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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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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 '14 at 1:25
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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 Aug 21 '14 at 21:20

2 Answers 2

No, the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ apparently had lost the power to execute the death penalty.

In one important matter, however, the authority of the Sanhedrim was abridged: the Romans deprived it of the power of life and death. They might pronounce sentence of death, but the sanction of the Roman governor had to be obtained before that sentence could be carried into execution. According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrim was deprived of the power of inflicting capital punishment forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem; whereas formerly it alone of all the Jewish courts possessed this power (Joseph. Ant. xiv. 9. 3). Hence the remark of the Jewish rulers to Pilate: “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (John 18:31). The stoning of Stephen is not an exception to this; for that happened during a popular tumult, and when, in all probability, there was a vacancy in the Roman procuratorship, after Pilate had been sent to Rome. A similar instance occurred after afterwards, when James the Just was put to death by the high priest Ananus during the absence of the Roman governor: for Josephus expressly informs us that this was an illegal assumption of power, and for which Ananus was deposed from the high-priesthood (Ant. xx. 9. 1). (A CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL COMMENTARY on the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES by PATON J. GLOAG, P153)

This is directly proven from the works of Josephus under the section " CHAPTER 9 CONCERNING ALBINUS UNDER WHOSE PROCURATORSHIP JAMES WAS SLAIN; AS ALSO WHAT EDIFICES WERE BUILT BY AGRIPPA"

but this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; (200) when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned; (201) but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; (202) nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent; —(203) whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him

As the high Priest was removed from his position for assuming the power to execute James the brother of Jesus, without the higher permission of the Roman government via Agrippa (according to the Jewish historian Josephus in those days) it is very difficult to reasonably maintain an alternative theory.

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Question Restatement: Did the Jewish authorities in Israel have the authority to execute people?

Answer: Absolutely.

According to the texts, the Jews certainly had authority in Israel, including the power to execute--especially the Herodians, (Wikipedia Link). This is why Pilate sent Jesus to Herod's jurisdiction in the first place.

Acts 12:19, NASB - When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there.

Luke 23:7, NASB - And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to

Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time.

Luke 23:13-17, NASB - 13 Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. 15 No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him. 16 Therefore I will punish Him and release Him.” 17 Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner.

Also notable is the execution of "John the Baptist".

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