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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 '15 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 '15 at 3:35

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 '15 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 '15 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 '15 at 17:31

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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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

Answers are expected to have informed argument, cite evidence (primary and secondary), and not simply offer speculation. – Paul Vargas Mar 18 '15 at 21:04

Pilate told them, “Take him yourselves and pass judgment on him according to your own law!” The Jewish leaders replied, “We cannot legally put anyone to death.” (Jo 18:31 [NET])

Jesus had escaped from a stoning in John 8:59.

Then they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area. (Jo 8:59 [NET])

After a time in the ministry, Jesus becomes a greater prophet than John the Baptist, would not be legal for Jews to kill a man, disobeying God's commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Jesus was respected by the Jewish nation in John 18:31.

They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, because the crowds regarded him as a prophet. (Mt 21:46 [NET])

The process of an adulterous woman must be seen in light of Deuteronomy 13: 8-10

You must not give in to him or even listen to him; do not feel sympathy for him or spare him or cover up for him. Instead, you must kill him without fail! Your own hand must be the first to strike him, and then the hands of the whole community. You must stone him to death because he tried to entice you away from the LORD your God, who delivered you from the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. (Dt 13:8-10 [NET])

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

1) Was stoning to death legal in Jesus' days under Jewish and Roman law?
2) How frequent were death sentences?
1) Which crimes could lead to capital punishment?

1) Yes. Jesus was teaching daily in the temple courts. The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate him, but they could not find a way to do it, for all the people hung on his words. (Lc 19:47-48 [NET])

The chief priests and the experts in the law were trying to find some way to execute Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. (Lc 22:2 [NET])

2) Regular.

The Jewish leaders picked up rocks again to stone him to death. (Jo 10:31 [NET])

3) All.

The Jewish people had Jesus as a prophet, therefore, could not be killed for blasphemy by the Jews, unlike the adulterous woman.

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Why the leading and trailing gibberish that isn't even part of an answer? – Caleb Jan 31 at 8:40

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