(Στέφανος, a crown), one of the first seven deacons, and the protomartyr, of the Christian Church. A.D. 29. In the following account we give the Scriptural notices, with such elucidation as modern investigations have thrown on the subject.
St. Stephen's importance is stamped on the narrative by a reiteration of emphatic, almost superlative, phrases "full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" (Ac 6:5); "full of grace and power" (ver. 8); irresistible "spirit and wisdom" (ver. 10); "full of the Holy Ghost" (7:55). Of his ministrations among the poor we hear nothing. But he seems to have been an instance, such as is not uncommon in history, of a new energy derived from a new sphere. He shot far ahead of his six companions, and, far above his particular office. First, he arrests attention by the "great wonders and miracles that he did." Then begins a series of disputations with the Hellenistic Jews of North Africa, Alexandria, and Asia Minor, his companions in race and birthplace. The subject of these disputations is not expressly mentioned; but, from what follows, it is evident that he struck into a new vein of teaching, which eventually caused his martyrdom.
I. History. —
1. Early Notices. — It appears from Stephen's name that he was a Hellenist, as it was not common for the Jews of Palestine to adopt names for their children except from the Hebrew or Syriac; though of what country he was is unknown. His Hebrew (or rather Syriac) name is traditionally (Basil of Seleucia, Orat. de S. Stephano. See Gesenius in voce כּלל) said to have been Chelil, or Cheliel (a crown). He is represented by Epiphanius (40, 50) as one of the seventy disciples chosen by Christ; but this statement is without authority from Scripture, and is, in fact, inconsistent with what is there mentioned concerning him. He is spoken of by others as one of the first converts of Peter on the day of Pentecost; but this also is merely conjectural. Jerome (On Isaiah 46, 12) and others of the fathers praise him as a man of great learning and eloquence.
2. His Official Position. — The first authentic notice we find of him is in Ac 6:5. In the distribution of the common fund that was intrusted to the apostles (Ac 6:15) for the support of the poorer brethren (see Mosheim, De Rebus Christ. ante Const. p. 118, and Dissert. ad Hist. Ecclesiastes Pertin.), the Hellenistic Jews complained that a partiality was shown to the natives of Palestine, and that the poor and sick among their widows were neglected. Whether we conceive with Mosheim (De Rebus, etc. p. 118) that the distribution was made by individuals set apart for that office, though not yet possessing the name of deacons; or, with the writer in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (art. "Ecclesiastical History; " see also archbishop Whately's Kingdom of Christ), we conclude that with the office they had also the name, but were limited to Hebrews; or whether we follow the more common view as set forth by Böhmer (Diss. 7; Juris Ecclesiastes Antiq.), does not materially affect the present subject. The complaint of the Hellenists having reached the ears of the apostles, immediate directions were given by them with a view to removing the cause of it. Unwilling themselves to be called away from their proper employment of extending the bounds of the Christian community, they told the assembled multitude of believers to select seven men of their own number, in whose faith and integrity they might repose entire confidence, for the superintendence of everything connected with the relief of the poor. The proposal of the apostles met with the approbation of the brethren, who proceeded at once with the choice of the prescribed number of individuals, among whom Stephen is first mentioned; hence the title of first deacon, or first of the deacons, is given to him by Irenaeus (Iren. 1,12). He is distinguished in Scripture as a man "full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" (Ac 6:5). The newly elected individuals were brought to the apostles, who ordained them to their office, and they entered upon their duties with extraordinary zeal and success. The number of the disciples as greatly increased, and many priests were among the converts. In this work Stephen greatly distinguished himself by the miracles he performed before the people and by the arguments he advanced in support of the Christian cause. From his foreign descent and education, he was naturally led to address himself to the Hellenists; and in his disputations with Jews of the Synagogue of the Libertines and Cyrenians, etc. SEE SYNAGOGUE; SEE LIBERTINE, he brought forward views of the Christian scheme that could not be relished by the bigots of the ancient faith.
3. The Accusation. — Down to this time the apostles and the early Christian community had clung in their worship, not merely to the Holy Land and the Holy City, but to the holy place of the Temple. This local worship, with the Jewish customs belonging to it, Stephen now seems to have denounced. The actual words of the charge brought against him may have been false, as the sinister and malignant intention which they ascribed to him was undoubtedly false. "Blasphemous" (βλάσφημα), that is, calumnious, "words against Moses and against God" (Ac 6:11) he is not likely to have used. But the overthrow of the Temple, the cessation of the Mosaic ritual, is no more than Paul preached openly, or than is implied in Stephen's own speech, "against this holy place and the law" — "that Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs that Moses delivered us" (ver. 13, 14).
