The earliest understanding of the witness motif prevalent in a New Testament context seems to focus frequently on the actual content of the Witness (Dodd) or the validity of the Eyewitness testimony (Bauckham). With current questions in Christology that seems to ask about the earliest understanding of Christ’s own self-identity, I want to suggest in this short article that the ignored ingredient, when weighing the witness motif, is necessary to come to a full disclosed understanding of Christ.  Richard Bauckham mentions three uses of the word witness in the New Testament and one of them is that which is “affirmed in a court of Law.” (“Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”. Pg.473). This is what I exactly what I will try to delineate upon in this short article so we can understand that what is also evident within the New Testament affirms that Christ:
1) depends on His hearers to witness to the reality of who He is and;
2) why He never made explicit statements about Himself (nl. I am God Worship me).

Dr J.H. Bavinck’s assertion that because the Gospel’s are directed to individuals inviting them to come to the understanding of “who” Jesus are, we are to affirm that the very heart of the Witness motive in the Gospels are “Juridical”. He points out that; “The term “witness” expresses somewhat more strongly (than kerussein) the opposition to the foolishness, the obstinacy, and unbelief of a world that will not put its trust in Christ. The term “witness” suggests something of the atmosphere of a trial, a lawsuit between Christ and the world in which the apostles are witnesses.[1]

I am not trying to define something that are new to the scholarly understanding of early judicial witness in the Second Temple period but would like to remind the readers of what was the intention of these Gospel authors when they gave their written testimony!

A central dilemma in Christ’s self affirming witness. 
When Jesus makes a statement of affirmation to His own case and identity as we see in John 5:31-32, He mentions “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true”. We understand why immediately follows with the reality that, “There is another who testifies of Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true”. The Pulpit commentary actually comments beautifully on this passage when it says;
“Such testimony as this to himself must be sustained and sanctioned. Why and how can this Teacher take such ground as to assert about himself what no prophet, no rabbi, no chief priest of the people, not even the greatest man of men, Moses himself, had ever dared to claim? Christ admits that such assumptions as these need justification and approval over and above his ‘ipse dixit’. The words that follow are startling: If I bear witness concerning myself, my witness is not true. At first sight this is in direct contradiction to John 8:14, where, in reply to the Pharisees’ “Thou bearest witness concerning thyself; thy witness is nor true,” he replied, “Though I bear witness of myself, my witness is true; because I know whence I came, and whither I go.” The absolute unison with the Father, which he was not only conscious of, but had also revealed to the Pharisees, lifted his own word to the grandeur of a word of God. The Divine beamed through the human, the infinite through the finite. Here he says, “If I bear – if I and I alone were bearing witness to myself,” then – supposing a case, which, as a matter of fact, is impossible – “my witness is not true.” If he were acting alone, which is an inconceivable supposition, seeing that in the depths of his consciousness he knew that he was one with the Father, then for his human nature to break away thus from the Father and disdain his testimony would nullify and falsify his witness. He is not bearing witness alone”.[2]

What is central therefore is not contradictory to Christ’s own affirmation, rather, the witness motif prevalent in the Gospels is directly appealing to the juridical understanding of a court of law. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible affirms that “the Ethiopic version renders it, “is not credible”; not valid in law, or in such a court of judicature in which Christ now was; for, as according to the Jewish law, no man was admitted a witness for himself, so neither was anything established by a single testimony, but by the mouth of two or three witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15.[3]

In fact Christ’s appeal to the Gospel authors is to be witnesses in a court of law testifying juristically of Himself and to place the reader of the Gospel testimony under scrutiny to judge and conclude as to the true revealed nature of Christ (Matt. 28:19, Matt.16:13–23; Luke 9:18–22 John 1:41 John 4:42 John 6:69 John 11:27 Ac 2:36 Ac 8:37 Ac 9:20). A.A Trites writes therefore that “The importance of this juridical element is not really surprising, particularly in view of the mass of evidence which points to the Old Testament lawsuit as the principal background for the New Testament conception of witness”.[4]

The important thing to remember is that Jesus does give glimpses of Himself in the Gospel narratives but essentially depends on individuals to come to the realization of who He is through the Holy Spirit (Matt.16:17, John 6:44, 12:32). Therefore it is also important to know what Jesus affirmed when others actualized who He was.

Gospel evidence of juridical elements:
Mark uses various descriptions to make the juridical elements apparent in his narrative and we see after Christ’s healing of the leper He tells the leper to “go show” himself to the Priests and offer what Moses commanded [“eis marturion autois”]. Matthew and Luke use the exact same description of the legal term in the depiction of their own witness (Matt.8:4, Luk.5:14) and distinctively also shows that Jesus appeals to the Priest to affirm Him in his Priestly right and legal authority.  Mark in another narrative shows the seriousness of the legal indictment against those who would not accept the message delivered by the Apostles when they heard the testimony of Christ (Mark 6:11). If the heathen are to persist in their ignorance the Disciples are again instructed to “shake the dust from their feet [“eis marturion autois”]. Luke makes it more severe and highlights the severe legal ramifications against those who reject Christ when he writes: “eis marturion ep’autous” (Luke 9:5). We recognize the same warning to those who heard the message from these missionaries in Acts 18:6 and they are cautioned with a legal notice that “you blood be upon your own heads”.   

C.E.B. Cranfield is helpful when he shows the juridically “marturion” in Mark. 6:11 shows:
(i) witness to God, to his grace and also to his judgment on those who reject his messengers;
(ii) witness addressed to the people concerned warning and summons to repentance;
(iii) evidence which will lie against them at the final Judgment-the fact that the warning has been delivered to them and not heeded will be produced against them.[5]

Another juridical connection we found in the common material of “Q” is the words “confess” [homologein] and “deny” [arneisthai/aparneisthai]. In both Luke (12:8) and Matthew (10:32) we find these expressions included in reference to their testimony “before men” where solidarity with Christ is either affirmed or denied. To affirm this notion we see it evident in John’s Apocalypse (Rev.3:5) when your confession of Christ in the temporal realm is reverberated in the eternal realm.  C.E.B. Cranfield mentions that “it is surely better to allow for the various ideas which are involved in the witness-imagery rather than to insist on choosing between “witness to” and “evidence against.” I would suggest that the meaning established here should be adequately implied in three ways:

1) The very affirmation given by the Disciples and their positive affirmation of Christ is a final “word” and “testimony” before all leaders in charge but conclusively affirms their witness that illuminates the validity of the work and testimony of Christ.;

2) The confession of the Disciples will directly count against any leader or persecutor and indirectly count as an indictment against Jewish, and Civil Roman leaders against Christ; and

3) The witness the Disciples present is the central distinct call they need to affirm the “testament” of the Gospel and the eschatological fulfilment of the Christian faith.[6]

When we read the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John we seem to miss the fact that Jesus is not just in a court scene once he is condemned to death, in fact Christ is under constant scrutiny from the very first chapter to the very last verse in all four witnesses. From the beginning these authors are building a case and they show again and again that the denial of Christ is a direct condemnation of self. The reader is called to participate in a thorough investigation of Christ, but needs to understand that he/she is actually the one who are brought to a place of scrutiny to be judged and the wrong assessment of Christ brings an eternal state of turmoil if you deny His attested identity.[7] I want to keep this article short and here is where I want to stop the evidences we find within the Gospels, but allow me to now look at the very identity of Christ amongst these legal confessions of Christ.

We can identify various testimonies in the Gospels about Jesus.

  • Caiaphas confession of Jesus as the Son of the Blessed One.

