2 Corinthians 13:1-2 says:

“This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 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 …” (NIV)

According to the margin in my NKJV Paul appears to quote from the Old Testament law which says:

“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 NIV)

I was led to believe that the two or three witnesses in Deuteronomy had to be different people, not the same person verifying something two or three times. The apostle Paul is only one person, yet appears to say that his two or three warnings constitute two or three witnesses. This doesn’t make sense to me.


Did the apostle Paul take the Old Testament Scriptures out of context and if so, how could he do that legitimately? I thought we ended up with false teachings if we didn’t keep the Word in context.

I've just realised also, that Deut 17:6 is talking about the death penalty in Israel, but Paul appears to change the context (of the death penalty) and apply it to verbally rebuking sinning Christians (and maybe disfellowshipping them later if they won't repent?).

Second Question

Did Paul take Deutoronmy 17:6 completely out of context, or are there other books in existence which he could have been quoting from?

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    If this help, looks like Jesus wanted things established with two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16) perhaps (Duet 19:15) will help. Wanted to share some clues, do not really know the answer. It will be interesting to hear other's understanding on this.
    – Decrypted
    Apr 10, 2016 at 14:14
  • Thanks for the Deut 19:15 Scripture, that answers the second question, any sin is to be established by 2 or 3 witnesses. Hope someone can answer the first question. Cheers Decrypted.
    – Marisa
    Apr 10, 2016 at 16:21
  • I heard that Paul was trained really well in the understanding of the old testament trained by a guy named Gamaliel. Probably why the New Testament bases a lot on his understanding he was able to see the connection between the old and the new.
    – Decrypted
    Apr 10, 2016 at 16:36
  • Why are we assuming he's referring to Deuteronomy, and not established church discipline rules? That the early church would borrow such a a rule of 2 or 3 would not be unusual, especially considering Jesus' own words in Matthew 18:16?
    – Joshua
    Apr 11, 2016 at 0:29
  • @joshua, my NKJV margin gave a reference to Deut 17:6, so I assumed Paul was quoting from that ... but you're right, he could have been reiterating Jesus' teachings. Though it's still puzzling as to why Paul referred to himself as being 'three witnesses when Jesus meant 2 or 3 different people. Thanks for pointing out Matthew 18:16.
    – Marisa
    Apr 11, 2016 at 11:02

3 Answers 3


No, He Used it in Context

Paul appears to be citing, not Dt 17:6, but Dt 19:15, which more generally relates to any sin (all Scripture quotes NKJV; emphasis added):

One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.

Your belief is correct:

I was led to believe that the two or three witnesses in Deuteronomy had to be different people, not the same person verifying something two or three times.

Paul is giving the warning in the context of his coming the third time, not because he is going to be a witness a third time himself. Rather, he is responding to testimony from two others, Titus and the other brother that went with him to Corinth about the offering to the churches (2 Cor 8:16-24). They had returned with some good news, e.g. 2 Cor 7:13:

13 Therefore we have been comforted in your comfort. And we rejoiced exceedingly more for the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

But also apparently some bad news, that some were accusing Paul and them of. Specifically those in 2 Cor 10:2b:

who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh

which accusation was related to thinking they were cheating the church of Corinth (2 Cor 7:2):

Open your hearts to us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have cheated no one.

Specifically, it seems, a charge that they were seeking monetary funds only for themselves to fulfill their own earthly desires. Paul defends himself in chapter 11, feeling like a fool in doing so (e.g. 11:1), but specifically noting in 2 Cor 11:7-9:

7 Did I commit sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to you. 9 And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself.

His defense includes a promise to continue to not take funds, which is unlike those that are making the charges themselves (2 Cor 11:12-13, emphasis added):

12 But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast. 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.

Paul continues to indicate that he had every right in his authority to be funded by the church, but did not take such. And further, neither did Titus or the other brother take for themselves, for Paul states in 12:16-18 about this charge:

16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning! 17 Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps?

So Paul is urging those making the accusations to repentance from such charges, so that when he does come the third time (2 Cor 12:14), he will not become a third witness (along with Titus and this brother) of their sins in this matter (2 Cor 12:20-21, emphasis added):

20 For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults; 21 lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.


Titus and the brother that accompanied him to Corinth for the offering had brought back good news and bad news of matters. Paul was counting these two witnesses as enough to rebuke the church in the letter here, but also was urging for those so falsely charging to repent. When he was to come, a third time to Corinth, if they were to continue in the charge, he would became a third witness against them, and he was not going to spare his displeasure based on these three different witnesses against them (2 Cor 13:2).

