At the time when Jesus Christ came into this world, the Jews were scattered over the whole surface of the earth. From the narrow valley in which their religious law had confined them for the designs of God, these people of little territory had overflowed into all the provinces of the Roman empire. Captivity had been the beginning of their dispersion. Numerous Israelitish colonists, who had formerly settled in the land of their exile, were still existing in Babylon, in Media, even in Persia; others had pushed their way further on to the extreme east, even as far as China. Finally, under the reign of Augustus, they are found everywhere.
It was the solemn hour in which, according to the parable of the gospel, the Father had gone forth to sow the seed. The field, “that is the world,” was filled with it already, and the time was not far distant when the Lord, “seeing the countries ripe for the harvest,” would send out his journeymen to reap, and gather the wheat into his barns.
One of these families “of the dispersion,” as they were styled, inhabited the city of Tarsus in Cilicia. Of this once famous city nothing now remains but a few ruins, and the modern Tarsous falls vastly short of that high rank which the ancient Tarsus held among the cities of the East. Even at present, however, it is called the capital city of Caramania. Situated on a small eminence covered over with laurels and myrtles, at a distance of about ten miles from the Mediterranean sea, it is washed by the rapid and cold waters of the Kara-sou, and its population during winter amounts to more than thirty thousand souls. In summer it is almost a desert. Chased away by the burning heats which prevail at this season from the sea-coast, men, women and children abandon their homes and emigrate to the surrounding heights, where they fix their camp under lofty cedars, which afford them shelter, shade, and coolness.
It were difficult to draw, from what it is at present, an exact picture of the ancient Tarsus. Instead of the sad, disconsolate look of a Turkish city, there was then in it the movement, the ardor, the splendor of the Greek city, proud of her politeness and her recollections. According to Strabo, Tarsus was a colony of Argos. As a proof of the high state of its culture, the Greeks related that the companions of Triptolemus, perambulating the earth in search of Io, stopped at that place, charmed by its richness and beauty. Others traced its origin further back, to the old kings of Assyria. At one of the gates of Tarsus there had been seen for a long time the tomb of Sardanapalus with the following inscription under his statue: “I, Sardanapalus, have built Tarsus in one day. Passenger, eat, drink, and give thyself a good time; the rest is nothing.” History, however, has written there other remembrances. It was not far from Tarsus that the intrepid Alexander had nearly perished in the icy waters of the Cydnus. It was there upon the sea, at the entrance of the river, that the memorable interview and the fatal alliance of Antony and Cleopatra had just taken place in the midst of voluptuous feasts. The wise providence that provides reparations for all our pollutions, had chosen the city of a Sardanapalus and of an Antony to be the cradle of Saint Paul.
For the rest, Tarsus was a city perfectly well built and of remarkable beauty. From the fertile hill on which she rested, she could contemplate the direction toward the north and west of an undulating line, which traced rather than hid the horizon. This was the outline of the first ascending grades, of the mountains of Cilicia. At a short distance from the city the waters of numerous living springs met together and formed a rapid river, deeply enchased, which soon reached and refreshed that portion of her which the historians call the Gymnasium, and we would name the “Quarter of the schools.” Further on there was a harbor of peculiar and distinctly marked outline. Philostratus has described in a striking and picturesque manner the different habitudes of the men of traffic and of the literary class, representing “the former as slaves to avarice, the latter to voluptuousness. All their talk,” says he, “consisted in reviling, taunting, and railing at each other with sharp-biting words: whence one might have easily seen that it was only in their dress they pretended to imitate the Athenians, but not in prudence and praiseworthy habits. They did nothing else all day but walk up and down on the banks of the river Cydnus, which runs across this city, as if they were so many aquatic birds, passing their time in frolicsome levities, inebriated, so to speak, with the pleasing delectation of those sweet-flowing waters.”
Such, then, was the city in which a vast multitude of young men, elegant, voluptuous and witty, crowded and pressed each other like a swarm of bees, for Tarsus was the most brilliant intellectual focus of that time and country. The following is the description of it, given by Strabo: “She carries to such a height the culture of arts and sciences, that she surpasses even Athens and Alexandria. The difference between Tarsus and these two cities is, that in the former the learned are almost all indigenous. Few strangers come hither; and even those who belong to the country do not sojourn here long. As soon as they have completed the course of their studies in the liberal arts, they emigrate to some other place, and very few of them return to Tarsus afterward.”
