A few places in the Scripture refer to the principle of 2-3 witnesses. This mainly relates to criminal sentencing before a judge:
- “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Num 35:30)
- “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” (Deut 17:6)
- “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut. 19:15)
You can see that in determining such an important matter (that is literally life or death), 1 witness does not suffice. There are times where only 1 witness sees something, and that must be accounted for (and is in Scripture), but the claims of 2+ witnesses are obviously much more credible than just 1 person. Instead, the more independent witnesses you have that are in agreement, the more credible their claims are. You’ll also notice that it says 2-3 witnesses. There is not a magic number that it’s always going to be “2” or always going to be “3”. Instead, consider the case and decide if those 2 witnesses are credible or if you need yet another witness to give you the 3 witnesses (or even more), etc.
We see the Jews of Jesus’ day trying to “work this system” when they were looking for witnesses against Jesus (see Matt. 26:59-61). That passages tells us:
- there is a difference between a trustworthy witness and a false witness (2-3 witnesses assumes trustworthy witnesses).
- WHAT the witnesses attest to matters. In this case, they remembered some details of what Jesus said. Fair enough. But even there, we read in John 2 that they misconstrued his meaning (the temple referred to his body). So we should be careful in considering what exactly we know from the witnesses.
- 2 witnesses are important so that independent attestation from multiple sources can corroborate the matter (many false witnesses didn’t suffice, because they all had their own stories, but they weren’t lining up).
We also see this principle extended in other ways:
- “And I will get reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, to attest for me.” (Is. 8:2) – notice that the word “reliable” is added to the witnesses. This is sometimes assumed elsewhere. Here, God wanted him to get multiple people who could vouch for an event (as a stronger prophetic witness).
- “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Matt. 18:16) – this is about church discipline. It starts with a dispute between 2 people. But if they can’t resolve, it’s good to get other people involved so that the matter can more soundly be determined on the basis of more witnesses. If you read on, it says that if 2-3 witnesses does not suffice, bring the whole church in on the matter. In other words, sometimes 2-3 witnesses does not make it 100% clear, in which case gather more witnesses as needed.
- “In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” (John 8:17-18) – here, Jesus originally says that He alone is a trustworthy witness (which is, of course, true). But to satisfy the wishes of the Jews, He shows that He and the Father can independently attest to His legitimacy, and thus He meets the 2+ witness principle.
You’ll notice these aren’t criminal cases, but nevertheless the principle of 2+ witnesses are invoked.
It’s extended even further by Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:1-3:
This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, 3 since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me.
Notice that Paul is talking here of the multiple visits he’s had with the Corinthians. In these visits he has shown himself to be a legitimate apostle not once, not twice, but three separate times. He also has warned them multiple times and spoken the same message to them–not once, not twice, but now three times. Therefore, they are without excuse. Like a Dad who reasons, maybe they didn’t hear me the first time, and then repeats his command a 2nd and 3rd time. By the time he’s said the same thing 3 times, the matter has clearly been established. They have no recourse to say it was unclear.
Thus we see that the 2-3 witness principle (quoted in 2 Cor. 13:1) can apply also to repeated warnings and demonstrations that happen separate from each other. This is much more persuasive and clear than 1 warning or demonstration. And thus, the principle remains: 2-3 witnesses is a better judge than 1. Which is the point of that principle all along.
There is a similarity with this and Ecclesiastes 4:12
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.Ecc. 4:12
Not precisely the same thing as 2-3 witnesses, but still shows that 2 (and preferrably 3) provide more strength than 1 alone. In this way, it does match the 2-3 witness principle.
There is also a related principle observed in nature. Namely, I’ve heard that the strongest architectural shape is a triangle. 3 sides of equal length gives it the most durability of any shape. Again, it matches this principle.
I might add 2 other Scripture truths that could apply this principle (though they never state it directly):
- God as 3-in-1 (Trinity). He is the ultimate Truth. Thus having 3 Persons in perfect unity is the greatest witness you could have.
- Jesus resurrecting after being dead 3 days. Why not only a few hours of death? Why not only after 1 day of death? We are never told, but in my mind it shows it is the ultimate witness that He is truly dead. 1 day of death might not convince people. 2 would probably convince most. But 3 days of death shows a completely full witness that He was completely dead, and thus completely paid the penalty of our sin, and thus truly resurrected afterward.