Moving to Martyrdom

English: "Martyrdom of St. Paul", fr...
English: “Martyrdom of St. Paul”, from an 1887 copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs illustrated by Kronheim. Français : Le martyr de Saint Paul. Illustration par du Livre des martyrs (Book of Martyrs) de Foxe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

thoughts, unedited. Many of my commentators are helping me so thank you. 


Self-inflicted death is not the only sort of chosen death mentioned in Scripture. Likewise, there is the death chosen in lieu of violating God’s law or as a witness to one’s system of belief. It is too neat a dichotomy to suggest the suicides above occur because of internal motives but the martyrdoms below are easily external. While the suicides are clearly a result of the choice of the individual based usually on some sense of honor, we cannot too easily separate the notion of blasphemy of a deity from that of personal honor. Indeed, to dishonor one’s parents (Leviticus 24.15–16) was conflated with blasphemy against God. While this development is not easily seen in the Mosaic Law, it becomes apparent with later writings, such as Ben Sira who writes, “ὁ δοξάζων πατέρα μακροημερεύσει, καὶ ὁ εἰσακούων Κυρίου ἀναπαύσει μητέρα αὐτοῦ. (3.6)” In verse 3, honor is equated to an atonement. By the time we get to Rabbinical Judaism, the connection is fully developed so that Rabbis could say that God worked with parents to create the child. 1 Clement treats the mutiny of the Corinthians as a dishonor to the Apostles and a blasphemy to God (1 Clement 47). However, what may separate suicide from martyrdom is the perception that suicide is for self-regarding reasons (internal) while martyrdom is for God or another good besides themselves (external). Even then, we have those who cross the gray area such as the case of Ahithophel who may have died to preserve his estate rather than his honor. Regardless, even in martyrdom, a choice is often present even though it is not self-inflicted.

The use of martyr to describe death because of religious persecution is not found in Jewish thought until the beginning of Christianity. However, there are stories of those who suffered and died because of their religious beliefs. During the Second Temple period, suicide and martyrdom become somewhat mingled. For instance, the Jewish threat to Emperor Gaius includes not only promise of a slaughter of the innocents but so too suicide in protest of the proposed statue. “,Aποθανόντων τὸ ἐπίταγμα γενέσθω μέμψαιτʼ ἂν οὐδὲ θεὸς ἡμᾶς ἀμφοτέρων στοχαζομένους καὶ τῆς πρὸς τὸν αὐτοκράτορα εὐλαβείας καὶ τῆς πρὸς τοὺς καθωσιωμένους νόμους ἀποδοχῆς· γενήσεται δὲ τοῦτο ἐὰν ὑπεκστῶμεν ἀβιώτου βίου καταφρονήσαντες.” This has a recognizable history as part of the New Testament canon (specifically Hebrews 11). There is, of course, the religious death of the figure mentioned in Isaiah 52–53. Daniel records a possible massacre (11.29–34) with the promise of resurrection (12.1–3). In the latter author’s case, it is probable he is referring to the time of the Maccabees. The same series of casualties is recorded in the Testament of Moses. Perhaps the best-known execution tales escaping Second Temple Judaism is the story of the mother with seven sons (2 Maccabees 7, cf 4 Maccabees 8; perhaps referenced in Hebrews 11.35–36) and Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6.18–31). Likewise, there is the death of John the Baptizer, Stephen, and even Paul — all considered martyred. Josephus (BJ 7.320–406) records the suicidal martyrs at Masada, although in tones barely above that of his previous speech condemning those who take their own life.


In this section, I will examine briefly the Maccabean martyr tradition followed by the death of the Jews as Masada. Rather than delving into canonical examples of martyrdom, I believe it is better to focus on that which has already been identified as aiding the developing notion of an atoning death. “…The concept of Jesus’ death as saving event had as its creative source a tradition of beneficial, effective human death for others…this concept originated among Christians who not only spoke Greek but were also thoroughly at home in the Greek-Hellenistic thought world.

Blidstein, Honor Thy Father and Mother: Filial Responsibility in Jewish Law and Ethics, 2–5.

F.F. Bruce suggests Abel is the first known martyr, a tradition in the Old Testament culminating with Zachariah. “In particular, it appears that Chronicles came at the end of the Bible which they used: when our Lord sums up all the martyrs of Old Testament times He does so by mentioning the first martyr in Genesis (Abel) and the last martyr in Chronicles (Zechariah). (See Lk. xi. 51 with 2 Ch. xxiv. 21).” F.F. Bruce, “The Canon of Scripture,” Inter-Varsity (Autumn 1954): 19-22.

Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 236.

The Book of Daniel contains two more stories of martyrdom, albeit unsuccessful martyrdoms (Daniel 3 and 6).

See Sam K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept,” 230. Further, I will rely on Jarvis Williams’ recent work (Maccabean Martyr Traditions in Paul’s Theology of Atonement) in developing some of the allowance that martyrdom could be an atoning death — while maintaining the devotio (contra to Williams) is not a type of martyrdom.

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2 Replies to “Moving to Martyrdom”

  1. Originally a product of Protestant propaganda rather than diligent research, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is reminiscent of the old story about George Washington’s ax having “had two heads and God only knows how many handles!” Still, it should not be wholly discounted.

    Nevertheless, all wars tend to have some religious component. Sometimes it may be loaded on the front end a propaganda. At other times, it is woven into the history of the conflict. Depending on authorship, it might be an irrelevant footnote.

    Even the Holocaust could be portrayed as a religious war — pitting Aryan lore against Hebrew mythology — rather than as eugenics-inspired genocide based on junk science and twisted minds.

  2. I don’t know… Every time I read Maccabees, I can’t help but think this is some kind of Saturday Night Live skit!
    I know it is suppose to be a serious subject, but come on now. These guys really know how to spoil a potentially good BBQ.
    “Martyrdom of Eleazar.
    * Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
    But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture,
    spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.
    Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king.
    Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.
    But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!””

    What would the Cowboys in Texas say? Especially since the poor guy was given an out, and he didn’t take it. Suicide or stupidcide?

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