PROPTER CHRISTUM: Who is a witness?
Words take on different meanings with the passage of time. While this is well-known, it is sometimes surprising to discover one particular word whose meaning has changed without catching our attention. When this transition remains unnoticed, confusion and misunderstanding quickly follow. For such words, understanding what they formerly meant as opposed to what they mean now is crucial for understanding.
The word "witness" falls into this category. Below is an introduction to Rev. Alan Ludwig's careful study of the word and its meaning in Acts. As students of scripture, Lutherans do well to pay careful attention to the definition and use of words. Ludwig's study gives such attention to the word "witness."
The entire essay can be found in the forthcoming festschrift in honor of Daniel Preus: Propter Christum: Christ at the Center. Visit LOGIA's website to reserve your copy. It is being offered at a discounted introductory price of $29.99, and is scheduled to be released in November. Act now to take advantage of the savings!
WHO ARE THOSE WITNESSES AGAIN? Acts 1:8 in Context
— Alan Ludwig
Today it is commonplace, and not only in churches of the Baptist-Evangelical persuasion, to hear sermons that exhort the hearers to "go out and witness." Appeal for this is regularly made to Acts 1:8, which reads in part: "And you will be my witnesses, both in Judea and in Jerusalem and in Samaria, and to the end of the earth." How the preacher has made the move from the original disciples to the people in the pew, from those who received these words from the mouth of Jesus to those who hear them from the preacher's lips, seldom receives an explanation. That all Christians are witnesses is assumed as a self-evident truth that needs no apology.
And yet this easy application of Acts 1:8 to all Christians is a relative latecomer on the ecclesiastical scene. Is it warranted? To answer this question it is necessary to take a careful look at a text that we often take for granted. This study then will include a brief survey of the witness word group in the New Testament-the verb μαρτυρέω and its cognates-and after that examine more closely the peculiar Lukan use of these terms, with special regard to Acts 1:8.
Witness in the New Testament
The Witness words are μαρτυρέω, "to bear witness, testify"; μαρτυρία and μαρτύριον, "witness," "testimony"; and μάρτυς, "one who bears witness or testifies." Some of these words also have compound forms.1 For full information the reader is referred to the standard lexicons and theological wordbooks.
The Old Testament Background of Witness
In addition to its usual meaning in Greek, this witness word group is heavily flavored by Old Testament usage. There μάρτυς and its related words usually translate d[eand its Hebrew cognates, which have a firm setting in the legal sphere.2 The witness is generally one who has gained information firsthand through seeing or hearing, and he testifies to what he knows. God, man, and inanimate things may serve as witnesses. The Torah and its individual parts are also called "testimonies" because they provide written attestation to God's salvation and to the divine will.
Witness in General in the New Testament
Virtually all of the Old Testament uses carry over into the New Testament, though not in equal measure. Especially prominent is the Torah's requirement that every word be established at the mouth of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). This is not only a feature of Jewish life regulated by the Torah (Matt 26:59-61; John 8:17-18; Heb 10:28) but also extends to life in the church (Matt 18:16), even to the churches of the Gentile mission (2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19; cf. 1 Cor 14:27, 29).
There are two essential characteristics of a witness (μάρτυς): he has gained information, usually by firsthand observation, and he conveys this information to others, often in a formal or legal setting. At the one end of the spectrum, the μάρτυς may be virtually a spectator who observes (Heb 12:1).3 At the other end, the act of testifying and the content of the testimony take precedence over how the testifier came by the information (Rev 12:11, 17). . . .
The Apostolic Witness to Christ
When Jesus tells his disciples that the Paraclete will bear witness concerning him, he goes on to say, "and you also bear witness, because you are with me from the beginning [ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς]" (John 15:26-27; cf. Luke 1:2). The disciples' testimony is the witness of those who have seen and heard firsthand, and it is through this testimony that the Spirit himself will bear witness of Christ (Acts 5:32), just as he has already witnessed to the Messiah through Moses and the Prophets. John states beautifully the role of these eyewitnesses in the opening words of his first epistle:
That which was from the beginning [ἀπ᾿ἀρχῆς],4 which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it [μαρτυροῦμεν] and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3 ESV)
The "we" here is surely John and his fellow apostles.5 The truth of their testimony is confirmed by their having been present with him "from the beginning" (John 15:27; Acts 1:21-22) and having heard, seen, and touched the Word of Life. . . .
- διαμαρτύρομαι, "to give solemn testimony, exhort, warn"; ἐπιμαρτυρέω, "to bear witness, attest"; καταμαρτυρέω, "to testify against"; προμαρτύρομαι, "to bear witness beforehand, predict"; συμμαρτυρέω, "to bear witness with," "support by testimony"; συνεπιμαρτυρέω, "to testify at the same time"; ψευδομαρτυρέω and its noun cognates, "to give false witness," "false witness, false testimony." ↩
- ʿēd, "witness"; ʿēdâ, "testimony, witness"; ʿēdôt, "testimonies"; ʿēdût, "testimony"; tě‘ûdâ, "attestation"; and the denominative verb ʿwd, "to bear witness, testify." For a more comprehensive treatment, see C. van Leeuwen, "ēd witness," in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 2:838-46. Editor's note: For the actual Hebrew terms, please see the book.] ↩
- More is involved in the use of μάρτυς in this passage than the righteous men and women of faith who have finished the course "witnessing" us as we run the race. See Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 354–55. ↩
- This ἀπ᾿ἀρχῆς has been taken in various senses, including from the beginning of creation, from the time of the incarnation, or from the time of Jesus' revelation as Son of God at his baptism. If the last of these is right, then there is a link both with John 15:27 and Acts 1:21–22. For the various views and the arguments in favor of this, see Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible 30 (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 155–58. ↩
- So, for example, Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistles of St. John (London: Macmillan, 1886), 4, 6, 9; and other traditional commentators. Modern scholars who attribute the authorship of the epistle to a "Johannine school" of course understand it differently (Brown, Epistles of John, 158–61). ↩