Was Stephen Confused?
Question: In his speech before the rabbinical council in Acts:7:15–16 Stephen said that Jacob was buried in Shechem “in the sepulchre that Abraham bought . . . of the sons of Emmor.” In clear contradiction, Genesis:50:13 says Jacob was buried in Hebron in the Cave of “Machpelah, which Abraham bought . . . of Ephron the Hittite.” Was Stephen confused? I find this very disturbing. Why didn’t God inspire him to say everything correctly?
Response: Since Luke is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we may be certain that Stephen said what Luke records. We can’t blame any mistakes upon Luke. The most obvious possibility, therefore, is that Stephen indeed was confused. Nor would that fact reflect badly upon the Bible, much less prove that the Bible is not God’s Word, as the skeptics would like to maintain.
Remember, the Bible records the words of many persons who were clearly not inspired of God: Adam and Eve’s excuses, Cain’s lie about being innocent of Abel’s murder, the lengthy speeches by Job’s “comforters,” Pharaoh’s denunciations of Moses and Aaron, King Saul’s fulminations against David, the High Priest’s accusations against Jesus, and on and on. The Bible does not guarantee the truthfulness of every speech that it records unless it is clear that the person was speaking under the inspiration of God.
Stephen is not said to be speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit any more than the many others whose words are recorded in Scripture. The Bible makes no attempt to hide the sins or errors of even its greatest characters, such as Abraham and David, so why should Stephen be protected from a slip of the tongue? However, let us look a bit deeper to see whether or not and to what degree Stephen was actually confused.
First of all, Stephen did not specifically state that Jacob was buried in Shechem. Here is that part of his speech: “So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he and our fathers, and were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem” (Acts:7:15–16). Stephen’s reference to “our fathers” did not include Jacob (“he and our fathers”) but rather his sons. It was the “fathers” who were buried in Sychem (Shechem). We know that Jacob was buried in the Cave of Machpelah next to the bones of Sarah, of Abraham, Isaac, and his wife, Rebekah, and of Jacob’s wife, Leah. Do we know that any of Jacob’s 12 sons, the “fathers” of the Jews, were indeed buried at Shechem? Yes.
We are told specifically that Joseph was buried at Shechem: “And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver” (Joshua:24:32). This agrees with the statement that “Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem . . . and he bought a parcel of a field . . . at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for an hundred pieces of money” (Genesis:33:18–19). If Joseph, one of the “fathers,” was buried in Shechem, it could well be that some of his brothers who were also “fathers” of the children of Israel were buried there as well. The Old Testament doesn’t tell us where they were buried, so we have no basis for saying that Stephen was inaccurate on that score.
A Possible Explanation
The only problem remaining is Stephen’s statement that Abraham bought the field in Shechem. While there is no record that Abraham was ever in Shechem, he may well have passed through this centrally located city in his many travels. He could even have bought a field there and years later Jacob purchased an additional portion of it. Thus we cannot be dogmatic that what Stephen said was not true. He may have known then what we cannot know today.
On the other hand, it may be that Stephen made a slip of the tongue, and it was recorded in the Bible exactly as he said it. He had to be under tremendous pressure, surrounded by those who hated and were going to kill him. He had all the elements of the truth together but got them slightly and understandably confused. Stephen was only an ordinary mortal. He could make mistakes like the rest of us, and it is refreshingly honest that the Bible lets us know about such mistakes not only with him but with others.
Yes, we are told that Stephen was “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom . . . full of faith and power [and] did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts:6:3, 8). Thus we learn that to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to be inspired of God doesn’t turn one into a mechanical robot incapable of human error—so long as one is not uttering prophecy, which must be without error.
Why Would God Let Stephen Err?
If Stephen did make a blunder, why didn’t God prevent him from doing so? Why should He? It made no difference. The rabbis didn’t even react. One reason for allowing this mistake (if that is what it was) and recording it could be to teach us the very lesson we have just mentioned. Another reason, no doubt, is to strengthen the Bible’s credibility in the eyes of honest seekers who are examining it to see whether or not they can trust it. In fact, the honest recording of this small inaccuracy is in the Bible’s favor.
If the Bible had been put together by deliberate fraud centuries or even years later and this speech was simply manufactured as part of a fictitious story, the forgers would surely not have made such a blunder. They could have and no doubt would have looked up in the Old Testament anything they were uncertain of to make sure they had it right. The Old Testament is consistent and forgers surely would have stuck to that story and avoided this seeming contradiction.
The fact that this apparent mistake in Stephen’s speech remains is one more proof that the Bible is an honest record. Furthermore, it shows us that no subsequent scribe dared to take it upon himself to “correct” the error. And that fact demonstrates once again the reverence with which the copyists handled what they knew to be God’s infallible Word and refrained from tampering with it, even when there seemed to be a mistake that needed correction.
—An excerpt from In Defense of the Faith (pp. 113-16) by Dave Hunt