What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Luke begins with words that many have understood to be an assurance that its narrative is based on the firsthand eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus for themselves. Here is Craig S. Keener‘s rendition of Luke 1:1-2

. . . many have sought to complete a narrative of the acts fulfilled in our midst, just as those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the message have from the beginning transmitted them orally to us. (from the header to chapter 10, “The Gospels’ Oral Sources”, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 139)

Keener captures the meaning Richard Bauckham imputes to the term “eyewitnesses” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

The autoptai [eyewitnesses] are simply firsthand observers of the events. (p. 117)

Now . . . we have discovered how important was the notion of an eyewitness who was qualified to tell the whole gospel story by virtue of participation in it from beginning to end . . . . (p. 124)

John N. Collins, in a 2010 Expository Times article, ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’ on the other hand, has cogently argued that the term translated “eyewitnesses” in Luke 2 almost certainly means something quite different from this widely-embraced view, and after 2 1/2 years Richard Bauckham has still to find time to respond. One scholar who has noticed Collins’ article is Thomas L. Brodie. He cites it six times in Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (For info on John Collins see his details at the end of his review on Catholica.)

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke
English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collins closely examines the context of the word for eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2 and concludes it refers to officers of long-standing in the Christian community. At this point it is important to recall the opening words of Luke’s preface:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled [peplērophorēmenōn] among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you [NRSV]

Given that the opening verses are about literary activity, and the close association of the “autoptai” with “servants”, Collins further concludes that their role was related to the authentication of the documents accumulated from those many literary endeavours.

The word in question is found only once in the New Testament so there are no other biblical comparisons that can assist us with its meaning. The essence of Collins’ argument follows. (In all quotations the bolding is my own, not original.)

Eyewitnesses are also the Servants of the Word “From the Beginning”

First, Collins draws attention to the word order of the Greek. He sets out the above NRSV translation the following word order to reflect the Greek:

the from beginning eyewitnesses and servants being of the word

Servants and eyewitnesses are bracketed as a unit between “the” and “being/genomenoi“. It is clear that the two terms, eyewitnesses and servants, are to be understood as the one and same group with the same dual functions — eyewitnessing and serving — from the beginning.

Collins finds further evidence that the eyewitnesses should not be understood as eventually “becoming” servants of the word in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae [TLG] database of ancient Greek usage. This shows that genomenoi (being) and autoptai (eyewitnesses) belong together as an idiomatic expression (conveying the sense of “being myself an eyewitness”). In contrast, there is no comparable idiomatic instance of the words “becoming” with “servants”. This supports Fitzmyers’ conclusion about Luke’s prologue thirty years earlier based on the way Josephus used the words.

Accordingly, the commonly held view that Luke meant that the eyewitnesses eventually “became” servants of the word is unfounded. The construction and idiomatic linking of “becoming” with “eyewitnesses” means that the same group of people whom Luke refers to in his prologue were both eyewitnesses and servants from the beginning.

The TLG database of ancient Greek usage records that of the 57 instances of autopt- prior to 100 CE, 54 instances occur in context with some form of gignes- thai (the verb to which the participle genomenoi belongs). Exactly the same pattern repeats in 200 instances (over and above citations of Luke’s phrase in Christian writers) over the next 400 years. On the other hand, no instance of such a pairing (other than at Luke 1:2) occurs in the case of the Greek servant word (hypēret-). Again we have a conclusion to draw. The participle genomenoi occurs in the phrase by reason of an extraordinarily consistent idiomatic connection between autopt- and one or other form of the verb gignesthai. This pairing of autoptai with genomenoi would appear to lend to Luke’s expression the force of a phrase like ‘being myself an eyewitness’.

Having the ‘servants’ within the bracket with ‘eyewitnesses’ has further implications. The designated individuals within the bracket are people with a dual function, namely, ‘being eyewitnesses’ and ‘being servants’. . . . . the individuals so designated have been responsible for the two functions ‘from [the] beginning’. We can say this because that idea is within the brackets as well. This is not something commentators normally allow, but the bonding of ‘eyewitnesses’ and ‘servants’ is such as to make the choice irresistible.

Eyewitnesses of what?

The phrase in question is “eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. Collins points out that even Origen, in this context, asked how one can see a sound. His conclusion was that “word” (or “logos“) meant either Jesus the Word or the message being taught.

