Stephen Brought Before a Council Part 2 of 6
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
Which is called the synagogue of the Libertines.
The “Libertines” (Latin libertinus, a freedman or the son of a freedman) were Jews who were once slaves of Rome (perhaps descendants of the Jews taken to Rome as captives by Pompey), or Jews whose parents were born free, or had obtained their freedom at Rome, or were born in some free city under the Roman government, such as Paul at Tarsus; but were set free and settled in Jerusalem and were numerous enough to have a synagogue of their own, since they could not speak the language of the native Jews. There were many Synagogues there, but whether there were 480, as mentioned, no one knows. These places of worship and study were in all the cities where there were Jews enough to maintain one. Luke speaks here of five such synagogues in Jerusalem (that of the Libertines, of the Cyrenians, of the Alexandrians, of Cilicia, and of Asia). There probably were enough Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) in Jerusalem to have synagogues of their own. But the language of Luke is not clear on this point. But, leaving the number of the synagogues unsettled, it is certain that in each one where Stephen appeared as a Hellenist preaching Jesus as the Messiah he met opposition. Some of them “arose” or “stood up” after they had heard all that they could stand from him, and began “disputing with Stephen.” Such interruptions were common with Jews. They gave a skillful speaker the opportunity to reply if he has a quick wit. Evidently, Stephen was fully equipped for this emergency. One of their synagogues had men from Cilicia in it, making it practically certain that young Saul of Tarsus, the brilliant student of Gamaliel, was present and tried his best to match wits with Stephen. His humiliating defeat may be one explanation of his involvement in the stoning of Stephen “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death . . .” (Acts 8:1)..
A great many of the Christians in those early years were slaves, which is indicated by their names as given in Romans 16; but the Libertines had been freed. The places named below refer to non-Palestinian areas of the Roman Empire populated by Jews of the Diaspora (dispersion). Alexandria, if you exclude Rome and Jerusalem, was the largest Jewish city of antiquity; and Cyrene and Cilicia might have been mentioned by Luke because of their connection of Rufus, Alexander, and Simon with those cities, and the fact of Paul's being from Tarsus, the principal city of Cilicia. If we assume that there was only one synagogue, it would follow that the members of it were from these various nations.
There has been a very great difference of opinion about the meaning of this word, “Libertines.” The principal opinions, though, may be reduced to these three:
1. The word is Latin, and means a “freedman,” a man who had been a slave and was set free. Many have supposed that these persons were manumitted (manumit means to release from slavery or servitude) slaves of Roman origin, but who had become proselyted to the Jewish religion, and who had a synagogue in Jerusalem. This opinion is not very probable; though it is certain, from Tacitus (Ann., lib. 2:c. 85), that there were many persons of this description at Rome. He says that 4,000 Jewish proselytes of freed Roman slaves were sent to Sardinia at one time.
2. A second opinion is, that these persons were Jews by birth, and had been captured by the Romans, and then given their freedom, and were for that reason called “freedmen” or “liberties.” There can be no doubt that there were many Jews of this description. Pompey the Great, when he conquered Judea, sent large numbers of the Jews to Rome (Philo, In Legat. a.d. Caium). These Jews were set free at Rome, and assigned a place beyond the Tiber for a residence. These persons, according to Philo, were called “libertines,” or “freedmen.” Many Jews were also conveyed as captives by Ptolemy I. to Egypt, and obtained a residence in that country.
3. Another opinion is that they took their name from some “place” where they dwelt. This opinion is more probable from the fact that all the “other” persons mentioned here are named for the countries which they occupied. Suidas says that this is the name of a place. And in one of the fathers, this passage occurs: “Victor, Bishop of the Catholic Church at Libertina, says, unity is there, etc.” From this passage, it is clear that there was a place called “Libertina.” That place was in Africa, not far from ancient Carthage. See Dr. Pearce‘s Commentary on this place.
Cyrenians were Jews who were from “Cyrene” in Africa, where many Jews lived “Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene . . .” (Acts 2:10); some of the most noteworthy being Simon the Cyrenian, the father of Alexander, and Rufus, who carried the cross of Christ “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Mark 15:21). These Cyrenians along with those that follow, either belonged to the same synagogue along with the Libertines, or instead, they had their own distinct synagogues: and this should not seem surprising, since it is said that there were four hundred and eighty synagogues in Jerusalem.
“Alexandrians” were the inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt. That city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., and was populated by colonies of Greeks and Jews. It was one of the great cities of that time, and contained not less than 300,000 free citizens, and as many slaves. The city was the residence of many Jews. Josephus says that Alexander himself assigned to them a particular quarter of the city, and allowed them equal privileges with the Greeks. Philo asserts that the Jews inhabited two of the five parts of the city, and that there dwelt in his time at Alexandria and the other Egyptian cities not less than “ten hundred thousand Jews.” Amron, the general of Omar, when he took the city, said that it contained 40,000 tributary Jews. It was in Alexandria that the famous version of the Old Testament called the “Septuagint,” or the Alexandrian version, was put together. Undoubtedly, the Alexandrians had their own synagogue(s) at Jerusalem; since that is specifically mentioned in Jewish writings: it is said:
1. “the house of Garmu were expert in making of the shewbread, and they would not teach it; the wise men sent and fetched workmen from Alexandria in Egypt, and they knew how to bake as well as they. The house or family of Abtines were expert in the business of the incense, and they would not teach it; the wise men sent and fetched workmen from Alexandria in Egypt, and they knew how to mix the spices as well as they.”
2. “there was a brass cymbal in the sanctuary, and it was cracked, and the wise men sent and brought workmen from Alexandria in Egypt, and they mended it---and there was a mortar in which they beat spices, and it was cracked, and the wise men sent and fetched workmen from Alexandria, and they mended it.”
And of them of Cilicia.
“Cilicia” was a province of Asia Minor, on the seacoast, at the north of Cyprus. The capital of this province was Tarsus, the home city of Paul “The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying” (Acts 9:11).. Since Paul was from this place “Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people" (Acts 21.39)., and no doubt belonged to this synagogue, it is probable that he was one of those who was engaged in this dispute with Stephen “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:57, 58)..
And of Asia.
Asia as it is used here, refers to the region which had Lycia and Phrygia on the east, the Aegean shores on the west, the Egyptian sea on the south, and Paphlagonia on the north; in which were Ephesus the chief city, and Smyrna and Pergamus, and where there were many Jews, which might be the remains of those that were carried captive, and dispersed by Ptolemy Lagus; those who dwelt in Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamus spoke the Greek language.
Disputing with Stephen.
“Disputing with Stephen,” denotes heated arguments about the doctrine he preached, and the miracles he wrought, and by what authority he did these things; and probably included the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah; with a view to prevent the success of his preaching. This word does not usually denote “angry disputing,” but is commonly used to denote “fair and impartial inquiry”; and it is probable that the discussion began in this way, and when they began losing the “argument,” they resorted, as quarrels are apt to do, to angry insinuations and violence.