The best masters regarded it as an honor to teach in the schools of this city of arts. There were in it such grammarians as Artemidorus and Diodorus; such brilliant poets and professors of eloquence as Plutiades and Diogenes; such philosophers of the sect of the stoics as the two Athenodori; of whom the first had been Cato’s friend in life, and his companion in death, and the second had been the instructor of Augustus, who, in token of gratitude, appointed him governor of Tarsus. For, it was the fate of this learned city to be under the administration of men of letters, and of philosophers. She had been ruled by the poet Boethus, the favorite of Antony. Nestor, the Platonic philosopher, had also governed her. It is easily seen, however, that such men are better prepared for speculations in science, than for the administration of public affairs, so that, in their hands, Tarsus felt more than once those intestine commotions, of which cities of schools have never ceased to be the theatre.
It was in this city, and under these circumstances, almost upon the frontiers of Europe and Asia, in the very heart of a great civilization, that Saint Paul was born, about the twenty-eighth year of Augustus’ reign, two years before the birth of Christ. He himself informs us that he was a Jew of the tribe of Juda, born in the Greek city of Tarsus, and a Roman citizen: so that by parentage, by education, and by privilege, he belonged to the three great nations who bore rule over the realm of thought and of action. The grave historian who exhausts the catalogue of the illustrious men of Tarsus, never suspected what man – very differently illustrious – had just appeared there, and of what a revolution he was to become the zealous defender as well as the martyr.
The Jewish origin of the Doctor of Nations was, as is easily understood, of vast importance for fulfilment of the designs of God. The religion of Jesus Christ proceeds from Judaism, continues and perfects it. It was, therefore, well worthy of the wisdom of God that his apostles should belong to the one as well as to the other covenant, and that he should thus extend his hand to all ages, as he was to extend it to all men.
This purity of origin was so considerable a privilege, that it is by it one may account to one’s self for the rage and fury with which the Ebionite Jews in the first age of our era labored to deprive him of it. Adhering to the last rubbish of the law of Moses, and, for this reason, irreconcilable enemies to the great apostle of the Gentiles, these sectarians maliciously invented the following fable, according to the relation of Saint Epiphanius. “They say that he was a Greek, that his father was a Greek as well as his mother. Having come to Jerusalem in his youth, he had sojourned there for a certain time. Having there known the daughter of the high priest, he had desired to have her for his wife; and to this end he had become a Jewish proselyte. As he could not, however, obtain the young maiden even at that price, he had conceived a burning resentment, and commenced to write against the circumcision, the sabbath, and the law.” It seems to me that Saint Epiphanius confers too great an honor upon this romance, by merely exposing and refuting it.
I know on what foundation Saint Jerome affirms, on the contrary, that Saint Paul was a Jew not only by descent, but also by the place of his birth. According to him, Saint Paul’s parents dwelt in the small town of Girchala in Juda, when the Roman invasion compelled them to seek for themselves a home somewhere else. Therefore they took their son, yet an infant, with them, and fled to Tarsus, where they remained, waiting for better days.
The declaration of Saint Paul himself, however, allows no doubt to be entertained as to his origin. Born in Tarsus, he was circumcised there on the eighth day after his birth, and received the name of Saul, which he exchanged afterward for that of Paul, probably at the time when Sergius Paulus had been converted by him to the Christian faith.
His parents failed not to instruct him in the law; for, how distant soever from their mother country might have been the place in which they lived, the Jews did not cease to render to the God of their fathers worship, more or less pure, but faithful. Like all other great cities of the Roman empire, Tarsus had her synagogue where the Law was read, and where the religious interests of the Israelitic people were discussed. It was there that prayers were solemnly made with the face turned toward the holy city: for there was no temple anywhere but in Jerusalem, whither numerous and pious caravans from all the countries of Asia went every year to celebrate in Sion the great festivals of the Passover and Pentecost, to pay there the double devotion, and present their victims. The bond of union was thus fastened more firmly than ever between the colonies and the metropolis, in which great things were soon expected to take place. Jerusalem was not only the country of memorials, but to Jewish hearts she was also the land of hope, and every eye was turned toward the mountain whence salvation was to come.
Saul grew up in Tarsus. We must not seek in the youth of Saul for those signs which reveal in advance a great man. In individuals of this sort, devoted to the work of God, all greatness is from him, the instrument disappearing in the hand of the divine artificer. Whatever illusion iconography may have impressed us with upon the point, Saul did not carry, either in stature of body or in beauty of features, the reflection of his great soul, and at first sight the world saw in him only an insignificant person, as he himself testifies, “aspectus corporis infirmus,” Beside, he was a man of low condition, exercising a trade, and earning his daily bread by the sweat of his face. The rabbinical maxims said that, “not to teach one’s son to work, was the same thing as to teach him to steal.” Saul was, therefore, a workman, and everything leads us to believe that he, who was to carry light to nations, passed, like his master, the whole of his obscure youth in hard work. He made tents for the military camps and for travellers. This was an extensive industry in the East; and a great trade in these textures was carried on in Tarsus with the caravans starting from the ports of Cilicia and journeying though Armenia, Persia, the whole of Asia Major, and beyond.
Manual occupation, however, did not absorb the whole time, nor the whole soul of the young Israelite; since the tradition of the fathers points to him as frequenting the schools of Tarsus, and joining that studious swarm of young civilians who crowded there to attend the lectures delivered by the professors of science and literature. His Epistles retain some traces of these his first studies. In these he quotes now and then words of the ancient poets, Menander, Aratus, Epimenides. He expressed himself with equal facility in the three great languages of the civilized world, the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Latin; and it is manifest that he knew the secrets of the art of eloquence, for which he retained in later times only a magnanimous contempt. He was also initiated in philosophy, under the teachers whom I have named already. Besides Stoicism, whose patrons and success in Tarsus I have mentioned, Platonism flourished there under the protection of Nestor, a man of great distinction, who had been the preceptor of that illustrious youth Marullus, who was sung by Virgil, and bewailed by Augustus. Is it not, at this period, that a young man of Tyana, himself destined to acquire a strange celebrity, came to Tarsus in his fourteenth year, and passionately embraced there the precepts of Pythagorean doctrine? The uncertainties of the history, which was written by Philostratus afterward, do not permit us to say anything definite upon this point; but one cannot help thinking that it is from the same place, and at the same time, that those two extremes of the power of good and of the power of evil have set out – Apollonius of Tyana, and Saint Paul.
Finally, not far from there the oriental doctrines drove to their several beliefs respectively the multitudes of Asia, and invaded also the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the Islands. Thus Parsism on the one hand, and Hellenism on the other, met in Tarsus with Judaism. By its position, as well as by its commerce, the birthplace of Saint Paul was the point of confluence of the two currents of ideas, which shared the world between themselves. From this centre the future apostle was able to embrace in one view all those different sorts of minds which he was to embrace in his zeal afterwards.
Such were his beginnings. In them Saul plays an insignificant part; but God a great one; God does not act openly as yet; he prepares. But what preparation! What a concurrence of circumstances manifestly providential! What greatness even in this obscurity! The seal of predestination is visibly impressed upon that soul appointed to regenerate the world by the faith. The place, the time, the means, everything seems disposed, consecrated in advance, as it were, for a great scene. God incarnate was to fill it, but he had chosen Saul of Tarsus to be in it the actor most worthy of him.
The second education of Saul took place in Jerusalem. He was yet young when his parents, yielding to that instinct which recalled the Jews to their native country, sent him, or, perhaps, went and took him with themselves, to the holy city, in order to fix their residence there.
