This week, we’re focusing on St. Stephen, the Protomartyr (first martyr), who, like St. John the Baptist, we know from the New Testament. Everything we hear about his life comes from the Acts of the Apostles.
The name Stephanos is Greek, which might mean two things: either 1) he was a Hellenist, a Jew born in a foreign land who spoke Greek as his first language, or 2) that was a Greek name equivalent to his Aramaic name, Kelil, which means “crown” – appropriate, as he was the first to obtain he crown of martyrdom in the name of Jesus. In either case, it’s safe to say he was pretty Greek-minded.
Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, named in the Acts of the Apostles. At the time, the Christian community was sharing what they had to care for the poor and widowed of their community (much like we do today!), but as the community got larger, it was more difficult for the apostles to take care of everyone. There was dissatisfaction with the distributions of alms, claims of favoritism of Jews over Greeks, and a general lack of organization. The deacons were named to assist in the distribution and in the leadership of the infant Church. Stephan worked with the Greek-speaking Christians, who maybe were less familiar to the predominantly Jewish apostles.
Stephen was chosen as a deacon for good reason. The author of Acts (traditionally St. Luke), speaks very highly of him, claiming that he was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and praising his grace, fortitude, and wisdom.
Obviously, Stephen was a good guy, but as with most good guys, some people didn’t like him. He came into conflict with the Jewish Synagogue of Freedmen, or the Libertines, who were descendents of Jews taken captive to Rome by Pompey the Great in 63 BC. His teachings and fearless proclamation of Jesus was too much for them, and they dragged him to the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish elders.
But these guys clearly didn’t know who they were messing with – Stephen was a great orator! He was able to speak with great authority and logic that was very convincing. In Acts 7, we have his entire speech to the Sanhedrin – or at least the Cliffs Notes version! He defended his faith to the elders, and called them out on their hardness of heart that ultimately had led Jesus to his death. Obviously, the Sanhedrin didn’t like this, and they condemned him to death by stoning. As he was being pelted by hundreds of rocks, he imitated Jesus last words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60)
According to tradition, he was laid to rest north of Jerusalem, but the tomb was lost for a few hundred years. Thankfully, a Palestinian priest named Lucian reportedly had a vision as to the location of Stephen’s tomb. Incidentally, the Church celebrated this dream as a feast day in the liturgical calendar all the way up to the Second Vatican Council! The relics of St. Stephen were moved around the 5th century to a church built in his honor on the site of his martyrdom outside Jerusalem. It was a huge monastery, and at one time, held close to 10,000 monks! It was destroyed in the crusades, but was recently rebuilt and rededicated in 1900.
Stay tuned next week for another saint mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles!