Minutes With Messiah Logo

Witnesses Differ

by Tim O'Hearn

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (movie, 1962) Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, returns to the scene of the shooting that made him a hero. After all, he shot Liberty Valance, a notorious bully and outlaw. He was a hero. Everybody saw him do it. But (spoiler alert), the man who actually did the shooting was Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne. He was in the shadows when Stoddard faced down the bad guy (Lee Marvin). The only one who knew the truth was Ransom Stoddard. And now that Doniphon is dead, he is ready to tell the truth.

One incident, two different conclusions about who shot Liberty Valance. And that is the way of witness testimony. In this movie, most of the witnesses agree, and most are wrong. As many lawyers will tell you, sometimes you never know who is right and who is wrong. That may be the case of a particular incident in scripture. People reading the same account of the first Pentecost after Jesus died (the anniversary of which in 2016 falls on June 11) have come to two different conclusions. Either may be right, both may be right, but even some of the conclusions may be wrong.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. (Acts 2:4-11)

Some people think that only eleven apostles were given the ability to speak in unfamiliar languages. They say the “they” in verse one of the chapter refers back to the “eleven” of the previous chapter (since when it was written there were no chapter divisions). Others refer it back to the 120 of Acts 1:15, saying the 11 was the conclusion of an incident within the larger incident. We really have no way of knowing which is right, although people will defend their position very loudly.

A bigger question is whether the 11 or 120 spoke in at least fifteen different languages, or whether the interpretation was in the hearer rather than the speaker. Verse 4 makes it clear that the speakers used languages they had not previously learned. But verses 8 and 11 emphasize that the people heard in their language, not that those languages were actually being spoken. Different people will interpret the passage one way or the other, and some even say both sides are right.

The problem with conflicting witness testimony is sometimes that the real point becomes obscured. Liberty Valance is dead and Rance Stoddard stood up to him. It doesn’t matter who actually pulled the trigger. A great miracle happened on Shavuos. It doesn’t matter exactly how it happened.

Only a few things can be certain. The languages being spoken were normal human languages. Because of the phenomenon with the languages, many people were able to hear the message of the Christ, and believe it. According to Peter (in Acts 11), the miracle was only duplicated once, at the house of Cornelius. Only the apostles (and presumably, later, Cornelius) could transmit the ability to speak in languages to other people (Acts 8:18), and so the ability to miraculously speak in languages without previously learning them has most likely ended.

Witness testimony is of questionable reliability. Secondary testimony is even more questionable. But the power of God is not open to question.