The Synagogue of the Freedmen is mentioned only once in the Bible: “Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen” (Acts 6:8–9). The Synagogue of the Freedmen is called the Synagogue of the Libertines in the KJV. The word libertine is from the Latin and originally referred to a man who had been a slave but had been set at liberty. Some scholars believe that these persons were slaves of the Romans who had been freed, became proselytes of the Jewish religion, and had a synagogue in Jerusalem. The NLT calls this group the Synagogue of Freed Slaves.
Other scholars contend that these freedmen were not Jewish proselytes but Jews by birth who had been taken into captivity by the Romans and then set free and subsequently called liberti or libertini. There were many such Jews. Some have speculated that among these zealous members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen was Saul of Tarsus, who would have been more than capable of disputing with Stephen in matters of religion.
Whoever the Freedmen were, one thing is clear: Stephen’s proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the miracles he performed caused great animosity. Try as they might, the Freedmen “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:10). Unable to answer his arguments or discount his miracles, they brought false witnesses against him and “stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law” (Acts 6:12). Members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen and the others opposing Stephen accused him of blasphemy, a deadly charge. Just as evil men had accused Jesus of blasphemy (Matthew 9:1–3), so the same spirit of evil in the hearts of the Synagogue of the Freedmen spoke against Stephen.
It is ironic that the Synagogue of the Freedmen should call themselves that. They may have been freed from one type of slavery, but they were slaves nonetheless. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). The Jews to whom He was speaking had objected to the idea they were slaves, but Jesus showed them the path to true freedom: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (verses 31–32, 36). Despite their freedom-loving name, the Synagogue of the Freemen were in desperate bondage to sin. In their slavery, they plotted to lie and murder, and they rejected the Truth that would have set them free.