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The Book of Acts at 7:16-17 states that Jacob died and was "carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem."

But Genesis 50:13 teaches that Jacob was buried in the cave of Machpelah "before Mamre" which Abraham had bought along with the field for a burial site from Ephron the Hittite." Gen. 23:19 informs us that "Mamre is Hebron."

Gen 33:18-19 teaches that Jacob bought land from the sons of Hamor in Shechem, and Joshua 24:32 tells us that Joseph was buried at that site, in Shechem, "which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor."

This raises serious issues about the credibility of the Book of Acts. How could its author get the locations of the graves of the Patriarchs, and their history, so confused? Was there some reason to change the stories?

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For context, the statements about the burial come in the middle of a speech given by Stephen during his trial before the Sanhedrin. Thus it is not the Book of Acts per se stating these things, so much as recording what Stephen said. That said, interpreters have tried to make sense of Stephen's apparent mistake here for as long as there have been interpreters.

Part of the issue is that the obvious solution - that Stephen confused two purchases of burial land - has its own difficulties. Some interpreters1 have considered Stephen's fault to be in a single word - "Abraham" - and interpret Stephen as mostly alluding to Joseph and his brothers. While Jubilees says Joseph's brothers were buried with Jacob at Hebron, there are other traditions as well that they were all buried together at Shechem. Under this interpretation, Stephen simply mistook the original purchaser.

The difficulty with this reconstruction, though, (and others like it) is that nobody ever bothered to make a correction. Stephen is obviously one of Luke's heroes - indeed, probably no one in Acts is depicted more similarly to Jesus than is Stephen. So why didn't Luke fix up Stephen's supposed error? Similarly, none of the scribes who copied Acts made a correction here either; yet in many other places we find scribes "correcting" something in the manuscripts when they think it was wrong. So why not here?

This has led commentators to consider alternative options. Perhaps Stephen isn't quoting Scriptures at all but alluding to some local tradition. Perhaps Stephen uses some unknown variant of the LXX. Perhaps he considered Jacob's purchase as an agency for Abraham. Or perhaps because Shechem and Hebron are geographically not far from one another, they were considered one region in that day. Etc...

A number of modern commentaries,2 though, follow the approach of F.F. Bruce3 (at least he seems to be the originator as best I can tell) that Stephen creates an amalgamation of the two accounts in order to shorten it. Rather than take the time to explain that they carried the bones of Joseph to Shechem to be buried in the tomb purchased by Jacob and the bones of Jacob to Hebron to be buried in the tomb purchased by Abraham, instead he "telescopes" the narratives into a single one.

The basis for this idea is in other parts of the same speech. For instance, in Acts 7:2-3 Stephen combines the call of Abraham which happened in two separate accounts into a single account/calling. Or again in verses 6-7, Stephen combines God's statements to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-14 with God's statement to Moses in Exodus 3:12. In other words, there is already a pattern of this in Stephen's speech, so it shouldn't surprise us if he were to do the same thing here in verses 16-17. Why he does these things might be another question. But it might simply be that Stephen does this in order to shorten his already lengthy account.


1 cf. Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts

2 e.g. Bock (BECNT), Marshall (TNTC), Polhill (NAC), Witherington III (SRC)

3 The Book of Acts: New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT)

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What compounds the error is that the tradition that the patriarchs were buried in Hebron was well known in Stephen's day, especially so since Herod built the ediface at the Cave of Machpelah in honor of the Patriarchs (it still stands today). Stephen and Luke had to know that. –  Bruce James Apr 24 '13 at 15:24
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@BruceJames Exactly. That none of Luke's contemporaries corrected what to us looks like such an obvious mistake indicates that Stephen wasn't considered to be in error at all. –  Soldarnal Jun 7 '13 at 16:38
    
@Soldamal so what does that tell you about Luke? –  Bruce James Jun 7 '13 at 17:08
    
@BruceJames That he clearly understands his own culture and their manners of speaking much better than us? I think it says far more about us and our blind spots in interpretation if we consider something an obvious error that was no error at all. –  Soldarnal Jun 7 '13 at 17:27
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Stephen's interpretation is called "telescoping," conflating two very similar accounts into one. Telescoping was not an unusual phenomenon in the Land at the time. (Bruce, FF. The Book of Acts: New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT), pg 137, note 35). The account says nothing about Luke (the author) except that he was very careful to allow his speakers to say their own things. He even allows the enemies of Christianity to say their own thing about Christianity and Christian in very harsh terms (cf Acts 17:18 where the antagonistic philosophers refer to Christianity as "strange demons spirits" [most modern translations use "foreign gods"]).

One must also remember that the rules of scriptural inspiration and infallibility do not necessarily mean that what someone is quoted as saying is correct. It means that Scripture accurately records what they said. This is a good example. The speeches in Job are also great examples. Not all of the four friends can be correct as they contradict one another and Job. Similar to "descriptive" vs. "prescriptive" passages, it means we must interpret accordingly. It doesn't mean we must toss out the whole book.

Luke recorded Stephen's speech as he received it. However, what was inerrant was the fact that Luke recorded the speech, not necessarily the contents.

However, Stephen's midrash fits in quite well with other traditions in vogue from the time. Josephus records a tradition where the bodies of the other patriarchs were returned to Canaan and buried in Hebron in the cave of Machpelah (Antiquities 2:199). John 4:5 gives us another first-century tradition that Jacob gave Joseph his property near Shecem. For other traditions regarding the burial of the patriarchs, compare Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs "Reuben" 7:2; "Simeon" 8:2; "Levi" 19:5; "Judah" 26:3-4; "Issachar" 7:8; "Zebulon" 10:6, etc.). Stephen's midrash fits in quite well with the expansionistic, sometimes convoluted interpretations popular in the first century.

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Why would Luke record Stephen's mistakes? As I note in Soldamai's answer, Herod - a contemporary of Stephen and Luke - build a large synagogue on top of the Cave of Machpelah because it was known as the burial place for the Patriarchs. How would Stephen and Luke not know this and publish something that actually signals to knowledgeable Jews of the period that the book is anything but divinely influenced? –  Bruce James Apr 24 '13 at 15:32
    
Luke would record it because he is interested in preserving an accurate record of what his witness said. He can't go and change the words of his witnesses. Stephen shows a pattern of telescoping in his speech. And as the sources (for example, Josephus is a knowledgeable Jew of the same time period and his tradition doesn't match the Tanakh either), I point out show, traditions of the patriarch's burial were all over the place. Stephen is doing midrash, simple as that. Knowledgeable Jews of the period would be fine with midrash. –  Frank Luke Apr 24 '13 at 17:21
    
Your defense of Luke is noble, but those who consider Acts scripture must deal with its contradictions to other Biblical accounts as violating the belief that "All scripture is inspired by G-d" (2 Tim. 3:16), the advice of Paul to "...examine everything carefully" (1 Thes. 5:21), and the admonition to not "pervert[] the words of the righteous" (Deut. 16:19). As for Machpelah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, are buried in the cave. I believe there is a tradition that Ishmael's head is buried there, too. Genesis explains that the Patriarchs are all buried there. –  Bruce James Jun 6 '13 at 17:50
    
You think Luke should have changed the words of the speaker? –  Frank Luke Jun 7 '13 at 14:09
    
If Stephen goofed, why would he want to quote him? He (and Luke) lose credibility. –  Bruce James Jun 7 '13 at 16:16
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