A Christian martyr is a person who is killed for following Jesus. In early church years, this often occurred 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. Once Christians started to undergo persecution, the term came to be applied to those who suffered hardships for their faith. Finally, it was restricted to those who had been killed for their faith. The early Christian period before Constantine I was the "Age of martyrs". Early Christians venerated martyrs as powerful intercessors, and their utterances were treasured as inspired by the Holy Spirit."
The Greek word "martus" signifies a "witness" who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation. It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ. In Acts 1:22, Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples relative to the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection".
The Apostles, from the beginning, faced grave dangers, until eventually almost all suffered death for their convictions. Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martus came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death. From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who suffers death rather than deny his faith. St. John, at the end of the first century, employs the word with this meaning.
A distinction between martyrs and confessors is traceable to the latter part of the second century: those only were martyrs who had suffered the extreme penalty, whereas the title of confessors was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief, by bravely enduring imprisonment or torture, but were not put to death. Yet the term martyr was still sometimes applied during the third century to persons still living, as, for instance, by Cyprian who gave the title of martyrs to a number of bishops, priests, and laymen condemned to penal servitude in the mines.
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. Relics of the saints are still revered in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
The lives of the martyrs became a source of inspiration for some Christians, and their relics were honored. Numerous crypts and chapels in the Roman catacombs bear witness to the early veneration for those champions of freedom of conscience. Special commemoration services, at which the holy Sacrifice were offered over their tombs gave rise to the time honoured custom of consecrating altars by enclosing in them the relics of martyrs.
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.
"Martyrdom for the faith ...became a central feature in the Christian experience." “Notions of persecution by the "world," ...run 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”
The "eschatological ideology" of martyrdom was based on an irony found in the Pauline epistles: "to live outside of Christ is to die, and to die in Christ is to live."
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. Stephen was accused of blasphemy and denounced the Sanhedrin as "stiff-necked" people who, just as their ancestors had done, persecute prophets. The penalty for blasphemy was stoning. 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, though the victims would have been Jews.
Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
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 were 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.
While the persecution-martyr theme was prominent in the literature of early Christianity, none of several major martyrologies was finally canonized.
Although it is hard to historically establish the exact number of Christians that were 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.
"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."
Among other things, persecution sparked the devotion 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.
...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.
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."
Religious martyrdom is considered one of the more significant contributions of Second Temple 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."
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.
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."
Degrees of martyrdom
Some Roman Catholic writers (such as Thomas Cahill) continue to use a system of degrees of martyrdom that was developed in early Christianity. Some of these degrees bestow the title of martyr on those who sacrifice large elements of their lives alongside those who sacrifice life itself. These degrees were mentioned by Pope Gregory I in Homilia in Evangelia, he wrote of "three modes of martyrdom, designated by the colors, red, blue (or green), and white." A believer was bestowed the title of red martyr due to either torture or violent death by religious persecution. The term "white martyrdom" was used by the Church Father Jerome, "for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism." Blue (or green) martyrdom "involves the denial of desires, as through fasting and penitent labors without necessarily implying a journey or complete withdrawal from life".
Also along these lines are the terms "wet martyr" (a person who has shed blood or been executed for the faith) and "dry martyr" which is a person who "had suffered every indignity and cruelty" but not shed blood, nor suffered execution.
Christian martyrs today
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity of Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary based in Hamilton, Massachusetts, has estimated that 100,000 Christians die annually for their faith. Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations later referred to this number in a radio address to the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council.
However, the methodology used in arriving at this number has been criticized. The majority of the one million people the Center counted as Christians who died as martyrs between 2000 and 2010, died during the Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The report did not take into consideration political or ethnic differences. Professor Thomas Schirrmacher from the International Society for Human Rights, considers the figure to be closer to 10,000. Todd Johnson, director of the CSGC, says his centre has abandoned this statistic. Vatican reporter and author of The Global War on Christians John Allen that "I think it would be good to have reliable figures on this issue, but I don't think it ultimately matters in terms of the point of my book, which is to break through the narrative that tends to dominate discussion in the West - that Christians can't be persecuted because they belong to the world's most powerful church. "The truth is two thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live… in dangerous neighbourhoods. They are often poor. They often belong to ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. And they are often at risk."
- Carthusian Martyrs
- Catacombs of Rome
- Christian pacifism
- Coptic saints
- Drina Martyrs
- Forty Martyrs of England and Wales
- Great Martyr
- Korean Martyrs
- Latter Day Saint martyrs
- List of Christian martyrs
- Marian Persecutions
- Martyrs Mirror
- Martyrs of Japan
- Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War
- Murder of UCA scholars
- New Martyr
- North American Martyrs
- Persecution of Christians
- Religious Persecution
- Roman Emperor
- Saints of the Cristero War
- The Oxford Martyrs
- Uganda Martyrs
- Vietnamese Martyrs
- Martyrs of Laos
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- Butler, Alban. Volume XII, The Lives of the Saints, Vol. XII, 1866
- "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.
- Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church By William H C Frend (2008)
- Philosophy as Training for Death Reading the Ancient Christian Martyr Acts as Spiritual-Exercises (2006)
- Martyrdom and memory: early Christian culture making by Elizabeth Anne Castelli 2004
- There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire By Michael Gaddis 2005 University of California Press
- W. H. C. Frend, "Martyrdom and Political Oppression," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 2 (2000), p. 818.
- Bowersock, G.W. (1995). Martyrdom and Rome.
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- Johnson, Todd M. "The case for higher numbers of Christian martyrs" (PDF). http://www.gordonconwell.edu/. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Retrieved 19 April 2015. External link in
- Tomasi, Silvano M. (28 May 2013). "Statement by His Excellency Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue with High Commissioner - Item 2". Vatican Radio. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Christian martyrs.|
- Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints, 1984 edition
- Saints and Their Legends : A Selection of Saints from Michael the Archangel to the Fifteenth Century
- Tripp York, The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom (Herald Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-8361-9393-0
- Joshua J. Whitfield, "Pilgrim Holiness: Martyrdom as Descriptive Witness" (Cascade, 2009) ISBN 978-1-60608-175-4
- Rick Wade, "Persecution in the Early Church."
- The History of the Early Christian Martyrs
- John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs.
- Fr. Paul Keane, "The Martyr's Crown" (Family Publications, 2009), familypublications.co.uk
- D.C. Talk, Jesus Freaks: DC Talk and The Voice of the Martyrs—Stories of Those Who Stood For Jesus, the Ultimate Jesus Freaks.
- Voice of the Martyrs, Extreme Devotion. for more information go to www.martyrclass.org