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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
    
Relevant: Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1) describes how, for just a few months in 62 AD, there was no Roman procurator over Judea. While the next procurator was still on his way, the high priest Hananiah ben Hananiah arranged for criminal trials against his political enemies, in order to have them executed. Josephus doesn't say it directly, but this would suggest local executions had to be approved by Roman authority, and the high priest took advantage of the power vacuum. –  Mark Edward yesterday

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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

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