Saint Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem about the year 35. He is consider both the first Christian martyr (the protomartyr) and one of the first deacons of the Christian Church. All that we know of the life, trial, and death of St. Stephen, is found in the Book of Acts, Chapters 6 and 7. In the long chronicle of Christian martyrs, the story of Stephen stands out as one of the most moving and memorable.
Although his name is Greek (from Stephanos, meaning crown), Stephen was a Jew, probably among those who had been born or who had lived beyond the borders of Palestine, and therefore had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. The New Testament does not give us the circumstances of his conversion. It would seem, however, that soon after the death of the Messiah he rose to a position of prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem and used his talents especially to win over the Greek-speaking residents of the city.
The earliest mention of Stephen is when he is listed among the seven men chosen to supervise the public tables. We recall that these first Christians held their property in common, the well-to-do sharing what they possessed with the poor; and at this time, as always in the wake of war, there were many “displaced persons” in need of charity. We read in Acts that the Hellenists, as the Greek-speaking Christians were called, thought that they, particularly the widows among them, were being discriminated against at the public tables. The Apostles were informed of these complaints, but they were too busy to deal with the problem. Therefore seven good and prudent men were selected to administer and supervise the tables. The seven, on being presented to the Apostles, were prayed over and ordained by the imposition of hands. Associated in these charitable tasks with Stephen, whose name heads the list as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” were Philip, known as “the Evangelist,” Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas-all Greek names. The title of deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the Greek verb meaning “to minister.” These men served the Christian community in temporal and charitable affairs; later on they were to assume minor religious offices.
Stephen, already a leader, now began to speak in public with more vigor and, “full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people.” By this time a number of Jewish priests had been converted to the new faith, but they still held to the old traditions and rules as laid down in Mosaic law. Stephen was prepared to engage in controversy with them, eager to point out that, according to the Master, the old law had been superseded. He was continually quoting Jesus and the prophets to the effect that external usages and all the ancient holy rites were of less importance than the spirit; that even the Temple might be destroyed, as it had been in the past, without damage to the true and eternal religion. It was talk of this sort, carried by hearsay and rumor about the city, and often misquoted, intentionally or not, that was to draw down upon Stephen the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.
It was in a certain synagogue of Jews “called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia” that Stephen chiefly disputed. Perhaps they did not understand him; at all events, they could not make effective answer, and so fell to abusing him. They bribed men to say that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations; Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people; finally his defense turned into a bitter accusation. He concluded thus:
“Yet not in houses made by hands does the Most High dwell, even as the prophet says…. Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; as your father did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who received the Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it.”
Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city to the place appointed, and stoned him. At this time Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Stephen, full of “grace and fortitude” to the very end, met the great test without flinching, praying the Lord to receive his spirit and not to lay this sin against the people. So perished the first martyr, his dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him. Among those present at the scene and approving of the penalty meted out to Stephen was a young Jew named Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: his own conversion to Christianity was to take place within a few short months.