Adeeb Syed

Thesis Title:  A Church of Martyrs? A Study of the Development of Christian Martyrdom and its Role in Shaping Christian Identity."

Advisors:  James T. Johnson and Tia M. Kolbaba


My interest in religion stems from my mixed religious background and my lack of a religious upbringing.  The concepts of “God” and “religion” were always something mystical and foreign to me.  The Rutgers Religion Department and its wonderful faculty--especially Professor Johnson and Professor Kolbaba--have guided me along a path to a clearer understanding of religion and how it is an integral part of human history—past, present, and future.

My honors thesis focuses on martyrdom in early Christianity.  Martyrdom and early Christianity are both complex in themselves.  My study analyzes the various texts that early Christians produced in their understanding of martyrdom.  I view the differences between these texts as a sort of discourse, or dialogue, that these different Christians are engaged in as their respective views on what martyrdom means also influences what it means to be a Christian.  I contend that Christianity, in its infancy, was most likely a religion of martyrdom—as Christians sought to emulate and imitate the martyrdom of Jesus Christ.  However, around the early second century, there began to be a shift in the general Christian understanding of martyrdom.  Several factors influenced such a paradigm shift: a delay in apocalyptic expectations, the rapid growth and spread of Christianity, upper class converts to Christianity, and the growth of a Church that is growing more hierarchically organized and willing to participate in society rather than reject the world.  However, this shift was not uniform.  My methodology of analyzing martyrdom as a discourse representing a particular trend among certain Christians accounts for a multitude of views coexisting with each other while being radically different. There was a balancing act: martyrdom began to become marginalized to a certain extent, but its importance as a component of Christian identity was never really lost—it was continually being reinterpreted to suit the general beliefs of the time. In fact, martyrdom grew in importance during times of persecution and dwindled during times of peace.  When Christianity becomes a religion of the Roman Empire around the early fourth century, I argue that the discourse of martyrdom is reinterpreted again and used advantageously by the organized Church.  In addition, the spiritual energy of martyrdom, in the absence of persecution, was transferred to the ascetic Christian monks.  Though the earliest Christians perceived martyrdom as vital to the Christian experience, an idea that may seem repugnant or incompatible with Christianity in the modern world, I think, if we look hard enough, we can still see remnants of the spiritual energy of martyrdom present in Christianity today.