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What is a Martyr?

Updated on December 26, 2016

A martyr is one who dies for his religion or suffers for any great cause. Many martyrs are executed for political treason when their religion conflicts with that of the state. Most martyrs freely choose their course of action. Martyrs figure in many world religions and are usually honored as a category of saints, with their names listed in martyrologies.


The term "martyr" from the Greek martys, meaning "witness", originally referred to the Apostles as witnesses of the life of Christ. It then came to mean those who died in Roman persecutions; for example, Saints Peter and Paul. Others also came to be considered martyrs- those who endured suffering for their faith, virgins who preserved their chastity, nurses of plague victims, and monks. The ranks of martyrs increased as medieval Catholics persecuted heretics and as Catholics and Protestants persecuted one another during the Reformation. Later Christians continued to die as martyrs-missionaries, such as the Jesuit Martyrs of North America; lapsed converts to Islam, such as the New Martyrs in the Ottoman Empire; and believers living in atheistic states, such as Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches officially recognize a cult of martyrs, which developed in the early church. They were invoked to intercede with God, and their miracle-working relics were avidly collected. Local clergy drew up martyrologies (called synaxaria and menelogia in the East) of martyrs and other saints listed by feast days. Some included brief histories. Appropriate sections were read aloud daily. The official Roman Martyrology (1584), based on many earlier ones, has been periodically revised. Other Christian communions respect martyrs but usually do not venerate them.


Early martyrs of Judaism included Old Testament figures, such as Isaac, and Jews who died in Roman persecutions. The Midrash lists Ten Martyrs: Akiba ben Joseph and other rabbis who were executed under Hadrian for founding schools to teach the Law. Jews persecuted by Christians were listed as martyrs, along with learned Jews, in memory books, such as the Memory Book of Nuremberg (1898), preserved in medieval synagogues. Passages were read on special days to help preserve the continuity of the Jewish community. Although they did not choose their fate, the millions of Jews executed by the Nazis are considered martyrs.


Muslims count as martyrs some Old Testament figures, Mohammed and other early leaders, and the murdered brothers Hasan and Husayn. In addition, warriors who die in a jihad (holy war) are martyrs, as are those whose deaths are pitiful, as from plague, in childbirth, or abroad. Shi'ite Muslims have a highly developed cult of martyrs and seek burial near their tombs, such as that of Husayn at Karbala.


Buddhists believe that Gautama Buddha was a martyr in his previous lives, as described in the Jakatas. Mahayana Buddhists worship bodhisattvas (saints) as compassionate martyrs who, through many lives, not only sacrifice life itself for the sake of truth but also postpone their own bliss in order to help suffering men. Bodhisattvas include historical teachers and kings and legendary beings, such as Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. The trials of the bodhisattva "Ever-weeping" are related in The Perfection of Wisdom.


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