views updated Jun 08 2018


A person who has given or exposed his life in testimony to the truth or relevance of the Christian faith. The word comes from the Greek μάρτυς (witness); and the theological concept is made precise by St. augustine; Martyrem non facit poena, sed causa (It is the reason why, not the suffering that constitutes the martyr: Epist. 89.2). But it was only with the development of Christian teaching in the postapostolic Church that the words μάρτυς, μαρτυρε[symbol omitted]ν, μαρτύριον took on this specific significance. According to Judaism, martyrdom was considered a work of individual piety and resistance to evil, perfecting the victim and serving as edification for the chosen people. In the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs and the Soliloquies of Epictetus, the stoic meaning of the term was rather that of the function of the philosopher who not only teaches by words, but confirms the truth of his message by deeds, particularly by showing indifference to the movements of passion, worldly experience, and even death.

In the Bible. Never in the OT and only rarely in the NT does the term extend beyond its basic, often juridical, meaning of witness, to embrace what later centuries have commonly understood by the word "martyr." Yet such an extension was inevitable because of the fierce opposition to the Christian witness from the beginning, and it is clearly reflected in the NT.

Thus, in Acts 22.20 St. Paul acknowledges his complicity in the first Christian martyrdom "when the blood of Stephen, thy witness [το[symbol omitted] μάρτυρός σου] was shed." In Rv 2.13 Christ reminds the Church at Pergamum of "Antipas, my faithful witness [ μάρτυς μου πιστός μου] who was slain among you." In Rv 11.3 reference is made to the two witnesses of Christ (το[symbol omitted]ς δυσν μάρτυσίν μου) slain by the beast from the abyss; and in Rv 17.6, the woman Babylon is described as "drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs [τ[symbol omitted]ν μαρτύρων] of Jesus."

Finally, two passages, Rv 1.5 and 3.14, identify Christ Himself as "the faithful witness [ μάρτυς πιστός]." That here also the meaning may include the technical one of martyr is confirmed by (1) the parallel expression noted above in Rv 2.13; (2) the title "firstborn of the dead" that follows immediately in 1.5; and (3) the popular designation by the early Church of Christ Himself as "the first martyr."

In the Early Church. The postapostolic Epistle of clement i (c. 96) the verb μαρτυρείν (to witness) is used to describe the endurance of SS. Peter and Paul in their sufferings. "Peter who because of unrighteous jealousy suffered and having given his testimony [μαρτυρίσας] went to the glorious place" (5.4); and "Paul showed the way to the prize of endurance. Hetaught righteousness to the whole world, and gave testimony [μαρτυρίσας] before the rulers and passed

from the world to the holy place" (5.5, 7). The reference in both these instances stresses the endurance of the Apostles almost in a stoic sense of the word; it stresses their indifference to suffering as the result of their faith rather than as a sign of its truth.

With ignatius of antioch (c. 116) the Christian sense of giving testimony to the belief in Christ as God by shedding one's blood appears; but Ignatius used the words μιμμτής (imitator: Phil. 7.2; Rom. 6.3) and μαθητης (disciple: Rom. 5.3; Mag. 9.1) rather than μάρτυς; for according to his thinking the martyr was one who perfectly imitated Christ in his suffering and death. Ignatius further insisted on the bodily suffering of the martyr as an antidote to docetist (see docetism) teaching that denied that Christ had a real body. He employed the term παθήματα or sufferings of the witnesses to Christ as proof that Christ "was clothed in flesh" (Smyr. 5.12).

In the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 165 or 170) the words "martyr" and "martyrdom" took on

the full significance of witnessing belief that the life and death of Christ was that of the Son of God: and they were so employed subsequently in the passions and legends of the martyrs. However, the martyrdom of James recorded by hegesippus (c. 170) seems to have ignored this meaning (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.23.418). The Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne (ibid. 5.14) explicitly used the term μάρτυς to describe the shedding of blood in persecution as a witness to Christ. The use of the word "martyr" for confessors who had not shed their blood was protested (ibid. 5.2.24); and Tertullian (De cor. 2), Hippolytus of Rome (Comm. in Dan. 2.36.6), and Cyprian of Carthage (Epist. 5.2; De laps. 34) likewise applied to living witnesses only the word "confessors" (μόλογοι).

The Shepherd of hermas stated that those who "suffered for the name [of the Son of God] are glorious; all their sins have been taken away" (Sim. 9.28.3); and he further spoke of only those sitting on the right hand of God who had suffered stripes, imprisonments, crucifixions, and wild beasts for the sake of His name (Vis. 3.2.1). In the Epistle to diognetus the author insisted that the superhuman courage of the martyrs and the greatness of their sacrifice could be explained only as a manifestation of the power of God, acting in and through them (7.79). The author further warned of the contrast between a death that is the guarantee of eternal life in martyrdom and real death of eternal fire (10.7). The Christian assurance of the presence of God with the martyr was echoed in the passio of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, as well as in justin martyr (Dial. Tryph. 110.4), Tertullian (Apol. 50.13), and Lactantius (Div. inst. 5.13.11). But this fortitude was considered a scandalous carelessness by the pagans, as Marcus Aurelius (Med. 13.31) and Justin Martyr (2 Apol. 12.1) testify.

Although Cyprian spoke of the treasures that the Church enjoyed in its martyrs (Epist. 10.5), the cult of martyrs had a comparatively late and slow development. The earlier Christians had merely attempted to bestow on them a fitting burial in a pagan or private cemetery. The first martyr whose bones received known veneration with a yearly commemoration was polycarp of Smyrna (d. c. 155 or 165). The record of his martyrdom describes the gathering of his bones after the body was burned and their emplacement in a fitting depository and speaks of "celebrating the birthday of his martyrdom" (Mart. Poly. 18.13). julian the apostate compared the veneration of martyrs with the cult of pagan gods and heroes (c. 360), but Jerome (Cont. Vigil. 45), Augustine (Civ. 22.10), Theodoret of Cyr (Graec. aff. cur. 8.34), and cyril of alexandria (C. Jul. 10) repudiated the comparison and clarified the specifically Christian concept in relation to a defense of the Christian faith and the value of Christian virtues, such as chastity.

Tertullian had considered martyrdom the secunda intinctio or second baptism (De paenit. 13) since it removed all sin and assured the martyr of his eternal crown. In this Tertullian echoed the Shepherd of Hermas. Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 4.9.75) said the martyr was assured of an immediate entrance into glory since Christ was present with the martyr in his suffering. For Origen, martyrdom was a proof of Christianity, not only because the Christian showed himself capable of dying for his faith but because the Christian defiance of death was a testimony of the victory already achieved over the evil powers and an assertion of the resurrection that would render him immune to suffering (C. Celsum 1.24; 2.47; Comm. in Jn. 6.54). Thus the martyr's life was the fulfillment of the Christian striving for perfection. For Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 4.7.43) likewise, both the preparation for martyrdom and the martyrdom of the passions were equivalent to the actual shedding of one's blood; and Origen acknowledged that there were many Christians who suffered a daily martyrdom of conscience by willingly carrying their cross behind the Savior (Hom. in Num. 10.2). Cyprian stated that if someone were unwillingly prevented from achieving martyrdom, he would receive the crown for which he had prepared (Ad. Fortun. 13) and admitted that "peace also has its crown" (De zelo 16). methodius of Olympus maintained that the virgin who had preserved her chastity with patience was worthy of the same honor as a martyr (Conviv. 7.3.156);

and dionysius of Alexandria believed that one who had given his life tending the sick during a pestilence should be considered a martyr (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.22.7).

The notion of a white martyrdom was common among the desert fathers as the apophthegmata patrum attest. Rufinus of Aquileia with his translation of the Rules of Basil of Caesarea (Praef. in hom. Bas. ), Jerome (Epist. 108.31), Augustine (Serm. de mart. ), and Caesarius of Arles (Serm. 41.) popularized the idea in the West, and gregory i (Dial. 3.26; Hom. in Evang. 2.36.7) handed it on to the Middle Ages. The Irish monks spoke of a white martyrdom "in giving up what one loved for the love of God"; and of a green martyrdom that consisted in suppressing the passions and doing penance ceaselessly.

In dealing with abuses that surrounded the cult of the martyrs on pilgrimages and the celebration of banquets at the martyrs' tombs, Augustine changed the emphasis on the sufferings and tortures suffered by the martyrs to a reconsideration of the martyr. He considered him to be one who professed his faith in Christ by the perfection of his virtues and the living of a life in full conformity with the spiritual teachings of the Church. Despite the wonders and extravagances attributed to the martyrs in the Glories of the Martyrs by Gregory of Tours, and even in the Dialogues of Gregory I, the latter insisted essentially on the life of the Christian as a spiritual martyrdom.