The latter option fits with the phrase ‘servants / hypēretai of the word’ because Luke himself applies hypēretēs along with martys to Paul as a title bestowed upon Paul by the heavenly Christ (Acts 26:16). It is also a title Paul assumes for himself and fellow evangelists (1 Cor. 4:1). hypēretēs is, in fact, a term with a well established place in bureaucratic usage for minor officials.[footnote to Diakonia, 362]

Understand that logos (word) could mean the written word as well as the spoken word. It can simply mean “book”. In Acts, Luke refers to his earlier work, the Gospel, as a logos (treatise) and Eusebius likewise refers to his own Church History as a logos. Eusebius also refers to “the divine logos” having been proclaimed throughout the generations by word of mouth or the pen (Collins, 452).

After Jesus finished reading the chosen passage in the synagogue he handed the book back to the person in charge of the Scriptures. This person was the hypēretēs. “As well as handling the material, [these officers] also taught to it.” (Collins)

“Servants of the word” is accordingly easy enough.

But what about autoptai (translated “eyewitnesses”) of the word?

The translation for autoptai as “eyewitnesses” is somewhat misleading (both Bauckham and Collins note this) if we associate it with any forensic or formal meaning related to lawcourts. But Collins also notes that Bauckham has been narrowly selective when he finds an ancient use of the term autoptai that means “firsthand observers of events” within the context of a medical autopsy (Galen). The same ancient sources offer a much broader understanding of the term, and

provide instances of people seeing for themselves after the event, as in visiting foreign locations where events had happened in the past.

Other uses are more pertinent and show the term could apply to witnessing things that were not “events” at all:

  • Herodotus 2.29.3: observation of the course of a river
  • Polybius 12.4d.2: observation of the texture of the lotus fruit
  • Polybius 18.35.5: observation of a treasure horde
  • Polybius 29.21.8: observation of a decadent culture
  • Josephus, AJ 18.342.2: observation of a woman’s beauty
  • Josephus, AJ 19.125.2: observation of an enemy’s corpse

Collins’ conclusion:

Why not, also, [autoptai of] a logos as a document? Or ‘the logos’ as the documentary cache of the Christian tradition that Luke focuses on throughout the preface?

Luke’s preface can well be understood as a reference to the existence of community officers with responsibilities in connection with the logos as read and taught in the community’s schooling programme.

Luke’s preface can well be understood as a reference to the existence of community officers with responsibilities in connection with the logos as read and taught in the community’s schooling programme. Luke’s autoptai can refer to “community officers who authenticate the documents that have accumulated from the ‘many’ literary initiatives Luke report.”

Recall once again at this point Luke 1:2

just as they were handed on (paredosan) to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word

The term “handed on” suggests some process of teaching tradition, as Collins quotes Bauckham:

. . . in Bauckham’s view, and as Luke’s use of ‘handed on/paredosan’ plausibly indicates, the development involved within the Gentile churches some process of teaching and learning which was supported by ‘specially authorised guarantors of the traditions’.

Richard Bauckham maintains (in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) that this tradition was oral. Collins, however, points to the introductory words of Luke’s preface to show that it was literary:

However, it takes little more than a glance at the preface of Luke to realise that Luke’s focus is upon a literary tradition. Virtually the only element in the preface distracting us from that is the presence in our translations of ‘eyewitnesses’ and, to a lesser and uncertain degree, ‘servants of the word’. Weighing against any emphasis upon orality in the making of the tradition are the first words Luke writes. These are about the ‘many’ who had already turned their hands to writing a narrative. Such literary compositions have prompted Luke to plan and compose another one, which now lies before Theophilus.

The tradition central to the community was the subject matter of “what was written”:

The subject matter of the earlier writings constitutes the tradition that is central to the identity of the community out of which Luke is writing. He projects a keen awareness of the communal dimension of the activity, ‘us’ occurring twice, and all the activity being in-house.

Two stages are apparent, which implies a considerable number of years:

  1. the writing of the narratives about affairs of the community (1:1)
  2. and the reception of the narratives within the community through the agency of the ‘autoptai and hypēretai of the logos’ (1:2).

