From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), 494-497.


In its purest form, martyrdom is a voluntary, conscious, and altruistic readiness to suffer and offer one's life for a cause. The Christian martyr seeks certain death. Islamic tradition gives first place to a soldier dying in a holy war, or jihad, who aimed to defeat an adversary without, necessarily, losing his own life. Jewish tradition assigns the honor not only to those who affirm the faith against threat, but to victims such as those of the Holocaust, who were not given the choice.

Historical Examples

The literature on martyrs and martyrdom includes historical and biographical records of the acts of those who have, altruistically, offered their lives to demonstrate their commitment to their culture or society. It also includes memorials by opponents, describing them as foolhardy, misguided, traitors, terrorists, or heretics. Martyrologies, paeans to martyrs and martyrdom, often declaimed during religious services, embed the events in a cosmic, covenantal drama. Theologies of martyrdom prescribe appropriate occasions for the sacrificial act. Otherworldly rewards await the martyr. The martyr and the martyr's society may hope for redemption from the evil forces that imposed the suffering and death. Sometimes they simply hope for vengeance upon their opponents and upon the opponents' real or symbolic descendants.

Although much of this literature individualizes the martyr, martyrdom is a religio-political act of conflict between social groups. Typically, the weaker of the antagonists produces martyrs. The group may offer training for confronting the legal process and remaining firm under torture and in the face of execution. The social promotion of martyrdom is illustrated by the "Exhortation to Martyrdom" (c. 235) of Origen, one of the fathers of the church. Each of the antagonists strives to control the meaning of the event. Thus Ignatius of Antioch, condemned to fight beasts in 107, asked his friends not to try to save him and so rob him of the crown of immortality.

Historically, martyrdom did not emerge until culture was differentiated from, and achieved a measure of autonomy from, social structure, when ideas came to function as symbols around which a society could mobilize. In Western society, the death of Socrates (399 B.C.E.), described in Plato's Phaedo, is an early example of a martyrdom that defended ideas. The Maccabean martyrs, such as the aged Eleazar and the seven sons of Hannah, are described in the Second and Fourth Books of the Maccabees. Origen cites these examples as worthy of emulation by Christians.

Aqiva ben Yosef, a Palestinian, is reported in rabbinic literature to have supported the Bar Kokhba revolt of Jews against the Romans in Palestine and to have been publicly executed by the Romans in 135 c.e. for violating the Roman edict against teaching the Torah. Husayn ibn Ali Abi Talib, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was slain in 680 c.e. at Karbala, Iraq, after losing a rebellion against Caliph Yazid. His memory, along with that of his brother, Hasan, has become central in Shi'ite Islamic observance.

Early Christian martyrs include Justin Martyr, executed in the second century under Marcus Aurelius after a court condemned him and a woman, Charita, for subversive activities, and Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows during the persecution of Christians by the Romans at the end of the third century. The martyrs of Lyon, executed in 177, included many women. Jan Hus, burned at Prague in 1415, is prominent among the martyrs of the Protestant Reformation. Michael Servetus and the Augustinians Heinrich Vos and Johannes Esch in Brussels were Protestant martyrs executed in 1553 following papal trials. Contemporary political martyrdoms often occur within a religio-political context. An example is Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain in 1980 for his opposition to the El Salvadoran government's repression of peasant rebels.

Martyrs are acclaimed by the authors of martyrologies. An example from the fourth century is Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrdom of Justin and His Companions. In the mid-sixteenth century John Foxe wrote of the papal oppression of English Protestants in Acts and Monuments. Artistic representations of the passion of Al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, executed in 922 for an alleged claim to divinity, has a long history in Persia. Martyrologies not only detail the martyrdoms but, along with legal sources, tell of rewards associated with the act. Islamic tradition has it that the Angel of Mercy conducts the martyr to Paradise, where he enters through a special door and is graced with Allah's special favor.

Martyrs may be accredited by organized systems, as in the Roman Catholic beatification process. Jewish and Islamic attribution tends to be less formal. A respected scholar may designate a person as a martyr. Popularly acclaimed martyrs emerge to satisfy the needs of local populations. Medieval popular martyrs include Saint Robert, the martyred boy of Bury St. Edmunds (1190), and little Hugh of Lincoln, whose death was blamed on Jews, who were then driven from England. Joan of Arc, burned in 1431, was not canonized until 1920 as part of the reconciliation of the Vatican and France after World War I. The French Ultramontanists, Roman Catholics north of the Alps, finding what appeared to be vials of blood with bodies in Roman catacombs, believed they had identified martyrs and precipitated a nineteenth-century investigation that ultimately raised doubts about their authenticity. Scholars have revealed that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister for propaganda, fabricated a martyr called Horst Wessel, supposedly an early Nazi reportedly slain by leftists.

Martyrs in Societal Context

The types of martyrs produced, or the likelihood of producing a martyr at all, depend on the degree of political independence and state of internal authority of a society. A crescive society, one that is weak but on the rise, produces martyrs like those of early Christianity. Ideology assumes priority over individual physical survival and so affirms the priority of culture over nature, law and civilization over biological self-interest. An independent and self-determining society produces frontline soldier martyrs, like the missionary martyrs of Christianity or the Muslim shahid ("witness," the meaning of the Greek term for martyr). In a decaying society, the "martyrs" are victims, dying against their wish and will. A defeated society may produce "antimartyrs," who die in the service of the adversary society. Their own society perceives them as "collaborators."