There occur in history some solemn epochs; but that in which Saul arrived at Jerusalem possesses a consecration which cannot belong to any but to itself alone: it was what Saint Paul called, afterward, “the fulness of the times.” The seventy weeks determined by Daniel, entered then into the last phasis of their accomplishment. The sceptre had been taken away from Judah, and, at a few steps from the temple, a centurion, with the vine-stock in his hand, quietly walked around the residence of a Roman proconsul. People were waiting to see from what point the star of Jacob was to appear. It had risen already, and the young workman of Tarsus, while going to Jerusalem, might have met on his way with a workman like himself, who, sitting at the foot of some unknown hill, preached in parables to the people of his own country and of his condition. This was in fact taking place under the second Herod. Saul was then twenty-nine years old, and the Word made flesh dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
Did Saul have the happiness to see his divine Master during his mortal life? Grave historians formally affirm it, and some passages in the Epistles allow us to believe it. Others think that what they refer to is only the vision on the road to Damascus.
But, whatever may be the difference of opinions upon this point, it appears impossible that the fame of Jesus’ teaching and miracles did not reach the ears of Saul, while living in Judea: it is even probable that Saul might have endeavored to see him. “We have known the Christ according to the flesh,” he himself wrote to the Corinthians. This last testimony leaves yet some doubt as to the interpretation; but, when one reflects on the repeated utterance of these expressions, as well as upon the coincidence of dates and names, one cannot help starting at the thought, that on some unknown hour the God and the apostle must have met, and that Jesus, piercing into the future, bestowed on the youth that deep and tender look which he gave the young man spoken of in the Gospel; and that the Pharisee, who was to become a vessel of election, then condemned himself to the regret of having that day neglected and mistaken the blessed God, of whom he was afterward to say in that language invented by love, “Mihi vivere Christus est,” “For me to live, is Christ.”
When Saul entered Jerusalem for the first time, the pious Israelite must doubtless have been astonished and saddened at the same time. Herod the Ascalonite had rendered her, according to Pliny’s testimony, the most magnificent city of the East; but by the profane character of her embellishments, she had lost much of her holy originality. The prince courtier had erected near by a circus and a theatre, where festivals in honor of Augustus were celebrated every fifth year. He had repaired and transformed the temple, but also profaned it; and over the principal gate of the holy place one saw the glitter of the golden eagle of Rome and of Jupiter, a double insult to religion and liberty. Jerusalem was likely to become a Roman city; her part was on the point of being played out; her priesthood was expiring, she began to cast off its insignia, and one saw the line gradually disappear which separated her from the cities of paganism.
Beside, Saul found her torn in pieces by religious sects which had in these latter times fastened to the body of Judaism, as parasitical plants stick to the trunk of an old tree. Religious opinion was divided between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. I speak not of the Herodians, for in the order of ideas flatteries are not taken into account, for this reason – because to flatter is not to dogmatize. Sadduceeism, a sort of Jewish Protestantism, rejected all tradition; would admit of nothing but the text of the Pentateuch; denied an after-life because it was not found formally enough inculcated by Moses, and consequently endeavored to make this present one as comfortable as possible. It was Epicureanism under the mask of religion. Pharisaism, on the contrary, was the double reaction both in religion and nationality. In order to enhance the law, it multiplied practices and rites; in order to save the dogma, it burdened it with an oral tradition, to serve as a commentary, an interpreter, and a supplement to the law. Under the name of Mishna, this tradition proceeded, according to her account, from secret instructions of Moses himself, and composed a kind of sacred science, of which the doctors only possessed the key.
The sect of the Pharisees was, on the other hand, the great political as well as doctrinal power of the nation. The people venerated them, the inces [sic] treated them with regard, and Josephus informs us that Alexander Jannacus, being at the point of death, spoke of them to his wife in the following manner: “Allow the Pharisees a greater liberty than usual; for they,” he told her, “would, for the favor conferred on them, reconcile the nation to her interest; that they had a powerful influence over the Jews, and were in a capacity to prejudice those they hated and serve those they loved.”
The Young Saul enrolled himself with the Pharisees: among them, however, he chose his school. Being sensible of the fact that foreign ideas were insinuating themselves into the bosom of Judaism, some choice minds were at this epoch in search of I know not what compromise between Moses’s doctrine and philosophy, in which compromise the two elements might be fused together, and thus form a religion at the same time rational and mystic. This fusion is one of the signs by which this period is distinguished. Uneasy and attentive, every mind was laboring under the want of a universality and unity of belief, whose painful child-birth, twenty times miscarried, was yet submitted to without relaxation. One hundred and fifty years before the epoch we are now in, Aristobulus had attempted this eclecticism, and Philo was soon after to reduce it to system in Alexandria and give it a widely spread popularity in Egypt. Another man, however, took upon himself the business of planting it in the very heart of Palestine.
