In the Gospel of Luke’s prologue (Luke 1:1-4) Luke writes in verse two, “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed down to us….” The Greek word translated eyewitnesses is autoptai. Richard Bauckham, in his important work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, writes that autoptai “does not have a forensic meaning” and that it would be misleading to understand the word as a “metaphor from the law courts” (p 117). Bauckham goes on to say that autoptai are “simply firsthand observers of the events.” With respect to Buackham, a “firsthand observer” is an eyewitness in the forensic sense.
Bauckham makes the point that the eyewitnesses of Jesus were His followers “from the beginning” (c.f., John 15:27, “and you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning”; Acts 1:21-22, “men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us….”). Bauckham provides a translation of autoptai in Acts 1:2 from Loveday Alexander, “those with personal/firsthand experience: those who know the facts at first hand.” Again, there is no meaningful distinction between an eyewitness in a law court and those “with personal/firsthand experience.”
What if a person knows “the facts at first hand” (Alexander’s rendering of autoptai)? Is Bauckham contending that a person who hears accounts from a percipient witness (i.e., one who personally observes or hears) qualifies as autoptai? I think not, because such a person would be like a juror in a court trial that hears testimony from eyewitnesses. A non-percipient person who hears the accounts is clearly a second-hand source. Law court testimony from such a non-percipient person would be considered unreliable hearsay (“an out-of-court statement used to prove the truth of the matter asserted) and not admissible in a forensic proceeding unless the testimony falls under one of the (many) recognized exceptions to the hearsay rule. What other “personal” or “firsthand” experience is there other than seeing, hearing or touching?
Consider what the Apostle John wrote in 1 John 1:1, 3 that emphasizes the empirical nature of the disciples’ testimony:
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life… what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
Dreams, visions and feelings are ruled out in courtroom trials as reliable bases for determining what happened or what was said. Generally, only percipient witnesses can testify in a law court, with an exception being expert witnesses who are allowed to render opinions within their area of expertise due to their special knowledge, experience and education. The purpose of the expert is to assist the trier of fact (usually the jury).
Fortunately, Bauckham comes around regarding Luke’s use of autoptai, acknowledging “there is no doubt, from its total context in Luke-Acts, that it carries the historiographic meaning of people who witnessed firsthand the events of Luke’s gospel story.” Precisely a description of what is required for someone to testify in a law court—testimony that involves empirical (experienced by the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell) evidence.
Bauckham, citing The Preface to Luke’s Gospel by I. Alexander, mentions the use of autoptai by Josephus and Polybius “with reference to the observation of events narrated in a history or preface or other methodological passage” (p. 117). Polybius, a Greek historian who lived in the 2nd century B.C. wrote The Histories that uncovered the period 264-146 B.C. Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who recorded Jewish history during the 1st century A.D. in The Jewish Wars and Antiquities. Josephus uses the word autoptai in Antiquities, Book 18, 342, “Anileus, the brother of Asineus, either heard of her beauty from others, or perhaps saw her himself (autoptai) and so became both her lover and her enemy.” In Antiquities, Book 19, 125, Joseph writes, “he came for the pleasure of seeing with his own eyes (autoptai) Gaius lying there dead.” From these accounts of Josephus the 1st century A.D. meaning of autoptaibecomes clear—literally having seen what is being later described.
Moulton and Milligan, in their seminal work The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, provide further insight as to how the word autoptai was used outside of the New Testament. In P Oxy VIII. 11548 (late 1st century), “a man, who was perhaps absent on military service, writes to his sister not to be anxious, ‘for I am personally acquainted (autoptai) with these places and am not a stranger here.'” Again, the notion of being an eyewitness in the law court sense is present in this papyrus.
Terms Similar to autoptai
In 2 Peter 1:16 the Apostle Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” The word translated eyewitnesses is epoptais, from the word optai from whence comes the word optics (“to see”) which has the meaning of spectator, especially in observing firsthand the mysteries of God. As Thayer’s Lexicon says, “inasmuch as those were called ἐπόπται by the Greeks who had attained to the third [i. e. the highest] grade of the Eleusinian mysteries (Plutarch, Alcib. 22, and elsewhere), the word seems to be used here to designate those privileged to be present at the heavenly spectacle of the transfiguration of Christ.” In other words Thayer sees the term epopotais in 2 Peter 1:16 as being Peter’s reference to being an eyewitness of the transfiguration (cf Matthew 17:1 ff). According to Matthew’s account Peter was present, along with James and John, when Jesus took them to a high mountain and His appearance radically changed (transfigured) before them, and Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus. Thus, Peter was a spectator, i.e., an eyewitness, of Jesus in a transfigured state, and the term epopotais proves to be a synonym of autoptai as used in Luke 1:2.
In John 20:25 Thomas is quoted as saying, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Jesus had appeared to the 10 disciples in an upper room after His crucifixion, but Thomas was absent. When the other disciples later told him “We have seen the Lord” Thomas uttered his famous words of doubt as recorded on John 20:25. He wanted to see and feel Jesus, meaning he wanted empirical evidence—not merely the word of his fellow disciples. After being a follower of Jesus for what is commonly understood to be a three-year ministry of Jesus, which included miracle after miracle, and after hearing from Jesus that He would be killed and raised from the dead (cf., Matthew 16:21), how could Thomas not believe the 10 disciples account that the risen Jesus had appeared to them?
The Gospel accounts are silent as to why Thomas was doubting, but clear on the fact that Jesus appeared again when Thomas was present, which prompted him to say to Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Thomas had empirical evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead, but Jesus gave a blessing to those who do not have empirical evidence yet believe (John 20:29). This is similar to a law court where, during a trial, the jury has not seen the evidence. Instead, the jury weighs the testimony of percipient witnesses who were present at the event in question in order to render a conclusion (verdict) as to what happened that is binding on the participants of the trial. And the verdict of a jury, in some cases, has life or death consequences.
Luke’s use of autoptai in Luke 1:2 is consistent with the common use of the term eyewitnesses as used in a forensic (i.e., law court) sense. There is no reason to hold otherwise. The events of the Gospel of Luke were derived from those who observed the life and teachings of Jesus, and Luke makes clear that he did all he could, after he “investigated everything carefully” (Luke 1:3), to “write [an account of the life of Jesus] in consecutive order” (Luke 1:3), so that the reader might know “the exact truth” (Luke 1:4). Luke, the investigative journalist, makes the case for Jesus being the Messiah (Christ), the Chosen One of God, who died for the sins of the world, and rose from the dead as evidence that He was the Christ. Believing the Gospel accounts of Jesus is similar to believing consistent, multiple eyewitness testimony in a law court, and thereby rendering a verdict based on the testimony. The verdict found in the Gospel record is simple—Jesus is Lord, the Christ who died, rose from the dead, and is coming again. Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe.