July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 46–48 

Book Review

The New Testament Concept of Witness

Allison A. Trites. Society for New Testament Studies. Monograph Series. No. 31. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977. 294 pages.

Reviewed by Elmer A. Martens

From what quarter does one get help to determine the meaning of “witness”, a term found 200 times in the New Testament? Trites reaches into the Old Testament for help rather than primarily into Greek culture or philological study and emerges with a convincing, and surprising, answer.

The answer is shaped by an examination of the Old Testament juridical language in court settings and in controversies. Lawsuit and controversy vocabulary, dispute and argument, dominate in Job and {47} in Isaiah 40-55. In the latter, God engages in a massive dispute with the nations concerning his claim to be the true God. An examination of witness vocabulary in this context shows that a witness presents evidence; but, just as important, he becomes an advocate for a position and tries to bring his opponent “around”. He silences the objections of those who gain-say him. He persuades. “It is the task of the witness not only to attest the facts but also to convince the opposite side of the truth of them” (p. 46). Though the term, martyrs, now suggests suffering, suffering is not initially or primarily related to witness.

With this insight into the concept of witness derived from the Old Testament legal assembly, Trites readily shows that John 1-12 is a great controversy patterned after Isaiah 40-55. In John the Messiahship of Jesus and his divine sonship is at stake. John, the Evangelist, summons witnesses who give evidence and who persuade. Legally admissible evidence includes such witnesses as John the Baptist, the apostles, and the words and works of Christ. John himself relates the seven signs as evidence that is to persuade the reader of Christ’s deity. John’s gospel is thus “a mission book which sought to win.”

Beyond John, Trites moves to Acts, Revelation, the Synoptics, and the General Epistles to show that his understanding of witness as presenter of evidence and as advocate holds throughout and that such a concept illumines sections and even whole books (such as Acts) where a recurring “two-foldness” reflects the Old Testament requirement for two witnesses. There is a case to present, arguments to be advanced, and witnesses to be introduced after the style of the Old Testament legal assembly.

Trite’s thesis has several implications. First, it highlights the prominence of witness, thus raising questions about the attempt (since Dodd) to use the kerygma as the favorite “point of entry” into the New Testament message. With “witness” as the window, the reader is introduced to determined and reasoned argument in a great debate about the identity of Jesus. Jews and Pharisees are representatives of unbelieving men who are confronted with a series of witnesses. The New Testament scene, as Trites sketches it, is closer to the courtroom than to the public platform with preachers heralding a kerygma.

Secondly, the Christian today should understand that witnessing to Christ, in the sense of testifying about him, is but a partial understanding of witness. If that is taken to be its whole meaning, then it is misleading and even wrong. True, the Christian attests to the identity of Jesus. But the biblical concept of witness means that the Christian employs evidence in order actively to persuade men about Christ. Such a concept means that talk about “missionary presence,” if intended to define “witness”, is far short of the missionary mandate. {48} Strong confrontation and vigorous verbal interaction belong to “witnessing”.

Thirdly, there is an implication for college and seminary curriculae to include greater attention to evidence for Christian claims, together with ability to reason carefully and persuasively.

In the evangelical tradition more characteristic of British scholarship than American, Trites works with the total Scriptures, both Old and New. And he moves surefootedly in Qumran, Philo, and Talmudic literature. He demonstrates for the New Testament reader how rich are the mines from which the New Testament ore comes. On the other hand, he shows the Old Testament scholar that he must reach forward into the New Testament when expositing. Mennonite Brethren, who tend to separate sharply between the testaments, can learn from Trites.

Also valuable are his detailed descriptions of the legal process in the Old Testament, stimulating exegetical suggestions (e.g. the “men” of John’s gospel harks back to the response expected to oaths), and the frequent summaries which help to make the book readable.

Trites, currently a professor of biblical studies at Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, acknowledges the benefits of comment and critique from such recognized scholars as C.F.D. Moule of Cambridge, G. B. Caird of Oxford, Matthew Black and Robert Wilson of St. Andrews University, Scotland. It is encouraging to see this book alongside those of other evangelical scholars such as R. Gundry and R. P. Martin in a prestigious monograph series.

One point of uneasiness about the book lingers. By stressing controversy as the setting for “witness” the impression is given that witness largely, even exclusively, involves oral activity. Here the Anabaptist emphasis on discipline in character and willingness for service, an emphasis also from the New Testament, is needed. But given that emphasis, Anabaptists should listen with the greatest of care to Trites. There is more to witnessing than being a proper, unobtrusive, irreproachable Christian.

Elmer A. Martens
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary
Fresno, California