Benson (History of the First Planting of the Christian Religion) and others have considered the testimony of the witnesses against Stephen as in every respect false, and that we are not even to suppose that he had stated that Christ would change the customs which Moses delivered (Ac 6:14), upon the ground of the improbability of more being revealed to Stephen than to the apostles, as to the abolition of the Levitical ceremonies. From the strain of the martyr's speech, however, a different conclusion may be drawn. His words imply, in various passages, that external rites were not essential, and that true religion was not confined to the Temple service (7, 8, 38, 44, etc.). There seems much plausibility in the conjecture of Neander (Planting and Training of the Christian Church, translated by Ryland, 1, 56 sq.) that Stephen and the other deacons, from their birth and education, were less under the influence of Jewish prejudices than the natives of Palestine, and may thus have been prepared to precede the apostles themselves in apprehending the liberty which the Gospel was to introduce. The statements of Stephen correspond in more than one particular with what was afterwards taught by Paul.
4. The Trial. — For such savings he was arrested at the instigation of the Hellenistic Jews and brought before the Sanhedrim, where, as it would seem, the Pharisaic party had, just before this time (Ac 5:34; Ac 7:51), gained an ascendency. As they were unable to withstand his powers of reasoning, their malice was excited; they suborned false witnesses against him as a blasphemer. The charge brought against him was, as we have seen, that he had spoken against the law and the Temple, against Moses and against God. This accusation was calculated to incite all parties in the Sanhedrim against him (comp. 22:22); and upon receiving it the predetermined purpose of the council was not to be mistaken. Stephen saw that he was to be the victim of the blind and malignant spirit which had been exhibited by the Jews in every period of their history. But his serenity was unruffled; his confidence in the goodness of his cause and in the promised support of his heavenly Master imparted a divine tranquillity to his mind; and when the judges fixed their regards upon him, the light that was within beamed forth upon his countenance, and "they saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel" (6:15).
For a moment, the account seems to imply the judges of the Sanhedrim were awed at his presence. Then the high priest that presided appealed to him (as Caiaphas had, in like manner, appealed in the great trial in the Gospel history) to know his own sentiments on the accusations brought against him. To this Stephen replied in a speech which has every appearance of being faithfully reported. The peculiarities of the style, the variations from the Old Test. history, the abruptness which, by breaking off the argument, prevents us from easily doing it justice, are all indications of its being handed down to us substantially in its original form.
5. Stephen's Defense. — His speech is well deserving of the most diligent study, and the more it is understood the higher idea will it convey of the degree with which he possessed the qualities ascribed to him in the sixth chapter. Very different views have been taken of it by commentators. Upon the whole, we are inclined to follow that which is given by Neander in the work referred to. Even as a composition it is curious and interesting from the connection which may be discovered between the various parts, and from the unity given to the whole by the honesty and earnestness of the speaker. Without any formal statement of his object. Stephen obviously gives a confession of his faith, sets forth a true view of the import of his preaching in opposition to the false gloss that had been put upon it, maintains the justness of his cause, and shows how well founded were his denunciations against the impenitent Jews.
The framework in which his defense is cast is a summary of the history of the Jewish Church. In this respect it has only one parallel in the New. Test, the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews — a likeness that is the more noticeable, as, in all probability, the immediate writer of that epistle was, like Stephens, a Hellenist.
In the facts which he selects from this history he is guided by two principles — at first more or less latent, but gradually becoming more and more apparent as he proceeds. The first is the endeavor to prove that, even in the previous Jewish history, the presence and favor of God had not been confined to the Holy Land or the Temple of Jerusalem. This he illustrates with a copiousness of detail which makes his speech a summary almost as much of sacred geography as of sacred history — the appearance of God to Abraham in Mesopotamia before he dwelt in Haran" (Ac 7:2); his successive migrations to Haran and to Canaan (ver. 4); his want of even a resting place for his foot in Canaan (ver. 5); the dwelling of his seed in a strange land (ver. 6); the details of the stay in Egypt (ver. 8-13); the education of Moses in Egypt (ver. 20-22); his exile; in Midian (ver. 29); the appearance in Sinai, with the declaration that the desert ground was holy earth (γῆ ἁγία) (ver. 30-33); the forty years in the wilderness (ver. 36, 44); the long delay before the preparation for the Tabernacle of David (ver. 45); the proclamation of spiritual worship even after the building of the Temple (ver. 47-50).
