A martyr is somebody who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, and/or refusing to advocate a belief or cause, usually a religious one. Most martyrs are considered holy or are respected by their followers, becoming a symbol of good leadership and heroism.
In psychology, a person who has a martyr complex, sometimes associated with the term victim complex, desires the feeling of being a martyr for his/her own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need.
In some cases, this results from the belief that the martyr has been singled out for persecution because of exceptional ability or integrity. Theologian Paul Johnson considers such beliefs a topic of concern for the mental health of clergy. Other martyr complexes involve willful suffering in the name of love or duty. This has been observed in women, especially in poor families, as well as in codependent or abusive relationships. It has also been described as a facet of Jewish-American folklore.
The desire for martyrdom is sometimes considered a form of masochism. Allan Berger, however, described it as one of several patterns of “pain/suffering seeking behavior”, including asceticism and penance.
In its original meaning, the word martyr, meaning witness, was used in the secular sphere as well as in the New Testament of the Bible. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness, although it is known from ancient writers (e.g. Josephus) and from the New Testament that witnesses often died for their testimonies.
During the early Christian centuries, the term acquired the extended meaning of a believer who is called to witness for their religious belief, and on account of this witness, endures suffering and/or death. The term, in this later sense, entered the English language as a loanword. The death of a martyr or the value attributed to it is called martyrdom.
The early Christians who first began to use the term martyr in its new sense saw Jesus as the first and greatest martyr, on account of his crucifixion. The early Christians appear to have seen Jesus as the archetypal martyr.