Christian martyr

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The first Christian martyr Saint Stephen, painting by Giacomo Cavedone StStephen GiacomoCavedone.jpg
The first Christian martyr Saint Stephen, painting by Giacomo Cavedone

In Christianity, a martyr is a person considered to have died because of their testimony for Jesus or faith in Jesus. [1] In years of the early church, stories depict this often occurring through death by sawing, stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment. The word martyr comes from the Koine word μάρτυς, mártys, which means "witness" or "testimony".


At first, the term applied to Apostles. Once Christians started to undergo persecution, the term came to be applied to those who suffered hardships for their faith. Finally, it was restricted to those who had been killed for their faith. The early Christian period before Constantine I was the "Age of Martyrs". "Early Christians venerated martyrs as powerful intercessors, and their utterances were treasured as inspired by the Holy Spirit." [2]

In western Christian art, martyrs are often shown holding a palm frond as an attribute, representing the victory of spirit over flesh, and it was widely believed that a picture of a palm on a tomb meant that a martyr was buried there. [3]


The use of the word μάρτυς (mártys) in non-biblical Greek was primarily in a legal context. It was used for a person who speaks from personal observation. The martyr, when used in a non-legal context, may also signify a proclamation that the speaker believes to be truthful. The term was used by Aristotle for observations, but also for ethical judgments and expressions of moral conviction that can not be empirically observed. There are several examples where Plato uses the term to signify "witness to truth", including in Laws. [4]


The Massacre of the Innocents (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1515), National Museum in Warsaw. Cranach Massacre of the Innocents (detail).jpg
The Massacre of the Innocents (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1515), National Museum in Warsaw.

The Greek word martyr signifies a "witness" who testifies to a fact he has knowledge about from personal observation. It is in this sense that the term first appears in the Book of Acts, in reference to the Apostles as "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ. In Acts 1:22, Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples regarding the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection". [5]

The Apostles, according to tradition, faced grave dangers until eventually almost all suffered death for their convictions. Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martyrs came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death. From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who suffers death rather than deny his faith. St. John, at the end of the first century, employs the word with this meaning. [5] A distinction between martyrs and confessors is traceable to the latter part of the second century: those only were martyrs who had suffered the extreme penalty, whereas the title of confessors was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief, by bravely enduring imprisonment or torture, but were not put to death. Yet the term martyr was still sometimes applied during the third century to persons still living, as, for instance, by Cyprian who gave the title of martyrs to a number of bishops, priests, and laymen condemned to penal servitude in the mines. [5]


The Martyrdom of San Acacio (Acacius, Agathus, Agathius). From Triptych. Museo del Prado Agathius-Acacius-Acacio-martyrdom.jpg
The Martyrdom of San Acacio (Acacius, Agathus, Agathius). From Triptych. Museo del Prado

Religious martyrdom is considered one of the more significant contributions of Second Temple Judaism to western civilization. It is believed that the concept of voluntary death for God developed out of the conflict between King Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the Jewish people. 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees recount numerous martyrdoms suffered by Jews resisting the Hellenizing of their Seleucid overlords, being executed for such crimes as observing the Sabbath, circumcising their children or refusing to eat pork or meat sacrificed to foreign gods. With few exceptions, this assumption has lasted from the early Christian period to this day, accepted both by Jews and Christians.

According to Daniel Boyarin, there are "two major theses with regard to the origins of Christian martyrology, which [can be referred to] as the Frend thesis and the Bowersock thesis". Boyarin characterizes W.H.C. Frend's view of martyrdom as having originated in "Judaism" and Christian martyrdom as a continuation of that practice. Frend argues that the Christian concept of martyrdom can only be understood as springing from Jewish roots. Frend characterizes Judaism as "a religion of martyrdom" and that it was this "Jewish psychology of martyrdom" that inspired Christian martyrdom. Frend writes, "In the first two centuries AD. there was a living pagan tradition of self-sacrifice for a cause, a preparedness if necessary to defy an unjust ruler, that existed alongside the developing Christian concept of martyrdom inherited from Judaism." [6]

In contrast to Frend's hypothesis, Boyarin describes G.W. Bowersock's view of Christian martyrology as being completely unrelated to the Jewish practice, being instead "a practice that grew up in an entirely Roman cultural environment and then was borrowed by Jews". Bowersock argues that the Christian tradition of martyrdom came from the urban culture of the Roman Empire, especially in Asia Minor:

Martyrdom was ... solidly anchored in the civic life of the Graeco-Roman world of the Roman empire. It ran its course in the great urban spaces of the agora and the amphitheater, the principal settings for public discourse and for public spectacle. It depended upon the urban rituals of the imperial cult and the interrogation protocols of local and provincial magistrates. The prisons and brothels of the cities gave further opportunities for the display of the martyr’s faith. [7]

Boyarin points out that, despite their apparent opposition to each other, both of these arguments are based on the assumption that Judaism and Christianity were already two separate and distinct religions. He challenges that assumption and argues that "making of martyrdom was at least in part, part and parcel of the process of the making of Judaism and Christianity as distinct entities". [8]


Beheading of John the Baptist by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860 Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bibel in Bildern 1860 187.png
Beheading of John the Baptist by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860

Tertullian, one of the 2nd century Church Fathers wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church", implying that a martyr's willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. [9]

The Age of Martyrs also forced the church to confront theological issues such as the proper response to those Christians who "lapsed" and renounced the Christian faith to save their lives: were they to be allowed back into the Church? Some felt they should not, while others said they could. In the end, it was agreed to allow them in after a period of penance. The re-admittance of the "lapsed" became a defining moment in the Church because it allowed the sacrament of repentance and readmission to the Church despite issues of sin. This issue caused the Donatist and Novatianist schisms. [10] [11]

"Martyrdom for the faith ... became a central feature in the Christian experience." [12] "Notions of persecution by the "world", ... run deep in the Christian tradition. For evangelicals who read the New Testament as an inerrant history of the primitive church, the understanding that to be a Christian is to be persecuted is obvious, if not inescapable" [13]

The "eschatological ideology"[ citation needed ] of martyrdom was based on an irony found in the Pauline epistles: "to live outside of Christ is to die, and to die in Christ is to live." [14] [15] In Ad Martyras, Tertullian writes that some Christians "eagerly desired it" (et ultro appetita) [martyrdom]. [15]

The martyr homilies were written in ancient Greek by authors such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Asterius of Amasea, John Chrysostom and Hesychius of Jerusalem. These homilies were part of the hagiographical tradition of saints and martyrs. [16]

This experience, and the associated martyrs and apologists, would have significant historical and theological consequences for the developing faith. [17] [18]

Among other things, persecution sparked the devotion of the saints, facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity, prompted defenses and explanations of Christianity (the "apologies") and, in its aftermath, raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church.

The Early Church

Stephen is the first martyr reported in the New Testament, accused of blasphemy and stoned by the Sanhedrin under the Levitical law. [19] Towards the end of the 1st century, the martyrdom of both Peter and Paul is reported by Clement of Rome in 1 Clement. [20] The martyrdom of Peter is also alluded to in various writings written between 70 and 130 AD, including in John 21:19; 1 Peter 5:1; and 2 Peter 1:12–15. [21] The martyrdom of Paul is also alluded to in 2 Timothy 4:6–7. [22] While not specifying his Christianity as involved in the cause of death, the Jewish historian Josephus reports that James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned by Jewish authorities under the charge of law breaking, which is similar to the Christian perception of Stephen's martyrdom as being a result of stoning for the penalty of law breaking. [23] Furthermore, there is a report regarding the martyrdom of James son of Zebedee in Acts 12:1–2, and knowledge that both John and James, son of Zebedee, ended up martyred, appears to be reflected in Mark 10:39. [24]

Judith Perkins has written that many ancient Christians believed that "to be a Christian was to suffer," [25] partly inspired by the example of Jesus. The lives of the martyrs became a source of inspiration for some Christians, and their relics were honored. Numerous crypts and chapels in the Roman catacombs bear witness to the early veneration for those champions of freedom of conscience. Special commemoration services, at which the holy Sacrifice were offered over their tombs gave rise to the time honoured custom of consecrating altars by enclosing in them the relics of martyrs. [5]

The Roman Empire

Martyrs Maximus and Theodotus of Adrianopolis, c. 985 Martyrs Martyrs Maximus and Theodotus of Adrianopolis.jpg
Martyrs Maximus and Theodotus of Adrianopolis, c. 985
Wall painting of martyred saints, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael from the town of Samalut with Saints Damian and Cosmas, martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian in the late 3rd century AD. Stucco. 6th century AD. From Wadi Sarga, Egypt. British Museum Wall painting of martyred saints, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael from the town of Samalut with Saints Damian and Cosmas. Stucco. 6th century CE. From Wadi Sarga, Egypt. British Museum.jpg
Wall painting of martyred saints, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael from the town of Samalut with Saints Damian and Cosmas, martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian in the late 3rd century AD. Stucco. 6th century AD. From Wadi Sarga, Egypt. British Museum

In its first three centuries, the Christian church endured periods of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities. Christians were persecuted by local authorities on an intermittent and ad hoc basis. In addition, there were several periods of empire-wide persecution which were directed from the seat of government in Rome.

Christians were the targets of persecution because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the emperor as divine. In the Roman Empire, refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor or the empire's gods was tantamount to refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to one's country.

The cult of the saints was significant to the process of Christianization, but during the first centuries of the Church the celebrations venerating the saints took place in hiding. [16] :4 Michael Gaddis writes that, "The Christian experience of violence during the pagan persecutions shaped the ideologies and practices that drove further religious conflicts over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries." [26] Martyrdom was a formative experience and influenced how Christians justified or condemned the use of violence in later generations. [26] Thus, the collective memory of religious suffering found in early Christian works on the historical experience of persecution, religious suffering and martyrdom shaped Christian culture and identity. [27]

The Middle Ages

Historians recognize that during the Early Middle Ages, the Christian populations living in the lands invaded by the Arab Muslim armies between the 7th and 10th centuries AD suffered religious discrimination, religious persecution, religious violence, and martyrdom multiple times at the hands of Arab Muslim officials and rulers. [28] [29] As People of the Book, Christians under Muslim rule were subjected to dhimmi status (along with Jews, Samaritans, Gnostics, Mandeans, and Zoroastrians), which was inferior to the status of Muslims. [29] [30] [31] Christians and other religious minorities thus faced religious discrimination and religious persecution, in that they were banned from proselytising (for Christians, it was forbidden to evangelize or spread Christianity) in the lands invaded by the Arab Muslims on pain of death, they were banned from bearing arms, undertaking certain professions, and were obligated to dress differently in order to distinguish themselves from Arabs. [30] Under sharia , non-Muslims were obligated to pay jizya and kharaj taxes, [29] [30] [31] together with periodic heavy ransom levied upon Christian communities by Muslim rulers in order to fund military campaigns, all of which contributed a significant proportion of income to the Islamic states while conversely reducing many Christians to poverty, and these financial and social hardships forced many Christians to convert to Islam. [30] Christians unable to pay these taxes were forced to surrender their children to the Muslim rulers as payment who would sell them as slaves to Muslim households where they were forced to convert to Islam. [30] Many Christian martyrs were executed under the Islamic death penalty for defending their Christian faith through dramatic acts of resistance such as refusing to convert to Islam, repudiation of the Islamic religion and subsequent reconversion to Christianity, and blasphemy towards Muslim beliefs. [28]

In the 15th century moral treatise Dives and Pauper about the Ten Commandments, the figure Dives poses this question about the First Commandment: "Why are there no martyrs these days, as there used to be?" Pauper responds that the English were creating many new martyrs sparing "neither their own king nor their own bishops, no dignity, no rank, no status, no degree". Pauper's statement is based on historical events, including the murder of King Richard II and the executions of Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York. [32] Dana Piroyansky uses the term "political martyrs" for men of "high estate", including kings and Bishops, who were killed during the Late Middle Ages during the course of the rebellions, civil wars, regime changes, and other political upheavals of the 14th and 15th centuries. Piroyansky notes that although these men were never formally canonized as saints, they were venerated as miracle-working martyrs and their tombs were turned into shrines following their violent and untimely deaths. [32] :2 J.C. Russell has written that the "cults of political saints" may have been a way of "showing resistance to the king" that would have been difficult to control or punish. [32] :3

Degrees of martyrdom

Some Roman Catholic writers (such as Thomas Cahill) continue to use a system of degrees of martyrdom that was developed in early Christianity. [33] Some of these degrees bestow the title of martyr on those who sacrifice large elements of their lives alongside those who sacrifice life itself. These degrees were mentioned by Pope Gregory I in Homilia in Evangelia, he wrote of "three modes of martyrdom, designated by the colors, red, blue (or green), and white". [34] A believer was bestowed the title of red martyr due to either torture or violent death by religious persecution. The term "white martyrdom" was used by the Church Father Jerome, "for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism". [34] Blue (or green) martyrdom "involves the denial of desires, as through fasting and penitent labors without necessarily implying a journey or complete withdrawal from life". [34]