The second principle of selection is based on the attempt to show that there was a tendency from the earliest times towards the same ungrateful and narrow spirit that had appeared in this last stage of their political existence. And this rigid, suspicious disposition he contrasts with the freedom of the divine grace and of the human will, which were manifested in the exaltation of Abraham (Ac 7:4), Joseph (ver. 10), and Moses (ver. 20), and in the jealousy and rebellion of the nation against these their greatest benefactors, as chiefly seen in the bitterness against Joseph (ver. 9) and Moses (ver. 27), and in the long neglect of true religious worship in the wilderness (ver. 39-43).
Both of these selections are worked out on what may almost be called. critical principles. There is no allegorizing of the text, nor any forced constructions. Every passage quoted yields fairly the sense assigned to it.
Besides the direct illustration of a freedom from local restraints involved in the general argument, there is also an indirect illustration of the same doctrine, from his mode of treating the subject in detail. Many of his references to the Mosaic history differ from it either by variation or addition, apparently from traditionary sources of information, e.g.:
1. The call of Abraham before the migration to Haran (Ac 7:2), not, as according to Ge 12:1, in Haran.
2. The death of his father after the call (Ac 7:4), not, as according to Ge 11:32 before it.
3. The seventy-five souls of Jacob's migration (Ac 7:14), not as according to Ge 46:27, seventy.
4. The supreme loveliness (ἁστεῖος τῷ Θεῷ, a Hebraistic superlative) of Moses (Ac 7:20), not simply, as according to Ex 2:2, the statement that "he was a goodly child."
5. His Egyptian education (Ac 7:22) as contrasted with the silence on this point in Ex 4:10.
6. The same contrast with regard to his secular greatness, "mighty in words and deeds" (Ac 7:22; comp. Ex 2:10).
7. The distinct mention of the three periods of forty years (Ac 7:23,30,36), of which only the last is specified in the Pentateuch.
8. The terror of Moses at the bush (Ac 7:60), not mentioned in Ex 3:3.
9. The supplementing of the Mosaic narrative by the illusions in Amos to their neglect of the true worship in the desert (Ac 7:42-43).
10. The intervention of the angels in the giving of the Law (Ac 7:53), not mentioned in Ex 19:16.
11. The burial of the twelve patriarchs at Shechem (Ac 7:16), not mentioned in Ex 1:6. The burial of Joseph's bones alone is recorded (Jos 24:32).
12. The purchase of the tomb at Shechem by Abraham from the sons of Emmor (Ac 7:16), not, as according to Ge 23:15, the purchase of the cave at Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite.
13. The introduction of Remphan from the Sept. of Am 5:26, not found in the Hebrew.
The explanation and source of these variations must be sought under the different names to which they refer; but the general fact of their adoption by Stephen is significant as showing the freedom with which he handled the sacred history, and the comparative disregard of verbal accuracy by him and by the sacred historian who records his speech. "He had regard," as Jerome says, "to the meaning, not to the words." (See their reconcilement in Wordsworth's New Test. , p. 65-69.)
6. His Condemnation and Martyrdom. — It would seem that, just at the close of his argument, Stephen saw a change in the aspect of his judges, as if for the first time they had caught the drift of his meaning. He broke off from his calm address, and turned suddenly upon them in an impassioned attack which shows that he saw what was in store for him. Those heads thrown back on their unbending necks, those ears closed against any penetration of truth, were too much for his patience: "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! ye do always resist the Holy Ghost as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? the Just One: of whom ye are the betrayers and murderers." As he spoke they showed by their faces that their hearts (to use the strong language of the narrative) "were being sawn asunder," and they kept gnashing their set teeth against him; but still, though with difficulty, restraining themselves. He, in this last crisis of his fate, turned his face upwards to the open sky, and as he gazed the vault of heaven seemed to him to part asunder (διηνοιγμένος), and the divine glory appeared through the rending of the earthly veil — the Divine Presence, seated on a throne, and on the right hand the human form of "Jesus," not, as in the usual representations, sitting in repose, but standing erect, as if to assist his suffering servant. Stephen spoke as if to himself, describing the glorious vision; and, in so doing, alone of all the speakers and writers in the New Test., except only Christ himself, uses the expressive phrase, "the Son of man." As his judges heard the words, expressive of the divine exaltation of him whom they had sought so lately to destroy, they could forbear no longer. They broke into a loud yell; they clapped their hands to their ears, as if to prevent the entrance of any more blasphemous words; they flew as with one impulse upon him, and dragged him out of the city to the place of execution.