The fact that it would be his third time to Corinth was incidental to the fact that he was citing the passage that also used the number three as a basis of witness for one to be found guilty, but it appears he was using the fact that he had given warning the second trip, and would be coming the third, to emphasize the point. That is, in 2 Cor 13:1-2 he is using these incidental similarities together in his letter to emphasize both the fact that he is coming again and the fact that in doing so, he will be a third witness against them if they do not repent.

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    Am I allowed to say 'Praise God!'? Thanks for this answer Scott. It makes sense. I understand that if an interpretation of Scripture contradicts another Scripture, then our interpretation of it is wrong; I just didn't know how to find the answer to this one. Thanks again.
    – Marisa
    Apr 12, 2016 at 9:38
  • @Marisa: The hermeneutic I follow does not allow for any real contradictions between the texts, as foundational to it is that the text is inspired of God, as much His words as the human author's words. But not all hermeneutics follow that view. I'm thankful this answer was a help.
    – ScottS
    Apr 12, 2016 at 14:58
  • It's the same Hebrew in both Deut 17 and 19 (פִּ֣י - peh) for mouth. You're absolutely right that he could be quoting either one, but the usage clearly should be Deut 19. Maybe quote the NIV like the OP is using to show that? At first it seems like its different because you are quoting NKJV and OP is using NIV, however, all translations I can find use the same phrasing in both chapters (testimony, witness, evidence, mouth).+1 for your last paragraph.
    – Joshua
    Apr 13, 2016 at 3:00
  • @Joshua Thanks for the info about the 'mouth' I'll look into it.
    – Marisa
    Apr 13, 2016 at 8:14

As It Is Written, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Christopher D. Stanley, contains a compilation of papers by various authors, writing about Paul's epistles, including how he wrote them, how he used quotations, echoes and allusions to the Old Testament, and how he intended his epistles to be understood.

In 'Quotations' (ibid, page 22), Steve Moyise says the question of whether Paul respects the context of his quotations continues to evoke widely different answers. He says that scholars acknowledge that in some cases Paul's interpretation of Old Testament texts differs from the historical meaning that the original author or his readers could have understood. Paul does not seem to show any interest in how the books from which he quoted would have been understood in their own day.

Moyise (page 27) cites Hays, Wagner and Watson as speaking of Paul "misreading" or even "rewriting" texts, without drawing the conclusion that he took texts out of context. Moyise dryly comments that it clearly depends on what one means by "context." He says (page 28) that some scholars suggest that a quotation formula implies that Paul wants what follows to be understood in the light of the quotation, but others suggest that Paul wants the words of the quotation to be understood in the light of their role of function in the new work. In the latter view, it could seem that Paul is effectively rewriting the ancient Hebrew scriptures.

Thus, there is considerable scholarship that establishes that in quoting or alluding to Old Testament passages, Paul was prepared to alter or misinterpret their meanings, or take them out of context.

Jeremy Punt says in 'Paul and Post-Colonial Hermeneutics'(ibid, page 278), Deuteronomy 19:15 is quoted in 2 Corinthians 13:1 in support of Paul's warning concerning his upcoming visit to Corinth. He intended the references to show beyond doubt that he derived his power from God through Christ:

2 Corinthians 13:1-4: This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. I told you before, and foretell you, as if I were present, the second time; and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare: Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, which to you-ward is not weak, but is mighty in you. For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you.

Deuteronomy 17:6 deals with the death penalty, so Paul's primary focus in this allusion was probably on verse 19:15, which deals with any iniquity or any sin:

Deuteronomy 17:6: At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
Deuteronomy 19:15: 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 the matter be established.

Paul does not claim to have three separate witnesses against the Corinthians, so his use of Deuteronomy 19:15, which requires separate witnesses, is slightly out of context.


Paul changes Deut 21:23 in Gal 3:13 in order to change the Old testament meaning. “Cursed (the words here “of God” in Deut 21:23 are deleted by Paul in Galatians) is every one who hangs on a tree.”

Paul’s new meaning is that God was apparently NOT the one who cursed His Son on the tree at Calvary. Paul has changed and corrected the Old Testament.

Jesus Himself did this same thing in Luke 4:19 leaving out the words, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

Paul and Jesus both remove the idea the God is a cursing or vengeful God.

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