St Stephen, Deacon and Martyr (Dec 26)

Last revised: December 19, 2004
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RCL: 2 Chron. 24:17-22; Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60; Matthew 23:34-39

2 Chron. 24:17-22

Reflections and Questions

1. This text was chosen as the account of the last murder recorded in the OT period. The Gospel text refers to all the murders from Abel to Zechariah. This passage is about the latter. See the explanation in the Girard piece on the “curses of the Pharisees” below.


Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60


1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 79-80:

At another quite different moment of the apostolic witness, in the Acts of the Apostles, after the Ascension, Stephen has to defend himself before the Sanhedrin. His defense consists in an attempt to tell the story of Israel anew, a revisionist rewriting, an attempt which does not gruntle the upholders of the tradition, the bulwarks of the official story. What Stephen does is to tell the story which everybody already knew, from rather an odd angle, from the angle which came to light after the Holy Spirit made it possible to tell the story of the lynch from the viewpoint of the victim. The conclusion to the story is obvious, and well known by all. What is interesting is the last line of the story, just before the lynching begins:

But Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said: Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55-56)

His hearers react as can be expected: they have just heard an open blasphemy, that is, a new definition of God which includes the dead man, and stopping their ears and crying out with a loud voice so as not to have to hear the blasphemy, they rush upon Stephen and kill him.Luke apparently writes like a Hollywood scriptwriter, and if his account were to be taken to the screen, we could imagine the moment at which Stephen fixes his gaze on the heaven. He is standing in the midst of a raging Sanhedrin, bathed in a strange light, sweet celestial chords can be heard, and then comes the martyrdom. Well, thrilling though it be, it don’t think that it’s really about that. It makes more sense to understand that what Stephen was doing was what Jesus had promised Nathanael that he would be able to do: see heaven open and the rest. This was precisely what began to happen from the Ascension. It was not just that the last seconds of Stephen’s life were bathed in this heavenly light, but that what enabled him to tell the story he told to the High Priest and his colleagues was exactly the fact that he was already living this vision; he was able to tell the new story which the risen victim had made possible, and, furthermore, live out this story in an absolutely coherent way, as if death did not exist, and do it to the end. He even managed to finish off his own opera-plot in a faithful imitation of that of Jesus (which is also a diverse creation), by praying that his death not be held against his executioners. That is, he ends his own creation with the last act of disassociating himself from the violent story of this world, which is to leave it behind, with no resentment, no desire for revenge.

Here we have what the Church has rightly called the protomartyr: the first witness; and that to which he witnesses is the vivaciousness of God revealed by the dead and risen victim, and the power this victim gives to create heaven.

2. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 170-174:

The Martyrdom of StephenR. G.: The process that leads directly from the ‘curses’ to the Passion can be found again in a form both compact and striking in a text which is not strictly speaking from the Gospels, but is as close as it could possibly be to at least one of the gospel accounts in which the ‘curses’ figure — that of Luke. I am talking about the Acts of the Apostles, which are presented, as you know, as the work of Luke himself, and may well be his.

The text I have in mind reconstitutes the sequence formed by the ‘curses’ and the Passion, but does so in such a compact way, articulating its elements in so explicit a fashion, that we can really envisage it as a genuine interpretation of the gospel text. I am referring to Stephen’s speech and its consequences. The ending of this speech to the Sanhedrin is so disagreeable to its audience that it immediately causes the death of the person who made it.

Stephen’s last words, the ones that trigger murderous rage in his public, are no more than the repetition, pure and simple, of the curses against the Pharisees. Obviously the murders already named by Jesus are joined, in Stephen’s speech, by a reference to the murder of Jesus himself, which is by now an established fact and re-enacts better than anything else the founding murder.

So it is the whole formed by the prophecy and its fulfillment that the words of Stephen isolate and underline. It is the relationship of cause and effect between the revelation that compromises the community’s basis in violence and the new violence that casts out the revelation in order to re-establish that basis, to lay its foundation once again.

