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STEPHEN (stē'vĕn, Gr. Stephanos, crown). One of the seven appointed to look after the daily distribution to the poor in the early church (Acts.6.1-Acts.6.6). The need for such men arose out of the complaint of the Hellenists (i.e., Greek-speaking Jews) that their widows were not receiving a fair share of this relief. Stephen, described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts.6.5), and six others were selected by the church and consecrated by the apostles in order to insure an equitable distribution.

Stephen’s ministry was not, however, limited to providing for the poor. He did “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts.6.8). While this probably brought him into great favor with the people generally, another aspect of his ministry engaged him in bitterest conflict with the adherents of Judaism. He taught in the synagogue of the Libertines (i.e., freedmen) and there debated with Jews of the Dispersion from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia. When it was evident that they could not refute Stephen’s arguments in open debate, these Jews hired informers to misrepresent his arguments. They went around proclaiming, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts.6.13-Acts.6.14). These accusations were such that the council could be assured of the support of the people of Jerusalem. Since they were largely dependent on the temple for their livelihood, any threat to it constituted a threat to them.

Acts 7 records Stephen’s remarkable apologia before the council. F. F. Bruce rightly points out that it was “not a speech for the defense in the forensic sense of the term. Such a speech as this was by no means calculated to secure an acquittal before the Sanhedrin. It is rather a defense of pure Christianity as God’s appointed way of worship” (The Book of Acts [NINTC], 1956, p. 141). Stephen’s exclamation at the close of his speech is particularly important to a proper understanding of it: “Look...I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts.7.56). This is the only occurrence of the title “Son of Man” in the NT on the lips of anyone other than Jesus himself. It reveals that “Stephen grasped and asserted the more-than-Jewish-Messianic sense in which the office and significance of Jesus in religious history were to be understood,” (William Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1951, p. 31).

Such radical thinking was too much for the listening Sanhedrin. “They covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they...dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” The witnesses, whose responsibility it was to cast the first stones (cf. Deut.17.7), laid their clothes at Saul’s feet (Acts.7.57-Acts.7.58).——WWW

d. c. a.d. 36. Proto-martyr. As early Christianity emerged, according to Acts 6-7, the earliest response to the protest by Hellenists against discriminatory practices of the Hebrews saw the Twelve summoning the whole body of disciples and picking seven from the former group to perform the requisite ministry of service. Stephen headed the list. His vigorous ministry brought him into debate with the officials of the larger Judaism, from which the earliest Christian community was not yet distinguished. This led to his execution near Jerusalem (at least four sites are competitive) by stoning, in the presence of Saul as consenting bystander. Form-critical analysis of the summary of Stephen's theology (Acts 7:2-53) shows it stands in the tradition of “credo” passages wherein the proclamation of the activity of God is described by a recitation of that sacred history which gave structure to the OT narrative. Punning his name, Eusebius identifies him as first to win the crown (stephanos) reserved for martyrs; Sozomen's fragmented termination breaks off with the discovery of his relics presumably during the administration of Theodosius II (408- 450), thereby intensifying that cult which keeps “the feast of Stephen” (26 December).

STEPHEN ste’ vən (Στέφανος, crown). Hel. Christian apologist and first Christian martyr.

His background.

All that is known of Stephen is recorded in Acts 6:5-8:12. His name and associations indicate that he was a Hellenist, or Gr.-speaking Jew. No account is given of his conversion or of his coming into the Christian fellowship. Though there is an obscure tradition that he was one of the Seventy, it is quite possible that he had not been a personal disciple of Jesus at all. He may likely have been reached by the early preaching of the apostles in Jerusalem.

The significance of the Hellenists is seen first in their numbers. It is remarkable that so soon after the resurrection of Jesus there should have been need for seven men in charge of the distribution of relief to the widows of the Gr.-speaking Jews alone. This indicates the presence of thousands of Christians in Jerusalem whose native tongue was Gr. Another surprise is the early transformation of the Church from a Jewish movement to a fellowship composed almost exclusively of Gentiles. It goes almost without saying that the Hellenists had a crucial part in this transition. This development required a different leadership from that provided by the twelve apostles. Jews and Gentiles were separated by the major barriers of race, geography, and language. Hellenistic Jews, many of whom had lived outside of Pal., had overcome part of the barriers and had learned to live with Gentiles. When converted, they readily adapted the message to a Gr. context and held it in readiness when the Spirit of God moved the Church to broaden its witness to the Gentiles. Stephen’s insights were a significant contribution in this direction.

His work.

