“Eyewitnesses” in Luke-Acts: Not What We Think

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by Neil Godfrey

There is a very good argument that the word for “eyewitnesses” in the preface to the Gospel of Luke (and by extension to Acts) does not refer to persons who literally saw the people and events that are found in the narratives.

The argument by John N. Collins has been published in The Expository Times (June, 2010) and deserves far more attention than it appears to have received. Its implications are far-reaching and highly significant for any thesis that rests upon the view that Luke drew upon oral traditions or accounts of individuals who were known for having personally witnessed Jesus or other events found in the Gospel and Acts.

I originally posted this as What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? I won’t repeat it in all its detail here. I’ll outline here the main points of the argument but first let’s have another look at that prologue in the inspired King James translation:

1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

The original article and my post have the details, but in sum the argument goes as follows:

1. The grammatical construction in verse 2 combines the “eyewitnesses” and “ministers/servants” as one and the same from the outset. That is, the eyewitnesses did not eventually go on to become servants of the word; whoever is spoken of here were both eyewitnesses and servants of the word” from the outset.

2(a). The “word” in verse 2 can be (and often is) translated as “books” or “writings” or “treatises”;

2(b) The “things” in verse 4 is a variant of ‘logos’ and can be understood in a way that embraces those books/writings or “treatises”.

3. The word for “eyewitnesses” can be (and often is) translated not as a witness to events but as an observer of static things such as a fruit, a culture — (thus opening up the possibility of being an “eyewitness” even of “writings”.)

4. The word for “servants” in “servants of the word” was the same word used for minor officials in bureaucracies.

5. The word for “delivered” in verse 2 implies some form of teaching and learning by some form of guarantors of traditions.

6. “Eyewitnesses and servants of the writings” were those through whom the tradition was taught and passed on. They were the officials held responsible for guarding the “books” and ensuring the correct writings were being collected and passed on through reading and teaching.

7. Luke chooses to add one more book to the collection of these “eyewitnesses and servants of the writings”.

Seven points. King James. You can’t get more authoritative than that!



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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on ““Eyewitnesses” in Luke-Acts: Not What We Think”

  1. You’re on fire! Keep going. Very interesting stuff regarding Acts, and this research into the prologue of Luke does have far-reaching implications. For instance, and I apologize for not taking note of the citation, Pervo’s research into Acts has been dismissed by some critics because of its categorization of Acts with popular fiction (or the early novel form, which offers “profit with delight”) because these critics point out that Luke-Acts should be considered as a two-part work and that the prologue of Luke puts the genre of the whole as “historiographical” in character. There is very little (almost nothing, and much alleged against) in the rest of Luke-Acts to sustain the thesis that the historiographical genre is the dominant cast the author has given to it. If the prologue is understood just a bit differently, as argued above, then the pièce de résistance for the entire “Luke the Historian” edifice begins to crack.

  2. Neil, I was hoping that you were going to relay what the Acts Seminar had to say about the Lukan prologue.

    The entire prologue of Acts is modeled on Josephus’s prologues. I’d be interested to know if Josephus uses the same Greek for “eyewitnesses” as Luke.

    1. “Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report” does not address this aspect (eyewitnesses) of Luke’s prologue. Luke 1:1-4 is not discussed in any detail at all. The closest I can see is that there is a discussion of symbolic names and Theophilus comes in there. He is seen as a symbol of the general readership of Acts — all who read are addressed as “God-lovers”. A constant theme in the book is that there are no ‘eyewitness reports’ behind any of the narratives.

      I don’t know where Josephus speaks of eyewitnesses. Can you help me? The word used in Luke 1:2 is “autoptai”. (http://biblesuite.com/greek/autoptai_845.htm)

      1. Sorry, I meant the prologue of Luke-Acts, not just Acts.

        Antiquities of the Jews’ preface is concerned with correcting “others perverted the truth of those actions in their writings.” Dedicated to Epaphroditus, “a man who is a lover of all kinds of learning.” Just as Luke is concerned with writing for the most excellent Theophilus, so that he may know “the truth.”

