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A Christian martyr is one who is killed for following Christianity, through stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment. The word "martyr" comes from the Greek word which means "witness."

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 "classic" age of martyrdom. A martyr's death was considered a "baptism in blood," cleansing one of sin as baptism in water did. Early Christians venerated martyrs as powerful intercessors, and their utterances were treasured as inspired specially by the Holy Spirit.

Martyrdom in Christian theology

The lives of the martyrs became a source of inspiration for Christians, and their lives and relics were revered. The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church," implying that the martyrs' willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. Relics of the saints are still revered in the Catholic Church. The age of martyrdom led to the presence relics in altars, and the architecture of the buildings built for worship.

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 schism.

In 1933 the German church historian Ethelbert Stauffer put forth the proposition that the Christian tradition of martyrdom began with the earlier Jewish tradition, in which suffering was caused by Satan's power in this "aeon," or era, but that it ushered in a new aeon.

History of Christian martyrdom

The first known Christian martyr was St. Stephen as recorded in the , who was stoned to death for his faith. Stephen was killed for his support, belief and faith in Jesus Christ of Nazarethmarker as the Messiah. There were probably other early Christian martyrs besides Stephen, since St. Paul, acknowledged persecuting Christians before his conversion( ff.). 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.

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