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Properly, a "witness" (martys) is "one who testifies" (martyreo) by act or word his "testimony" (martyrion) to the truth. This act of testifying is called his "testimony" (martyria). In ancient days, as at the present, this was a legal term designating the testimony given for or against one on trial before a court of law. In Christian usage the term came to mean the testimony given by Christian witnesses to Christ and his saving power. Because such testimony often means arrest and scourging (cf. Matt. 10:18; Mark 13:9), exile (Rev. 1:9), or death (cf. Acts 22:20; Rev. 2:13; 17:6) the Greek was transliterated to form the English word "martyr," meaning one who suffers or dies rather than give up his faith. However, in the NT suffering was an incidental factor in the word.

A thorough study of witnessing would necessitate a study of the whole Bible. Such words as preaching, teaching, and confessing would have to be included. Greek words (fifteen in number) stemming from "witness" (martys) are used over two hundred times in the NT. The most common usage is found in the Johannine writings, in which seventy-six instances are found. Acts has thirty-nine instances and the Pauline writings thirty-five.

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Leaving aside those uses of the word that refer to man's witness to men (cf. III John 12), God's witness to men (cf. Acts 13:22), man's witness against men (cf. Matt. 18:16), and miscellaneous uses (cf. John 2:25), we will consider the distinctively Christian use of the words.

First, there are those testimonies which are meant to establish the incarnation and the truth of Christianity. In John's Gospel, where this is primary, we find instances of all the main witnesses. John the Baptist "bears testimony" (martyreo) to Jesus as the coming Savior of the world (John 1:7-8, 15, 32, 34; 3:26; 5:32). The works that Jesus did were a testimony that he came from the Father (John 5:36); this explains why John called the miracles "signs" (semeion). The OT Scriptures are a testimony to Jesus (John 5:39); this thought is behind most of the NT quotations from the OT. After the resurrection the main evidences of the truth of Christianity are the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26), the witness of the disciples to the resurrection (Acts 1:22), and the signs and wonders by which God attested the ministry of the apostles and the churches (Heb. 2:4).

The pattern of Christian missionary and evangelistic activity is set in the NT. Several principles emerge.

F L Fisher
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Witness of the Spirit

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Witness of the Spirit (Rom. 8:16), is the consciousness of the gracious operation of the Spirit on the mind, "a certitude of the Spirit's presence and work continually asserted within us", manifested "in his comforting us, his stirring us up to prayer, his reproof of our sins, his drawing us to works of love, to bear testimony before the world," etc.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Catholic Information

One who is present, bears testimony, furnishes evidence or proof. Witnesses are employed in various ecclesiastical matters, as in civil, in proof of a statement, fact, or contract. According to various circumstances a witness is one who is personally present and sees some act or occurrence and can bear testimony thereto; one who on request or in behalf of a party subscribes his name to an instrument to attest the genuineness of its execution; one who gives testimony on the trial of a cause, appearing before a court, judge, or other official to be examined under oath. The espousals of Catholics ("Ne temere") to be binding must be in writing, signed by the contracting parties and ordinarily by two witnesses, or by a pastor or ordinary, each within his own territory, as sole witnesses. In case either or both parties are unable for any cause to write, an additional witness is necessary. Catholics are incapable of entering into lawful wedlock ("Ne temere") except in the presence of a parish priest, or ordinary, or other priest duly delegated, and two witnesses. Though not necessary for validity of the act, the Church desires in both cases that these witnesses be Catholics (S.O., 19 Aug., 1891). Witnesses of a marriage sign no ecclesiastical document, though they may be called upon by the state to attest by their own hand certain civil records. Sponsors at baptism and confirmation are not properly witnesses; they assist for other purposes (see RELATIONSHIP). A canonical precept, when employed, must be delivered in the presence of the vicar general or two others as witnesses (Cum magnopere, VII). Ecclesiastical documents are attested or witnessed as circumstances require, e.g., by the chancellor, clerk of the court, prothonotary apostolic. Expert witnesses to some extent have a place in canon law. In ecclesiastical trials witnesses are adduced to prove a fact directly, or indirectly, i.e., by establishing the falsity of the contrary.

The essential qualifications of a witness are knowledge of the fact at issue and truthfulness: he must be an eye-witness and trustworthy. Hearsay witnesses, however, are admitted, if necessary, in matters not of a criminal nature, e.g., in proof of consanguinity or other relationship, baptism, etc. Anyone not expressly prohibited may testify. Some, as the insane, infants, the blind or deaf, where sight or hearing is necessary for a knowledge of the facts in question, are excluded by the natural law; others by canon law, as those who are bribed or suborned, those who are infamous in law or in fact, convicted perjurors, excommunicated persons, all in a word whose veracity may be justly suspected. The law likewise rejects those who on account of affection or enmity may be biased, as well as those who may be specially interested in the case. Parents as a rule are not admitted for their children, particularly when the rights of a third party are at stake, or against them and vice-versa; relatives for one another; lawyers for their clients; accomplices or enemies for or against one another; Jews or heretics against Christians; lay persons against clerics, except their own interests are at stake, or there are no clerics to testify; minors or women in criminal cases tried criminally, unless their testimony is necessary, or they testify in favor of the accused. Clerics, unless compelled by civil authorities, are not allowed to testify against the accused when sentence of death is to be imposed (see IRREGULARITY). There are many exceptions to these general statements. A witness is more easily admitted in favour of a person than against him, and in civil than in criminal trials. No one is tolerated as a witness in his own case. Hence, those who are engaged in a similar cause, a judge who has adjudicated a like case, etc. are excluded. False witnesses are those who under oath prevaricate or conceal the truth that they are bound to tell: they are guilty of perjury, and if convicted are infamous in law. Notaries or others by altering or falsifying documents substantially become guilty of forgery.

Publication information Written by Andrew B. Meehan. Transcribed by Michael T. Barrett. Dedicated to Jerry F. Kobelin The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


Decret. L., II, tit. 20, De testibus et Attestationibus; SANTI, Praelect. Juris Can.; TAUNTON, The Law of the Church, s.v.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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