Looking at Scripture Mastery – Acts 7:55-56
Greek: 55 ὑπάρχων δὲ πλήρης πνεύματος ἁγίου ἀτενίσας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἶδεν δόξαν θεοῦ καὶ Ἰησοῦν ἑστῶτα ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 56 καὶ εἶπεν, ἰδοὺ θεωρῶ τοὺς οὐρανοὺς διηνοιγμένους καὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ δεξιῶν ἑστῶτα τοῦ θεοῦ.
My Translation: 55 But being filled with the Holy Spirit, he looked earnestly into the sky, he saw the glory of God and Jesus set by the right side of God, 56 and he said, “Look! I see the heavens drawn apart [some manuscripts “opened wide”] and the son of man set by the right side of God.”
KJV: 55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing > on the right hand of God, 56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Update May 2013
This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
A Quick Note
It's a lot of fun to write these posts, but I want to do even better. So I'm slowing down the pace in order to give each individual post some time to hopefully spread through the Internet. A new Scripture Mastery post should appear every Monday and every Thursday. I'm asking anyone who has been enjoying this series to please comment, share/post links, ask questions, post rebuttals, and what have you. I'm relatively confident in what I'm doing, but I've already been able to find and fix some problems in previous posts due to people getting involved. Share you experiences in Seminary or Sunday School about these scriptures. Ask questions about other areas and scriptures (I can only really answer translation questions about the New Testament personally, though I feel rather confident in my knowledge of the “Old Testament”, better called the Hebrew Bible, too). And if you're enjoying this, please just drop a quick note to say so. Just a quick “Thanks” or “Cool beans” really makes my day. Thanks! Now onto the post!
The Context: Stephen's Martyrdom in Acts
We're back to an author we've seen before! The book of Acts is unique in the New Testament: it is the only sequel. The author of Acts is the same person as the author of the Gospel of Luke. Luke is often the favorite evangelist of people to read: he likes to focus on people and stories instead of on dense sermons and dialogs. And here in Acts it is no different. The verses in question are not part of a sermon delivered on the nature of God, but are in fact the last words of a long, emotional exposition on Jewish history, delivered by the movement's (apparently) first martyr (not counting Jesus).
In the Book of Acts, the main character is no longer Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, but is rather the Holy Spirit, who is the main mover and motivator of the many stories. The entire book is about how the good news of Jesus the Messiah's death spreads from a small group of followers in Jerusalem and Galilee to many cities in Greece and Asia minor (modern-day Turkey). It's split up into two parts, the first is the story of Peter and how the “way” (Luke's name for the movement that seems to be the original Christian term for their diverse movement) endured through the initial growing pains of being led by human beings into new areas of the world both physically and theologically (though there's some good evidence that Luke is cleaning up the complexities of the real history he's covering and simplifying the story considerably), and the second is how the conversion of a bitter enemy, Saul of Tarsus, leads the movement to the Gentiles and eventually to the whole world. The verses in question comes from the first part of the work. Peter and the other apostles have elected seven men to help them administer the needs to the young movement so that they can be free to preach as missionaries. However, these seven men quickly become preachers and missionaries themselves, so it's unclear to me how well this plan was thought out.
The martyr is Stephen (a Greek name, perhaps a glimpse of an early Gentile convert to the movement before the traditional start as related by Luke where Peter is given a vision of unclean animals he is told to eat), who has just finished telling the Jewish leaders how wicked they are and how they are following a pattern of wickedness throughout their history that has led up to their crucifying Jesus even though he fits into this pattern of their history as well and that they are murderers and lawbreakers because of it. (The sermons that Luke gives to his main characters in much of Acts are really quite inflammatory texts, so it's little wonder that the speakers keep having trouble with their audience.) He then proclaims that he sees Jesus in vision with God, and the crowd are so incensed that they decide to stone Stephen to death on the spot.
Jewish leaders did not have the authority to kill Judeans without Roman approval. This is usually given in Sunday School as the explanation for why Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, was involved in the sentencing and execution of Jesus (and indeed that was probably why the Romans were involved, but if so, we've lost record of what Jesus's crime against Rome actually was). But here in this story we have the Jews killing someone without any apparent legal problems. Perhaps one of the executions, of Jesus and of Stephen, didn't occur as written, then? Perhaps in the case of Stephen's death this story of the leaders of the Jews executing Stephen for blasphemy is based on early traditions of Christ followers being beaten up and killed by vigilante mobs or other, less authoritative groups than the Sanhedrin of the Jews. Perhaps Luke wants to express the violent trouble that early Jesus followers were having and so he takes the historical martyr Stephen and turns his story into an somewhat mythologized, exemplary tale of early Christian martyrdom and persecution that many unnamed people faced. There's no way to know, of course. It's all supposition, but Luke is not what we in the 21st Century would consider a “historian,” but is more of a propagandist. He's using history as a tool to express his message.
Also note that we are given a glimpse into the last, inner moments of Stephen. We aren't just told what he said he saw before the crowd decides to kill him, we are told what he saw before he died. Of course, it's the exact same thing that he said he saw, but Luke as narrator gives us a view of Stephen's vision that nobody else could have seen. Since the author of Luke-Acts, whoever he (or possibly she) was, never claims to divine revelation as one of their sources, we can assume that this vision of Stephen's has some artistic perspective applied to it (and even if the historical Luke who is traditionally viewed as author wrote it, he was an ancient doctor and convert to the movement and not an apostle or other source with divine authority, just a historian). Did Stephen really say what he thought he saw at the end of his sermon? Were his words accurately conveyed through the intervening decades between his death and the writing of Acts? Who kept the tradition alive all of those years, and how much did the story grow or change during that time? And above all, how strongly should we view Stephen's vision as we have it in Acts 7 as a statement of doctrinal importance?
