Stephen (Protomartyr), St.
STEPHEN (PROTOMARTYR), ST.
First deacon and apologist for the Christian faith. After considering the Biblical data, found in Acts6.1–8.2, this article treats of the cult and iconography of the saint.
Biblical Data. Stephen (Στέφανος, crown) was a hellenist, one of the Greek-speaking Jews of the dias pora, many of whom came to visit or dwell in Palestine. More liberal in their education and views concerning the Jewish faith, they had their own synagogues in Jerusalem (Acts 6.9). A great number of them became Christians (6.1). The most distinguished of the Hellenist converts was Stephen, "full of faith and the Holy Spirit"(6.5).
Leader of Hellenist Christians. The complaint of the Hellenist widows against Hebrew Christians that they did not receive daily food and alms led the Apostles to ordain deacons, a new order of ministry, conferred through the imposition of hands and prayer of the Apostles. By this means Stephen, first of the seven chosen by the assembly, received power and grace (Acts 6.6, 8). Stephen did not limit his service to works of charity; he preached the faith with zeal and "worked great wonders and signs among the people" (6.7).
In the Hellenist synagogues of Jerusalem, Christian and non-Christian Jews prayed and worshiped together. Christian Jews, with Stephen as their leader and apologist, were eager to preach Christ. Their opponents, desirous of being considered equal to the native Hebrews in zeal for the Law and the traditions, resented the teaching of salvation through faith in Jesus. They "disputed with Stephen, but were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit who spoke" (6.10). In content, his arguments were without doubt similar to those contained in his discourse before the Sanhedrin.
Nature and Purpose of Stephen's Final Sermon. Stephen's discourse is a sublime apology for the Christian faith. It recalls the principal phases of Israel's history and interprets them in the light of the present. It is a theology of Israel's history in which the continuity of divine revelation, begun with Abraham, is shown to be fulfilled in Christ. At the same time it exposes Israel's progressive opposition to God's word through failure to obey it. The principal arguments are these: (1) God is not limited to one person (Moses) for His covenant (Acts 7.2–17) or to one place (the Temple in Jerusalem) for worship (7.44–50). The Law and the Temple made with hands are to pass away and to be replaced and spiritualized in Christ (cf. Jn 4.21–24; Acts 17.24–28; Rom 12.1–3; 1 Pt 2.5). (2) Ingratitude, failure to understand (7.25), disobedience even to Moses (7.39), idolatry (7.40–43), persecution of
the Prophets, betrayal and murder of the Just One, failure to keep the Law (7.52–53)—these showed the accusers of Stephen, rather than himself, to be guilty of blasphemy and crime against the Law and the Temple.
Stephen's judgment of history is prophetic; that of his opponents is legalistic. Stephen's fidelity to revelation makes him "full of grace and power"; the infidelity of his opponents makes them "stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, always opposing the Holy Spirit"(7.51). The purpose of the discourse is to show, as Christ did (Mt 5.17), that the new religion is the divinely ordered fulfillment of the old, and that the history of the Jews condemns them and their forefathers for disobedience to divine revelation and for persecution of the Prophets and of the Just One (cf. Mt 23.31–39). Stephen's discourse affirms and defends the universality of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Martyrdom. The arrest of Stephen, the incitement of the crowds against him, his arraignment before the Sanhedrin, the bribed witnesses, and the false charges of speaking against the Holy Place and the Law (Acts6.12–14) were now climaxed by the onrush of the tumultuous crowd who "cast him out of the city and stoned him" (7.58), while he prayed like his Master, "Lord, do not lay this sin against them" (v. 60). Significant is the mention of the youth, Saul of Tarsus, whose approval of Stephen's death (Acts 22.20) and consequent hatred and persecution of Christians were changed, through the blood of the martyr, into zeal and love for Christ and for the Church of Paul the Apostle (Acts ch. 9). As St. Augustine cryptically expressed it: "If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have Paul."
