Stephen // (Greek: Στέφανος Stéphanos, meaning "wreath, crown" and by extension "reward, honor", often given as a title rather than as a name), (c. AD 5 – c. AD 34) traditionally venerated as the protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity, was according to the Acts of the Apostles a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial, he made a long speech denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was then stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who would later become a follower of Jesus and known as Paul the Apostle.
The only primary source for information about Stephen is the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected to participate in a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek-speaking widows.
The Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Church of the East venerate Stephen as a saint. Stephen's name in the original Greek of the Acts of the Apostles is given as Stephanos, meaning "crown". Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; artistic representations often depict him with three stones and the martyr's palm frond. Eastern Christian iconography shows him as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon's vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.
Saint Stephen is first mentioned in Acts of the Apostles as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. According to Orthodox belief, he was the eldest and is therefore called "archdeacon". As another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically stated to have been a convert to Judaism, it may be assumed that Stephen was born Jewish, but nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for the appointment of the deacons is stated to have been dissatisfaction among Hellenistic (that is, Greek-influenced and Greek-speaking) Jews that their widows were being slighted in preference to Hebraic ones in distribution of alms from the community funds. Since the name "Stephanos" is Greek, it has been assumed that he was one of these Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is stated to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles among the people.[Acts 6:5, 8] It seems to have been among synagogues of Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and "signs and wonders" since it is 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".[Acts 6:9] Members of these synagogues had challenged Stephen's teachings, but Stephen had bested them in debate. Furious at this humiliation, they suborned false testimony that Stephen had preached blasphemy against Moses and God. They dragged him to appear before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders, accusing him of preaching against the Temple and the Mosaic Law.[Acts 6:9–14] Stephen is said to have been unperturbed, his face looking like "that of an angel". Robert Eisenman puts forward the theory that the stoning of Stephen is in fact an account of the stoning of James, first Bishop of Jerusalem, as recounted by Josephus, in 62 AD.
In a long speech to the Sanhedrin comprising almost the whole of Acts Chapter 7, Stephen presents his view of the history of Israel. The God of glory, he says, appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, thus establishing at the beginning of the speech one of its major themes, that God does not dwell only in one particular building (meaning the Temple). Stephen recounts the stories of the patriarchs in some depth, and goes into even more detail in the case of Moses. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush[Acts 7:30–32], and inspired Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israelites turned to other gods.[Acts 7:39–43] This establishes the second main theme of Stephen's speech, Israel's disobedience to God. Stephen faced two accusations: that he had declared that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that he had changed the customs of Moses. The Roman Catholic Church states that St. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to prove how the laws of Moses were not subverted by Jesus but, instead, were being fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as "stiff-necked" people who, just as their ancestors had done, resist the Holy Spirit. "Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him."[Acts 7:51–53]
Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. However Stephen, looked up and cried "Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!" He claimed that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God.[Acts 7:54] According to Orthodox belief, the "Jews shouted and covered their ears, and rushed at him. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him, but the holy martyr prayed for his murderers." The people from the crowd, who threw the first stones, laid their coats down so as to be able to do this, at the feet of a "young man named Saul", later to be known as Paul the Apostle. Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers be forgiven, sank to his knees, and "fell asleep" [Acts 7:58–60]. Saul, a witness to the stoning on behalf of the Roman controlled Sanhedrin, "approved of their killing him".[Acts 8:1]
Jewish law theoretically permitted the death penalty by stoning, which was extremely rarely applied by an independent rabbinical Sanhedrin. However, the right to administer criminal law, involving capital punishment, "had been taken from the Sanhedrin decades before the fall of Jerusalem". Josephus wrote of a political Sanhedrin convened by the Romans in 57 BC. At the time of Stephen, the Sadducees as well as the Sanhedrin stood "under the control" of the Roman procurators.
The exact site of Stephen's stoning is not mentioned in Acts, instead we have two different traditions. One, claimed by noted French archaeologists Louis-Hugues Vincent (1872–1960) and Félix-Marie Abel (1878–1953) to be ancient, places the event at Jerusalem's northern gate, while another one, dated by Vincent and Abel to the Middle Ages and no earlier than the 12th century, locates it at the eastern gate.
Of the numerous speeches in Acts of the Apostles, Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin is the longest. To the objection that it seems unlikely that such a long speech could be reproduced in the text of Acts exactly as it was delivered, some Biblical scholars have replied that Stephen's speech shows a distinctive personality behind it.
It has often been observed that there are numerous divergences in Stephen's re-telling of the stories of Israelite history and the scriptures where these stories originated; for instance, Stephen says that Jacob's tomb was in Shechem,[Acts 7:16] but Genesis 50:13[Genesis 50:13] says Jacob's final resting place was a cave in Machpelah at Hebron.[Acts 8:1] There are at least five of these discrepancies, which some scholars have seen as errors, others as deliberate, in order to make specific theological points. There are also theologians who suggested that this discrepancy may come from an ancient Jewish tradition which was not included in the scriptures or may have been popular among people of Jerusalem who weren't scribes. Numerous parallels between the accounts of Stephen in Acts and the Jesus of the Gospels – they both perform miracles, they are both tried by the Sanhedrin, they both pray for forgiveness for their killers, for instance – have led to suspicions that the author of Acts has emphasised – in order to show the recipient that people become holy when they follow the example of Christ – or invented some (or all) of these. The criticism of traditional Jewish belief and practice in Stephen's speech is very strong – when he says God does not live in a dwelling "made by human hands", referring to the Temple, he is using an expression often employed by Biblical texts to describe idols. Most scholars agree that by doing this, Stephen pursues the aim of convincing all the people assembled that Jesus Christ is the Lord and therefore everything done against him or his teachings is practically against their own faith.
