St. Stephen the First Martyr (December 27)

EVERY YEAR, DEC 27 is observed as the feast of the Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen. This year, Dec 27 falls on the Sunday after the Nativity, the memorial of David, Joseph, and James, relatives of the Lord Jesus. St Stephen has an unusually large portion of the Scriptures devoted to him. Chapters six and seven of the Acts of the Apostles are substantially devoted to the story of this important saint.


Stephen as “Archdeacon”

In Acts 6:1-7 we read of the selection of seven “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3) to relieve the Apostles of the task of the “daily distribution” (v. 1) which was taking them away from their proper ministry of prayer and preaching.

The first believers in Jerusalem had a fund from which they assisted their needy members. In this they were continuing a Jewish practice, based on this precept of the Torah: “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the cities in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him…”  (Deuteronomy 15:7, 8). Since there was no social service system in the ancient world, the synagogues were the place where needy Jews would go for food and other necessities. Jerusalem’s first believers in Jesus did the same for their members in need, generally the elderly.

The dispute mentioned in Acts 6 was between the native Palestinian Jews and the Hellenized Jews, who had adopted the Greek language and culture dominant in the Roman Empire. The latter believed that their widows were being shortchanged by the natives.

At the request of the Apostles, the community chose seven men to be responsible for this ministry, Stephen being the first among them. The Apostles then prayed and laid hands upon them. This laying-on-of-hands was understood in the Apostolic era as what we call “ordination.” Thus deacons were considered a higher order. In his Epistle to the Philippians, for example, St Paul greets the deacons right after the bishops.

There is no further mention of the “daily distribution” in relation to the ministry of the seven. Stephen and Philip are described as preaching, catechizing and baptizing; the others are not mentioned again in the Scriptures although there are many references to them in the writings of the first century Church.

Stephen as the First Martyr

The rest of chapter 6 and all of chapter 7 of Acts are concerned with the story of Stephen’s martyrdom at the hands of the leading Jews of Jerusalem. Stephen’s eloquence in preaching Christ attracts the attention of some Jewish leaders and Stephen is bought before the Sanhedrin, “and all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).

Stephen’s defense of his faith in Jesus begins with a classical presentation of God’s work in the history of Israel. But then he adds, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!

Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him…as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:56-60).

While there had been many Jews martyred for their faith in the one God, Stephen was the first to be slain for his faith in “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

The Church of St Stephen

The Scriptures do not identify the place of St Stephen’s death or the site of his burial. Acts 7:58 simply says, “…they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” It was presumed that this happened close to the city wall, because St Stephen’s killers were so enflamed with hatred for him that they would have stoned him at the first possible location.

It was commonly believed that Stephen’s teacher, the distinguished rabbi Gamaliel, had arranged for Stephen’s remains to be buried secretly on his property in the country near Beit Shemesh, where a church was later built.

In c. 450 ad, the exiled Empress Eudocia had a large monastic complex built outside the Damascus Gate, where Stephen was reputedly stoned. This was one of several churches which she had caused to be built in the Holy City. The empress arranged for the saint’s relics to be brought from his burial place to her monastery church which would be dedicated to St Stephen.

In the twelfth century, Crusaders defending the city against the troops of Sultan Salah al-Din had the monastery destroyed, as its proximity to the city wall would provide easy access to the invaders.

In the nineteenth century, French Dominican friars purchased several parcels of land adjoining the old city walls, which were strewn here and there with broken columns and other indications that an important structure had once stood there. Excavations unearthed a portion of the church floor, leading the friars to build a new church on the site, substantially on the footprint of Eudocia’s fifth-century church. The modern St Stephen’s Church is currently home to the world-renowned Ecole Biblique, a center for advanced study of the Scriptures.

In 2014, archaeologists from the University of Jerusalem discovered the ruins of an entire church complex in a village near Ramallah, six miles from Jerusalem. An inscription in one of the churches reads that it had been built in honor of St Stephen the Protomartyr, “buried here in AD 35.”

St Gregory of Nyssa on St Stephen

“How did Stephen see transcendent glory? Who laid bare heaven’s gates for him? Was this the work of men? Which of the angels enabled inferior [human] nature to soar to that height? Stephen was not alone when he was generously filled with power coming from the angels which enabled him to see what he saw. What was recorded? “Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw the glory of God and his Only-Begotten Son” [Acts 7.55].

“As the Prophet says, light cannot be seen unless one is filled with light: “In your light we shall see light” [Psalms 35.10] (If observation of the light does not share this same light, how can anyone deprived of the sun’s rays see it?). Since the Father’s light makes this possible, the Only Begotten [Son’s] light emanates through the Holy Spirit which makes it visible. Therefore the Spirit’s glory enables us to perceive the glory of both the Father and Son.”
Homily One on the Saint