Also along these lines are the terms "wet martyr" (a person who has shed blood or been executed for the faith) and "dry martyr" which is a person who "had suffered every indignity and cruelty" but not shed blood, nor suffered execution. [35]

Christian martyrs today

An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper, Le Monde Illustre, of the torture and execution of a French missionary in China by slow slicing Martyrerp 2.jpg
An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper, Le Monde Illustré, of the torture and execution of a French missionary in China by slow slicing

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity of Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary based in Hamilton, Massachusetts, previously estimated that 100,000 Christians die annually for their faith, although the CSGC has now disavowed this estimate. Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations later referred to this number in a radio address to the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council. [36] [37]

The methodology used in arriving at the estimate of 100,000 has been widely criticized. The majority of the one million people the Center counted as Christians who died as martyrs between 2000 and 2010, died during the Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the report did not take into consideration the political or ethnic differences which are accepted as the primary motive behind these killings. Todd Johnson, director of the CSGC, says his centre has abandoned this statistic. Vatican reporter and author of The Global War on Christians John Allen said: "I think it would be good to have reliable figures on this issue, but I don't think it ultimately matters in terms of the point of my book, which is to break through the narrative that tends to dominate discussion in the West – that Christians can't be persecuted because they belong to the world's most powerful church. The truth is two-thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live… in dangerous neighbourhoods. They are often poor. They often belong to ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. And they are often at risk." [38]

See also

Related Research Articles

History of Christianity Historical development of Christianity

The history of Christianity concerns the Christian religion, Christian countries, and the Christians with their various denominations, from the 1st century to the present. Christianity originated with the ministry of Jesus, a Jewish teacher and healer who proclaimed the imminent Kingdom of God and was crucified c. AD 30–33 in Jerusalem in the Roman province of Judea. His followers believe that, according to the Gospels, he was the Son of God and that he died for the forgiveness of sins and was raised from the dead and exalted by God, and will return soon at the inception of God's kingdom.

Paul the Apostle Early Christian apostle and missionary (c. AD 5 – c. 64/65)

Paul, commonly known as Paul the Apostle and Saint Paul, was a Christian apostle who spread the teachings of Jesus in the first-century world. Generally regarded as one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age, he founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe from the mid-40s to the mid-50s AD.

Persecution of Christians Persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians can be historically traced from the first century of the Christian era to the present day. Christian missionaries and converts to Christianity have both been targeted for persecution, sometimes to the point of being martyred for their faith, ever since the emergence of Christianity.

Martyr Person who suffers persecution

A martyr is someone that suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, or refusing to renounce or advocate, a religious belief or cause as demanded by an external party. In the martyrdom narrative of the remembering community, this refusal to comply with the presented demands results in the punishment or execution of an actor by an alleged oppressor. Accordingly, the status of the 'martyr' can be considered a posthumous title as a reward for those who are considered worthy of the concept of martyrdom by the living, regardless of any attempts by the deceased to control how they will be remembered in advance. Insofar, the martyr is a relational figure of a society's boundary work that is produced by collective memory. Originally applied only to those who suffered for their religious beliefs, the term has come to be used in connection with people killed for a political cause.

Donatism Christian sect

Donatism was a Christian sect leading to a schism in the Church, in the region of the Church of Carthage, from the fourth to the sixth centuries. Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. Donatism had its roots in the long-established Christian community of the Roman Africa province in the persecutions of Christians under Diocletian. Named after the Berber Christian bishop Donatus Magnus, Donatism flourished during the fourth and fifth centuries.

Simon the Zealot Apostle of Jesus

Simon the Zealot or Simon the Canaanite or Simon the Canaanean was one of the most obscure among the apostles of Jesus. A few pseudepigraphical writings were connected to him, but Saint Jerome does not include him in De viris illustribus written between 392 and 393 AD.

