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Definition: martyr from Philip's Encyclopedia

Person who dies willingly rather than renounce his or her religious faith. The term, which is taken from the Greek word for 'witness', particularly applies to early Christians who suffered death for their beliefs. The first Christian martyr was Saint Stephen. In Judaism, the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis are regarded as martyrs. See also saint


Summary Article: Martyrdom
from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

Martyrdom is a death marked with religious or ideological significance because of the martyr's refusal to betray a deeply held belief, often in obedience to a deity. Martyrdom includes three components: (1) the sufferer, (2) his or her community, and (3) opposition. Stories of martyrdom often describe in great detail the bodily torture inflicted on the martyr, emphasizing the fierce, even supernatural, cruelty of the opponents and the martyr's exchange of corporeal life for a greater afterlife. The act of martyrdom, a self-sacrifice, is thus a powerful means of identity formation, for both the martyr and the martyr's community. Yet because of the exclusivity of this identity, martyrdom is also a contentious and potentially divisive act. The death of the martyr has historically been and continues to be a poignant symbol of the power of belief.

History of Martyrdom

The word martyr comes from the Greek word martus, or witness, and was employed in the Greco-Roman world to identify one who provided testimony in legal proceedings. However, martyrdom became closely associated with the Christian tradition, largely because of the death of its progenitor, Jesus. Brought by Jewish leaders before the Roman governor of Judea for blasphemy, Jesus was crucified. After his death, the term martyr was increasingly used by the burgeoning Christian sect to denote one who testified to Jesus’ resurrection, which sometimes resulted in punishment by death. The Acts of the Apostles recounts the story of Stephen, who was stoned by Jewish religious authorities and came to be known as the protomartyr, the first to die for his Christian beliefs. According to tradition, most of the original followers of Jesus similarly underwent martyrdom.

Antecedents for martyrdom appear in both Greek and Jewish traditions before the time of Jesus. An early example in the Western tradition comes from the death of the philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE. Tried and convicted of teaching impiety, Socrates chose the sentence of drinking poison rather than being exiled from Athens. Speaking shortly before his death, he attributed his actions to divine compulsion. There were martyrs in the Jewish tradition before Jesus as well, most notably the Maccabeans, seven brothers who were executed by the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes for their refusal to defame the Jewish God by worshipping Greek deities. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, however, Christians’ refusal to participate in the social and civic functions earned the notice of public officials. Refusal, on questioning, to deny a Christian identity earned martyrs a public death. Martyrdom became the leitmotif of early Christianity, for the martyr was thought to act in imitation of Jesus Christ and provide an example to others. Furthermore, in death the martyr gained forgiveness and a place in heaven.

There were brief periods of Roman imperial action against Christianity during the first three centuries. This culminated with the Great Persecution, instituted by Diocletian in 303 and lasting until 313. It ended with the triumph of Constantine over his rivals. As the first Christian emperor, Constantine extended religious freedom to Christianity, and the time of active martyrdom came to a close.

With the backing of previously antagonistic emperors, the power of the Christian church began to increase. Beginning in the east and spreading to the west, bishops and local Christians began to establish cults around individuals who had suffered martyrdom. They were celebrated in annual festivals where the presiding bishop would retell the story of the martyr's death, often at an edifice constructed near his or her place of execution. Stories and celebrations of martyrdom multiplied throughout Roman territory, and the trafficking of martyr relics increased, most often with the support of the Church.

Stories of martyrdom remained a critical component of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire and in growing European nations. During the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, both Catholic and Protestant groups claimed new martyrdoms in their internecine struggles. As Christian groups sent out missionaries to Asia and the newly discovered Americas, martyrdoms sometimes occurred among native populations unwilling to accept the intervention of foreign religion and culture.