Stephen’s qualifications and leadership were of such a nature that some commentators find it hard to believe that he ever really “served tables.” He is named first in the list of the Seven in Acts 6:5. He was “full of grace and power” (v. 8). He worked miracles (v. 8) and spoke with wisdom and spiritual power (v. 10). The Seven were appointed to the specific task of caring for the needs of the widows of the Hellenists in the daily distributions of food (vv. 1-3). Though no mention is made of their discharging this duty, it can be assumed that they did so with efficiency. At any rate, the church grew (v. 7).

It is quite possible that a more fundamental problem than a supposed discrimination in the handling of food caused the discontent. It may have been the lack of adequate Hel. representation on the administrative level of the church. With numbers approaching those of the Heb.- or Aram.-speaking Jews and with strong feelings of loyalty to their group, they likely wanted a commensurate voice. It does not follow that Stephen and the Seven were to devote all their time to “serving tables” for the Hellenists, any more than the apostles had served the others. They were administratively responsible to see that the work was done. Then they were freely to follow the ministry of the Word as the Holy Spirit motivated and enabled them. In this latter capacity, Stephen, at least, excelled.

His beliefs.

The record of Jesus’ freer tendency in these matters must have been preserved by the immediate followers of Jesus. As Dr. Filson suggests (Pioneers of the Primitive Church, p. 66), many of the followers were so much in the grip of ancestral tradition that they gradually drew back into an attitude of one hundred per cent Jewishness and thus lost a basic feature of the attitude of Jesus. Stephen, with his broad background in the Dispersion, maintained this important aspect of Jesus’ message and held open the way for the future advance into Gentile evangelism. While he appears not to have evangelized Gentiles, himself, his thought and his sources in the words of Jesus prepared the way for Paul. There is, indeed, also a remarkable parallel between the approach and method in Stephen’s defense and that of certain of Paul’s sermons (Acts 7:2-53 and 13:16-41).

His arrest.

The greater recognition of the Hellenists was followed by remarkable growth and success in the Church. But progress also brought trouble. Stephen did not hesitate to preach his views in the Hel. synagogues. Naturally, others arose and disputed him. Stephen won the debate. They could not resist his superior understanding and convincing knowledge. Nor could they match the deep earnestness and spiritual insight with which he spoke (Acts 6:10). Worsted in debate, the synagogue Jews did not lose the upper hand. They circulated among the people between the public services, misrepresented Stephen’s views, aroused suspicion and fears concerning his alleged “heresy” and “blasphemy,” and set a trap for him. They seized Stephen and brought him before the assembled Council, brought pre-arranged false witnesses, and charged him with blasphemy (vv. 12-14). The accusation included two charges—one against his person, a charge of blasphemous words against Moses that would make him a blasphemer against God, and another against his teaching, charging him with radical and revolutionary statements concerning the Temple and the law. These charges are strikingly parallel to those levelled against Jesus (Matt 26:65; Mark 14:58; 13:2; 15:29). Stephen was accused of implied approval of the destruction of the Temple and the change of the law. Christianity, so taught, was understood as threatening the overthrow of the Jews’ religion and the very termination of their national existence.

His defense.

The charge against Stephen’s person was baseless except as one would prevert his words. But there was an element of truth in the charge against his teaching. The Gospel of Christ was sufficiently revolutionary to be a threat to the dead formalism and ceremonialism by which the Temple worship was perpetuated. Having discovered reality, Stephen could never go back to the types and shadows. He was defending more than opinions or even convictions. He rested in a vital relationship with a Person. In the simplicity and confidence of that trust, he had no anxiety. The inner light broke out upon him until even his face was like that of an angel (Acts 6:15).

The defense, then, was not primarily of Stephen, but of the Gospel. He was more interested in effective witness to the truth than he was in living. If they accepted the truth of the Gospel, he would, of course, survive. If not, his trust was still in Jesus.

The fundamental difference between Stephen and his opponents lay in that he judged the OT history from the prophetic viewpoint while they represented the legalistic view. To him, Jesus was the natural historical outcome of the OT revelation. The revelation of God and the development of the nation did not coincide. Stephen was not antinomian nor anti-Mosaic, but the Jewish nation was obstinate. From the early leaders down to the present council, they disobeyed God and His revelation. The new religion was only the divinely ordered development of the old. The real blasphemers were the disobedient Jews who rejected the revelation and killed Jesus.

Stephen made the point that God had never bound Himself to one sanctuary or to one person, such as Moses. God’s self-manifestation began long before Moses or the Temple. And Moses himself testified that it would not conclude with him. Another was to come. The Hebrews resisted Moses, killed the prophets, and continued in a largely unregenerate state to that very hour.