Some people laid the charge of anti-Judaism against the speech, for instance the priest and scholar of comparative religion S. G. F. Brandon, who states "The anti-Jewish polemic of this speech reflects the attitude of the author of Acts."
Acts 8:2[Acts 8:2] says "Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him", but the location where he was buried is not specified.
In 415 AD a priest named Lucian purportedly had a dream that revealed the location of Stephen's remains at Beit Jimal. After that, the relics of the protomartyr were taken in procession to the Church of Hagia Sion on December 26, 415, making it the date for the feast of Saint Stephen. In 439, the relics were translated to a new church north of the Damascus Gate built by the empress Aelia Eudocia in honor of Saint Stephen. This church was destroyed in the 12th century. A 20th-century French Catholic church, Saint-Étienne, was built in its place, while another, the Greek Orthodox Church of St Stephen, was built outside the eastern gate of the city, which a second tradition holds to be site of his martyrdom, rather than the northern location outside Damascus Gate (for the two traditions see here).
The Crusaders initially called the main northern gate of Jerusalem "Saint Stephen's Gate" (in Latin, Porta Sancti Stephani), highlighting its proximity to the site of martyrdom of Saint Stephen, marked by the church and monastery built by Empress Eudocia. A different tradition is documented from the end of the Crusader period, after the disappearance of the Byzantine church: as Christian pilgrims were prohibited from approaching the militarily exposed northern city wall, the name "Saint Stephen's Gate" was transferred to the still accessible eastern gate, which bears this name until this day.
The relics of the protomartyr were later translated to Rome by Pope Pelagius II during the construction of the basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. They were interred alongside the relics of Saint Lawrence, whose tomb is enshrined within the church. According to the Golden Legend, the relics of Lawrence moved miraculously to one side to make room for those of Stephen.
In Western Christianity, 26 December is called "St. Stephen's Day", the "Feast of Stephen" mentioned in the English Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas". It is a public holiday in many nations that were historically Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran including Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Poland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Catalan Countries. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, the day is celebrated as "Boxing Day".
In the current norms for the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, the feast is celebrated at the Eucharist, but, for the Liturgy of the Hours, is restricted to the Hours during the day, with Evening Prayer being reserved to the celebration of the Octave of Christmas. Historically, the "Invention of the Relics of Saint Stephen" (i.e. their reputed discovery) was commemorated on 3 August. The feasts of both 26 December and 3 August have been used in dating clauses in historical documents produced in England.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, and in Oriental Orthodox Churches (e.g. Coptic, Syrian, Malankara), Saint Stephen's feast day is celebrated on December 27. This day is also called the "Third Day of the Nativity" because it is the third day of the Christmas season.
Some Orthodox churches, particularly in the west, follow a modified Julian calendar that places date names identically with the standard Gregorian calendar of widespread civil usage. In those churches, then, the date the feast is observed is generally known as December 27. However, other Orthodox churches, including the Oriental Orthodox, continue to use the original Julian calendar. Throughout the 21st century, December 27 Julian will continue to fall on January 9 in the Gregorian calendar, and that is the date on which they observe the feast.
In the Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic Churches, St. Stephen's day falls on December 25 – the day on which the feast of the Nativity of Jesus (Christmas) falls in all other churches. This is because the Armenian churches maintain the decree of Constantine, which stipulated that the Nativity and Theophany of Jesus were to be celebrated on January 6. In dioceses of the Armenian Church which use the Julian Calendar, St Stephen's day falls on January 7 and Nativity/Theophany on January 19 (for the remainder of the 21st century Julian).
In the eucharistic celebration on this feast day, it is traditional for all deacons serving at the altar to wear a liturgical crown (Armenian: խոյր khooyr), which is one of the vestments worn only by priests on all other days of the year, the crown being in this instance a symbol of martyrdom.
Many churches and other places commemorate Saint Stephen. Among the most notable are the two sites in Jerusalem held by different traditions to be the place of his martyrdom, the Salesian monastery of Beit Jimal in Israel held to be the place where his remains were miraculously found, and the church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome, where the saint's remains are said to be buried.
Important churches and sites dedicated to Saint Stephen are:
.... St. Stephen's Gate (Lions' gate; Bab Sitti Mariam). The gate owes its name to a tradition according to which Stephen the Deacon, the first martyr, was stoned on this spot. At the beginning of the 20 c. the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy built a church dedicated to the Protomartyr in their property in front of the gate, in an endeavour to pinpoint the tradition of the site, which was falling into oblivion following the construction of the Dominican church and monastery on the site of the Eudocian church of St. Stephen north of Damascus Gate. The Greek builders went so far as to maintain that, in digging the foundations of the new church, they had found a broken lintel with an engraved invocation to Saint Stephen, but their claim, accepted by Macalister and Vailhé, was promptly disproved by Vincent, who was able to show that the lintel came in fact from Beersheba. Vincent and Abel maintained that the tradition about Stephen's stoning at the eastern gate of Jerusalem was not earlier than the 12 c., while the tradition pointing to the northern gate was ancient. .... J. Milik .... suggested that all the tombstones discovered in this area belonged to the cemetery of the Probatica.
The local guides simply moved to the Kidron valley certain holy places, notably the church of Saint Stephen, which in reality were north of the city, and business went on as before.
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