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Defining Martyrdom: The Deaths of Saint Stephen & Saint Paul



Jesus warned the apostles, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The profundity of this statement should not be overlooked. Jesus is not only prophesying his own death here, referencing the cross prior to his crucifixion. What he is also saying is that if one is really going to follow him then they better be prepared to deny themselves completely — even to the point of death. Or to put it another way, Jesus is prophesying the sacrifice he is going to make for his followers in order to show what needs to be sacrificed for him — your life.


Following the crucifixion, the Lord’s brother James is thrown off the roof of a temple, his closest disciple Peter is crucified upside down, and Paul, his most ardent missionary, is beheaded by Nero.[1] These men, as well as countless others, were willing to do exactly as Jesus asked of his followers: to deny themselves completely and take up their proverbial cross for him.


Defining Martyrdom


People often mistakenly think that the word martyr refers to someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The word martyr actually means “witness.” The reason that martyr took on the meaning it has is because our brains instantly connect cause and effect. That is to say, it has become all too common for a witness’s testimony to get them killed (especially, but not exclusively, in the ancient world) Today, pop cultural adages like “snitches get stitches” come to mind. So to be a martyr is to be a witness, to be a witness is to give a testimony, and to give a testimony can get you killed. Thus, we interpret the word martyr as someone who is killed for their beliefs, when what they are actually killed for, more specifically, is their witness testimony.


Nonetheless, in this essay, whenever we use the word martyr, we are referring to both, the actual definition of the word as well as the believed definition. Martyr is both “a witness” AND “someone willing to die for his or her beliefs.” After all, they are for all intents and purposes, one and the same thing.


St. Stephen is celebrated by the Church as “the first Christian martyr.” This is actually a misnomer. Arguably, John the Baptist became the first true Christian martyr when King Herod beheaded him for preaching the coming of the Lord. And Jesus could also be seen as the first true Christian martyr (or second true Christian martyr if you accept that John the Baptist was indeed the first) when Jesus died on the cross. What St. Stephen is, and what the church is actually celebrating, is that he is the first Christian martyr to die after Jesus’ death and resurrection (at least according to recorded history).


It is in the Book of Acts, chapter seven, when St. Stephen gives his witness testimony. For over fifty verses, he describes the history of Israel in great detail from the good to the bad — God’s covenant with Abraham, Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites turning away from God toward idolatry, and lastly, their murdering of the long-awaited “Righteous One.”


Stephen finishes his testimony, and we read, “Now when they heard these things they were enraged and ground their teeth against him. But [Stephen] full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:54-58).


As we can see here, Stephen was stoned to death after he gave his witness testimony. What if I told you that we still have one of the stones that hit him? What if I told you that that stone that hit him has itself performed miracles? Well, I’m not going to tell you that. I will let Saint Augustine tell you that:


“When Stephen was being stoned, there was also some innocent people standing round, and especially some of those who already believed in Christ. The story goes that a stone struck his elbow and bounced from there to land at the feet of a religious man. He picked it up and kept it. He was a seafaring man and the chances of his seafaring brought him ashore at Ancona, and it was revealed to him that the stone should be deposited there. He obeyed the revelation and did what he was told; and from that time there began to be a memorial shrine of Saint Stephen there, and people didn’t know what had really happened. In fact though we are to understand the reason why it was revealed that he should deposit the stone there which had bounced off the martyr’s elbow, is that the Greek for elbow is ankon. [2]


This passage is from Saint Augustine’s Sermon 323, which was written about 350 years after the martyrdom of St. Stephen. But it just goes to show you that not too long after this monumental New Testament event, the evidence was right there for all to see. Now, what if I told you that you could still see that stone to this very day? That I will tell you. You can still see the stone that struck St. Stephen’s elbow during his martyrdom, you just need to travel to The Diocesan Museum of Ancona. As St. Augustine points out, the name Ancona is miraculously made up of the Greek word for elbow, and here we have the stone that hit St. Stephen’s elbow, and that stone, so the story goes, is responsible for the Christianization of that entire province. This is a miracle unto itself.


St. Stephen was a witness who gave his testimony, and as a result he was killed for his beliefs. In such a way, he is both, a martyr by definition as well as a martyr in the more colloquial sense of the word. What is more, St. Stephen embodies exactly what Jesus asked of his followers — to take up the cross and follow him. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he said to God the Father, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And in likewise fashion, as Stephen is being stoned to death we read at verse 60 that Stephen “knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:60). Stephen practiced exactly what Jesus preached. In his famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:34). With these words of Stephen we can see exactly how aligned with Jesus' teaching Stephen actually is, and why he deserves to be remembered for testifying on Christ’s behalf.


