died in Canaan before they went down into Egypt.
Proposed solution to the problem
Many conjectures have been advanced to account for the difference. The most logical answer is this:
- Stephen was a Hellenist. Being familiar with the LXX, he quoted that translation. The LXX at Genesis 46:27 reads, “All the souls of the house of Jacob who went with Jacob into Egypt, were 75 souls.” Versus the “70” reading in the Hebrew text, the LXX makes up this extra five by listing the names of two sons of Manasseh, two of Ephraim, and one grandson of Ephraim, at Genesis 46:20.
- When a study is made of the total number of people who went down into Egypt, it soon becomes clear that there is a great diversity in the way the number is figured. Josephus gives the total as 70. Philo, including 3 sons of Ephraim and a son and grandson of Manasseh, gives the figure as 75.
- Before one accuses the LXX of being mistaken in its total, observe also that even the Hebrew accounting makes use of a bit of poetical license. The actual number of living people who entered Egypt was 68 (see Genesis 46:12).
IV. ALLEGED MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR - ACTS 7:16
The problem: In the phrase “they were removed to Shechem,” Stephen appears to say that Jacob was carried over to Shechem and buried there, whereas Jacob himself was actually buried in the field of Machpelah by Joseph and his brethren (Genesis 50:13).
Proposed solution to the problem
McGarvey argues that the subject of the verb “were removed” is “our fathers,” and that there is no reference to Jacob being carried to Shechem and buried there. It is expressly stated in Joshua 24:32 that Joseph’s bones were carried by the Israelites when they came into the land of Canaan and were buried in Shechem. Stephen then is telling us that the bones of all twelve patriarchs were laid to rest after the example of Joseph. With such an interpretation Jerome agrees.
Complicating the question is the fact that Josephus and also Jubilees (46:9) relate the burial of Jacob’s sons (except Joseph) at Hebron, not Shechem; and the same tradition appears to underlie the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Hervey rejects the testimony of Josephus and the others on the basis of the fact that there are no tombs of the patriarchs at Hebron, save one for Joseph; and the idea of even having a tomb for him at Hebron is completely contradictory to the Old Testament record.
V. ALLEGED MISTAKE NUMBER FIVE - ACTS 7:16
The problem: Stephen spoke of the tomb “that Abraham bought ... from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” Who actually purchased the tomb? Genesis 33:19 and Joshua 24:32 indicate the purchase of that tomb at Shechem was made by Jacob, not by Abraham.
Proposed solution to the problem
1) Some suggest this is evidently a scribal mistake. That is, some scribe, familiar with the story of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah at Hebron, confused the purchase of the tomb at Shechem by Jacob, and instead of writing Jacob as should have been done here, wrote Abraham. The scribe, not Stephen, really made the mistake.
2) A second suggestion is according to Genesis 12:6. Abraham was in Shechem a long time before Jacob was there. It is suggested that perhaps Abraham purchased this tomb at that time, and that Stephen is talking of that purchase. After Abraham left Canaan, the tomb was retaken by aliens, and then was repurchased by Jacob when they made their return to the promised land. This latter would be the purchase spoken of in Genesis 33:19.
Five mistakes are charged to Stephen in the first sixteen verses of Acts 7. In the face of such accusations against Stephen’s defense, it is important for us to keep in mind that Stephen is not accused of error by those to whom he was speaking. Nor was he accused of error by any of the friends or enemies of Christianity in the early church.
We do not have sufficient materials, in some cases, to judge with certainty whether Stephen made any errors. More importantly, obvious and defensible solutions can be supplied for every supposed error that Stephen made.
The only mistake Stephen made, from the point of view of the Sanhedrin, was the mistake of accusing them of killing Jesus. For this, they stoned him as a blasphemer.