This man was the famous rabbi Gamaliel, the beloved teacher of Saint Paul. It must be admitted that no man could be better qualified to render it acceptable than he was, on account of his position and character. He was the grandson of Doctor Hillel, whose science as well as his consideration and holiness he had inherited. He was the oracle of his time, and “on his death,” the Talmud says, “the light of the law was extinguished in Israel.” The Talmudists add that he had been vested with the title of Nasi, or chief of the council, and the Gospel agrees with the Jewish authors, recognizing in him a just man, wise, moderate, impartial, an enemy to violence, and ruling the different parties by a moral greatness, which secured to him the confidence of all and the unanimity of their regards. He was the first who caused the text of the Bible to be read in Greek at Jerusalem. This innovation was of itself an immense progress, as it removed that barrier which Pharisaism had raised between the Hellenist and the Judaizing Jews. He dreamed not, however, of transforming Moses into a Socrates. He gave up nothing of pure Judaism. But, having a thorough knowledge of the Greek, Oriental and Egyptian philosophies, he held them all in check; he took out of each of them what could be reconciled with the law of God, enriched with it the inheritance of tradition, and boldly applying to ideas that generous and accommodating toleration which he made use of in social life, he allowed them entrance into the Synagogue.
Gamaliel, it seems, kept in Jerusalem what certain authors call an academy. It was frequented, for men of such a character possess a great power of attraction. Young Israelites brought to his feet, and placed at his disposal, for the service of his and their ideas, the intemperate zeal and warm convictions of their age – Christian tradition acquaints us with the names of some of them; among others, of Stephen and Barnabas, whom we shall soon see disciples of a greater master. But the most ardent of them all was, without contradiction, the young Saul of Tarsus. Proud, fiery, enthusiastic, he seems to have been passionately fond of the Pharisaism of Gamaliel, but mixing with the zeal a violent asperity which, certainly, he had not from his master. No man could be more attached, than he was, to the ancient traditions; it is himself who says so, adding that his proficiency in the interpretation of the law placed him at the head of the men of his time.
These Jewish as well as these Greek studies were not lost time in the education of the apostle. They made Saul sensible of the pressing need of a revealer which the world was then laboring under; and they caused those groanings to reach his ears from all parts, which he himself called the groaning of creation in childbed of her redeemer. They did also reveal to him, seeing the inability of sects for it, that redemption could not be the work of man, and they left in his mind that haughty contempt of human wisdom, which would be despair, if God had not come to reveal a better one possessing the promises both of this world and of the next.
Now, whilst young Saul and the Jewish rabbins were agitating these questions in the dust of schools and synagogue, our Lord Jesus Christ was giving the solution of them in his own life and by his death. His death was even more fruitful than his life, and when the Pharisees believed they had put an end to his doctrine, as they had to his life, it was a great surprise to them to see twelve fishermen, wholly unknown the day before, suddenly appear, preaching that the Son of God had risen from the dead, that they had seen him gloriously ascending into heaven, and that, in order to give testimony of it to the world, they were ready and would be happy to die. Their miracles, their doctrine, the conversions which they wrought by multitudes, their baptism conferred on thousands of disciples, the enthusiasm of some, the perplexity of others, the hatred of many, stirred up the politicians and the magistrates. The great council met under these circumstances. It seems that there was held in it a decisive deliberation, in which the destinies of Christianity were solemnly discussed. The question was to know, whether the new religion should be drowned in blood, or whether it should be allowed the liberty and time of dying by a natural death. It did not occur to any one’s thought that it could live; and much less that it could be true: and it is remarkable that not a word was said on the doctrinal question, the most important of all! Thus some of them advised to put those men to death, others feared lest violence should excite a sedition, and there was division of counsel in the assembly, when Gamaliel rose up in it. Silence followed, the Scripture relates, because he was the sage of the nation. He made no speech. He cited only the names of some seditious men very well known in the city, the false prophet Theodas, and Judas of Galilee, who, after a little noise, had left no trace behind them. Hence he concluded that the new religion would have the same fortune if it was from man, and that if it was, on the contrary, the work of God, it would prove invincible against all human efforts. His advice appeared for a moment to prevail, on account of its wisdom; and the apostles, confiding in the future, readily accepted the challenge.
