I am not sure what is at stake in the above question, but it has become an issue of current interest in some scholarly circles. For example, some have claimed that the early Christian gospels have been modeled on martyr stories in antiquity.1 The modern definition of martyr (the Greek word so translated is martus) is as follows:
1. One who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce his religion.
2. One who sacrifices his life or something of great value for the sake of principle.2
James Tabor, however, argues that the word “martyr” is nevertheless plagued by definitional problems but “simply put, martyrdom refers to the act of choosing death rather than renouncing one’s religious principles.”3 Marianne Blickenstaff, on the other hand, answers the question in my title by saying “in the New Testament (NT) the most noble martyrdom was that of Jesus whose resurrection became a symbol of God’s vindication of his righteousness and a promise of reward to those who remained faithful to his message.”4 It appears that the authorities cited above do not resolve the issue as to whether or not martus in the 1st century NT should be translated as an equivalent to the 2nd century act of Christian martyrdom (marturion).5
Oddly, in the NT the Greek word martus is rarely translated as martyr. Its usual translation is “witness.” Martus is used some 35 times in the New Testament in three different senses: a martus is one who bears witness in legal matters (Acts 7:58; Matt 18:16); or is one who affirms or attests, or testifies; that is, is a witness to something (Rom 1:9, Phil 1:8, 1 Thess 2:5); or is one who gives witness at the cost of one’s life (Acts 22:20, Rev 2:13, Rev 17:6). In the NT passages cited in this paragraph martus is translated as “witness” in the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible. On the other hand, in the Revised Standard Version out of all 35 instances only Rev 17:6 is translated as martyr. The rest are translated witness. In the New International Version, of the verses listed above only Acts 22:20 is translated as martyr. But they all translate Rev 1:5 (where martus is applied to Jesus) as “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness” (martus), rather than “Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr.”
One way to address the question is to ask: How does Jesus appear in the Gospel of Mark? In Mark, Jesus is not depicted as a Christian, but rather he is depicted as a Galilean exorcist, thaumaturge, and healer, whose popularity with the masses (3:7-10) and his laxity in following the traditions of the elders (7:1-13) ran him afoul of the Judean religious leaders (3:6; 11:15-18; 14:1). He was arrested and tried by the temple priests who found him guilty of blasphemy (14:60-64) and they turned him over to the Roman authorities (15:1). Pilate had him crucified for political/religious reasons (15:26).6 He was not given an opportunity to bear a witness or recant before the authorities, as happened in the case of the Christian martyrs of the second century.7 Before the religious authority (the High Priest) he admitted that he believed himself to be the messiah, the Son of the Blessed One (14:61-62), a claim he did not make before the Roman authority (Pilate, 15:1-5). Mark seems to regard his death as predetermined (10:45; 14:33-36, 49), rather than as something he could avoid.
He preached the good news of God that the Reign of God was imminent and that everyone should repent and believe his message (1:14-15), which announced the imminent end of the age (13:29-31). What he preached did not even come up in his trials.
Was Jesus a martyr? It depends on how one understands and translates martus. Mark, however, does not depict him as a martyr in the traditional sense. What do you think?
Missouri State University
2Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s.v. “martyr.”
3Tabor, “Martyr, Martyrdom,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:574.
4Blickenstaff, “Martyr,” New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, 3:822.
5Marturion in the NT is translated as testimony, witness, or proof, but in 2nd century Christian texts it tends to be translated as “martyrdom” and martus as “martyr.” See “The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna,” 2:312-45 in Kirsopp Lake, Apostolic Fathers (Harvard, 1965).
6Pilate, himself, raised the issue of Jesus claiming to be King, an idea that does not occur in the Gospel of Mark, except in 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32. It is however a theme in the Gospel of John (1:49; 6:15; 12:12-15). It appears that the Kingship of Jesus is introduced into Mark by Pilate, but he attributes it to the Judeans (15:12). Hence, “the inscription of the charge against him read: the King of the Judeans.” On the part of Pilate, sarcastically political; on the part of the Judeans, religious. The real reason for his crucifixion was the hatred of the Judeans that was enabled by the compliance of Pilate (15:15).
