Why are two or three witnesses needed in Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15?

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses outlines God’s plan for Israel’s spiritual and community life. Deuteronomy 17:2–13 focuses on Israel’s judicial process, putting systems in place to deal fairly and respectfully with those accused of crimes. One such procedure was to require two or three witnesses for a criminal conviction: “You must not convict anyone of a crime on the testimony of only one witness. The facts of the case must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15, NLT; see also Numbers 35:30).

One aspect of worshipping the Lord is understanding that His laws are given to safeguard His people, not as punishments. God established rules of justice to prevent unfair, arbitrary, erroneous, or dishonest treatment of an individual. These judicial requirements are known as procedural due process and substantive due process.

Israelites who broke the law, committing evil in the eyes of the Lord, were subject to harsh penalties, but not without careful investigation by leaders of the community. A person had to be proven guilty of a crime through examination and due process before a penalty could be served. Under no circumstances could a matter deserving of the death penalty be decided on the testimony of a single witness: “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Deuteronomy 17:6).

The law requiring two or three witnesses comes into play in 1 Kings 21, when Queen Jezebel hatched a wicked plot to steal a vineyard for her husband, King Ahab. She declared a holiday and invited Naboth, the owner of the vineyard, to sit in a place of honor. All the time behind the scenes, she was orchestrating Naboth’s demise: “Seat two scoundrels opposite him,” she instructed the city leaders, “and have them bring charges that [Naboth] has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death” (1 Kings 21:10). Her murder of Naboth had all the appearances of due process—she made sure there were two witnesses against him, just as the law specified. Jezebel’s trampling of the law—while pretending to honor it—shows the depth of her corruption.

A single party might be able to get away with falsely accusing someone of a crime, but it is much harder for multiple witnesses to conspire to pervert justice. Also, one person could mistakenly misinterpret an act as criminal, but it is far less likely for two or three witnesses to all get it wrong. For this reason, the law required that allegations be evidenced and attested to by no less than two eyewitnesses.

An additional safeguard against falsely convicting someone of a crime was that the witnesses themselves were responsible for initiating the penalty: “The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:7). The whole community joined in administering justice, attesting to the corporate character of the covenant family. Evil, crime, and its punishment impacted the entire fellowship. If one Israelite sinned against God, all were liable in one way or another. It was in everyone’s best interest to remove evil from their midst.

God’s primary purpose for implementing judicial procedures was to maintain purity in the covenant community. But another clear intention was to bring about repentance and restoration for the criminal. God’s nature is one of compassion and mercy. He forgives rebellion and sin, but He does not excuse the guilty (Exodus 34:6–7).

The principle of more than one witness recurs in the New Testament. Jewish law recognized that the truth or validity of someone’s claims had to be established by two or three witnesses (John 8:17; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). In the church, an accusation against an elder or leader requires two or three witnesses before action is taken (1 Timothy 5:19).

As Jesus went about ministering, the religious leaders questioned the truth of His claims. In His own defense, Christ submitted not two or three witnesses but five: John the Baptist, His own miracles, the Father, the Scriptures, and Moses (John 5:31–47).

“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:7). Part of the perfection of God’s law is seen in its preservation of justice and the protections it afforded to those accused of crimes.

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