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In the New Testament (Christian Bible) there is a story where a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus and requested to judge according to the Law of Moses.

John 8:1-11 (NKJV)

Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

According to Christian tradition, this story would take place around 30-32 CE. Since Israel was under Roman empire, the Roman way of capital punishment was crucifixion, but I don't think they would crucify adulterous women. I also read from internet sources that stoning is never practiced these days.

  1. Was stoning still practiced in Jerusalem around 30-32 CE?
  2. When was the last time in history that stoning was carried out by a Jewish court in accordance with Jewish law?
  3. Do Jewish sources discuss whether the Roman government would interfere in Jewish capital punishments, such as stoning?
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I hope this is the right place to ask. If not, I'll ask this in History.SE. –  Mawia Jan 20 '14 at 18:01
Thank you for bringing your question here. Questions about Jewish practice, including historical practice, are on-topic. –  Monica Cellio Jan 20 '14 at 18:43
FWIW--It has been a loooong time since I looked at it but as I recall that passage is textually doubtful –  Yirmeyahu Jan 20 '14 at 23:32
@Yirmeyahu as I recall, the passage describes a mob, not a judicial hearing and execution. The scene described certainly doesn't comply with Masechet Sanhedrin. –  Monica Cellio Jan 21 '14 at 0:08
Mawia, I've removed the link to a Christian bible site. Please edit in a citation, but for the sensibilities of some here leave out a link to such a site. –  Seth J Jan 21 '14 at 0:37

4 Answers 4

According to this article, 40 years before the destruction of the Temple:

Instructive though this is, it is merely an academic discussion, the right of imposing capital punishment having been taken from the Sanhedrin by the Romans a century before, "40 years before the Destruction of the Temple" (Sanh. 41a; TJ, Sanh. 1:18a). The rabbis agreed that with the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin was precluded from inflicting capital punishment (see above).

If the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, then 40 years before takes us to 30 CE. So your date of 32 CE would be too late, assuming that the "40 years" was meant to be precise.

However, that doesn't preclude discussions of it in the abstract.

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Then I'll have to frame this story on AD 30, I think. :) –  Mawia Jan 20 '14 at 18:17
40 years or a century before? –  Shmuel Brin Jan 20 '14 at 19:34
Century before the events discussed earlier in the paragraph cited, but 40 years before the churban –  josh waxman Jan 20 '14 at 21:35
@mawia or the story is fiction. Or, think whether the story had any actual pharisees about to carry out the execution as opposed to it being theoretical –  josh waxman Jan 20 '14 at 21:51
Similarly, as I heard on a recording from Rabbi Leiman, Jerome writes that he asked the Jews why they didn't accept the book of Susanna. They said it involved the Jews giving out capital punishment while under Persian rule, and it could in fact only be done under self-rule. –  Shalom Jan 21 '14 at 1:27

The Rambam writes:

40 years before the destruction of the Temple, capital punishment was nullified among the Jewish people. Although the Temple was still standing, since the Sanhedrin went into exile and were not in their place in the Temple, these laws could not be enforced.

The destruction of the temple was around 70 CE (I believe the Rambam puts it at 68 CE, but 70 is the more popular date).

So the answer is either no, or just barely at the beginning of that time frame for a brief amount of time.

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It's good to know that there is possibility for the validity of the story. I'm also not sure about the year. It could be AD 30 or 31. No one knows the exact year for the story of Jesus. –  Mawia Jan 20 '14 at 18:39

I believe the text implies that it was against Roman law for them to perform an execution. It says that they were testing him: "They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him..." (John 8:6a). If he said it was wrong to stone her, then he was violating the law passed down from Moses and could be labeled as a false prophet. However, if he said to stone her, then they would be able to bring charges against him via Roman law.

Here's a result from a quick google search on this topic which has the same conclusion.


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Acts 7 records the actual stoning of Stephen, at most a few years later, but in that case, pure rage may have swept aside considerations of whether it was 'allowed'.

Crucifixion was largely a political tool - a demonstration of the power and might of Rome who will not tolerate any opposition - here are the humiliated, writhing, soon-to-be-corpses of those who dared to raise their fist against us. Definitely 'overkill' for most crimes.

But there is a lot of drama in the John 8 scene, which it would be wise not to ignore.

We can presume that the question being put before Jesus was largely theoretical, and even represented something of a well-known dilemma of the day, rather than there being a serious intention to actually stone the woman:

  • Deuteronomy 22:22 would suggest that, if the woman were indeed caught in the act, then there ought to have been both a male and a female candidate for being stoned.
  • The story is set in the Temple, which Jesus is frequently critical of, and he has attracted a large crowd in its very grounds ... his answer will be made before an audience.
  • The John 8 passage itself says that the point of the exercise was to find something in Jesus' theology which could be used against him. Another notable attempt (also recorded in John) include asking him whether is it right to pay taxes to Caesar ('yes' - he is on the side of the occupying Romans, 'no' - he gets executed by the Romans). We can expect that a 'yes/no' answer would be similarly damning here.
  • Jesus ignored the question, until the askers made pests of themselves, no doubt having divided his audience into disciples and ravenous mob by this stage.

One also has to keep in mind the merits, intent and protocol of stoning as proscribed in Deuteronomy - it made execution into a communal act, with the accusers/witnesses backing up their dire testimony with the force of the first hurled stone, but requiring the condemnation of 'the whole community' to carry it through. As usual with Moses, it is entirely elegant, and we can expect that stoning was always uncommon, yet just the right thing when it was needed.

To that end, Jesus' answer reminds the askers of the special role of those who 'throw the first stone' ... are they bringing the accusation? Their duty is clear, let them do it. Yet somehow Jesus is also asking 'is this what you want? to keep rigidly to these rules? is this how righteousness is achieved?'. Jesus is perfectly at peace with Moses when he does not feel the need himself to bring an accusation against the woman, and yet he (gently, but without excusing her) tells her to be more righteous in future.

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Any constructive criticism to accompany the downvote? –  David Bullock Jan 21 '14 at 1:46
I didn't down vote (be aware that down voting is very liberal around here) but the answer doesn't address the question within the parameters of this site. I think it would fit better on H.SE or C.SE. The part about "merits, intent and protocol" section does not describe capital punishment as understood in Judaism at all. –  Yishai Jan 21 '14 at 14:31

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