Updated: Feb 17, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek verb martureo. The word appears twice in the gospel of the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A (Jn 1:29-34) – both times referring to John the Baptist as a witness. In the Jerusalem Bible, the word is translated (in verse 34) as John saying “I am the witness”; in verse 32, the same verb is translated as “declared”, as in “John… declared”, followed by the words the Baptist spoke. A similar approach is taken by the New Revised Standard Version, which also uses 2 different English verbs across these 2 verses, to translate what is the same Greek verb in the original text, martureo.
This passage, from the first chapter of John’s gospel, is a good example of where access to the underlying Greek can give us further insight into what the scripture text is saying. In this case, because the Greek text uses the same verb, it becomes clearer that John the Baptist’s first statement and his second are both a form of witness, not just something he said, followed by another thing he said. And that idea of being a witness is significant in the Fourth gospel – but more about that later.
So martureo is a verb, whose basic meaning is “to bear witness”. There are various related Greek words using the same root: martus is a noun, meaning a witness; marturia is a noun referring to the testimony (and also sometimes the act of witnessing); and marturion is a noun referring to objective evidence or proof. As you can see, all of these words have a common meaning concerning witnessing and testimony, so most of the time, when I refer to meanings of martureo, these meanings apply across all of this martureo-related group of words. There are some exceptions, and later I will refer to some specific shades of meaning that refer to particular variants of the word.
In the secular Greek of the time, martureo was used to describe those who provide personal testimony to events or persons, often in trials and other legal transactions. It refers not only to a witness to facts, of which there can be direct personal knowledge, but martureo can also be used, as Aristotle pointed out, to refer to truths (including future events) which are proclaimed with conviction but which cannot be verified empirically.
In the Septuagint (abbreviated as LXX; the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which was produced in the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ), words in the martureo group are quite common, occurring over 300 times. In a similar way to the secular Greek literature, martureo words in the LXX refer to witnessing, in 3 different contexts:
a) First, there’s a legal context, including in the Jewish law. Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 demanded more than one witness (martus) to prove the facts, something that is alluded to in New Testament passages, as we’ll see later. The Jewish law severely disapproved of false witness (the Greek verb is pseudomartureo) – including a specific prohibition in the 9th commandment (Exodus 20:16 and Deut 5:20).
b) Second, martureo sometimes appears in the LXX in a religious context Most notably in Isaiah 43:9 and 44:7, where God appears to arrange a trial to show who is truly God; the nations are spectators and therefore witnesses on behalf of their respective candidates, that is, the idols they have fashioned; but the people of Israel are witnesses for the God of Israel (Isa 43:10, 12; 44:8).
c) Third, in a similar way to what Aristotle discussed, an individual in the LXX may be a witness (martus) to the truth, but that truth may not be outwardly demonstrable. So, in the passages from Isaiah 43 and Isaiah 44 that we’ve just mentioned, the content of the witness (the evidence) is God’s saving work, which may not be apparent to unbelievers (Isa 43:8 and Isa 44:18-20). Elsewhere, in Isaiah 55:4, God has made David a witness (marturion) for the peoples, about God’s grace and power.
The New Testament retains these 3 contexts of martureo words from the LXX (legal, religious and truth-related) and employs them all to proclaim the story and identity of Jesus:
The legal meanings, that were evident in the secular literature and in the Jewish law, also occur in the gospels and in the letters. The majority of occurrences of martureo words in the Synoptic gospels follow this sense – especially in the trial of Jesus, where Mark (Mk 14:55-60) and Matthew (Mt 26:59-60) show that the false witnesses (pseudomarturōn) who come forward do not comply with the demands of the Jewish law for multiple, reliable sources of testimony.
The greatest use of martureo and marturia - over half of the 113 New Testament occurrences - are in the Johannine writings, with 47 of them in John’s gospel. Most of these occurrences refer to testifying to the truth - especially about the identity of Jesus. In John's gospel there are seven different witnesses to Jesus; all of them are referred to, using martureo words:
— The first witness is John the Baptist: we’ve already seen his witness in the later part of John chapter 1 (Jn 1:29-34); the uses of martureo in those verses echo the preceding 5 statements about the Baptist being a witness to the light, that have already been made in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1:7a, 1:7b, 1:8b, 1:19) – and all of these statements include martureo words.
— And, completing the list of witnesses to Jesus in other parts of John’s gospel: Jesus himself (Jn 8:14), the Holy Spirit (Jn 15:26, Jn 16:7-11) and Jesus’s disciples (Jn 15:27) - and this latter category includes the evangelist himself, towards the end of the gospel (Jn 19:35, Jn 21:24).
Witness in John’s gospel, and in the 3 letters of John, is also closely related to the idea of truth and the necessity of judgement: the latter includes both making a decision about the truth and being judged on the decisions made. These 3 words – witness, truth and judgement – appear close to each other in several places in the Fourth Gospel. All who encounter Jesus (including the reader of John’s gospel) are invited to come to a decision, to a judgement in favour of the truth (in other words, to believe in Jesus) using the testimony of the many witnesses in John’s gospel. Jesus Himself came to bear witness (marturēsō) to the truth (Jn 18:37), and those who do not accept his testimony are subject to judgement (Jn 3:18, Jn 12:48).
After the Johannine writings, the Acts of the Apostles accounts for the next largest number of occurrences of martureo and the largest number of uses of martus. In Acts, witness is strongly dependent on eyewitness testimony of events that occurred in the recent experience of those who report them (this theme is also expressed in Lk 1:2 and 1 Jn 1:1). But the marturia of these eyewitnesses also frequently depends on their explaining the meaning of these events. Therefore witness also implies a confession of faith, on some occasions in a hostile environment, as Jesus had predicted in Lk 21:12-13. In Acts, the phrase “we are witnesses” (martures) occurs 5 times, echoing the command of Jesus that the apostles would be his witnesses (martures again) “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Each of the times the apostles describe themselves as witnesses, they are referring both to the events of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, and also to their significance, “that God has made Him both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).
For the Apostle Paul, marturion is used in conjunction with, and sometimes even as a synonym for, the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 1:6 it is the marturion of Christ, and in 1 Corinthians 2:1 the marturion of God. In 1 Corinthians 15:15, Paul stresses the indispensable importance of the resurrection as the foundation of the faith by saying that if Christ is not risen from the dead, then His apostles are false witnesses (pseudomartures) of God. This is all the stronger a statement from Paul, because we know that, as a Pharisee, he was highly aware of the prohibitions of the Jewish law against false witness, which I described earlier.
A few New Testament occurrences of martureo extend the meaning of witness to the area of people’s reputation; in these cases, martureo and marturia have the sense of “well spoken of”. Such reputation is not a matter of social standing, but of the implied reliability of the people thus described, to play their role in the spread of the gospel. These uses of martureo words are spread mostly across Paul, Luke and Acts, but with the greatest number in Acts, where a number of people are “well spoken of”, including Cornelius (Acts 10:22), Timothy (Acts 16:2), Ananias (Acts 22:12) and the seven men chosen to “serve at table” in Acts 6:3.
Witness may be not only by words but also action or events. In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter is a martus not only because he has seen the sufferings of Christ, but also to some extent because he has participated in them.
Now, I’m sure many of you will have been thinking that martureo sounds like the English word “martyr” – and you’d be right. It is indeed from the Greek word martus that our word “martyr” comes. However, a distinct meaning of the word martus as one who witnesses by their blood, is a later development: it begins to be established during the 2nd century after Christ and into the 3rd, as the Church came under persecution. However, there are passages in the later New Testament that prepare the ground, by associating witness with suffering and martyrdom: Acts 22:20 describes Stephen as a witness (martus), whose blood was shed; and Revelation 17:6 refers to the blood of witnesses of Jesus. Several times in Revelation (Rev 1:9; Rev 6:9; Rev 11:3, 7; Rev 12:7), witnesses experience conflict, suffering and even death.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
1. First, the Scriptures are a witness for us (just as the Scriptures were for the apostles) The Gospels and Acts in particular remind us that the Christian faith is not about a mythological god, nor a philosophy, but is founded in actual events concerning a real person: Jesus Christ, God made man, Who lived and taught in a specific Roman province at a particular point in human history, was condemned to death under the rule of a particular Roman governor, and appeared to His disciples after his burial. So we need to read the scriptures, because they are the principal source of our story and the understanding of that story’s significance.
2. Second, all of us have become witnesses Because we know the story, it’s now our turn to pass the story on: to teach our children (Deut 6:7) and to make disciples (Mt 28:19) – to be imitators of the apostles, as they imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:34). Our witness, like that of Jesus and his apostles, needs to be by both word and by action – because, as Fr James Mallon says in his book Divine Renovation: “without actions, our words are not believed; without words, our actions are not understood” (Divine Renovation, p29).
3. Finally, our witness needs to clear and bold, even in the face of scepticism or opposition We may not have to face martyrdom. But it’s possible we will face indifference, or even mockery, if we dare to be witnesses to the truth. So it’s worth asking ourselves the question: if we were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence, enough marturion, to convict us?