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There are several questions about the ability of the Sanhedrin to legally carryout capital punishment.

On one hand, Pilate seems to affirm the right:

John 18:31 (ESV)

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, ἀποκτεῖναι.”

The Jews respond saying it is not lawful for them to put anyone to death. Yet they executed Stephen (Acts 7:58), and Paul states he voted to execute Christians, and they were allowed to kill anyone, even Roman citizens who trespassed in the Temple.

I noticed there are two different words to describe putting some to death.

  • ἀποκτείνω, apokteinō. ❶ to deprive of life, kill; ❷ figure of abstract things to do away with, put to death, eliminate 1
  • θανατόω, thanatoō. ❶ to cause cessation of life, put to death; ❷ to cause total cessation of an activity, put to death; ❸ to cause death that transcends the physical, bring death 2

LXX-Exodus 21:14

Now if someone attacks his neighbor to kill, ἀποκτεῖναι, him treacherously and he flees, from my altar you shall take him to put him to death, θανατῶσαι.

The LXX uses ἀποκτείνω to mean to put to death contrary to the law, that is, murder. On the other hand, θανατῶσαι is used to mean put to death as required by the law, that is, execute.

Should the Jews be understood as saying, “It is not lawful for us to murder anyone."


1.Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 114
2. Ibid., pp. 443-444

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  • You did not provide citations for your claims in the sentence that begins "Yet they executed Stephen..." Commented Apr 14 at 20:46

2 Answers 2

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We should begin by noting that, by definition, it is ALWAYS illegal to murder, precisely because murder is illegal killing.

The OP has accurately described the meanings of both ἀποκτείνω and θανατόω from an excellent reference, BDAG. This clearly shows that the meanings of the two words overlap significantly. The basic meaning of each word is:

  • ἀποκτείνω = to destroy (occurs 74 times in the NT)
  • θανατόω = to make dead (occurs 11 times in the NT)

When applied to a person, the meaning becomes the same, ie, to kill, execute, murder (depending on the legality), etc.

However, there are several other words that can mean "kill" or similar. The most important is φονεύω (phoneuo) which usually means to "murder", ie, illegally kill.

That is, ἀποκτείνω and θανατόω mean to kill generally (whether legally or not), BUT, φονεύω almost always means to murder, ie, kill in an illegal way.

Now, back to John 18:31. The correct translation of ἀποκτείνω in this verse cannot be murder because, essentially, the Jewish authorities are saying something like this:

Under Roman law it is not legal for us to execute a person, because if we did that, it would be murder. Therefore, we ask that the Romans (who have such legal authority) to execute this man for us.

Therefore, ἀποκτείνω should be translated as "execute" (or "put to death") but not "murder".

Something similar is true of Ex 21:14. Both ἀποκτείνω and θανατόω mean to "kill" in some way, whether legally or not and thus, might in some case be legitimately translated "murder". However, φονεύω almost always has the narrower meaning of "murder", ie, kill illegally.

Therefore, I would translate Ex 21:14 (LXX) as:

And if any one lie in wait for his neighbor to murder him by craft, and he go for refuge, you shall take him from my altar to execute him.

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  • If two words have semantic overlap where one is used to describe killing which violates their law and the other is used to describe killing which their law requires, is it reasonable to assert Jewish authorities did not have the legal authority to carry out killing required by their law because they say they do not have the authority to carry out killing which is prohibited by their law? And does the semantic overlap explain the seeming inconsistencies between what they say (John 18:31) and what they do, (execute Stephen and others)? Commented Apr 14 at 18:46
  • @RevelationLad - base purely and only on the evidence in this one verse, perhaps that is a valid conclusion. However, based the entire evidence available in all the NT and 1st cent Koine documents, that is not true.
    – Dottard
    Commented Apr 14 at 21:12
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There are indeed questions about whether the Sanhedrin had the authority under Pilate's regime to execute people. However, to the OP's headline question the answer is no. The group of Jewish collaborators with Rome that brought Jesus to Pilate did not think that Jesus' death would be murder. They believed they were acting lawfully in bringing capital charges against Jesus as a traitor to Rome.

The OP claims that "they (the Jews) executed Stephen, and Paul states he voted to execute Christians..." There are two problems with this:

  1. Although the high priest and the Sanhedrin are mentioned at the beginning of Acts 7, at the end of the episode, Stephen is killed by an emotionally-driven mob action, not as the result of a verdict delivered by the court. So the fact that "they" killed him tells us nothing about the authority of the Sanhedrin to execute a person convicted of a capital crime.

  2. Paul does not mention being a member of the Sanhedrin or voting to execute anyone. The OP does not cite a text concerning this but I presume it refers to this, from Acts 22:

I persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison. 5 Even the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify on my behalf. For from them I even received letters to the brothers and set out for Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem in chains for punishment those there as well.

What Paul describes here is his acting as an agent of the high priest and the elders, not voting as a member of the council (Sanhedrin). Nor should we presume that "persecuting this Way to death" is a reference to a legal execution. Indeed, in Acts 22, Paul refers to the stoning of Stephen as an act of murder (22:20). He admits to approving of it, but no vote is mentioned. Being a young man at the time, it is extremely unlikely that he would be a voting member of the council.

Conclusion: The examples mentioned in the OP do not show that the Sanhedrin was authorized to execute criminals at the time in question. The issue in John 18 is not "murder" but putting someone to death under cover of law.


NOTE: The OP claims that "they (the Jews) were allowed to kill anyone, even Roman citizens who trespassed in the Temple." I am not sure what this refers to. If it is Paul's arrest in Acts 21, once again this was an attempted murder by a mob, not an action of a court.

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  • The actions of those who killed Stephen are described in a way to show they acted in accordance with the Mosaic Law. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin. He was taken outside the city. He was executed by stoning. If the Sanhedrin were not in agreement they should have dealt with the "mob" according to the Law. Not only did they fail to act, they did not to stop the persecution which followed. Acts states the high priest authorized Paul to extend the persecution outside Judea. Your position demands dismissing a lot of undisputed history. Commented Apr 14 at 21:22
  • It is definitely not undisputed that the stoning of Stephen was legally conducted. Just two chapters earlier we see Gamaliel - known in Jewish tradition as the president of the Sanhedrin, doing exactly what you suggest the council should have done here... But in this case the mob ruled... not the Sanhedrin or even the high priest.... at least as I read it. Commented Apr 15 at 0:02
  • @RevelationLad ... I recommend Dottard's answer to this question for arguments against the legality of Stephen's killing. Commented Apr 15 at 0:05
  • That answer like your position dismisses the facts recorded in Acts. It ignores what actually happened. It offers no rational answer for the complete inaction of Rome with regard to Stephen’s death, the persecution which followed, the attempt to bring Jews from Damascus to Jerusalem. The idea that the Sanhedrin lacked the power to carry out executions and a lynch mob mentality that went unchecked by Rome in Jerusalem for an extended period of time is fiction. OTOH if the Jews had the authority to carry out punishment of their own…you have one explanation which agrees with Biblical history. Commented Apr 15 at 0:37
  • As for Paul not being part of the Sanhedrin Acts 26:10 - This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. If not the Sanhedrin, then what judicial process was he referring to? And if you believe it was a lesser legal body, then how could a lesser body have the right to put to death but not the Sanhedrin? Commented Apr 15 at 3:59

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