(Revered as the first martyr, and the most famous deacon in the early Christian Church)
Patronage: bricklayers; deacons; stonemasons
Name meaning: “Crown”
Also known as: Stephen the Deacon
Little is known of Stephen’s early life and conversion. His name is Greek, but he is believed to have been of Jewish origin. Kelil, the Aramaic equivalent of Stephen, is inscribed upon his tomb, found in 415. He is mentioned in Acts 6:5 as one of seven deacons chosen by the apostles to help look after widows and the poor. He is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” He spent his time among the Hellenists, preaching bold sermons and performing miracles. He attracted many followers. Acts 6-8:2 tells of his martyrdom.
His popularity earned him many enemies among the Jews, who plotted his downfall. He was accused of blasphemy against Moses and God and was brought before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Acts 7:2–53 tells how eloquently he defended himself, radiant as an angel. He spoke about Jesus as the Savior that God had promised to send. It was to no avail. He certainly earned no quarter by chastising his attackers for not believing in Jesus, and calling them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and betrayers and murderers. His opponents only rose up in great anger and shouted at him. Stephen looked up to heaven and said that he saw the heavens opening and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen was condemned under Mosaic law and was dragged outside of Jerusalem and stoned to death.
Saul later to become St. Paul approved of the execution, and witnesses and executioners surrendered their garments to him for safekeeping. Stephen’s last words were “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit,” and a request that his killers be forgiven. Stephen was buried in a tomb and was for the most part forgotten until the fourth century, when St. Gregory of Nyssa composed two homilies to him. Gregory saw him as a key figure in a struggle against demonic forces, and one who caused great awe and wonder among the angels. Stephen imitated Christ by being sweet and compliant and bearing no hatred toward his murderers.
Gregory made a play on words, comparing Stephen’s name to the word for crown in Greek, stephanos. Stephen’s tomb was discovered by Lucian. Empress Eudoxia (r. 455-460) built a church in his honor outside the Damascus Gate. Stephen’s blood is a relic in the Church of San Guadioso in Naples, Italy. As late as 1624, the blood was said to liquefy whenever the hymn Deus tuorum militum was sung.