The Feast of St. Stephen has always meant a lot to me. Immediately, with not even a chance to catch our collective breath, the Church turns from the crib to the cross. The true and ultimate meaning of the Incarnation is not found in the cuteness of the Baby Jesus, but in seeing the menacing shadow of the cross hovering over the scene.
No need to retell the familiar story of Stephen’s martyrdom. Luke does an admirable job in Acts 6:1-8:3 – a rather long section, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.
I’d like to point out a few things, however, that we usually miss.
To begin, I find it wonderfully ironic that the first indication of hierarchy in the fledgling Church has a blatant classist, perhaps even racist, overtone: the appointment of foreigners (the Hellenists, Jewish disciples of Jesus who had been born in the diaspora) to do the work that the Apostles (native “Hebrews”) considered beneath them, “waiting on tables” for the widows of their own class of people. All seven deacons (diakonoi, Greek for “servant”) had Greek, not Hebrew, names: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas.
(Stephen means “the crowned one,” a name laden with symbolism since he is represented as the first to receive “the crown of martyrdom.” Also, the word “martyr” means “witness.” It doesn’t necessarily imply being killed as and ultimate act of testimony, but in Christian tradition it always means giving witness by giving one’s life.)
Note that this was racial/class tension among disciples of Jesus who were Jewish, somewhat analogous to the present-day tensions in the State of Israel between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. The full-fledged conflict between Jewish disciples and Gentile converts, which frames much of the New Testament, wasn’t even on the radar yet.
One problem with these Hellenistic servants (deacons) was that they couldn’t keep their mouths shut and behave like they were supposed to. Immediately after they were formally commissioned to serve the needs of the widows, they began to preach – the job of the Apostles – and Stephen, at least, got in trouble for doing so.
There’s indication that he probably limited his preaching to the Hellenists, who may well have been somewhat neglected by the Apostles and Hebrew-speaking disciples because they had come from other parts of the world, and therefore “talked funny.” and had different customs. (Does this situation sound familiar?) Why do I infer this? Because as a result of his preaching, members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen engaged him in debate. These were Jews from the Diaspora, immigrants to Jerusalem, who had (or were segregated to) their own synagogue because of language as well as culture.
It’s not impossible that Stephen and the other Hellenist “deacons” were also members of this synagogue. Don’t forget that the first generation of the followers of Jesus saw no reason to abandon their Jewish identity and religious convictions. Their preaching was not to “convert” their fellow Jews in the sense we understand the term, bur to demonstrate to them that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of what they, as Jews, were longing for.
Presumably the Apostles, concentrating on the Hebrew-speaking Jews in Jerusalem, didn’t mind Stephen speaking to the Hellenists about faith in Christ; it wasn’t infringing on their territory.
We are told (Acts 6:9) that members of this ethnically segregated synagogue were from Cyrene (North Africa), Alexandria (Egypt), Asia (the Roman province that is now western Turkey) and Cilicia (southern Turkey). Tarsus, the hometown of Saul/Paul, was in Cilicia, so undoubtedly Saul was a member of this synagogue. When Stephen was being executed, the young Saul watched over the outer garments of the perpetrators (Acts 7:58) and approved (Acts 8:1).
When this confrontation arose within the Hellenistic synagogue, the synagogue leaders took it to the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders that served as a court. It could judge according to Jewish law, but its power to impose punishments was very limited under Roman authority. Stephen’s execution by stoning was a mob action than a verdict of the Sanhedrin (see Acts 7:54-60). In fact, from Luke’s description of the mob before the Sanhedrin in Acts (6:11-15), I suspect they may have been less than impressed by the accusations this rabble of foreigners was wasting their time with.
Strictly speaking, this execution would have violated Roman law and policy, but they often turned the other way when local squabbles resulted in murder, unless there was some danger of it escalating into a riot or rebellion.
In the reading we hear at Mass, the Stephen’s lengthy sermon before the Sanhedrin is omitted. Just as well because it would severely stretch our attention span and dilute the impact of this saga of the first disciple whose witness of Jesus as the Christ led to martyrdom. However it’s worth reading on your own (Acts 7:2-53). While he appears to be answering the high priest’s question, it seems to me he is actually addressing his fellow Hellenistic Jews. He tells the story from Abraham to Moses, emphasizing how God uses the foreigner and outcast to fulfill his will, and how the “favored ones” actually are unfaithful. When he gets to verses 51-53, I can just image him emphatically pointing to his fellow members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen, rather than to the Sanhedrin.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.”
As a result of this incident, it seems the wrath of the Hellenistic Jews was aroused against their own members who had embraced the way of Jesus. They became unpopular, shunned, and even threatened. So much so that they had to get out of town. Of course, this made possible a mission far beyond what the Apostles were even thinking about at that time (implied in 8:14), extending even to Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian court official (8:26-40). The Holy Spirit makes good use of what we consider lemons.
Since the Apostles were not included in this persecution, presumably the majority of the Hebrew followers of Christ were not targeted either. This is pretty much implied in the lengthy verse 1 of Acts 8. This would also mean that Saul’s fury against of community of Christ’s followers (Acts 8:3 and 9:1-2) was directed exclusively against the his fellow Hellenists. Remember that Saul, having been raised in Tarsus, Cilicia, was one of them. There is no hatred like that which is aroused among one’s own!
There’s a lot more to Saul’s story here, a hint given us by the name of his synagogue, the “Synagogue of Roman Freedmen.” But that’s for another time . . .
(Note: the image at the top of this post is from the website of the Good Shepherd Chaldean Cathedral in Toronto. It’s accompanied by an informative essay on St. Stephen in Chaldean liturgy and tradition. The Chaldean Church, centered in Iraq and Syria, is one of the most ancient of Christian communities and today one of the most endangered. Like St. Stephen, they are suffering martyrdom in witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Since last year, the suffering and slaughter has gotten even worse, as the Holy Father continues to emphasize. Prayers, awareness and action are needed.)