Apocrypha: Revelations of Stephen

translation and notes by m.r. james


The ‘Revelation called of Stephen’ is condemned, like that of Thomas, in the Gelasian Decree. Sixtus Senensis, Bibliotheca Sancta (1593), p. 115, says: ‘The Apocalypse of Stephen the first martyr who was one of the seven deacons of the apostles was prized by the Manichaean heretics as Serapion witnesses.’ Serapion of Thmuis he elsewhere says (p. 299),wrote a large and very notable work against the Manichaeans in Greek ‘which I have lately read’. Our texts of Serapion contain no mention of the Apocalypse of Stephen. But no Manichaean would have cared about the book which I am going to speak of.

[I must record one of the very rare errors of Fabricius here. He (Cod. Apocr. N.T.,i, p.965) cites Sixtus Senensis as saying (on the authority of Serapion) that the Manichaeans so prized the Revelation of Stephen as to carry it in the skin of their thighs! This long puzzled me, and I could not find it in Sixtus. But at last I noticed that at the end of the article just preceding Stephanus, Victor Vitensis is quoted to this effect: The Manichaeans so honoured their teacher that they used to have these words inscribed on the skin of their thighs. ‘Manichaeus, disciple of Christ Jesus’. Perhaps some one has already explained this in print; if so, I have not seen it.]

It has been usually guessed that the writing so described was the account of the finding of St. Stephen’s body, the whereabouts of which was revealed by Gamaliel in a vision to Lucian. With Stephen were found the bodies of Gamaliel and his son Abibas, and of Nicodemus. Lucian’s narrative was known to Augustine: it purports to be of the year 415, and there is little in it, as compared with similar ‘inventions’ of relics, which justifies its being solemnly condemned as apocryphal .

So says I. Franko, who in 1906 (Zeitschr. f. Ntl. Wiss.) published a Slavonic romance which, he says, is the real beginning of Lucian’s narrative.

The substance of it is this:

Two years after the Ascension there was a contest about Jesus. Many learned men had assembled at Jerusalem from Ethiopia, the Thebaid, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Asia, Mauretania and Babylon. There was a great clamour among them like thunder, lasting till the fourth hour.

Stephen, a learned man of the tribe of Benjamin, stood on a high place and addressed the assembly. Why this tumult? said he. Blessed is he who has not doubted concerning Jesus. Born of a pure virgin he filled the world with light. By Satan’s contrivances Herod slew 14,000 (144,000) children. He spoke of the miracles of Jesus. Woe to the unbelievers when he shall come as judge, with angels, a fiery chariot, a mighty wind: the stars shall fall, the heavens open, the books be brought forward. The twelve angels who are set over every soul shall unveil the deeds of men. The sea shall move and give up what is in it. The mountains fall, all the surface of the earth becomes smooth. Great winged thrones are set. The Lord, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit take their seats. The Father bids Jesus sit on his right hand.

At this point the crowd cried out: Blasphemy! and took Stephen before Pilate.

Pilate stood on the steps and reproached them: You compelled me to crucify the Innocent; why rage against this man? Why gnash your teeth? Are ye yet foolish?

They led Stephen away. Caiaphas ordered him to be beaten till the blood ran. And he prayed: Lay not this sin to their charge. We saw how angels ministered to him.

In the morning Pilate called his wife and two children: they baptized themselves and praised God.

Three thousand men now assembled and disputed with Stephen for three days and three nights. On the fourth day they took counsel and sent to Caesarea of Palestine for Saul of Tarsus, who had a commission to seize upon Christians. He took his place on the judgement seat and said: I wonder that thou, a wise man, and my kinsman, believest all this. None of the Sanhedrin have given up the Law. I have been through all Judaea, Galilee, Peraea, Damascus, and the city of the Jesitites to seek out believers.

Stephen lifted up his hands and said: Silence, persecutor! Recognize the Son of God. Thou makest me doubt of my own descent. But I see that thou shalt ere long drink of the same cup as I. What thou doest, do quickly. Saul rent his clothes and beat Stephen. Gamaliel, Saul’s teacher, sprang forth and gave Saul a buffet, saying: Did I teach thee such conduct? know that what this man saith is acceptable and good.

Saul was yet more enraged, and looked fiercely on him, saying: I spare thine old age, but thou shalt reap a due reward for this. Gamaliel answered: I ask nothing better than to suffer with Christ. The elders rent their clothes, cast dust on their heads, and cried: Crucify the blasphemers.