The reception of the narratives is an extension of the literary activity which produced them, and was itself literary: the narratives had to be read aloud to the community. (my formatting)

Collins points out that Luke brackets his Gospel with reference to the written tradition. After his resurrection Jesus explained that everything written about him in the Scriptures must be fulfilled: Luke 24:44. The Gospel itself is “a rich, complex and enlightening web of theologising about the messianic character of Jesus drawn from the Scriptures of Judaism.” Paul himself was engaged in the same activity:

Long before Luke Paul had evidenced his own need to draw upon the literary treasures of Israel for an understanding of the new dispensation, and the tasks of exploration and evaluation involved in such research and theologising were extensive and demanding of the highest literary skills. The books to be dealt with were not neat and concise but bulky and awkward. There was much handling and fingering of many volumes.

The message for Theophilus

that you may learn to have a deeper appreciation of the treatises about which you have been instructed

The last phrase of the prologue explains Luke’s purpose in writing this new logos for Theophilus: Luke 1:4

so that you may know the certainty of the things [logōn] you have been taught. (NIV)

Collins suggests that the meaning of this may well be captured in the following words:

‘that you may learn to have a deeper appreciation of the treatises about which you have been instructed’

Whether we are free to be as literarily specific as this, the text surely is asking us to stay close to the sphere of ideas, message, discourse. Whether written or spoken, these last logoi connect us back to the teachings contained in the earlier narratives of the ‘many’, in the function of the ‘servants of the logos’, and they turn our attention forward to the rich fare in the narrative about to open. (452)

autoptai as guarantors of the tradition

And what have ‘the autoptai [“eyewitnesses”] of the logos’ contributed to this process?

These people have continued to perform the function complementary to – although prior to – their function as hypēretai [“servants’]. They have responsibility for the library of the community, receiving and authenticating documents of the tradition. They are highly literate and have received their appointments from the community. They fill precisely the role Bauckham selected for his ‘specially authorised guarantors of the traditions’. What is more, they have done this ‘from the beginning’ of the community’s life as Christian disciples.

The difference here from Bauckham’s view, of course, is that that tradition was literary, not oral.

Brodie again

I first became aware of John Collins’ article by reading Brodie’s Beyond the Quest and I referred to it in my earlier post. Collins in fact stresses (more than Brodie does) that the literary tradition complemented a process of teaching and learning. What Brodie and Collins have in common is that both view the tradition being taught was literary and not oral (as per Bauckham). Brodie’s book develops the idea that the Gospels originated from a “school” or “schools”. This concept is well known in Old Testament studies (e.g. the Deuteronomic school), but Brodie suggests that there was a similar type of New Testament School. With respect to Luke, he writes:

Luke has long been recognized as a writer in the Greco-Roman mold, trained in rhetoric and an imitator of several aspects of the Old Testament. His background, therefore, is that of rhetorical schooling. Furthermore, while Luke imitated the Old Testament, he also appears to reflect various aspects of Greco-Roman historiography and biography, especially the kind of intellectual biography which was associated with the schools and with the recounting of the life of Socrates. In the words of Loveday Alexander, ‘The school traditions lying behind the literary texts are of great significance for Acts’ (Alexander, 1993:31). This does not prove that Luke worked with a school, but it shows that the experiences and traditions of schools were not alien to him. On the contrary, he seems to have been very much at home in them. And as already seen in this chapter, Australia’s J. N. Collins sets Luke within a literary line. (Beyond Quest, 191)

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

24 thoughts on “What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?”

  1. I´m rather convinced that the eyewitnesses claiming that they saw the resurrected Christ actually saw James the Just alive after him being attacked by Paul on the top of the temple stairs. James fell all the way down to the end of the stairs and was left for dead by Paul. This event later on floated into pagan christian mytology [through oral tradition] and then became a part of the pagan Jesus saga. The eyewitnesses might very well have seen the followers of James carrying his lifeless body through the streets of Jerusalem and yet later he appeared to them alive, leaving some to think that James had been resurrected from the dead somehow.

  2. Curioser and curioser. Yet we have no information on any of these schools until the Second Century, and even then, from apologetic writings (ex.: Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho. Something tells me the gospels are not as old as we are led to believe.

    1. John Collins in his concluding paragraph raises the relative dating question:

      Among commentators much discussion has attended the relative date that should be allotted to this ‘beginning’. Most are attracted to the beginning indicated by Peter in Acts 1:22, which is the opening of the preaching of John the Baptist. This may sit well for those who see autoptai as ‘eyewitnesses’ ‘throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’. However, as argued above, the unity of the phrase ‘the from beginning autoptai and hypēretai being of the word’ requires that the autoptai and hypēretai are one set of individuals with dual functions that they perform more or less contemporaneously. And while autoptai could, theoretically, have functioned for the community from the time of the preaching of John, the ‘hypēretai of the word’ could not. In fact, in the context of discipleship of the living Master the phrase makes no sense.

