This week I chose to do my blog on the significance of the death of Stephen, the first recorded martyr of the early Christian church, because he had been my favourite saint when I was growing up. I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and had always been fascinated with the martyrs; an image of young Stephen, eyes upraised and hands folded with a group of men lobbing stones at him, had been imprinted upon my mind when looking through a book of saints. For those who are unclear, the Catholic Church defines a saint as “persons who were eminent for holiness who distinguish themselves by heroic virtue during life and whom the Church honors as saints either by her ordinary universal teaching authority or by a solemn definition called canonization,” (Catholic Culture) while a martyr is defined as “a person who chooses to suffer, even to die, rather than renounce his or her faith or Christian principles.” (Catholic Culture) One who is martyred is automatically a saint in the Catholic Church.
In our text, the story of Stephen is a hero story; he is moving about the people, performing miracles and preaching about Jesus, despite the opposition of many conservatives in the area. Those who opposed Stephen even went as far as to ‘set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.’ ” (The Literary Study Bible, Acts 6:14) In the following chapter, Stephen delivers a history of the Jews, from Abraham through Moses. He chastises the people he is preaching to, which only further enrages them. The boiling point for the large crowd around Stephen is his declaration of his vision of Jesus, in Acts 7:55-56:
“But he, 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.’ ”
Infuriated, the people rushed Stephen and stoned him. What I found interesting was his later mention in Chapter 11 as the cause of persecution of Christians that led to the spread of the Church into Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. I wanted to know if the historical spread of the Church matched the biblical account.
Stephen’s martyrdom is placed around 34 CE (All About Following Jesus), and this dispersion could be placed from around 30 CE to 313 CE as various Roman emperors offically persecute the fledgling Church (National Geographic). The fear instilled from persecution would be enough to drive any Jew or Christian from their home, seeking a new, peaceful place to live. Every Jewish Christian that fled would take their message to established Jewish communities and synagogues, whispering it to willing and open-minded ears. The entire book of Acts describes the spread of the Church, as various Christian disciples spread the message of Jesus, most famously Paul.
The trio of geographical locations cited in reference to Stephen, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, are in today’s Lebanon and Syria, Cyprus and Turkey. These three are neighbors, making the trade of both commerce and ideas easy. It makes perfect sense that Christian Jews from Judaea, located just below Phoenicia, would flee northward, away from persecution. They wouldn’t flee to the south because Egypt and the Jews have a history of persecution (Moses, anyone?) as well.
The spread of Christianity into Syria and Lebanon can be attributed to Paul. His converstion was in 34 CE, the year of Stephen’s death. He moved through Phoenicia on his way to Antioch, and by the end of the first century, Christianity had spread through Edessa or Turkey, which containt Antioch. For the next six centuries, Christianity strengthened, grew and spread outwards throughout the Middle East. (EWTN)
The spread of Christianity into Cyprus is attributed to Barnabas and Mark, both apostles, in 46 CE (Orthodox Wiki). However, Paul may also be cited for Cyprus’ Christianization as his first miracle was performed on the island (Ring of Christ). Another striking source for Christianization is from Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead; legend stated that after fleeing Bethany on account of death threats from the chief priests, apparently Lazarus ended up in Cyprus, and was later ordained by Barnabas and Paul to head the church in Cyprus. This was confirmed in 890 CE, when his grave was discovered (Ring of Christ).
The already-mentioned Antioch is obviously attributed to Paul in the mid 30s CE, and the estimated 45,000 Jews that lived in Antioch as well as Gentiles were given the message of Jesus. Barnabas followed a few years later, solidifying the church’s foundation in Antioch, which would eventually spready through Turkey (Silouan). However, a member of the first deacons from which Stephen originated, can also be cited as a source of Christianization for Antioch. This man is Nicolas, who later is attributed to the Gnostic Christian sect called Nicolaitanism (Bible Tools).
Most obviously, the spread of Christianity was swift after the martyrdom of Stephen. Through the work of many disciples including the famous Paul, the Christian church began spreading throughout the Roman Empire, solidifying itself as the next big religion, growing into what we know it as today.