In both the accounts of Christ being on trial for His alleged identity we see Matthew showing that the accusations against Christ were foundationally false [“pseudomarturia”] (Matt.26:59). Mark has another intention and in classic witness motif calls that the alleged witness testimony [“marturia”] brought against Christ did not agree (Mark 14:56; 59). In fact according to Jewish criminal procedure the evidence was inadmissible (Susanna 54, 58, 61; cf. Talmud, Tosefta Sanhedrin V, 5b) and clearly failing in the court of law.  Whenever a legal judgement is sought the case had to have at least some good foundation for merit. We see the high Priest demands a reply from Jesus (Matt.26:62; Mark 14:60) and even brings Jesus to answer a question to declare Him guilty. He asks Jesus; “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark. 14:61, cf. Matt. 26:63, Luke. 22:70). Jesus boldly replies: “I am” (ego eimi appears in a forensic setting here as it frequently does in both Isaiah 40-48 and the Fourth Gospel), and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark. 14:62, cf. Matt. 26:64, Luke. 22:69). This emphatically and legally seals Christ fate and Jesus show that in fact it is not He who is under suspicion, but the very ones trying to condemn Him.[8]  Here is the first witness that legally identifies Christ and Caiaphas affirms that Jesus is referring to Psalm 110:1 connecting Daniel’s enigmatic vison of Yahweh’s Son of man in Chapter 7:13. The first legal affirmation of Christ is that He is therefore the Divine Son of Man and that this is blasphemy that should end in death! (Mark. 14:63, Matt. 26:65, Luke. 22:71, cf. Job 15:6, Luke. 19:22). The Synoptic Gospels have a forensic tone to them and even the denial of Peter has a juridical ring about them [“arneisthai” and “aparneisthai”] when He denies the Lord legally (Mark. 14: 30f; 72, 68f. Matt. 26:70, 72, 75; Luke. 22:57, 62).

  • The apostles witnesses

Due to the lack of space I will just briefly highlight the witness Luke tries to establish in his testimony about Christ. The Post- Easter Jesus speaks to the Disciples that they are His cardinal witnesses to His: suffering and death, His resurrection from the dead and the preaching of repentance and the remission of sins to all nations (Luke. 4:44-49). Luke uses the same principle evident in Greek literature and what is highlighted in Old Testament lawsuits in that the Disciples are the prime witnesses to the facts and advocates who has to convince their hearers as to the validity of the Christian case. [9]

  • The Witness testimony of Miracles in the Gospels

The Purpose of miracles in the narratives of Jesus was to show the veracity of His teaching yet, as we observe, miracles in themselves are not enough to bring people to an understanding of faith in Him. J.C. Hindley therefore cautions us to the important distinction between the “value” of miracles as conclusive evidence for the testimony of Christ and the “value” signs have to attest to the person of Christ.[10] Miracles in a Scriptural context points to the legitimacy of Christ but the signs described within the narratives of Jesus affirms His identity.[11] Catholic Theologian Raymond E. Brown describes four reactions to Jesus in the context of these signs:
1) refusing to believe (5:16; 9:41; 11:47-48; 12:37);
2) merely acknowledging Jesus to be a worker of miracles who has been sent by God (2:23-25; 6:14, 26);
3) coming to believe in the person of Christ (2:11; 4:52-53; 6:68-69; 7:31; 9:35-38; 11:45);
4) believing without having seen signs (4:39-41; 17:20; 20:29).[12]

  • The Father:

Jesus unequivocally calls upon the Witness and attestation of the Father to witness on behalf of Himself when He warrants His own testimony (Joh. 5:37, 1 Joh. 5:9). “Gilded mouth” John Chrysostom held that the Father’s witness was to be seen in Jesus’ baptism, where the voice of God was heard expressing his pleasure in his Son.[13] The witness and legal testimony from the Father emphatically affirms Jesus as the “beloved Son” [“agapetos ho huios”] (Luk.3:22, Matt 3:17). There are various affirmations in the Gospels but for the sake of space I would like to look another affirmation. Again at the Transfiguration of Christ we hear the Father affirming Christ as “my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” [“akouete autou kai”](Matt. 17:5). Here we see the juridical affirmation of the Son being given the right to speak as a valid witness. This again is a direct reference to Isaiah 42:1 that affirms the very validity of the One Unique Son proclaiming justice to the nations (Matt. 12:18).

  • John the Baptists Testimony

When John the Beloved Disciple describes the very core of John the Baptists witness testimony (Joh.1:7-8) we see the Baptist testifies of Christ’s being greater than a Prophet because He testifies about a “light” brighter than himself (nl. Matt. 11:11, Luk. 7:28, “Q”).  John further “bears witness about [“martyrese peri”] Christ “existing before me” [“mou hoti en pros mou”] and He is the “Son of God” [“ho huios tou theou”].  He also affirms that Jesus comes from “above” [“anothen”] (Joh. 3:31) and Jesus is “above all” [“epano panton”] (v/31.c.). The Father has given all things [“dedoken panta”] into His hands (v/35) and who believes in the Son has eternal life [“aionion zoen”] (v/36). The next few examples we will look at just the Gospel of John.