The Feast of St. Stephen


Each year, the feast of St. Stephen falls on a day quite apropos to his position in the early church. The Liturgical Year begins with the first Sunday of Advent in late November or early December. Advent lasts for four weeks and ushers in Christmas. As such, one can see how the birth of Christ, which is what Christmas represents, is analogous to the birth of the church each year. Historically, the church began at Pentecost, when in 33/34 AD the resurrected Jesus bestowed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples and told them to go out and make disciples of the world. Shortly thereafter, in history as well as in the church calendar, the next thing that follows is the death of St. Stephen (i.e. the first Christian martyr). As such, his feast day is celebrated the day after Christmas on December 26th. The Liturgical Year attempts to align itself with the Biblical timeline found in the Book of Acts — from the birth of the church, so to speak, followed closely by the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.


As we continue, keep in mind the main point of this essay: Jesus asks his followers to take up their cross and to love their enemies.


Witnessing Martyrdom


As we conclude our reading of the seventh chapter of Acts, we read of another celebrated Christian martyr (and, again, I mean the word martyr definitionally as well as colloquially). We read that a man named “Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] death” (Acts 8:1) and that the garments of witnesses were laid at his feet (Acts 7:58). In case you don’t already know, the Saul in this passage is Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul the Apostle. Paul went from being a Pharisee and one of the biggest persecutors of Christians in the early days of the church (as he is seen here at the death of St. Stephen) to becoming one of the faith’s most ardent defenders (as we will see when we continue reading though Book of Acts. St. Paul was a witness to St. Stephens death, and he would go from consenting to this death to meeting a similar fate at the hands of the emperor Nero. Like Stephen, Paul was a martyr in every sense of the word. But more importantly, he, too, followed the Word of God. Paul decided to stop persecuting Christians and instead he chose to love his enemy and take up his cross and follow Christ. Or as Paul himself describes it in his letter to the Galatians, when referencing what the people of the Churches of Christ in Judea said of him: “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me’” (Galatians 1:23-24).


Paul wrote thirteen of the twenty seven books of the New Testament. However, the most prolific New Testament writer in terms of number of words written is Luke, who wrote not only the Gospel that bears his name but also the Book of Acts. And in case you don’t know exactly who Luke is, let me take a moment here and explain. Luke is not an apostle of Jesus, like the other Gospel writers Matthew and John are, and he is not a protege of the apostle Peter like Mark was. Luke did not know Jesus personally, and because of that, the Gospel of Luke is most often accepted by the agnostic scholars of academia as the only Gospel that bears the name of the actual writer. (For more on who wrote which Gospel and when they wrote it click here). The fact is, Luke was a missionary companion of Paul, a man who never saw Jesus as his earthly self; he only saw Jesus after he died, and as suchhe is also an accepted writer of (at least most of) the Biblical books that bear his name. The question then becomes can we trust this man Paul? He only met the risen Christ, and not the earthly Jesus? These are the arguments that the aforementioned agnostic scholars raise. How can a person logically argue against this? Paul tries to put forth his own defense by saying he ran his gospel that he recieved from the risen Christ, and it was confirmed by James, Peter and John (Galatians 2:1-10). I think the proof that we can trust Paul is simpler than all that. The answer is martyrdom.


Jesus told his followers to take up their cross and love their enemies. Jesus did not ask of his followers something that he wasn’t willing to do himself. For you see, God could have just struck down Paul for persecuting the early Christians, but instead, he chose to love his enemy. He appeared to Paul, and that love changed every thing. Through the power of love, the enemy became the most ardent believer. A believer so ardent in fact that he was willing to take up the cross, which is to say deny himself entirely. Saul of Tarsus, as he was known, was on top of the world — he was a high ranking religious leader and a Roman citizen, but then he saw the risen Christ, and he gave it all up to follow the Word of God. Paul went from consenting to the death of other believers, to dying for their same beliefs. So when someone asks, what is the proof that Paul actually “saw” Jesus? Just explain to them exactly what it means to be a martyr.



Bible Verses - Acts 7:30,38


Notes:

  1. Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History. (Kregel Publishing, 1999, 2007),

  2. "The Rock Relic of Saint Stephen." Daniel Esparza. 12 Dec 2022. Aleteia.org.


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