There are several reasons to suspect that this verse is spurious. It was most likely added by mistake as an interpolation – where someone’s personal note (perhaps scribbled in the margin, or written between the lines) got moved into the main text when later scribes came to make copies. The scribes simply didn’t know if the words were part of the text or not, and added them to be safe.
Why do we suspect this verse? For several reasons:
- It contains factual errors.
- There is great disagreement between the manuscripts on the wording.
- It breaks the chronology.
- Removing it causes no problems, and makes the passage flow better.
If it had been written as someone’s personal note, and that person didn’t really know what they were talking about, later people (who didn’t realize that it was spurious) probably tried to correct this ‘verse,’ and then created multiple different versions of it.
Let’s look at the reasons to suspect it in more detail:
1. Greek says ‘they,’ Aramaic says ‘he’, and both may be wrong.
The Greek source texts say that ‘they’ (meaning, their bodies) were taken to SheChem and laid in a tomb. However, Joshua 24:32 only records them burying the bones of JoSeph there. Of course, it’s possible that others were too, but that is not recorded anywhere. Further, when 1st-century historian Josephus describes the account, he only reports that others were buried at Hebron, not SheChem. This means that 1st century Jews did not generally believe that multiple people were buried in SheChem.
The Aramaic version of this verse says something different: that only ‘he’ (Jacob) was taken and buried in SheChem. Yet Jacob wasn’t buried in SheChem. Genesis 50:13 says he was buried in a double cave in Hebron, 40 miles away!
2. AbraHam did not buy the burial place in SheChem.
This verse says that the burial place in SheChem was bought by ‘AbraHam.’ However, this is incorrect. According to Genesis 33:18-19, it was bought years later by Jacob.
People have proposed several answers to this. Some say that Stephen simply got his facts wrong. Others say that Stephen meant that the tomb was bought on behalf of AbraHam. Yet others say that the word ‘AbraHam’ is a later false addition.
It is hard to imagine that Stephen would get such a simple fact wrong. There is no reason to attribute the purchase by Jacob to being on behalf of AbraHam, who was buried elsewhere. The word AbraHam could be a false addition though, but it would not explain the other problems with this verse described here.
But simple factual errors are typical of false additions, especially interpolations – since they only began as someone’s personal notes, and were never meant to be copied by others.
3. Manuscripts differ on the wording.
In most Greek manuscripts, it says that the tomb was bought by AbraHam from the sons of Hamor in (the city of) SheChem. However, the Aramaic does not contain the words ‘in SheChem’. That’s rather odd.
Also, the Greek Alexandrian family of manuscripts does include the words, but says ‘of SheChem’ instead of ‘in SheChem’ – as if SheChem is a person, not a city!
Again, this sort of confusion between manuscripts is typical of false additions.
4. It breaks the narrative.
Stephen is providing a chronological summary of Jewish history. One event is followed by another. Yet this verse breaks that smooth order of events. If we would believe this verse to be genuine, then he mentions Jacob coming down to Egypt, then their bodies being buried in the promised land in SheChem, and then moves back to Moses. Yes, the events are not only factually incorrect – but they’re in the wrong order! Yet if we remove this ‘verse,’ the chronology flows.
Again, this is typical of false additions. After all, a false addition is very likely to break a narrative, because it was not meant to be there.
5. If we remove it, no harm is done.
As is typical for false insertions, removing it causes no harm to the text. It still reads perfectly fine, and since the chronology is no longer broken, removing it actually improves the text by making it flow better.
Conclusion: a probable fake
What a great number of problems in a single verse! Yet this is quite typical of false insertions in the Bible. Not only are they factually wrong, but they break the narrative, there is variation in the wording between manuscripts – probably from different people trying to ‘correct’ the errors in the ‘verse’ in different ways – and when you remove all this, the passage either still makes perfect sense, or makes more sense.
Here’s what may have happened:
An early Christian preacher added a note between the lines, perhaps for a sermon he was going to give. He decided to add the detail that Jacob was later buried in the promised land. However, he confused two events: (1) when Jacob was taken and buried in Hebron inside the same cave that AbraHam had bought for his own burial, and (2) when Joseph’s bones were taken and buried in SheChem after the Exodus.
For whatever reason, nobody picked up on the error, and when scribes needed to make more copies of the scroll of Acts (for use in other churches), they copied the note along with the rest of the text. The note then became part of the Bible.
Later, some people realized that the ‘verse’ had factual errors. Scribes probably assumed that the errors were created by previous scribes copying the verse incorrectly. So different ones tried to fix the text in different ways. This created the disagreements between the different Greek manuscripts that we see today, and the version we find in the Aramaic translation.
Obviously it may have happened in some other way, but we feel that this is a good candidate.
As of 2022, we have no direct manuscript evidence that this verse is a later false addition. It would be wonderful to find an ancient manuscript where this verse doesn’t appear. Maybe it will be found one day, but our oldest manuscripts of Acts only date to the 3rd or 4th centuries, as much as 300 years after it was written. If the error appeared very early, say 50 years after it was written, then there is little hope of ever finding manuscript proof.
For the time being, we only have our strong suspicions.