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What is martyrdom?In the aftermath of 9/11, and the increase of the phenomenon of ‘suicide bombing’, it has become important for politicians, academics, and religious leaders to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ manifestations of martyrdom. In order to do so, and to counter those who argue for the legitimacy of the suicide-attack, they must appeal to an objective and shared definition of martyrdom. However, as this article demonstrates, such a definition is elusive. Moreover, the quest to find one is doomed to failure; martyrdom has always been a contested phenomenon. Even excluding those who kill themselves or others from martyr-status is problematic, as examples of those remembered as martyrs are found in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. Official ecclesiastical canonisation processes are vulnerable to popular acclamation of ‘unofficial’ martyrs, and in any case churches often break their own rules. While mining the earliest Christian usage of the term ‘martus’ might appear promising, martyrdom was no less controversial in the early church, and functioned primarily as a means of creating and maintaining group identity, especially in the context of intra-Christian conflict. By examining martyrological narratives from the early, Reformation, and modern periods–where I show that martyrologies can be created quite separately from their martyr’s actual convictions–I argue that attempts to distinguish between true and false ideologies of martyrdom are simply replaying historical disputes, and should be read as contributions to the martyrological process of creating or maintaining religious or political group identity.