It has been questioned by what right the Sanhedrim proceeded to this act without the concurrence of the Roman government; but it is enough to reply that the whole transaction is one of violent excitement. On one occasion, even in our Lord's life, the Jews had nearly stoned him even within the precincts of the Temple (Joh 8:59). "Their vengeance in other cases was confined to those subordinate punishments which were left under their own jurisdiction imprisonment, public scourging in the synagogue, and excommunication" (Milman, Hist. of Latin Christianity, 1, 400). See Conybeare and Howson, Life of St. Paul, 1, 74. On this occasion, however, they determined for once to carry out the full penalties enjoined by the severe code of the Mosaic ritual. SEE STONING. Any violator of the law was to be taken outside the gates, and there, as if for the sake of giving to each individual member of the community a sense of his responsibility in the transaction, he was to be crushed by stones, thrown at him by all the people. Those, however, were to take the lead in this wild and terrible act who had taken upon themselves the responsibility of denouncing him (De 17:7; comp. Joh 8:7). These were, in this instance, the witnesses who had reported or misreported the words of Stephen. They, according to the custom, for the sake of facility in their dreadful task, stripped themselves, as is the Eastern practice on commencing any violent exertion; and one of the prominent leaders in the transaction was deputed by custom to signify his assent (Ac 22:20) to the act by taking the clothes into his custody, and standing over them while the bloody work went on. The person who officiated on this occasion was a young man from Tarsus — one, probably, of the Cilician Hellenists who had disputed with Stephen. His name, as the narrative significantly adds, was Saul. Everything was now ready for the execution. It was outside the gates of Jerusalem. The earlier tradition fixed it at what is now called the Damascus gate. The later, which is the present tradition, fixed it at what is hence called St. Stephen's gate, opening on the descent to the Mount of Olives; and in the red streaks of the white limestone rocks of the sloping hill used to be shown the marks of his blood, and on the first rise of Olivet, opposite, the eminence on which the Virgin stood to support him with her prayers. The sacred narrative fixes its attention only on two figures that of Saul of Tarsus, already noticed, and that of Stephen himself.
As the first volley of stones burst upon him, he called upon the Master whose human form he had just seen in the heavens, and repeated almost the words with which he himself had given up his life on the cross, " Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Another crash of stones brought him on his knees. One loud piercing cry (ἔκραξε μεγάλῃ φωνῇ) — answering to the loud shriek or yell with which his enemies had flown upon him escaped his dying lips. Again clinging to the spirit of his Master's word's he cried, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge," and instantly sank upon the ground; and, in the touching language of the narrator, who then uses for the first time the word afterwards applied to the departure of all Christians, but here the more remarkable from the bloody scenes in the midst of which the death took place ἐκοιμήθη, "fell asleep."
7. His Remains. — Stephen's mangled body was buried by the class of Hellenists and proselytes to which he belonged (οἱ εὐσεβεῖς), with an amount of funeral state and lamentation expressed in two words used here only in the New Test. (συνεκόμισαν and κοπετός).
