As a juridical term, a witness is one who has direct knowledge about certain facts and can declare before a court of law what he or she has seen or heard. In the Bible, witnesses are used to attest contracts and to certify proceedings (Jer. 32.10, 12; Ruth 4.9–11; Isa. 8.2). Sometimes, inanimate objects provide the evidence that an agreement has been concluded (Gen. 31.44–54; Josh. 24.27). The tables of the law in the ark are described as the “tables of testimony,” for they are inscribed with God's commandments; sometimes the ark itself is termed “the testimony” (Exod. 25.16; 31.18; Num. 17.4).
False or malicious witness was prohibited, and sanctions were imposed against it (Exod. 20.16; 23.1–3; Deut. 19.15–19). False witnesses are mentioned in the New Testament in the trials of Jesus and Stephen (Matt. 26.60; Acts 6.13; 7.58).
Israelite law required the evidence of several witnesses to convict a person of a capital offense (Deut. 17.6–7; 19.15; Num. 35.30). This principle is alluded to in the New Testament (John 8.13–18; 1 John 5.7–8), and was apparently honored in questions of church discipline (Matt. 18.16; 2 Cor. 13.1; 1 Tim. 5.19).
An important use of this terminology is its application to the role of Israel and of Jesus and his followers as God's witnesses before the world. Israel's mission is to bear witness to God as his chosen servant: “You are my witnesses,” Yahweh emphatically declares (Isa. 43.10, 12; 44.8). Israel is to take God's side and bear witness to him as the lord of history, the only true God, and her redeemer and savior. Here the controversy language comes alive with freshness and power.
In the New Testament the witness theme is central in the gospel of John, Acts, and Revelation. In John's gospel, God in Christ has a controversy with the world. A cosmic lawsuit is underway, and each side presents its evidence and argues its case. The different witnesses to Jesus present their testimony to refute the hostile charges of his enemies (5.31–47). Jesus himself bears witness to the truth (3.31–33; 18.37), as will the Holy Spirit as the “Advocate” (15.26).
In Acts the witness of the apostles is of prime importance (1.8, 21–22; 4.33; 10.38–43), as is that of Paul (22.14–15; 26.16). The center of their witness is the resurrection (2.32; 3.15; 5.30–32; cf. 1 Cor. 15.3–11).
In the book of Revelation, witness is set against the background of persecution. The seer of Patmos presents Jesus as the model witness, whose example Christians must follow. “The testimony of Jesus” probably refers not to the testimony concerning him but to the testimony borne by him (Rev. 1.9; 12.17). Jesus is “the faithful and true witness” (1.5; 3.14), and loyalty to him may mean martyrdom (2.13). Here one traces the first steps of the process by which the Greek word for witness (martys) developed into the later sense of “martyr.”
Allison A. Trites