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How would stoning of an adulterer actually be carried out under the Law of Moses?

In John Chapter 8 there is the familiar story of how Jesus prevented a stoning of a woman who had committed adultery. I know that many think this was not in the original scriptures; even the NIV notifies the reader on this. My question is not whether this is ‘scripture’. My question is how would stoning for adultery have ever been carried out before Christ? I am specifically looking for rabbinic historical accounts. The image in my mind, usually portrayed in movies, is that the crowd ‘drops their stones’ after Jesus speaks. It is all very heart moving, but I am not sure if that is realistic, or maybe it is?

I have noticed that for ‘blasphemy’ people would literally pick up stones and kill someone, for they started to do that with Christ himself on two occasions. (John 8:59, 10:31)

I also have noticed that the punishments of the Law were often not carried out when people in the Bible sinned. At the very giving of the law, when Moses threw the tablets away (Exodus 21:19), the whole camp should have probably been stoned at the strict letter of the law he just received! That’s seems to be why we find this thing about God revealing his nature to Moses and declaring his ‘mercy’, to reconcile this extreme contradiction of law compared to Israel’s behaviour. (Exodus 34:7) King David, the pride of Israel’s moral history, was worthy of death by stoning, but God was merciful to him as he really was a model believer. I assume, therefore, that the mercy by God, or the person offended in any crime, was allowed to spare a person under the penalty of the law, somehow? But when the penalties are declared in Exodus, they do not imply any leeway? This will lead me to posting a different question, if not actually answered by the entitled question: ‘How would stoning of an adulterer actually be carried out under the Law of Moses?’

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For what it's worth, most modern text critics and commentators that I am aware of regard John 7:53-8:11 as inauthentic (i.e. not originally part of the Gospel of John), and thus, probably not "inspired Scripture" -- although the question of whether it is true (historically accurate) is more difficult to answer. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 11 '13 at 19:53

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Tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 6, fourth mishna explains how stoning is carried out:

MISHNA IV.: The stoning-place was two heights of a man. One of the witnesses pushed him on his thighs (that he should fall with the back to the surface), but if he fell face down, he had to be turned over. If he died from the effects of the first fall, nothing more was to be done. If not, the second witness took a stone and thrust it against his heart. If he died, nothing more was to be done; but if not, all who were standing by had to throw stones on him. Thus [Deut. xvii. 7]: "The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him, to put him to death, and the hand of all the people at the last."

This is elaborated in the g'mara. See the full chapter for more.

(It takes two eye-witnesses to convict on a capital crime (and there are other requirements). Those witnesses have primary responsibility in carrying out the punishment. Only if that doesn't suffice do others join in.)

However, the usual method of execution for adultery, per this same tractate, is actually strangulation, not stoning (h/t J. C. Salomon). There is one special case where the penalty is stoning: the betrothed woman described in Deut 22:24. There the torah specifies stoning and the above process would apply, but for other cases of adultery this would not be the penalty.

Note: the talmud's knowledge of execution methods comes from oral tradition going back to Moshe, not directly from the text. This is in the mishna, the older part of the talmud, and describes past practice, but it doesn't give dates. Rabbinic tradition is that this is how executions were carried out the institution of the law until judicial executions ceased. The text does not give us these details and I'm not aware of independent historical records that would support or contradict the talmud.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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thanks that will get me going in the right direction. Seems like it was taken pretty literally without 12 jurors of their peers :) –  Mike Jun 14 '12 at 16:10
I think the stoning Jesus faced are done by mob justice and hence extra judicial. Those who did it are actually committing murder. Hence, when Jesus challenged them to throw the first stone, they have a very good reason not to. It's not up to fellow citizen to kill citizens. –  Jim Thio Sep 30 '13 at 7:05
@Jim I think you are confusing modern-day justice with the 1st century which was much more like what we would call vigilantism or vendetta retribution. It was indeed up to fellow citizens to kill citizens. –  Jack Douglas Nov 4 '13 at 8:22
You mean it's lawful in Jesus town to just stone sinners? –  Jim Thio Nov 4 '13 at 8:30
@Jim What do you mean 'sinners'? Have a read of this for an example and flavour of what I mean. –  Jack Douglas Nov 4 '13 at 14:57

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