I do not think the word “αὐτόπται” (autoptai) in the first line of Luke should not be translated as “eyewitness.” This gives a misleading impression of everything that follows. It falsely makes it seem that Luke is an historian, when he is really more of a prophet-teacher.
The first sentence in the gospel of Luke is this:
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων, καθὼς παρέδοσαν ἡμῖν οἱ ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου,
If we see this in conjunction with the gospel of John’s 1:14 (“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”), we get the interpretation that he is talking about people who have seen Jesus, He is talking about eyewitnesses to Jesus. This is a false impression.
One problem here is that Luke is not trying to sound like John’s Jesus and expressing some profound metaphysical doctrine, but he is simply giving an explanation of why he is writing his work. The work that it should be compared to is the beginning of Papias’ “exposition of the Oracles of the Lord”
But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,–what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.
Papias is basically distinguishing between information gathered from reading books and information from oral preaching. This distinction would be extremely important in a society where 95% of the people was illiterate. Papias may be being rhetorical here, claiming he got his information from actual people rather than just reading books. What is important is the distinction he is making between reading and listening.
Going back to Luke, we should understand that in this first statement, the term “Word” (Logou) would not refer to Jesus himself. If he wanted to say Jesus, he would have. Instead, in this context the better translation of Logou would be “story” or “ideology” or “philosophy.” He is explaining why he is writing “our story,” “our ideology,” or “our philosophy” He is explaining why he is telling the Christian story, ideology- philosophy.
The word “αὐτόπται” (autoptai) is translated as “eyewitness,” but it actually means something like “self seeing” coming from the Greek words autos – self and optanomai – I am seen by. The translation of the word as “eyewitness” does not really capture the sense of the word here. The word is not a common word and its exact meaning can only be understood in conjunction with the word “ὑπηρέται” (hupéretés)
Here is the difinition from Strong’s concordance: 5257 hypērétēs (from 5259 /hypó, “under” and ēressō, “to row”) – properly, a rower (a crewman on a boat), an “under-rower” who mans the oars on a lower deck; (figuratively) a subordinate executing official orders, i.e. operating under direct (specific) orders.
We can get more of a sense from translating it as self see-ers and ministers of the word. The self see-ers see what needs to be done and the ministers just do it, carrying out the orders, so to speak
Luke is both self-seeing and ministering (carrying out/telling) our Christian story, just like the people who taught him our Christian story. Luke is really saying that he is getting the story by self-seeing and speaking it.
The distinction recalls the distinction that Papias made between readings of books and speakers. By self-seeing (“αὐτόπται”) Luke means reading and figuring out for himself the story. We can contrast this type of reading with a type of reading where one just reads and accepts everything that is written. Luke is reading critically, he is seeing and judging for himself the text. He is not just being a minister carrying out someone else’s orders, speaking words invented by others. He is self-seeing, determining the words for himself.
He is reading it. critically figuring out the story for himself and hearing the story from others. Luke is just doing what his Christian teachers did – reading carefully and listening to Christian Ministers.
Luke does not say that he is getting the story from eyewitnesses as the many translators of the text suggest. Rather the opposite, he is suggesting that he himself is actively involved in figuring out the true story and not just passively relaying it.