God had other designs in regard to his church, and it was not peace but war that he had come to bring with him. Wisdom had decided; passion executed. After reciting the advice of Gamaliel, the Scripture adds that, before being dismissed, the Apostles were scourged, and that “they went from the presence of the council rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus.” The signal had thus been given, and a pure victim was about to open the era of the martyrs.
We have thus far related only the human history of Saint Paul. We now begin to enter into his supernatural and divine history.
Saul had put himself at the head of those who persecuted the Christians. Hence it is that the Scripture represents him to us as laying everything waste, like a rapacious wolf, spreading consternation amidst the flock. His very name was terror to the newly born church; above all the others, however, one Christian roused his jealous rancor.
It was a young man whose name I have already mentioned, and who is believed to have been of the same country with Saul, and his relative. He was called Stephanos, which we have modified into Stephen.
Stephen, as everything indicates, was a Greek, and of the number of those who were then called Hellenistic Jews. In all probability, he belonged to that synagogue of Cilicians of which Saul, his friend and countryman, must likewise have been a member. Some of the ancients have even believed that he also belonged to the school of Gamaliel; and this is confirmed by the old tradition, which makes the remains of the great rabbin and those of the first martyr rest in the same grave. All these relations between Stephen and Saul, who persecuted him, are worthy of being taken into account. They throw a great light over those events, and define with precision the circumstances of which they give the key.
The same tradition has taken a pleasure in surrounding the young neophyte with every gift and accomplishment that could make him a most precious victim. The memory which the fathers have preserved of Stephen is that of a youth of rare beauty, in the flower of his age, endowed with wonderful eloquence, and with a candor of soul yet more charming.
“He was a virgin,” Saint Augustine says of him, “and this purity of heart reflecting upon his features imparted to his face an angelic expression.” Saint John Damascene speaks in the same strain of that excellent nature which “made the light of grace shine with more brilliant lustre.” Such souls are very near to Christianity. Stephen had become a Christian. Saint Epiphanius affirms that he was such during the life of Jesus Christ, and that he was one of the seventy-two disciples. Saint Augustine doubts of it.
What we are informed of in the Book of the Acts concerning this point is, that moved by “a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews for that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration,” the apostles caused seven men of that nation to be chosen, whom they “appointed over that business.” The first named (and perhaps the most preëminent) among them was Stephen, characterized by the inspired historian as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.”
This conversion raised storms in the bosom of the synagogue; and as Saint Paul, according to his own account, occupied a preëminent rank among the young men of that time, it was easy for him no doubt to breathe his own burning flame into them.
Besides, everything announced a violent crisis, and the whole city experienced that agitation and anxiety which, in troubled times, precede and portend a near commotion and a desperate struggle. As the disciples had not yet been outlawed, as they did not even have any peculiar name which distinguished them from the rest of the people, and their religious belief enjoyed as yet its freedom, they joined everywhere the Jewish assemblies, instilled there their doctrine, taught even in the temple, where they went to pray like the rest. But a deep-rooted dissension, pregnant with tempests, was growing in the heart of every synagogue. These were most numerous at Jerusalem, as it is said that well-nigh five hundred different ones were there in existence, each people possessing their own, about in the same manner as now in the city of Rome every Catholic nation possesses her proper church, for her own use, and in her own name. The synagogue of the Cilicians, is expressly mentioned in the holy Scripture and signalized as one of the most disturbed, and most opposed to the new sect. Interpreters are of opinion that it was there Saul and the deacon Stephen met together in the midst of other Asiatic Jews, their countrymen, hot-headed and subtle, as are all of that country. They were of the same age, according to computations made for the purpose, and of equal learning; but Stephen’s eloquence had no rival! It was, the Acts say, something at once sweet and powerful, that attracted by its grace, and bore away the soul by its force. One felt in it a higher spirit, it is said, and it was in vain that disputants from all the synagogues arose against Christ and his faith; none could resist that word, “full of wisdom and of the Holy Ghost.” Some Greek copies add that he “reprehended the Jews with such an assurance that it was impossible not to see the truths which he announced.”
