St. Stephen is remembered in the church as one of the first deacons chosen by the apostles (Acts 6:5) and the first Christian martyr following the resurrection and ascension of Christ (7:58-60). The church has also, however, maintained and handed down a great deal more information about this important saint. Like St. Paul, St. Stephen had been a student of the rabbi Gamaliel, a figure who appears briefly in the New Testament (5:34; 22:3), but becomes a massively important figure of authority in later Talmudic Judaism. The Mishnah, in particular, is composed primarily of the statements and opinions of famed rabbis on particular topics of the Torah, and Gamaliel’s opinions are featured prominently. While St. Paul’s level of rabbinical, as well as Roman, education is often noted, St. Stephen’s is often neglected.
It was Gamaliel, along with St. Nicodemus, who collected St. Stephen’s body after his death and saw to its burial. While this event is little known in the modern day, it was a major theme of ancient and medieval art in both East and West. They buried St. Stephen in a tomb which Gamaliel owned and later also buried St. Nicodemus within. Gamaliel was baptized later in life as was his son Abibas and at their deaths they were also buried in that tomb. The tomb was discovered in the early part of the 5th century when then Bishop of Jerusalem John received a report from one of his priests, a certain Lucian, that Gamaliel had appeared to him in a dream. The relics of all three were retrieved, Gamaliel was glorified as a saint, and the relics were translated to Constantinople on August 2nd, making that day a secondary feast of St. Stephen as well as a feast of Ss. Nicodemus and Gamaliel.
Though we have considerably less material in the New Testament from and about St. Stephen than St. Paul, the material which we do have gives strong evidence of the depth of his knowledge of the scriptures within the Jewish tradition in which they existed at the time. When St. Stephen is first presented to us in scripture, he is described as living an angelic life which has transformed his whole being (Acts 6:15). Because of this, he has not only been preaching Christ from the Old Testament scriptures in such a way that none of the Jewish scholars of Jerusalem is able to withstand his argumentation (v. 9-10), but is also working signs and wonders among the people giving evidence of the reality of his proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah and had come (v. 8). Like Christ, he is opposed by evil men who bring him before the Sanhedrin.
Before the Sanhedrin, St. Stephen is falsely accused with a series of accusations identical to those levelled against Christ himself during his trials roughly a year earlier, and these Sanhedrin are the same elders who had condemned Jesus himself. St. Stephen does not defend himself against the accusations, but rather again takes the opportunity to proclaim the person of Jesus Christ from the Hebrew scriptures to those who are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel. While in this sermon St. Stephen describes the history of the Israelite people from Abraham to the building of Solomon’s temple, its major theme is the person of Jesus Christ who has come into the world and appeared now among men.
St. Stephen begins, importantly, by describing the glorious God as having ‘appeared’ to Abraham in Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2). This is the first of many places where St. Stephen supplements the text of the Torah with then traditional elements and rabbinical understandings of the period. God appears to Abraham, and yet Abraham, rather than immediately travelling to Canaan, moves to Haran until his father dies and has to be ‘taken’ from there by God (v. 4). This introduces St. Stephen’s second theme, that God manifesting himself to his people has always been greeted by their resistance and rejection. He goes on to use the patriarch Joseph as a figure of Christ, rejected by his brothers and sold into slavery but rescued out of his afflictions and made ruler (v. 9-10). Despite their evil intent toward Joseph, it was through Joseph’s ascension to kingship that those very people who had hated and rejected him were saved from their own troubles, afflictions, and death (v. 11-12).
St. Stephen describes the birth of Moses who was, like Christ, persecuted from birth by Gentile authorities (v. 17-22). He presents the incident with the killing of the Egyptian and the threat by another Israelite of exposing his crime as the rejection of Moses by his own people, in particular a rejection of his rulership (v. 27, 35). Through the story of Moses, St. Stephen introduces the pre-incarnate Christ into his retelling. He presents the angel who speaks with the voice of the Lord at the burning bush (v. 30), which angel was also with him later at Mt. Sinai for the giving of the Torah when Moses stood in the ‘congregation’, the divine council of God (v. 38, 53). By bringing this figure who was with the Israelites from the time they left Egypt until the days of Judges (Ex 23:20-26; Judg 2:1-5) into parallel with the “prophet like Moses” (v. 37), St. Stephen presents Jesus as not only the Messiah, but also as the second person of the Godhead, who is the giver of the Torah and the revealer of the oracles of God (v. 38).
