Originally the word martyr meant witness. The word “martyr,” from the Greek martus, literally means “a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation. The definition was used both in the secular world as well as in the Old and New Testament of the Bible. (Trites) The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness, although it is known from ancient writers [Josephus] that witnesses, especially of the lower classes, were tortured routinely before being interrogated as a means of forcing them to disclose the truth. (Wikipedia)
Most scholars consider the Hasmonean traditions preserved in Maccabees as representing the earliest Jewish strata of martyrology. A definition of martyrdom that includes:
- public declaration of one’s allegiance to God and Torah in the face of official demands to betray that allegiance or die;
- . the perception that this act fulfills a religious mandate (that death is what God demands when the alternative is apostasy);
- . the passionate commitment of the adherent to both God and Torah;
- . these deaths serve a larger redemptive purpose, generally for Israel as a whole; AND
- . death [or near death experience of Isaac—as interpreted later—or Daniel]. (Lander)
Jesus spoke of the time “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah” [Lk. 11:51; Matt. 23:35] when referring to the martyrs of the Old Testament. Since Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus was making a comprehensive statement covering the known Old Testament [Genesis—Chronicles]. (Vlach)
During the early Christian centuries, the term acquired the extended meaning of a believer who is called to witness for their religious belief, and on account of this witness, endures suffering and/or death. The death of a martyr or the value attributed to it is called martyrdom. (Wikipedia)
The Catholic ideal of martyrdom is found in Christ’s words of the Gospel: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” [Mt 10:39]. (Curley) Eventually the term “Christian martyr” became associated only with those who witnessed to Christ with their blood. (Encyclopedia)
An example of Martyrs found in the Old Testament in which the witnesses did not die is the story of the three young men put into the fiery furnace by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. “He ordered the furnace to be heated seven times more than usual and had some of the strongest men in his army bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and cast them into the white-hot furnace. [Daniel 3:19-20] Their belief in God saved them.
The Maccabees martyr stories are probably the most well know of the Old Testament. Because these books are found in the Septuagint and Deuterocanonical I think it is important to provide some information on the split between Jews and Catholics about the Maccabees books. Lander’s writes that there is evidence in both Josephus and in the writings of fourth century church fathers that the Jews of Modin and Antioch revered the Maccabees martyrs at their tombs. That Jews at Antioch built a shrine which purportedly contained the bones of the Maccabees mother of the seven sons. Jews as well as Christians would visit this shrine seeking healing and other miracles, an intermingling evidenced at the shrines of other Biblical sites in the Greek east.
What changed over the years creating the split on the tradition to the Maccabean Martyrs? Landers noted that as Jewish and Christian identity became increasingly defined holy places became sites of contestation. As Christians laid increasing claim to martyrs, martyrdom, and martyrologies, not to mention the frequency with which early Christian exegetes portrayed the Maccabean martyrs in particular as Jewish prefigurations of Jesus, Jews were less motivated to preserve these accounts as their own. Lander believes this is one of the reasons for the exclusion of the books of Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible.
The Maccabean Martyr stories express instances of martyrdom where citizens flaunting the restrictive religious measures imposed by King Antiochus Epiphanes. These are witnesses who die for their religious belief and love of God. Somewhat less well-know are the families massacred in witness to the law and to the Sabbath. First, those pursued and confronted by the officers and soldiers of the king into the desert “They said, ‘Let us all die without reproach; heaven and earth are our witnesses that you destroy us unjustly.’" [1 Mc 2:37]. Second there are the two mothers and their circumcised infants who are hurled from the city walls in public view. And third a group of secret Sabbath-observers are burned to death. [2 Mc 6:10-11].
More familiar are the martyrdoms of the elder scribe Eleazar and those of the pious mother and her seven sons. These witness stories are about observance of the law and the power of love for God. The officials ask Eleazar to eat pork or to pretend to eat pork by eating his own legitimately [allowed by the Torah] meat. [2 Mc 6:21]. Eleazar defies the order and declares, “I will show myself worthy of my old age and set a noble example for the young of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” [2 Mc 6.27-8]
A second, more famous, story is the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons. King Antiochus is the oppressor. He brutally tortures each son in front of their mother and a large crowd. This story also connects to the promise of a life after death and therefore use by Catholic to demonstrate Jesus’s message of losing one’s life to gain life. It is the testimony of the second son which first connects the death of martyrs to the promise of their resurrection, a claim repeated in the third and fourth son: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.” [2 Mc 7:9].
The fourth brother declares" It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life." firmly believing in God's promise of life. [2Mc 7:14] (Hoagland)
Finally as Landers writes the mother is revered as a model of courage and faith, as she implores her children to resist the imperial demands for apostasy. The seventh son heeds her advice, proclaiming at his death, “I will not obey the king's command. I obey the command of the law given to our forefathers through Moses. [2 Mc 7:30].”
Copyright 2011, Mary Dwyer
Catholic Encyclopedia. 1917. Print.
Curley, Jim. "The Catholic Ideal of Martyrdom." Catholic Men’s Quarterly Spring 2005. Web.
Hoagland C.P., Victor. "On Martyrdom: Ignatius of Antioch and Bishop Bossilkov." Bread on the Waters Web Pages. Web. <http://www.cptryon.org/cpexams/bossilkov/vhcp.html>.
Lander, Shira. "Martyrdom in Jewish Traditions." Catholic-Jewish Consultation Committee Meeting. St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, MD. 11 Dec. 2003. Web. <http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/cjrelations/resources/articles/Lander_martyrdom/index.html>.
"Martyr." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martyr>.
The New American Bible. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002. Web. <http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/index.shtml>
Trites, Alison. "MartyrThe New Testament Concept of Witness." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martyr>.
Vlach, Michael J. "How Did the Old Testament Become the Old Testament?" TheologicalStudies.org. Web. <http://www.theologicalstudies.org/page/page/1572454.htm>.