Has the Tomb of St. Stephen been Discovered...Again?

“When they had driven [Stephen] out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep.” ~ Acts 7:58-60

Stephen was the first recorded martyr of the Apostolic Church, i.e., the "protomartyr." His death, witnessed by Saul (who would later become the Apostle Paul) has been viewed by some as the second most important in the New Testament – the first, of course, being that of Jesus. As stated in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,

“The impression made by Stephen's death was even greater than that made by his life. Though it marks the beginning of the first great persecution of Christians, the death of the first Christian martyr resulted in the greatest acquisition Christianity has probably ever made, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The vision of the risen and exalted Jesus vouchsafed to the dying Stephen presented Christianity to Saul of Tarsus in a new light, tending to remove what had been its greatest stumbling-block to him in the Crucified One. This revelation coupled with the splendid personality of Stephen, the testimony of his righteous life and the noble bravery of his sublime death, and above all his dying prayer, fell upon the honest soul of Saul with an irresistible force and inevitably brought on the Damascus event, as Augustine clearly recognized: ‘Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non habuisset.’”

Recently, some archaeologists reported that they have located the remains of a church about 2 kilometers west of Ramallah in Palestine which appears to have been built over the burial place of St. Stephen. According to an article written on an Eastern Orthodox website, Provoslavie.Ru, entitled "Burial place of Holy Archdeacon Stephen the Protomartyr discovered":   

Research in the Kharaba at Taiar village, which lies two kilometers west of Ramallah, carried out by the Palestinian and Israeli researchers have yielded unexpected results. Within the framework of a project by the University of Jerusalem for the discovery and restoration of antiquities, a group of archaeologists led by Dr. Salah al Hudeliyya has discovered ruins of an entire church complex that includes a temple of the Byzantine-Umayyad era as well as a Byzantine monastery.
“Inside one of these churches we came across an inscription which indicates that this church had been built in honor of Holy Apostle and Archdeacon Stephen the Protomartyr, buried here in 35 AD,” the historian related.

The Christian Media Center adds a few more details as reported by Salah H. Al-Houdalieh, a Researcher at the Institute of Archeology through Al-Quds University. According to its report:

“In this church, an inscription has been found that is 88 centimeters wide and and one meter high, consisting of eight lines and with an inscription in Greek, which speaks about the body of St. Stephen and says that he was buried here. This place is known as “Khirbet al Tireh” and also as “Kafr Ghamla,” and “Ghamla” is St. Stephen’s spiritual guide. The other part of the inscription speaks about a woman named Dina, who would have invested money in this church in order to honor Jesus’ visit to this place, when Joseph and Mary, his mother, could not find him, during their trip from Jerusalem and Nazareth that lasted three days. He likely passed through this place on one of those three days.”
I am thus far underwhelmed by this discovery. I certainly acknowledge that St. Stephen’s importance was probably not lost on the early church, and so it is highly likely that his burial place would have been preserved somewhere. There are a few details of this report plus other reports that make me wonder what this find really may be.
First, this is not the first time that St. Stephen’s remains have allegedly been discovered. According to the tradition of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, the body of St. Stephen was originally buried “a few miles from Jerusalem,” but was apparently lost shortly thereafter.  Church tradition further teaches that the bodyof St. Stephen was located in August 415 by Lucian following a dream. It appears that his bones (or “relics” as they are referenced in the traditions) were transferred to the Church of Sion (or Zion) at Jerusalem. At this point, the teachings differ as to what happened.
The Orthodox church teaches that his bones were translated to Constantinople. According to the Orthodox Church in America website in an article entitled “Stephen from Jerusalem to Constantinople”:

In the year 415 the relics of the saint were uncovered in a miraculous manner and solemnly transferred to Jerusalem by Bishop John and the bishops Eutonius of Sebaste and Eleutherius of Jericho. From that time healings took place from the relics. Afterwards, during the reign of holy Emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450), the relics of the holy Protomartyr Stephen were transferred from Jerusalem to Constantinople and placed in the church of the holy deacon Laurence (August 10). When a church dedicated to the Protomartyr Stephen was built, the relics were transferred there on August 2. St Stephen’s right hand is preserved in the Serapionov chamber of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra.