7For example, “Martyrdom of Polycarp,” IX-XI. The Roman Pro-counsel gave Polycarp the opportunity to recant his position: “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent and say, away with the atheists.” “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ.” “Swear by the genius of Caesar.” But Polycarp declines every offer to recant.
It is a very interesting question. The seminar spent time wondering if the historical Jesus had an apocalyptic view of history or even of his own role as an apocalyptic character. The apocryphal works that came before Jesus and the apocryphal works that came after make it hard for me to believe that he was clever enough to see the error of apocalyptical thinking but it seems that the members of the seminar came down heavily in favor of that belief. I can say that I would like to believe that Jesus was smart enough not to be like those who died in the Temple court, believing that God would intervene and end "the age" before the Temple burned but I am inclined to think that he was more a part of his age than he was the superman the later church needed for him to be. I tend to see Paul's influence on Mark's interpretation more than you do and my only defense is that Paul writing was increasingly popular by the time that Mark wrote. For Paul and Mark, the death of Jesus was a convenience that gave force to their "end of the age" thinking though for Jesus, it was likely an unfortunate consequence of fame and popularity….. a "gentile" Jew from the provinces encounters the orthodox priesthood of the temple and things went badly.
I'm wondering about the 'love your enemy' tradition. Until one gets to the crucifixion narrative, there seems to be little or no reference in the gospels to Jesus-actions which could be described/interpreted as loving enemies. Instead, we get 'Beware of the scribes (scholars)' (Mark 12:38), 'Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod' (Mark 8:15), 'Neither will I tell you (chief priests) by what authority I do these things' (Mark 11:33) 'Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!' (Matthew 23:13), etc.
On the other hand Jesus reportedly recognized that nature showed no partiality in how it treated humans and the Father was in charge of nature (Matthew 5:45) Not openly resisting crucifixion could be viewed as loving the enemy or at least as a non-violent approach to one's opponents based on the behavior of nature.
Or perhaps he (also?) thought/trusted/felt until the very end that his identity was so closely attached to the Father's immanent intervention that he chose not to resist the enemy. Maybe there's more 'historical Jesus' in Mark's remark to the high priest' than we think: 'You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, coming with the clouds of heaven.'
Good Morning Good Friend Roger,
I don't think that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. I only said that Mark presented him in that way. I think that his characteristic language was too oblique to allow me to think the core of his message was announcing the end of the age. Mark is simply wrong in that regard, but fortunately Mark preserved enough historical information to work against his image of Jesus.
Stay safe and come back healthy.
Good Morning. Gene,
Some of those Son of Man Sayings R. Bultmann thought were not references of Jesus to himself, but rather were references to a mysterious apocalyptic figure of the end of the age.
Based on Gethsemane and the “last words” on the cross, to me Mark does not present a martyr or a “noble death.” Instead, there is alarm, distress, and finally lack of trust from Jesus when he quotes Ps. 22, which figures into Mk. 15.20-34 with other portions of Ps. 22 interjected. That is not to say Jesus wasn’t used as a model for suffering and a willingness to die at the hands of the antagonists for later writers, but it was necessary to “tweak” the characterization a bit.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Evening Charlie,
1) Is it your understanding that heresy was punishable by death during the time that Jesus was killed? You mentioned blasphemy... What about heresy? (Is there much a difference between the two?)
2) The term martus is confusing because it doesn't explain how Jesus was a witness- he was martyred for being a witness? A witness to what? Was he killed for religious reasons or for political reasons? (Like Lincoln) What did his being a witness have to do with being martyred? It's an interesting concept.
3) Is it fair to say that Jesus was considered to be a heretic? His death seemed to have more to do with political power than with religious orthodoxy... unless I am mistaken about that. Fascinating as always- many thanks!! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
1. I don't recall any discussion of "heresy" before the Christian period. Greco-Roman religions seem far too diverse and pluralistic for anything like "heresy" to have existed. There is a big difference between heresy and blasphemy. Heresy is dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion or practice. Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of respect for God.
