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)
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.)
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
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 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:
- the writing of the narratives about affairs of the community (1:1)
- 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
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.
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)
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