Saint Stephen, the First Martyr

St Stephen, the First Martyr

All that we know of the life of Stephen is contained in two chapters (6 and 7) of the Acts of the Apostles. His date and place of birth are not known. He was a Hellenistic Jew, his name is Greek (coming from the word stephanos, meaning a ‘crown’) and he probably was born or even lived outside the borders of Palestine. Nor do we know when or where or how he was converted to Christianity.

The first Christians held what they owned in common, so that the needs of each person were taken care of. However, the Acts tells us that the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking members of the community, were complaining that some of them, especially the widows, were not being taken looked after properly. The Apostles, busy with their work of evangelising, felt they did not have time to take care of this problem. So seven good and prudent men, who were also Hellenists, were chosen to take care of the situation. The seven were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands.

The names of the seven are given. Stephen, who heads the list is called “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, then Philip, known as “the Evangelist”, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas – all Greek names. Nicholas, we are told, was a convert to Judaism. They were appointed by the Apostles to look after the distribution of alms and would be called ‘deacons’. The word ‘deacon’ (diaconus) means ‘one who serves’. They also helped in the ministry of preaching.

Early on, Stephen showed himself to be a formidable debater with some of the Jews. We are told that the ‘Synagogue of Roman Freedmen’ (Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia Minor) “would undertake to engage Stephen in debate, but they proved no match for the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke”. These people, injured to the quick, had charges brought against Stephen, saying that he had spoken blasphemies against Moses and against God.

Stephen was then arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the same court that Jesus had to face during his Passion. False witnesses attested that Stephen never stopped speaking against the holy place (the Temple) and the Law (of Moses). They claimed they heard him say that “Jesus the Nazorean” would destroy the Temple and change the customs which Moses had handed down.

These, of course, were distortions of what Jesus actually said. He did say that if the Temple was brought down he would raise it in three days (referring to the temple that was his own Body). And he explicitly said that no one should change one jot of the Mosaic Law, but he also said that one had to go further than the letter of the Law in interpreting its meaning (see Matt 5:17-48). The Acts say that during all these accusations “Stephen’s face seemed like that of an angel”.

Stephen, in response to the high priest’s request, then made his defence in a long speech. It took the form of a quite detailed summary of the history of the Jewish people and their stormy relationship with God, which often involved the rejection of the leaders that God had appointed to lead them. Even allowing for some editing by the author of Acts, Stephen was clearly well versed in the Scriptures and in the history of the Jewish people, as well as being an eloquent and powerful speaker.

His defence of his beliefs was that God does not depend on the Temple which, like the Law of Moses, was temporary in nature and waiting to be replaced and fulfilled by the Christ, the Messiah and Prophet foretold by Moses, and for whom the Jewish people had been waiting so long.

The Most High does not dwell in buildings made by human hands, for as the prophet says: ‘The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool; what kind of house can you build me? What is my resting place to be like?’ (Isaiah 66)

Stephen concluded by calling his hearers “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears”, who had over the centuries refused to listen to God and the leaders he appointed. “Was there ever any prophet whom your fathers did not persecute?” They put to death those who foretold the coming of the Just One; now they had killed the Just One himself.

Not surprisingly, this speech did not go down very well. “They were stung to the heart; they ground their teeth in anger at him.”

Then Stephen, echoing the words of his beloved Master and filled with the Spirit of God, cried out:

Look! I see an opening in the sky, and the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand.

His hearers, shocked by what they regarded as absolute blasphemy (as in the case of Jesus), rushed forward, dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him to death.

As the men stripped to do the stoning, they piled their clothes at the foot of a young man who looked on approvingly – he was the zealous Pharisee, Saul. And as Stephen lay dying beneath the barrage of stones he was heard to cry – again in imitation of his Master on the cross – “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And then he died.

It was probably around the year 35 AD (assuming that Jesus died about the year 33).

At least since the 4th century (or earlier), Stephen’s feast has been observed in both the Eastern and Western Churches. His cult received a boost when, what was believed to be his grave was found by a priest, Lucian, at Kafr Gamala in 415. Later, his relics were moved to Constantinople, and then to Rome together with some stones believed to have been used in his martyrdom.

From early times he was the patron of deacons. He has been named patron of many churches, including a number of French cathedrals such as Bourges, Sens and Toulouse. Many churches in England were dedicated to him, especially after the Norman Conquest.
In art, he is often shown holding a book of the Gospels with a stone and sometimes a palm of martyrdom. There is a fine cycle of pictures by Fra Angelico now kept at the Vatican.

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