Church History Forum: protomartyr
protomartyr QUESTION from John October 1, 2001
I was taught that St. Stephen, stoned for his faith in Christ, was the first Christian martyr.
But where does that leave St. John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod well before Stephen's death? Why do we not recognize St. John as the protomartyr?
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on September 17, 2001 Dear John,
Yes, St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. St. John the Baptist is not regarded as a martyr, but is known rather as the Precursor or forerunner of Jesus Christ. The term â€œmartyrâ€ is from the Greek martus meaning witness. It is used in this sense in Acts 1:21-22 where St. Peter says (RSV version):
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection. Insofar as St. John the Baptist was more a precursor, rather than a witness of all that Jesus did in His public ministry, he is therefore commemorated in this capacity.
In addition, St. John the Baptistâ€™s death occurred before the visible Catholic Church was founded by Christ. The term â€œmartyrâ€ has itâ€™s proper meaning only after the founding of the Church, presumably because only then was Jesusâ€™ public ministry complete and so it was possible to be a witness to it in itâ€™s completeness.
Finally I would point out that Hebrews 11:32ff lists many heroes of faith from the Old Testament period who died for their faith, yet are not categorized â€œmartyrsâ€ as such:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life.
Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment.
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated-- of whom the world was not worthy--wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
For further reading, please see Catholic Encyclopedia: Martyr
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