John Pilch’s work is a cultural-anthropological study of Stephen, one of the “Hellenists” chosen by the Apostles to minister to neglected Hellenist widows, and whose death in Acts 7 parallels Jesus’ and leads to Paul’s conversion.
In the introduction, John Pilch summarizes the historical data concerning Stephen and his importance for the Acts of the Apostles. Then, the four chapters of this short work fill out the sociological and cultural context not only for Stephen, but for the early church and Paul’s role: Hellenists vs. Hebrews, the collectivist mentality of early Christianity (vs. modern individualism), ministry in the early church and the development of the diaconate—which does not begin with Stephen and the “seven deacons” chosen to “serve at table” (see below)—and, finally, Stephen as a holy man (“full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, Acts 6:5).
This book would be valuable in college courses or study groups on Paul, or the Acts of the Apostles or even early church history. It is part of a recent series edited by Bruce Malina: Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith. Six studies have appeared so far (Timothy, Stephen, Epaphras, and Onesimus in 2008; Lydia and Apollos, 2009). Most of the topics of Pilch’s study of Stephen are related to or dependent on other works he (and in many cases, Bruce Malina) have already published, especially Social Science Commentary on Acts of the Apostles (Malina and Pilch) and Introducing the Cultural Context of the New Testament (Pilch). The last chapter on Stephen as a holy man, which I found to be the least convincing since it is so distant from the biblical data on Stephen, presents data on shamanism and religious ecstatic trance experiences to illuminate Stephen’s final action (according to Acts 7) before being stoned: “he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Interesting and perhaps important in confronting modern skepticism about such experiences, but at this point Pilch doesn’t comment on the distinction between the historical Stephen and Luke’s portrait of him.
The most valuable chapter is undoubtedly Pilch’s correction of the traditional view concerning “deacons” and the origin of the diaconate. Modern commentaries on Paul note that the diaconate as a hierarchical office is problematic—and only somewhat clarified by the Pastoral Letters, which are later than Paul. Acts 6 says that, because the twelve needed to devote themselves “to prayer and to serving (diakonia) the word" (Acts 6:5, NRSV) seven Hellenists were chosen to “wait on (diakonein) tables”. Citing Pope Benedict XVI’s words that Luke never calls these men “deacons” (diakonoi) and acknowledging that his presentation is dependent on John N. Collins’ work, Pilch shows that the problem for the early community in Jerusalem was not waiting on table, but ministering to Hellenists in Jerusalem, an “outgroup” to the original Hebrews (including the twelve): the same group that Paul eventually will serve, after his “conversion” or change of perspective after observing the Hellenist Stephen’s death. The seven Hellenists in Acts are thus important for the early church’s mission to those outside the original Hebrew followers of Jesus. This enables us to understand Paul sociologically: his mission outside his own Hebrew context, as well as his alienation from his original Hebrew brothers.
Pilch uses this fact in his conclusion to justify that Stephen is part of Paul’s social network, even though Stephen was already dead before Paul began his missionary work.