What makes a martyr?


Yesterday at the Theos Think Tank annual lecture, Baroness O’Neill said that killing oneself for a political cause, for example, in a hunger strike or suicide attack is not martyrdom. Instead, martyrdom it is suffering for ones beliefs.

Unfortunately I was not there to hear her speak but instead followed her lecture through the gobbets uploaded to Twitter.

Martyr Tweets

It’s interesting that O’Neill applies the term ‘martyrdom’ to those who suffer and exclusively for who die for their faith. This is different to the modern Church’s usual use of the term but, in fact, her usage is actually consistent with the Early Church’s understanding of the  word. The term, ‘martyr’ made two shifts in definition during the first two centuries of the Church. It evolved from ‘one who bear witness to having seen the resurrection’, to ‘one who suffers for the Gospel’, arriving finally at, ‘one who dies for the Gospel.’

‘one who bear witness to having seen the resurrection’

The biblical accounts of saints we now refer to as martyrs do not use the word μάρτυς in their narratives. These include, John the Baptism (Matt 14:1-12), the Holy Innocents (Matt 2:16-18), Stephen (Acts 6:8-15, 7: 1-2 & 51-60), James the apostle (Acts 12:1-2) and, Antipos (Rev 2:13)

Strathmann roots martys as, ‘one who remembers, who has knowledge of something by recollection, and who can thus tell about it.’[2] Where μάρτυς is used in the New Testament it denotes those who are witness to a true event in legal cases (1 Timothy 5:19) and also to those who a witness to the truth of the resurrection as Good News (Luke 24:48).  This is developed in Luke’s account of Paul’s words, ‘for you will be his martys to the world of what you have seen and heard’ (Acts 22:15). Paul did not have first-hand knowledge of Christ’s earthly ministry but here the emphasis is on his witness to the truth rather than historical fact. The same emphesis is given to Stephen’s death where he is portrayed as not just a witness to the facts of Christ’s exisatance but also the truth of the gospel message.

Craig Slane summarizes,

‘This transition reveals something about the witness himself, whose standpoint now transcends mere remembrance of facts and their declaration, though he still includes this in his testimony as an essential part of what has been received and must be passed on.’[3]

‘one who suffers for the Gospel’

For Paul there is a clear link between suffering and witnessing,

‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’[4] 2 Cor 4:8-10

Suffering is almost redemptive in nature because it is how Christians participate in the death of Christ. It is seen not as the end of life but as completion, only the beginning, and while Paul writes that he cannot boast of his experiences, they are at the same time signs of the ‘true apostle.’ Frend writes, that for Paul ‘suffering for the faith and the task of witnessing to it were equally urgent and inextricably interwoven.’[5] It’s a nuanced balance, we ought not so seek out suffering or boast about it but, at the same time, it is redemptive in nature.

 ‘one who dies for the Gospel.’

It’s not clear exactly when but by the deaths of a plethora of second century Christians, the shift was made from biblical characters such as Stephen being martyrs for their profession of faith rather than their deaths, towards a martyr being one who professes faith in a hostile situation leading to their death. The rise of Christians being killed for the deaths almost certainly made this change occur.

Death alone does not a martyr make.

Augustine wrote, ‘men are made martyrs not by the amount of their suffering, but by the cause in which they suffer.’

What strikes me is that what matters is not what you die for, but what you live for. For the majority of us, we do not face the threat of death because of our faith. Perhaps it is easier to say that we would die for Christ rather than actually live for him day by day.

A popular question posited in sermons is, ‘if you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’

This is a challenge to each of us to examine our own lives. I want to be convicted of being a follower of Christ. How can I achieve this? That’s a whole series of blog posts!

A good place to start is at home.

Jesus said:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”      John 13:35

I am willing to die for Christ but, perhaps more importantly, I am going to try and live for him today. I can start by loving those around me as Jesus loves me.

I want to be convicted of being a Christ follower, and I want my conviction to be airtight.

I want to be a Christian beyond all reasonable doubt.

[1] William Bramley-Moore, Introduction, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, (Oxford University Press: 1872)

[2] Hermann Strathmann, martys, martyreo, martyria, martyrion, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G Kittel vol.4 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994) p.465

[3] Craig J. Slane, Bonhoeffer as Martyr, (Brazos Press:2004) p.41

[4] 2 Cor 4:8-10 NRSV

[5] W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, (James Clarke and Co:2008) p.86

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *