15

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?

14

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.

  • 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
10

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)

  • 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
  • 2
    @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
  • 4
    @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
2

Background

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.

Purchases

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)

Jacob’s Field: 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?

Buried

The Scripture records these fields were used for burial of the Patriarch's (and some of their wives):

Abraham’s Cave:
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)

Jacob’s Field:
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.

Stephen’s Defense

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:

  1. There have always been two important and permanent sites.
  2. Joseph understood the second site was purchased for the purpose of his burial site.
  3. The second site was in Samaria not Judah.
  4. 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.

Stephen’s “Error”

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.

1

Where were the patriarchs buried ? How many burial places did Abraham buy? Is there any contradiction involved ? There are three relevant Bible passages that give us some information that can help us come to a fair conclusion and resolution of issues:

The first reference is regarding the burial place of Jacob as recorded in Genesis 50:12,13: "Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place."(ESV)

The second passage is also about Jacob's burial place from the speech of Stephen in Acts 7:15,16: And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were 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.(ESV)

The third relevant verse is regarding the burial place of Joseph as recorded in Joshua 24:32: "As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph."(ESV)

A little background information could be useful here. Jewish law, though it said little about burial, forbade shifting of burial places. But in Bible times, burial places outside a town or city were shifted as the town or city expanded, to be always located outside the town or city limits.(Prophets and kings were however buried within the city.) Further, dead bodies could be shifted from original grave to graves of parents or close relatives. Also, collecting of bones and putting them away in ossuaries was common then. So shifting of burial places were not taboo or strictly prohibited in those times. In fact one could argue that it is more out of place or uncommon to shift burial places or remove bones nowadays than it was in Bible times.

See:

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0005_0_05253.html http://www.bible-archaeology.info/tombs.htm

Coming back to the issues in question, on the face of it, there is indeed a direct contradiction of facts about the burial place of Jacob as recorded in Gen.50:12,13 ( as being in Machpelah near Hebron) and as spoken by Stephen (as being in Shechem) in Acts 7:15,16. But this problem is resolved quite easily.

Note that both the Genesis and Acts passages say that it was Abraham that bought both the burial places in Hebron and Shechem respectively (likely at different points in time). The distance between Hebron, close to which place was the cave of Machpelah, and Shechem is over about 140 kilometers. It is absurd to think it was a mixup of places or names between the Genesis and Acts passages. The passages therefore contain deliberately emphasised similarities and differences that needs reconciliation that does not discredit the veracity of both references. Following this principle, one can conclude that Abraham bought not just one but two pieces of land - the cave of Machpelah and the other one at Shechem from the sons of Hamor. Now, where then was Jacob buried ? At Machpelah as the Genesis account says or at Shechem as Stephen says in Acts 7 ? Note, we need to take both the passages as true historical records. Here is a simple attempt at reconciliation. Jacob could indeed have been buried in Machpelah near Hebron first, and then his bones shifted to Shechem (unrecorded in Biblical accounts, but nevertheless plausible, given the prevailing/antecedent practices)and buried there along with his sons (See Acts 7:15,16). In this case, there need be no contradiction and both the Genesis 50:13 and Acts 7:15,16 passages are reconciled.Stephen, in his Acts speech, probably ignored the first burial place of Jacob and only mentioned his subsequent burial place at Shechem, which was probably common knowledge in his time.

There is another conflict of recorded facts in Acts 7:15,16 and Josh. 24:32 (which passage refers to the burial place of Joseph).The Josh.24:32 passage says that Jacob bought a parcel of land from the sons of Hamor which was used to bury Joseph whereas Acts 5:15,16 states that it was Abraham who bought a piece of land from the sons of Hamor wherein Jacob was supposedly buried. The problem here is not the place, Shechem, but rather a question of who bought the plot ( or plots)- Abraham or Jacob. Here is an attempt at reconciliation of both references taking both those passages as true records : Jacob could indeed have bought an additional plot in Shechem from the sons of Hamor ( even adjoining/abutting the one Abraham bought earlier on from the sons of Hamor ) wherein Joseph could have been buried later as recorded in Joshua 24:32. The conflict is thus resolved.

