– Two things should be noted right off the bat: it’s the longest single speech in the New Testament, and it doesn’t jive to well with a lot of the other New Testament in terms of critique – Stephen is much harsher in his condemnation of the temple than Luke is, for example.
– The two main passages of Scripture that Stephen quotes are Amos 5:25-27 (in verses 42-43) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (in verses 49-50. Respectively, these deal with the themes of idolatry and God using the world as a footstool – i.e., not contained in a house built by hands. I think from these two specific quotations and the general theme of the speech, it can reasonably be assumed that Stephen saw the temple as not only superfluous in light of Christ but as totally unnecessary and even wrong from the very beginning. The entire temple apparatus simply allows the idolatry that Stephen takes to be part and parcel of the Hebrew people a greater reign.
– Being rather convinced by Wright’s thesis that the temple at the time of Jesus was more or less a talisman of a violent and nationalistic religion, I think it can Stephen’s speech can also be reasonably seen as a critique of Jewish privilege. Stephen traces a lineage of turning from God and his oracles in v. 38-41 – and note that it is the oracles of God that Paul connects with the advantage or privilege of the Jew. Stepehen also effectively turns the tables on his accusers by arguing that in their betrayal and murder of Jesus, they were the ones who broke the law as delivered by angels (an invocation which establishes its legitimacy). So, whereas Paul points to the receiving of the oracles of God as a privilege or advantage of the Jew, Stephen sees the idolatry present in his fathers as causing them to reject these oracles. Being also generally convinced of Wright’s thesis that a problem with the Judaism of the time was that it had developed into a closed-off ethnic religion or identity, I think that Stephen can be taken to be arguing that the privilege of the Jew had turned into a hoarding of the oracles of God.
– More evidence here could be cited from the examples Stephen gives of God’s revealing and workings in Hebrew history – such revelations are not restricted to certain people in the Holy Land but rather wherever God’s faithful servants can be found – Egypt, Mesopotamia, wherever. In his narrative, Stephen seems to connect the building of the temple with the stagnation of Israel’s religion.
– A very interesting transition occurs between v. 39 and v. 51 – in the former, Stephen refers to ‘our fathers’, who refused to obey Moses. In the latter, Stephen refers to ‘your fathers’, who resist the Holy Spirit in the same way that Stephen’s accusers do. What I think is happening here is summed up by Bruce Metzger in ‘The New Testament, It’s Background, Growth and Content’:
‘The reader can detect in the speech overtones of a growing awareness that the new faith could not be limited by Judaism and that it was the true goal of Hebrew history. The seeds of theological revolution lie within Stephen’s challenge of the alleged privilege of the Jews, and the logic implicit in his argument opened the way for a Christian mission to the Gentiles. In short, Stephen stands for a Christianity that was coming to realize its independence and self-sufficiency and was beginning to feel that it must either absorb Judaism or break with it.’ (p. 189)