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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Archaeology and Material Culture of Nabataea and the Nabat...
- Acts of Peter
- Acts of the Apostles
- Adam and Eve
- Aelia Capitolina
- Afterlife and Immortality
- Alexander the Great
- Altered States of Consciousness in the Bible
- Ancient Christianity, Churches in
- Ancient Israel, Schools in
- Ancient Medicine
- Ancient Mesopotamia, Schools in
- Ancient Near Eastern Law
- Anti-Semitism and the New Testament
- Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
- Apocryphal Acts
- Apostolic Fathers
- Archaeology and Material Culture of Ammon and the Ammonite...
- Archaeology and Material Culture of Aram and the Arameans
- Archaeology and Material Culture of Judah and the Judeans ...
- Archaeology and Material Culture of Moab and the Moabites
- Archaeology and Material Culture of Phoenicia and the Phoe...
- Archaeology and Material Culture of the Kingdom of Israel ...
- Archaeology, Greco-Roman
- Art, Early Christian
- Astrology and Astronomy
- Barnabas, Epistle of
- Bible and Visual Art
- Biblical Criticism
- Biblical Studies, Cognitive Science Approaches in
- Caesarea Maritima
- Canon, Biblical
- Child Metaphors in the New Testament
- Children in the Hebrew Bible
- Children in the New Testament World
- Christian Apocrypha
- Chronicles, First and Second
- Cities of Refuge
- Clement, First
- Clement of Alexandria
- Clement, Second
- Conversation Analysis
- Corinthians, Second
- Cosmology, Near East
- Covenant, Ark of the
- Daniel, Additions to
- Death and Burial
- Deuteronomistic History
- Diaspora in the New Testament
- Digital Humanities and the Bible
- Divination and Omens
- Domestic Architecture, Ancient Israel
- Early Christianity
- Economics and Biblical Studies
- Education, Greco-Roman
- Education in the Hebrew Bible
- Egyptian Book of the Dead
- Election in the Bible
- Epistles, Catholic
- Epistolography (Ancient Letters)
- Esther and Additions to Esther
- Evil Eye
- Exodus, Book of
- Faith in the New Testament
- Feminist Scholarship on the Old Testament
- Flora and Fauna of the Hebrew Bible
- Food and Food Production
- Friendship, Kinship and Enmity
- Funerary Rites and Practices, Greco-Roman
- Genesis, Book of
- God, Ancient Israel
- God, Greco-Roman
- God, Son of
- Gospels, Apocryphal
- Great, Herod the
- Greco-Roman World, Associations in the
- Greek Language
- Hebrew Bible, Biblical Law in the
- Hebrew Language
- Hellenistic and Roman Egypt
- Hermas, Shepherd of
- Historiography, Greco-Roman
- History of Ancient Israelite Religion
- Holy Spirit
- Honor and Shame
- Hosea, Book of
- Idol/Idolatry (HB/OT)
- Idol/Idolatry (New Testament)
- Imperial Cult and Early Christianity
- Infancy Gospel of Thomas
- Interpretation and Hermeneutics
- Intertextuality in the New Testament
- Israel, History of
- Jesus of Nazareth
- Jewish Christianity
- Jewish Festivals
- Joel, Book of
- John, Gospel of
- John the Baptist
- Jubilees, Book of
- Judaism, Hellenistic
- Judaism, Rabbinic
- Judaism, Second Temple
- Judas, Gospel of
- Jude, Epistle of
- Judges, Book of
- Judith, Book of
- Kings, First and Second
- Letters, Johannine
- Letters, Pauline
- Levirate Obligation in the Hebrew Bible
- Levitical Cities
- LGBTIQ Hermeneutics
- Literacy, New Testament
- Literature, Apocalyptic
- Lord’s Prayer
- Luke, Gospel of
- Maccabean Revolt
- Maccabees, First–Fourth
- Man, Son of
- Manasseh, King of Judah
- Manasseh, Tribe/Territory
- Mark, Gospel of
- Matthew, Gospel of
- Medieval Biblical Interpretation (Jewish)
- Mesopotamian Mythology and Genesis 1-11
- Midrash and Aggadah
- Minoritized Criticism of the New Testament
- Miracle Stories
- Modern Bible Translations
- Mysticism in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity
- Myth in the Hebrew Bible
- Nahum, Book of
- Names of God in the Hebrew Bible
- New Testament and Early Christianity, Women, Gender, and S...
- New Testament, Feminist Scholarship on the
- New Testament, Men and Masculinity in the
- New Testament, Rhetoric of the
- New Testament, Social Sciences and the
- New Testament Studies, Emerging Approaches in
- New Testament, Textual Criticism of the
- New Testament Views of Torah
- Numbers, Book of
- Nuzi (Nuzi Tablets)
- Old Testament, Biblical Theology in the
- Old Testament, Social Sciences and the
- Orality and Literacy
- Passion Narratives
- Pauline Chronology
- Paul's Opponents
- Performance Criticism
- Period, The "Persian"
- Philo of Alexandria
- Piety/Godliness in Early Christianity and the Roman World
- Poetry, Hebrew
- Pontius Pilate
- Priestly/Holiness Codes
- Pseudepigraphy, Early Christian
- Qumran/Dead Sea Scrolls
- Race, Ethnicity and the Gospels
- Revelation (Apocalypse)
- Samuel, First and Second
- Second Baruch
- Sects, Jewish
- Sermon on the Mount
- Sexual Violence and the Hebrew Bible
- Sin (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament)
- Solomon, Wisdom of
- Song of Songs
- Succession Narrative
- Synoptic Problem
- Tales, Court
- Temples and Sanctuaries
- Temples, Near Eastern
- Ten Commandments
- The Bible and the American Civil War
- The Bible in China
- the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Egypt and
- The New Testament and Creation Care
- Thomas, Gospel of
- Trauma and the Bible, Hermeneutics of
- Twelve Prophets, Book of the
- Virtues and Vices: New Testament Ethical Exhortation in I...
- War, New Testament
- Wisdom—Greek and Latin
- Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testa...
- Worship in the New Testament and Earliest Christianity
- Worship, Old Testament
- Zoology (Animals in the New Testament)