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In the gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus we learn that the Jewish authorities could not sentence anyone to death:

Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. (John 18:31 NIV)

But it's easy to get confused, because the citizens of Jerusalem were later stoning Stephen to death:

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60 NIV)

You might argue that they were not authorized to do this but they did it out of pure rage. But they had enough presence of mind to put their coats at the feet of Saul (there is another question about this matter specifically).

Are these texts reconcilable against what we know of contemporary legal systems? Did the Jewish authorities of the time have the power to order executions according to their own laws and the Roman rule they were subject to?

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Related: did courts ever execute? –  Gone Quiet Aug 8 '13 at 1:02
My interpretation is that the Jewish leaders said that to Pilate to get him to crucify Jesus because they wanted him crucified rather than stoned. Its not the narrator saying it, its the characters. That's important. –  david brainerd Mar 27 at 1:25

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Judicial execution under Jewish law 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; others say once in seven years (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 to which he responded "i know but i dont care". This is, granted, more likely for ongoing "public" crimes like blasphemy than it is for murder.

Now according to John the people who went to Pilate said they had no right to execute "anyone", rather than that they couldn't act in that specific case. Perhaps Rome restricted Jewish courts at the time -- but if so, Pilate would already know that. Perhaps they were, for reasons not clear from the text, mis-stating things to get Pilate to act. Or perhaps they didn't really mean they couldn't execute anybody but, rather, that they couldn't make this case for some reason.

As for Stephen, it's not clear from the passage quoted from Acts if that was really a judicial execution or a mob action. It seems not to have been carried out in accordance with the usual procedures; Acts describes a scene that sounds more emotional and less "procedural", if you will. So it's hard to tell if that was a case of judicial execution, but the talmud records other executions, so it appears that the answer to the question "did the Jewish authorities have the right to execute?" is, generally, "yes".

More information about the death penalty and which crimes it applied to can be found here and here. Related (and overlapping) answer 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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+1 I think your note that "Perhaps Rome restricted Jewish courts at the time" is an important one. The Romans ruled over Jerusalem for quite a long time, sometimes directly under a procurator and sometimes with their own "king" (Herod the great). If their ever was a Roman law that forbid them to execute criminals, it could have been only for a short time when trying to keep this bothersome area under control. –  Niclas Nilsson Aug 8 '13 at 6:44
@tryingToGetProgrammingSt, I edited your edit; it's once in 70 years, not 7 years, for R. Eleazar (see here). He's disagreeing with unnamed sages who say once in 7 years. (I checked the mishna in the Soncino edition, but I can't find it online. Sorry.) But the rest of the edit was good, so thanks! –  Gone Quiet Aug 16 '13 at 23:20
The information on Jewish law is useful but in order to really resolve this question we need more than speculation about the Roman side of things. Without some actual data for that half of the equation this is unsatisfactory in my estimation of the question. –  Caleb Dec 23 '13 at 13:27
Thanks for the feedback. Fair enough. (The version of the question I answered was more focused on Jewish law.) I can't answer the Roman part, so if Nicolas wants to remove his acceptance feel free (and I'll delete this non-answer). –  Gone Quiet Dec 23 '13 at 14:07
The original version didn't mention Romans at all but it did ask whether the Jews had the right to execute which requires data on the legal system they were subject to not just whether is was part of their internal system. This isn't a non-answer, it's just incomplete and I think this question could use a more exhaustive review of the issue. –  Caleb Dec 23 '13 at 14:28

A crowd also tried to stone Jesus, besides the woman caught in adultery (as reported in the Bible, a Jewish source). This suggests that these executions were fairly common, but perhaps not officially approved by the Jewish leaders. Perhaps the Jewish leaders could not execute Jesus, acting as an arm of the law under Rome.

In other words, mob executions may not have been legal, but perhaps common and unsanctioned by any authorities. But as such they were a real part of the practical legal system that inhabitants dealt with. This is in contrast to any court room dictated execution that Rabbi Akiva refers to (as quoted by other poster).

Still we are stuck with the execution of Stephen. Either it was legal, illegal, or quasi-legal.

So to the original question, Did the Roman's law allow Jewish authorities to execute? This could be reduced to a practical question: Did the Romans allow Jews to execute? From the examples quoted above, it seems the populace did not fear Roman retaliation for their attempted executions, so from a practical point of view, the answer is yes.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. This doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. This question requires historical sources about Jewish and Roman legal systems to answer. –  Daи Mar 18 at 16:42

The Jewish Authorities certainly had the right to execute, by various means required under the Law. Blasphemy was punished by stoning according to Lev. 24:13-16, when in the case of a son of an Israelite woman who blasphemed, those who heard it were required to take him outside the camp and stone him. Jesus Himself did not dispute this: in the incident of the woman caught in the act of adultery, He tells the scribes and Pharisees

"he who is without (this) sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."(John 8:3)

In Matt. 23:2, He says

"the scribes and Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses, all therefore they bid you observe, that observe and do.

" Since Pilate's response was,"

take Him and judge Him according to your Law",

the Law prescribed death by stoning for blasphemy; Pilate hadn't voiced any objections for the other stonings or attempts at stoning, therefore, there was no reason to do so now. So the response of the chief priests and scribes should be interpreted,"It is not lawful to put any man to death 'in this manner-crucifixtion'.

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This applied to Israel as a sovereign nation. Israel possessed no such absolute sovereignty under the rule of the Roman empire. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Aug 8 '13 at 2:28
Thanks for a short nice Bible study about the cross. I enjoyed reading it. The key to my question is what the Romans allowed the Jews to do, I try to make that even more clear in my question. Also, minor clarification: The Romans didn't invent the cross. Persians, for example, used it before them. –  Niclas Nilsson Aug 8 '13 at 6:29
This post gives Scriptural sources, which have been referenced and cross referenced to date. You will notice Pilate DIDN"T SAY,"Judge Him according to your own Law-'BUT DON'T KILL HIM....." Did the Romans 'break up' the stoning of the woman in adultry? Simple point-the Jews didn't crucify, the Romans did. –  user2479 Feb 14 at 10:17
Furthermore, I challenge the person who left the note below to come up with "Irrefutable sources' to say the Jews of Christ's day NEVER killed anyone according to the Law. My Bible says they did. The issue isn't whether or not the Jews had the power to take His life, the issue is what manner of death did Jesus die. Of course, I could open up the OT and show how it had to be in this manner, but that is beyond the scope of the question. –  user2479 Feb 14 at 10:27
@H3br3wHamm3r81-There is no exegetical reason why 'sovereignity as a nation' suspended enforcing the Law. In fact, the 'Jewish' kings(although the Herodians weren't Jewish) ruled Israel-under the Roman Mandate, which allowed for self-rule as long as they "paid tribute" and provided for the occupying force. The fact that Rome was the "real power" is indisputable; but remember how Rome came to be in power-at the invitation(see 1 Macc. 8) of the Hasmoneans. –  user2479 Feb 15 at 2:15

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