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.