Saint Stephen

 S. Stephen


Saint Stephen died circa 35 AD, deacon and first martyr of the Christian Church.  All that we know of his life is in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 6-7).  He was one of the seven deacons, probably a Hellenistic Jew, appointed by the Apostles to look after the distribution of alms to the faithful (especially the widows) and to help in the ministry of preaching.  To judge by his famous discourse, even if it is somewhat ‘retouched’, Stephen was learned in the Scriptures and the history of Judaism, besides being eloquent and forceful.  The gist of his defence of Christianity, was that God does not depend on the Temple.  Unlike the Mosaic Law, it was a temporary institution and destined to be fulfilled and superseded by Christ, who was the prophet designated by Moses and the Messiah whom the Jewish race had so long awaited.  He finally attacked his hearers for resisting the Holy Spirit and for killing the Christ as their fathers had killed the prophets.  They then stoned him for blasphemy without a formal trial, while he saw a vision of Christ at God’s right hand.  The witnesses placed their clothes at the feet of Saul (after his conversion, Saint Paul the Apostle), who consented to his death.

At least from the 4th Century AD (or earlier) his feast has been kept in both East and West. But the cult was given further popularity by the discovery of his supposed tomb by the priest, Lucian at Kafr Gamala in 415 AD.  The translation of his relics, first to Constantinople and then to Rome, with some dismemberment and with the addition of the stones alleged to have been used at his martyrdom, contributed to the diffusion of his cult.  From early times he was patron of deacons, in the later Middle Ages he was invoked against headaches.  By this time he was patron of innumerable churches, including several French cathedrals such as Bourges, Sens and Toulouse.  In art his usual attributes are a book of the Gospels with a stone and sometimes a palm of martyrdom.  There are several splendid ancient examples of his representation; perhaps the most attractive one of the early Renaissance is that by Jean Fouquet at Berlin from a diptych at Melun.  There is a fine cycle by Fra Angelico at the Vatican. Feast in the West 26th December: in the East, 27th December; feast of the finding of his relics formerly on the 3rd August.

H. Delehaye, Commentarius Perpetuus in Martyrologium Hieronymianum, AA.SS., vol 65 (1931), pp.10-11; M.Simon, St Stephen and the Hellenists in the Primitive Church (1958); M.H. Scharleman, Stephen, a singular saint (1968); M.J. Lagrange, Saint Etienne et son sanctuaire a Jerusalem (1894); F.M. Abel, `Etienne (saint)` Dict. Bibl., supp.ii (1934), 1132-46; V.L. Kennedy, The Saints of the Canon of the Mass (1938), pp.145-8

(Taken from David Hugh Farmer:The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2nd  edition 1987)


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