2. I cannot answer your question. According to Mark Jesus was not a martyr, or at least Mark does not describe Jesus as a martyr. Rev 1:5, however describes Jesus as a martus/witness (if translators are correct), but John the revelator does not say or indicate what he was witness to or for. I assume, however, at the very least that John would have accepted that Jesus was a witness for God (whatever that might have meant for John). As I have described the reason for crucifixion (not martyrdom) was the following: "the real reason for his crucifixion was the hatred of the Judeans that was enabled by the compliance of Pilate (Mark 15:15)." See footnote 6 in the blog essay.
3. Jesus was a heretic in the sense that he did not subscribe to the traditional beliefs of the Judean religious authorities (that is, to what they regarded as the traditions of the elders).
Your post about “heresy” piqued my curiosity because I had seen it before used I thought as a generic term in relationship to various “Judaisms,” neutrally. I have translations of Josephus and Philo, where I thought I saw this, but I had to go online to make sure the word for “sect” was the Greek used for “heresy” and that I wasn’t missing something. Here are a couple of examples: Josephus, “Life” 10 or 2, depending on the numbering scheme: “And when I was about 16 years old I had a mind to make trial of the several sects (heresies or αἱρέσεων) that were among us. These sects are three: ‘The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes...” One should note that in the Greek “heresies” only appears once. I was using Whiston’s translation. Josephus, incidentally, chose to observe the conduct of the Pharisaic sect, which he said was related to the Stoics. He had a similar statement about the three sects in Wars 2.119, calling the three above philosophical (φιλοσοφεῖται) sects among the Jews. Also, see Philo, “Contemplative Life” 29, as he speaks about the Therapeutae. It seems as though “sect,” like “martyr,” underwent changes. (That is understandable, looking at the number of different groups mentioned by Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Eusebius, around fifty separate groups, by a count I made several years ago.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Your reference to Josephus cites a well-known comment by Josephus.
In Danker's Greek-English Lexicon (3rd ed.) he lists 2 different definitions of airesis:
1. a group that holds tenets distinctive to it, hence "sect" or "party."
2. That which distinguishes a group's thinking, hence "opinion" or "dogma."
Good Evening Charlie,
Dennis referred to Jesus being used as a "model of suffering." Do you agree with that observation? Or was Jesus viewed as a liberator from suffering?
Put differently: In general, do you associate Jesus and Christianity with suffering or with freedom from suffering? Paul suggested that believers in Christ are called to share in his sufferings. Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
You ask a complicated question. I think that depending on how one views Jesus he can be used as a model of suffering or as the essential liberator. The reason for this is that when one talks about how one views Jesus one is addressing one's faith at least in part. The scholarly approach would attempt to gain some distance from the question by the questioner and ask about how the authors of the four gospels viewed Jesus. With respect to your question they may each view him differently. I don't think Mark, however, presented Jesus either as the model sufferer or as the essential liberator from suffering.
You are correct that some writers of the New Testament wrote about sharing the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 2:20-25; 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 4:13). In the case of the martyrs of the second century and later, they seemed to associate Jesus with suffering and even seemed to seek out martyrdom.
As I said above, I was speaking of "later writers." That would be such as Ignatius (esp. To the Romans), Martyrdom of Polycarp, Justin (Lucius and Ptolemy), and apocryphal acts.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
My two cents: Jesus was not a martyr because, contrary to the gospels, he did not seek out death for a greater cause. He did suffer death by crucifixion, of course, as a heretic (as Charlie said), a suffering the same as hundreds of thousands of other victims of Roman cruelty. In a sense by elevating Jesus on the cross to Christ on the cross, one has disrespected the other nameless thousands who experienced the same death and suffered no less. I prefer to say that Jesus was Jesus on the cross. and what happened later is borne on the testimony of Christians, for good or ill. So if one follows Jesus in good conscience, it could lead to "crucifixion," but not because of martyrdom, but because the forces of evil, as John Lewis would say, cannot abide "good trouble."
