Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
Is one who lays down his life or suffers death for the sake of his religion. The word is Greek, and properly signifies a "witness." It is applied by way of eminence to those who suffer in witness of the truth of the Gospel. The Christian church has abounded with martyrs, and history is filled with surprising accounts of their singular constancy and fortitude under the cruelest torments human nature was capable of suffering. The primitive Christians were accused by their enemies of paying a sort of divine worship to martyrs. Of this we have an instance in the answer of the church of Smyrna to the suggestion of the Jews, who, at the martyrdom of Polycarp, desired the heathen judge not to suffer the Christians to carry off his body, lest they should leave their crucified master, and worship him in his stead. To which they answered, "We can neither forsake Christ, nor worship any other; for we worship him as the Son of God; but love the martyrs as the disciples and followers of the Lord, for the great affection they have shown to their King and Master." A like answer was given at the martyrdom of Fructuosus in Spain; for when the judge asked Eulogius, his deacon, whether he would not worship Fructuosus, as thinking, that, though he refused to worship the heathen idols, he might yet be inclined to worship a Christian martyr, Eulogius replied, "I do not worship Fructuosus, but him whom Fructuosus worships."
The primitive Christians believed that the martyrs enjoyed every singular privileges; that upon their death they were immediately admitted to the beatific vision, while other souls waited for the completion of their happiness till the day of judgment; and that God would grant to their prayers the hastening of his kingdom, and shortening the times of persecution. Perhaps this consideration might excite many to court martyrdom, as we believe many did. It must be recollected, however, that martyrdom in itself is no proof of the goodness of our cause, only that we ourselves are persuaded that it is so. "It is not the blood, but the cause that makes the martyr." (Mead.) Yet we may consider the number and fortitude of those who have suffered for Christianity as a collateral proof at least of its excellency; for the thing for which they suffered was not a point of speculation, but a plain matter of fact, in which (had it been false) they could not have been mistaken. The martyrdom, therefore, of so many wise and good men, taken with a view of the whole system of Christianity, will certainly afford something considerable in its favour. The churches built over the graves of the martyrs, and called by their names, in order to preserve the memory of their sufferings, were distinguished by the title martyrium confessio, or memoria.
The festivals of the martyrs are of very ancient date in the Christian church, and may be carried back at least from the time of Polycarp, who suffered martyrdom about the year of Christ 168. On these days the Christians met at the graves of the martyrs, and offered prayers and thanksgivings to God for the example they had afforded them: they celebrated the eucharist, and gave alms to the poor; which, together with a panegyrical oration or sermon, and reading the acts of the martyrs, were the spiritual exercises of these anniversaries. Of the sayings, sufferings, and deaths of the martyrs, though preserved with great care for the above purpose, and to serve as models to future ages, we have but very little left, the greatest part of them having been destroyed during that dreadful persecution which Dioclesian carried on for ten years with fresh fury against the Christians; for a most diligent search was then made after all their books and papers; and all of them that were found were committed to the flames. Eusebius, indeed, composed a martyrology, but it never reached down to us; and those since compiled are extremely suspected. From the eighth century downwards, several Greek and Latin authors endeavoured to make up the loss, by compiling, with vast labour, accounts of the lives and actions of the ancient martyrs, but which consist of the little else than a series of fables: nor are those records that pass under the name of martyrology worthy of superior credit, since they bear the most evident marks both of ignorance and falsehood.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Martyr'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/m/martyr.html. 1802.