His martyrdom.

The Council answered Stephen’s countercharge with rage. Stephen gazed into heaven and uttered his memorable testimony in behalf of Christ. When he declared that he saw through the opened heavens and saw Jesus on the right hand of God (7:56), the Council broke loose, forgetting the formality of pronouncing sentence. They stoned him as a blasphemer uncondemned (Deut 17:7; Lev 24:14-16). Certain legal forms were observed to give the violence the appearance of legality, however.

The effect of Stephen’s death was tremendous. The persecution that followed scattered the Church and threatened loss, but the vigor of the Church’s witness soon turned potential defeat into victory and growth. One cannot resist the impression that Stephen’s noble witness and spirit lay behind the growth of the Church and the eventual conversion of Saul. As Augustine said, “Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non habuisset”—If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had Paul.


C. Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age of the Christian Church (1894), 62-75; G. Purves, Christianity in the Apostolic Age (1900), 51-55; B. Bacon, “Stephen’s Speech: Its Argument and Doctrinal Relationship,” Biblical and Semitic Studies (1901), 213-276; F. Filson, Pioneers of the Primitive Church (1940), 52-82; M. Simon, St. Stephen and the Hellenists in the Primitive Church (1958), 1-130; R. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty (1964), 34, 35, 133, 271-275.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(Stephanos, "crown" (Ac 6:5-8:12)):

1. His Personal Antecedents

2. His Character and Activity

3. His Teaching

4. His Arraignment before the Sanhedrin

5. His Defence before the Sanhedrin

(1) Personal Defence

(2) Defense of His Teaching

6. Martyrdom of Stephen


Known best as the proto-martyr of the Christian church, introducing the heroic period of persecutions. He deserves as well to be called the first great apologist for Christianity, since it was this that brought on his death as a martyr (circa 36 or 37 AD).

1. His Personal Antecedents:

As his name and his relations in the church at Jerusalem seem to imply (Ac 6:3 ), he was a Hellenist, i.e. a Greek-speaking Jew. Thus he belonged to that class of Jews usually residing outside of Palestine who, though distinguished from the orthodox Palestinian Jew by a broader outlook on life due to a more liberal education, were Jews none the less, the original Jewish element predominating in their character, and who might be true Israelites indeed, as Stephen was. Of his conversion to Christianity we know nothing, though there is a tradition that he was among the Seventy. As Stephen by his life and work marks a period of transition in the development of the early Christian church, so his name is connected with an important new departure within the organization of the church itself, namely, the institution of the office of the Seven (Ac 6:1 ), who were entrusted with the administration of the work of relief in the church at Jerusalem--the foundation of the diaconate (Iren., Haer., i.26; Cyprian, Epist., iii.3). Of the seven men, all Hellenists, elected to this office at the occasion of a grievance of the Hellenistic Christians in the Jerusalem church against the Hebrew Christians, to the effect that in the distribution of alms their widows were being discriminated against, Stephen, who heads the list, is by far the most distinguished.

2. His Character and Activity:

Stephen more than met the requirements of the office to which he was elected (Ac 6:3); the record characterizes him as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Ac 6:5), i.e. of an enthusiastic faith and of a deep spirituality, and his activity was not restricted to the functions of his office; in fact while nothing is said of the manner in which he fulfilled the duties of his office, though without doubt he fulfilled them faithfully, the record makes it very clear that the importance of Stephen lay in his activity as a preacher, a witness for Christ; it is this activity which has given him the place he holds in history (Ac 22:20). In itself that is not surprising, for in the early Christian church every Christian was at once a witness for Christ, and lay-preaching was common. The Seven from the first were occupied with essentially spiritual work, as also the later diaconate was engaged in something far different from mere charity organization. But Stephen was especially qualified for this high work, having been endued by the Holy Spirit with apostolical gifts, not only that of preaching, but also that of working miracles (Ac 6:8). In his freer views of Jewish law and customs, due to his deeper conception and better understanding of the essence of Christianity, he even excelled the apostles.

3. His Teaching:

4. His Arraignment before the Sanhedrin:

The accusation which they brought against him, through the introduction of false witnesses, included a twofold charge, one against his person, a charge of blasphemous words against Moses which would make him also a blasphemer of God, and one against his teaching, charging him with revolutionary and radical statements concerning the temple and the Law. (compare Mr 14:58; 13:2; 15:29). "Customs of Moses" (Ac 6:14) were the institutions that distinguished the Jews and that were derived from Moses. By his reference to "this place" and "these customs" Stephen was understood to imply the destruction of the temple and the change of the Law, Christianity thus aiming not only at the overthrow of the Jews’ religion but the very termination of their national existence.

