When the cat’s away: The background to St. Stephen’s martyrdom

St. Stephen painting

St. Stephen, the first recorded martyr of the New Testament, is laid to rest in Joan de Joanes’ 1560 work, “The Entombment of St. Stephen the Martyr.” But how did the Jews have the authority to stone St. Stephen, when just a few years earlier, they lacked the authority to execute Christ?

Scripture often takes us on some unexpected turns. Many times these surprises are due to the changing social backdrop that are unknown to us readers, but well known to the Scripture’s original audience.

For example, why did the Jews lack the authority to execute Jesus, but only a few years later in the Acts of the Apostles, are they able to execute St. Stephen? What changed? A quick look “behind the Bible” reveals something very interesting behind the contexts of these two deaths.

Christ’s death took placed under the reign of Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36), the fifth prefect of Judea.  Under the Roman provincial system, the Roman senate had jurisdiction over the peaceful providences of the empire. For providences that were less stable and needed closer supervision, however, they appointed a procurator who, with Roman troops at his disposal, was to ensure order.

Under the Roman procurator, the Sanhedrin was able to exercise a measure of freedom. One freedom they did not have was the power to execute; only Roman authorities could administer capital punishment. This is why the Jews had to secure Pilate’s approval and hand Jesus over to the Romans to be executed by crucifixion (John 18:31).

What happened to Pilate?

The last we hear about Pilate in the New Testament is when Christ’s disciples asked Pilate for permission to take down Our Lord’s body (Mark 15:43-44, Luke 23:52, John 19:38). After that, Pilate disappears from the pages of the New Testament, but not from history.

According to the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, Pilate was anything but a friend to the Jews whom he ruled. Instead of securing peace and tranquility for those in Judea, he caused disturbances and violence. Pilate’s ultimate downfall came when he order the slaughter of a large number of Samaritans. The Samaritans sent an embassy to Vitellius, who was the president of Syria, and accused Pilate of murder. Josephus tells us:

“So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried 10 years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but before he could get to Rome Tiberius was dead” (Antiquity of the Jews, 18, 4, 2).

Pilate’s recall to Rome, around A.D. 36, created a temporary power-vacuum or disorder within Judea. And as the old childhood rhyme says, “When the cat is away, the mice will play.” This period between procurators would have allowed the Jewish citizens the opportunity to carry out capital punishment without any real fear of Roman reprisal, and A.D. 36 fits perfectly with the timeframe in which St. Stephen was stoned to death.

This is one of those unexpected turns of Scripture where, if one didn’t know the political background behind St. Stephen’s stoning, it would appear that his stoning was inconsistent with what we know about Roman rule and its prohibition on non-Roman executions. Instead, his stoning makes perfect sense in terms of the social-political background at this time.

If there is anything this teaches us, it is that when we read Scripture, we ought to approach the text with a certain amount of intellectual humility. We don’t know everything, and what we don’t know can make things appear odd or out of place when in fact what Scripture records is perfectly true and accurate.


Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.