His words gave displeasure on account of this freedom; as they could not refute him they soon resolved to calumniate him, waiting for a pretext to get rid of him. Witnesses were found; they are found everywhere. Stephen had preached that a more perfect worship was about to take the place of the worship of Moses, that the glory and the reign of the temple were soon to have an end, and that a better Jerusalem of larger destinies, was on the point of being built. It was but too easy to turn these words from their spiritual meaning, and convert them into threats against the city and the people. A purely moral and peaceful revolution was a thing, on the other hand, so entirely novel in the history of the world, that one would have naturally persisted in confounding it with a political and civil revolution. It was this gross and voluntary mistake that had furnished the text to the pretended lawsuit against our Lord Jesus Christ; it was equally the foundation of that which his disciples have been subjected to. To these accusations they took care to add that Stephen intended to change the ancient traditions, which thing in the eyes of the Pharisees was decisive.
The young deacon was therefore brought before the high-priest, that same Caiaphas by whom Jesus had suffered. When the accusers had been heard, the pontiff requested Stephen to answer them: “Are these things so?”
He rose up, and as soon as he could be seen, the book of the Acts observes, all the eyes in the assembly were fixed on him. Did he have already a glimpse of the martyr’s crown, and did this vision transfigure him in advance? I know not, but it is said that his face appeared to their eyes as the face of on angel. “It was,” says Saint Hilary of Aries, “the flame of his heart overspreading itself upon his forehead; the candor of his soul was reflected on his features in a perfect beauty; and the Holy Ghost residing in Stephen’s heart threw upon his face a jet of supernatural light.”
The speech of Stephen was simple, but peremptory. To those who charged him with breaking off from the religion of his fathers, he opposed at the very beginning a long profession of faith from the books of Moses. But the question relating to the temple, whose fall he had foretold, was more serious. He viewed it firmly. He did not retract himself; but presently rising from the region of facts to that of superior principles which facts obey, he began to demonstrate that a material temple is nowise necessary to the honor of God. As a proof of this he pointed back to the times in which the patriarchs made their prayers on the top of the high places; when the Lord manifested his presence in a flame of fire in a bush; and when the Hebrew people carried through the desert the tabernacle, which was the sanctuary and the altar at the same time. When he had come to the time of the first temple he concluded, and his discourse suddenly assumed the character of a vivid and eloquent exaltation. Elevating himself from the imperfection of a national worship to the ideal of a universal and spiritual one, which would have its sanctuary chiefly within man’s soul, he said: “Yet the Most High dwelleth not in houses made by hands, as the prophet saith: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool; what house will you build me, saith the Lord, or what is the place of my resting? Hath not my hand made all these things?”
Such a harangue was a manifesto. He did not abolish every temple, nor every worship, as some people are pleased to insinuate; but he erased at a single stroke the exclusive privilege of the temple of Jerusalem, he extended it’s boundaries, and for the old Jewish monopoly substituted the catholicity of a new church, as large as the world.
The Jews understood him too well. They were already trembling with rage against him, when, from the accused becoming the accuser, Stephen charged them with the murder of the prophets, and principally with that of the God, our Saviour, whom they had crucified. “You have received the law by the disposition of angels,” he said to them, “and have not kept it.” On hearing these words, their rage, incapable of longer restraint, burst out; “they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him,” as the Acts relate. Stephen felt that his last hour was at hand.
The Holy Ghost filled him as it were with a holy rapture. He looked steadfastly to heaven, where the glory of God began to shine on him, and there, in the midst of that glory, recognizing and saluting Jesus Christ, who extended his hand to him, “Behold,” he exclaimed, “I see the heavens opened, the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” These words sealed his doom. On hearing him, the Jews, shaking with horror, “cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him,” as wild beasts do on their prey.
