St. Stephen was martyred
in Jerusalem about the year 35 AD.
He is considered both the
first Christian martyr (the protomartyr)
and one of the first deacons of
the Christian Church.
Acts 6: 1Some time later, as the number of disciples kept growing, there was a quarrel between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Jews. The Greek-speaking Jews claimed that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of funds. 2 So the twelve apostles called the whole group of believers together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the preaching of God’s word in order to handle finances. 3
So then, brothers, choose seven men among you who are known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, and we will put them in charge of this matter. 4We ourselves, then will give our full time to prayer and the work of preaching.”
5The whole group was pleased with the apostles’ proposal, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a Gentile from Antioch who had earlier been converted to Judaism.
6The group presented them to the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. 7And so the word of God continued to spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem grew larger and larger, and a great number of priests accepted the faith.a
8 Now Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Certain members of the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, 10but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.
11Then they instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes, accosted him, seized him, and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
13They presented false witnesses who testified, “This man never stops saying things against (this) holy place and the law. 14For we have heard him claim that this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”
15All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Acts 7: 1Then the high priest asked, “Is this so?”
2And he replied, “My brothers and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia, before he had settled in Haran, 3and said to him, ‘Go forth from your land and (from) your kinsfolk to the land that I will show you.’
4So he went forth from the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. And from there, after his father died, he made him migrate to this land where you now dwell. 5Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but he did promise to give it to him and his descendants as a possession, even though he was childless.
6And God spoke thus, ‘His descendants shall be aliens in a land not their own, where they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years; 7but I will bring judgment on the nation they serve,’ God said, ‘and after that they will come out and worship me in this place.’
8 Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision, and so he became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, as Isaac did Jacob, and Jacob the twelve patriarchs. 9“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into slavery in Egypt; but God was with him 10and rescued him from all his afflictions. He granted him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who put him in charge of Egypt and (of) his entire household.
11Then a famine and great affliction struck all Egypt and Canaan, and our ancestors could find no food; 12but when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there a first time.
13The second time, Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh.
14Then Joseph sent for his father Jacob, inviting him and his whole clan, seventy-five persons; 15and Jacob went down to Egypt.
And he and our ancestors died 16and were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor at Shechem.
17 “When the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God pledged to Abraham, the people had increased and become very numerous in Egypt, 18until another king who knew nothing of Joseph came to power (in Egypt). 19He dealt shrewdly with our people and oppressed (our) ancestors by forcing them to expose their infants, that they might not survive.
20 At this time Moses was born, and he was extremely beautiful. For three months he was nursed in his father’s house; 21but when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son.
22Moses was educated (in) all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds. 23“When he was forty years old, he decided to visit his kinsfolk, the Israelites. 24When he saw one of them treated unjustly, he defended and avenged the oppressed man by striking down the Egyptian.
25He assumed (his) kinsfolk would understand that God was offering them deliverance through him, but they did not understand. 26The next day he appeared to them as they were fighting and tried to reconcile them peacefully, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why are you harming one another?’
27Then the one who was harming his neighbor pushed him aside, saying, ‘Who appointed you ruler and judge over us? 28Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 Moses fled when he heard this and settled as an alien in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
30“Forty years later, an angel appeared to him in the desert near Mount Sinai in the flame of a burning bush.
31When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look at it, the voice of the Lord came,
32I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.’ Then Moses, trembling, did not dare to look at it.
33But the Lord said to him, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Come now, I will send you to Egypt.’ 35This Moses, whom they had rejected with the words, ‘Who appointed you ruler and judge?’ God sent as (both) ruler and deliverer, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the desert for forty years.
37It was this Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you, from among your own kinsfolk, a prophet like me.’ 38It was he who, in the assembly in the desert, was with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai and with our ancestors, and he received living utterances to hand on to us.
39“Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will be our leaders. As for that Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 41So they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands.
42Then God turned and handed them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings for forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?
43 No, you took up the tent of Moloch and the star of (your) god Rephan, the images that you made to worship. So I shall take you into exile beyond Babylon.’
44“Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the desert just as the One who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern he had seen.
45Our ancestors who inherited it brought it with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out from before our ancestors, up to the time of David, 46who found favor in the sight of God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob.
47But Solomon built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: 49‘The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me? says the Lord, or what is to be my resting place? 50Did not my hand make all these things?’
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors.
52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.
53You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.” 54When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him.
55 But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, 4 and rushed upon him together. 58They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep.
