In Heb. 12:1, it is written,

Αʹ Τοιγαροῦν καὶ ἡμεῖς τοσοῦτον ἔχοντες περικείμενον ἡμῖν νέφος μαρτύρων ὄγκον ἀποθέμενοι πάντα καὶ τὴν εὐπερίστατον ἁμαρτίαν δι᾽ ὑπομονῆς τρέχωμεν τὸν προκείμενον ἡμῖν ἀγῶνα TR, 1550

My question concerns the word μαρτύρων, which is a noun declined from the lemma μάρτυς. Based on the context of Heb. 11 which describes many saints being killed for their faith,1 and the context of Heb. 12:1 which describes living saints running a race and being encompassed or surrounded by a “cloud of μαρτύρων,” how should μαρτύρων be understood? Witnesses? Martyrs? Or, perhaps both?


1 cp. Heb. 11:36–37


Using the search tool at the Unbound Bible site, or any similar site/application, it can be seen that μαρτύρων is rendered in the KJV as "witnesses" or "testifies" in all but one instance, Revelation 17:6, where it is given as "martyrs".

In regard to Revelation, my guess is the KJV translators chose "martyrs" because their blood has been shed for their testimony. It could be, though, that these particular "witnesses" are the "prophets", since the writer of Revelation refers to "saints" and "prophets" in Revelation 11:18, 16:6 and 18:24 -- "saints and martyrs" or "saints and prophets", either way works, since both have had their blood shed for their testimony.

The saints (αγιων - holy ones) have died for their testimony, too, but they have distinguished themselves in other ways, such as their prayers (Revelation 5:8,8:3-4), patience and faith (Revelation 13:10, 14:12), and their righteousness (Revelation 19:8).

Additional Comment

There are two occurrences of the singular form of the noun, μαρτυρος. One in Acts 22:20 in reference to Stephen, and the other in reference to Antipas in Revelation 2:13.

The circumstances recorded in Acts surrounding the death of Stephen, possibly explains the preference for, and hence the growth in, the usage of the word "martyr".

Further Comments

The pursuit of martyrdom is something that should be discouraged. Stephen was killed for the "witness" of his faith in Jesus. He is referred to as a martyr, but making martyrdom his pursuit would have been the furthest thing from his mind.

Here's the issue with the notion of martyrdom:

So it befell the blessed Polycarp, who having with those from Philadelphia suffered martyrdom in Smyrna--twelve in all--is especially remembered more than the others by all men, so that he is talked of even by the heathen in every place: for he showed himself not only a notable teacher, but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, seeing that it was after the pattern of the Gospel of Christ.
-- The letter of the Smyrnaeans 19:1

How many times does "martyr" appear in this passage in comparison to "Christ"? It's 3 to 1, and "Christ" is only a peripheral reference.

Here is a danger to be avoided: martyrs are glorified, and if they are glorified, Christ is not. In the letter from which the passage comes, there are five "Blessed Polycarp"s, three "holy Polycarp"s, a "glorious Polycarp" and a "glorious martyr Polycarp".


μαρτύρων refers to "witnesses", i.e. those who testify in word and deed to the goodness of God, regardless of the consequences. In the one place in Revelation where the KJV has given "martyrs", there is sufficient evidence for them to have chosen "prophets" instead, with a footnote indicating the word is actually "witnesses".

  • Isn't there more than one instance of it being translated as "martyr"? blueletterbible.org/search/… – user862 Apr 9 '16 at 16:06
  • Yes, there are two others. I will update my answer. – enegue Apr 9 '16 at 22:03
  • I gave you a courtesy (+1) for relating back to its usage in an early church text, but I disagree with the application of the passage re: discouraging the 'pursuit of martyrdom', as it isolates the text from its own context and fails to engage with why martyrdom became such a big deal for early Christians. Application is off-topic, anyway. A good answer should simply demonstrate the usage of μαρτυρος in such texts, and explain how that might influence our exegesis of the key passage and other NT uses. After re-reading your answer, I probably should not have given it that upvote... – Steve Taylor Apr 12 '16 at 11:10
  • 34 times various forms of the root μάρτυς appear the NT, and only three of them are rendered martyr/s. I'm pretty sure that wasn't an accident -- just enough rope, you know. – enegue Apr 12 '16 at 11:21

Heb. 12:1 - How should μαρτύρων be understood?

In this verse, Paul is referring to those that died in Hebrews 11. We call them martyrs; he called them “martys” or “martus" ("of uncertain affinity, a witness," Strong's G3144). Thayers Lexicon: "one who is mindful, heeds." This Greek word appears many times in the NT and only three times translated as “martyr,” each time denoting those that died, refusing to recant their faith in Christ (Acts 22:20, Revelation 17:6, Revelation 22:13). It is more often translated as “witness.”

“Research Enthusiast” writes:

“So who is responsible for this ‘restriction’ of the word to refer only to those who died for the faith? The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature points the finger at the “early ecclesiastic writers,” who “applied it to every one who suffered death in the Christian cause.”

In Acts 1:22, Paul writes:

“Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.”

He didn’t say “witness.” He said “martys.” Martys was translated as “witness.” That means the translators of Acts 1:22 are saying that, in order to be a witness, you must be ordained; you must receive The Holy Spirit**. “Ordained” is “ginomai” (Strong’s G1096). Strong’s definition: “To become, come into being." Thayer’s Lexicon: “to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being.” “Ordained” means you’ve received The Holy Spirit.

So the translators are saying that in order to be a witness, you have to receive The Holy Spirit, yet Paul is saying that the people of Hebrews 11 did not receive The Holy Spirit. So how can Hebrews 12:1 be translated as “cloud of witnesses” when it’s a reference to the people in Hebrews 11 that did not receive The Holy Spirit?** I think there's a discrepancy here.


I think Paul is using the idea of running a race to faith. It reminds me of the film, "Chariots of Fire." See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSav51fVlKU

Paul also uses the term "race" in 1 Corinthians 9:24,KJV:

"Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV uses the idea of winning a "race" as one of several analogies to compare the highs and lows of man to death. Here, the "race" is given to the winner.

  • Thank you, Daisy. I didn't downvote your answer, but perhaps you can mention the context of Heb. 12:1 (i.e., the race) and argue why it shouldn't be translated as "witnesses" (like most if not all translations do). – user862 Apr 9 '16 at 23:35
  • Ok, I'm adding to it in order to answer your questions here. – Daisy Apr 11 '16 at 20:42
  • Thanks to all the people that voted up this question. It's taking me a while to learn this site and I recently found where all the info is stored and smiled when I saw all the pluses. – Daisy Apr 13 '16 at 1:15

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