Most Christians have heard of St Stephen because he is called the first martyr for Christ. Although the chapters from Acts of the Apostles reveal the saint’s story, it is not recalled in the Sunday Gospel during liturgical year B, which Catholics now witness. However, the weekday liturgy does cover it, and the first readings at Mass over a four day period now occurring tell what little we know of him.
Stephan’s feast day is celebrated on December 26, not because he actually died the day after Christmas, but to further signify his role as the first recognized person to give his life for the risen Lord. His death is generally dated in 35AD, which would encompass a time he was active in the new Way, lasting about two years.
It all began when the apostles were ministering to an ever-increasing multitude not long after the first Christian Pentecost. The large community of disciples was no longer mostly Jews with a few Greek speaking people. Believers were coming from different regions, and the job of taking care of their physical needs had become too much for the twelve (Matthias had replaced Judas by then). It was time to delegate some responsibility, especially in making sure that the many widows, some with children, and orphans were given a fair share of the communal food, which in their time was an extra-important, life-giving ministry.
The fastest growing segment of the Way was the Hellenized Jews, a Greek-speaking people. These were the Galileans Jesus was so familiar with because they came to believe in him more readily than the Hebrews. There was strife between the two tribes, and it would last for years to come. Whether or not, the Greeks were abused in any way by their Israeli counterparts is in question, but there apparently became a problem with the distribution of food, and a committee took the problem directly to the apostles.
The twelve called a community meeting and told them that they could no longer personally keep account of the equal distribution of food because of the work they needed to do in spreading the Gospel. They told the Hellenized to select seven among them (a good biblical number) whose reputation was above reproach, and who were filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. First and foremost, they named Stephen, then six others. Curiously, Acts never reports whether or not they actually performed the mission they were chosen for. What the book does record in certain translations is the label ‘Diakonos,’ the Greek word for a servant, and is pointed to by some as the beginning of the deaconate.
Immediately, the Bible tells that Stephen was full of faith and power and quite the speaker. He ministered the word to so-called Freedmen, who were generally Greek-speaking Jews from everywhere that was outside the political reach of Jerusalem. They stayed within their own groups as they moved into the larger community. Stephen taught them that Jesus was the new Way, and they didn’t understand. Many of these men were called priests although their role was more that of a synagogue lay minister. They complained openly that Stephen blasphemed by dismissing the Law of Moses in favor of the new covenant in Jesus, who said he would destroy the temple. The chauvinism had reached a point where Hellenized were complaining about Hellenized to the Hebrews.
When Stephen was brought before the high priest Caiaphas, the same man who spearheaded Jesus’ crucifixion, he launched into one of the greatest orations in the Bible. For an entire chapter he recounted Jewish history from Abraham to Moses including the promise of a Redeemer. By the time he got done, he was much gruffer in his speech, and he called his accusers “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears.” Ouch! He told them they were opponents of the Holy Spirit, and stopped just short of accusing them of being personally involved in the death of Jesus, but that was close enough. They were infuriated to the point of clenching their jaws and grinding their teeth.
Stephen wasn’t done yet. He had a vision of the Savior in heaven at the right hand of the Father and he told his captors so. They cupped their hands over their ears and drove him out. Once outside of the city, they stoned him to death under the watchful eye of the persecutor Saul. Although tradition has always accepted that this is the same Saul who would become St Paul, there is no indication whether he was one of the Hellenized foreigners who charged Stephen in the first place.
There was a designated place for execution, and it was likely that Stephen was thrown into a deep pit prepared for this purpose. Once there, if he survived, he would be crushed, first by a large boulder rolled on top of him, and then a barrage of stones thrown by the general population. Often, artists have depicted him on his knees in some street or town square, but that was not the norm of the day. The Bible does say he knelt in prayer, but never indicates where that might have been.
Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and he prayed for forgiveness for his murderers. Then he went to sleep. One day, St Augustine would write that we owe a debt to Stephen because it was his prayer that began the conversion of St Paul.
Acts of the Apostles say that devout men recovered the body and gave it a proper burial as they wept bitterly. The story didn’t exactly end there. Gamaliel, the Jewish doctor and teacher of St Paul claimed to have buried the body in his own tomb, and it was then missing for about four hundred years. Lucian, a Palestinian priest was gifted with a vision as to where the remains might be. Not only was the body of St Stephan recovered, but so were several others buried at the same site, who have been considered saints, as well. Not settled yet, the corpse was kept in Jerusalem for a period of time before being moved to Constantinople and eventually to Rome, where he was buried alongside St Lawrence.
There is an old saying of unknown origin, “fed by St Stephen’s bread,” which is a reference to being stoned to death.