Stephen or Stephan (Greek: Στέφανος, Stephanos; meaning wreath or crowned, often given as a title rather than as a name), traditionally venerated as the Protomartyr or 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 denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was then stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who would later himself become a follower of Jesus.
The only primary source for information about Stephen is the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected to participate in a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek-speaking widows.
The Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Church of the East venerate Stephen as a saint. Stephen's name in the original Greek of the Acts of the Apostles is given as Stephanos, meaning "crown". Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; artistic representations often depict him with three stones and the martyr's palm frond. Eastern Christian iconography shows him 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. According to Orthodox belief, he was the eldest and is therefore called "archdeacon". 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 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 had bested them in debate. Furious at this humiliation, they suborned false testimony that Stephen had preached blasphemy against Moses and God. They 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". Robert Eisenman puts forward the theory that the stoning of Stephen is in fact an account of the stoning of James, first Bishop of Jerusalem, as recounted by Josephus, in 62CE.
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). 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 faced two accusations: that he had declared that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that he had changed the customs of Moses. The Roman Catholic Church states that St. Stephen 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!" To the Sanhedrin, this claim that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God[Acts 7:54] was such intense blasphemy that 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]
Location of the martyrdom
The exact site of Stephen's stoning is not mentioned in Acts, instead we have two different traditions. One, claimed by noted French archaeologists Louis-Hugues Vincent(1872-1960) and Félix-Marie Abel (1878-1953) to be ancient, places the event at Jerusalem's northern gate, while another one, dated by Vincent and Abel to the Middle Ages and not earlier than the 12th century, locates it at the eastern gate.
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[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. There are also theologians who suggested that this discrepancy may come from an ancient Jewish tradition which was not included in the scriptures or may have been popular among people of Jerusalem who weren't scribes. 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 -in order to show the recipient that people become holy when they follow the example of Christ- 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. Most scholars agree that by doing this, Stephen pursues the aim of convincing all the people assembled that Jesus Christ is the Lord and therefore everything done against him or his teachings is practically against their own faith.
Some people laid the charge of anti-Judaism against the speech, for instance 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."
Tomb and relics of Stephen
Acts 8:2[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 at Beit Jimal. After that, the relics of the protomartyr were taken in procession to the Church of Hagia Sion on December 26, 415, making it the date for the feast of St. Stephen. In 439, the relics were translated to a new church north of the Damascus Gate built by the empress Aelia Eudocia in honor of St. Stephen. This church was destroyed in the 12th century. A 20th-century French Catholic church, Saint-Étienne, was built in its place, while another, the Greek Orthodox Church of St Stephen, was built at the alleged site of his martyrdom.
The Crusaders initially called the main northern gate of Jerusalem "St. Stephen's Gate" (in Latin, Porta Sancti Stephani), highlighting its proximity to the site of martyrdom of Saint Stephen, marked by the church and monastery built by Empress Eudocia. A different tradition is documented from the end of the Crusader period, after the disappearance of the Byzantine church: as Christian pilgrims were prohibited from approaching the militarily exposed northern city wall, the name "St. Stephen's Gate" was transferred to the still accessible eastern gate, which bears this name until this day.
The relics of the protomartyr were later translated to Rome by Pope Pelagius II during the construction of the basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. They were interred alongside the relics of St. Lawrence, whose tomb is enshrined within the church. According to the Golden Legend, the relics of Lawrence moved miraculously to one side to make room for those of Stephen.
In his book, The City of God, St. Augustine describes the many miracles that occurred when part of the relics of St. Stephen were brought to Africa.
Part of the right arm of Saint Stephen is enshrined at Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Russia.
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, Norway, Sweden, Denmark 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. Historically, the "Invention of the Relics of St. Stephen" (i.e. their reputed discovery) was commemorated on 3 August. The feasts of both 26 December and 3 August have been used in dating clauses in historical documents produced in England.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, and in Oriental Orthodox Churches (e.g. Coptic, Syrian, Malankara), Saint Stephen's feast day is celebrated on December 27. This day is also called the "Third Day of the Nativity" because it is the third day of the Christmas season.
Some Orthodox churches, particularly in the west, follow a modified Julian calendar that places date names identically with the standard Gregorian calendar of wide-spread civil usage. In those churches, then, the date the feast is observed is generally known as December 27. However, other Orthodox churches, including the Oriental Orthodox, continue to use the original Julian calendar. Throughout the 21st century, December 27 Julian will continue to fall on January 9 in the Gregorian calendar, and that is the date on which they observe the feast.
In the Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic Churches, St. Stephen's day falls on December 25 - the day on which the feast of the Nativity of Jesus (Christmas) falls in all other churches. This is because the Armenian churches maintain the decree of Constantine, which stipulated that the Nativity and Theophany of Jesus were to be celebrated on January 6. In dioceses of the Armenian Church which use the Julian Calendar, St Stephen's day falls on January 7 and Nativity/Theophany on January 19 (for the remainder of the 21st century Julian).
In the eucharistic celebration on this feast day, it is traditional for all deacons serving at the altar to wear a liturgical crown (Armenian: խոյր khooyr), which is one of the vestments worn only by priests on all other days of the year, the crown being in this instance a symbol of martyrdom.
- See also: St. Stephen's Cathedral, St. Stephen's Church
Many churches and other places commemorate Saint Stephen. Among the most notable are the two sites in Jerusalem held by different traditions to be the place of his martyrdom, the Salesian monastery of Beit Jimal in Israel held to be the place where his remains were miraculously found, and the church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome, where the saint's remains are said to be buried.
Important churches and sites dedicated to Saint Stephen are:
- Saint Stephen Church of Lmbat of the 7th century, near the town of Artik, Armenia.
- Saint Stephen Armenian Monastery of the 9th century, near the city of Jolfa, northwestern Iran.
- St. Stepanos Armenian Church of Izmir, Turkey, built in 1863 and destroyed in September 1922 during the Catastrophe of Smyrna.
- St Stephens Cathedral, Brisbane, Australia - is the major Catholic place of worship.
- Stephansdom, Vienna, Austria – 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 "centerpiece of Vienna".
- Saint Étienne, France, and numerous other places named Saint Étienne in the French-speaking world
- St. Stephen's Church, Kombuthurai, built by St. Francis Xavier in India in 1542.
- St. Stephen's Orthodox Cathedral,Kudassanad,Pandalam,Kerala the first Orthodox Cathedral of St.Stephen in India
- St. Stephen's College, Delhi
- St. Stephen's Church, Delhi and St. Stephens's hospital, Delhi
- St Stephen's Green, Dublin. The largest of Dublin's Georgian squares and itself named after a former leper hospital near the site.
- Rome – Santo Stefano Rotondo
- San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, where St. Stephen is said to be interred together with St. Lawrence in the crypt, under the high altar.
- St. Stephen's Basilica, Jerusalem, in French Saint-Étienne, at the traditional place of St Stephen's martyrdom; modern church over ruins of Byzantine 5th-century predecessor.
- St. Stephan's Gate, the Christian name of one of the city gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, also known as the "Lions' Gate". A post-Byzantine tradition holds that Stephen's stoning occurred there, while an older tradition connects the martyrdom to the Damascus Gate, where a church and large monastic complex dedicated to St Stephen was built in the 5th century. A modern Greek Orthodox Church of St Stephen stands a short distance from Lions' Gate.
- St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, London, 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. The tower that houses Big Ben, that was properly called The Clock Tower, was referred to as St Stephen's Tower by Victorian journalists and others subsequently 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.