Roman Catholic tradition seems to differ on the ultimate disposition of the bones (relics) of St. Stephen.  According to the GoIsrael.com website, the relics of St. Stephen are located in the church of St. Stephen in the city of Jerusalem. The New Advent Encyclopedia reports that after St. Stephen was moved for a time to the Church of Zion, in 460 the relics were moved to “the basilica erected by Eudocia outside the Damascus Gate, on the spot where, according to tradition, the stoning had taken place (the opinion that the scene of St. Stephen's martyrdom was east of Jerusalem, near the Gate called since St. Stephen's Gate, is unheard of until the twelfth century). The site of the Eudocian basilica was identified some twenty years ago, and a new edifice has been erected on the old foundations by the Dominican Fathers.”
So, it appears that we have multiple, possible relics of St. Stephen. The ones housed in this new find outside Ramallah, the ones housed in the Eudocian basilica, the ones located in the church at St. Stephen in Jerusalem, and the ones in the Serapionov chamber of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. I think that we need clarification as to whether any of the other locations can lay legitimate claim to being the home of the true relics of Stephen before we can answer whether this new site might even be a possible location for his tomb.
The second question raised by the alleged find relates Al-Houdalieh's placement of importance on the place being known as Kafr Ghamla, which is noted because Ghamla was allegedly St. Stephen’s “spiritual guide.” Now, I cannot find from where Al-Houdalieh derives this information. The Bible contains no reason to believe that St. Stephen had a spiritual guide other than Christ (as clearly indicated in Acts 6 and 7) and I find no other reference to St. Stephen having a spiritual guide named “Ghamla” in any of my other resources.
I think it is possible that Al-Houdalieh is confusing Ghamla with Gamaliel, who was a teacher of Paul prior to his conversion, and who allegedly had a hand in the initial burial of St. Stephen immediately following his execution. According to "The Finding of the Relics of St. Stephen, the First Martyr" by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876:

After St. Stephen, the first martyr, had been stoned to death by the Jews for having incontestably proved that Christ, Whom they had crucified, was the true Messiah, some pious men, filled with deep sorrow, buried him with all due reverence. Foremost among these was Gamaliel, who had formerly been a teacher, and later a disciple of St. Paul. He arranged everything so that the body of St. Stephen was carried, during the night, by some Christians, from the spot in which it lay, to his country-seat, which was a few miles from Jerusalem.

I don’t know if Ghamla is supposed to be a variation of Gamaliel, but if this isn’t the reference, I am unable to discern what Professor Al-Houdalieh is talking about. Moreover, even if Ghamla is supposed to be Gamaliel, it is unclear on what basis Al-Houdalieh believes that Gamaliel was Stephen’s spiritual guide. All that can be gleaned about Gamaliel from the Bible is that he was on the Sanhedrin and urged caution about the quick rejection of Jesus as the Messiah prior to the date of Stephen’s execution. It isn’t even clear whether he was present at Stephen’s execution, and it certainly isn’t clear that Gamaliel had any direct connection with Stephen. The only connections I could find between Stephen and Gamaliel Church Tradition teach (1) Gamaliel had a hand in the burying of St. Stephen’s body shortly after the execution, and (2) that it was Gamaliel who came to Father Lucian in a dream to lead him to find the missing body of Stephen. Neither of these translate to Gamaliel being Stephen’s spiritual guide.
Third, I wonder about the additional reference of Dina referencing the trip of the Holy Family to the temple from Nazareth when Jesus was 12 years old. (Luke 2:41-51) It almost seems as if this new site is being used to promote this new find as a tourist mecca. This belief is reinforced by the remainder of the information found on the Christian Media Center site which suggests that the goal of the dig in the first place was to attract tourists. The CMC site continues:
The project began in 2013 as the collaboration between the University of Jerusalem and the Greek Orthodox church. After the excavations, a phase of awareness and fundraising phase has begun. The goal is to enhance this new acquisition in the Palestinian archeological heritage and make it accessible to all in the future by including it in the Holy Land pilgrimage circuits.
“The main purpose of this project is to create awareness among all Palestinians on the importance of Palestinian cultural heritage. In addition, we would like to create an archeological park, which probably open in 2020.”
Finally, even Christianity Today cautions that this particular archaeological find should be taken with some skepticism. According to a page entitled the “BiblicalArchaeology’s Top Ten Discoveries of 2014” by Gordon Govier:
The tomb of the first Christian martyr may have been located in an excavation just west of Ramallah. An Orthodox church news service recently reported that a church complex excavation revealed an inscription indicating that the church had been built over the burial site of St. Stephen, who was interred there in 35 AD. However, the lack of news of this discovery from other sources raises questions that bear further investigation.
Now, it certainly is possible that the church tradition on this point is incorrect. It is possible that St. Stephen was taken about 12 miles from Jerusalem shortly after his execution by Christians (perhaps, including Gamaliel) and buried in the location identified by Al-Houdalieh. It is possible that the entire account of Father Lucian finding the relics as the result of a dream could be fictitious. It is possible that the remains were found by Father Lucian as reported, taken to Jerusalem and interred in the Church at Sion, only to be moved to the location identified by Al-Houdalieh when Church at Sion was sacked and the church destroyed in the early Second Millennium. But regardless, there are a lot more questions to be answered on this find then have been answered thus far.
So, I will leave the reader with two thoughts: (1) this may be the actual tomb of St. Stephen, however, more research is needed before anyone should jump on this bandwagon, and (2) one needs to wonder whose hand is located in the Serapionov chamber of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. I wonder if the hand bears any relation to Cousin It?


Jason Pratt said…
"it was Gamaliel who came to Father Lucian in a dream to lead him to find the missing body of Gamaliel." -- I think you meant the missing body of Stephen?

BK said…
Yup, thanks Jason.
I did not want to do this in publi9c but I see no other way to get your attention. I am having problems with blogger, can you help?

give me email that wont put an app on my computer.

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