Keith Hunt - Capital Punishment - Page Five   Restitution of All Things

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Capital Punishment #5

The Practice in Judea


by Lloyd Bailey



     The casual reader of the Bible will also be aware that
capital punishment was carried out "in the land of the Bible"
(Judah/Judea) during the time of the New Testament. The most
conspicuous case, or worse, was the execution of Jesus. There
are, in addition, a number of lesser known instances. Among them
are the following: two robbers crucified with Jesus (Matt.
27:38); Stephen (Acts 6:8-14; 7:58; whether this is a judicial
act or mob action has been debated); and an unknown number of
persons (Acts 26:9-11). Mention may also be made of trials on
capital charges which did not result in conviction (Acts 5:17-40;
21:27-26:32), execution by decree of the secular ruler (Matt.
14:1-12), and instances outside Judea (Acts 14:19). Abundant
additional examples may be found in the writings of the
contemporary historian Josephus and in the rabbinic literature.
(Briefly, see Greenberg's article "Crimes and Punishments,"
section E.)

Capitol Offenses

     The New Testament, unlike the Hebrew Bible, does not contain
sections of legislation. Rather, amidst its narratives it
contains exhortations to the followers of Jesus to live saintly
lives as part of the Jewish community under Roman domination.
     Capital crimes, then, would be defined by (1) the Hebrew
Bible, as now refined and interpreted through the lens of the
oral torah (Mishnah) by the rabbinic courts, and (2) the Roman
overlords, ruling through the Herodian monarchs, or a local
council headed by the High Priest, or the procurators (e.g.,
Pontius Pilate).

     From the former source arose charges of trespass upon sacred
area (Acts 21:27-31), adultery (John 8:9-11), and blasphemy (Acts
6:11-7:58; 26:9-11). The last of these charges seems to have been
levelled against Jesus also (Matt.9;3; 26:65; John 10:83). The
definition of the crime seems far looser than either the original
statute or contemporary rabbinic interpretation (see Mishnah
Sanhedrin 7.5), which required that the Holy Name must actually
be pronounced by the accused, which apparently neither Jesus nor
Stephen did. This was not, however, the charge which led to
Jesus' execution (see Appendix C).

     From the Roman government and its representatives will have
arisen the charges of violation of public order (e.g.,
brigandage; Matt.27:38), and sedition (by John the Baptist; Matt.
14:10, supported by the account of Josephus). Its courts also
sentenced to death Jesus, Peter, and Paul (the last two suggested
by post-biblical sources).

Methods of Execution

     For religious crimes (i.e., under Jewish regulation),
stoning remained the standard means, although others mentioned in
the Hebrew Bible are attested (e.g., burning). Rabbinic
literature (specifically in Mishnah Sanhedrin) also specifies
strangulation and beheading (7.1). It was by the latter means
that the murderer was to be dispatched (9.1), probably because of
the precedent set in the Hebrew Bible where the murderer is to be
hunted and struck down by the "avenger of blood" (Nun.35; see
also chapter 1). For a few crimes in connection with the cult the
offender might be clubbed to death on the spot (Mishnah Sanhedrin

     On the specific methods, it is conspicuous that only
beheading will ensure the spilling of blood, a punishment
otherwise reserved (in the Hebrew Bible) for the citizens of an
apostate city. Israel's aversion to this method relates to the
connection between blood and the life-force, a force which was
identified with the power of God. It was thus a horrible fate,
sanctioned by Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by
man shall his blood be shed."

     For political crimes, death usually came by the sword (Matt.
14:10, in the case of John the Baptist) in the form of beheading
(Rev.20:4), or by crucifixion (in the case of Jesus).


The Rationale

     It is important to notice that the death penalty in Judea
during the period of the New Testament was carried out by two

(1) the Jewish religious courts (bet-din) for specified
violations of torah, and (2) the Roman government, through its
local appointees in council (sunedrion), for actions inimical to
the peace.

