Matthews’s central claim in Perfect Martyr is that Acts 6–7 is a rhetorical construction of Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, that is motivated essentially by an anti-Jewish agenda. This agenda portrays Jews as barbaric murderers but Christians as religiously superior given their ethic of mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps more disconcerting for Matthews is that the anti-Judaism of Acts has “been reauthorized and reinscribed in much modern biblical scholarship” (p. 14). In order to counter the violence and anti-Judaism that is perpetuated by Acts, Matthews suggests that one might offer “a better historical narrative than the one offered by Acts” (p. 10). These “better narratives” may instead portray Jews and Christians as getting along, as forming common anti-imperial alliances, and not insisting on their religious commitments as essential to their personal identity.
In her introduction and in ch. 1, Matthews sets forth some of her scholarly conclusions regarding Acts. At least three of these assumptions are crucial for her broader argument. First, the rhetoric of Acts is anti-Jewish and participates in developing the proto-orthodox supersessionist stance toward Judaism. Second, Acts is pro-Roman in that major portions of Acts have been written in order to stress the compatibility between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Third, Acts should be dated in the second or third decade of the second century C.E. The depiction of Jews as evil and persecutory, the emphasis on proof from prophecy, the glowing depiction of the Roman Empire, and the fact that the first external witness to Acts comes from Irenaeus suggest that it has been written in the early second century.
In ch. 2 Matthews notes the peculiarity of the martyrdom of Stephen in that (unlike other early Christian martyrdom tales such as Martyrdom of Polycarp) he is martyred solely by Jews and apart from Roman authorities. The rhetoric of Acts, then, intentionally depicts Jews as violent persecutors and absolves Rome from Stephen’s death. This rhetoric fits comfortably, according to Matthews, within the rest of Acts as the death of Jesus is frequently laid at the feet of the Jews (e.g., 2:22–23; 3:12–15; 4:8–10). The author may appropriate the actual Jewish heritage for his own group, but he denigrates only real (non-Christian) Jews. Matthews argues that Stephen’s speech is clearly anti-temple and suggests “that it would have been better had the temple never been built” (p. 69). Those engaging in temple worship are guilty of idolatry. Moving from temple criticism, Stephen then further slanders the Jews as prophet-killers. Further, this is not intra-mural argumentation, for Stephen refers to their fathers as “your ancestors” (7:51–52). Matthews emphasizes that whereas the trials of Jesus and Paul included Roman involvement, the martyrdom of Stephen is a purely Jewish affair. It is part of a larger strategy, therefore, of distinguishing Jews from Christians while simultaneously seeking to stay within the good graces of Rome. Thus, Matthews writes, “the perfect martyr dies not in Rome but in Jerusalem; not at the hands of the emperor but at the will of a barbaric Jewish mob” (p. 77).
In an appropriately titled chapter (“Disrupting Acts”) Matthews seeks to demonstrate that Acts and its portrait of the martyrdom of Stephen need not be read as the only historical account of the church and its first martyr. The strong structural and thematic coherence of Acts has unfortunately, according to her, “resulted in the pervasive tendency to read its version of events as the obvious and true account of early Christian history” (p. 79). First, Matthews invokes Hegesippus’s narration of the martyrdom of James brother of Jesus as a comparative text. James dies from three methods: being thrown off of the temple, stoning, and a beating by a club. The martyrdom of James arises not out of “faithful transmission of eyewitness testimony but rather to eyes trained on Scriptures, searching those Scriptures for details that can be ‘historicized’” (p. 84). In other words, the similarities between the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts and James in Hegessipus (e.g., conflict with the temple, a high Christology, and Jews engaging in mob behavior) are the result of similar attempts to construct the reason for the split between the Christians and the Jews. Both authors see the split as arising out of the murder of a “true Jew” by “barbaric and violent Jews.” A second strategy Matthews employs for countering the hegemony of Acts is to examine related texts which give evidence for more positive alliances between Jews and Christians in the first-century. She notes, for example, that according to Josephus there was great outrage by Torah-observant Jews at the murder of both John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus.
Finally, in ch. 4 Matthews takes up the merciful prayer of forgiveness offered by Stephen for his persecutors. This prayer is, according to Matthews, largely a façade as “Stephen, the character, may pray for mercy upon his tormentors, but Luke, the author, makes it clear that Stephen’s prayer has no consequence for those tormentors” (p. 99). Both Stephen’s and Jesus’ prayer in Luke’s Gospel function as assertions of the total discontinuity which exists between Judaism and Christianity and demonstrates the ethical superiority of the latter over the former. The prayer of forgiveness by the merciful martyr for the violent Jew demonstrates the enormous ethical gap between the two religions. Matthews suggests that the rhetoric of love for one’s enemy, however, has less to do with ethics and more to do with an identity assertion. These prayers mark the subject as ethically superior.
Matthews should be commended for her honesty and her straightforward assertions regarding her motivations in writing Perfect Martyr. She is clearly disturbed by the depiction of Jews as violent, by the depiction of the early Christians as (supposedly) pro-Roman, and by the audacity and hypocrisy of the Christian assertion of ethical/religious superiority. And insofar as Acts has been used by its interpreters to justify anti-Semitism and perpetuate negative and violent stereotypes, then Perfect Martyr may be useful in highlighting an inappropriate usage of Acts and other NT texts. Matthews’s arguments stand or fall, however, on assumptions which I find problematic. First, she does not demonstrate nor provide strong evidence for dating Acts to the second-century (110–120’s C.E.). Her assumption that Acts is a second-century document is crucial for her negative opinion of Luke as a reliable historian. It is also crucial for her rejection of the scholarly claims that Acts depicts the Christian apostles and the Jewish Leadership as engaged in intra-mural debate and argumentation—not outright anti-Semitism. I find her claim that Acts is attempting to gain the good graces of the Roman Empire flawed, and it is a pity that she does not interact with C. Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), who demonstrates that Acts is certainly not pro-Roman.