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E01830: Gregory of Nyssa, in the 380s, delivers his Encomium on *Stephen the First Martyr I (S00030), during a service held on his feast day, probably at Nyssa in Cappadocia (central Asia Minor). He analyzes the story as recounted by Acts. Written in Greek.

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posted on 2016-09-02, 00:00 authored by erizos
Gregory of Nyssa, Encomium On Stephen I (CPG 3186, BHG 1654)

(75. 1-12)


‘Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, Encomium on the Holy First Martyr Stephen’

Ὡς καλὴ τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἡ ἀκολουθία, ὡς γλυκεῖα ἡ τῆς εὐφροσύνης διαδοχή. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἑορτὴν ἐξ ἑορτῆς καὶ χάριν ἀντιλαμβάνομεν χάριτος. χθὲς ἡμᾶς ὁ τοῦ παντὸς δεσπότης εἱστίασε, σήμερον ὁ μιμητὴς τοῦ δεσπότου. πῶς οὗτος ἢ πῶς ἐκεῖνος; ἐκεῖνος τὸν ἄνθρωπον ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐνδυόμενος, οὗτος τὸν ἄνθρωπον ὑπὲρ ἐκείνου ἀποδυόμενος. ἐκεῖνος τὸ τοῦ βίου σπήλαιον δι᾽ ἡμᾶς ὑπερχόμενος, οὗτος τοῦ σπηλαίου δι᾽ ἐκεῖνον ὑπεξερχόμενος. ἐκεῖνος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν σπαργανούμενος, οὗτος ὑπὲρ ἐκείνου καταλιθούμενος. ἐκεῖνος ἀναιρῶν τὸν θάνατον, οὗτος ἐπεμβαίνων κειμένῳ.

‘How beautiful is the succession of good things, how sweet the sequence of joy! For, behold, we move from festival to festival and from grace to grace! Yesterday, the Lord of All was our host, today His imitator. How the latter and how the Former? The Former put on humanity for our sake; the latter gave up the man for the Former’s sake. The Former entered the cave of life for our sake; the latter exited the cave for the Former’s sake. The Former was wrapped in swaddling for our sake; the latter was buried in stones for the Former’s sake. The Former killed death; the latter trampled upon the defeated death.’

The oration offers a detailed contemplation on the story of Stephen as recounted by Acts 6-7. In the last part of the oration (p. 89.7 ff.), the author reproaches the Pneumatomachi and other heretics who use Stephen’s vision of the Father and the Son (Acts 7:56) as a proof of their theology on the Holy Spirit and the Son.

Text: Lendle 1990, 75-94.
Translation: E. Rizos


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Stephen, the First Martyr : S00030

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Sermons/Homilies Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Nȳsa Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Service for the Saint

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops


Gregory of Nyssa was born in the late 330s as one of the youngest of a leading Christian family of Cappadocia. His siblings included important figures of church life, namely Basil of Caesarea, the ascetic Makrina the Younger, and Peter of Sebaste. Gregory was trained in philosophy and rhetoric mainly by his brother Basil, who, in 371 or 372 ordained him bishop of the Cappadocian township of Nyssa. In 376, Gregory was deposed from his see, to which he was able to return in 378, and, from then onwards, he was one of the protagonists of church politics in the East Roman Empire. He played an important role during the Council of Constantinople (381) and was very close to the imperial family of Theodosius I. He was sent on missions to Armenia and Arabia in order settle problems in local churches. Gregory died after 394. He left a large literary heritage on philosophical, theological, ascetical, catechetical and homiletic works. On the manuscript tradition of this oration, see: Heil, Cavarnos, and Lendle 1990, clxxvii-ccxvi (O. Lendle), and