No judgment was passed on him. A text in the book of Deuteronomy allowed any one to be put to death, who enticed the people into idolatry. This summary justice sometimes tolerated by the Roman pro-consul, was termed the judgment of zeal. To apply this judgment to the young deacon, was found more convenient than to go through the formalities of a regular sentence; and they seized him to put him to death. By a last relic of Pharisaism, however, they took care to observe the practices of the law, even in such an arbitrary and cruel deed. To the end, therefore, that the holy city should not be stained with blood, the innocent victim was “cast forth without” the walls of Jerusalem.
They went out by the northern gate along that side which leads to country of Kedar. At the west of the valley crossed by the Kedron, on a desolate places and at the right of the distant mountains of Galaad, the crowd stopped. The witnesses began by raising their hands over the head of Stephen, which was the rite of devoting a victim to death; then stones innumerable, as thick as hail, fell upon him. The atrocious deed went on with unrelenting fury, and the body of the heroic martyr was now noting but a wound; but he held his eyes immovably fixed on that celestial vision, and as life was gradually receding from his breast, he was ever “invoking and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
The Acts of the Apostles conclude this narrative, with giving us the name of the person who was the most noted accomplice in this murder: “Saulus autem erat consentiens neci ejus. ”
Saint Luke, the disciple of Saint Paul, says nothing further concerning his master in this business. But Saint Paul came afterward, who, humbly giving a public testimony of his cruel error, denounced himself as the instigator of that iniquity. “When the blood of Stephen was shed,” he said one day to the Jews, “I was the first, and over the others,” Super ad stabam. It is the sense of the Greek text. Had he for such a thing a mandate of the Sanhedrim, as we shall soon see him vested with full powers against the brethren of Damascus? Everything would make one believe so. The fathers and commentators say, it was for this reason that he kept the garments of those men of blood: and they, in fact, show us those murderers as going the one after the other, deferentially to lay their garments at the feet of Saul, as an homage, so to speak, paid to him, from whom they had the power and the command to strike.
Stephen saw him, and revenged himself in his way – the divine way. At the point of death, covered with blood, he lowered his eyes to the earth for the last time, and sadly resting them on his persecutors, perhaps he saw through their impious crowd one of them apart, more furious than the rest. He was moved to compassion for his soul; and then it was that “falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice,” not of anger, but of grace, and said: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” He rose no more, and so saying, Stephen “fell asleep in the Lord.”
He could sleep in peace, indeed, for he had just made a magnificent conquest. “If Stephen had not prayed,” Saint Augustine says, “the church had not won St Paul; the martyr fell, the Apostle rose.” These substitutions are the most mysterious secrets of Providence. By an admirable law of a bond in solido, of fraternity and of love, God has willed that we, like himself, can, at the price of a little blood, or even of some tears, pay the ransom of souls, and secure to them a future for which they are indebted to us. He has permitted that the life and the death of Christians, like those of their Master, should be a redemption, completing the great redemption of Calvary, according to the saying of Saint Paul himself. Coloss. i. 24
It was meant that this should be the first apostleship of all, and the most fruitful. In the midst of scaffolds, ever full of victims, and the catacombs which incessantly recruited new children of God, Tertullian proclaimed that “the blood of the martyrs was a seed of Christians.” He gave thus form to a beautiful law, which the blood of Stephen, after the blood of God himself, had before inaugurated. The soul of Saul, therefore, was that day a conquered soul. It is in vain that on the road to Damascus he struggles and “kicks against the goad:” he is under the yoke of God; he carries a mark of blood on him which points him out, and which saves him; and Jesus, whenever he will, has only to show himself to throw him down and make him obey. This is admirable. Moses had written in the book of Leviticus, “The priest shall command him that is to be purified to offer for himself two living sparrows which it is lawful to eat, . . . . and he shall command one of the sparrows to be immolated, . . . . but the other that is alive he shall dip . . . . in the blood of the sparrow that is immolated; . . . . and he shall let go the living sparrow, that it may fly into the field.” (Levit xiv. 4-7.) It was according to this rite that the transaction was accomplished. Stephen had been the chosen victim; and when Saul had covered himself with his redeeming blood, that blood set him free: he had no more to do but to spread his wings, and to start on his flight.
– text taken from magazine, July 1866