‘You :stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, who you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.’Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. 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.’ 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 7:51-58).

The words that throw the violence back upon those who are really guilty are so intolerable that it is necessary to shut once and for all the mouth of the one who speaks them. So as not to hear him while he remains capable of speaking, the audience ‘stop their ears’. How can we miss the point that they kill in order to cast off an intolerable knowledge and that this knowledge is, strangely enough, the knowledge of the murder itself? The whole process of the gospel revelation and the Crucifixion is reproduced here in the clearest possible way.It is worth pointing out that the Jews, like other peoples, reserve Stephen’s method of execution — stoning — for the most impure of criminals, those guilty of the most serious crimes. It is the Jewish equivalent of the Greek anathema.

As with all forms of sacrifice, the execution must reproduce the founding murder in order to renew its beneficial effects, in this case wiping out the dangers to which the blasphemer exposes the community (cf. Deuteronomy 17:7).

The repetition of this Murder is a dangerous action that might bring about the return of the crisis which it is designed to avoid. One of the first precautions against the pollution of violence consists in forbidding any kind of ritual execution within the community. That is why the stoning of Stephen takes place — like the Crucifixion — outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

But this initial precaution is not sufficient. Prudence dictates that there must be no contact with the victim who pollutes because he is polluted. How is it possible to combine this requirement with another important requirement, which is to reproduce as exactly as possible the original murder? To reproduce it exactly implies unanimous participation by the whole community, or at any rate by all those who are present. This unanimous participation is explicitly required by the text of Deuteronomy (17:7). How can it be arranged for everyone to strike the victim, while no one is soiled by contact with him? Obviously, stoning resolves this delicate problem. Like all methods of execution from a distance — the modern firing squad, or the community’s driving Tikarau from the top of a cliff in the Tikopia myth — stoning fulfils this two-fold ritual requirement.

The only person taking part in this event whose name figures in the text is Saul of Tarsus, the future Paul. He is also, it would appear, the only person not to throw stones, although the text assures us that his heart is with the murderers. ‘And Saul was consenting to his death.’ Thus Saul’s presence does not break the unanimity. The text makes it clear that the participants rushed upon Stephen ‘with one accord’. This way of signaling the unanimity would have an almost technical ritual significance if we were not dealing with something quite different from a ritual. The unanimity that, in ritual has a compulsory and premeditated character is here achieved quite spontaneously.

The hurried aspect of this stoning and the fact that the procedures listed in the text of Deuteronomy are not all observed have led a number of commentators to judge that the execution was more or less illegal and to define it as a kind of lynching. Johannes Munck, for example, writes as follows in his edition of The Acts of the Apostles:

Was this examination before the Sanhedrin and the following stoning a real trial and a legally performed execution? We do not know. The improvised and passionate character of the events as related might suggest that it was illegal, a lynching. [The Acts of the Apostles, 69 (Anchor Bible).]

Munck compares Stephen’s last words to ‘a spark that starts an explosion’ (p. 70). The fact that we are concerned here with a ritualized mode of execution and an irresistible discharge of collective fury is extremely significant. For this two-fold status to be possible, it is necessary for the ritual mode of execution to coincide with a possible form of spontaneous violence. If the ritual gesture can be to a certain extent de-ritualized and become spontaneous without really altering in form, we can imagine that such a metamorphosis can also take place in the other direction; the form of the legal execution is nothing more than the ritualization of a spontaneous violence. If we look carefully at the martyrdom of Stephen, we inevitably come up against the hypothesis of the founding violence.This scene from Acts is a reproduction that both reveals and underlines the relationship between the ‘curses’ and the Passion. Stephen’s death has the same twofold relationship to the ‘curses’ as the Passion itself. It verifies them because Stephen, like Jesus, is killed to forestall this verification. Stephen is the first of those who are spoken of in the ‘curses’. We have already quoted from Matthew (23:34-35). Here now is the text from Luke that also defines the precise function of this martyrdom which is indeed one of witness. Dying in the same way as Jesus died, for the same reasons as he did, the martyrs multiply the revelation of the founding violence:

Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation. . . (Luke 11:49-50).

This particular text must not be interpreted in a narrow fashion. It does not say that the only innocent victims, from now on, are to be the ‘confessors of the faith’ in the dogmatic, theological sense used historically by the Christian church. It means that there will be no more victims from now on who are persecuted unjustly but those persecuted will not eventually be recognized as unjust. For no further sacralization is possible. No more myths can be produced to cover up the fact of persecution. The Gospels make all forms of ‘mythologizing’ impossible since, by revealing the founding mechanism, they stop it from functioning. That is why we have fewer and fewer myths all the time, in our universe dominated by the Gospels, and more and more texts bearing on persecution. (Things Hidden, pp. 170-174)

3. Gil Bailie, “At Cross Purposes” tape series, tape #4. Here are my notes / transcription:

***** Notes from Gil Bailie’s “At Cross Purposes,” tape 4 *****

  • In the NT we have three prominent scapegoating events: the death of John the Baptist, the Crucifixion, and the stoning of Stephen. One can see in these three a short ‘before and after’ history of the revelation of the cross. John was too scandalized by Herod, too caught up in the morality. His moral outrage caused him to get into a sort of moral ‘food fight’ with Herod, and his death, therefore, did not have the same consequences as the cross. Then, there’s the story of Stephen, different from the John the Baptist story.
  • Stephen tells salvation history (the same thing as this seminar is attempting to do, trying to tell about history). In troubled times we have to reconnect with this history to rediscover our hope. It’s only when we realize that we are still in the history of the promise that we can become hopeful.
  • Since he is beneficiary of the revelation of the cross (unlike previous prophets such as John), he’s telling it with a little extra. He’s telling it in a line with Abraham and Moses, etc., but there’s something else that the Sanhedrin hasn’t seen yet, namely, the violence that was the glue of holding together community. ‘You haven’t seen the victim. Can you name a single prophet that your ancestors did not persecute?’ Similar to Jesus’ curse of the Pharisees, in which he names Abel as a prophet, this presumes a redefinition of prophet as the one killed by his people. Prophetic of what? The truth of the cross. Stephen also calls attention to all of these prophets. (End of side one.)
  • Stephen is the first Christian historiographer. Increasingly, Christian historiography has become a matter of looking back at our own culture, discovering our own betrayals, discovering our own violence, discovering our own victimizations, rehabilitating our victims, and repenting of our own victimizations. This is by influence of the Gospel. Only biblical cultures have ever done this. The alternative historiography is mythological. It consists simply of looking back to locate the heroes and the heroic events. Since the Gospel influence has worked this in western cultures and other cultures haven’t had this influence to the same extent, it’s easy to fall into a kind of craziness of assuming that only the West has done these things. It’s not true at all. We have to understand the historical uniqueness of our own culture.
  • Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” In other words, ‘Your still in the mythological world, with pagan hearts and pagan ears.’
  • “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” This is the moment when the mob process begins. He’s saying to people who need to hear it, some important things that they don’t want to hear. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” A dangerous thing to say to people who are about to persecute you. They close in on him, proving that he’s right.
  • “But filled with the Holy Spirit.” As was said earlier, there’s only two places to go to see the truth about humanity and God: on the cross and at the foot of the cross. Stephen is now on the cross. “He gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!'” This is what Andrew McKenna calls the “victim’s epistemological privilege.” He’s the only one with perfect lucidity at this moment.
  • And he’s not glaring back at his accusers. If he glares back at his accusers, then he’s right back to where John the Baptist was at with Herod. He’s into that little scandal, and nothing will come of it. Like Jesus, Stephen keeps his eyes on God, so that he can do what needs to be done right there: forgiveness. The only one in the position to forgive is the victim. In going around and forgiving people, Jesus was using his power as the “Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.”
  • Julian of Norwich says this in one of her writings: “God lays upon everyone he longs to bring into his bliss something that is no blame in his sight, but for which they are blamed and despised in this world. Scorned, mocked, and cast out. He does this to offset the harm they should otherwise have from the pomp and vainglory of this earthly life, and to make their road to him easier, and to bring them higher in his joy without end.” Being in that position of being the accused, cures us of a lot of our craziness.
  • Stephen is trying to tell them of this vision he is having precisely because they are closing in on them. And because of that is says, “But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” Covering their ears. Satan means the Accuser. The word Paraclete means the lawyer for the accused. Stephen tells them that they are resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen was speaking on behalf of all those prophets who had been killed, and they were resisting it. Now, they covered their ears. It means they really didn’t have pagan ears, after all. It means moral complicity. After the cross, the same kind of blockage is being removed, and Stephen has been making it explicit to them. The Word is out. And now, keeping it out is a sinful act. We’re morally complicit. When Jesus is on the cross, he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” They don’t need to put their hands over their ears. This is what human history is about, now that the revelation is out. Jesus says, ‘Before I came there wasn’t any sin; now there’s sin.’
  • Nevertheless, Stephen dies doing what Christ did, praying for forgiveness: “Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'”
  • In order to understand what’s happening in history, we have to start here. In other words, after the revelation, when we have to find ways of covering our ears, closing our eyes to this truth.
  • One last point: the stoners through their coats at the feet of Saul. The realism of the NT is crucial. Peter caved in. He was the strongest of the disciples and caved in. It tells us that the power of the crowd is unbelievable. Peter caves in under the circumstances we might cave in. If we were getting on a plain and an armed terrorist dashed in threatening to kill the Christians, would we stand up? Here, Paul approves the stoning, as most of us would when it fits our political reflexes. The next we know of Saul he’s on the road to Damascus and the cock crows. He realizes that he is a persecutor and becomes one who tells the story.
  • The moral of this story is that every time we try to expel the Gospel, which the Sanhedrin is trying to do again here, we reenact the event that revealed it. We reenact the Paschal story and therefore reinforce the revelation. That’s why the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. There’s no getting rid of it.

