Butler’s Lives of the Saints – The Invention of Saint Stephen, or the Discovery of His Relics

[Saint Stephen the Martyr]Article

This second festival, in honour of the holy protomartyr Saint Stephen, was instituted by the church on the occasion of the discovery of his precious remains. His body lay long concealed, whilst the glory of his sanctity shone both in heaven and on earth. The very remembrance of the place of his burial had been blotted out of the minds of men, and his relics lay covered under the ruins of an old tomb, in a place twenty miles from Jerusalem, called Caphargamala, that is, borough of Gamaliel, where stood a church which was served by a venerable priest named Lucian. In the year 415, in the tenth consulship of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius the Younger, on Friday the 3d of December, about nine o’ clock at night, Lucian was sleeping in his bed, in the baptistery, where he commonly lay, in order to guard the sacred vessels of the church. Being half awake, he saw a tall comely old man of a venerable aspect, with a long white beard, clothed in a white garment, edged with small plates of gold, marked with crosses, and holding a golden wand in his hand. This person approached Lucian, and calling him thrice by his name, bid him go to Jerusalem, and tell bishop John to come and open the tombs in which his remains, and those of certain other servants of Christ lay, that through their means God might open to many the gates of his clemency. Lucian asked his name? “I am,” said he, “Gamaliel, who instructed Paul the apostle in the law; and on the east side of the monument lieth Stephen who was stoned by the Jews without the north gate. His body was left there exposed one day and one night; but was not touched by birds or beasts. I exhorted the faithful to carry it off in the night-time, which when they had done, I caused it to be carried secretly to my house in the country, where I celebrated his funeral rites forty days, and then caused his body to be laid in my own tomb to the eastward. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, lieth there in another coffin. He was excommunicated by the Jews for following Christ, and banished out of Jerusalem. Whereupon I received him into my house in the country, and there maintained him to the end of his life; after his death I buried him honourably near Stephen. I likewise buried there my son Abibas, who died before me at the age of twenty years. His body is in the third coffin which stands higher up, where I myself was also interred after my death. My wife Ethna, and my eldest son Semelias, who were not willing to embrace the faith of Christ, were buried in another ground, called Capharsemalia.” Lucian, fearing to pass for an impostor if he was too credulous, prayed, that if the vision was from God, he might be favoured with it a second and a third time; and he continued to fast on bread and water. On the Friday following Gamaliel appeared again to him in the same form as before, and commanded him to obey. As emblems of the relics he brought and showed Lucian four baskets, three of gold and one of silver. The golden baskets were full of roses; two of white and one of red roses; the silver basket was full of saffron of a most delicious smell. Lucian asked what these were? Gamaliel said: “They are our relics. The red roses represent Stephen, who lieth at the entrance of the sepulchre; the second basket Nicodemus, who is near the door; the silver basket represents my son Abibas, who departed this life without stain; his basket is contiguous to mine.” Having said this he disappeared. Lucian then awaked, gave thanks to God, and continued his fasts. In the third week, on the same day, and at the same hour, Gamaliel appeared again to him, and with threats upbraided him with his neglect, adding, that the drought which then afflicted the world, would be removed only by his obedience, and the discovery of their relics. Lucian being now terrified, promised he would no longer defer it.