To conclude, there need be no contradiction of facts regarding the burial places of the patriarchs as recorded in Gen. 50:12,13 and Acts 7: 15,16 if one is willing to accept that, unrecorded in the Bible, Jacob's body (or bones) could have been shifted from Machpelah to Shechem.Stephen was probably referring to the final known resting place of Jacob's remains. There need be no conflict as to the burial plot at Shechem, as recorded in Acts 7:15,16 and Josh.24:32 if one is willing to accept that both Abraham and Jacob bought adjoining plots at Shechem from the sons of Hamor at different points in time respectively to form one big plot ( unrecorded explicitly in the Bible, but nevertheless very plausible), which was the last Biblically recorded resting place of the remains of Jacob, Joseph, his descendents, and his brothers.In fact, this is in perfect agreement with the known practice of burying close relatives ( in this case it was Jacob's remains that was moved closer to his sons.)

0

There are many things in ancient history that can't be corroberated. The potential for Stephen to make a blunder and for Luke to record it is highly unlikely. We must remember two things: First, the audience (Sanhedrin) would have legitimate grounds to dismiss Stephen as credible if he were to make such mistakes. Therefore, many possibilities have been offered to reconcile his speech in light of Old Testament history. Some of these options are very likely and some are absolutely ridiculous. Ultimately, it will be a verdict that will be based on faith and no doubt the transparent honesty of the biblical authors and copyists to record what they had is nothing short of remarkable. They do not do themeselves or anyone else favors to embrace Christianity by recording alleged errors in the text as they are displayed. The temptation to edit would be quite high and yet you see very little of this throughout the transmission of the biblical text. Scripture as a whole has shown itself to be very reliable despite the challenges against it. Faith will be the determining factor on whether or not one will embrace or dismiss biblical Christianity or any other system of belief for that matter for exhaustive certinty is impossible for finite, human minds. However, I agree with skeptics regarding that Christians many times change their views of inspiration in order to save themselves from legitimate challenges from opponents. However, what must be stated against the skeptic is that just because a contradiction is a possibility, does not mean it is the definitive answer for the overall historical reliability of Scripture as a whole is quite good. Now I am a Christian but I believe the skeptics have many legimate points that we Christians should take seriously.

We must remember that we will make very important decisions based on limited information even with all the knowledge we have available in 2015. When judging ancient history we must be careful that our prejudices both for and against system of beliefs be kept as minimal as possible. We must note that Scripture itself supercedes other ancient by its claims that our lives are bound by its authority which other ancient historical documents many times comapred with it do not claim. In some regards it is alright to compare biblical documents with others to attest to its veracity and yet there can be manipulation involved for the Bible as a whole claims to have no errors and what that means depends upon who you ask. As a Christian it should be irritating and is such when ridiculous proposals are given instead of saying this is far as we can go and I at this point I do not know how to answer your objection. To the skeptic I would say be careful for if an answer now is not available does not mean that one does not exist. The example of Israel becoming a nation after 1900 years of nonexistence is just one example of how we need to always be cautious. If someone seeks the options regarding the reconciling Stephen's speech, I will leave them to search out these matters for themselves.

-4

These are plain contradictions. This is not the only contradiction between Genesis and Act. For instance, Genesis states that seventy souls descended into Egypt. Yet Acts 7.14 states seventy five souls went down into Egypt.

Yes, This raises serious issues about the credibility of the Book of Acts. How could its author get the number of souls who descended into Egypt wrong; along with the person who purchased the burial place of Joseph and the burial place of Jacob?

There is what is known as "the two witness rule" upon which the truth of a matter is decided. Here, since Acts contradicts the Jewish Bible in more than one place, we can safely reject the erronious accounts given in Acts 7 as not being the truth.

protected by Community Aug 23 '17 at 10:02

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