Stephen's life and death were a true witness to Christ, in whom he believed, whom he loved, and whose teaching he proclaimed by word and example. This Saint's teaching marked the beginning of the great first–century controversy between Judaism and Christianity that resulted in the victory of the Council of jerusalem, just as his martyrdom introduced the era of persecution that won so many saints for the Church.
Cult. "Devout men took care of Stephen's burial and made great lamentation over him" (Acts 8.2). No indication of the place of burial is given. The cult of Stephen is evidenced by the power and influence of his example on the army of martyrs who followed him. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.28; 5.2; De Martyribus Palest. 3) shows the frequency with which Stephen's prayer for his persecutors was imitated. Veneration of Stephen continued beyond the era of persecution. It increased with the widespread cult of martyrs in the fourth century and became universal after the priest Lucian discovered, at Kefr Gamla in 415, Stephen's remains along with those of Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Abibas (Epist. Luciani ad omnem Ecclesiam de revelatione corporis Stephani martyris primi et aliorum; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 41:807–18).
Relics and Churches. Most of the remains of St. Stephen were brought to the Church of Sion in Jerusalem and were thence transferred to the Church of the Stoning of Stephen north of Jerusalem. This church was replaced by the basilica that the Empress Eudoxia built in 460. It was later destroyed. After its ruins were rediscovered in 1882, the present Basilica of St. Stephen of the École biblique was erected on the ancient foundations. (A later tradition located the site of Stephen's martyrdom in the Kidron Valley to the east of Jerusalem, so that the eastern gate of the Old City is now commonly called St. Stephen's Gate.) Some relics of St. Stephen were taken to Constantinople (560), some to Rome (San Lorenzo in Campo Verano), and some to other churches, that later became popular sanctuaries of the saint.
Such a shrine was in Hippo, where St. Augustine wonderfully propagated devotion to St. Stephen and required that public testimony be given to the miracles wrought. Similar miraculous shrines in Africa existed at Calama and at Uzali, a colony near Utica [De Civitate Dei 22.8, in Basic Writings of St. Augustine, v.2 (New York 1948) 625–628]. A similar shrine existed on the Isle of Minorca (see letter 5 of Bishop Severus, Patrologia Latina 41: 821–832). In Italy a shrine of St. Stephen at Ancona claimed to have a rock used in the stoning of Stephen even before the priest Lucian discovered the saint's body. There were numerous other churches, such as those in Rome (the Basilica on the Via Latina; the Church of SS. Rotundo on the Celian Hill), Ravenna, and Naples. From the close of the fourth century and until the middle of the fifth, three churches were erected in Constantinople. Thereafter churches in honor of St. Stephen began to multiply everywhere.
Feasts. The date of death of St. Stephen is unknown. Among the list of Biblical saints in the early Church, Stephen is closely related to Christ because he was the first to give witness to Him through his blood. Accordingly, the feast of Stephen became associated with the birth of Christ and was observed on December 26, the day after Christmas, according to numerous testimonies, such as that of Gregory of Nyssa in the late fourth century (In laudema fratris Basilii; Patrologia Graeca, ed J. P. Migne [Paris 1857–66] 46:789), and the Sacramentaries, Calendars, and Martyrologies of the West. In the Eastern Church the veneration of the parents of Jesus on December 26 caused the feast of St. Stephen, from the early seventh century, to be observed on the following day (Sophronius or Jerusalem, Oratio 8 in SS Apost. Petrum et Paulum; Patrologia Graeca 87:3361).
The feast of the finding of the body of St. Stephen by the priest Lucian is celebrated on August 3 in the Latin Church, though it was not in the Missal prior to the nineth and tenth century. The reason for the feast seems to have been the dedication of a church in the Saint's honor. Since 1955 this is no longer a feast for the universal Church of the Roman rite. The Greek Church celebrates on August 2 the transfer of the relics of St. Stephen to Constantinople (Bibl. hagiogr. Lat. 7857–58; Bibl. hagiogr. Graeca, 1649–51). In the list of the Apostles and martyrs mentioned after the Consecration of the Mass, Stephen appears in both the Roman and the Ambrosian Mass.
