Stephen, Session #2 (All quotes generally ESV)
SAINT STEPHEN IN CHURCH TRADITION
What happens when the Christian Church has little Biblical information about someone important such as Stephen? If you don’t know, YOU MAKE STUFF UP! And that is precisely what has happened with Stephen. (The legend which says Peter was crucified upside down because “he didn’t want to be crucified like Jesus” are the typical result of fertile minds. Do you REALLY think Roman soldiers would construct a special cross to make that happen?)
Well, back to Stephen. The fertile minds have worked overtime. One tradition coming from the lost “Discourse of Gregory, Priest of Antioch” provides this account:
Controversies over Christ’s birth, death and resurrection attract teachers from everywhere. Stephen defends these facts, telling the signs of Christ’s return, and therefore charged with blasphemy. The Roman attendants mistreat Stephen, but Pilate defends him and then Pilate becomes baptized along with his entire family!
There is a controversy over the 3 days in the tomb, and Stephen wins the argument with his great wisdom. The Chief Priests send Saul (later “Paul”) to Caesarea with a search warrant to find and kill Christians. Saul finds Stephen (who supposedly is Saul’s cousin) and upbraids him for his beliefs. Stephen tells Saul he will be converted to Christianity. Saul is outraged and whacks Stephen with a stick. Gamaliel, the great Jewish rabbi, defends Stephen; this makes the entire crowd angry—they demand Stephen’s death. But Stephen is helped by an angel; many people are converted to Christ.
Now Stephen goes to the Mount of Olives and there he meets Jesus, who encourages him. Stephen, full of new enthusiasm, heads into Jerusalem and gives a great speech which, naturally, gets him arrested. Alexander the Scribe and the members of the Jewish Council condemn him, but suddenly a light and a voice from heaven comforts Stephen on the eve of his death.
Many Jews and Romans are faithful to Stephen (including Gamaliel and Pilate). Saul demands Stephen’s death. The executioner hesitates, so Saul orders stoning. Stephen says “Saul, Saul, you’ll get this stoning too from the Jews.” Gamliel and others try to protect Stephen with their bodies. All die in the process. The volley of
All of which is, of course, perfect nonsense! While we don’t have the original writings, we have a 10th Century translation of Gregory’s discourse and a 17th Century Slavonic version which contains only the second half of this fairy tale.
Oh, but it gets even better, folks! It isn’t good enough to have a “devotional story of Stephen’s life and death.” Now we have to have RELICS! How to come up with some good relics in order to attract tourists? Here’s the story:
In 415 A.D., according to tradition, the soul of Saint Gamaliel appeared to a presbyter named Lucian, and told him where to find the remains of Stephen’s body, along with Gamaliel, Nicodemus, Pilate, etc.. Found on August 3, the bones were transferred inside the walls of Jerusalem to their new “home” on December 26 of that year. This is why the Christian Church celebrates the Festival of St. Stephen
The Church DOES celebrate the Festival of St. Stephen on December 26 each year (Eastern Orthodox celebrate a day later—I don’t know why. The Armenian Churches celebrate St. Stephen’s Day on December 25, and Christmas on January 6 because the Emperor Constantine issued an edict to do so). Otherwise you can ignore the rest of this fantasy. Some suspect that Lucian was responsible for many of the details in the tradition in order to explain his claim that the bones were all found together. They subsequently were scattered to all parts of the globe. For example: part of Stephen’s right arm is said to be at the monastery Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Russia.
The famous St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who lived at the time of Lucian, confirms all these details of Lucian’s vision and subsequent discovery. His account is rather verbose, and includes miracles which the bones themselves had helped to generate. (Saint Gamaliel, really? I think we better stick to the Biblical account!)
SAINT STEPHEN IN ART
Stephen has been a popular figure in fine art. Rembrandt’s first signed painting was of the Stoning of St. Stephen, now kept in Lyon, France.
Since Stephen is popularly known as the first “deacon” of the Church, he is often painted as a “Deacon.” (which is not in keeping with the Biblical account. The word “deaconia” in Greek was applied to the Apostles and their work, not Stephen)
A “Deacon” in the liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Church of England, Eastern Orthodox) is a specific type of pastoral assistant in the Divine Service. In all the above churches, the Deacon wears a special robe called a Dalmatic which designates his status in the service. The Deacon in the Lutheran Church is responsible for the reading of the Gospel and distribution of the wine at Communion (usually the bread is distributed by the Officiant—the primary Pastor).
Paintings of Stephen will often portray him in his role as a liturgical Deacon along with the appropriate, but much later, liturgical vestments. The Eastern Orthodox “Deacon” is responsible for “swinging the incense pot” (called a thurible or censer) and Eastern iconography often shows Stephen holding a thurible.
Sometimes a painting will show Stephen holding some stones—a reminder of his death by stoning I suppose, although it is doubtful that Stephen would be picking up any stones at the time. Sometimes the stones are at his feet, which makes more sense.
These are some of the more famous depictions of Saint Stephen:
- The Borghese gallery, Rome: Stephen kneeling with a bloody head
- Fra Angelico (15th Cen) at Vatican—6 scenes in the life of Stephen
- Vittore Carpaccio (16th Cen) Milan’s Pinacoteca de Brera—4 scenes of his life
- Rafael pen and ink drawing, Albertina Museum, Vienna—stoning of Stephen
- Basilica of San Lorenzo, Rome—series of 13th Cen. Frescos, partially destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored.
- Giovanni Battista Lucini—17th Cen., Brescia Museum—the martyrdom
- Peter Paul Reubens—17th Cen. Triptych—Saint Amand Abbey, France
What you will notice in art and tradition: The Christian Church over the centuries has taken the Biblical account of Stephen and added 1) he was very young (Bible doesn’t say that) and 2) he held the office of a Deacon (Bible doesn’t say that either—and there was no such office of which we know at the time of Stephen’s death.)
NEXT SESSION: We begin analysis of the Biblical account of Stephen