Bartlett, R. E. “The Cloud of Witnesses: Hebrews xii. 1.” Expositor. First Series, 5 (1877): 149-53.
In this brief article, Bartlett argues against the popular conception that Hebrews 12:1 talks about “witnesses as persons looking on at a spectacle.” The word μαρτυς means “one who bears testimony” (cf. Acts 7:58; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28; Acts 22:20; Rev 2:13; 17:6; 3:14). If the writer wanted to convey the idea of spectators, the word θεατης (onlookers at a spectacle) was readily available. Bartlett avers that μαρτυς could never be used in the sense of θεατης. He notes that Greek commentators such as Chrysostom and Theodoret so understood the term.
The words μαρτυρειν and μαρτυς are used throughout chapter 11 (vs. 2, 4, 5, 39). In all these passages “witness is borne of the elders, testimony given in their favour.” Hence, the meaning of 12:1 is as follows: “Having so great a cloud of saints of old ready to bear witness in our favour if we run well.”
Chapter 11 is a description of faith as exemplified in the heroes of the OT. The author parades them before us “as witnesses of the unseen power which animated them, to testify to us that as they ran so can we run; as they overcame so can we overcome.” They are not one or two, but a cloud; they are not here and there, but they encompass us round about.
Bartlett remarks that “we lose the crowd of onlookers (θεαται) watching us intently, marking every false step, rejoicing in every vigorous effort . . . [but] we gain the μαρτυρες, the witnesses to the prevailing power of faith, cheering us on, encouraging us when we falter, warning us when we stumble.”
I must admit that, until now, I have taken the “cloud of witnesses” to refer to spectators, but in light of Bartlett’s compelling argument, I will have to reconsider.