As others have noted, Luke’s accurate record of Stephen’s speech is not itself a claim everything Stephen says is accurate. Like a court recorder, Luke is simply giving an accurate report of what was said. In the courtroom (and Stephen is on trial) the court recorders accurate record of a defendant's testimony says nothing about the truthfulness of that testimony.
There are good reasons why Stephen's testimony might not be "wrong." As others have noted, he may be employing rabbinical midrash, or telescoping or conflating events for the purpose of illustrating a principle which he is using in his defense and these supposed “inaccuracies” may be purposeful to his defense. Expecting to be “cross examined” about his “inaccuracies” he has a response which will speak directly to the charges made against him. Unfortunately, there was no cross examination as the judges got angry and Stephen was executed. Thus, one purpose of Luke’s accurate record of Stephen’s speech is to show the illegal behavior of the Sanhedrin.
Nevertheless, Luke’s introduction of Stephen implies his speech should be seen as accurate:
Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. (Acts 6:9-10) [ESV throughout]
Luke implies this is not the first time Stephen has used these arguments and when others disputed with him, he had an answer which could not be refuted. In other words, when Stephen was called on his flawed historical record, he had an explanation. Since the proceedings recorded in Acts 7 were cut short, he did not have the opportunity to respond.
In this case the historical accuracy of his argument should be determined by considering his statements in light of the charges against him:
…“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14)
Stephen’s arguments need to be understood in terms of speaking out against this holy place (the Temple) and the Law and customs given by Moses.
Stephen’s defense is based on the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. Genesis records the two purchases:
Abraham’s Field & Cave:
And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (Genesis 23:3-4)
So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. (Genesis 23:17-18)
And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem's father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel. (Genesis 33:18-20)
The history of Israel begins with the purchase of two different fields by two different men. Both occurred before Moses, before the Tabernacle, and before the Temple. The one purchased in Shechem had an altar erected to the God of Israel.
If Stephen were a Samaritan the underlying principle of his defense would be obvious: there are two places and the one associated with worship is in Samaria. How can anyone hold to the singular importance of the Temple in Jerusalem given the historical reality Jacob purchased a field and built an altar to worship the God of Israel in Shechem?
The Scripture records these fields were used for burial of the Patriarch's (and some of their wives):
Sarah by Abraham (Genesis 23:19)
Abraham by Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 25:9-10)
Isaac by Esau and Jacob (Genesis 35:29, 49:31)
Rebekah and Leah by Isaac (Genesis 49:31)
Jacob by Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 50:13)
Joseph’s bones (Joshua 24:32)
There was also an extra-biblical tradition claiming Hebron was the burial site of Jacob's other sons:
men, after some time, carried their bodies, and buried them at Hebron: but as to the bones of Joseph, they carried them into the land of Canaan afterward, when the Hebrews went out of Egypt, for so had Joseph made them promise him upon oath. [Josephus - Antiquities 2:199]
Thus some believed all Patriarch's except Joseph were buried with Abraham in Hebron.
It is unquestioned Abraham’s purchase served as the burial site for himself and his sons Isaac and Jacob. On the other hand, Scripture states Jacob’s purchase served as the (final) burial site for Joseph. This fact is recorded in Joshua outside of the books of Moses. Moreover, Joseph’s request (Genesis 50) was only to have his bones carried out of Egypt. There was no specific location of either Abraham’s cave or Jacob’s field. So Joseph's burial request is revealed in Joshua, not the books written by Moses and it was not the site at which Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were buried.
Therefore, Stephen’s speaking “against Moses” is consistent with the history of the nation: regardless of its importance, the Torah must be seen as an unfinished work.
Second, Joseph’s burial was in a different site from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This undermines the importance of Temple in Jerusalem in four ways:
- There have always been two important and permanent sites.
- Joseph understood the second site was purchased for the purpose of his burial site.
- The second site was in Samaria not Judah.
- The second site contained an altar built by Jacob, not a Temple built by Solomon.
Thus, Stephen’s speaking out against the Temple in Jerusalem is also grounded in history. Joseph’s burial at Jacob’s field draws attention to the historical worship of the God of Israel at an altar (not a Temple) built by Jacob (not by Abraham) in Shechem (not Jerusalem). Again, Stephen’s speaking out against “this place” is consistent with the history of the nation.
Also the Temple which was believed to be standing on the site Abraham offered Isaac is in a different location from where Isaac was buried. Stephen has another piece of evidence undermining the importance of the Temple site.
The obvious error in Stephen’s speech is attributing Jacob’s purchase to Abraham:
… in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. (Acts 7:16)
Here it can be argued Stephen is employing the rabbinical midrash technique of telescoping events. All of Israel belongs to Abraham as an inheritance and for this reason ownership is Abraham’s not Jacob’s. Jacob can only inherit what belongs to Abraham and so any purchase Jacob makes cannot belong to Jacob. The principle at work is one of the legal equality of actions by father and son. In addition, possession of the land was never accomplished during the times the Patriarchs were alive (hence the importance of purchasing a site before receiving the inheritance).
Stephen uses this same principle in describing the burials: “our fathers” went to Egypt to purchase grain (7:12). Actually, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt. Stephen has oriented his current position in history in terms of the fathers of the twelve tribes. It was not the Jacob’s sons; it was the fathers of the tribes: Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Napthali, Issachar, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, and Joseph (who went before them).
And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem… (Acts 7:15-16)
This statement about Jacob was given in context of the burial of all of Jacob's sons and need not be taken to mean Jacob was (also) buried in Shechem. Perhaps this ambiguity is the "bait" Stephen has used to draw attention to what appears to be a mistake. When questioned, Stephen would respond by citing Scripture: Jacob is buried in Hebron and Joseph in Shechem.
What Stephen is disputing is the extra-biblical tradition Jacob's other sons were buried with Jacob in Hebron. Stephen's claim is all of Jacob's sons (our fathers) were buried in Shechem. He is not changing the burial site of Jacob. Rather, he is adding the site for Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Napthali, Issachar, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Manasseh, and Ephraim which is "missing" from Scripture.
While Stephen's claim all of "our fathers" were not buried in Hebron may be disputed, what cannot be challenged is Joseph was buried by Joshua in Shechem. The underlying principle in this portion of Stephen's defense is Joshua understood Jacob made arrangements for the burial of his sons just as Abraham made arrangements for Isaac and Jacob. Thus the undisputed elements of Scripture is Abraham made preparations for Isaac and Jacob in Hebron and Jacob made preparations for Joseph in Shechem. Stephen is not speaking out against either the Temple or Moses, he is simply giving a complete and accurate history of the nation and so if one is upset with Stephen it is only because they fail to accept the Scripture which is written.