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Stephen the Martyr (Acts VI–VIII) in the Early Jerusalem Lectionary System

  • HUGO MÉNDEZ (a1)

Lectionary and homiletic sources indicate that the Church of Jerusalem commemorated Stephen twice within the same two-week period (26/27 December and 7 January). Few studies have explored the origins of these feasts, the relationship between their appointed readings and the phenomenon of parallel, or redundant, feasts in fifth-century Jerusalem. This study will locate the development of these feasts within the struggle of the Church of Jerusalem to develop a local cult of martyrs after the Constantinian settlement.

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1 A full discussion appears in Irshai Oded, ‘From oblivion to fame: the history of the Palestinian Church (135–303 ce)’, in Limor Ora and Stroumsa Guy G. (eds), Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land: from the origins to the Latin kingdoms, Turnhout 2006, 91140 .

2 Baldovin John, The urban character of Christian worship: the origins, development, and meaning of stational liturgy, Rome 1987, 46.

3 Itinerarium Egeriae, trans. and notes in Wilkinson John, Egeria's travels, Oxford 1999 .

4 Agnes Smith Lewis, Codex Climaci rescriptus, Cambridge 1909 .

5 Renoux Athanase, Le Codex arménien Jérusalem 121, PO xxxv/1,2 Turnhout 1971 .

6 Aubineau Michel, Les Homélies festales d'Hésychius de Jérusalem, Brussels 1978–80.

7 This will be referred to as Epiphany ii.

8 Itinerarium Egeriae xxv.10–11. Golgotha was also the site of the liturgy for the third day of the octave. ‘This Holy Sepulchre-Golgotha area consisted of several shrines and a basilica within a walled precinct’; the Constantinian ‘basilica, called the Martyrium’, stood ‘over the place where Christ's cross was discovered’: Baldovin John, The liturgy in ancient Jerusalem, Nottingham 1989, 7 . Thus, for Egeria, ‘the Great Church on Golgotha’ (Iterarium Egeriae xxv.10) is ‘the Great Church, the Martyrium’ (cf. xxxii.1). In the Armenian lectionary, this station is referred to as the ‘Holy Martyrium in the City’: Renoux, Le Codex arménien, ii. 193–4. However, as Wilkinson notes, ‘the site as a whole’ was also ‘described by the name Golgotha, and Egeria invariably used the name in this sense, as Cyril had before her’: Egeria's travels, 42. The Anastasis rotunda, another part of the Holy Sepulchre-Golgotha complex, was recognised as the site of Christ's tomb: Baldovin, Urban character, 47–8.

9 Renoux, Le Codex arménien, ii. 217.

10 In the Greek, the Psalm antiphon appointed for the reformed Epiphany ii station contains an obvious word play on the name of Stephen (Gr. Στέϕανος, or ‘crown’): ‘For you bless the righteous one, O Lord; / as a shield of good will, you crowned us [ἐστεϕάνωσας]’: Psalm v.13b LXX. The association of the Alleluia Psalm with this feast is also rooted in a similar word play: ‘For you came near to him with blessings of kindness; you set upon his head a crown [στέϕανον] of costly stone: Psalm xx. 3 LXX. The first Epistle, from Acts vi.7–viii.2, provides the New Testament's only account of Stephen's martyrdom in full. Finally, the brief Gospel reading suits the new martyrological spirit of the celebration: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will preserve it to life eternal’: John xii. 24–6.

11 Renoux identifies this ‘martyrium’ with the diakonikon of the basilica of Holy Sion, and not the later basilica for Stephen built under Eudocia: Le Codex arménien, i. 36–40; ii. 198–202. This conclusion has recently been challenged by Vered Shalev-Hurvitz, who identifies the martyrium with the chapel of the women's monastery, founded by Melania the Younger: Holy sites encircled: the early Byzantine concentric churches of Jerusalem, Oxford 2015, 1819 .

12 Whereas the J reads, ‘27 Dec., of Saint Stephen’, E has: ‘26 Dec., commemoration of holy Stephen’. E's date is almost certainly incorrect for the period represented by the Armenian lectionary. However, since the 27 December feast stood at 26 December as late as 415 (see discussion below), this feast will hereinafter be consistently referred to as the ‘26/27 December’ commemoration of Stephen.

13 Given the Armenian lectionary’s dependence on a Greek Vorlage, I have chosen to translate the excerpts indicated in Renoux directly from the LXX and Byzantine MT, rather than from the Armenian.

