One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established (Deuteronomy 19:15).
How can we know a thing is true? A matter can only be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.
This principle is established in its most abstract in Deuteronomy 19:15: a charge of iniquity or sin could only be sustained by the mouth of two witnesses; in fact, any matter could only be established at the mouth of two or three witnesses. Previously this premise was established for capital crimes: no one was to be put to death on the basis of one witness alone, but only if there were two or three witnesses, and the witnesses were expected to begin the execution (Deuteronomy 17:6-7; cf. Hebrews 10:28). Joshua called upon the people to witness regarding themselves that they had chosen to serve YHWH (Joshua 24:22). Boaz calls upon the elders and people in the gate to serve as witnesses of his redemption of the house of Elimelech and taking Ruth the Moabitess as wife (Ruth 4:9-11). YHWH called upon Israel and His servant to be His witnesses to testify that He is God and there is no other (Isaiah 43:10-12, 44:8-9). Isaiah has a message certified by witnesses (Isaiah 8:1-2); Jeremiah’s redemption of a relative’s property is certified by witnesses (Jeremiah 32:10-12, 25, 44). Attesting all things by the mouth of two or three witnesses was manifestly an accepted part of Israelite legislation and life; its value was recognized even when Israel proved disobedient in many other ways.
The importance of two or three witnesses is not restricted to the old covenant; it is fully manifest in Jesus’ life, the proclamation of the Gospel, and in how Jesus and the Apostles expected Christians to adjudicate issues and disputes among them. Jesus appealed to the Law regarding witness and declared that both He and His Father testified to the truth of His judgment (John 8:12-18). Jesus’ intended second step in handling a brother or sister who sins against us is to take two or three with us so that every word is established (Matthew 18:16). At His trial the High Priest found no need of witnesses after they all heard Jesus speak “blasphemy” (Matthew 26:65, Mark 14:63). After His resurrection Jesus declared the Twelve to be witnesses to Him and what He had accomplished (Luke 24:48); note well how the Apostles, as they proclaim Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, deliberately always evoke at least two witnesses, generally the prophetic word declared in the Law, Psalms, and the Prophets, and their own eyewitness testimony (e.g. Acts 2:22-36, 3:12-26, 13:16-41). A Christian’s confession was to be heard by witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12); the teachings regarding God in Christ were to be taught before many witnesses (2 Timothy 2:2). Accusations against elders were not to be heard unless certified by two or three witnesses, and Paul explicitly quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 to the Corinthian Christians as part of his warning before he came to visit them in judgment (2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19). Not for nothing, therefore, does God send down two witnesses to the earth in Revelation 11:3-13!
Establishing all things by two or three witnesses proves to be a pervasive and important theme in Scripture, but why? God made man, and God is aware of mankind’s limitations, frailty, and the corruption which has taken place since the fall (Romans 3:23, 5:12-21). Even in situations where a person has the most sincere of motives, one person may be convinced he or she saw something that did not actually take place. Whereas we may want to believe our senses and brains work like a database, accurately remembering sense perceptions, our brains prove more plastic: memories change to some degree or another as they are remembered. One person may be absolutely convinced what they feel or believe is true, even if in “objective reality” it is not. Beyond all this, what evidence or recourse does a person have if they are the only witness, and another contradicts that witness?
It is much harder to contradict a story told by two or three witnesses. Individual memory may be somewhat plastic, but if the testimony of two or three agrees, they most likely are attesting to what truly happened. One person may suffer from terrible motivations; it is harder to convince two or three people to share in that motivation. Furthermore, while one might easily dismiss the claims of one person as delusional, it proves much harder to claim that two or three (or more!) all suffer from delusion when they independently claim to have seen or participated in the same thing.
Is this standard foolproof? Very few things in life prove foolproof. Two or three people can collude and conspire against another. People even in Scripture are said to have borne false witness, and the ninth commandment is given for a reason (Exodus 20:16, Matthew 26:59-60). Throughout time there have no doubt been times when two or three witnesses bore false testimony and one person could testify accurately concerning what he or she saw.
Yet we do well to remember the reason for two or three witnesses: to establish a matter as true. One person may be accurate, but there is no faithful means by which to establish it on the basis of only one witness. We do well to establish this as the posture in our own lives.
How do we adjudicate claims of truth? What is true must be established by the witness of God in Christ: in the creation and through what has been spoken by God (John 14:6, Romans 1:19-21). If something cannot be established by these witnesses in Scripture and in what God has made, then it cannot be established as true. The Gospels provide four witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Apostles provided prophetic testimony as well as their own. We should be wary about any doctrine or practice for which there is but one proof text; by the mouth of two or three witnesses all truth should be established.
How do we handle claims of wrongdoing? Accusations should not be accepted, and judgments of sin rendered, on the basis of only one witness: this should be true in all relationships. In intimate relationships it proves all too easy to confuse feelings for reality; merely because we feel does not mean someone has done wrong; even if wrong has been done, there is always the “he said, she said” in such matters. In such relationships we rarely will have the ability to provide two or three witnesses; we do better to set forth how we feel or how things seem to us to our partner or friends. Perhaps we misunderstood; perhaps we misread. And even if we have a strong claim to truth we do well to remember that without two or three witnesses even something that is real cannot be corroborated and thus cannot be fully established. Jesus provides the way forward: we are to speak directly to anyone whom we believe has sinned against us to win them back (Matthew 18:15). If the person refuses to hear us, we then take two or three with us to establish the truth of every word (Matthew 18:16): this does not mean that these people become witnesses of the original infraction but of how each party in the dispute handled themselves. If they will not hear then, it is to be taken to the church, and if they refuse to hear the church, it is no longer really about the original transgression, but the refusal to restore relationship and to be held accountable, and thus they are to be marginalized until they repent (Matthew 18:17). Two or three witnesses is of the greatest importance among the people of God, for not one of us has been given the right to stand as judge, jury, and executioner, and for good reason (James 4:11-12)! Accusations of unrepentant sin are very serious matters, and should be treated with the highest levels of integrity by the people of God: we must be above reproach on how we handle sin in our midst, and prove willing to purge leaven but only when leaven has been verifiably identified.
How do we attest to our lives and conduct? Foolish is the evangelist who agrees to meet privately with a young woman to study the Scriptures, and not a few careers in ministry have been brought down by accusations of impropriety, however valid or invalid, in such circumstances. Wise organizations expect at least two responsible adults present at functions for similar reasons. When we seek to teach the truth, we should establish all things by two or three valid witnesses. For good reason Jesus sent out His disciples “two by two” (Luke 10:1).
We do well, therefore, to establish “by the mouth of two or three witnesses let a matter be established” as mantra for our lives. God in Christ has provided two witnesses. The Apostles provided two witnesses. We should learn to seek two or three witnesses to establish the validity of a thing, and never presume the right to serve as judge, jury, and executioner for anyone in any relationship. May we glorify God in our lives and ground our faith in God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry