Acts 7:60 tells us of the death of St. Stephen by stoning. At the end of the verse, most translations read “he fell asleep”. The New Revised Standard Version gives us “he died”, and the Latin Vulgate gives us “he slept in the Lord”. The Greek manuscripts of Acts available to me literally say that Stephen fell asleep. Why the difference?
The Translator’s conundrum
Translators are faced with many decisions as they create a translated text from a source written in another language because languages do not correspond one to the other on a word by word basis, and literal translation of idiomatic phrases (such as the English ‘break a leg’ to a performer meaning good luck while not tempting fate) can leave the reader quite puzzled.
So, too, is the translation of euphemisms, semitisms, Hebraisms, and other quirks of a language – what should be left intact and what should be written in a way that is more clear and edifying to the reader? How much should be left in older styles to preserve tradition and the wonderful turns of phrase in it (particularly the King James version in English)? How much should be translated, transliterated (rendered using a different language’s letters) or transcribed (using the sounds of one language to render a word in the letters of a different language)?
All said, the translator cannot shift from one language to another without understanding the meaning of the words in the original language. For that reason, all translations are in one way or another subjective and interpretive, and for bible translations rules of the road are set by the group doing the work to have consistent results and break ties in things like gender bias, flowing with the King James, poetic versus clear descriptions, and the like.
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV or NRS) uses rules of the road broadly agreed on by scholars in providing an accurate translation that maintains the (scholarly consensus) meaning of the text with precision in modern English. It’s not perfect, no translation is, and I don’t read the source languages without special tools to pick through word by word.
The Death of Stephen
In Acts 7:60 New Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation [NLT] stand apart from most others (King James [KJV], New King James [NKJ], New International Version [NIV], Revised Standard Version [RSV], et al.) in giving us “he died” versus “he fell asleep.” Why? I can offer an educated opinion. First, let’s set the stage with translations and sources.
NRS: Acts 7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
KJV: Acts 7:60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Byzantine New Testament [BYZ] Acts 7:60 Θεὶς δὲ τὰ γόνατα, ἔκραξεν φωνῇ μεγάλῃ, Κύριε, μὴ στήσῃς αὐτοῖς τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ταύτην. Καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐκοιμήθη.
Clementine Vulgate (Latin) [VULC] Acts 7:59 Positis autem genibus, clamavit voce magna, dicens: Domine, ne statuas illis hoc peccatum. Et cum hoc dixisset, obdormivit in Domino. Saulus autem erat consentiens neci ejus.
It is important to be clear for the reader that Stephen has been killed especially inasmuch as Paul will later be stoned (and unconscious) to wit: “But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” (Acts 14:19 NRS) The author’s intention in 7:60 seems to be conveyance of the news that Stephen has died with his faith intact and as a martyr to the Gospel. A common Christian euphemism for this state is sleep (until the general resurrection). Consider, for instance, the story of Lazarus:
After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
John 11:11-14, NRS
Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”
The NRSV and the NLT are consistent with this specific word, ἐκοιμήθη (ekoimēthē) which, in this form, occurs only twice in the New Testament (Acts 7:60 and Acts 13:36). In both cases, the NRSV and NLT give us “died”, translating the word as meaning “expired” as in “breathed his last”. And in both cases, it is clear that the meaning is that they had expired, had died, and in both cases, the meaning of the verse could be obscure as in John 11:11-14 above without clearly stating that person is dead.
Acts 13:36-37, NRS: For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption; but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption. (Acts 13:36-37 NRS)
Acts 13:36-37, KJV: For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption: But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption. (Acts 13:36-37 KJV)
However, when clarity allows direct use of the underlying word, the NRS changes in favor of tha tword as we see with two other examples from the same Greek root in a different form , κεκοιμημένων (kekoimēmenōn), we find those in Matthew 27:52 and First Corinthians 15:20.
The NRSV gives us: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27:52 NRS) and the NKJ gives us “and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised;” (Matthew 27:52 NKJ)
I would note that here it is abundantly clear to the reader that the dead are being raised to life since their bodies are in tombs or graves.
1 Corinthians 15:20
The NRSV gives us “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:20 NRS) and the NKJ gives us But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20 NKJ)
In this case, the NRSV and the NLT again differ from most other translations by giving us “who have died” rather than “who have fallen asleep”. Again, in comparison of usage, Paul’s writing in his first letter to the Corinthians assumes that the audience understands that falling asleep (in the Lord) is a euphemism for death awaiting the resurrection. The NRSV makes it clear that those sleeping are the faithful who are already dead awaiting the Day of the Lord.
Someone asked me why this difference existed in terms of better understanding what we could call the passion of Stephen. That is a much broader question, and we can see that Stephen ends his life by asking the Lord to forgive his killers, and we should be reading this with the Gospel according to Luke (who, we believe, also wrote Acts) in mind.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,(Luke 23:33-46 NRS)
while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
What are we to receive from Luke-Acts regarding Stephen’s death? We should receive the text as well as what truths the Holy Spirit reveals. For me, Stephen died from violent rejection of the words he spoke peacefully following his Lord, Jesus and we are to believe that Stephen was graciously received by that Lord to await the general resurrection when his form will be similar to that of the risen Christ. That is the ultimate answer to this question.
In closing, I’d like to remind readers that it is not only right to question, it is also essential that we question things that don’t make sense to us. The translation “died” is inconsistent with the Lukan Gospel we just read but is essential to convey the story correctly. This is, as we say, a “good catch”. We must not allow tradition to overcome the truth that sets us free.