The charge against Stephen’s person was a baseless accusation. There was no blasphemy on the part of Stephen, save by perversion of his words. The charge against his teaching was both false and true. It was false as an implied insinuation that he impugned the divine origin and character of the temple and the Mosaic Law, but it was true as far as he conceived both to be only of a temporary nature and serving a merely provisional purpose, which, as we have seen, constituted the peculiarity of his teaching. As in the trial of Christ, the judge, Pontius Pilate, read his true verdict, "I find no guilt in him," written on His countenance and whole bearing, thus here the record tells us that the judges of Stephen, "All that sat in the council .... saw his face as it had been the face of an angel" (Ac 6:15; 2Co 3:18); as if in refutation of the charge made against him, Stephen receives the same mark of divine favor which had been granted to Moses. It is a significant fact that Stephen was not arraigned before the Sanhedrin as being a Nazarene though at bottom it was the real cause of his arraignment. Thus also his defense before the Sanhedrin, though the name of Jesus was not mentioned until the very last, was in reality a grand apology for Christ.

5. His Defense before the Sanhedrin:

While the assembly was overawed by the evidence of singular innocence and holiness written upon the countenance of Stephen (Ac 6:15), the question of the high priest "Are these things so?" broke in upon the silence. It drew forth from Stephen that masterful pleading which, so sublime in form and content and bare of all artificiality, belongs to the highest type of oratory, characterized by its deep, earnest, and genuine spirituality, the kind of oratory of which the great speeches of our own martyred Lincoln were models. It is not so much a plea in selfdefence as a grand apology for the cause which Stephen represents.

Beginning by mentioning "the God of glory" and ending with a vision of that glory itself, the speech is a wonderful apotheosis of the humble cause of the Nazarene, the enthusiastic tribute of its first great martyr delivered in the face of death. The contents of his speech are a recital of the most marked phases of Jewish history in the past, but as read from the point of view of its outworkings in the present--old facts interpreted by a spiritfilled disciple of Christ. It is in reality a philosophy of Israel’s history and religion, and in so far it was a novum. Thus the new feature that it furnishes is its philosophy of this history which might be termed the Christian philosophy of Jewish history. In appealing to their reason he calls up picture after picture from Abraham to Moses; the speech exhibits vividly the continuity and the progress of the divine revelation which culminated in Jesus of Nazareth, the same thought as that expressed by Christ in Mt 5:17 of the principal agreement between the Old Testament and the New Testament revelation.

The emotional appeal lies in the reverential and feeling manner in which he handles the history sacred to them all. The strong appeal to the will is made by holding up the figure of Moses type of the Law, in its vital significance, in such a way as passionately to apply it to the fundamental relation of divine plan and human conduct. Thus the aim of Stephen was to point out to his hearers the true meaning of Jewish history and Jewish Law in reference to the present, i.e. in such a way that they might better understand and judge the present and adjust their conduct to it accordingly. Their knowledge of Jewish history and Jewish religion as he would convey it to them would compel them to clear him of the accusation against him as blasphemer and false teacher.

In accordance with the accusation against him, his defense was a twofold one: personal defense and defense of his teaching.

(1) Personal Defense

The charge of blasphemy against God and contempt of the Law is implicitly repudiated by the tenor of the whole speech. The courteous and at once endearing terms in Stephen’s address (Ac 7:2) to the council, and the terms "our fathers" and "our race" in Ac 7:2,19 by which he closely associates himself with his hearers, his declaration of the divine majesty of Yahweh with which the speech opens (7:2), of the providential leading of the patriarchs (7:8,10), his recognition of the Old Testament institutions as divinely decreed (7:8), his reference to the divine sanction of the Law and its condemnation of those who had not kept it (7:53), at the close of his speech, show clearly his reverence, not only for the past history of the Jewish race, but as well for its Sacred Writings and all of its religious institutions. It makes evident beyond doubt how not grounded the accusation of blasphemy against him was. Not to impiety or frivolity in Stephen, but to some other cause, must be due therefore the difference between him and his opponents. What it is Stephen himself shows unmistakenly in the second part of his defense.

