Christian martyrs

Christian martyrs
The supposed first Christian martyr Saint Stephen, painting by Giacomo Cavedone

A Christian martyr is one who is killed for following Christianity, through stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment. The word "martyr" comes from the Greek word μάρτυς, mártys, which means "witness."

At first, the term applied to Apostles.[1] Once Christians started to undergo persecution, the term came to be applied to those who suffered hardships for their faith.[1] Finally, it was restricted to those who had been killed for their faith.[1] The early Christian period before Constantine I was the "classic" age of martyrdom.[1] A martyr's death was considered a "baptism in blood," cleansing one of sin as baptism in water depicts; while the act of baptism does not provide the forgiveness of sins, it is a clear picture of it. The "baptism in blood" provides an even greater picture, showing both the loyalty and love the martyr has for his/her Savior.[1] Early Christians venerated martyrs as powerful intercessors, and their utterances were treasured as inspired specially by the Holy Spirit.[1]


Relevance of martyrdom to Christianity

Being persecuted for one's faith and the veneration of martyrs have been important components of the Christian faith for centuries.

"Martyrdom for the faith ...became a central feature in the Christian experience."[2]

“Notions of persecution by the "world," deep in the Christian tradition. For evangelicals who read the New Testament as an inerrant history of the primitive church, the understanding that to be a Christian is to be persecuted is obvious, if not inescapable”[3]

The "eschatological ideology" of martyrdom was based on a paradox found in the Pauline epistles: "to live outside of Christ is to die, and to die in Christ is to live."[4]


The lives of the martyrs became a source of inspiration for some Christians, and their lives and relics were revered. The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church," implying that the martyrs' willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others.[5] Relics of the saints are still revered in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The age of martyrdom led to the presence of relics in altars, and in the foundation stones of the buildings built for worship.[citation needed]

The age of martyrs also forced the church to confront theological issues such as the proper response to those Christians who “lapsed” and renounced the Christian faith to save their lives: were they to be allowed back into the Church? Some felt they should not, while others said they could. In the end, it was agreed to allow them in after a period of penance. The re-admittance of the “lapsed” became a defining moment in the Church because it allowed the sacrament of repentance and readmission to the Church despite issues of sin. This issue caused the Donatist and Novatianist schisms.[6][7]


Martyrs in the New Testament

The doctrines of the apostles brought the Early Church into conflict with some Jewish religious leaders. This eventually led to their expulsion from the synagogues. Acts records the martyrdom of the Christian leaders, Stephen and James of Zebedee.

The first known Christian martyr was St. Stephen as recorded in the Acts 6:8–8:3, who was stoned to death for his faith. Stephen was killed for his support, belief and faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the Messiah. There were probably other early Christian martyrs besides Stephen, since St. Paul acknowledged persecuting Christians before his conversion(Acts 9:1ff.). Traditionally the Massacre of the Innocents is considered the first martyrdom of Christians.

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire

File:The Christian Martyrs first Prayer.jpg
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883).
Faithful Unto Death – Christianæ ad Leones (Christians to the Lions), by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.

In its first three centuries, the Christian church endured periods of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities. Christians were persecuted by local authorities on an intermittent and ad-hoc basis. In addition, there were several periods of empire-wide persecution which was directed from the seat of government in Rome.

Christians were the targets of persecution because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the emperor as divine. In the Roman empire, refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor or the empire's gods was tantamount to refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to one's country.

Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace but was certainly not the only view of martyrdom in the Christian church. Both Polycarp and Cyprian, bishops in Smyrna and Carthage respectively, attempted to avoid martyrdom.

Historical importance

While the persecution-martyr theme was prominent in the literature of early Christianity, none of several major martyrologies was finally canonized.

Although the general consensus of scholars is that relatively few Christians were actually executed, the experience of persecution and martyrdom would be memorialized by successive generations of Christians and thereby become a central feature of their self-understanding continuing even to modern times. Thus, many Christians would come to view persecution as an integral part of the Christian experience. The implications of this self-image have had far-reaching ramifications, especially in Western cultures.

This experience, and the associated martyrs and apologists, would have significant historical and theological consequences for the developing faith.[8]

"Persecution was seen by early Christians, as by later historians, as one of the crucial influences on the growth and development of the early Church and Christian beliefs. (Frend) shows how the persecutions formed an essential part in a providential philosophy of history that has profoundly influenced European political thought."[9]

Among other things, persecution sparked the cult of the saints, facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity, prompted defenses and explanations of Christianity (the "apologies") and, in its aftermath, raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church.

