If Luke was not among those believers who were persecuted and had to leave Jerusalem, he could not have witnessed Stephen’s death. However, it would not be inconsistent with his explanation in Luke 1:1-4 that he could have researched his material concerning the events surrounding Stephen’s death and the persecution that followed. These things may very well have been supplied by Philip, who had ultimately settled in Caesarea after fleeing Jerusalem.
Similarly, subjective material, like “Saul was consenting unto his death (Acts 8:1) would have been given him by Paul, himself, (cp. Acts 22:20). In some ways Saul’s activity, which seems to spearhead the persecution that developed after Stephen’s death, reminds me of the activity of Ollie North a few decades ago during the Reagan Presidency. What Ollie did was execute administration policy, while at the same time he insulated the President from personal blame. This is what Saul did for the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
Saul was marked out as a leader both in Acts 8:1 and in his own admission in Galatians 1:13-14, saying he “excelled above many his own equals. How did this occur? According to Acts 6:9, Stephen was a member of the same synagogue as Saul who hailed from Tarsus in Cilicia. It was the men of this synagogue, according to Acts 6:11 who, through stealth and twisting Stephen’s words accused him to the Sanhedrin and then stirred up the people against him (Acts 6:12). Even Acts 6:13 implies that the men of this synagogue set Stephen up for the false witnesses to rise up against him.
The problem that hounded the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem was, although they could punish whomever they saw fit, permission to execute anyone had to be given by Rome. On occasion an execution that took place during a religious frenzy, like perhaps that of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60; cp. Acts 21:30-36), Rome may have winked at, but an outright bloody persecution, involving regular murder and judicial execution would have been dealt with severely. There is reason to believe that the change of Jewish leadership from Caiaphas to Jonathan in cir. 35 CE and from Jonathan to Theophilus in 37 CE were the result of complaints to the Roman governor by Messianic believers over just such ill treatment.
If Saul and others like him were the front-men or the executors of the policies of the Jewish leadership at Jerusalem, this gave the authorities some insulation from blame. What Rome suspected may not be the same as what Rome could prove. Nevertheless, the Roman president of Syria had supreme power and replaced the high priests at Jerusalem whenever he desired a change of policy. It seems that Rome was giving Annas, the real power in Jerusalem, a slap on the wrist by replacing Caiaphas with Jonathan and Jonathan with Theophilus, because all three were of the family of Annas. Therefore, no real change in policy was ever implemented. Rome merely changed the officers of the high priesthood in an effort to satisfy the complaints of Messianic believers. If Rome really desired a change in rulership at Jerusalem, the president would have changed the ruling family. If Rome had done that, Annas’ power in Jerusalem would have been seriously curtailed. Therefore, we can interpret the changes as mere warnings.
Consequently, just as Ollie North and company insulated the Reagan administration from serious legal reprisals against their policies, so too, Saul and company insulated the Jewish ruling family, that of Annas, from serious Roman reprisals against their efforts to stem the tide of the growth of Messianic believers in Jerusalem of their day.
The text says “Saul laid waste the church…” (RSV), meaning he mauled it. He went from house to house throughout Jerusalem and Judea, which probably means he went from synagogue to synagogue in a quest to find Messianic believers. No doubt many believers, including the Apostles, were taken and beaten, but only those who openly taught the more liberal doctrines against the Oral Law and the Temple (made with hands) were pursued to the death. Anyone who accepted a beating in the synagogue remained a Jew, but refusing a beating resulted in excommunication. Anyone teaching against the centrality of the Temple in worship of God would be tried in the Sanhedrin, just as was done with Stephen, and probably with similar results.
Nevertheless, though some were undoubtedly caught and executed either publicly or in stealth, most liberal Messianic believers fled, as did Philip to cities governed by the gentiles, like Caesarea and Damascus. Under Roman law the high priest at Jerusalem was the ultimate governor of the Jewish race wherever Jews were found throughout the Empire. All that was necessary for arrests to be made in foreign lands, and Jews brought back to Jerusalem for trail, was that the high priest would write out a writ of extradition and give it to the arresting officer. Such a document was often honored by foreign dignitaries. This is what Saul sought, probably from Caiaphas or possibly Jonathan in Acts 9:1-2. Foreign cities were chosen by the fleeing Messianics, because there was always the chance that the foreign governor would find a reason not to honor the writs. Certainly Paul’s writs to arrest and punish anyone calling upon the name of Jesus (Acts 9:14) were not honored by Jesus (Acts 9:4-6).