Saint Stephen by Carlo Crivelli
|Deacon and Protomartyr|
|Honored in||Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, Lutheran Church, Anglican Communion|
|Feast||26 December (Western)
27 December (Eastern)
|Attributes||stones, dalmatic, censer, miniature church, Gospel Book, martyr's palm. In Eastern Christianity he often wears an orarion|
|Patronage||Acoma Indian Pueblo; casket makers; Cetona, Italy; deacons; headaches; horses; Kessel, Belgium; masons; Owensboro, Kentucky; Passau, Germany; Serbia; Republic of Srpska; Prato, Italy |
Stephen (Koine Greek: Στέφανος, Stephanos; sometimes spelled "Stephan"), 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 renamed Paul), a Pharisee who would later convert to Christianity and become 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 venerated as a saint in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Stephen's name is derived from the Greek language Stephanos, meaning "crown". Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr's palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon's vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.
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.[Acts 6:5] 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.[Acts 6:5,8] It seems to be 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" [Acts 6:9] Members of these synagogues had challenged Stephen's teachings, but Stephen, inspired by the Holy Spirit, 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.[Acts 6:9-14] 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[Acts 7:30-32], and inspired Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israelites turned to other gods. [Acts 7:39-43] 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 appealed 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."[Acts 7:51-53].
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!"[Acts 7:55] 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.[Acts 7:55] 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".[Acts 7:58-60] Saul "approved of their killing him".[Acts 8:1]
Views of Stephen's speech
Of the numerous speeches in Acts of the Apostles, Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin is the longest. To the objection that it seems unlikely that such a long speech could be reproduced in the text of Acts exactly as it was delivered, some Biblical scholars have replied that Stephen's speech shows a distinctive personality behind it. It has often been observed that there are numerous divergences in Stephen's re-telling of the stories of Israelite history and the scriptures where these stories originated; for instance, Stephen says that Jacob's tomb was in Shechem [Acts 7:16], but Genesis 50:13 says Jacob's final resting place was a cave in Machpelah at Hebron.[Acts 8:1] There are at least five of these discrepancies, which some scholars have seen as errors, others as deliberate, in order to make specific theological points. Numerous parallels between the accounts of Stephen in Acts and the Jesus of the Gospels - they both perform miracles, they are both tried by the Sanhedrin, they both pray for forgiveness for their killers, for instance - have led to suspicions that the author of Acts has emphasised or invented some or all of these. The criticism of traditional Jewish belief and practice in Stephen's speech is very strong - when he says God does not live in a dwelling "made by human hands", referring to the Temple, he is using an expression often employed by Biblical texts to describe idols. The charge of anti-Judaism has been laid against the speech, for instance by the priest and scholar of comparative religion S. G. F. Brandon, who states "The anti-Jewish polemic of this speech reflects the attitude of the author of Acts."
Reputed Tomb of Stephen
Acts 8:2 says "Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him", but the location where he was buried is not specified. In 415 AD a priest named Lucian purportedly had a dream that revealed the location of Stephen's remains. The reputed relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St Stephen, Jerusalem.
St. Stephen's Day
In Western Christianity, 26 December is called "St. Stephen's Day", the "Feast of Stephen" mentioned in the English Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas". It is a public holiday in many nations that were historically Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran including Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Poland, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Finland. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, the day is celebrated as "Boxing Day".
In the current norms for the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, the feast is celebrated at the Eucharist, but, for the Liturgy of the Hours, is restricted to the Hours during the day, with Evening Prayer being reserved to the celebration of the Octave of Christmas.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, Saint Stephen's feast day is celebrated on December 27. This day is also called the "Third Day of the Nativity". In the Oriental Orthodox Churches (e.g. Syrian, Indian) the St. Stephen's Day is observed on January 8.
Many churches and other places commemorate Saint Stephen. Among the most notable are:
- Saint Étienne, France, and numerous other places named Saint Étienne in the French-speaking world
- Vienna, Austria – Stephansdom, the Cathedral of St. Stephen, founded 1147 and seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. Symbol of the city of Vienna and of Austria, has the tallest spire in Austria and is the country's most famous church
- Rome – San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
- Old City of Jerusalem – the "Lions' Gate" is also called St. Stephanus Gate, after the tradition that Stephen's stoning occurred here, though it probably occurred at Damascus Gate
- London – St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster was originally built in the reign of Henry III of England; it became the first site of the debating chamber of the British House of Commons. Saint Stephen's Clock Tower was the original name for the tower that housed Big Ben until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2013.
- St Stephen's House, Oxford – Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford and Anglican Theological College.
- St Stephen's Church, Bristol – the first city church built outside the walls c. 1250, rebuilt c. 1430 - 1490.
- St. Stephen's Church, Kombuthurai, built by St. Francis Xavier in India in 1542.
- Souvay, Charles. "Saint Stephen". Catholic Encyclopedia,1912. New Advent. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
- Mal Couch A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles 2003 p246 "Stephen is distinguished as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). Stephen and the other men were Hellenistic Jews whose native language was Greek. He had lived with Gentiles in other parts of the Roman Empire."
- The Prayerbook Society of Canada
- The ELCA "Worship"
- David J. Williams,Acts (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series),Baker Books 1989,chapter 16, ISBN 978-0-8010-4805-0
- Kerr, David. "St. Stephen’s death shows importance of Scripture, Pope says", Catholic News Agency, 2 May 2012
- "Lives of Saints", John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.
- David J. Williams, Acts (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series),Baker Books 1989,chapter 17, ISBN 978-0-8010-4805-0
- "Life of St. Stephen", St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
- Rex A. Koivisto (1987). "Stephen's Speech: A Theology of Errors?". Grace Theological College. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
- Brandon, S. G. F. (1967). Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity. Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-684-31010-7.
- "St Stephen Church". goisrael. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Saint Stephen.|
- "Saint Stephen, the First Martyr"
- "Apostle Stephen the Protomartyr"
- Benedict XVI, Reflection on the Life and Death of Saint Stephen