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Partly in response to an earlier ‘pathological approach’ that seemingly stigmatised early Christian martyrdom, recent scholarship has adopted an ‘identity approach’ that explains martyrdom as a normative discourse of self-construction. This explanation of martyrdom as Christian identity-making, not willing death, is insufficient for three reasons. First, this approach implicitly reaffirms the theological claim that religious identity alone makes martyrs. In doing so it reduces the complexity of the individual martyr to ‘Christian’. Second, this approach excises the existential phenomenon of the martyr from martyrdom. Third, the term ‘identity’ has become ubiquitous, and its use to mark both sameness and difference has mitigated its value. As a result, the identity approach cannot answer a critical question: what makes the martyr different? Given the early Christian martyr’s pride of place in cultural understandings of martyrdom and the present-day persistence of martyrdom across ideologies with tragic results, relevant scholarship must continue to address the impetus of the martyr-agent in addition to exploring martyrdom’s identity-making functions. A multi-disciplinary approach is required to avoid apologetics for early Christian narratives and to understand the complex psychosocial dynamics of martyrdom, whether in the ancient past or the present.

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This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Mortality on February 2022, available online:

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