This simple expression is enlarged by writers of the 5th century into an elaborate legend. The high priest, it is said, had intended to leave the corpse to be devoured by beasts of prey. It was rescued by Gamaliel, carried off in his own chariot by night, and buried in a new tomb on his property at Caphar Gamala (village of the Camel); eight leagues from Jerusalem. The funeral lamentations lasted for forty days. All the apostles attended. Gamaliel undertook the expense, and, on his death, was interred in an adjacent cave. This story was probably first drawn up on the occasion of the remarkable event which occurred in A.D. 415, under the name of the Invention and Translation of the Relics of St. Stephen. Successive visions of Gamaliel to Lucian, the parish priest of Caphar Gamala, on Dec. 3 and, 18 in that year, revealed the spot where the martyr's remains would be found. They were identified by a tablet bearing his, name, Cheliel, and were carried in state to Jerusalem, amid various portents, and buried in the church on Mount Zion, the scene of so many early Christian traditions. The event of the Translation is celebrated in the Latin Church on Aug. 3, probably from the tradition of that day being the anniversary of the dedication of a chapel of St. Stephen at Ancona. The story itself is encompassed with legend, but the event is mentioned in all the chief writers of the time. Parts of his remains were afterwards transported to different parts of the coast of the West-Minorca, Portugal, North Africa, Ancona, Constantinople and in 460 what were still left at Jerusalem were translated by the empress Eudocia to a splendid church called by his name on the supposed scene of his martyrdom (Tillemont, St.-Etienne, art. 5-9, where all the authorities are quoted). Evodius, bishop of Myala, wrote a small treatise concerning the miracles performed by them; and Severus, a bishop of the island of Minorca, wrote a circular letter of the conversion of the Jews in that island and of the miracles wrought in that place by the relics which Orosius left there. These writings are contained in the works of Augustine, who gives the sanction of his authority to the incredible follies they record (De Civ. Dei, 22, 8).
The exact date of Stephen's death is not given in the Scriptural history. But ecclesiastical tradition fixes it in the same year as the crucifixion, on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas day. It is beautifully said by Augustine (in allusion to the juxtaposition of the two festivals) that men would not have had the courage to die for God, if God had not become man to die for them (Tillemont, St.-Etienne, art. 4).
II. S. Stephen's Typical Character. — The importance of his career may be briefly summed up under three heads:
1. He was the first great Christian ecclesiastic. The appointment of "the Seven," commonly (though not in the Bible) called deacons, formed the first direct institution of the nature of an organized Christian ministry, and of these Stephen was the head "the archdeacon," as he is called in the Eastern Church — and in this capacity represented as the companion or precursor of Laurence, archdeacon of Rome in the Western Church. In this sense allusion is made to him in the Anglican Ordination of Deacons.
2. He is the first martyr — the protomartyr. To him the name "martyr" is first applied (Ac 22:20). He, first of the Christian Church, bore witness to the truth of his convictions by a violent and dreadful death. The veneration which has accrued to his name in consequence is a testimony of the Bible to the sacredness of truth, to the nobleness of sincerity, to the wickedness and the folly of persecution. It also contains the first germs of the reverence for the character and for the relics of martyrs, which afterwards grew to a height now regarded by all Christians as excessive. A beautiful hymn, by Reginald Heber, commemorates this side of Stephen's character.
3. He is the forerunner of Paul. So he was already regarded in ancient times. Παύλου ὁ διδάσκαλος is te expression used for him by Basil of Seleucia. But it is an aspect that has been much more forcibly drawn out in modern times. Not only was his martyrdom (in all probability) the first means of converting Paul — his prayer for his murderers not only was fulfilled in he conversion of Paul — the blood of the first martyr, the seed of the greatest apostle — the pangs of remorse for his death, among the stings of conscience against which the apostle vainly writhed (Ac 9:5) not only thus, but in his doctrine also, he was the anticipator, as, had he lived, he would have been the propagator of the new phase of Christianity of which Paul became the main support. His denunciations of local worship, the stress which he lays on the spiritual side of the Jewish history, his freedom in treating that history, the very turns of expression that he uses, are all Pauline.
III. Literature. — Euseb. Hist. Ecclesiastes 2, 1; Tillemont, Memoires, 2, 1-24; Neander, Planting and Training; Conybeare and Howson, St. Paul, ch. 2; Augusti, Archaol. Denkwürdigk. 1, 145; Rees, De Lapidatione Stephani (Jen. 1729); Ziegelbaur, Acta Stephani (Vien. 1736); Walch, De Funere Steph. (Jen. 1756); Schwarz, Martyrium Stephani (Viteb. 1756); Baur, De Oratione Steph. (Tüb. 1829); Schmid, Discours de St.-Etienne (Strasb. 1839); Bohn, Life of St. Stephen (Lond. 1844); and other monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 74; and by Danz, Wörterb. s.v. "Apostelgesch." Nos. 56, 57.