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St Stephen, the first Christian martyr

The Stoning of St Stephen by Paolo Uccello

St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, put to death around 35 AD. He is first mentioned in the context of a squabble between those disciples of Jesus who spoke Greek and those whose native tongue was Hebrew.

In Acts 6:1, we find the Hellenists complaining that their widows were being neglected in the daily apportionment of relief. The Apostles declared that they were too busy preaching the Gospel to attend to such a detail. So the meeting chose seven disciples to administer the fund. All of them had Greek names, and one of them was Stephen.

Whether or not the Apostles had realised it, Stephen was a firebrand, who took a far more radical view than they did of Christian potential. For, while the Twelve dutifully attended the Temple, Stephen, clearly a product of Greek culture, maintained that the teaching of Jesus had abrogated the Mosaic customs, and rendered sacrificial worship redundant.

The outraged Jews hauled him before their supreme court, the Sanhedrin, which was permitted to pass the death sentence for offences against the Temple.

Stephen, though, was not a man to trim. Rather, his face shining “like the face of an angel”, he treated the court to a lengthy historical survey of the Jewish experience. The divine presence, he pointed out, had never been confined to one spot or to one country: God had revealed himself to Abraham in Mesopotamia, to Joseph in Egypt, and to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.

And then he let fly. “Stiff-necked race,” he told the court, “your heart and ears still uncircumcised, you are for ever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. There was not one of the prophets they did not persecute; it was death to foretell the coming of that just man, whom you in these times have betrayed and murdered; you, who received the law dictated by angels, and did not keep it.”

It is not surprising to read that his judges “were cut to the heart, and began to gnash their teeth”. But Stephen, high on the glory of martyrdom, continued: “I see heaven opening, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

This was too much. “Then they cried aloud, and put their fingers into their ears; with one accord they fell upon him, thrust him out of the city, and stoned him. And the witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

After that, many of the Hellenists deemed it wise to leave Jerusalem, going north to Samaria and to Antioch in Syria, and south to Alexandria. Thus Stephen had set in train the long march of Christianity, and the mission to the Gentiles.