2 Cor 12:21-13:2 reads,
12:21 I fear that when I come again, my god may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced. 13:1 This is the third time I am coming to you. "Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses." 13:2 I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient -Why did Paul include this citation of Deuteronomy 19:15, and what did the "two or three witnesses" represent? Welborn discusses two common views and then offers his own radically different view.
1. The witnesses represent Paul's three visits to Corinth (two in the past and one projected). Welborn points out that this is problematic because: a) Paul's founding visit to Corinth can hardly be described as a witness against the Corinthian believers, b) multiple visits by the same person do not constitute multiple witnesses, c) Deut 19:15 implies simultaneous witnesses, whereas Paul's three visits were separated in time.
2. Rabbinic literature developed the idea of "witnesses" in Deut 19:15 into that of "warnings", and similarly "witnesses" in 2 Cor 13:1 represents "warnings" made by Paul to the Corinthians. Welborn agrees that this solves the problems of 1, but writes:
Unfortunately, the reinterpretation of "witnesses" as "warnings" in Jewish legal tradition cannot be traced back into the time of Paul. The application of the rule of judical evidence to cases of persons suspected of wrongdoing, in the sense of "warnings" before witnesses, is first attested in the Mishnah tractate on "The Suspected Adultress" (Sotah 1.1-2), dated to the second century C.E.However, Welborn does not explain why the absence of first century evidence for this interpretation of Deut 19:15 is problematic. Why is absence of evidence evidence of absence here?
Welborn suggests that the "most serious defect" of 1 and 2 is that Deut 19:15 is meant to protect the accused from a single malicious witness. Welborn raises a legitimate question: if Paul is here on the attack against the Corinthians, why does he quote a scripture that actually helps their defense? However, I think Welborn and others have overlooked the background. Paul had not punished the Corinthian wrong-doers during his second visit to Corinth and some of them concluded from this that he was a weak personality and would not discipline them on his next visit either. They said that Paul was severe in his letters, but weak in person (2 Cor 10:1-2 and 2 Cor 10:9-11). So Paul needed to convince the Corinthians that his warnings were not just empty threats. In short, he needed to explain why he had not punished them on his second visit but would do so on his next visit. The citation of Deut 19:15 in 2 Cor 13:1 explains to the Corinthians why he had been lenient before: he wanted to wait until he had given them sufficient warnings. Thus Paul's citation from Deut 19:15 will have convinced the Corinthians to take Paul's threats seriously.
3. Welborn suggests that
Paul himself is the accused who seeks protection under the Deuteronomic rule from pernicious accusation by a malicious witness. Paul cites the rule not only in self-defense, but also as a warning to the Corinthians of the punishment that will fall upon those who are complicit in the wrong done to him, should the testimony of the single witness be shown to be false, in accordance with the Deuteronomic statute.Welborn feels that Paul is alluding here to the offender of 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:12, and that this offender had been a solitary witness who accused Paul of planning to defraud the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:14-18). He supports his suggestion with some verbal arguments, including the following:
Most significant of all is Paul's use of the participle ἀδικήσας in 2 Cor 7:12 to describe the one who had given offence; an adjective of this same term - namely, ἄδικος is found in Deut 19:16, 18 as the description of the malicious witness, μάρτυς ἄδικος, literally "an unjust witness."a) A major problem with this suggestion is that the immediate context of 2 Cor 13:1 is the issue of "impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness". This issue is in view in the previous verse (2 Cor 12:21) and also in the following verse (2 Cor 13:2) since the "previously sinned" appears there too. The issue of financial misconduct (2 Cor 12:14-18) is too far back, I feel.
b) A further problem for Welborn's reconstruction is that it makes Paul's response to accusations rather inconsistent. In 1 Cor 4:3 Paul writes, "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court", and at 2 Cor 13:6-7 Paul shows a similar indifference to whether he is judged favorably by the Corinthians. Also, concerning the accusations of financial misconduct (2 Cor 12:14-18) Paul stresses that his purpose is not actually to defend himself, but to build up the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:19). Why would Paul emphasize his indifference to accusations in these passages, but show concern for past and future accusations against himself in 2 Cor 13:1?
c) Lastly, the issue of the offender seems to have been resolved by the tearful letter, so it would be slightly surprising if Paul brought up the issue again in 2 Cor 12:14-18; 13:1 as a live issue. This point assumes the unity of 2 Corinthians, for which I have argued here and here. Welborn partitions both 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.
So I am not yet convinced of Welborn's proposal that 2 Cor 13:1 refers to legal proceedings against Paul, but read his paper and make up your own mind. Perhaps my objections can be answered.
I do, however, think he may be right to suggest that the offender of 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:12 had brought an accusation against Paul.
Update Nov 11th.
I have argued recently that the offender of 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:12 had criticized Paul in an attempt to undermine Paul's efforts to eradicate licentiousness from the Corinthian church. I think this answers my objections to Welborn's theory and thus brings it back into play. Points a), b), and c) above will be addressed in turn below.
a) The offense concerned licentiousness, which is the context of 13:1.
b) While Paul had not been very troubled by the criticism as such, he had been distressed at the influence that it might have on the Corinthians. This could explain why Paul refers to it in 13:1.
c) In 2 Cor 12:21-13:3 Paul does not show that he has reason to believe that licentious acts are presently being committed by members of the Corinthian church. Rather, as I read it, Paul is here wanting to prevent a recurrence of the earlier sins.
Also, if I am right to place the offense before 1 Corinthians then it becomes very tempting to identify the accusation of 2 Cor 13:1 with that of 1 Cor 4:1-4 and/or 1 Cor 9:1-3.
So, Welborn's theory, in this form, has merit. But how can we exclude option 2 above?