Saul and Stephen
We first meet Saul in the narrative regarding Stephen in Acts 6-7. Saul was watching the garments of those who, in their anger were stoning Stephen to death. And Saul was consenting to this violent action (8:1).
There are a few details of this story that we should give attention to. The original opponents were men representing a synagogue of ex-slaves from various parts of the Diaspora. They could not counter Stephen in rational argument, so they produced "false witnesses" (6:13) to bring accusations against him.
What accusations were brought by these false witnesses? There seem to be two: speaking against the temple, and against the Law. Now, we need to remember that these charges were false. In what way would the speakers be false witnesses, unless the charges that they brought were false? But Saul seems to have believed them, as have many Christian interpreters through the years.
The false witnesses go on to elaborate, "We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." Their main (false) accusation is of Stephen promoting a change in the role of the temple and of the Torah. This sounds like standard doctrine that many of us have been taught. When the high priest asks Stephen if these charges are true, he responds with a lengthy denial, his speech in chapter seven.
Stephen's speech is a very orthodox retelling of the Jewish story beginning with Abraham and continuing through the building of the temple. He concludes it by stating that God does not dwell in temples made by men. He is in a sense detracting from their exalted view of the temple by claiming that God was not obligated to dwell in it.
But then he turns to the people and accuses them in return. First he accuses them of having uncircumcised hearts. What does this mean? This refers to a command by Moses in Deuteronomy 10:16 for the Israelites to circumcise their hearts. Physical circumcision was sign that they were God's chosen people, who had agreed to follow his laws. But these laws could be followed by rote, without mentally assenting to them. God wanted people to obey his Torah with all their hearts, that is, having circumcised hearts.
Stephen seems to confirm this understanding when he concludes his address by saying that the onlookers had received the Law, but had not obeyed it (7:53). This is quite a turnaround. They accuse him of advocating changes in the Law, and he accuses them of not keeping it. The implication is that he keeps it, in its existing form.
This accusation is reminiscent of Jesus (John 7:19) confronting people in Jerusalem with the statement, "Has not Moses given you the Law? Yet not one of you keeps the Law." Similarly, with this statement Jesus is implying that they should keep the law. He is not advocating changes. Stephen's statement is likely a conscious allusion to this saying of Jesus, destroying the case of his accusers.
Even though Stephen defends his Torah-observance in no uncertain terms, Saul seems to have believed the false witnesses. His misconception that the followers of the Way ignore and flout God's Law led to his persecution of believers over the ensuing months or years. It did not stop until he was confronted by Jesus in a vision, and then led to Ananias, a believer who Saul describes as "a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews" (Acts 22:12).
Learning About Paul