(2) Defence of His Teaching

The fundamental differences between Stephen and his opponents, as is evident from the whole tone and drift and purpose of his speech, lay in that he judged Old Testament history from the prophetical point of view, to which Jesus had also allied Himself, while his opponents represented the legalistic point of view, so characteristic of the Jewish thought of that day. The significance of this difference is borne out by the fact upon which Stephen’s refutation hinges, namely, the fact, proved by the history of the past, that the development of the divine revelation and the development of the Jewish nation, so far from combining, move in divergent lines, due to a disposition of obstinate disobedience on the part of their fathers, and that therefore not he but they were disobedient to the divine revelation. Thus in a masterful way Stephen converts the charge of Antinomianism and anti-Mosaism brought against him into a countercharge of disobedience to the divine revelation, of which his hearers stood guilty in the present as their fathers had in the past. In this sense the speech of Stephen is a grand apology for the Christian cause which he represented, inasmuch as it shows clearly that the new religion was only the divinely-ordered development of the old, and not in opposition to it.

The main arguments of the speech may be summed up as follows:

(a) God’s self-manifestation to Israel in revealing His covenant and His will, so far from being bound to one sanctuary and conveyed to one single person (Moses), began long before Moses and long before there was a temple. Thus it was gradual, and as it had begun before Moses it was not completed by him, as is evident from his own words, "A prophet shall God raise up unto you from among your brethren, like unto me" (Ac 7:2-37).

(b) The Jews to whom these revelations were granted, so far from being thankful at all stages of their history, had been slow to believe and understand them because they "would not be obedient" (Ac 7:39,57). They resisted the purpose of God by obstinately and stiff-neckedly opposing those through whom God worked. Thus their fathers had turned away from Moses at the very moment when he was receiving God’s greatest revelation, and, instead of obeying the "living oracles" (7:38) he gave them, turned to idol-worship for which God punished them by the Babylonian captivity (7:39-43). They had killed the prophets who had protested against the dead ritualism of the temple-worship and raised their voice in behalf of a true spiritual worship as that of the tabernacle had been (7:44-50,52). This disposition of disobedience so characteristic of the race in its whole history, because, in spite of the divine revelation received, they remained unregenerate (7:51), reached its culmination in that awful crime of betrayal and murder committed by the present generation upon the "Righteous One" whose coming the prophets had predicted the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth, by which the Jews doomed not only their national existence, but also their temple-worship and the reign of the Law to destruction (7:52-6:14).

Though the name of Jesus was not uttered by Stephen in his speech and does not occur until in his dying prayer, his hearers could not fail to notice the hidden reference to Him throughout the entire speech and to draw parallels intended by Stephen: As Joseph and Moses, types of the Messiah, had been rejected, scorned and illtreated (Ac 7:9,27,39), before being raised to be ruler and deliverer, so Jesus had also been repulsed by them.

The climax of his speech is reached in Ac 7:51-53, when Stephen, breaking off the line of argument, suddenly in direct address turns upon his hearers, and, the accused becoming the accuser, charges them openly with the sin of resisting the Holy Spirit, with the murder of the prophets and the Righteous One, and with continual disobedience to the Law. These words which mark the climax, though probably not the close of the speech, pointed the moral in terms of the most cutting rebuke, and were at once prophetical as to the effect the speech would have upon his hearers and for him.

6. Martyrdom of Stephen:

Stephen died as he had lived, a faithful witness to his Master whom he acknowledged as such amid the rain of stones hurled at him, loudly calling upon His name, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Ac 7:59; compare Lu 23:46), and whose spirit he exemplified so nobly when, with a final effort, bending his knees, he "cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Ac 7:60; compare Lu 23:34). "And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Ac 7:60; compare 1Co 15).

The impression made by Stephen’s death was even greater than that made by his life. Though it marks the beginning of the first great persecution of Christians, the death of the first Christian martyr resulted in the greatest acquisition Christianity has probably ever made, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The vision of the risen and exalted Jesus vouchsafed to the dying Stephen presented Christianity to Saul of Tarsus in a new light, tending to remove what had been its greatest stumbling-block to him in the Crucified One. This revelation coupled with the splendid personality of Stephen, the testimony of his righteous life and the noble bravery of his sublime death, and above all his dying prayer, fell upon the honest soul of Saul with an irresistible force and inevitably brought on the Damascus event, as Augustine clearly recognized: "Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non habuisset." Judged by his teaching, Stephen may be called the forerunner of Paul. He was one of the first to conceive of the fact that Christianity represented a new order of things and as such would inevitably supersede the old order. Thus his teachings forecast that greatest controversy of the first Christian century, the controversy between Judaism and Christianity, which reached its culmination-point in the Council of Jerusalem, resulting in the independence of the Christian church from the fetters of Judaistic legalism.


R. J. Knowling, "Acts" in Expositor’s Greek Testament., II (1900); Feine, PRE3, XIX (1907); Pahncke in Studien u. Krit. (1912), I. S. D. Press