Saint 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 and 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, 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 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 Hellenist men 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 a man:

…full of grace and power…filled with the Holy Spirit…
(Acts 6:8; 7:55)

As well, there is 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:

…some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. (Acts 6:9-10)

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). Acts say that during all these accusations Stephen’s:

…face was like the face of an angel… (Acts 6:15)

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. He said, quoting from Isaiah:

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,

‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
(Acts 7:48-49)

Stephen concluded by calling his hearers:

…stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears…
(Acts 7:51)

The same people who had over the centuries refused to listen to God and the leaders he appointed:

Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his [Jesus’] betrayers and murderers. (Acts 7:52)

Not surprisingly, this speech did not go down very well:

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. (Acts 7:54)

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

Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God! (Acts 7:56)

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 Jesus, receive my spirit…do not hold this sin against them. (Acts 7:59-60)

And then he died. This occurred 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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