I. Witness: the Internal Structure of Christian Revelation
Whatever the etymology of the substantive martys and its connected terms may be, the first meaning is connected with the sphere of law. A witness is a person who has witnessed certain events or knows certain men or certain facts and who for this reason is able, during a trial or other juridical circumstances, to provide an oral account of what he has seen and heard.
Defined in these terms, testimony has two connected characteristics: a witness has witnessed certain events on which he provides testimony in the presence of men - authorities, judges or mere actors - who have not witnessed them, otherwise, his testimony would be superfluous. On the other hand, a witness can only provide an oral account of what he has seen and heard, otherwise one would no longer refer to testimony but to proof: the man who can reproduce at the level of facts and before the eyes of his listeners, along the lines of an experiment in physics, the events that he attests to, would no longer be a 'witness' but a lecturer. This is because a lecturer, to the extent that he is nothing else but a lecturer, is called upon to prove the words he professes; to demonstrate that they are in harmony with the reality on which he pronounces. If we cast our eyes over the set of passages of the New Testament that contain one of the terms connected with witness, being attentive for methodological reasons only to this first meaning, we will grasp, thanks to the context, why the authors had to have recourse to these terms and at the same time what they meant by them.
With the exception of the passages where the terms are employed in a general profane way, it will be observed that the group of words are applied essentially, in the New Testament, to three categories of individuals: to Jesus Christ, to the apostles, and to the faithful who believed in the preaching of the apostles.
The Christ of the Gospel according to St. John 'bears witness to what he has seen and heard' [Jn 3:32] in 'heaven' [Jn 3:31], from which he 'comes' [Jn 3:13]. According to the Apocalypse, he is the 'faithful witness' [Ap 1:5], the 'faithful and true witness' [Ap 3:14], because he does nothing else but transmit the 'revelation…which God gave him' [Ap 1:1]. Within the immediately post-apostolic generation, Luke stresses the fundamental role of those who were witnesses to the life [Cf. Lk 1:1; Acts 1:22; 10:39] and the resurrection of Jesus Christ [cf. Lk 24:48; Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:31-32; 10:41; 13:31] (1). The same emphasis is to be found in the writings of John [Jn 19:35; 21:24; 1Jn 1:1]. Lastly, the group of terms is also applied to men who have received the apostolic witness, who believed in it and publicly professed their faith, at times unto martyrdom [Acts 22:20 [Stephen]; Ap 2:13 [Antipa]; Ap 6:9; 11:3; 17:6].
A detailed examination of this triple use illuminates a fact: the notion of witness constitutes a fundamental structure of Christian Revelation, and indeed it justifies the notion of revelation to describe the reality addressed by the New Testament.
Witness and revelation imply each other reciprocally. Without witness there would be no revelation. In parallel fashion, if they had not sought to provide an account of a revelation, the authors of the various writings of the New Testament would not have been led to attribute to the group of terms connected with witness that important and significant position that they occupy in their writings (2).
II. The Modalities of Christian Witness
In profane language, the term martys does not have only a juridical meaning. Those who are convinced of the truth of certain opinions and profess them publicly are also called witnesses. This second connotation also bears upon the meaning of the New Testament witness. And not only: the two connotations constitute an organic unity. The New Testament witnesses that we have discussed above are not only witnesses in a juridical sense (for that matter in a broad and non-technical sense). They are persuaded of the truth of the revelation that has been attested to them and they can but bear witness to it.
The modalities of this witness all descend from the character of the witness which belonged originally to Jesus Christ. It is in the witness provided by Jesus Christ that one can perceive the modalities of witness of the apostles and the modalities of the witness of the faithful.
1. The witness of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of the witness provided by Jesus Christ there is his preaching, the proclaiming of his kerygma, the public 'confession' of what he is: the Messianic king and the revealer of truth. The notion of speech is thus exclusive. Christ announces a reality that is new compared to the contemporary, and also future, reality of the world. This reality has its prototype in a place that is different from the world and is present in the world in the form of his attestation. Without doubt, Christ performs his works but these remain ambiguous. In this case as well John expressed the Christian Gospel with the greatest clarity. The works, the 'signs' (semeia) that Christ performs, are intelligible only through faith.