Thank you all... I do see that martyrdom was more of an emphasis of the early church fathers because they promoted martyrdom by extending sainthood to them after their death. However, the link that Charlie provided about Jewish martyrs only listed Jews who were persecuted for their Jewish faith by other cultures- not within Judaism itself. To the best that I can ascertain, Christianity is the only religion who "martyred" heretics within it's own religious faith. I've never heard of any other religion hunting down it's own participants and martyring them for straying from the established orthodoxy. Do any of you think the stoning of Stephen in Acts has any historical accuracy? The fact that Jews are portrayed as actually killing Christians is anti-Semitic propaganda and has been used to persecute Jews for many centuries. Elizabeth
Fiction. The word "stephanos" is probably a cue name. (It means "crown," found in other parts of the New Testament... Paul yearns for his "imperishable crown" in 1 Cor. 9, According to James 1.12, one who endures temptation receives a "crown of life," as do those who are faithful when tested by the devil in Rev. 2. Later, Polycarp receives the "crown of immortality" for his "martyrdom," in The Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.1. (And so forth...)
The author of Luke/Acts seemed to parallel events of the death of Jesus to create the death of Stephen, as is found in other "events" in Luke and Acts. As to the anti-Jewish bent of Acts, the first four chapters include half a dozen charges of the Israelites killing Jesus. Stephen, however, was shown more as the victim of a lynch mob after his vitriol, especially 7.51-53. I just a few months ago wrote an essay about the use of Stephen.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Hi Elizabeth,Try this site. It describes heresy in Judaism from a broader perspective.
Elizabeth here is another site that describes heresy in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and a few other religions:
I agree with you that Stephen's sermon was created by the author of Acts, whom we call Luke. But I wondered about the stoning. As I understand you, you think that Luke made it up out of "whole cloth," so to speak. But is it not possible that Luke's description was created out of a preexisting early Christian legend? If that were the case, then Luke developed his characterization out of Christian tradition. And that being the case then there may be a historical datum in the story? I think that the only source we have for Stephen's stoning, however, is the story in Acts.
The stoning, I think, was just the mechanism the author used because it wasn’t a Roman penalty then (as far as I know), and was a penalty attested in Judaism. Rome was not involved in the mob. The author presented Stephen’s antagonists as “sawn through in their hearts and grinding their teeth,” so furious they held their hands over their ears when they attacked. The status quo (Judeans, the Sanhedrin) is presented as irrational, hate filled. In killing Stephen they prove his tirade of 7:51-53.
Stephen begins as one of the seven “table servers.” All of their names tend to mean characteristics that are commendable to many just as names: Conqueror, Steadfast, Honorable, Conqueror of People, Crown, and Chorus Leader (in front of the chorus?). Philip seems the odd one out until one realizes that Philip (assuming as the Acts Seminar does, that this is the Philip of the “Seven”) chases down a eunuch’s chariot to preach to him and “made a splash!” Of course, Stephen, when it was apparent he wasn’t long for the world, saw the “heavens opened up...” an epiphany that his “crown” is near. I see them all as cue names. Of course, the representatives, even if only placeholders for the number “seven,” had names showing character traits handy if one was trying to evangelize. The two, Philip & Stephen, who had speaking parts also had names that were cues to what they might do in the narrative.
There are several ways Stephen’s death is like that of Jesus’s, especially if the same author wrote both, for me to think that the story came from pre-existing legend. I think it came from the pre-existing form of the legend that the author wrote in Luke,, so in that respect it is related to a legend. (Accusation; interrogation from high priest, “son of man” quote, crying out during death, commending the spirit of God and in some versions of Luke, but in Acts, forgiving enemies).
This story of Stephen also, according to Pervo (The Mystery of Acts), fits a loose pattern the author of Acts uses with Peter and John (Acts 3 – 4.31) and all the apostles (5.12-41), as well as in most of the book, so if this is accurate (I haven’t honed in on that) it is further evidence of the episode being the creation of the author.
The theme of the story is the Antagonism of the temple establishment toward the new movement and the vindication (the heavens opening) of the righteous servant. I don’t see a historical kernel in it.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Charlie, somehow I left out of the second paragraph that "Philip" means "horse lover," which means he would have had no problem doing his assigned "task," of reaching the chariot in, I think, chapter 8.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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