By Charles Garrity
Saint Stephen, one of the first seven deacons of the Christian Church, is also the first Christian to be martyred for the Faith; (hence the title, protomartyr-that is “First martyr”). The story of Saint Stephen’s ordination as a deacon is found in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. It also recounts the plot against Stephen and the beginning of the trial that resulted in his martyrdom. The seventh chapter of Acts recounts Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin and his martyrdom.
Not much is known about Saint Stephen’s early life. He is first mentioned in Acts 6:5, when the apostles appoint seven deacons in order to minister to the physical needs of the faithful. Because Stephen is a Greek name (Stephanos), and because the appointment of the deacons occurred in response to complaints by Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, it is generally assumed that Stephen was himself a Hellenist Jew.
Saint Stephen’s ministry was conducted among Greek-speaking Jews, some of whom were not open to the Gospel of Christ. Saint Stephen is described in Acts 6:5 as “full of Faith, and of the Holy Ghost” and in Acts 6:8, as “full of grace and fortitude”. His talents for preaching were so great that those Hellenist Jews who disputed his teaching “were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke.”
Unable to combat Stephen’s preaching, his opponents found men who were willing to lie about what Saint Stephen taught. In a scene reminiscent of Christ’s own appearance before the Sanhedrin, Stephen’s opponents produced witnesses who claimed that “we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place [the temple], and shall change the tradition which Moses delivered unto us.” Acts 6:14. When the high priest gives him the chance to defend himself, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and provides a remarkable exposition of salvation history from the time of Abraham through Moses and Solomon and the prophets. He ended with a rebuke of those Jews who refused to believe in Christ: You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the laws by disposition of angels and have not kept it.
Stephen’s testimony confirmed in the minds of the Sanhedrin the charge of blasphemy, “and they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him” Acts 7:56. They dragged him outside of the walls of Jerusalem (near the Damascus Gate) and stoned him.
Because Stephen is mentioned first among the seven men ordained as a deacon in Acts 6:5-6 and is the only one singled out for his attributes, he is often regarded as the first deacon as well as the first martyr.
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