Stephen the Deacon was a Greek-speaking Jew and the first Christian martyr. The circumstances of his conversion are unknown, but his death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He was an early deacon in the church at Jerusalem who aroused the anger of the Jews by his preaching. Having been accused of blasphemy, he made a long speech at his trial denouncing the Jewish authorities who were pronouncing judgment on him and had him stoned to death. His death was witnessed and approved of by Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) who was holding the cloaks of those who were throwing the stones. Saul would later become the greatest convert to the Christian faith and one of the greatest missionaries in church history.
He is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches. Stephen is derived from the Greek meaning “crown.” Traditionally, he is invested with a martyr’s crown and is often depicted in art with three stones and a martyr’s palm. In the Eastern church, he is often seen as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing deacon’s vestments and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.
Stephen is first mentioned in the book of the Acts as one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to the Hellenistic widows and poorer members if the community (Acts 6:5). Another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, was born Jewish and so it could be assumed that Stephen was also born Jewish. Yet nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for this appointment was that the Greek Jews felt that their widows were being ignored for the Hebraic ones. Since Stephen is a Greek name, it can be assumed he is one of those Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles. It was among the Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and miracles since it was 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.” Members of these synagogues challenged his teachings. But inspired by the Spirit, Stephen bested them in the debates. Having been humiliated, they brought about false witnesses who charged him with blasphemy and dragged him before the Sanhedrin, the legal court of the Jewish elders. They accused him of preaching against Moses and the Temple. Stephen did not get angry despite all of the false charges, but was said to have had “the face of an angel.”
Stephen’s speech, which takes up almost all of chapter 7, is the longest in Acts. In it, Stephen presents the history of Israel. The God of glory appeared to Abraham, thus establishing his first main theme that God does not dwell in one particular building (i.e. the Temple). He recounts the story of the patriarchs in some depth and the history of Moses. Despite all that God did for his undeserving people, Israel turned to other gods. This disobedience was Stephen’s second theme. Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of changing Jewish customs. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to show that the Mosaic law was not subverted by Jesus but instead were fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people, who just as their ancestors, resisted the Holy Spirit.
The crowd could no longer contain their anger. Stephen, though, looked up and cried out “Look! I see heaven open up and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that Jesus was standing on God’s right hand was such intense blasphemy they covered their ears so as not to hear it. They rushed toward Stephen, drove him outside the city to the appointed place and stoned him. Jewish law permitted death by stoning as punishment for blasphemy. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down in order to do this at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul. Stephen, full of compassion, prayed to God to receive his spirit and to forgive his executors. He then fell to his knees and died. Saul approved of his execution.
Acts 8 reports his burial, but the location is unknown. In 415, a priest named Lucian had a dream that supposedly revealed the location of the saint’s remains. The reputed relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.
In the West, the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated on December 26 and is mentioned in the English Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a public holiday in many nations. In Eastern Christianity, it is celebrated on December 27 and is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity.” In the Oriental Orthodox church (Syrian, Indian) it is on January 8.
Many churches and other places commemorate St. Stephen. There is St. Etienne in Paris and in other places in the French speaking world. In Vienna, there is Stephansdom (Cathedral of St. Stephen) founded in 1147 and the seat of the cardinal archbishop of Vienna. It is the symbol of the city of Vienna and of Austria, has the country’s tallest spire and is the country’s most famous church. In the old city of Jerusalem, the “Lion’s gate” is also known as “St. Stephen’s Gate” after the tradition that his stoning occurred here, though it was most likely at the Damascus Gate. In the great city of London, St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III of England. It was the first site of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. St. Stephen’s Clock Tower was the original name for the tower that housed Big Ben until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.