Was Jesus’ Witness “True” or “Not True”?
When Christ spoke to a group of hostile Jews in Jerusalem regarding God the Father and His own equality with Him (John 5:17-30; cf. 10:30), He defended His deity by pointing to several witnesses, including John the Baptizer, the Father in heaven, and the Scriptures (5:33-47). One statement that has confused some concerning Jesus’ defense of His deity is found in John 5:31. Jesus began this part of His discourse saying, “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true” (emp. added). According to many Bible critics, this declaration blatantly contradicts the following statement He made on another occasion when speaking to the Pharisees. He said: “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true” (John 8:14, emp. added). Ten minutes and 38 seconds into Dan Barker’s first speech in the February 12, 2009 Butt/Barker Debate on the existence of the God of the Bible, Barker specifically mentioned these passages, saying: “Jesus said, ‘Though I bear record of myself, my record is true.’ Yet a few verses earlier he said, ‘If I bear record of myself, my record is not true.’ He contradicted himself. The God of the Bible’s witness is true. The God of the Bible’s witness is not true.... He does not exist” (2009, emp. added). Was Dan Barker correct? Or, could Jesus say that His witness was both true and untrue, without being contradictory?
Consider the following illustration. An innocent man on trial for murder is judged to be guilty by the jury, even after proclaiming his innocence. (Suppose someone had framed the defendant for the murder and all of the evidence the jury heard pointed to the defendant as the offender.) When leaving the court house, if wrongly convicted defendant is asked by a reporter, “Are you guilty?,” and he responds by throwing up his hands up in exasperation and saying, “If the court says I’m guilty, I’m guilty,” has the man lied? Even though the statements, “I am guilty,” and “I am not guilty,” are totally different, they may not be contradictory, depending on the time and sense in which they are spoken. After the trial, the wrongly accused defendant simply repeated the jury’s verdict. He said, “I am guilty,” and meant, “The court has found me guilty.”
When Jesus conceded to the Jews the fact that His witness was “not true,” He was not confessing to being a liar. Rather, Jesus was reacting to a well-known law of His day. In Greek, Roman, and Jewish law, the testimony of a witness could not be received in his own case (Robertson, 1997). “Witness to anyone must always be borne by someone else” (Morris, 1995, p. 287). The Law of Moses stated: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15; cf. Matthew 18:15-17). The Pharisees understood this law well, as is evident by their statement to Jesus: “You bear witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true” (John 8:13). In John 5:31, “Jesus points to the impossibility of anyone’s being accepted on the basis of his own word.... He is asserting that if of himself he were to bear witness to himself, that would make it untrue” in a court of law (Morris, p. 287). If Jesus had no evidence in a trial regarding His deity other than His own testimony about Himself, His testimony would be inconclusive. Jesus understood that His audience had a right to expect more evidence than just His word. Similar to the above illustration where an innocent man accepts the guilty verdict of the jury as final, Jesus said, “My witness is not true,” and meant that, in accordance with the law, His own testimony apart from other witnesses would be considered invalid (or insufficient to establish truth).
But why is it that Jesus said to the Pharisees at a later time that His “witness is true” (John 8:14)? The difference is that, in this instance, Jesus was stressing the fact that His words were true. Even if in a court of law two witnesses are required for a fact to be established (a law Jesus enunciated in verse 17), that law does not take away the fact that Jesus was telling the truth, just as it did not take away the fact that the wrongly accused man mentioned above was telling the truth during his trial. Jesus declared His testimony to be true for the simple reason that His testimony revealed the true facts regarding Himself (Lenski, 1961, p. 599). He then followed this pronouncement of truth with the fact that there was another witness—the Father in heaven Who sent Him to Earth (8:16-18). Thus, in actuality, His testimony was true in two senses: (1) it was true because it was indeed factual; and (2) it was valid because it was corroborated by a second unimpeachable witness—the Father.
God the Father (John 8:18; 5:37-38), along with John the Baptizer (John 5:33), the miracles of Jesus (5:36), the Scriptures (5:39), and specifically the writings of Moses (5:46), all authenticated the true statements Jesus made regarding His deity. Sadly, many of His listeners rejected the evidence then, just as people reject it today.
Butt, Kyle and Dan Barker (2009), Does the God of the Bible Exist? (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.
Robertson, A.T. (1997), Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).