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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! Oct 23, 2012 at 16:33
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    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, 2012 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, 2013 at 22:58
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    possible duplicate of In the time of Jesus, were the Jewish authorities allowed to execute?
    – user947
    Jan 27, 2015 at 2:59
  • I think "were the Jewish authorities allowed to execute?" is a different issue to stoning being a "practical possibility." Jan 27, 2015 at 3:35

3 Answers 3

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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, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 at 17:31
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The stoning of the woman taken in adultery was a practical possibility but NOT under Roman law. As far as Jewish law goes, the scene describes an extra-legal trial.

Not a legal proceeding

In the time of Jesus, capital cases would be be heard by a formal court consisting of no less than 23 members. What we have in the OP's question appears to be a case where a woman was simply dragged before Jesus for his opinion. There is no indication that she had been previously tried in a legitimate legal proceeding, nor do we know if she would have been bought before one if Jesus had not intervened.

A rhetorical question... sort of

We may also consider the fact that among the Pharisees there were differences of opinion on many issues of halakhic law. They may have brought the woman to Jesus to see whether he would make a strict ruling (usually supported by the school of Shammai) or a liberal one (characteristic of the school of Hillel). Or they may have been testing to see whether Jesus was on the side of Sadducees or the Pharisees, as in the case of the Sadducees challenging Jesus on the issue of divorce and the resurrection. (Matthew 22:23ff) In that sense it could be considered a rhetorical question, but if the mob actually would have stoned her it was also much more than that.

Roman law

There are indeed indications that Roman authorities did not allow Jews to execute criminals. However, this does not preclude the possibility of capital crimes being judged by Jewish courts, only that those courts could not impose the ultimate penalty. (Jesus' Sanhedrin trial, in which blasphemy was charged, is a case in point.) In that sense, if the woman's accusers had stoned her to death it would be an illegal action whether or not she had been actually tried by a Jewish court.

Capital crimes

The Jewish Encyclopedia lists the following crimes a punishable by death under OT Law.

adultery (Lev. xx. 10; Deut. xxii. 22); bestiality (Ex. xxii. 18 [A. V. 19]; Lev. xx. 15); blasphemy (Lev. xxiv. 16); false evidence in capital cases (Deut. xix. 16-19); false prophecy (Deut. xiii. 6, xviii. 20); idolatry, actual or virtual (Lev. xx. 2; Deut. xiii. 7-19, xvii. 2-7); incestuous or unnatural connections (Lev. xviii. 22, xx. 11-14); insubordination to supreme authority (Deut. xvii. 12); kidnaping (Ex. xxi. 16; Deut. xxiv. 7); licentiousness of a priest's daughter (Lev. xxi. 9); murder (Ex. xxi. 12; Lev. xxiv. 17; Num. xxxv. 16 et seq.); rape committed on a betrothed woman (Deut. xxii. 25); striking or cursing a parent, or otherwise rebelling against parental authority (Ex. xxi. 15, 17; Lev. xx. 9; Deut. xxi. 18-21); Sabbath-breaking (Ex. xxxi. 14, xxxv. 2; Num. xv. 32-36); witchcraft and augury (Ex. xxii. 17; Lev. xx. 27).

Frequency

Death sentences by Jewish courts were apparently very rare. It is hard to find evidence of them being carried out for centuries both before and after the time in question. Indeed the Mishnah indicates that the death penalty had been practically abolished by the time of Rabbi Akiva (b. 50. c.e.):

A sanhedrin [Jewish court] that executes once in seven years, is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah says: 'once in seventy years.' Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death."

Conclusion: Stoning was a practical possibility but not a legal one under Roman law. Moreover the incident does not describe a legal proceeding under Jewish law either. Like the incident of Stephen's martyrdom, it would have been a illegal mob action. It is also possible that the woman was brought to Jesus to see where he stood on the issue, as with the issue of divorce, the resurrection and paying taxes to Rome.

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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, 2016 at 8:40

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