A testimony is a particular kind of authoritative statements, S. Authority:

— Preliminary Conditions:

        • The issue I under discussion is related to an event E. Criminal or not, E has an exceptional character.
        • Person W was in a condition to see or hear something about the event E at issue.
        • Some discussants have a limited access, or no access at all to E,
        • So, in the discussion I, W qualifies as a witness to E.

— Essential Conditions: testimonies are subject under a special truth commitment:

        • W says T.
        • T is relevant to I; T is presumed to be True.

1. Criticism of testimony

Discourses against testimonies of any kind are based on two options, examination of the fact, questioning of the witness. These discourses may be schematized as follows.

— The fact is in itself not credible, not possible, not probable.

— The witness is not credible because:

        • He or she could not see, hear… what he or she pretends to have seen, heard…
        • He or she is partial, biased, or lies.
        • He or she is not competent; he or she has been manipulated; corrupted.
        • In other cases where his or her testimony could be verified, it proved wrong.
        • Other witnesses say otherwise.
        • He or she is the only witness, so his or her testimony is not acceptable (testis unus, testis nullus, “one testimony, no testimony”)

Testimony and criticism of testimony play a particularly important social role in judicial matters and in matters of faith. They also play an important private role in everyday issues, insofar at they underlie the narratives of witnesses to critical life events.

2. Testimony in rhetorical argumentation

In the Topics, Cicero clearly posits judicial testimony as part of the data the court must rely upon, as opposed to discursive proofs, S. “Technical” and “Non-Technical”. According to the modern democratic concept of testimony, witnesses are in principle granted the same status; they and their statements are subject to the same critical examination. The ancient rhetorical concept of testimony is quite different. According to Cicero, in Roman court practice, the weight of a testimony is a priori proportional to the social authority granted to the witness.

For our present purpose, we define testimony as everything that is brought in from some external circumstance in order to gain conviction. Now it is not every sort of person who is worthy of consideration as a witness. To gain conviction, authority is sought; but authority is given by one’s nature or by circumstances. Authority from one’s nature or character depends largely on virtue; in circumstances there are many things which lend authority, such as talent, wealth, age, good luck, skill, experience, necessity, and even occasional fortuitous events. (Cicero, Top., XIX, 73; Hubbell, p. 439)

In this quotation, the mentioned “circumstances” include basic elements determining the social status of the witness. “Necessity” refers to testimony collected under duress and torture. The expression “fortuitous events” refers to emotional speech, emotion being considered a guarantee of truth.


In the Roman world, testimony was actually guaranteed not only by an in-depth examination of the witness and the alleged fact but also by the precise status of a witness, if a citizen, or by the amount of pain the witness could bear, if a slave. The use of torture to gain true information is now morally condemned, and practically recognized as an ineffective means to gather information, “Beer, cigarettes work better than waterboarding[1].

The concept of testimony in ancient texts covers a wider field than personal testimony about a particular fact. Testimony can also guarantee principles, and in that case, the witnesses are “the ancient authors, the oracles, the proverbs, the sayings of the illustrious contemporaries” (Vidal 2000, p. 60).

3. Testimony in matters of faith

The capacity of truth to be more compelling than any kind of pain is inherent to the Christian tradition of martyrdom. The word martyr comes from the Greek word meaning witness; the martyr is a witness of the divine Word. Martyrdom is a kind of torture; truth is certified through torture. As Pascal states: “I believe those stories only, whose witnesses let themselves be slaughtered” (Thoughts, p. 117).

The validation of testimony through martyrdom leads to a paradox. In reality people have been tortured and killed for a variety of beliefs and values; Giordano Bruno for example is a “martyr of atheism”. The proposal must therefore be reversed, and, according to Saint Augustine’s saying, “it is not the penalty but the cause that constitutes a martyr.”[2] If the cause is bad (heresy), the “martyr” is an offender and has been punished as such.

Confession and testimony

Denials are weak arguments for innocence, but avowals are strong arguments for culpability. When it contradicts a denial, a testimony is believed over and above the denial. But consider the case of a person accusing himself or herself of a horrible murder but confronted with a testimony claiming that materially he or she cannot have committed the crime. The general question is whether avowals, confessions should be trusted over testimonies to the contrary?

Is witnessing reflexive? That is, can I bear witness of myself, of my own actions? The Evangelist John reports that Christ said no, “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.” (John 5:31)[3]; S. Relations, 2 Reflexivity.

Paradox of weak testimony

The Latin word testis means “witness” and “testicule”. In Roman culture, as in some contemporary cultures, testimony is the reserve of men; a woman’s testimony, if admitted at all, is considered weaker and less credible than that of a man. A single testimony from one man for example, is of equivalent value to that of several women. As a consequence, if a text claims only a woman’s testimony to certify a fact, it can be argued that this is indirect proof of the authenticity of that fact, for, if the fact were forged, the text would have claimed to be supported by a man’s testimony. This argument is developed from the Gospels, which, referring to the resurrection of Christ, mentions that women discovered the empty tomb. The cultural weakness of their testimony is taken to be indirect strong evidence for that fact.

[1] “Mattis to Trump: beer, cigarettes work better than waterboarding”. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/11/23/mattis-trump-beer-cigarettes-work-better-waterboarding.html (07-05-2017)

[2] Augustine, Second Discourse on Psalm 34. In St Augustine on the Psalms. Trans. and An. by S. Hegbin, and F. Korrigan, Vol. II, Ps. 30-37. New York & Mahwah: The Newman Press, p. 220.

[3] New King James Version (NKJV); Quoted after https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+5%3A31&version=NKJV (05-05-2017)