St Stephen, traditionally regarded as the first martyr of Christianity, was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial he made a long speech fiercely denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgement on him and was stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus (later better known by his Roman name, Paul), a Pharisee who would later become a follower himself of Jesus and an apostle.
The only primary source for information about Stephen is the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected for a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6.
Stephen is first mentioned in Acts of the Apostles as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. As another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically stated to have been a convert to Judaism, it may be assumed that Stephen was born Jewish, but nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for the appointment of the deacons is stated to have been dissatisfaction among Hellenistic (that is, Greek-influenced and Greek-speaking) Jews that their widows were being slighted in preference to Hebraic ones in distribution of alms from the community funds. Since the name “Stephanos” is Greek, it has been assumed that he was one of these Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is stated to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles among the people. It seems to have been among synagogues of Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and “signs and wonders” since it is said that he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”, and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia” Members of these synagogues had challenged Stephen’s teachings, but Stephen had bested them in debate. Furious at this humiliation, they suborned false witnesses to testify that Stephen had preached blasphemy against Moses and God, and dragged him to appear before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders, accusing him of preaching against the Temple and the Mosaic Law. Stephen is said to have been unperturbed, his face looking like “that of an angel”.
Speech to Sanhedrin
In a long speech to the Sanhedrin comprising almost the whole of Acts Chapter 7, Stephen presents his view of the history of Israel. The God of glory, he says, appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, thus establishing at the beginning of the speech one of its major themes, that God does not dwell only in one particular building (meaning the Temple). God was with Joseph, too, in Egypt. Stephen recounts the stories of the patriarchs in some depth, and goes into even more detail in the case of Moses. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and inspired Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israelites turned to other gods. This establishes the second main theme of Stephen’s speech, Israel’s disobedience to God. Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and of changing the customs of Moses, but appeals to the Jewish scriptures to prove how the laws of Moses were not subverted by Jesus but, instead, were being fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people who, just as their ancestors had done, resist the Holy Spirit. “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.”
The Stoning of Stephen
Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. However Stephen, seemingly now oblivious to them, looked up and cried “Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God (not sitting, as he is usually described in New Testament texts) was such intense blasphemy that they covered their ears so as not to hear it. They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city to the place appointed, and stoned him. At this time Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down so as to be able to do this, at the feet of a “young man named Saul”, later to be known as Paul the Apostle. Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers be forgiven, sank to his knees, and “fell asleep”. Saul “approved of their killing him”.
St Stephen’s Day
In Western Christianity, December 26th is the “Feast of St Stephen” and is referred to in the Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those that follow the Byzantine Rite his feast is celebrated on December 27th and popularly referred to as “the third day of the Nativity.”