It is impossible for the attestation of this new reality not to enter into conflict with the old reality, which is destined to remain present until the end of the world; hence the need for the suffering of Christ. Every revelation necessarily brings with it the suffering of the revealer. The supreme revelation that Christ proclaims necessarily leads to the supreme suffering, namely death, reduction to nothing, because in the world there is no place for two contradictory realities.
2. The witness of the apostles and the faithful. Qualified witnesses of Christ, the apostles are for this reason placed in the front line in the revelation that came from Jesus Christ for the salvific attack on the world. Located between Christ and the world, they attest, through their confession, to the confession of Christ; with their sufferings, to his suffering; and with their victory, to his victory. Under this heading they are exemplary for all the later witnesses to Christ. Imitators of Christ, they themselves propose themselves as models to be imitated [1Th 1:6 and 1Cor 11:1].
What characterises an apostle is not only that of being a witness 'of the things which have been accomplished among us' [Lk 1:1] but also of understanding their meaning and publicly proclaiming it. An apostle is also a missionary, both with the Jews and the pagans [cf. 1Cor 1:17-23]. In proclaiming the kerygma, an apostle is necessarily exposed to the hostility of the world (Mt 10:22). Paul explains this need with a broken, sharp, nervous and powerful eloquence which is specific to him: 'For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men…we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, of the offscouring of all things' [1Cor 4:9 and 13; cf. 2Cor 11:23-27].
To the extent to which an apostle takes part in the death of Christ, he shares in his life. At the extreme limit, the physical death of an apostle brings out in all its power the glory of God [Jn 21:19].
According to the New Testament, the witness of the faithful differs from the witness of the apostles at one point only: the faithful can bear witness exclusively on the basis of the witness of the apostles. However, the fact of not being eyewitnesses does not take away any validity from their witness because through the believing reception of the witness of the apostles they have this 'testimony in themselves' [cf. 1Jn 5:10]. Their 'imitation' of Christ, in their confession, in their sufferings and in their victories, is not therefore in any way inferior to that of the apostles. The former have faith as much as the latter do (3).
3. Confession, cause and criterion of suffering. During the course of the second century the terms martys, martyrein etc. were increasingly applied to the afflictions that led to death and the 'martyrs' bore out of their faith (4).
If martyrdom has a specific meaning, it has so only as a consequence of confession. In other words, it is not because he suffers that a martyr is a witness but it is because he has been a witness and confessor to Christ through his words that he suffers. Without doubt, as in the case of the suffering of the apostles, the suffering of a martyr conforms him to Jesus Christ. But this conformity is assured solely by the explicit confession of faith. The death of Socrates and the afflictions of Spartacus have absolutely nothing in common with the martyrdom of a Christian confessor. Specifically because he believes in Jesus Christ, the believer suffers at the hands of the world. This suffering is qualified and also implies the glory of the victory that it contains in itself. Cyprian said this with insuperable words: 'De martyrum capite gloriosa confessionis corona detracta [est], si non illam de evangelii conservatione invenientur consecuti unde martyres fiunt [Eph 36:] (5).
(1) The question of knowing in what sense Paul is a ‘witness’ according to Luke (Acts 22:15; 26:16) and how Luke’s notion of the apostleship of Paul agrees with the declarations of the apostle (1 Cor 15:8; cf. 9:1 and Gal 1:16 and 2:2) is not decisive for the New Testament notions that are summarised here.
(2) From the point of view of the history of religions one will note that the notion of witness and even more that of martyr appear only in religions that imply the idea of a revelation, both in Christianity and in Judaism and in Islam. Cf. H. Doerrie, art. Märtyrer, RGG 3, IV, pp. 587-588.
(3) Jesus’ declaration to Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen but and yet believe’ (Jn 20:29), captures the whole of the intention of the author of the fourth Gospel. For that matter it constitutes the clearest expression of Christian faith in its specific character (cf. Heb 11:1).
(4) The first incontestable written evidence of this usage is to be found in the Martrydom of Polycarp, in particular 19.1. This new usage explains that the Greek terms have been transcribed in Latin (martyr, martyrium), whereas the New Testament words were translated generally with testis, testimonium.
(5) From the temple of martyrs should be removed the glorious crown of their confession if one were to discover that they have not achieved that other crown of the keeping of the Gospel for which they became martyrs.
[Passage taken from Enrico Castelli (ed.), La testimonianza, CEDAM, Padua 1972, pp. 309-316]