The Number of Martyrs. Since at least the 17th century, efforts have been made to modify the extravagant notion of an almost unlimited number of martyrs in the early Church. H. Dodwell published a tract De paucitate martyrum (Oxford 1648) in which he greatly reduced the estimate of early martyrs; but T. Ruinart, in his Acta primorum martyrum (Paris 1689), while selective in his research, held to the tradition of an immense number. In recent times L. Hertling estimated the number as close to 100,000, while H. Grégoire believed it closer to 10,000. Tacitus had spoken of an ingens multitudo in the 1st century (Annal. 15.44.4); and it is certain that large numbers were put to death especially under Decius and Diocletian, as well as by the Persians. Reliable statistics are simply not available.

Bibliography: j. s. considine, "The Two Witnesses: Rv 11: 313,"The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 8 (1946) 377392. i. fransen, "Jésus, le témoin fidèle," Bible et vie chrétienne 16 (1956) 6679. a. p. frutaz and j. beckmann, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765); 7: 127133. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 10.2:23592512. e. peterson, Zeuge der Wahrheit (Leipzig 1937). h. delehaye, Origines des cultes des martyrs (2d ed. Paris 1933); Analecta Bollandiana 39 (1921) 2049. p. peeters, ibid. 5064. m. viller, Aszese und Mystik in der Väterzeit, rev. and tr. k. rahner (Freiburg 1939) 2940, 256, 308315. g. jouassard, Recherches de science religieuse 39 (1951) 362367. e. e. malone, The Monk and the Martyr (Washington 1950). t. klauser, Christlicher Märtyrerkult (Cologne 1960). n. brox, Zeuge und Märtyrer (Munich 1961). a. j. vermeulen, The Semantic Development of Gloria in Early Christian Latin (Nijmegen 1956) 5396. h. musurillo, Traditio 12 (1956) 5567, asceticism. a. rush, Theological Studies 23 (1962) 569589, Gregory i. h. grÉgoire et al., Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres de l'Académie Royale de Belgique 38 (1952) 3760, 6270, number of martyrs.

[f. x. murphy/

w. f. dicharry]


views updated Jun 08 2018

Martyr (Gk., martus, ‘witness’). One who suffers death on behalf of his or her faith, often for refusing to renounce it.




The Gk. word was only gradually restricted to those whose witness to their faith had led to their death in persecutions. From the 2nd cent. martyrs were specially honoured in churches, and the anniversaries of their deaths, as (heavenly) ‘birthdays’, were kept as feasts. They were venerated as intercessors in heaven, and their relics sought after. Accounts (‘Acts’) of martyrdom form an important class of hagiography.




Many Sikhs have died for their faith, particularly under the Mughal emperor, Auraṅgzeb, and during the conflicts of the 18th cent. Martyrs (Pañjābī, Hindī śahīd) are remembered daily in Ardās, and pictures of martyrdoms are displayed in the gurdwārās. Of the Gurūs, Arjan Dev and Tegh Bahādur were martyred.


views updated Jun 27 2018

mar·tyr / ˈmärtər/ • n. a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs: the first Christian martyr. ∎  a person who displays or exaggerates their discomfort or distress in order to obtain sympathy or admiration: she wanted to play the martyr. ∎  (martyr to) a constant sufferer from (an ailment): I'm a martyr to migraines!• v. [tr.] (usu. be martyred) kill (someone) because of their beliefs: she was martyred for her faith. ∎  cause great pain or distress to: there was no need to martyr themselves again.DERIVATIVES: mar·tyr·i·za·tion / ˌmärtərəˈzāshən/ n.mar·tyr·ize / ˈmärtəˌrīz/ v.


views updated May 11 2018

martyr a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs. In the Roman Catholic liturgy, martyrs rank before all other saints. Recorded from Old English, the word comes via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek martur ‘witness’ (in Christian use, ‘martyr’).
The Martyr King Charles I, a title reflecting the beliefs of those members of the Anglican Church who regard his execution as an act of religious persecution; 30 January was formally instituted as a fast in his memory in 1660 (it was suppressed in 1859, although a lesser festival was reinstated in 1980).

See also the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, Forty Martyrs at forty, Manchester Martyrs.


views updated May 29 2018

martyr 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


views updated May 14 2018

martyr (prop.) one who voluntarily undergoes death for the Christian faith. OE. martir, corr. to OS., OHG. martir — ecclL. martyr — Gr. mártur, var. of mártus, martur- witness, (in Christian use) martyr; reinforced in ME. by OF. martir, martre (mod. martyr); the sp. was finally assim. to the L. form.
Hence martyr vb. OE. (ġe)martyrian, -martrian. martyrdom OE. So martyrology XVI. — medL. — ecclGr.; see -LOGY.