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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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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
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@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
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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
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@WadCheber the focus on Mi Yodeya is Judaism rather than debunking Christian myths, so the part about this not even being a credible account is something I would treat as a footnote. Answers should focus on the three questions called out at the end and treat the quoted passage as motivation for the question. If you've got something to add on those points please feel free to add an answer. Meanwhile, your comment points out the problem with the passage. –  Monica Cellio Aug 26 at 0:07
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It is perhaps worth noting that this passage was almost certainly not a part of the original text of John and was added to the text a couple centuries later (though the story itself goes back at least to the 2nd century). –  Noah Snyder Aug 27 at 0:07

5 Answers 5

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
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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
    
@Mawia - Every source I've come across says that Jesus was born in the last decade BCE and died between 30-40CE, probably earlier than later (i.e., probably before 35 CE). However, there is almost certainly no validity to the story in John, because John has little or no relation to the actual history of Jesus' life. –  Wad Cheber Aug 26 at 23:20

Was Stoning Still Officially Practiced?

As the previous answers have already said, no, it appears that stoning was abolished around the time of Jesus' birth.

Did It Still Happen Anyway?

Sometimes, but the best attested case took place under special circumstances.

The historian Josephus writes of an instance in which stonings occurred, probably around the year 62 CE. The short version is as follows:

The Roman prefect of Judæa, a man named Porcius Festus, died in office. This being the Ancient Roman Empire, it took a while for word of the death to reach the capital, and an equal amount of time for the new prefect, whose name was Albinus, to arrive in the region. The high priest at the time was Ananus, or Hanan. He had had problems with a few people in Jerusalem, including Jesus' brother, James. Josephus tells us that Ananus now exploited the temporary power vacuum, and had the alleged troublemakers stoned to death. The people of Jerusalem were outraged by this abuse of power, and immediately complained to Albinus, before he had even reached Judæa.

Here is Josephus' account:

CONCERNING ALBINUS UNDER WHOSE PROCURATORSHIP JAMES WAS SLAIN; AS ALSO WHAT EDIFICES WERE BUILT BY AGRIPPA.

AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. 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 was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, 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; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter 9

Josephus explicitly states that it was illegal for the high priest to assemble a Sanhedrin without the consent of the prefect. If we assume that a stoning could not take place without the permission of a Sanhedrin, and if no Sanhedrin could be held without the consent of the prefect, it would appear that stonings could not take place without the approval, direct or indirect, of the Roman authorities. This agrees with the account provided by Josephus: it is plainly the case that Ananus wasn't deposed simply because he stoned someone; he was deposed because he stoned someone without the imprimatur of the Roman prefect. This makes it fairly clear that, regardless of whether stoning was still officially condoned by the Jewish authorities, it was still legally possible, but only if the Roman prefect had already given his consent.


This idea is further supported by the historical evidence:

The right of exercising capital punishment autonomously, even over their own countrymen, was withdrawn from the Jews by the Romans in the first... century [of the Common Era]. The precise date is controversial, but the limits are clear. E. R. Goodenough notes that the Greeks in Cyrene were allowed by Augustus, in a decree of 6 B.C., full judicial rights in everything short of the death penalty - this was reserved to the Roman governor, according to the customary provincial administrative pattern. Many scholars therefore maintain, with widespread Roman precedent, that the Jews lost the right of inflicting capital punishment in A.D. 6, when Palestine became a Roman province. Others believe that Jewish courts were allowed exceptional privilege in this matter until the Jewish revolt was crushed and the Temple destroyed in A.D. 70.

There seems no good reason to doubt either the intense dislike which the Rabbis felt towards death sentences under any circumstances, or their sincere desire to minimize the physical sufferings involved.

A man condemned to stoning was sometimes hurled over a precipice first, to abridge his suiferings. This was obviously the intention of the Nazarenes against Jesus in Luke 4: 29, whereas Stephen was judicially stoned on ground level in Acts 7. This certainly proves that such things happened under Roman rule by direct Jewish action - it neither proves not disproves their legality from a Roman viewpoint. John 8: 5 raises a question of principle, not of civic competence...

It would follow historical precedents if the Jews lost the ius gladii [literally, "the right of the sword", i.e., the legal right of a group of people to exercise capital punishment] in A.D. 6, when their land became a Roman province. Josephus describes the first Roman procurator Coponius as invested with the power of life and death by Caesar... But Josephus nowhere lays claim to any such Jewish authority in this period - indeed he blames the High Priest Ananus for overstepping his prerogatives by ordering on his own authority the stoning of James the brother of Jesus [and others].