14 Egeria's diary is not preserved in its entirety, and in any case may never have included a discussion of the late December martyr feasts.

15 Among West Syriac Christians, only the Maronites do not retain this feast, fixing the feast of St Stephen instead on the hagiopolite date of 27 December. It is also peculiar that 7 January retains its primitive character as a concomitant feast of the Epiphany (‘Praises of John the Baptiser’), distinct from the 29 August ‘Beheading of John the Baptiser’.

16 This memorial corresponds to the Synaxis of John the Baptist in the Byzantine rite, which preserves its primitive form as a ‘concomitant feast’ of the Epiphany: Baumstark Anton, Comparative liturgy, trans. Cross F. L., Westminster, Md 1958, 182 . For instance, the stichera appointed for the feast are exclusively interested in John's role at the Baptism: ‘Beholding you, O Christ, coming to him and requesting baptism, the Forerunner cried out trembling … “you should baptise your servant!”’ (7 January Stichera on ‘Lord I have cried’, for the Forerunner [Tone 1], n. 3; cf. the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy: John i. 29–34). In the West Syriac tradition, however, this feast has been specialised into a commemoration of John's martyrdom.

17 Hesychius of Jerusalem, ‘A homily in praise of Stephen the First Martyr’, 2–3, in ‘Let us die that we may live’: Greek homilies on Christian martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria, c. 350–c. 450 AD, ed. Allen Pauline, Boudewijn Dehandschutter, Johan Leemans and Wendy Mayer, New York 2003, 196 .

18 Evidently, those ‘numerous feasts’ also included the Bright Tuesday station at the same martyrium (AL, entry xxxxvii). The Armenian lectionary appoints the signature antiphonal Psalm cited by Hesychius on that occasion too, as well as the same Alleluia Psalm, but not the same lessons. Although the origins of that celebration are also worthy of attention, constraints of space will limit this survey to a study of the 26/27 December and 7 January feasts. These dates are especially peculiar given their nearly identical canons and close proximity to one another.

19 Conybeare Fredrick Cornwallis and Maclean A. J., Rituale armenorum, Oxford 1905, 512 .

20 Here, one must especially credit Renoux's analysis: Le Codex arménien, i. 184; ii. 157–9.

21 On this attempt see discussion and sources cited in Roll Susan K., Towards the origins of Christmas, Kampen 1995, 199200 . Note the nativity themes in the lessons for entries i and ii (Epiphany ia, b). Also, consider the 25 December entry in E: ‘during this day, in other cities, they celebrate the nativity of Christ’ (entry lxxi).

22 Renoux, Le Codex arménien, i. 176–7 n. 44; cf. Verhelst Stéphane, Le Lectionnaire de Jérusalem ses traditions judéo-chrétiennes et son histoire, Fribourg 2012, 75 .

23 Compare ‘the enshrining of the bones of the city's most famous martyr was evidently important enough to induce a change in the stational pattern’ of the Epiphany: Baldovin, Urban character, 94.

24 The entry itself states that ‘they gather at the Holy Martyrium of Saint Stephen, and the same canon is performed, and the acts of their martyrdom’, without specifying which canon is in view. Verhelst is convinced that this ‘same canon’ is the typical canon for Stephen: Le Lectionnaire, 75. Renoux is inclined either to agree or to identify this canon with the one appointed ‘for all the commemorations of the holy martyrs’, introduced in the 11 January entry (entry x). In my view, the latter is far more likely, especially given the witness of other manuscripts: ‘and the same canon as for the other saints is executed’ (P), ‘the same canon as for the other martyrs is executed’ (E).

25 Walter Ray's proposal is somewhat ambiguous on this point. As his discussion begins, he argues that ‘a failed introduction of Christmas in the early fifth century might explain another curiosity related to the feast of Stephen in the Armenian lectionary, the fact that there is an almost identical feast of Stephen on the day after Epiphany, only eleven days after the feast of Dec. 27’: ‘August 15 and the development of the Jerusalem calendar’, unpubl. PhD diss. Notre Dame 2000, 284–5. However, by the end of his discussion he has established a chronology whereby the feast of Stephen is already in place in Jerusalem prior to the introduction of the 29 December feast of James and John in Jerusalem, which he suggests (p. 286) ‘might have come in with the failed Christmas feast’.