     Within the pages of the New Testament, there is no challenge
to the legitimacy of the death penalty, per se, if exercised by
either judiciary. While its writers may have believed that a
given sentence was unjust (e.g., in the case of Jesus), that is
quite different from rejecting execution within itself on
theological (or any other) grounds.

     For execution by sentence of the "bet-din," no rationale
need be stated. The understandings of ancient Israel (in the
Hebrew Bible) would have carried over by canonical authority
(i.e., as the Word of God through Moses, accepted by the
community now for centuries). It is not surprising that Jesus the
Jew would share that consensus. Thus, He stresses that no part of
torah should be relaxed (Matt.5:17-19), outlines applications
that are deeper than are explicit in torah (5:21-48), appeals to
the "law [torah] and the prophets" (7:12), instructs a leper
concerning the observance of Levitical guidelines (8:1-4),
instructs his followers to obey the teachings of Moses even as
interpreted by the Pharisaic "bet-din" (23:1-9), cites torah in a
discussion with the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27), and instructs that
the commandments must be kept if one "would enter life" (Matt.
19:16-17). One such reference specifically involves the death
penalty (Matt.15:4) for one who "curses his father or mother"

     For execution by the state (the Romans, through the
sunedrion), one may also assume the continuation of older
understandings and rationales. Within the period of the Hebrew
Bible, Israel's monarchs formulated guidelines for the operation
of the state, and this included execution of certain offenders.
Indeed, Mosaic torah forbade cursing "a ruler of your people"
(Exod.2:28), and in this Paul concurred (Acts 29:1-5). It also
legitimized the office of king, instructing the ruler to keep
"all the words of this law [torah]" and to do them (Deut.
17:14-20). The prophetic corpus of Scripture, canonized later
than the Pentateuch (i.e., in the second century B.C.E.), dearly
undergirded the Judean monarchy with divine sanction, beginning
with David (2 Sam.7). This then served to legitimate the return
to monarchy at the time of the Hasmoneans and Herodians. Such
kings then executed a number of persons, with never a protest
that it was intrinsically improper for them to have done so. This
does not mean, on the other hand, that every execution by
monarchical decision was accepted as justified by the traditional
religious leadership or was thought to be in accordance with
Pentateuchal definitions. Indeed, there were vigorous protests in
specific cases (e.g., 2 Sam.11-12, where the prophet Nathan
accuses David concerning Uriah the Hittite; I Kings 21, where
Elijah announces God's death sentence upon King Ahab concerning
the execution of Naboth). The existence of kingship in Israel is
not only acknowledged as the will of God by the Wisdom Literature
(Prov.8:15-16), but it is lauded for the value which it may bring
to society (Prov.29:4). Indeed, one bold evaluation is:

"Inspired decisions are on the lips of a king; his mouth does not
sin in judgment" (Prov.16:10). 

     The pragmatic value of civil government, even in the case of
Rome, is likewise recognized by the author of I Peter: "Be
subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether
it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as set by him to
punish those who do wrong.... Fear God. Honor the emperor"

(True to a point, only. The Bible and the logical common humane
mind would tell us that Peter's thought is NOT WITHIN the context
of a Hitler type government. God is not here inspiring Peter to
tell us to "honor" an emperor like Hitler - Keith Hunt)

     Such theological appraisals and approvals of "law and order"
do not indicate, within themselves, that the author is
announcing, in the name of God, that capital punishment is
thereby sanctioned. Nonetheless, while that is not explicitly
stated here, it may well be implied, and indeed is in keeping
with the totality of biblical thought.

     All questions about the positive potential inherent in
monarchy aside, there remained a basic theological question about
foreign rule. Deuteronomy had specified that the king must be
someone "whom the Lord your God will choose; one from among your
brethren you shall set as king over you" (17:15). Presumably,
this would ensure an awareness of the righteousness that was to
characterize kingship. 

(This proves what I've just stated above, that Peter's words
cannot apply to a governor or king or emperor like Hitler - Keith

     What, then, of the Romans, concerning whom the negative
aspects were also becoming evident? To this various responses
were possible. 

