At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:6).
God exhibits concern for fairness and justice as He provides legislation for Israel through Moses. Many of the laws involve serious matters with life-or-death consequences for the defendant. In Deuteronomy 17:2-5, Moses provides a case law regarding anyone who is found guilty of having committed idolatry and served other gods. Such people are to be put to death. But there is one caveat given: there must be at least two or three witnesses. One witness is not sufficient to establish guilt and thus execution. Furthermore, even if there are at least two witnesses, the witnesses must be the first one to throw the stones of execution (Deuteronomy 17:7). All of this serves to underlie the seriousness of not just capital offenses but also any accusations thereof.
This is wise policy. It might be tempting for one person to bear false witness against his neighbor in order to gain some advantage, exact revenge, or on account of some other nefarious purpose. It is not foolproof; situations could be imagined in which two or more people decide to conspire against someone and bear false witness, as some of the Jewish people themselves imagined in the apocryphal story of Daniel and Susanna. Nevertheless, in such circumstances, their stories could be proven as inconsistent to their own detriment (as the aforementioned story attempted to make clear).
Yet it also protects the defendant even in cases where a person gives testimony honestly but not according to reality. Human memory is not like a video camera accurately capturing every moment and then perfectly archiving the information for later use; our memories can change slightly, especially if prompted by suggestion. One person could see something, honestly believe the person was committing a capital crime, but be mistaken. That is far less likely to be true if two or more people saw the same offense.
There is also value in having the witnesses be the ones to begin the execution. It is one thing to make accusations and let others do the “dirty work”; it is quite another to have to take the stone in your hand yourself and throw it at the accused. This is especially true when everyone knows everyone, as was likely the case in most Israelite villages and towns. This was a serious matter: it required strong commitment to the principles God set forth in the Law, but it also required absolute certainty of the guilt of the accused.
This is not a principle abandoned after the end of the Law. Bringing two or three witnesses is the second phase of the attempt to reconcile with a brother who has sinned (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Paul warned the Corinthians of the matter in 2 Corinthians 13:1; he exhorts Timothy to not hear any accusation against an elder of the church except if there be two or three witnesses in 1 Timothy 5:19. Serious matters require validation by more than one witness!
The principle is not just valid in terms of legal matters and capital offenses: it is a good principle by which to live our lives. Accusations should require validation from more than one source.
We humans have a habit of playing “judge, jury, and executioner” with others. We are tempted to confuse our subjective perceptions with objective reality. It is easy for us to be sure that someone else acts in uncharitable ways, does not like us, does things to injure us, and so on and so forth. Perhaps there are times when such persons actually do harbor ill-will, but many times it is just a matter of mistaken impressions or misunderstandings of intention. But the feelings of jealousy, envy, and hostility engendered by these judgments prove toxic to marriages, friendships, business partnerships, family relationships, etc.
At such times we must remind ourselves how we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actual performance, or, as Jesus put it, we see everyone else’s specks in their eye while missing the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). There is a reason why people with logs in their eyes are not trusted to provide reliable testimony on the witness stand! It proves too easy to project all sorts of negative motivations and intentions on others when it is quite possible and perhaps likely that no ill will was intended. Just because we feel wronged does not mean that we actually have been wronged; just because we feel as if the other person is not well disposed toward us does not make it so.
Far too often too many people make too much out of quite a little. We do well to consider the wise standard of having two or three witnesses in regards to serious matters, and not be so quick to malign and judge others on the basis of our subjective perceptions. Let us wisely give others the benefit of the doubt, establishing all things by the mouth of two or three witnesses!
Ethan R. Longhenry