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Previous discussion on the site

This is a follow up to the question: In the time of Jesus, were the Jewish authorities allowed to execute? - the selected & most upvoted answer concludes:

The only ways a person could be executed were to obtain the imprimatur of the Roman prefect (the legal method) or gather up a lynch mob and do it yourself (the illegal method)

This does not, however, directly resolve the question of which method was employed in the death of Stephen, the legal or the illegal method? Was Stephen judicially sentenced, or was an angry mob riled up to do the dirty work without legal authority?

(Some interesting back and forth on the topic in the posts/comments of this question.)


Relevant passages:

The commencement of the trial of Stephen in Acts 6:

11 Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.

12 And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council,

13 And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:

Stephen is taken before the Sanhedrin.

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At the end of the trial of Stephen in Acts 7:

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,

58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him

A mob of people is assembled (quickly?) to stone Stephen...but on who's authority?

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At the trial of Jesus:

Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death (John 18:31)

This is (maybe?) shown in practice in Matthew's account:

65 Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy.

66 What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.

...

1 When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death:

2 And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. (Matthew 22:65-66, 23:1-2)

The Sanhedrin determines that Jesus should die, and they decide to take Him to Pilate to have their decision carried out (and endorsed?).

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Statements by Josephus

Josephus reports the following words spoken by Titus to the Jews, regarding the sanctity of the temple:

Have not we [Rome] given you leave to kill such as go beyond it (Wars of the Jews 6.2.4)

Josephus also provides the following account of the death of James the brother of the Lord during the interregnum between Festus & Albinus:

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 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...And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. 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. 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. 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. (Antiquities 20.9)

Depending on how these passages from Josephus are interpreted, they may conflict with each other.


Question

Was Stephen put to death by legal execution or a lynch mob?


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2 Answers 2

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From the trial and execution of Jesus we may deduce the following about the legal situation in Jesus' day:

  1. The Jews could not legally execute anyone without the consent of the Roman authorities. That is why the Sanhedrin, after deciding Jesus was worthy of death took Jesus to Pilate.
  2. Generally (there were exceptions), the Romans would not execute anyone except for sedition or insurrection and related crimes. That is, threatening the "Pax Romana". That is why Jesus accusation magically "morphed" from blasphemy (Matt 26:65, 66, Luke 22:70, 71, for which there was no Roman death penalty) to sedition (Luke 23:1-3)
  3. Under the Sanhedrin jurisprudence, there are several requirements for a capital crime:
  • there must be "two or three witnesses" (Deut 17:6)
  • the judges must make "careful inquiry" about such crimes, especially when false witnesses are involved (Deut 19:16-18). This means that it is impossible to convene a court and condemn a person on the same day as was done in the case of Jesus and Stephen.
  • if a death sentence is pronounced that proceedings cannot conclude until the next day (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:1).
  • Jewish law expressly forbids a person from judging a case if they are already negatively biased either against the accused or the accuser (Mendelsohn, Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews, page 108).
  • According to Jewish law, a person could not be condemned based on their testimony (self-incrimination).

"We have it as a fundamental principle of our jurisprudence that no one can bring an accusation against himself" (Maimonides, Sanhedrin, 4:2, see also Mendelsohn)

Thus, we conclude that Stephen's execution was illegal for the following reasons:

  • He was condemned without anyone to defend him
  • He was condemned on the basis of self-incrimination
  • No investigation was launched
  • No Roman authority was consulted
  • No witnesses were called
  • All those present wanted him dead

Thus, the fact that Stephen was executed (by stoning) by an illegal court and illegal decision means that the the group that did the deed was an illegal mob.

Acknowledgement and help from this web-site: https://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/the-trial-of-jesus.html

For more information about Jesus' trial, see https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_250.cfm

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Not a Lynch Mob
Merrian-Webster defines lynch mob as "a crowd of people who kill or try to kill (someone) illegally as a punishment." Stephen's execution was carried out a group having legal authority and there is no indication those who brought Stephen before the council intended to have him put to death.

Legal Tribunal
The charges against Stephen and the nature of his trial are described in Acts:

8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. <sup11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
(Acts 6, 7 ESV)

The word translated as council is συνέδριον, synedrion. The BDAG gives the meaning here:

the high council in Jerusalem, Sanhedrin, the dominant meaning in our literature (Joseph. [Schürer II 206, 18]; Hebraized in the Mishnah סַנְהֶדְרִין); in Roman times this was the highest indigenous governing body in Judea, composed of high priests(), elders, and scholars (scribes), and meeting under the presidency of the ruling high priest. This body was the ultimate authority not only in religious matters, but in legal and governmental affairs as well, in so far as it did not encroach on the authority of the Roman procurator. The later, e.g., had to confirm any death sentence passed by the council.1

In addition the New Testament attests to the council's legal authority, including "guards" and "officers" with the ability to arrest, imprison, and punish offenders.

Motive for Charges
The outcome of the trial was execution, yet there is nothing in the text to suggest those who brought the charges intended to have Stephen put to death. Based upon Paul's later testimony, a more likely expectation was punishment less than death:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.
(2 Corinthians 11:24)

Paul does not give details, but it is reasonable to assume these were carried out legally, and if, as a Christian, Paul's punishment was less than death, there is no reason to believe those who brought the charges against Stephen believed the punishment would be a death sentence.

Was Stephen's Execution Illegal?
While not a lynch mob, it is correct to say the council acted in anger and Stephen's execution was illegal under both Jewish and Roman Law. However, considered narrowly as an issue under Roman law, the illegal nature of the council's action was simply acting before obtaining approval. There is no reason to believe approval would have been denied.

After Stephen's execution, the public persecution of Christians began:

1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
(Acts 9)

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. (Galatians 1:13)

If the Romans allowed the actions described, it is most unlikely they would have denied the request to have Stephen executed. Rather, to keep the peace, they would have allowed the execution.


1. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 967

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