Jewish Christian Members of the breakaway Jewish movement that later became Christianity

Jewish Christians were the followers of a Jewish religious sect that emerged in Judea during the late Second Temple period. The Nazarene Jews integrated the belief of Jesus as the prophesied Messiah and his teachings into the Jewish faith, including the observance of the Jewish law. The name may derive from the city of Nazareth, or from prophecies in Isaiah and elsewhere where the verb occurs as a descriptive plural noun, or from both. Jewish Christianity is the foundation of Early Christianity, which later developed into Christianity. Christianity started with Jewish eschatological expectations, and it developed into the worship of a deified Jesus after his earthly ministry, his crucifixion, and the post-crucifixion experiences of his followers. Modern scholarship is engaged in an ongoing debate as to the proper designation for Jesus' first followers. Many see the term Jewish Christians as anachronistic given that there is no consensus on the date of the birth of Christianity. Some modern scholars have suggested the designations "Jewish believers in Jesus" or "Jewish followers of Jesus" as better reflecting the original context.

Diocletianic Persecution Period of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire (303-313)

The Diocletianic or Great Persecution was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In 303, the emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts rescinding Christians' legal rights and demanding that they comply with traditional religious practices. Later edicts targeted the clergy and demanded universal sacrifice, ordering all inhabitants to sacrifice to the gods. The persecution varied in intensity across the empire—weakest in Gaul and Britain, where only the first edict was applied, and strongest in the Eastern provinces. Persecutory laws were nullified by different emperors at different times, but Constantine and Licinius' Edict of Milan (313) has traditionally marked the end of the persecution.

This page is an index of lists of people considered martyrs. A martyr is someone who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, or refusing to advocate a belief or cause as demanded by an external party. This refusal to comply with the presented demands results in the punishment or execution of the martyr by the oppressor.

Anti-Judaism is the "total or partial opposition to Judaism as a religion—and the total or partial opposition to Jews as adherents of it—by persons who accept a competing system of beliefs and practices and consider certain genuine Judaic beliefs and practices inferior."

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire Roman religious persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians occurred, sporadically and usually locally, throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the 1st century AD and ending in the 4th century AD. Originally a polytheistic empire in the traditions of Roman paganism and the Hellenistic religion, as Christianity spread through the empire, it came into ideological conflict with the imperial cult of ancient Rome. Pagan practices such as making sacrifices to the deified emperors or other gods were abhorrent to Christians as their beliefs prohibited idolatry. The state and other members of civic society punished Christians for treason, various rumored crimes, illegal assembly, and for introducing an alien cult that led to Roman apostasy.

The persecution of Christians in the New Testament is an important part of the Early Christian narrative which depicts the early Church as being persecuted for their heterodox beliefs by a Jewish establishment in what was then the Roman province of Judea.

Abrahamic religions are those that worship the God of Abraham, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Spread of Christianity Aspect of history

Christianity began as a Second Temple Judaic sect in the 1st century in the Roman province of Judea, from where it spread throughout and beyond the Roman Empire.

Heresy Belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established belief or customs

Heresy is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs, in particular the accepted beliefs of a church or religious organization. The term is usually used in reference to violations of important religious teachings, but is also used of views strongly opposed to any generally accepted ideas. A heretic is a proponent of heresy.

Christianity in the ante-Nicene period Period following the Apostolic Age to the First Council of Nicaea in 325

Christianity in the ante-Nicene period was the time in Christian history up to the First Council of Nicaea. This article covers the period following the Apostolic Age of the first century, c. 100 AD, to Nicaea in 325 AD.

Outline of Christianity Overview of and topical guide to Christianity

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to Christianity:

The existence of a Christian community in the city of Najran is attested by several historical sources of the Arabian peninsula, where it recorded as having been created in the 5th century AD or perhaps a century earlier. According to the Arab Muslim historian Ibn Ishaq, Najran was the first place where Christianity took root in South Arabia.

Apostle Title given to a messenger or receiver of knowledge, especially in Christianity

An apostle, in its literal sense, is an emissary, from Ancient Greek ἀπόστολος (apóstolos), literally "one who is sent off", from the verb ἀποστέλλειν (apostéllein), "to send off". The purpose of such sending off is usually to convey a message, and thus "messenger" is a common alternative translation; other common translations include "ambassador" and "envoy". The term in Ancient Greek also has other related meanings.

Shahid, or Shaheed denotes a martyr in Islam and Sikhism. Shahid occurs frequently in the Quran in the generic sense "witness", but only once in the sense "martyr; one who dies for his faith"; this latter sense acquires wider use in the hadiths.


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