  • The Samaritan woman

The Samaritan woman is stated to have testified [“logon martyrouses”] (v/39) and as a result of her juridical testimony “many believed” (v/41). The testimony this woman affirmed was that Jesus was undoubtedly the “Saviour of the World” [“soter tou kosmou”] (cl. Jonah 2:6; v/42.c).

  • The man born blind

In John’s testimony he shows the story of a man born blind (Joh. 9:8-17 24-38) and Jesus heals him. After the blind man appears in front of the Pharisees where they made him out to be a liar throwing him out on the streets he is found by Jesus (v/35). Jesus asks the man “Do you believe in [“eis”] the Son of man. Here is the man’s testimony: “I believe Lord! [“kyrie pisteou kai”] He said and Worshiped [“prosekynesen”] Him” (v/38).

  • The Holy Spirit:

John speaks of the Holy Spirit and shows that the primary task of the Spirit will be to “testify about me” [“martyresei] (Joh. 15:26). In fact the primary task of the Holy Spirit is one of “advocate” [“parakleton”] (Joh. 14:16) that would live in you and be with you forever [“ton aiona”] (v/17). Even more incredible is that the Holy Spirit will be an advocate that will remind the disciples of everything [“hymas hypomnesei panta ha ego eipon hymin”] Jesus has said (14:26, 1 Joh. 5:6-7). The basic juridical fact of this passage is that the Holy Spirit is a separate entity from Christ and the Father that will witness to Christ’s legitimacy because he is both a personal being and eternal God (Acts 1:4, 5:32).

  • Thomas confession my Lord and My God

The last juridical witness I want to look at is where Jesus reveals Himself to Thomas (Joh. 20:28). Thomas exclaims [“mou ho kyrios kai mou ho theos”] “My Lord and My God”. John writes and begins with the witness of the Word as God (Joh.1:1) becoming incarnate in the Son (1:14) and end off his witness by the ultimate confession of the Son as the “Lord” and “God”. This is not just a affirmation of awe or wonder as some have presumed, rather, it is a clear definite  juridical statement witnessing to the person of Jesus Christ!.

When we understand and read the text of the New Testament as a legal document that endeavors to state its own case, we quickly see that the intention of the author’s unanimous searches to make the witness of their testimony clear and concisely valid. The very essential nature of the witness motif prevalent in Scripture is to affirm itself as a legal decree attesting to God sovereign dictation through His Prophets, Disciples and His own beloved Son. We can, therefore, affirm with absolute clarity that Jesus did not endeavor to make emphatic statements about his divinity but He searches for the reader to discover His true nature through the collaborated voice of this juridical testimony. This means that the central hermeneutic in both Old and New Testament witness is Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the One that is given the name above every name and the very place of Yahweh on the throne (singular) of God.This is the reality of the Synoptics and John that shows the ultimate declaration of Jesus as both Lord and Judge!

Rudolph P. Boshoff


[1] J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions. trans. David H. Freeman (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961), p. 66.
[4] A.A Trites, “The New Testament Conception of Witness,” unpublished D. PhiI. Dissertation (1968), deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, pp. 1-163.
[5] The Gospel according to Saint Mark (Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), p. 201.
[6] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), p. 397-398.
[7] For recent discussions on the historicity of the trial see Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin: WaIter de ruyter, 1961), and A.D.Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (The Sarum lectures, 1960-61. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp.24-47.
[8] R.H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), p. 54.
[9] On the witness terminology of secular Greek see A.A. Trites, op. cit., pp. 19-52.
[10] J. C. Hindley, “Witness in the Fourth Gospel,” Scottish Journal of Theology 18 (1965): pp. 334.
[11] Marianne Meye Thompson, The Humanity of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p.p. 64-67.
[12] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, two vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966, 1970), I-XII: 530-531.
[13] John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel According to St. John, XL, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 14, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, reprint), p.p. 146.