But anyways, enough of the context and questions (though I could literally go on for a thousand more words about the book of Acts, which is without a doubt one of my favorite New Testament works as even the author can't scrub out the messiness of humanity evident in the small group of Jesus followers he is chronicling). Why was this scripture chosen by CES for LDS youth to study and memorize to help them throughout the rest of their lives? Well, on the surface, this appears to be a scripture that fully supports the idea of the now-risen Jesus as a divine figure. Stephen proclaims to the Jews around him that his spiritual leader, the executed Rabbi Jesus, is now set next to God himself. Stephen is proclaiming the power and authority of Jesus in the coming Kingdom of God, which, more than anything it seems, incenses Luke's villains who then agree to kill him. So it seems to be a scripture supporting Jesus as God's divine messenger, and would thus be a perfectly appropriate scripture in Christian and LDS theology, except that we've already covered other scriptures that would say as much and there are other more-famous New Testament scriptures that are not part of the scripture mastery list that also say as much.
So it seems that for Mormons, again, this scripture says so much more. Mormons in Seminary and Institute usually interpret Stephen's proclamation literally: Stephen actually saw Jesus standing on the right side of God. In other words, Stephen saw two people: Jesus and God, and they were next to each other. Jesus is even identified as standing on the right-hand side of God. So Stephen saw two people, just like Joseph Smith claimed to see in (one of the accounts of) his First Vision. And God must have been visible, and not some mysterious spirit, because Stephen saw him enough to know that it was God and that Jesus was standing next to him. Ergo, this is a vision that confirms the rather non-traditional LDS idea of an embodied God the Father and speaks against the (again, completely mistaken) idea of the Trinity being a Modalist God. This popular narrative that the LDS viewpoint helps illuminate aspects of the Bible that have confused regular Christians for millennia arises yet again (I'd love to talk about this rather arrogant viewpoint when it comes to the baptism of Jesus, where it usually reaches it's most appalling mockery, and will perhaps do some once I am finished with this Scripture Mastery series). Because obviously, if more Christians just read their Bible they'd see this stuff, right? (The same could be said of hyper-patriotic American Mormons reading their Book of Mormon, though, to be fair. If they read it closer they'd see that it's not nearly the pro-American, pro-Democracy work they often purport it to be.)
So what are we to make of the common LDS perspective? Is it valid? Yes, it is valid. From a literal perspective, much (though not all) of this view holds. Of course, this scripture says nothing about whether the Father (or even the Son) has a body, and as we've discussed before, the usual Mormon idea of the Christian Trinity is actually heretical itself, and is called Modalism and while many average Christians might subconsciously adhere to it or even teach it, it was denounced as a heresy even before the Arian controversy in the 4th Century. But you can validly read it as a statement of Stephen seeing two individuals next to each other in vision.
But should this scripture be taken literally? I'd argue against it. First of all, the questions surrounding the context bother me. If there is a doctrinal point to be made, there are better places to make it than from the mouth of a person who is about to die and be thus unable to further explain the importance of what he has seen, and there are better people to relate it than an anonymous historian who enjoys creating sermons and speeches for his characters to say some thirty to forty years after the fact. So off the bat, I already have serious doubts about the importance that the author meant to place behind this statement.
Secondly, the less-literal interpretation is just as valid. Stephen has finished a long exploration of Jewish history, covering how God has given his people laws and prophets to guide them and how the people often reject them. He then accuses the people of having broken the Torah by killing God's latest messenger of Jesus, and finishes by proclaiming that Jesus is a messenger of God because he sees him in vision with God. The vision as described could mean that Jesus is standing on the right-hand side of God literally, or it could be that Jesus is set (also a valid interpretation of the verb) in a position of authority in relation to God. Jesus is God's “right-hand man,” in other words.
“To sit at the 'right hand' of the king was an honor (see 1 Kgs 2:19). In Ugaritic myth* the artisan god Kothar-and Khasis is described as sitting at the right hand of the storm god Baal. See G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends, 61-62.” (Net Bible, Psalm 110:1, Footnote 4)
*Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabetiques 4 v. 108-10
So it could be less a statement of their separateness and more a statement that Jesus is indeed who Stephen said he was: a divine messenger approved of and sent by God. And, in the context of Stephen's sermon on Jewish history leading up to the wrongful death of Jesus, it seems that this is the emotional climx where Stephen gets to say that Jesus's position in God's plan is supreme. In context, it seems to be a very odd place to put any sort of statement on the nature of God, and appears to be merely a statement on the authority of Jesus. Saying that God is embodied would have bothered 1st Century Jews far less than saying that the radical preacher that had been executed a few years before was God's messenger and that they are thus murderers and sinners against God. Which implication would have led to Stephen's death? That the executed Jesus was now in a position of authority.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
To me, it seems we've already covered the authority and position of Jesus enough in previous scriptures as given (“Jesus Christ, whom [God] has sent”). Thus, I see little reason to pluck this relatively innocuous verse from its obscurity in Acts and elevate it to the status of one of only 25 scriptures to memorize from the New Testament. There are so many other things that could have been pulled from Acts, but this one made the cut. I think the biggest reason is again because it is viewed as an anti-Trinitarian scripture (which it is not; it is at most an anti-Modalist scripture). It adds very little else to an understanding of Jesus in LDS theology apart from this stance. Again, I would not be surprised to see this scripture dropped from any future reformulation of the Scripture Mastery list. It is used to argue against an incorrect conception of what the debate over Mormon-Christian theology is about.