When the Angel who brought Israel out of the land of Egypt is introduced, he comes with the command that the Israelites must destroy the cultic worship centers of the people currently dwelling in the land. When the Angel departs, he states that the reason for his departure is that Israel has not done this, but has tried to blend the worship of Yahweh, their God, with that of the gods of the nations. Their rejection of God through the worship of the gold calf is punished in a way parallel to the story of the tower of Babel. Just as there, for the sin of idolatry, the nations were given over and assigned to angelic beings who became corrupt and were worshipped as gods by those nations, so also the Israelites were given over to the worship of the ‘heavenly host’, with Moloch of the Amorites and Rephan of the Midianites as examples (v. 42-43).
Finally, St. Stephen turns to the subject of the temple. He is there specifically accused of having professed that Jesus of Nazareth was going to destroy it (6:13-14). Rather than arguing that this is untrue, St. Stephen presents the temple itself as an example of the rebellion of the people. The tabernacle was built at God’s express command to Moses following detailed instructions after the pattern of the divine council into which Moses had entered on the mountain (7:44). St. Stephen contrasts David, who found favor in God’s sight and asked to build a temple with his son Solomon who he simply says ‘built it’ without further elaboration (v. 47). And Solomon’s construction of it was over the objections of God himself (v. 48-50). Implied here is that elders to whom St. Stephen speaks have made the temple itself an idol. But this is in keeping with the pattern which began with Abraham, through their whole history, culminating in their murder of Jesus the Christ (v. 51-53).
This sermon brings about not the repentance of the hearers, but their greater anger, and St. Stephen is dragged outside of the city and stoned to death, with his fellow student Saul standing by and approving. St. Stephen’s vision at the time of his death is the subject of much curiosity, given that he sees the Son of Man standing, rather than sitting, at the right hand of God (v. 56). Christ is standing because he is exercising his authority within the divine council, which St. Stephen has already spoken about in his sermon. To stand in the divine council is the primary credential for a prophet (Jer 23:18, 22). This is how his hearers understand St. Stephen’s claim, which draws their further anger (v. 57).
But what is happening here is greater than merely the identification of St. Stephen as one who speaks for God. Christ had promised in the first volume of Luke’s two volume work that everyone who confessed him before men, he would confess before the angels of God, and whoever rejected him he would likewise reject before the angels (Luke 12:8-9). The Epistle to the Hebrews understands this as the destiny of the saints (Heb 2:11-13). Christ is therefore standing to welcome St. Stephen into the divine council. He is, in his death, being glorified as a saint, one of God’s ‘holy ones’, the title given to the angels in the Hebrew Bible. This places St. Stephen alongside figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and Enoch from the old covenant. St. Ambrose says about this event, “[Christ] sits to judge, he stands to give judgment. He judges the imperfect, but gives judgment among the gods” (Ep. 59).
It was already a part of Jewish piety to commemorate the deaths of prophets and martyrs on the anniversary of their deaths particularly at shrines containing their relics. The tombs of the prophets were evidence of this (Matt 23:29; Luke 11:47) as was the prominent tomb of the Maccabean martyrs in Antioch. Record still exists of the celebration of St. Stephen on December 26 going back to the 3rd century along with record of the movement of the feast to December 27th after the beginning of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ on the 25th to accommodate a related feast on the 26th. There are, however, records in the 2nd century of encomiums and exhortations to martyrdom being preached concerning St. Stephen in the 2nd century in places as disparate as Palestine and Lyons. The description of St. Stephen’s glorification in Acts 7 and his prominence in the text of the Acts of the Apostles argue strongly that this remembrance goes back into the first century, and what is recorded in Acts 6 and 7 by St. Luke a piece of tradition which he has received related to such a commemoration going all the way back into the first century. In any case, it is clear that St. Stephen’s day is one of the very earliest feasts of the Christian church, being predated by only Pascha, Pentecost, and possibly Theophany. The story of St. Stephen represents the transformation of the Jewish commemoration of prophets and martyrs into the Christian understanding of sainthood, both theologically and liturgically. He is not only the protomartyr, but also the paradigm by which sainthood is Biblically understood.