Saul said: Guard them until the morrow. Next day he sat on the judgement seat and had them brought before him, and they were led away to be crucified. An angel came and cast away the cross, and Stephen’s wounds were healed. Seven men came and poured molten lead into his mouth and pitch into his ears. They drove nails into his breast and feet, and he prayed for their forgiveness. Again an angel came down and healed him, and a great multitude believed.

Next day all assembled and took him out of the city to judge him. He mounted upon a stone and addressed them: How long will ye harden your hearts? The Law and the Prophets spake of Christ. In the first Law, and the second, and the other books it is written: When the year of the covenant cometh I will send my beloved angel, the good spirit of sonship, from a pure maiden, the fruit of truth, without ploughshare and without seed, and an image of sowing (?), and the fruit shall grow after the . . . of planting for ever from the word of my covenant, and signs shall come to pass. And Isaiah saith: Unto us a child is born, &c. And again: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, &c. And the prophet Nathan said: I saw one, a maiden and without touch of man, and a man child in her arms, and that was the Lord of the earth unto the end of the earth. And again the prophet Baruch saith: Christ the eternal appeareth as a stone from the mountain and breaketh in pieces the idol temples of the . . . David also said: Arise, O Lord, unto thy resting place, &c. Understand then, O foolish ones, what the prophet saith: In this word shalt thou judge.

And he looked up to heaven and said: I see the heaven opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.

Then they laid hands on him, saying: He blasphemeth! Gamaliel said: Wherein? This righteous man hath seen the Son saying to the Father: Lo, the Jews rage against me and cease not to ill-treat them that confess my name. And the Father said: Sit thou on my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

Then they bound Stephen and took him away to Alexander, the reader, who was a chief of the people, and of the troop in Tiberias.

In the fourth watch of the night, a light as of lightning shone round about him, and a voice said: Be strong. Thou art my first martyr, and thine hour is nigh. I will write the record of thee in the book of everlasting life.

The Jews took counsel and decreed that he should be stoned. There were with him Abibas, Nicodemus, Gamaliel, Pilate, his wife and two children, and a multitude of believers. Saul stood forth and beckoned, and said: It would have been better that this man should not be slain, because of his great wisdom: but forasmuch as he is an apostate, I condemn Stephen to be stoned. The people said: He shall be stoned: but those who stood in the front rank with staves looked on each other and durst not lay hands on him: for he was renowned among the people.

Saul was wroth, and stripped those servants of their garments and laid them on the table; and commanded the men to stone Stephen.

Stephen looked round and said: Saul, Saul, that which thou doest unto me to-day, that same will the Jews do unto thee to-morrow. And when thou sufferest, thou shalt think on me.

The people cast stones upon him so thickly that the light of the sun was darkened. Nicodemus and Gamaliel put their arms about him and shielded him, and were slain, and gave up their souls to Christ.

Stephen prayed, saying: Forgive them that stone us, for by their means we trust to enter into thy kingdom. And at the tenth hour he gave up the ghost. Then beautiful youths appeared, and fell upon the bodies and wept aloud: and the people beheld the souls borne up by angels into heaven, and saw the heavens open and the hosts coming to meet the souls. And the people mourned for three days and three nights.

Pilate took the bodies and put each one into a silver coffin with his name upon it: but Stephen’s coffin was gilt: and he laid them in his secret sepulchre. But Stephen prayed: Let my body be buried in my land of Serasima in Kapogemala (Caphargamala) until the revealing, when the martyrs that follow me shall be gathered together. And an angel came and removed the bodies thither.

But Pilate rose early to burn incense before the bodies, and found them not; and rent his clothes, saying: Was I then not worthy to be thy servant? On the night following, Stephen appeared and said to him: Weep not. I prayed God to hide our bodies. In the time of our revealing one of thy seed shall find us after a vision, and thy desire shall be fulfilled. But build a house of prayer and celebrate our feast in the month of April. After seven months thou also shalt rest. And Pilate did so: and he died, and was buried at Kapartasala: and his wife also died in peace. But the holy martyrs appeared thrice to venerable and believing men, speaking to them, and revealing divine words: for after their death many believed.

One of Franko’s two manuscripts omits all mention of Pilate, who is indeed not necessary to the story. The statements about him are quite irreconcilable with other legends, even those of the Eastern Church which take the favourable view of him.

Franko is clearly right in saying that this romance implies a continuation, and most likely right in holding that the Lucian-narrative implies a previous story. But the extravagance of the Slavonic text is such that one cannot but think it has been improved by the translator: and if Pilate could be gratuitously inserted -as I think he has been- by one redactor, others may equally well have been at work.

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