This oration was given by Gregory of Nyssa on the feast of Stephen the first martyr (26 December). The date and venue of the oration cannot be defined with accuracy. Jean Daniélou believed that it was delivered in sequel to Gregory’s oration On the Birth of Christ, and one day before his Second Encomium On Stephen. The latter can be confidently dated to 27 December 386 (Daniélou 1955, 365-368). In any case, these sermons constitute an early attestation of the feasts of Christmastide, as they were celebrated in Cappadocia, probably at Gregory’s see of Nyssa, in the 380s. By the 380s, the feast of Christmas was celebrated on 25 December in several areas including Rome, Jerusalem, and Cappadocia. It was followed on 26 by the feast of Stephen, the first martyr, and by feasts for the apostles *Peter, *James, *John, and *Paul, celebrated on 27 and 28 December (see E01831). Gregory of Nyssa refers to these feasts in his Second Encomium on Stephen (E01831), and in his Encomium on *Basil of Caesarea (see E01808). The feasts of Christmas, Stephen, and the four Apostles were probably the first fixed-date festivals celebrating themes from the New Testament rather than local martyrs or deceased bishops. The reasons for placing them on these particular dates are probably purely symbolic rather than historical. The dates of Christ’s birth and of the deaths of Stephen and the apostles are not mentioned by any of the New Testament texts. It seems that these were picked as suitable themes for a Christian celebration of New Year, referring to the events marking the beginning of the life of the Christian Church. Their position in late December probably provided a Christian alternative to the established pagan celebrations of winter solstice and the kalends of January. Their role as first feasts of the yearly martyrological cycle is demonstrated by both the Syriac Martyrology, which starts on 26 December with Stephen, and the Hieronymian Martyrology which starts on 25 December, with Christmas, followed by Stephen on 26. In his Encomium on *Basil of Caesarea (see E01808), Gregory of Nyssa calls these feasts ‘festivities of the year’ (πανηγύρεις τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ), perhaps meaning New Year. The late 4th century Apostolic Constitutions (5.13) also indicate Christmas as the first feast of the Christian liturgical year. The feasts of Christmas and Epiphany are not attested before the 4th century, but it is unknown whether the establishment of the feasts of Stephen and the four Apostles was directly linked to them. The absence of Christmas from the Syriac Martyrology, which starts with Stephen, may suggest that the link was not ubiquitous and that the feasts of Stephen and the Apostles predate the introduction of Christmas in the East. The orations On the Birth of Christ and On Stephen by Gregory of Nyssa, however, suggest that both feasts were doctrinally loaded and closely linked to the Trinitarian disputes of the 4th century. Stephen’s vision of the Father and the Son (Acts 7:56), in particular, seems to have had a central role in the disputes on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In any case, the feast of Stephen had a prominent position from the first steps of the establishment of the Christian universal calendar, and acquired a broad importance as a feast long before the discovery of his relics in 415. The feast of Stephen has remained part of the festivities of Christmastide in many ecclesiastical traditions down to our days.


Text: Heil, G., J. P. Cavarnos, and O. Lendle, eds. Gregorii Nysseni Opera X.1: Gregorii Nysseni Sermones II. Leiden: Brill, 1990, 107-134 (O. Lendle). Further reading: Bernardi, J. La prédication des pères Cappadociens, Paris : Université de Paris, 1968, 290-294. Botte, B. Les origins de la Noël et de l’Epiphanie, Louvain : Abbaye du Mont César, 1932. Comings, J. B. Aspects of the Liturgical Year in Cappadocia (325-430). Patristic Studies. New York: Peter Lang, 2005, 61-120. Daniélou, J. (1955), ‘Chronologie des sermons de Grégoire de Nysse’, Revue des Sciences Religieuses 29.4, 346-372. Voicu, S. J. ‘Feste di apostoli a la fine di Dicembre.’ Studi sull’ Oriente Cristiano 8.2 (2002), 47-77. Mossay, J. Les fetes de Noël et d’Epiphanie d’après les sources littéraires Cappadociennes du IVe siècle, Louvain : Abbaye du Mont César, 1965 (esp. 17-20, 62-65). Roll, S. K. Toward the Origins of Christmas, Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995. Limberis, V., Architects of Piety: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Cult of the Martyrs (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). On Gregory of Nyssa: Dörrie, H., “Gregor III,” in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 12 (1983), 863-895. Maraval, P., ‘Grégoire, évêque de Nysse’, in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 22 (1988): 20–4. Silvas, A. M. Gregory of Nyssa. The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2007, 1-57.

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