Martyrdom as a component of Christian self-understanding

In recent years several notable studies—including those by Judith Perkins, Daniel Boyarin, and Elizabeth Castelli—have assessed the importance of martyrdom and suffering in constructions of ancient Christian identity. ... In Perkins's view, many ancient Christians came to believe that "to be a Christian was to suffer." Christian martyr acts, when understood as textual vehicles for the construction of culture and the articulation of Christian identities, emerge as one mechanism by which such selves were constructed.[10]

...the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making, whereby Christian identity was indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.[11]

The Christian experience of violence during the pagan persecutions shaped the ideologies and practices that drove further religious conflicts over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries... The formative experience of martyrdom and persecution determined the ways in which later Christians would both use and experience violence under the Christian empire. Discourses of martyrdom and persecution formed the symbolic language through which Christians represented, justified, or denounced the use of violence."[12]


Religious martyrdom is considered one of the more significant contributions of Hellenistic Judaism to western civilization. It is believed that the concept of voluntary death for God developed out of the conflict between King Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the Jewish people. 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees recount numerous martyrdoms suffered by Jews resisting the Hellenizing of their Seleucid overlords, being executed for such crimes as observing the Sabbath, circumcising their children or refusing to eat pork or meat sacrificed to foreign gods. With few exceptions, this assumption has lasted from the early Christian period to this day, accepted both by Jews and Christians. Recently, however, a growing number of scholars have begun to challenge this assumption.

According to Daniel Boyarin, there are "two major theses with regard to the origins of Christian martyrology, which [can be referred to] as the Frend thesis and the Bowersock thesis." Boyarin characterizes W.H.C. Frend's view of martyrdom as having originated in "Judaism" and Christian martyrdom as a continuation of that practice. Frend argues that the Christian concept of martyrdom can only be understood as springing from Jewish roots. Frend characterizes Judaism as "a religion of martyrdom” and that it was this “Jewish psychology of martyrdom” that inspired Christian martyrdom. Frend writes, "In the first two centuries C.E. there was a living pagan tradition of self-sacrifice for a cause, a preparedness if necessary to defy an unjust ruler, that existed alongside the developing Christian concept of martyrdom inherited from Judaism."[13]

In contrast to Frend's hypothesis, Boyarin describes G.W. Bowersock's view of Christian martyrology as being completely unrelated to the Jewish practice, being instead "a practice that grew up in an entirely Roman cultural environment and then was borrowed by Jews." Bowersock argues that the Christian tradition of martyrdom came from the urban culture of the Roman Empire, especially in Asia Minor:

Martyrdom was ... solidly anchored in the civic life of the Graeco-Roman world of the Roman empire. It ran its course in the great urban spaces of the agora and the amphitheater, the principal settings for public discourse and for public spectacle. It depended upon the urban rituals of the imperial cult and the interrogation protocols of local and provincial magistrates. The prisons and brothels of the cities gave further opportunities for the display of the martyr’s faith.[14]

Boyarin points out that, despite their apparent opposition to each other, both of these arguments are based on the assumption that Judaism and Christianity were already two separate and distinct religions. He challenges that assumption and argues that "making of martyrdom was at least in part, part and parcel of the process of the making of Judaism and Christianity as distinct entities."[15]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f "martyr." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  2. ^ *The Sect-Church Dynamic and Christian Expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, Penitential Discipline, and Schism in Sociological Perspective by Joseph M. Bryant The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), pp. 303-339 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science
  3. ^ The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition by Justin Watson 1999
  4. ^ Heffernan and Shelton refer to Phil. 1.21-23; 1 Cor 9:15; 2 Cor 6.9; and Col 2.20. Heffernan, Thomas J.; James E. Shelton (2006). "Paradisus in carcere: The Vocabulary of Imprisonment and the Theology of Martyrdom in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitas". Journal of Early Christian Studies 14 (2): 217–23. 
  5. ^ Salisbury, Joyce Ellen The Blood of Martyrs: Unintended Consequences of Ancient Violence 2004 Routledge, ISBN 0-415-94129-6
  6. ^ "Donatism." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  7. ^ "Novatianism." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  8. ^ "The tradition of martyrdom has entered deep into the Christian consciousness." Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: Beginnings to 1500, rev. ed. (Prince Press, 2000), p. 81.
  9. ^ * Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church By William H C Frend (2008)
  10. ^ Philosophy as Training for Death Reading the Ancient Christian Martyr Acts as Spiritual-Exercises (2006)
  11. ^ *Martyrdom and memory: early Christian culture making by Elizabeth Anne Castelli 2004
  12. ^ *There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire By Michael Gaddis 2005 University of California Press
  13. ^ W. H. C. Frend, "Martyrdom and Political Oppression," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 2 (2000), p. 818.
  14. ^ Bowersock, G.W. (1995). Martyrdom and Rome. 
  15. ^ Boyarin, Daniel (1999), Dying for God, Stanford University Press, p. 93, 

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