December 27, 2014

The Location of the Stoning of St. Stephen in Jerusalem

Acts says “Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him”, but the location where he was buried is not specified. In 415 AD a priest named Lucian had a dream that revealed the location of Stephen’s remains. The relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St Stephen in Jerusalem, built by the Empress Eudocia. The adjoining Monastery complex was so large that by the beginning of the sixth century it housed close to 10,000 monks. Having been destroyed in the 12th century by crusaders not wanting to give Salah id-Din a base outside the walls, the new church was re-dedicated in 1900 by Dominicans, based considerably upon the remains of the old.

Nearly two decades after she wedded Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II in 421, rumors that she had been unfaithful forced Empress Eudocia to flee for her life. Theodosius dispatched an assassin after his consort, who slew several of her companions before Eudocia managed to kill the assailant with her own hands. In the end, Theodosius took a different approach, and sent his spouse into exile in the Holy Land with more than enough money to keep her in comfort.

Constantinople's loss was the Holy Land's gain, for although Eudocia was a devout Christian, she was extremely sympathetic to other faiths. Eudocia permitted the Jews, banned from Jerusalem since 135, to return to their holy city, and financed all kinds of charitable institutions for Jerusalem residents. With the help of her husband's stipend, she constructed half a dozen splendid churches and monasteries in Jerusalem and extended the outer walls to include the City of David and Mount Zion.

One of her finest projects was the creation of a grand monastic complex dedicated to St. Stephen, an early Christian who was dragged out of Damascus Gate and stoned to death nearby on orders of the Sanhedrin, according to the New Testament. St. Stephen's tomb had been recently discovered by a parish priest near Beit Shemesh, and Eudocia was able to have the martyr's relics re-interred in her new sanctuary. Shortly before her death, she asked to be buried beneath the atrium of St. Stephen's Church, so that a procession of monks on its way to mass would walk over her tomb. Her only daughter was later laid to rest at her side.

In 1882, the scholarly French Dominican Order decided to establish a monastery in Jerusalem dedicated to St. Stephen (Etienne, in French). The order purchased four adjacent plots just outside Damascus Gate, intrigued by the broken columns and capitals that were strewn here and there among the olive groves and wildflowers.

The monks, well-versed in both the Bible and archeology, uncovered the walls of a large Byzantine church while clearing the land for construction. Excavations exposed vast sections of a stunning mosaic floor, well protected by 1,500 years of dirt, and revealed conclusively that the Dominican brothers had stumbled upon Eudocia's ancient basilica.

Soon after, St. Stephen's Church was reconstructed according to the exact dimensions of the original by following its walls and mosaic floors, and extending a step leading to the altar that was discovered in situ. A creative French architect let his imagination soar, and added 19th-century European stained-glass windows near the top of the basilica; the handsome pillars are topped with red and white stone in the avlak pattern fashionable in the East hundreds of years ago.

A few years later, the Dominican Order decided to open a biblical institute in which the Scriptures could be studied in the land of their birth. Called L'Ecole Biblique (The School of Biblical and Archeological Studies), the now prestigious facility was the very first research institute of its kind in the Middle East. All of the teachers at the Jerusalem institute are Dominican monks in residence; all of the priory's monks are teachers who specialize in biblical history, archeology and ancient languages like Syriac, Phoenician and Aramaic at the highest levels. Although they must teach their lessons in French, there are monks at the priory from Mexico, Portugal, Poland and Ireland.

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