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From John 8:

3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group

4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.

5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.

7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus didn't say that stoning was illegal under Roman law. Was it legal? Did Jesus violate Roman law by seemingly permitting the practice of stoning?

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    This is how the Romans controlled their territories. They allowed them to govern themselves. (With some caveats - e.g. the tribute.) They would have had to have final Roman approval to carry out the stoning - but this would have been given.
    – Dave
    Apr 22 at 18:33
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Yes, but only with explicit Roman approval.

The authority of the Sanhedrin

The Jewish Sanhedrin had the authority to try criminal cases, but could not (at the time of Jesus' death) carry out the death penalty (see John 18:31). This is why the Sanhedrin had to take Jesus to Pilate for condemnation (though they may well have had other ulterior motives as well, see here).

The Talmud may indicate that the Sanhedrin was stripped of the power of carrying out capital punishment in approx. AD 30 (see here), though the precise timing & meaning of the Talmud's statement is uncertain.

This didn't entirely put a stop to executions that weren't sanctioned by Rome. The people in Jerusalem used the leadership vacancy after the death of Porcius Festus in AD 62 to illegally put James (the Lord's brother) to death (see Josephus Antiquities 20.9).

Methods of execution

Crucifixion was the brutal, humiliating Roman method of execution (for non-citizens), but Talmage indicates that with Roman sanction the Jews could themselves had carried out execution by stoning:

had Pilate approved the death sentence and handed the Prisoner over to the Jews for its infliction, Jesus would have been stoned (see Jesus the Christ pp. 623-633)

The trap being laid in this passage

This passage is an example of a trap being laid for Jesus--the point of bringing the woman before Jesus was not that the hypocritical accusers cared what happened to her, but to try to get Jesus to say something inappropriate.

Assuming the reliability of the account, the trap was designed to work like this:

  • If Jesus approved the stoning, He would be delivered to the Roman authorities for challenging their authority (since the Roman authorities had to approve the death penalty)
  • If Jesus did not approve the stoning, He would be accused of heresy for teaching something contrary to what Moses had said

But Jesus outsmarted the trap and did not answer the question on their terms.

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John records that Roman law did not allow Jews to put people to death.

Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (John 18:31, ESV)

Although scholars have debated the matter, Rome apparently did not permit Jewish courts to exercise the death penalty, except in the case of a Gentile intruding into an inner court of the temple. They could flog and probably decree a person worthy of death; but executions not authorized by the Romans were illegal. The Romans had to try all other capital offenses; they used not stoning but crucifixion for executing noncitizens charged with treason... -- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Jn 18:30–32). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

That was part of the trap he leaders set for Jesus. The temple area had Roman solders.

The temple area is about thirty-five acres. At that time, around three sides of that large enclosure there was a long, covered walkway. The best English word we have for this is cloister. Connected to this walkway on the north end of the temple area, Herod the Great had constructed a large military fort. He knew that civil unrest often began in the temple enclosure, so he insured that there was access from the fort both to the temple area and to the roof of this covered walkway. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, records that during feast days Roman soldiers would patrol along that walkway and through the crowds, keeping a sharp eye out for any unrest. He wrote, “a Roman legion went several ways among the cloisters, with their arms, on the Jewish festivals, in order to watch the people, that they might not there attempt to make any innovations.” The entire scene unfolding around Jesus was under Roman observation, and everyone was conscious of this armed military presence. -- Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (pp. 232–233). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

The dilemma Jesus faced:

In short, if he decides to carry out the law of Moses, he will be arrested. If he opts to set it aside he will be discredited. What is it going to be: Moses or Rome? Either way he loses and his opponents win. -- Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 234). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Jesus' answer to the dilemma:

But when Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” he puts a name and a face on everyone in the crowd. He asks each individual to acknowledge responsibility for participation in the act. When the Roman guards step forward to “break up the crowd,” their first question will be “Who started this?” The second question “Who ordered it?” would likely come later. -- Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 235). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

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