One of the first seven deacons of the Christian church, Saint Stephen is also the first Christian to be martyred for the faith (hence the title often applied to him of protomartyr ("first martyr"). The story of Saint Stephen's ordination as a deacon is found in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which also recounts the plot against Stephen and the beginning of the trial that resulted in his martyrdom. The seventh chapter of Acts recounts Stephen's speech before the Sanhedrin and his martyrdom.
Life of Saint Stephen
Not much is known about Saint Stephen's origin.
He is first mentioned in Acts 6:5, when the apostles appoint seven deacons in order to minister to the physical needs of the faithful. Due to Stephen being a Greek name (Stephanos), and because the appointment of the deacons occurred in response to complaints by Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, it is generally assumed that Stephen was himself a Hellenist. However, a tradition arising in the fifth century claims that Stephen's original name was Kelil, an Aramaic word that means "crown," and he was called Stephen because Stephanos is the Greek equivalent.
In any case, Stephen's ministry was conducted among Greek-speaking Jews, some of whom were not open to the Gospel of Christ. Stephen is described in Acts 6:5 as "full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost" and in Acts 6:8 as "full of grace and fortitude," and his talents for preaching were so great that those Hellenist Jews who disputed his teaching "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that spoke" (Acts 6:10).
The Trial of Saint Stephen
Unable to combat Stephen's preaching, his opponents found men who were willing to lie about what Saint Stephen taught, to claim that "they had heard him speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God" (Acts 6:11). In a scene reminiscent of Christ's own appearance before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mark 14:56-58), Stephen's opponents produced witnesses who claimed that "we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place [the temple], and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered unto us" (Acts 6:14).
Acts 6:15 notes that the members of the Sanhedrin, "looking on him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel." It's an interesting remark, when we consider that these are the men sitting in judgment of Stephen. When the high priest gives Stephen the chance to defend himself, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and provides (Acts 7:2-50) a remarkable exposition of salvation history, from the time of Abraham through Moses and Solomon and the prophets, ending in Acts 7:51-53, with a rebuke of those Jews who refused to believe in Christ:
You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
The members of the Sanhedrin "were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him" (Acts 7:54), but Stephen, in another parallel with Christ when He was before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mark 14:62), boldly proclaims, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55).
The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen
Stephen's testimony confirmed in the minds of the Sanhedrin the charge of blasphemy, "And they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him" (Acts 7:56). They dragged him outside of the walls of Jerusalem (near, tradition says, the Damascus Gate), and stoned him.
The stoning of Stephen is notable not simply because he is the first Christian martyr, but because of the presence of a man named Saul, who "was consenting to his death" (Acts 7:59), and at whose feet "the witnesses laid down their garments" (Acts 7:57). This is, of course, Saul of Tarsus, who, some time later, while traveling on the road to Damascus, encountered the Risen Christ, and became the great apostle to the Gentiles, Saint Paul. Paul himself, while recounting his conversion in Acts 22, testifies that he confessed to Christ that "when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I stood by and consented and kept the garments of them that killed him" (Acts 22:20).
Because Stephen is mentioned first among the seven men ordained as deacons in Acts 6:5-6, and is the only one singled out for his attributes ("a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost"), he is often regarded as the first deacon as well as the first martyr.