Text in red represent my additions to these notes.
51. You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also.
With this verse St Stephen passes from the calm language of historical recitation to a vehement and direct denunciation of the historical wickedness of the people of Israel. He calls them stiffnecked, i.e., unwilling to bear the burden of any law; uncircumcised in heart, i.e., unfaithful to their promise and obligation of obedience to God’s law. This turn in the Saint’s discourse was likely due to some open manifestations of disapproval on the part of his hearers.
In calling his hearers a stiffednecked people, St Stephen is employing the denunciations of the Books of Moses (see Exodus 33:3-5, Deut 9:6, 13, 27). In describing them as uncircumcised in heart, Stephen is adopting the language of Jeremiah 9:24-26 (see also Jer 6:10). By accusing them of violating the Covenant of circumcision which God gave to Abraham (Acts 7:8), he is essentially accusing them of not being children of Abraham and, therefore, no longer open to receiving the promises if they maintain their current stance. The denunciation would, however, also call to mind the reversal of the covenant curses which were to fall upon Israel if the refused to listen and obey God. These curses (see Deut 28:15-68) would be reversed by God if the people repented, allowing God to circumcise their hearts, and the hearts of their descendents (see Deut 30:1-6). The response to Stephen’s speech shows which course his listeners took.
52. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers:
Which of the prophets, etc. See on Matthew 23:34-37; Luke 11:47-51 (see also Luke 6:23-26; 13:34). The Just One refers to the Messiah. The betrayers, etc. Those addressed were even worse than their forefathers, because they had betrayed our Lord Himself, and had handed Him over to Pilate for condemnation to death. The responsibility for the death of Jesus is here being laid at the feet of the rulers of the people (see Luke 23:10, 13; 24:20; Acts 4:8-11). Notice however that the theme of ignorance (Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17 is now abandoned by St Stephen. Ignorance allowed the original enemies of Jesus an opportunity for repentance through the preaching of the Gospel, but in rejecting this second chance they now show themselves unworthy of the promises to Abraham. For the full implications of this and the connection with Moses which it implies, see ACTS OF APOSTLES by Luke Timothy Johnson, pages 13, 14, 68, 73, 74).
53. Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
By the disposition of angels; i.e., through the instrumentality of angels, or at the dispositions or ministrations of angels. The angels were intermediaries in giving the Law (Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2).
54. Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him.
Father Callan offers no comment on this verse.
They were cut to the heart. The Greek διαπρίω = diapriō ) has the basic meaning of being cut in two. In the Ancient world a covenant was made by slaughtering animals and cutting them in two. The covenant participants would then pass through the cut pieces, declaring that what befell the animals would befall them if they broke the pact. That ritual may be behind the wording here. In describing the rulers as having their hearts cut in two a contrast is being drawn with the image of being circumcised in heart. Circumcision (a covenant ritual) involved a cutting, but not a severing. Luke, the author of Acts, is here also providing a contrast with the repentant Israelites who heard and responded to Peter’s Pentecost speech; they were described as being cut to the heart using a very different word (Greek, κατανύσσω = katanussō ) in Acts 2:37.
55. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
Note: this single verse (55) in Father Callan’s translation is two verse in most modern versions, including the NAB. In these versions And he said would open verse 56. For this reason, in the remaining verses of Chapter 7 I’ve included the NAB numbering in brackets.
The glory of God; i.e., a certain brightness or clearness that indicated the divine presence. And Jesus standing, as if to come to his assistance and welcome him to heaven. Stephen is here being shown as being a man of faith, like Abraham, whom he had described earlier in his speech as the recipient of an appearance by the God of glory (Acts 7:2). One might also say that here St Stephen achieves the status as an Apostle by seeing the risen Christ, just as one of his persecutors, Saul (Acts 7:58) will latter in the narrative (see Acts 9:1-5 and, especially, Acts 22:20).
56 (57). And they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him.
Stopped their ears, pretending to be shocked at the blasphemy of St. Stephen’s vision, of which they saw nothing. They hold their ears, thus justifying St Stephen’s description of them as uncircumcised in heart and ears.
Their acting with one accord is, perhaps, intended as a contrast with unanimity of faith exhibited by the Jerusalem Christians in Acts 2:46; 4:24; 5:12. It also calls to mind the fact that the events leading to the selection of Stephen as a deacon was acceptable to the whole multitude of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5).
57. (58) And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him ; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul.
Casting him forth; etc. The Law (Lev 24:14) prescribed that the blasphemer should be taken outside the camp of Israel and stoned to death.
Laid down their garments, etc.; i.e., their outer garments, so as to leave their arms free for action. The witnesses were the first to execute the sentence (Deut 17:7). The young man (νεανιου = neaniou) was St. Paul, who was then about thirty years of age. He was perhaps the chief of St. Stephen’s accusers, and this he made known to his companion St. Luke.
Luke Timothy Johnson, in his commentary on Acts, sees in the fact that the garments are laid as Saul’s (Paul’s) feet an indication that he was in some sense a leader of those who brought accusations against St Stephen, though he himself did not act as accuser. His reason for this is based upon Acts 4:35, 37; 5:2. In these passages Christians lay their offerings at the feet of the Apostles, a recognition of their authority and leadership in the community.
58 (59). And they stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying : Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
St. Stephen’s dying words were strikingly similar to those of His divine Master (Luke 23:34).
59. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying : Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. (8:1) And Saul was consenting to his death.
It is believed that this beautiful prayer of the dying martyr gained for St. Paul the grace which converted him.
The Greek word here translated as consenting (συνευδοκων= suneudoken) draws a connection with our Lord’s denunciation of the Pharisees and Scribes in Luke 11:37-52. In that passage he speaks of them in these words: Woe to you who build the monuments of the prophets: and your fathers killed them. Truly you bear witness that you consent to the doings of your fathers. For they indeed killed them: and you build their sepulchres.