-The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6:1-6 (NRSV)
On the day after Christmas Day, the Church throws us a curveball. From the magical story of the Lord coming to earth in the form of a sweet baby, we celebrate the church's first martyr--a man who, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, speaks out against the powerful--and is killed as a result.
I recently heard that a poll of historians named Alexander the Great to be the most significant figure in Western history. Jesus and Paul were tied for fifth. The reason: Alexander imposed Greek culture and language all over the eastern Mediterranean. Christianity could not have spread so rapidly without the first "lingua franca." By the third century B.C. Jewish scholars in Egypt began translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek; by Jesus' time, the resulting book, the Septuagint (seventy), so named because 72 men were supposed to have translated it, had supplanted the Hebrew text in some communities. The book was written, appropriately enough, in Koine, the dialect of Alexandria, Egypt, which had become the language of commerce throughout the Near East.
Thus there were Jews in Palestine whose sole language was Koine Greek, and it appears that many of them became followers of Jesus. And one of the first rifts in the church was over language--the Greek speakers felt the Hebrew (Aramaic) speakers were neglecting their widows. The matter was handled quickly enough by the twelve disciples, though with a certain arrogance: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables," which doesn't seem in keeping with Matthew 20:28: "Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..." The seven men included one Stephen, who turned out to be an effective preacher as well as a servant.
Stephen's preaching led to accusations of blasphemy, and as a result, he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders. His speech to them may not have been politic, but he was literally speaking truth to power. After giving a synopsis of Jewish history from Abraham through Solomon, and pointing out the Chosen People's, stubbornness, he aims his rhetoric at his audience: "
After the joyous celebration of Christmas, the Church gives us a blunt reminder that proclaiming the Gospel can have deadly results. But the story of Stephen's martyrdom also gives us a reminder that the most adamant foes of Christ can become his allies. Saul the persecutor, or course, becomes St. Paul the Apostle.