After this last vision, he repaired to Jerusalem, and laid the whole affair before bishop John, who wept for joy, and bid him go and search for the relics, which the bishop concluded would be found under a heap of small stones, which lay in a field near his church. Lucian said he imagined the same thing, and returning to his borough, summoned the inhabitants to meet the next day in the morning, in order to search under the heap of stones. As Lucian was going the morning following to see the place dug up, he was met by Migetius, a monk of a pure and holy life, who told him, that Gamaliel had appeared to him, and bade him inform Lucian that they laboured in vain in that place. “We were laid there,” said he, “at the time of our funeral obsequies, according to the ancient custom; and that heap of stones was a mark of the mourning of our friends. Search elsewhere, in a place called Debatalia. In effect,” said Migetius, continuing the relation of his vision, “I found myself on a sudden in the same field, where I saw a neglected ruinous tomb, and in it three beds adorned with gold; in one of them more elevated than the others, lay two men, an old man and a young one, and one in each of the other beds.” Lucian having heard Migetius’s report, praised God for having another witness of his revelation, and having removed to no purpose the heap of stones, went to the other place. In digging up the earth here three coffins or chests were found, as above mentioned, whereon were engraved these words in very large characters: Cheliel, Nasuam, Gamaliel, Abibas. The two first are the Syriac names of Stephen, or crowned, and Nicodemus, or victory of the people. Lucian sent immediately to acquaint bishop John with this. He was then at the council of Diospolis, and taking along with him Eutonius, bishop of Sebaste, and Eleutherius, bishop of Jericho, came to the place. Upon the opening of Saint Stephen’s coffin the earth shook, and there came out of the coffin such an agreeable odour, that no one remembered to have ever smelt any thing like it. There was a vast multitude of people assembled in that place, among whom were many persons afflicted with divers distempers; of whom seventy-three recovered their health upon the spot. Some were freed from evil spirits, others cured of scrophulous tumours of various kinds, others of fevers, fistulas, the bloody flux, the falling sickness, head-aches, and pains in the bowels. They kissed the holy relics, and then shut them up. The bishop claimed those of Saint Stephen for the church of Jerusalem, of which he had been deacon; the rest were left at Caphargamala. The protomartyr’s body was reduced to dust, excepting the bones, which were whole, and in their natural situation. The bishop consented to leave a small portion of them at Caphargamala; the rest were carried in the coffin with singing of psalms and hymns to the church of Sion at Jerusalem. At the time of this translation there fell a great deal of rain, which refreshed the country after a long drought. The translation was performed on the 26th of December, on which day the church hath ever since honoured the memory of Saint Stephen, commemorating the discovery of his relics on the 3rd of August, probably on account of the dedication of some church in honour of Saint Stephen, perhaps that of Ancona. The history of this miraculous discovery and translation, written by Lucian himself, and translated into Latin by Avitus, a Spanish priest, (native of Braga, then living at Jerusalem, an intimate friend of Saint Jerom,) is published by the Benedictin monks in the appendix to the seventh tome of the works of Saint Austin. This account is also attested by Chrysippus, an eminent and holy priest of the church of Jerusalem; (whose virtue is highly commended by the judicious author of the life of Saint Euthymius;) by Idatius and Marcellinus in their chronicles; by Basil bishop of Seleucia, Saint Austin, Bede, etc. It is mentioned by most of the historians, and in the sermons of the principal fathers of that age. Saint Stephen’s body remained in the church of Sion till the empress Eudocia, wife of Theodosius the Younger, going a second time to Jerusalem in 444, built a stately church to God in his honour, about a furlong from the city, near the spot where he was stoned to death, into which she procured his body to be translated, and in which she was buried herself after her death, in 461. Saint Austin speaking of the miracles of Saint Stephen, addresses himself to his flock as follows: “Let us so desire to obtain temporal blessings by his intercession, that we may merit in imitating him those which are eternal.”

Our corporal necessities were not the motive which drew our omnipotent Physician down from heaven, but the spiritual miseries of our souls. In his mortal life he restored many sick to their health, and delivered demoniacs, to give men a sensible proof of his divine power, and for an emblem that he came to relieve the spiritual miseries of our souls, and to put an end to the empire of the devil over them. In like manner, when through his servants he has bestowed corporal blessings on men, he excites our confidence in his mercy to ask through their intercession his invisible graces. We ought to pray for our daily bread, or all necessary supplies of our bodily necessities; but should make these petitions subordinate to the great end of our sanctification, and his divine honour, offering them under this condition, as we know not in temporal blessings what is most expedient for us. God offers us his grace, his love, himself: him we must make the great and ultimate end of all our requests to him. If some rich prince should engage himself to grant us whatever we should ask, it would be putting an affront upon him, if we confined our petition to pins or such trifles, as Saint Teresa remarks.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “The Invention of Saint Stephen, or the Discovery of His Relics”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 July 2014. Web. 17 August 2017. <>