     The first was to reject Roman rule on theological grounds,
to the point of violence if necessary. This was the route chosen
by the Sicarii (from their use of a short dagger, the 'sica;'
they are the historian Josephus' "fourth philosophy":
"Antiquities," 18.1.6; Acts 21:88, "assassins"). This led to the
war of 70 C.E. and ultimately to the destruction of the Temple.

     The second response was anticipation of an impending divine
intervention which would sweep the Romans away, if not into hell.
Such a radical apocalyptic point of view is reflected in the book
of Revelation, whose author raves against the Empire, calling it
(in the name of God) "mother of harlots and of earth's
abominations.... drunk with the blood of saints" (17:1-6) and
which is soon to be destroyed (18:1-24). 

(The book of Revelation is for a yet future time, basically in
the main, to the prophetic "day of the Lord" - the last 42 months
of this age, and has nothing really to do with the Roman Empire
of the first century A.D. Though some Jews desired God's
intervention to destroy the Roman Empire from ruling in Judea in
the first century A.D. - Keith Hunt)

     A third response was to reach an uneasy accommodation with
the Romans, under the belief that they could not exercise
sovereignty apart from the divine will that they do so. (For
details, see chapter 9, the discussion of Matt.5:45-48.) This
approach, championed by the Pharisees, was articulated by Paul, a
Roman citizen (Acts 22:27-28) who trusted in the Roman courts
(Acts 25:8-12) and who had been brought up in the Pharisaic
tradition (Acts 22:1-5; 25:6; Phil.3:4-5). It is hardly
surprising then that he would advise "all God's beloved in Rome":

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For
there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have
been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities
resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur
judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to
bad.... He is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the
wrongdoer" (Romans 15:1-4).

(Again, often misunderstood, in the light of the totality of the
Bible and of common humane sense. Paul could not possibly be
giving this admonition to be applied to horrible dictatorships
like the government of Hilter and many other bestial governments
of history that have ruled people with a club and sword. The fact
is that the Roman Empire, at least in the first century A.D.
allowed a huge amount of freedom to the Jews to worship their
God, travel within the Roman Empire, upkeep and practice their
Temple worship. All that Rome asked was they be well behaved
citizens, keep from physical uprisings - live peaceably and
quietly. Paul is writing in the context of that kind of
government in rule. Paul himself used his rights as a Roman
citizen to secure his life (against those who wanted him dead) as
the book of Acts tells us. Paul's words in Romans 15:1-4 cannot
be used as an ALL-ENCOMPASSING dogma for all governments, for
some governments ARE a terror to good conduct - Keith Hunt) 

     Such a perspective has antecedents in Israel's sacred
literature. Jeremiah had advised the despondent exiles in
Babylonia, "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent
you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its
welfare you will find your welfare" (29:7). Proverbs advanced the
divine opinion that "by me kings reign, and rulers decree what is
just" (8:15). The Wisdom of Solomon reminded kings and rulers
over multitudes that "your dominion was given you from the Lord"

(Many proverbs and verses of the Bible are "general statements"
only. They are not all-inclusive dogma of God. You may be able to
say God "ALLOWED" Hilter (and other such crazy dictators,
murderous men/governments) and his hench-men to come to power and
do the horrible things they did to human beings, BUT to say God
deliberately PUT HIM THERE, as some of these verses quoted "seem"
to say, is TOTALLY INCORRECT!! God does SOMETIMES put certain
people into power and does at times have them decree what is
JUST, and that in-itself tells you the truth, they are "just"
people, doing good justice and having laws that God can agree
with. Hitler and the like do not come into the context of these
verses in Proverbs, or the writings of Paul or Peter, and God
certainly does not endorse them or except His children to respect
or honor them. You need to study my study called "An IMPORTANT
Key"  - Keith Hunt)


To be continued with "Some Misused Texts, Pro and Con"

Entered on this Website November 2007

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