        Jewish War (preface) 1.1.1-3 Acknowledges others have previously written about the war (Luke: “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us”)
        JW 1.1.3 Josephus was present at the war and is therefore an eyewitness (he doesn’t use that word)
        JW 1.4.10 But Titus is a “witness”
        JW 1.5.16 “the real truth of historical facts be preferred by us.” (“truth” and “us”)
        JW 1.8.22 “as I saw the things done” (all Whiston translation)

        1. I was looking online for some part of the word “autoptai” without success. So I don’t know what word, if any in particular, Josephus uses for ‘eyewitness’. (It’s also worth comparing Luke with prologues of other historians and other types of literature. Nonetheless, in my books, there is no doubt he has used Josephus.)

          1. Here are some links that might help.

            (Note: αὐτόπτης — using Perseus’s Greek notation ==> au)to/pths)




            Writing in Against Apion, Josephus writes:

            and as for the History of the War, I wrote it as having been an actor myself in many of its transactions, an eyewitness in the greatest part of the rest, and was not unacquainted with any thing whatsoever that was either said or done in it.


            1. Thanks for that. We tend to focus so much on JW and AJ that we forget about “Against Apion,” an equally seminal book for Christians, since it established the apologetics and heresiology industries.

  3. ” Even as they ‘delivered” them unto us,”
    Does the Greek for delivered in the verse above have the same stem as the Greek word translated as “betray” in reference to Judas delivering up Jesus?

  4. When I was a Catholic, I was often told by my religion teachers that I should become an eyewitness to Christ. I grew with the belief that this kind of eyewitnesses was completely different from a typical eyewitness in the legal or literal sense. So, when I read Luke 1,2, I never suspected that someone could understand that these eyewitnesses were different from “people who were taught Christ’s truths, preserve them, defend them and pass them along”. I find it quite amusing that, perhaps, my understanding of this passage when I was a teenager was far more closer to the original meaning that the meaning given to it by more learned people…

  5. Of course, Luke does not claim that he interviewed any eyewitnesses. He only claims to be passing on what was delivered unto “us” by them, without saying how many intermediaries that information passed through.

    1. Hi John,

      I’ve read your article and enjoyed several very interesting insights it brings to the nature and function of Luke’s Preface. The apparent link with Res Gestae, Christianity as a politeia, possible intertextuality with Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and the nature and place of imperial and Luke’s decrees.

      But I do not see any reason from your article to reject the argument of John Collins that “eyewitnesses” in the Preface speaks of those who are “servants” of the Word and that what is being addressed by Luke are the previous writings (as managed and taught by certain guardians). Indeed, Thucydides’ reference to “eyewitnesses” is really quite unlike anything in Luke’s preface. Thucydides is virtually saying he can’t trust them. Rather, Luke is referring to documents, writings, that have preceded him, and to those who have had the responsibility of transmitting and teaching these to the likes of Theophilus/the ideal readers.

      Your thoughts on histories being in a sense types of “monuments” to be “looked at” would seem to me to actually be leaning slightly in favour of what Collins sees as the primary meaning of Luke’s references? Maybe.

      Stronger, I think, however, is something we see when we compare Luke with the historiographical works in the Septuagint. We know he hewed closely to these, and it is in the Primary History, particularly the Books of Kings, that we find explicit reliance upon written sources to cement the authority of his narrative — contrary to, say, Herodotus and other Greek historians who turned to oral sources.

      I would like to see Collins’ argument addressed by others with the necessary skills in the Greek and knowledge of the literature.


      By the way, on your point of brevity and modesty in the Christian author contrasted with the boasting pomposity of the others, I have always enjoyed Luke’s little jibe at such in Acts 24 when he has Tertullus open up his speech against Paul with:

      And when he was called forth, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying, Seeing that by thee we enjoy great quietness, and that very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence, we accept it always, and in all places, most noble Felix, with all thankfulness. Notwithstanding, that I be not further tedious unto thee, I pray thee that thou wouldest hear us of thy clemency a few words.

      Only to be contrasted with Paul’s simple:

      Then Paul, after that the governor had beckoned unto him to speak, answered, Forasmuch as I know that thou hast been of many years a judge unto this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself . . .

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