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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

False Witness

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FALSE WITNESS.—The prohibition in the Decalogue of bearing false witness was endorsed by Christ (οὐ ψευδομαρτυρήσεις, Matthew 19:18 ||). Originally it dealt, not with lying in general, but with lying against one’s neighbour, perhaps because this is the most frequent form of falsehood (see Dale, Ten Commandments, p. 208): Was it merely for brevity that the limiting clause was dropped by Christ? or did it not rather imply a broadening and deepening of the commandment? Like other sins, ψευδομαρτυρίαι come from the heart (Matthew 15:19).

At the preliminary investigation before Caiaphas, the chief priests and the whole council sought (ἐζήτουν) false witness on which such a capital charge might be based as would demand Pilate’s attention (Matthew 26:59, Mark 14:55); ὡς μὲν ἐκείνοις ἐδόκει μαρτυρίαν, ὡς δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ ψευδομαρτυρίαν (Euthym. Zig.); but the Evangelists seem to mean more than this. ‘Hîc (ἐζήτουν) illa falsorum testium exorta copia’ (Bengel). While nominally judges, they were really prosecutors, as they showed by disregarding the rule that witnesses for the defence should first be called (see Westcott on John 18:21). Though many false witnesses came (Matthew 26:60) and bore false witness (Mark 14:56), yet their witness agreed not together (ἴσαι αἱ μαρτυρίαι οὐκ ἦσαν, ib.), i.e. they were not consistent with each other, since it was necessary that two at least should agree (Deuteronomy 17:6), and witnesses were examined separately, not in the presence of each other (see Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah, ii. 560). Some (Erasmus, Grot. etc.) take ἴσαι in the sense of ‘sufficient for the purpose, equal to the demand for weighty evidence, and justifying condemnation.’ The parallel words in Matthew 26:59-60 lend some support (‘sought false witness against Jesus that they might put him to death; and they found it not, though many false witnesses came’); but it is a strong objection that οὐδὲ οὕτως ἴση is used of the witness of those who perverted His words concerning the temple (Mark 14:59), which constituted a very grave charge; cf. Acts 6:13-14 (cf. Expositor’s Greek Testament on Mark 14:56).

Even the spies who constantly laid wait for Him had caught up nothing to serve their purpose; but at last two false witnesses (Matthew 26:60; τινες, Mark 14:57) came, who perverted certain words spoken at the beginning of His ministry (John 2:19); but their testimony also was not ἴση. Taking the meaning as ‘did not agree together,’ the difference may perhaps be traced in Mt. (δύναμαι καταλῦσαι) and Mk. (ἐγὼ καταλύσω); certainly the perversion is evident, since they ascribed to Him that destruction which He ascribed to the Jews. It has been inferred from Matthew 27:63 that the rulers knew the true meaning; but perhaps this is better referred to a knowledge of Christ’s words in Mark 8:31 etc. This false witness might have sufficed; no other charge could be so effective before the Roman Procurator as that of being a fanatical seducer of the ignorant populace, who might lead them on to wild tumultuous acts; while the claim that He would, or was able to, rebuild the temple within three days might be made to imply Divine or magical pretensions (see Edersheim, op. cit. ii. 559); but it also broke down (οὐδὲ οὕτως ἴση ἦ ἡ μαρτυρία αὐτῶν), cf. Psalms 27:12; Psalms 35:11.

On the law concerning false witness see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iv. 351a; Edersheim, op. cit. ii. 558. Witnesses who contradicted each other were not considered in Rabbinic law as false witnesses in the sense of being punishable. The Sadducees were less severe than the Pharisees in the interpretation of Deuteronomy 19:16 f.; they held that the punishment should be inflicted only if the falsely accused had been punished, whereas the Pharisees demanded punishment if the sentence had been pronounced, whether it was executed or not.

Literature.—Besides, the works cited above, ref. may be made to Taylor Innes, Trial of Jesus Christ; and Rosadi, Trial of Jesus, ad loc.; Schurer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 194; Expositor, i. xii. [1880] 276 f.

W. H. Dundas.


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Hastings, James. Entry for 'False Witness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/f/false-witness.html. 1906-1918.

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