      The questions multiply if the narrative originated as a parable or theological metaphor. But Collins himself does not go down that route.

  3. Excellent post! Very interesting to find there is something to discuss about the identity of these ‘eyewitnesses’ and what they are witnesses to.

    (Just a word left out in third paragraph after title “Eyewitnesses of what?” – possibly should read ‘Eusebius likewise refers to [his] own Church History as a logos’?) — [Neil: corrected, thanks.]

    Thank you for your very interesting and informative blog.

  4. The introduction of Luke’s gospel might look ambiguous, but one thing is certain: “Luke” wanted people to believe his/her gospel was written before 70 CE. That was crucial to be thought as such by the audience because “Luke” added details describing the events of 70 CE in Judea, as Jesus’ prophecies. If known to be written later, then these prophecies would be doubted and the book likely trashed.
    So the author pretended his/her gospel was compiled when Jesus’ eyewitnesses were still around, well before 70 CE. And that’s what I would use to interpret the introduction.

  5. Hi,

    Since the Theophilus being referred to here was pretty definitely the high priest, and thus the Gospel would have been written in 41 AD, this should be taken into consideration in the chronology considerations. With the terminus ad quem then being less than one decade after the resurrection. And thus eyewitnesses would tend to be simply … eyewitnesses.

    Steven Avery
    Bayside, NY

      1. Hi,

        There is a lot of evidence covered in The Theophilus Proposal, by Richard H. Anderson (1996). Plus earlier this was discussed by scholars like Theodore Hase, Johann David Michaelis and William Paley. A skeptic and mythicist can not consider this possibility because they are trapped in late dating paradigms, so in my experience. they reject such historical connections by circular reasoning.

        If you want one simple point, Theophilus was the high priest at a crucial time, and his family was still closely involved in the Temple high-priesthood at the time of Acts, and there is not other candidate with remotely those clear connections named Theophilus. Every other attempt is vapid conjecture on nothing.

        Richard Anderson, John Lupia and Lee Dahns go into many other elements such as the unusual Lukan emphasis on Joanna, who fits archaeologically (the tomb of Caiaphas) as the granddaughter of Theophilus.

        The linguistic “argument” is simply an argument, with dueling linguists on a hapax. There is nothing to “overturn”, it barely qualifies as a minor consideration.

        [Removed Steven Avery’s complaint that I delete some of his comments and remove portions of others. – Neil :-)]

        Steven Avery
        Bayside, NY

        1. A ‘Joanna’ is mentioned twice in Luke. No mention is made of either of these women being a ‘granddaughter’ of anybody. As she was apparently grown up by about 30 AD, that would make Theophilus a very old man, by the time of Acts.

          I quote http://commentarylukeacts.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/the-high-priestly-garments/
          ‘Joanna was a fairly common name among Jewish women of the given period.’

          Of course, that does not prevent people indulging in wild flights of speculation that marks them out as people who have absolutely no idea what is meant by reality.

  6. Hi,

    Hi, yes, Steven, we can know the age of Theophilus, about 80. How old do we see Simeon and Anna as being ? Very little chemicals and processed foods in those days. My pop is 98, and I would agree that now he is a little elderly. There is no evidence that the former high priest Theophilus was deceased at 60 AD.

    Have you read the Richard H. Anderson paper and the ensuing discussions ? Do you really expect me to do all the homework for you, especially on a forum where my posts are likely to be deleted or edited ?

    [Complaint about my deleting paragraphs from Steven Avery’s comments deleted here — -Neil]

    Steven Avery

    1. What homework? I looked at the Gospel of Luke, saw that it mentioned Joanna twice, saw that you claimed this was Luke singling out Joanna for special mentions, and haven’t stopped wondering what on earth leads people like Anderson to write what he did.

  7. Hi,

    Sure it was special mention, since she was actually named at the empty tomb. Richard Anderson also goes into other elements, like chiastic structures.

    However, since Neil refuses to be accountable for his own claims, I have switched my emphasis to the Rationalskepticism forum, where, at least so far, my posts do not get deleted and (snipped) to Neil Godfrey embarrassment convenience. The current studies are on the location of Nazareth that is sensible and Biblically consistent, looking at the three major alternatives.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading