Type of Persecution

Nature of Conflict

Primary Sources

Acts of the Apostles 6:8-7:60

Historical Context

The Sanhedrin was a group of men that made up the court system of the ancient Jews. These men were charged with the role of deciding the fate of criminals and religious lawbreakers. During a time in the early church when leadership roles were mostly filled by the apostles (those that Jesus directly commanded to spread the Gospel before ascending to heaven), the Church was growing rapidly. The Acts of the Apostles, an account of the apostles following the death of Christ as they carry out The Great Commission, states that as the Church experienced this growth a group of Jewish widows was being overlooked in terms of their daily needs. The apostles felt they could not take on an additional responsibility, so Stephen and six other men were elected as deacons to help lead the early church. Stephen is believed to be a Hellenistic Jew and is described in Acts as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”


Stephen, one of the seven selected church leaders (deacons) by the apostles, was known for performing miracles among the people of Jerusalem. However, this caused opposition from groups of Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia. They were verbally hostile toward Stephen. Wanting to be rid of him, they accused him before the local elders and leaders of speaking blasphemy against God and Moses. This caused a great deal of turmoil and lead to a mob seizing Stephen.

Stephen was then brought before the Sanhedrin, and the same story was used as testimony against him. In front of the Sanhedrin, Stephen began to tell stories from the history of Judaism. At the end of his speech he reprimanded the council for being closed-minded and blind. He stated that the Jews have been persecuting prophets throughout their history and are responsible for crucifying Christ. He finished by accusing them of not following the very laws they enforce. Then Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and said he saw the glory of God, with Jesus standing at his right hand. The Sanhedrin were enraged, dragged Stephen out of Jerusalem, and stoned him to death. His body was then buried by godly men.


Stephen is considered the first martyr (protomartyr) of Christianity. His stoning is believed to be the first religiously-motivated killing of a Christian after the death of Christ. Stephen’s final words show a significant resemblance to the words of forgiveness spoken by Christ on the cross. This, as well as blatant reprimanding of his persecutors, is a theme seen quite often in later martyrdom accounts.

Stephen’s death was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus. Saul, a Pharisee, approved of Stephen’s death and began to persecute the church directly following the event. His severe persecution of the church led him to search for Christians in Damascus. While on the road there, he was visited by Christ in a vision and dramatically changed his opinion, accepting that Jesus was the Messiah. Saul was then referred to as Paul and became one of the most influential apostolic writers in Christian history. He is credited with a number of letters in the New Testament, as many as thirteen according to tradition.

St. Stephen’s Day (the Feast of St. Stephen) is a day celebrating the martyrdom of Stephen. It is celebrated on either the 26th (Western Church) or 27th (Eastern Church) of December, or even the 8th of January, depending on the celebrating denomination.


Acts of the Apostles 6-8.

Bovon, François. "Beyond the Book of Acts: Stephen, the First Christian Martyr," in Traditions Outside the New Testament Conan of Scripture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Clark, Elizabeth A. "Claims on the Bones of Saint Stephen: The Partisans of Melania and Eudocia." Church History 51 (1982): 141-156.

Cross F. L., and E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church, Third Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1551.

Ferguson, Everett. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (New York: Garland Inc., 1990).

Matthews S. Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Image Credit

Stoning of Stephen
Attributed: Luigi Garzi (1638–1721) 
[Public Domain]
From: wikipedia commons


Stoning of Stephen.png


“Stephen,” Mapping the Martyrs, accessed September 21, 2020,