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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
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

1 Answer 1

Judicial execution around that time was very rare and on the decline. Rabbi Akiva (c. 40-137 CE) said that a court that ever executes is bloodthirsty; Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, dates uncertain but in the generation before R. Akiva, said a court that executes once in 70 years is bloodthirsty (Makkot 1:10, Babylonian Talmud).

Capital punishment was legal under Jewish law, but had so many restrictions that it was difficult to carry out. Among things, you needed two eyewitnesses who warned the person before he transgressed that he was about to commit a capital crime. This is, granted, more likely for ongoing "public" crimes like blasphemy than it is for murder. While we assume that adultery is a private affair, a flagrant case could possibly satisfy these requirements.

As for the case in the question, this answer gives information on the process for stoning. Note that this doesn't match up with John's account of this case: under the law the two eyewitnesses, not random members of the group making the inquiry ("he who has not sinned", v7), would have to be the ones to begin the stoning. If we assume that Jesus was following the law (suggested by John's comment that this was a trap), then he could not have allowed events to proceed as he advised. That suggests to me that he did not intend his words to be taken literally and that it was a rhetorical device.

More information about the four methods of execution and which crimes they applied to can be found here and here.

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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