Glossary of Terms

martyr / witness


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

martyr (Gk. martys), a technical term in second-century Christianity for those who showed allegiance to Christ by their death. In the nt, the death of Stephen (Acts 22:20) and references to Christians who suffered death (Rev. 2:13; 17:6) carry some of the nuances of this later meaning. The earlier Greek term, however, is generally translated ‘witness’ (see Acts 7:54-58; Rev. 11:2-11, which emphasize the prophetic witness rather than the death itself).

witness (Heb. ayd; Gk. martys), in the legal sphere, one who speaks from personal experience about what happened to oneself or another. This may occur at a trial (Deut. 17:6; Prov. 19:28; Mark 14:63) or a legal transaction (Isa. 8:2; Jer. 32:10). It is in this legal sense that two or three witnesses are called upon to corroborate a member’s apostasy (Matt. 26:60; 2 Cor 13:1; Heb. 10:28). Witnesses initiate the death sentence (Deut. 17:7; Acts 7:58). Bearing false witness is roundly condemned (Exod. 20:16; Prov. 12:17; Acts 6:13) and can bring severe reprisal (Deut. 19:16-21; Prov. 21:28). Sometimes a pillar or altar of rocks is built as a visible witness to a convenantal agreement (Gen. 31:44; Josh. 22:27, 34; Isa. 19:19-20). God is frequently called upon as a witness to confirm a person’s or nation’s proper or improper conduct (1 Sam. 12:15; Rom. 1:9; Jer. 29:23; Micah 1:2).

The term takes on several specialized meanings in the nt, referring to a person present at the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:22) or to one who attests to the truth about God (John 8:18; Rev. 1:5; 11:3). The ‘cloud of witnesses’ in Heb. 12:1 compares the multitude who have suffered but retained their faith to the great crowd of spectators at a Greco-Roman athletic contest, whose presence spurs the contestants to give their best efforts. ‘Martyr’ is derived from the same Greek word as ‘witness.’

For more resources on martyrs, including the text of some of their writings, browse:


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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