Sometimes, when the martyrdom has a significant societal context, it is associated with suicide. Suicide, even at the threat of the enemy, is prohibited in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. The defenders of Masada against the Romans in 73 c.e. as recounted by Josephus, a Jewish historian and military leader, chose suicide over enslavement. These suicides raise questions about the resistors' knowledge of the law or whether all the defenders were Jewish. Augustine considered suicide a form of murder, and later church councils excluded suicides from a eucharistic funeral. The morality of suicide was no issue in Socrates' Athens. When the Chinese Sung dynastic administration was defeated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, tens of thousands committed suicide, responding to a loss of social meaning and a way to assert a final personal honor when their world collapsed.

The positive impact of martyrdom on a minority community is due in part to its formulation as a sacrificial act. The martyr is the sacrificial "lamb" and draws the representatives of those in power (military, judiciary, police) into performing the "priestly" role of sacrificial officiant. Since the martyr is doing what God has directed, the opponent is seduced into the martyr's faith. This is precisely the interpretation that in 1096 led some of the Jews of the Rhineland to slay their own wives and children and themselves, despite the prohibition on suicide, in preference to allowing the "unclean" Crusaders to perform their "priestly" role. Conceived as a sacrifice, the martyr, through a baptism of blood, is purified of sin and, while awaiting execution, may even have the power to grant absolution from sin. Through his relics, in the Catholic system, for example, he may be called upon to intercede for the sins of others. Martyrdom may unify a minority by establishing charismatic authority. The rational organizational arrangements for opposing the enemy are energized by martyrdom. The sacrificial act converts economic and political conflict into sacred conflict and so drives it toward the pursuit of goals at any cost. The rationally legitimated authority system is converted into a charismatically legitimated system through the act of martyrdom. The martyr, filled with the Holy Spirit, is conceived not to be spared suffering, and, indeed, the state of mind of the martyr, sustained by deep faith and the support of his community, may account for the beatific appearance of the martyr in art.

The struggle over meaning is reflected in the struggle between a public and a secluded venue for the event. The martyr prefers public execution. Typically, those in power resist slaying the martyr, trying to persuade him or her to recant. When these efforts fail, they rationalize the act as a criminal prosecution and prefer to execute the sentence in secrecy. The event lives in the history of the martyr's society more than it does in the history of the then dominant society. Sometimes the aim is to control the minority through fear. As such, the public burning of heretics in Spain during the Inquisition, for example, was more a form of internal social control, since those burnt were converts, Jews and Moors who had already accepted Catholicism.

Although martyrdom usually does not involve immediate violence against the adversary, it is a political act that deals a moral and thus psychological blow. The martyrdom accompanying the Islamic jihad, in contrast, does involve a blow to the enemy. Martyrdom, in this way, seeks to reduce the political authority of the opponent to ineffectiveness by challenging the sacred basis of the adversary's authority. Martyrdom may also strengthen the will of the adversary to repress the minority and so may politicize the relationship between the groups.

The martyr serves as a model for lesser martyrdoms, sacrifices on the part of the faithful. Virginity and celibacy have been thought of in this way in Christianity. Minor martyrdom in Islam includes any act "in the way of Allah."

Martyrs in crescive and self-determining societies may form cells of zealots within the wider society. The members of these cells train one another for the ordeal, a rehearsal for martyrdom, and sustain one another through it. Martyrologies play a part in this training as they do in promoting minor martyrdoms among the wider social group. These martyrs tend to be societal leaders and recruited from the nobility; they therefore tend to be males.

Communities try to control their martyrs as they do military zealots lest, in their enthusiasm, they precipitate a rebellion that the community is ill-prepared to support, as happened in the Bar Kokhba revolt of Judaeans against the Romans. The community sets rules defining the occasions for martyrdom. Thus Jews and Muslims are commanded to give their lives for only three things: to avoid murdering another person, to avoid incestuous relations, and to avoid worshiping strange deities in public. In Islam, to seek martyrdom is prohibited and is viewed as similar to suicide. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides sought to restrict the occasions for martyrdom on the ground that a martyr condemns all his potential descendants to nonbeing. He recommended, where possible, dissimulation, a practice not unlike the Islamic taqiyya. Saint Augustine objected to the rush to martyrdom, and Saint Clement of Alexandria said one should not choose martyrdom unless called by God.

The dominant group has an arsenal of weapons against martyrdom. It may attempt, on the one hand, to prevent martyrdom by co-opting potential martyrs, assimilating them into the dominant society and providing them with honorable positions. This approach backfires when the minority attacks the assimilationists, as in the Maccabean assault in 165 B.C.E. on the Seleucid rulers who would hellenize Jews. On the other hand, the group in power may savagely repress the minority by slaying more than it can recruit. This killing may be delegated to specialists within the dominant society, as in the use of special SS units in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The dominant society wins the propaganda war if it succeeds in branding the martyrs as criminals or terrorists. The greatest weapon of the modern state against martyrdom is to make it appear meaningless and obsolete.

Author: Samuel Z. Klausner


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