The Jerusalem Talmud clearly states that Jews lost the power of capital punishment forty years before the destruction of the Herodian Temple, and the Babylonian Talmud echoes this1. Forty could be a round number, translatable into sixty-four. Newman believes that the Great Sanhedrin left the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple about A.D. 30, for reasons internal to Judaism, and that this fact, not Roman interference, caused the cessation of the death penalty. Roman practice does support the simple, factual understanding of John 18: 31: "We possess no civic power to impose a judicial death sentence at all." This was the interpretation of Schiirer, Mommsen, Bernard, Jeremias, Rosenblatt, and a host of other scholars.

Others insist that the Romans permitted [Jews] to exercise the death penalty, against Jews only and in matters exclusively religious, until A.D. 70. Jean Juster argues this with immense learning, scant respect for Gospel historicity, and a propensity to read into Josephus what suits him - that the High Priest's προστασία ["aegis", "auspices"] includes ius gladii is gratuitous assumption. T. A. Burkill reaches the same conclusion from the Temple inscription in Greek, warning Gentiles not to proceed beyond their court on pain of death2. Deissmann, however, attributes both inscription and penal procedure to Roman authority, which would invalidate Burkill's argument entirely.

The fact that many Jews were, like Stephen, judicially killed by their compatriots in many parts of the Roman Empire between A.D. 6 and 70 is not disputed. Goodenough demonstrates considerable laxity in the Alexandria of Philo, provided this lynch law was confined to Jews on religious charges who were not Roman citizens, and Origen reveals a similar situation much later.

Ulpian states that the power of Caesar's deputy may be either "pure" or "mixed." The first includes the right of inflicting the death penalty, the second stops short of this. This is further clarified by another passage, which assigns capital jurisdiction to those who rule over entire provinces. Ulpian makes it clear that with such rulers the power of death sentence is entirely personal, and under no circumstances transferable to another - yet responsible officials may not indiscriminately set at liberty accused men whose cases they cannot hear in person.

Allowing for abuses, it would seem that in her provinces Rome kept the ius gladii jealously within the hands of her appointed officials, regulating even their lawful use of it somewhat carefully. It seems almost inconceivable that the Sanhedrin alone could have executed [people] legally.
- Roy A. Stewart, Judicial Procedure in New Testament Times

1Babylonian Talmud:

Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin were exiled and took up residence in Hanuth. Whereon R. Isaac b. Abudimi said: This is to teach that they did not try cases of Kenas. 'Cases of Kenas!' Can you really think so! Say rather, They did not try capital charges.
[Note: V. A.Z. 8b on Deut. XVII, 10: And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence which they shall declare unto thee, from that place; this implies that it is the place that conditions the authority of the Sanhedrin in respect of the death sentence. [J. Sanh. I, 1 has, 'the right to try capital cases was taken away from them, i.e., by the Romans. For a full discussion of the subject v. Juster. op. cit, II, 138ff.]]
Source

Jerusalem Talmud:

"It is taught that more than forty years before the destruction of the Temple, capital punishment was removed from Israel”
Source

2The Temple inscription mentioned above is a stone discovered by archaeologists in 1871 on the Temple Mount; it has been dated to between 23 BCE and 70 CE (the year of the Temple's destruction). It is written in Koine Greek, and reads:

ΕΝΤΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΠΕΡΙ ΤΟ ΙΕΡΟΝ ΤΡΥΦΑΚΤΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΠΕΡΙΒΟΛΟΥ ΟΣ Δ ΑΝ ΛΗΦΘΗ ΕΑΥΤΩΙ ΑΙΤΙΟΣ ΕΣΤΑΙ ΔΙΑ ΤΟ ΕΞΑΚΟΛΟΥΘΕΙΝ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΝ

"No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue."
Wikipedia

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In light of Stewart's argument above, this suggests that the even if the Romans allowed Jews to execute other Jews for religious offenses, the Roman authorities were also willing to execute gentiles for offenses committed against Jewish law.

