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In John 8:5, the Pharisees ask Jesus:

In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? (NIV)

Was stoning a woman for adultery often/sometimes done during Jesus' days, or was this more of a rhetorical question? I thought that Jews were not allowed to execute someone (as we see when Jesus is sent to Pilate), yet Acts 7 shows that Stephen was stoned to death (though this seems more like a mob action).

To extend my question a bit, I'd like to understand:

  • Was stoning to death legal in Jesus' days under Jewish and Roman law?
  • How frequent were death sentences?
  • Which crimes could lead to capital punishment?
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Hi tbleher and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! This is an interesting question. Someone asked a related question: How would stoning of an adulterer actually be carried out under the Law’s of Moses? But the one answer so far doesn't directly address the textual question: was Jesus asking a puring rhetorical question. The bulleted questions are helpful subquestions to get us going in the right direction, but History might be a better place to ask them as standalones. Thanks for asking and +1! – Jon Ericson Oct 23 '12 at 16:33
Just one note, this section of John, called the pericope of the adulteress, is regarded by most scholars of Biblical texts to be a later addition, not part of the original Greek of John. I believe it is footnoted as such in the NIV. That doesn't invalidate your question, but, bottom line, there is not good reason to believe this incident happened, or that Jesus said those words. – Fraser Orr Nov 11 '12 at 2:12
Fraser, the literary structure of John requires this passage to be included. It is more likely it was left out by well-meaning Christians who thought it might encourage people to commit adultery. The structure of the passage itself is a replay, or rather, a re-match, of the events in the Garden of Eden. In this case, Adam steps in to rescue the bride. – Mike Bull Mar 21 '13 at 22:58
possible duplicate of In the time of Jesus, were the Jewish authorities allowed to execute? – user947 Jan 27 at 2:59
I think "were the Jewish authorities allowed to execute?" is a different issue to stoning being a "practical possibility." – Dick Harfield Jan 27 at 3:35

4 Answers 4

Law and its penalties in biblical times would clearly have been of a somewhat different character than in our culture today. Laws were primarily designed for the interest of the state. If you did something against the state, you'd expect the law to come down hard, but if someone is stoned by a mob for annoying his neighbours, the state would not be particularly interested, especially in the non-Roman regions. Even if it is against the law, they wouldn't be mobilising a legion to sort out an unruly neighbourhood punishing one of their number unless they think it has some relevance for the Roman state. The risk (injury or death to soldiers) would outweigh the benefit (increasing the accountability of punishment for wrong-doing).

So yes, I see no reason why a stoning couldn't happen, as in several places where Paul and his companions are stoned or nearly stoned. The Sanhedrin may have been flattering Pilate in their submission to him, and/or they may have been unable to stone Jesus themselves because of the support Jesus had in the community.

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Based on the Talmud, even when it was in force, the standards for applying the death penalty were stringent (Makkot 7b). The Mishna states that the death penalty was infrequent, and that a Sanhedrin that applied the death penalty once every 70 years was considered an irresponsible court (Makkot 1:10). The death penalty was abolished 40 years before the destruction of the 2nd Temple (Sanhedrin 41a), which was before Jesus' time.

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@Elierzer Welcome to BHSE! We're a little different here, please read our Site Directives as you ask and answer questions. Thank you! – Tau Mar 21 at 2:24
@Elierzer Thank you for quoting the Talmudic sources, which clarify the question concerning the Jewish Law. Do you have any response concerning the Roman Law; also, what offenses could be considered punishable by death under the Jewish Law? Thank you! – Tau Mar 21 at 2:28
@Tau The death penalty is reserved for the most serious offences in Jewish Law, such as murder, idolatry, false prophecy, adultery, incest, cursing parents, bestiality and male homosexual relations. Most are listed in Leviticus chapter 20. – Eliezer Mar 22 at 17:31

John 18:31 is where you get the idea that the Jews could not put a man to death. But of course, as we know they did stone Stephen in Acts, so what did this statement in John's gospel really mean? Jesus was being accused of blasphemy. Blasphemy was punishable by stoning according to Lev 24:14, so under ordinary circumstances the Jews should have been able to execute Jesus according to their own law. But this wasn't an ordinary time of year. It was a festival season when Jerusalem was full of unruly crowds that the Romans had a hard time keeping under control. It's not hard to see why Pilate would have forbidden the Jews from stoning anyone during the passover festival. Put stones in the hands of angry Jews and it's almost asking for a riot to break out. John wouldn't have wanted to write out that full explanation and bog down his narrative with unnecessary peripheral detail, so he just quotes the Jews as saying “We cannot legally put anyone to death” without explaining the special circumstances that made it illegal. That's all they may have actually said since it would have been Pilate that imposed the law that made it illegal, so they didn't have to tell him all the why's and wherefore's.

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Answers are expected to have informed argument, cite evidence (primary and secondary), and not simply offer speculation. – Paul Vargas Mar 18 at 21:04

The men bringing the woman "caught in adultery" were supposed to have took her to the High Priests guards and subsequently began a court proceeding etc.. But just to prove their true lack of faith in even the Mosaic Law of the day, they brought her before Jesus and accused her to him, trying ( of course ) to trip him up with Legal wrangling etc.. But Jesus, by the Wisdom of God in him, turned the whole matter ar9ound on them, and as much as accused them of being reprobate themselves. That is why they all left off. They were embarrassed that this lowly carpenter's son could know their wicked unrepentant hearts, et al, and also they were convicted by God for their sin. Whether the woman would have been stoned otherwise, is maybe, if her wicked accusers had no intrest in extorting her, as I'm sure would have been their next move.

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