Unpicking Biblish: witness

Abstract: ‘witness’ in the Bible tends to mean telling people about something rather than seeing it. This is not normal English.

The following definitions hopefully explain the senses given by the Greek word martys, and the word it’s often translated by in English.

μαρτυς noun 1. one who testifies in legal matters, 2. one who affirms or attests, 3. one who witnesses [tells something] at cost of life

(BDAG)

witness noun 1. a person who sees an event, 2. evidence, proof
verb 1. see (an event) happen, 2. have knowledge of a development from observation or experience.

(OED 3 ed, via Apple)

Posing the problem

In 1 Peter 5, Peter describes himself as “a witness [μαρτυς] of the sufferings of Christ”. Is this primarily talking about what Peter saw or what he said?

Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but the English word witness focusses more on the person (or action of) seeing rather than telling anyone. It’s possible to be a silent witness: to have seen something but keep quiet about it.

On the other hand, Greek μαρτυς focusses on a person who tells things.

Witness in the Bible is about telling what you know not seeing it

John’s gospel makes this pretty clear too:

And John bore witness: “I saw34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” [ESV]
Καὶ ἐμαρτύρησεν Ἰωάννης λέγων ὅτι τεθέαμαι. 34 κἀγὼ ἑώρακα καὶ μεμαρτύρηκα ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ.

John 1:32-34

So witnessing (or in ESV bearing witness) in John is the telling part. It does  involve something seen, but that is assumed and isn’t really part of the word witness. 

So what?

Back to 1 Peter 5, I think we need to be careful to understand that when he said “a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ” Peter was talking about being a church leader who taught people about Christ’s sufferings. Yes, he did see them too, but much more important he has been teaching people about them. So ‘witnesses’ shouldn’t just be understood as ‘eye-witnesses’ (Luke 1:2 uses a different word for that: αὐτόπται).

Perhaps it would also be a good idea when we speak – particularly with people outside the church – to make sure we’re not unnecessarily confusing them by using the English word ‘witness’ to mean ‘telling someone something you know’, when that’s just a Christian jargon.

What could English translations do differently?

‘Bear witness’ or ‘gave testimony’ or ‘testify’ gives the right sense but makes it sound like this is a court of law. Is it really supposed to sound as heavy and formal as that? I remain to be convinced. Apart from that word ‘martys’ there is nothing else in the context to make us think this is evoking bewigged lawyers, judges and briefs. ‘Tell what you know’ or ‘tell’ or ‘show’ or ‘explain’ or similar ordinary words might work just as well:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove,” John explained, “…I have seen it and I assure you that this is the Son of God.”

John 1:32-34, with suggested natural English patch

Leave a Reply

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