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Uncovering or Translation of the Relics of St. Stephen?


In the very beginning of the article about the event, which the Church celebrates today, we need to define its name, stated in the calendar as the uncovering of the relics of St. Stephen. The thing is that in September the uncovering of the relics did not occur, but instead it was their translation from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the year 428. As for the uncovering of the relics, occurred several years earlier and now it is celebrated on December 27.

In fact, this last date is the most ancient of all the feast days devoted to St. Stephen. In the sources, which have been preserved to this day, the earliest references to the liturgical honoring are the word of Gregory of Nyssa to St. Basil the Great and two homilies devoted to the first martyr himself, which were announced on his feast day, December 26, and the next day in the year 386. The existence of liturgical speeches devoted to St. Stephen proves that he was widely honored in the 4th century almost in all parishes on the territory of the Roman Empire.

An additional proof is that the name of St. Stephen was mentioned in an ancient Syrian menology of the 4th century. December 26 is marked with the following note in it: “Stephen the Apostol, the first martyr in Jerusalem, the leader of martyrs.” Following the example of the Eastern Christian parishes, the tradition of which was described in this menology, Western Christians also began to celebrate the memory of St. Stephen. First of all, his liturgical veneration was mentioned in the martyrology of Pseudo-Jerome (its main part was written in 5th – 7th centuries), where it was stated that on that day “the memory of St. Stephen, a martyr and deacon, who was beaten with stones by the Jews, is celebrated in Jerusalem”. In  later redactions this note said the following: “…the sufferings of St. Stephen, a deacon, martyr and apostle, who was beaten to death with stones by the Jews in the village Kafargamala in the city of Jerusalem”. Except from additional titles of the saint, there also appeared new details about the place where he had been buried. What is more, it is important to point out that the first reference to the village of Kafargamala dates back to the 5th century. Lucian, a presbyter of the Jerusalem Church, describes this village as the place of his service and the burial site of St. Stephen in his “Message to all Churches about the uncovering of the relics of St. Stephen”.

In the Lucian’s story the uncovering of the relics in connected with the name of Gamaliel. According to the message, Gamaliel came to the mentioned presbyter in a dream and ordered to dig out the remains of St. Stephen. As far as there is neither earlier information about Kafargamala, nor information about honoring Gamaliel and his connection with the village, it may be concluded that the link between Kafargamala and Gamaliel was the work of the author of the “message”. Perhaps, he made such a decision because of the consonance of the name of a famous Pharisee and the name of the village. However, it is possible that in the 4th century there was a certain story about Gamaliel, which was used by the author.

On the other hand, we have already found out that St. Stephen was honored even before the uncovering of his relics. It is possible that the reverence of the first martyr was connected with the village Kafargamala, where in the 4th century people could venerate the alleged grave of Stephen. In December, 415, the relics of St. Stephen were found. It is very likely that the legend about Gamaliel, who had buried St. Stephen, was created for that very event or even retroactively.


It seems that in 415 the relics of Nicodemus and Aviv were brought to the church on mount Sion together with the relics of St. Stephen; the remains of a Christian buried near the grave of St. Stephen could be taken as the relics of Gamaliel. They could be considered his relics on the ground that the village was identified as belonging to Gamaliel.

However, we can only assume about this. Nevertheless, the uncovering of the relics occurred not in September, but in December 415. According to the Byzantine historians and chroniclers, September 428, relates to the translation of the relics to Constantinople under the rule of Empress Pulcheria.

Most likely, only a part of the holy relics was brought there. Under Emperor Anastasis I (years of rule 491 – 518) the whole relics were transferred in August, which is why people began to honor the feast of the Translation of the relics in August more than the feast day in September. Particularly, in the Russian Orthodox Church the translation is commemorated on August 2. As for today’s “uncovering”, in some eastern menologies and calendars the day of September 15 was marked with the word “uncovering” instead of the word “translation” by mistake or just because of the mixture of various events. In this form the description and the name of the feast moved to the menologies and calendars of the Slavs.

Source: http://www.bogoslov.ru/text/1122197.html




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