Further support comes from Professor Lawrence Schiffman, the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and Director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies:

In fact, Roman law prohibited capital punishment at the hands of local courts such as those of the Jews. Capital punishment in any case had been made virtually impossible according Jewish law, which required that the two witnesses see each other, that the witnesses warn the perpetrator, etc. — all making it almost impossible that that Jews would have wanted to actually go through with an execution. Under Roman rule, Jews themselves, without [the Roman prefect], without the Romans, would never have been permitted to carry on capital punishment of anybody.
- Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, New York University

As Stewart and Schiffman have shown, it seems almost certain that the Jews of Judæa lost the right to conduct executions around the turn of the century, and that the Sanhedrin had, around the same time, voluntarily surrendered their authority to conduct executions. 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).

Obviously, the passage from John which you have quoted above falls under the second category1: no authorities, whether Roman or Jewish, are involved in this sequence of events. Rather, a mob is attempting to stone this woman of their own volition. Obviously, this means that the question of legal authority to exercise capital punishment is irrelevant; unruly mobs are, by definition, unconcerned with legal niceties. As Stewart argues, it is widely agreed that such killings did take place, and the issue of legality is not relevant to the point. It should go without saying that people have always killed one another, despite the widespread existence of laws prohibiting extrajudicial executions.

Your specific questions:

  1. Was stoning still practiced in Jerusalem around 30-32 CE?

Probably not very often in Jerusalem itself, because the Romans had a significant presence in the city, and it was most likely illegal under Roman law by this point. Outside of Jerusalem, in the countryside of Judæa and Galilee, where the Roman presence was negligible or nonexistent, stonings definitely still happened from time to time, but it was illegal under Roman law from some time around the first decade of the first century CE. In most cases, these stonings were probably the work of mob justice, not a legitimate judicial process. It is very difficult to ascertain with any certainty, primarily because of the dearth of historical records of events in the rural areas of the region.

  1. When was the last time in history that stoning was carried out by a Jewish court in accordance with Jewish law?

It is difficult to say with any certainty. Was the stoning of James carried out in accordance with Jewish law? Maybe, but it was obviously illegal under Roman law. If we can take at face value the claim that the Sanhedrin and other Jewish authorities surrendered the right to try capital offenses of their own volition, and that this policy was not reversed at a later date, then the stoning of James was illegal under Roman law and Jewish law.

  1. Do Jewish sources discuss whether the Roman government would interfere in Jewish capital punishments, such as stoning?

As shown above, yes, the Romans absolutely interfered with the Jewish authorities' right to try capital offenses and conduct executions.


1 It isn't strictly in accordance with the intended scope of this site, so I will add this as a footnote: Among critical scholars, it is widely accepted that the Gospel of John is entirely unreliable and inaccurate. As such, the passage you have quoted is almost certainly a description of events that never took place. John is quite clearly a fairly rabid anti-Semite, and this passage, like many others in his gospel, is at least partially motivated by a desire to demonize the Jews. If you want an in depth explanation of why this is the case, it would probably be best to consult Biblical Hermeneutics.SE or a similar source for exegesis and historical criticism.

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That's a lot of information. So your answer is 1) Q: Was this practiced in Jerusalem in 30-32? A: Yes. Or possibly no. Probably yes outside of Jerusalem. Maybe. 2) Q: When was the last time this was done in accordance with Jewish law? A: Who knows? It might have been banned. Everyone says it was banned. It was probably banned. 3) Q: Do Jewish sources discuss whether the Romans interfered with this stuff? A: Yes, as shown above, modern academic sources, ancient Roman sources, and Wikipedia say that the Romans interfered. Also, a Jewish source says the Sanhedrin stopped it. –  Seth J Aug 27 at 15:38
    
@SethJ - I'm pretty sure the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, as well as Josephus, were Jewish. –  Wad Cheber Aug 27 at 20:51
    
The Talmud says that the Sanhedrin stopped practicing executions. Josephus was a Roman historian who happened to be Jewish, and whose knowledge and reports are often relied upon for all sorts of useful facts, but he is not considered a traditional Jewish source. Also, you cite his report on an incident three decades later than Mawia asked about. –  Seth J Aug 27 at 21:40
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A Jewish source (at least the way it used on Mi Yodeya) is a source presenting a perspective of Judaism, not a source written by a Jew. "White Christmas" for instance is not a Jewish source even though it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jew. –  Double AA Aug 28 at 6:32
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History of the Jewish people is actually off topic here, except as it relates to Judaism. –  Double AA Aug 28 at 6:41

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.

http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~cmadd01/womanadultery.html

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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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