26 Compare the 27 January ‘Translation of the relics of St John Chrysostom’ in the Byzantine rite, which is distinct from his other feasts.

27 Ray, ‘Jerusalem calendar’, 284.

28 See discussion in Mendez Hugo, ‘The origin of the post-Nativity commemorations’, Vigiliae Christianae lxviii (2014), 307 .

29 See ibid. 290–309.

30 See, for instance, Asterius of Amasaea, ‘A homily on Stephen the first martyr’, 2–3, PG xl. 337ff.

31 The earlier and widespread attestation of the 26 December feast excludes the inverse possibility, that is, that it was modelled after the Epiphany ii station at Jerusalem. In his discussion of the Epiphany ii celebration, Verhelst similarly concludes that its position was determined by an analogy to the 26 December feast celebrated in other regions: ‘Il est possible que Jean ii, éditeur de LA, connaissait la tradition de la nativité de Jésus le 25 décembre, mais il rejetait cette tradition … Il aurait donc déplacé la fête (et la station) du lendemain du 25 décembre au lendemain du 6 janvier, qui était pour lui la date de la nativité de Jésus’: Le Lectionnaire, 75, cf. 85. Nevertheless, Verhelst fails to recognise the additional significance of 25 December as the first day of the liturgical year, a point which is crucial to this analysis.

32 Lucian, Epistola ad omnem ecclesiam 9, PG xli. 815.

33 E. D. Hunt cites the 26 December entry in the Syriac Martyrology, ‘the first confessor, at Jerusalem, Stephen the Apostle, the chief of the confessors’, as evidence that the feast was observed in Jerusalem in 411: Holy Land pilgrimage in the later Roman Empire, Oxford 1982, 218 n. 84. Certainly, place names in the Syriac Martyrology can be used to isolate the sources of various feasts. However, the roughly contemporary Gothic calendar fragment evidently cites place names only to indicate where particular martyrs met their deaths, for example, 23 October: ‘the many martyrs in the land of the Goths’; 29 November: ‘the old women at Beroea, forty in total’. (For introduction and translation see The Goths in the fourth century, ed. Heather Peter J. and Matthews John, Cambridge 1991, 120–2.)

34 Mendez, ‘Post-Nativity commemorations’, 290–309.

35 This feast appears in AL, entry lxv: ‘23 Aug., Of the Apostle Thomas and of other saints, at Bethpage’.

36 Ray works out a plausible scenario for their displacement: ‘Jerusalem calendar’, 282–4.

37 This general rule admits two predictable exceptions. First, on commemorations of Old Testament saints, an appropriate reading (or set of readings) was typically obtained from the Old Testament. In that case, another reading from a New Testament Epistle or Acts was necessarily included before the Gospel (AL, entries liii, lix, lx, lxi, lxii, lxxi). On ‘all the commemorations of the holy martyrs', the Armenian lectionary appoints an additional reading ‘from the acts of their martyrdom’ (entry x; cf. xiv). An additional extra-scriptural lection was also read on ‘the day of the appearance of the Holy Cross in the sky’ (namely, ‘the letter of Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, to the Emperor Constantius’; entry liv).

38 Mauck Marchita, ‘The Christmas octave feasts of St Stephen, St John, and the Holy Innocents’, in Hughes Kathleen (ed.), Finding voice to give God praise: essays in the many languages of the liturgy, Collegeville, Mn 1998, 2832 .

39 It may also be noteworthy that the Gospel appointed for use on Stephen's feasts is taken from John. Ten of the last twelve Gospels assigned in the lectionary, and none native to other stretches of the calendar's ordinary time, including the Epiphany octave, are taken from the same Gospel, viz.: 23 Aug., Thomas (John xx. 24–31); 13, 14 Sept. (John x. 22–42); 15 Nov., Phillip (John i. 43–51); 30 Nov., Andrew (John i. 35–44); 26/27 Dec. (John xii. 24–36), 28 Dec., Paul and Peter (John xxi.15–19); 29 Dec., James and John (John xxi. 20–5). Readings from John are also concentrated in the Paschal cycle: entries xxxiii, xxxxix, xlii, xliv, xlv, l, li, lii, lviii. The Epiphany vi station (entry vii) also appoints a reading from the Gospel of John. That canon, however, is derived from the first of the Paschal Gospels from John (entry xxxiii). This striking concentration of readings from John may represent the vestiges of an older plan for the distribution of the Gospels throughout the year. (Notably, the Gospels prescribed for the last two feasts of the calendar, the 28 December feast of Paul and Peter and the 29 December feast of James and John, are continuous, bringing the Gospel of John directly to its conclusion. Of course, these dates were almost certainly borrowed in conjunction with the 26/27 December feast of Stephen.) In view of these facts, there is added reason to believe that the core canon of Stephen was originally developed to occupy a position near the end of the hagiopolite liturgical year, specifically, 26/27 December. For another discussion of the distribution of Gospels in the Jerusalem calendar see Verhelst, Le Lectionnaire, 102–6.

40 Otherwise, the question arises: where would the reformed Epiphany ii station have been celebrated prior to the discovery of Stephen's relics?

41 Baldovin, Ancient Jerusalem, 37.

42 ‘A une exception près – la lecture évangélique – ce canon [AL, entry xxxiii] est le meme que celui du sixième jour dans l’Épiphanie’: Renoux, Le Codex arménien, 255 n. 4.

43 Itinerarium Egeriae xlvii. 5.

44 Hesychius, ‘In praise of Stephen’, 196.

45 Mendez, ‘Post-Nativity commemorations’, 308.

46 Buchinger Harald, ‘Das Jerusalemer Sanctorale: zu Stand und Aufgaben der Forschung’, in Barnard M., Post P. and Rose E. (eds.), A cloud of witnesses: the cult of saints in past and present, Leuven 2005, 106 . Of course, many of Jerusalem's most ancient inhabitants, including Peter and Paul, met their deaths in other cities.

47 Limberis Vasiliki M., Architects of piety: the Cappadocian Fathers and the cult of the martyrs, New York 2011, 14 . As Richard Nardone notes, in this period ‘sainthood was still associated with martyrdom’: ‘The Church of Jerusalem and the Christian calendar’, in Finkel Asher and Frizzell Lawrence (eds), Standing before God: studies on prayer in Scriptures and in tradition with essays in honor of John M. Oesterreicher, New York 1981, 242 .

48 Besides Stephen, James, the brother of John, and James, the brother of the Lord, one could add the deacon Valens and the companions of Pamphilus: Buchinger, ‘Jerusalemer Sanctorale’, 106 n. 47.

49 Hesychius, ‘In praise of Stephen’, 4.

50 As noted above, that feast occurred on 26 December in most regions. In early fifth-century Constantinople, however, it had probably already shifted to 27 December to make room for the 26 December ‘Synaxis of the Theotokos’ that precedes it to this day in the Byzantine rite: Ray, ‘Jerusalem calendar’, 283.

51 This is not to say that the late December feast was the most prominent celebration of Stephen in the Jerusalem year. In fact, the opposite can be argued. The fact that the feast shifted from 26 to 27 Deember despite the significance of the former date as the anniversary of the translation of Stephen's relics suggests that, of these two feasts, the reformed Epiphany ii station was the more stable, and perhaps prominent, celebration of Stephen until at least the mid-fifth century. Certainly, its position at the head of the Jerusalem calendar and within the Epiphany octave gave it greater prestige. A second apparent example of this type obtains on Epiphany iv, which Hesychius characterises as a ‘feast’ of Mary in Homilia iv: Aubineau, Les Homélies festales, i. 184–9; cf. Renoux, Le Codex arménien, ii. 219 n. 5.

52 Hesychius' call ‘let all the earth celebrate his feast’ suits the late December feast for Stephen alone.

53 Again, communities of the West Syriac rite would later adopt the same feast.

54 The nativity themes of the octave also made an association between Christ's ‘nativity’ and Stephen's ‘nativity’ possible, as in, for instance, an encomium for the saint by Fulgentius of Ruspe: Sermo iii.1, PL lxv.729.

55 Hesychius, ‘In praise of Stephen’, 1–2.

56 Allen, ‘Let us die’, 195.

In this article, AL refers to the so-called Armenian lectionary system of Jerusalem, and J, P and E to its best-known manuscripts: Codex Jerusalem 121 (Convent of St James in Jerusalem), Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, ms arm. 44, and Yerevan, ms 985 (Matenadaran, Yerevan, Armenia).

I would like to extend my gratitude to Yale University's interdisciplinary Institute of Sacred Music, which awarded me the research fellowship necessary to complete this research, as well as to Paul Bradshaw and Walter Ray for their helpful remarks on the manuscript prior to its publication.

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