In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Martyrdom

  • Introduction
  • General Treatments
  • Anthologies
  • Editions and Translations
  • Reference Works
  • Greco-Roman Noble Death
  • Early Jewish Martyrdoms

Biblical Studies Martyrdom
Jan W. van Henten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0132


Martyrdom in the Greco-Roman period is a scholarly construct. Which writings are relevant sources depends on the definition of martyrdom. Broad definitions imply that various forms of noble death among Greeks and Romans can be considered martyrdom. More strict definitions suggest that martyrdom first occurred among Jews in the 2nd century BCE during the oppression by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (168–167 BCE) or only in the context of imperial Rome. The occurrence of the witness vocabulary (martys and related phrases) in the documents is often considered a decisive factor in this discussion. Van Henten and Avemarie 2002 (cited under Anthologies) consider martyrdom a specific form of noble death and define a “martyr” as a person who in an extremely hostile situation prefers a violent death to compliance with a demand of the (usually pagan) authorities. Middleton 2006 (cited under General Treatments) defines a martyrdom as “a type of narrative which describes a death which reinforces a group’s (whether religious, political or national) view of the world.” Middleton 2014 (cited under General Treatments) considers a definition elusive because martyrdom is a contested phenomenon (cf. Rajak 2012, cited under General Treatments). Recla 2014 (cited under General Treatments) argues that martyrdom is an intentional and violent act of self-formation by self-death. The early Church considered Daniel and his three companions (see Daniel 3 and 6) as well as the so-called Maccabean martyrs models for Christian martyrs. The Maccabean martyrs were even included in the official calendar of martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church, with 1 August as their anniversary. Relevant primary sources include Daniel 3 and 6 (with the Greek additions); 2 Maccabees 6:18–31, 7:1–42, 14:37–46; 4 Maccabees; the acts and passions of Christian martyrs; and rabbinic passages about martyrdom. The New Testament has no elaborate sections devoted to martyrdom, but there are interconnections with this theme in several ways.

General Treatments

A number of general surveys of ancient martyrdom are available, though they vary a lot in terms of content and methodological approach. Frend 1965 is a classic that covers the entire period from the Maccabees up to the aftermath of the great persecution of Christians by Diocletian (d. 313 CE). Frend 1965 focuses on the historical issues, discussing the martyrdoms in close connection with persecutions by the foreign authorities, whether Greek or Roman (compare with van Henten and Avemarie 2002, cited under Anthologies). Frend 1965 considers Daniel and his companions, together with the Maccabean martyrs, forerunners of the Christian martyrs (as does Baumeister 1980). Frend 1965 and Baumeister 1980 assume that the Christian martyrdoms strongly depended on the early Jewish documents about martyrdom, seeing a linear development from Jewish to Christian martyrology. Baumeister 1980 covers a shorter period (2nd century BCE–2nd century CE). It has primarily a literary perspective, with the New Testament passages about persecution and suffering as a main section. Droge and Tabor 1992 offers a thematic survey of noble death, starting with Socrates and his legacy. It considers both martyrdom and self-killing “voluntary death,” as “the act resulting from an individual’s intentional decision to die, either by his own agency, by another’s, or by contriving the circumstances in which death is the known, uneluctable result” (p. 4). Bowersock 1995 claims that martyrdom originated in the clash between Christian beliefs and Roman ideologies. He argues that the terminology of martyrdom is definitely Christian, pointing to the semantic development of the Greek witness vocabulary (martys, witness; martyria, martyrein, bearing witness) and to the meaning of “martyrdom” in Christian sources. Bowersock 1995 claims that the trial accounts in the early Christian martyrdoms are ultimately based on the authentic documentation of the legal hearings but also emphasizes that martyrdom was a public spectacle. Boyarin 1999 criticizes Frend 1965 and others, opining that Judaism and Christianity only separated in the 5th century CE and that the martyrdom traditions of Jews and Christians were interconnected in multiple ways. Boyarin 1999 contends that in late Antiquity a new martyrdom discourse developed with three basic constituents: (1) a ritualized and performative speech act, (2) the fulfillment of a religious mandate, and (3) powerful erotic elements. Castelli 2004 focuses not on the debate over when martyrdom originated nor on what actually happened with those who became martyrs. Its leading question is how early Christians were remembered as martyrs by others. Castelli 2004 shows close interconnections between the commemoration of martyrs through documents and artifacts and identity constructions by those who admired and commemorated the martyrs. Middleton 2006 points out important distinctions between early Jewish and early Christian martyrdom and explores the interconnections of martyrdom and cosmic conflict. Moss 2012 and Moss 2013 offer new perspectives on regional articulations of interpretations of martyrdom and on what Moss calls “the myth of persecution” (i.e., the martyrdoms are mostly fictional, and many texts predate the oldest evidence for a Roman persecution directed against the Christians).

  • Baumeister, Theofried. Die Anfänge der Theologie des Martyriums. Münsterische Beiträge zur Theologie 45. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1980.

    Survey of the ideas about martyrdom as presented in early Jewish and Christian documents, taking a rather broad view of martyrdom that includes the punishment of persecutors and the posthumous reward for killed righteous persons in apocalyptic texts, the persecution of prophets, the sufferings of Jesus, and the imitation of Christ by martyrs.

  • Bowersock, Glen W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511518546

    Brief and programmatic study arguing that the concept of martyrdom was constructed by Christians roughly in the period between 50 and 150 CE. Christians devised it in response to social, political, and religious pressures of the Roman imperial period.

  • Boyarin, Daniel. Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    Proposes a new approach to the study of the relationship between Jewish (Hellenistic Jewish as well as rabbinic) and Christian martyrdom traditions. The two were intertwined in multiple ways until the 5th century.

  • Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    Innovative monograph that focuses on the interconnections between the commemoration of martyrs (with Ignatius, Perpetua, Pionius, and Thecla as prime examples) and the process of Christian identity construction related to martyrdom.

  • Cobb, L. Stephanie. Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts. Gender Theory and Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7312/cobb14498

    This study is useful because of its focus on gender and honor from a Roman perspective and its conclusion that the performance and characterizations of the early Christian martyrs as depicted in the documents reflect the conventional non-Christian cultural expressions of manliness, honor, and justice.

  • Droge, Arthur J., and James D. Tabor. A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

    Survey of voluntary death in Greco-Roman, early Jewish, and Christian traditions that pays particular attention to self-killings, including the suicides described in the Bible and Augustine’s radical reinterpretation of voluntary death: only God can determine the time for an individual to depart this life.

  • Frend, William H. C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford: Blackwell, 1965.

    Classic study of Christian martyrdoms with a strong historical focus. Also includes a detailed discussion of Jewish texts and attitudes toward noble death as the prehistory to the Christian martyrdoms.

  • Middleton, Paul. Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity. London: T&T Clark, 2006.

    Important study that explores the motivations and identity constructions involved in Christians aiming for radical martyrdom (i.e., seeking death at the hand of non-Christian oppressors).

  • Middleton, Paul. “What Is Martyrdom?” Mortality 19.2 (2014): 117–133.

    DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2014.894013

    Important article arguing that early as well as later sources imply that martyrdoms are always contested and that the documents commemorating martyrdoms are the outcome of a power struggle. Attempts to define what martyrdom is are futile.

  • Moss, Candida R. Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    This monograph offers a readable and detailed scholarly discussion of early Christian martyrs from a geographic perspective, focusing on Asia Minor, Rome, Gaul, North Africa, and Alexandria and the martyrdoms deriving from these regions, arguing for regional articulations of martyrdom.

  • Moss, Candida R. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013.

    A synthesis of Moss’s research into early Christian martyrdom for a broader audience. The early Christian martyrdoms are not eyewitness accounts but “pious fictions,” and the first Roman persecution specifically directed at Christians took place at the beginning of the 4th century CE when Emperor Diocletian banned Christian worship.

  • Rajak, Tessa. “Reflections on Jewish Resistance and the Discourse of Martyrdom in Josephus.” In Judaea-Palestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity. Edited by B. Isaac and Y. Shahar, 165–180. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.

    Article about resistance and martyrdom in Josephus that includes a nuanced discussion of definitions of ancient Jewish and Christian martyrdom.

  • Recla, Matthew. “Autothanatos: The Martyr’s Self-Formation.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82 (2014): 472–494.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/lfu013

    Innovative article that focuses on the agency of the martyr and argues by building on Heidegger’s Being and Time for martyrdom as an intentional and violent act of self-death as a radical assertion of self-identity.

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