The stoning of Stephen was a pivotal moment for the early Christian church. For the first time, someone who followed Jesus was killed for professing his faith.
But rather than stamping out the embers of Jesus’ movement in ancient Rome (as the Jewish leaders likely hoped), the stoning of Stephen and the persecution that followed his death ignited an even greater spirit of evangelism, reinvigorating the church to spread the gospel all the more. As Christians fled for their lives, they planted seeds and sprouted new communities wherever they were scattered.
So who was Stephen, and why was his death so significant? This article will discuss the passage this account is found in and answer some common questions about it.
The stoning of Stephen in the Bible
The stoning of Stephen is recorded in Acts 7:54–60, but this story really begins in Acts 6, when Stephen starts performing signs and wonders. Members of the local synagogue find themselves ill-equipped to argue with Stephen (Acts 6:8–10), so they lied about him until the Jewish leaders eventually brought him before the Sanhedrin to be judged (Acts 6:11–15).
Here, Stephen boldly recounts the history of Israel and accuses the Sanhedrin of repeating their ancestors’ mistakes by killing Jesus:
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51–53).
This enrages the members of the Sanhedrin. It wasn’t the first time Jesus’ followers spoke in front of the Sanhedrin and proclaimed Him the Messiah—or even the first time Christians criticized Jewish leaders about His death. Peter and John had done so in Acts 4 and got off with a warning. And in Acts 5, the Sanhedrin was ready to execute the apostles until one of their own talked them out of it.
Their fury was left simmering, and Stephen brought it to a boil that overflowed. Here they were yet again, with a Christian standing before the Sanhedrin, accusing its members of not following the law and murdering the Righteous One.
“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of their killing him (Acts 7:54–8:1a).
Right after personally condemning the members of the Sanhedrin, Stephen claims to have a vision of God—a vision that surely reminded them of another memorable encounter they’d had a few years before. As He stood before the Sanhedrin, Jesus proclaimed, “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).
Stephen’s final words also echoed Jesus’ own, when on the cross, He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Why was the stoning of Stephen so important?
Far from satiating their anger, the stoning of Stephen set off a chain reaction of persecution throughout the church in Jerusalem. He was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Christians were claiming to be a continuation of God’s revelation to the prophets and His special relationship with the Jewish people. And if this Hellenistic Jew represented the movement, it appeared Christians may seek to broaden who would enjoy this special relationship. And perhaps worst of all in their eyes, Christians were openly saying that the Sanhedrin had committed an egregious violation of the law. So the Jewish leaders launched an effort to stamp out Christianity, with Saul among those leading the charge.
But while Saul may have felt successful in his mission, in many ways this persecution, triggered by Stephen’s death, was actually a catalyst that enabled Christianity to flourish throughout the world. Followers of Jesus fled for their lives, dispersing throughout the surrounding regions—where they continued to spread the gospel and perform signs and wonders.
Who was Stephen in the Bible?
Stephen wasn’t one of the apostles. But he was an early follower of Jesus, and a leader within the church in Jerusalem.
We first hear about Stephen in Acts 6, when the church is experiencing tension between Hebraic Jews (Jews from Israel) and Hellenistic Jews (Jews from Greece). The Hellenistic Jews complained that their widows weren’t receiving a daily distribution of food like the Hebraic Jewish widows. The Hebraic Jews were taking care of their own, and neglecting the rest of the church.
So the apostles said:
“Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3–4).
Stephen was one of the seven men selected, and Acts describes him as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The Bible never explicitly gives Stephen a title, but due to his appointed role in distributing the church’s resources, he’s often referred to as a deacon—sometimes even the archdeacon, since he’s listed first.
Since he was selected from among the Hellenistic Jews, we know he was a Jewish man who either spoke Greek, was born in Greece, or had adopted Greek customs. Unfortunately, the term is a bit ambiguous. Some even argue that it refers to gentiles who embraced Judaism. But what we do know is that he was one of the most prominent figures among the Hellenistic Jews.
The only other mention of Stephen in the Bible is a confession from the Apostle Paul:
And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him (Acts 22:20).
Saul’s role in the stoning of Stephen
One of the key details in this passage about the stoning of Stephen is the inclusion of Saul, whom we also know as the apostle Paul. While Acts 7 doesn’t give him a lot of attention, his presence here is an important detail, and there’s a lot to unpack.
Saul’s transformation from persecutor to apostle is an integral part of Acts, the entire New Testament, and the explosive rise of the early Christian church. And despite his brief mention in this passage, this moment likely played a critical role in Saul’s journey. While it clearly ignited and inflamed his desire to purge Christianity from Judea, Stephen the Hellenistic Jew also represented and advocated for a position Paul would eventually embrace more than anyone else: the gospel is for everyone, and God isn’t bound to the temple (Acts 7:48–50).
In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Professor M.É. Boismard suggests:
“Stephen gave his life to defend the ideal of the Hellenists, according to which Christianity could not develop except by separating from Judaism and by putting distance between itself and the Mosaic law and the Jerusalem Temple. This is the principle which Paul, having become a Christian after he had persecuted the Church, would defend with tenacity (Galatians 1–2). We might say, then, that Stephen was the precursor of the apostle to the gentiles.”
It’s also worth noting that Paul’s role in the stoning of Stephen represented a clear departure from his own teacher. In Acts 22:3, Paul notes that he was a student of Gamaliel—the same Jewish leader who convinced the Sanhedrin not to execute the apostles (Acts 5:34)—and yet here Paul is, holding the coats of those throwing the stones.
Gamaliel argued that if this new movement was of God, it would flourish, and that if it was not of God, it would perish, as so many other movements had before.
When did the stoning of Stephen happen?
The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when Stephen was martyred, but we know it was in the early years of the church after Jesus’ death on the cross (likely sometime between 30–36 AD). And we do have some clues.
At the time, the Apostle Paul is referred to as “a young man” (Acts 7:58). Scholars believe his clear role as a leader, his possible membership in the Sanhedrin, and the fact that he would have become a rabbi at 30, Paul was likely in his first few years as a rabbi.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia also draws from what we know of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who had Jesus executed:
Pontius Pilate was not deposed from his procuratorship till 36 AD, but was in a state of uneasiness for a couple of years. It is more probable, therefore, that the stoning of Stephen would take place after his deposition in the interregnum, or not many years before, when he would be afraid to protest against the lawlessness of the Jewish leaders. He had shown timidity at the death of Jesus, 29 or 30 AD, but some of the forms of law were observed. So nothing decisive is here obtained, though 35 AD seems more probable than 32 or 33.
We certainly don’t have a definitive date, but we can be fairly confident that the stoning of Stephen took place in the early to mid 30s AD. You may sometimes see a specific year, but this is based on assumptions about other events we can’t always pin an exact date on. There are a range of interpretations and possibilities, but we know this was not long after Jesus’ death.
Why did the Hebrews stone Stephen but not Jesus?
Before Stephen, Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin, too. But they didn’t execute Jesus. In fact, when Pontius Pilate insisted that the Jews judge Jesus by their own laws, they objected, “But we have no right to execute anyone” (John 18:31). And yet here they are just a few years later, executing someone without hesitation in what might appear to be similar circumstances.
In the years between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s, Pontius Pilate had loosened his grip on the Jewish communities he oversaw. And with Jesus, the Jewish leaders deferred to Rome to ensure that Rome would approve of His execution and that His followers would be afraid to resist. Stephen wasn’t nearly as prominent as Jesus, Pilate was less concerned with Jewish affairs, and the Sanhedrin had another excuse: they could blame the mob.
How did Stephen’s death kickstart the missions movement?
Before ascending, Jesus prophesied about the Holy Spirit and the spread of the church. He told them,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Up to this point, the early Christian movement was centered on Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost and more than 3,000 people were baptized that day. The disciples had plenty of work getting things established and running smoothly. Stephen’s stoning changed everything.
Immediately following Stephen’s death, Luke tells us:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1b).
The way Luke writes this, it’s clear that He wants his readers to understand the connection between this event and Jesus’ prophecy. The persecution breaking out in Jerusalem forced the disciples out of Jerusalem and into hiding in Judea and Samaria.
It’s important to remember that the Samaritans were not well loved by the Jews. And even though Jesus did a lot to break down the prejudice the disciples felt for the Samaritans, preaching the gospel in Samaria probably wouldn’t have been their biggest priority. But if you’re hiding from people, it’s best to hide in a place that your pursuers don’t want to go. Samaria was the ideal hiding place.
The tragedy of Stephen’s martyrdom did play a critical role in the spread of the church, pushing the gospel out of Jerusalem and into the world. It’s when Paul goes out to track down these scattered followers and drag them back to Jerusalem that he meets Jesus and sparks a huge mission movement that continues to this day.
Continue exploring the Book of Acts in a whole new way
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