The Life of St. Stephen
St. Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem about the year 35. He is considered both the first Christian martyr (the protomartyr) and one of the first deacons of the Christian Church. All that we know of the life, trial, and death of St. Stephen, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapters 6 and 7. In the long chronicle of Christian martyrs, the story of Stephen stands out as one of the most moving and memorable.
Although his name is Greek (from Stephanos, meaning crown), Stephen was a Jew, probably among those who had been born or who had lived beyond the borders of Palestine, and therefore had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. The New Testament does not give us the circumstances of his conversion. It would seem, however, that soon after the death of the Messiah he rose to a position of prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem and used his talents especially to win over the Greek-speaking residents of the city.
The earliest mention of Stephen is when he is listed among the seven men chosen to supervise the public tables. We recall that these first Christians held their property in common, the well-to-do sharing what they possessed with the poor; and at this time, as always in the wake of war, there were many “displaced persons” in need of charity. The Apostles selected seven good and prudent men to administer and supervise tables. The seven were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands. The title of deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the Greek verb meaning “to minister.” These men served the Christian community in temporal and charitable affairs; later on they were to assume minor religious offices.
Stephen, already a leader, now began to speak in public with more vigor and, “full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people.” By this time a number of Jewish priests had been converted to the new faith, but they still held to the old traditions and rules as laid down in Mosaic law. Stephen was prepared to engage in controversy with them, eager to point out that, according to the Master, the old law had been superseded. He was continually quoting Jesus and the prophets to the effect that external usages and all the ancient holy rites were of less importance than the spirit; that even the Temple might be destroyed, as it had been in the past, without damage to the true and eternal religion. It was talk of this sort, carried by hearsay and rumor about the city, and often misquoted, intentionally or not, that was to draw down upon Stephen the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.
It was in a certain synagogue of Jews “called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia” that Stephen chiefly disputed. Perhaps they did not understand him; at all events, they could not make effective answer, and so fell to abusing him. They bribed men to say that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations; Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people; finally his defense turned into a bitter accusation. Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. 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. Stephen, full of “grace and fortitude” to the very end, met the great test without flinching, praying the Lord to receive his spirit and not to lay this sin against the people. So perished the first martyr, his dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him.
Among those present at the scene and approving of the penalty meted out to Stephen was a young Jew named Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: his own conversion to Christianity was to take place within a few short months.
The celebration of the Feast Day of St. Stephen is December 26, the day after Christmas. [Taken from “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.]
Other Notes on St. Stephen: In the one of the earliest documented uses of irony in Western Europe, St. Stephen was designated by the Medieval Church as the patron saint of stonemasons and, for a period of time, also as the patron saint of headaches.
The Feast of St. Stephen, being the day after Christmas, is celebrated in the traditional English Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslaus” (circa 1850):
“Good King Wenceslaus went out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.”
Here is a link to some other Hymns to St. Stephen.
The feast of St. Stephen on December 26 is celebrated as “Boxing Day” in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and in other commonwealth countries and is a national holiday there. The name refers to the practice, as legend has it, of nobles and other wealthy Britons “boxing up” and distributing food and other gifts to their servants and to the poor on the day after Christmas. Boxing Day was traditionally when the alms box at every English church was opened and the contents distributed to the poor. Servants by custom were also given the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families.
St. Stephen the Protomartyr (or “first” martyr) should be distinguished from St. Stephen of Hungary (or King St. Stephen), a Magyar who founded the free nation of Hungary in about 1000 AD as its first Christian king. That St. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1083 as the patron saint of Hungary, and continues to be venerated by the Hungarian people as a powerful symbol of national freedom. His religious Feast Day is on September 2, but a national festival for King St. Stephen is traditionally celebrated in Hungary each year on August 20, analogous to that held in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day.
a. The Good News Bible, TEV
b. The New American Bible
p2. Fra Angelico, circa 1447
p3. St. Stephen Council; St Stephen, Face of an Angel
p4. Mid East Abraham’s Journey; Abraham and Isaac
p5. Joseph Embraces Brothers; Joseph and Brothers; Moses, Mom and Miriam
p6. Finding Moses; Pyramids of Egypt; Friberg Moses and Burning Bush
p7. Sandals from the Caves at Qumran; Moses and Golden Calf
p8. Jerusalem Temple
p9 Pharisees; Rubens, St. Stephen; A. Carracci, The Stoning of Stephen, 1603.
All copyrighted internet sources.