***** End Bailie Notes *****

Reflections and Questions

1. We might cringe a bit to celebrate the martyrdom of a saint the day after Christmas, but we also might keep this in mind: the celebration of this feast was established very early in the life of the church and so predates the establishment of Christmas by a couple centuries. The church began with Easter and Holy Week. St. Stephen’s martyrdom is more to the point of that beginning than Christmas, which was a rather late addition.

2. In 2001 I read Misty Bernall’s reflections on her daughter Cassie’s ‘martyrdom’ at Columbine High in a new book called She Said Yes. This is a good example of the last two points in Gil Bailie’s reflections: (1) would you or I say yes in such situations? Teenager Cassie Bernall did. And (2) as Satan tries to expel this Word, he only ends up reenacting the Paschal story once again, and even the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. It can’t be stamped out; every attempt to do so seemingly makes it only stronger.


Matthew 23:34-39


1. Almost every Girardian work that deals with scripture includes this passage or its parallel (Luke 11:49-51). Girard himself set the pace in his first book reflecting on scripture, Things Hidden, pp. 158ff. Link here to an excerpt from this portion on “The Curses against the Pharisees.” He also has good insight into these passages in the “Satan” essay included in The Girard Reader.

2. In 1993 I had taken a call to Wisconsin and was preaching my last sermon at Grace Lutheran, Howell, MI, a sermon entitled “‘Lord Do Not Hold This Sin Against Them.’” Having St. Stephen Day the day after Christmas for your last sermon wouldn’t ordinarily be considered an ideal draw. But to a budding Girardian it was perfect! I had started reading Girard in May of 1992, and so it was a fitting end to preach with such key Girardian texts.



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