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Stephen or Stephan (Greek: Στέφανος, Stephanos; Latin: Stephanus), traditionally venerated as the Protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity, was according to the Acts of the Apostles a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial he made a long speech denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was then stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who would later himself become a follower of Jesus.
The only primary source for information about Stephen is the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected to participate in a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek-speaking widows.
The Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Church of the East venerate Stephen as a saint. Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek language Stephanos, meaning “crown”. Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; artistic representations often depict him with three stones and the martyr’s palm frond. Eastern Christian iconography shows him as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.
Stephen is first mentioned in Acts of the Apostles as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. According to Orthodox belief, he was the eldest and is therefore called “archdeacon”.As another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically stated to have been a convert to Judaism, it may be assumed that Stephen was born Jewish, but nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for the appointment of the deacons is stated to have been dissatisfaction among Hellenistic (that is, Greek-influenced and Greek-speaking) Jews that their widows were being slighted in preference to Hebraic ones in the distribution of alms from the community funds. Since the name “Stephanos” is Greek, it has been assumed that he was one of these Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is stated to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles among the people.[Acts 6:5,8] It seems to have been among synagogues of Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and “signs and wonders” since it is said that he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”, and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia”.[Acts 6:9] Members of these synagogues had challenged Stephen’s teachings, but Stephen had bested them in the debate. Furious at this humiliation, they suborned false testimony that Stephen had preached blasphemy against Moses and God. They dragged him to appear before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders, accusing him of preaching against the Temple and the Mosaic Law.[Acts 6:9–14] Stephen is said to have been unperturbed, his face looking like “that of an angel”.
Stoning of Saint Stephen by Paolo Uccello
Thus castigated, the account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. However, Stephen, seemingly now oblivious to them, looked up and cried “Look! I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that the recently executed Jesus was standing by the side of God [Acts 7:54] was such intense blasphemy that 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. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down so as to be able to do this, at the feet of a “young man named Saul”, later to be known as Paul the Apostle. Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and his killers are forgiven, sank to his knees, and “fell asleep” [Acts 7:58–60]. Saul “approved of their killing him”.[Acts 8:1]