In its early centuries, Islam also showed a propensity for martyrdom. Jihad entailed a nonviolent and defensive struggle against other groups, and the martyr, or shahid, was a witness to the faith. As the religion grew and encountered increasing conflict in its second century, martyrdom gained a more specific meaning, eventually denoting one who died for the faith in the course of battle. As in Christianity, death for Allah gained the martyr eternal paradise. The aggressive tone of later Islamic tales of martyrdom was similar to and influenced by the tales of Christian sects who were at odds with orthodox Christianity and often found refuge in Muslim territory.

More recent religious traditions likewise revere martyr figures. Sikhism, founded in the 15th century in India, emphasizes defense of the faith and potential martyrdom. Sikhs violated the norms of Hindu practice and struggled against the larger Hindu and Muslim communities. In particular, the 18th-century warrior Banda Singh Bahadur is renowned for his martyrdom in his retaliation against the Mughal Empire for its persecutions of Sikhs. Contemporary conflicts in India, such as the siege of the Golden Temple Complex in 1984, continue to foster martyrdoms.

Issues Concerning Martyrdom

There are several issues in dealing with martyrdom, both within a single tradition and between different ideological or religious traditions. One is martyrdom's potential incompatibility with tradition, and another is the exclusivity of martyrdom claims. Both of these problems are present in a larger paradox between peace and violence within religious traditions that affects the larger global society.

A critical question regarding martyrdom is whether or not the death is justifiable by the martyr's community. The martyr must be willing to suffer unto death, and in stories of martyrdom, the martyr is usually resolute. However, ideally, the religious adherent ought not to seek death aggressively but accept martyrdom willingly. Within the Christian tradition, support can be found both for aggressively seeking death and for fleeing persecution as well. Religious leaders have often attempted to outline parameters for acceptable martyrdom that exclude destruction of property or other acts of violence to gain notice, yet so-called voluntary martyrs are often accepted nonetheless. This seeming contradiction parallels the tension between conflicting tenets of pacifism and violence within many traditions. Religions that advocate peace also remember and treasure stories of martyrdom.

The ambiguous connection between martyrdom and self-killing is also a source of tension. Many saw the death of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam's Diem administration during the Vietnam War as martyrdom. However, the monk's death by self-immolation prompted others to label it suicide. The action prompted a series of additional self-immolations by Buddhists and Christians. This is indicative of the power of self-sacrificial death. Despite causing tension within existing tradition, martyrdom is often incorporated within the dominant tradition.

The contention over the manner of death begs the larger question of who has the power to label a “martyrdom.” This is a concern within religious traditions, but it can also be a source of further violence between traditions. For the followers of some Islamic groups, what is seen as a suicide bombing to those outside the tradition is justified as a martyrdom pleasing to God. Likewise, the death of a religious missionary, which is seen as a martyrdom to his tradition or her may be viewed by indigenous groups as the result of unwelcome cultural interference.

Even when religious traditions are not directly opposed, the question of what constitutes a martyrdom remains important. In the wake of the Columbine school shootings, some students were called martyrs for professing belief in God before being killed. The immediacy of that situation raises an important question of whether the supposed martyrs intended to be so and whether intention is necessary for martyrdom. Interrogation before death fills one important criteria of martyrdom, but this may seem to imply that the others who died were not martyrs, rendering those deaths less meaningful. Thus, the necessary requirements and clear boundaries of the martyr's identity potentially threaten the identity of others.

In an age where global conflict is often expressed in religious terms, martyrdom has tremendous sway in creating a sense of identity for the martyr and his or her community. A power to unite is matched by a potential divisiveness within traditions and a penchant for promoting further violence between them. For this reason, martyrdom remains a contentious force as a witness to religious traditions and the global community.

See also

Asceticism, Missions and Missionaries, Religious Identity, Suicide Bombing, Torture, Violence

Further Readings
  • Cook, D. (2007). Martyrdom in Islam. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Droge, A. J.Tabor, J. (1992). A noble death: Suicide and martyrdom among Christians and Jews in antiquity. San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco.
  • Frend, W. H. C. (1967). Martyrdom and persecution in the early Church: A study of a conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
  • Mann, G. S. (2004). Sikhism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Recla, Matt
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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