Legends. An apocryphal account of Stephen's martyrdom (Discourse of Gregory, Priest of Antioch ) in a Greek text, now lost, exists through a tenth–century Georgian translation from Athos (Patrol. orient. 19: 689–699) and a 17th–century Slavonic version in two forms [J. Franko, ed., Monum. linguae necnon litter. ukrano-russic, v.3 (1902) 28–33, 256–258]. The Georgian and second Slavonic text omit the final trial of Stephen and the conversion of Pilate and his family; the first Slavonic form includes both. The Georgian MSS does not mention the death of Gamaliel and companions.
The account is as follows: controversies in Jerusalem over the birth, death, and Resurrection of Jesus have attracted teachers from distant parts. Stephen's discourse in defense of these mysteries and of the signs of Christ's Second Coming brings mistreatment from attendants, but sympathy and defense from Pilate, the Roman Procurator, who is baptized with his wife and children. In a threeday controversy Stephen confounds his opponents with his wisdom. Priests dispatch Saul of Tarsus among Caesarean Christians with a search warrant. Saul has his cousin Stephen appear before him and violently upbraids him. Stephen replies, foretelling Saul's conversion and in turn is struck with a stick by Saul. Rabbi Gamaliel defends Stephen with such Christian sentiments that the ancients are provoked to demand Stephen's death. Aided by an angel, Stephen is victorious in his sufferings—a miracle, which occasions many conversions. He meets Christ at the Mount of Olives, recalling the agony in Gethsemane. Stephen's discourse occasions his arrest and a hearing before Alexander the Scribe. A voice from heaven and a brilliant light reassure Stephen on the eve of his condemnation by the Sanhedrin. Many, including Abibas, Gamaliel, and Nicodemus, besides Pilate and his family, are faithful to him. Fearing the increase of Christians, Saul demands Stephen's death; he is infuriated at the executioners' hesitation, removes the garments of the servants, and orders the stoning. Stephen exclaims: "Saul, Saul, what you are doing to me today you will suffer tomorrow from the same Jews, and you will think of me." When Saul gives the signal for the execution, Gamaliel and companions try to protect Stephen with their bodies, but are killed with Stephen by a dense volley of stones that even obscure the sunlight.
This apocryphon originated outside of Palestine, most probably after the above mentioned universally received testimony of Lucian the priest (415) concerning the finding of the body of Stephen, and those of Gamaliel, Abibas, and Nicodemus. If the Slavonic version mentions the martyrdom of Gamaliel and companions with Stephen, the Georgian MSS does not. The former obviously invented it to explain the discovery of their bodies with that of Stephen the protomartyr.
Iconography. Among the early and varied representations of St. Stephen are those that depict him robed as a deacon. Stones at his head or shoulder or in the air recall the manner of his martyrdom. An example is the central portion of P. F. Bissoli's triptych (16th century) in the Brera Gallery, Milan. The painting of St. Stephen in Rome's Borgese Gallery shows him kneeling with his head bleeding as he prays during his martyrdom. Representation with the deacon and martyr St. Lawrence is evidently intended to express their association as patrons of deacons and the common cult surrounding the twin tombs guarding their relics in the Roman Basilica of San Lorenzo.
Of special interest are the cycle representations of the life of St. Stephen: one by Bl. Angelico (15th century) in the Cappella Nicolina, Vatican, including six scenes (Stephen is ordained, distributes alms, preaches, is condemned, led out to martyrdom, and stoned); and another of four scenes by V. Carpaccio (16th century), among them the Disputa now in Milan's Brera Gallery. There is also Raphael Sanzio's Disputa of the Blessed Sacrament representing Stephen among companion saints in the court of heaven. The 18th–century dual series of frescoes of SS. Stephen and Lawrence in the San Lorenzo Basilica is the work of C. Fracassini and others. It was destroyed in the bombardment of Rome (1943), but has since been reproduced.
Feast: Dec. 26.
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[s. j. hartdegen]