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Martyrdom is popularly understood as a selfless act, an act of self-sacrifice. In contrast, I argue that martyrdom is first an act of self-formation. To make this claim, I propose two theses. The first is that the most ubiquitous and yet, paradoxically, most overlooked difference of the martyr is the death. The second is that, in keeping with the qualitative difference of the death, martyrdom is a violent action. Connecting these two theses, I represent the martyr as autothanatos, one who enacts self-death. Autothanatos represents a move toward recognition of the martyr's agency and of the ubiquity of death and violence, not only in the martyr's actions, but in the discourse of those who remain. An aim of this study, through establishing the function of death and violence in the Western Christian tradition, is to minimize violence as a decisive factor in distinguishing religious traditions.


This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion following peer review. The version of record Vol. 82, issue 2, pp. 472-494, is available online at doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfu013