Capital punishment in the Bible

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The Sabbath-Breaker Stoned (Numbers 15). James Tissot c.1900

Capital punishment in the Bible refers to instances in the Bible where death is called for as a punishment and also instances where it is proscribed or prohibited. Perhaps the strongest case against capital punishment in the New Testament can be made from John 8, where Jesus seems to say that capital punishment should not be carried out contrary to Mosaic law. There are however far more verses that command and condone capital punishment, and examples of it being carried out, especially in the Torah/Old Testament. Sins that were punishable by death include: homicide, striking one's parents, kidnapping, cursing one's parents, witchcraft and divination, bestiality, worshiping other gods, violating the Sabbath, child sacrifice, adultery, incest, and male homosexual intercourse (there is no biblical legal punishment for lesbians).[1]

Against capital punishment

While the Bible very clearly condones and commands capital punishment, there are verses that can be interpreted as being against capital punishment. For example, when Cain murdered Abel, God sentenced him to wandering as a fugitive rather than to death, and even issued a warning against killing Cain. A similar sentiment is suggested in Proverbs 28:17. We see from 2 Samuel 14:1-11 that kings would grant clemency in extenuating circumstances. In that case, the one who had killed was an only child, and the king allowed him to remain alive under house arrest. We find that the prophets, repeatedly beseech the masses to repent so that God will not destroy them. Additionally, there are numerous verses that condemn revenge, judging, anger and hatred, as well as those that promote peace harmony, forgiveness and acceptance.[2][3]

Hiers (2004 & 2009) shows that the laws related to capital punishment shifted over time with old laws being abandoned, and new laws taking their place; however, he points out that some later laws seem to mitigate the severity of earlier ones. He further quotes quotes Glen Stassen who argues that even in biblical times, capital punishment was "gradually, if not progressively" being abandoned, pointing out that capital punishment is rarely found in the Prophets and the Writings. Paul Onyango cites Carol Meyers argues that treatment of adulteresses in Ezekiel 16 and 23 is far more progressive than that of other ancient near eastern cultures of the time, due to its avoidance/rejection of capital punishment.[4]

Perhaps the strongest case against capital punishment can be made from John 8, where Jesus seems to say that capital punishment should not be carried out contrary to Mosaic law. In John 8, the Pharisees challenge Jesus by presenting a woman who they say committed adultery. They point out that the law of Moses clearly states that such a woman ought be stoned, and challenge Jesus to give his opinion as to what should be done. Jesus famously states "let he who is without sin throw the first stone." Effectively saying that capital punishment should not be carried out, without directly contradicting the law of Moses.[2][3]

While these examples may show that there was at least some opposition to capital punishment and decline in usage, there can be no doubt that there are far more numerous verses that command and condone capital punishment, and examples of it being carried out.[2][3]

Torah/Old Testament

Capital sins

The Bible states that for the death penalty to be carried out, at least two witnesses were required.[5] (According to Rabbinic tradition, there were numerous other conditions/requirements (such as a warning) that made it difficult to get a conviction.)

Sins that were punishable by death in the Torah, included the following:[2][3]

Homicide (excluding negligent homicide),[6] to strike/attack/smite one's parents,[7] kidnapping[8] cursing one's parents,[9] witchcraft and divination,[10][11] bestiality[12] worshiping other gods,[13] violating the Sabbath[14] child sacrifice,[15] adultery,[16] incest,[17] and male homosexual intercourse (there is no biblical legal punishment for lesbians).[18][19] The daughter of a Kohen who defiles herself through harlotry,[20] blaspheme (of the Tetragrammaton name of God),[21] a non-Levite "encroaching" on the Levite task of setting up or taking down the Tabernacle,[22] a non-Kohen carrying out priestly duties,[23] promoting the worship of other gods (if an entire town is swayed by such people, the entire town is to be put to death and destroyed),[24] defiantly refusing to accept a court's ruling,[25] maliciously giving false testimony accusing another person of having committed a capital offence,[26] rebellion against parents,[27] If a man marries a girl and claims that she is not a virgin, the girl's parents should produce evidence of her virginity. If it is found that she was not a virgin, she is stoned to death for fornicating while still under her father's authority,[28] intercourse with an engaged/betrothed virgin girl (if she could have cried out for help and did not, she is killed as well).[29][2][3]


The most common method mentioned is by stoning, followed by burning, and then by sword (once). There is a verse that mentions hanging; however, it isn't clear whether this is a separate method of killing, or something done with the body after it was dead. The verse goes on to command that the body is not to be left up overnight, but rather must be buried that day, since an impaled or hung body was offensive to God.[30][2][3]

Examples of capital punishment

In the Genesis creation narrative (Book of Genesis 2:17), God tells Adam "But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die."[31] According to the Talmud, this verse is a death penalty.[32]

In Genesis 38:24-26, when Judah is told that Tamar (his former daughter-in-law) had become a harlot and was pregnant, he sentences her to death by burning. However, she proves that he (Judah) is the father, and (apparently) the ruling is reversed.[2][3]

During the period that the Israelites wandered the wilderness, examples include: A man was stoned for gathering wood on Sabbath,[33] while another was stoned for blasphemy.[34] In the rebellion of Korah, the ground opened up swallowing Korah, other leaders, and their families; and a heavenly fire consumed another 250 followers. The next day, all the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the deaths, and God sent a plague that killed another 14,700.[35][2][3]

During the period of Kings, examples include: Elijah captured and "slaughtered" the prophets of Baal.[36] King Asa and the tribes who followed him made a covenant to worship God and "whoever would not worship the LORD God of Israel would be put to death."[37] King Ahab eliminated Naboth (to get his land) by getting false witnesses to testify that Naboth had blasphemed God and the King.[38][2][3] In the uprising against Athaliah when Jehoash was appointed king of Judah, Mattan, the priest of Baal was killed.[39]

New Testament

Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount rejects "an eye for an eye" and thus, implicitly, retributive justice, which has been argued to include capital punishment.[40] Whether supportive or not, commentators establish the relevance of the Sermon to considerations of capital punishment,[41] for example Augustine, who cites it in his analysis supporting capital punishment as carried out by duly constituted authority.[42] In 2018 the Roman Catholic catechism changed to repudiate capital punishment in any circumstances,[43] and the Vatican website explicitly references the Sermon on the Mount in justification for this.[44]

Woman caught in adultery

In a passage that may be a later interpolation,[45] John 8:3–11 mentions a woman caught in adultery being brought to Jesus for judgment.[46] Jesus does not condemn her, but says "Go and from now on do not sin any more." (John 8:11)

Death of Jesus

Jesus is sentenced to death and dies on a cross in all four Gospels.[47]

Romans 13

In Romans 13:3-4, Saint Paul says, regarding obedience to authority: "But if you do evil, be afraid, for [authority] does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer."[48] Pastor Steven Cornell cites this verse as an instance of civil justice and support for the death penalty.[49]


Walter Harrelson in The Ten Commandments and Human Rights says "[t]here can be no question... of our sixth commandment's having the initial meaning that human life is never, under any circumstances, to be taken by another human being or by the appointed authorities in Israel."[50]

Richard Hiers (2004 & 2009) writes:

In summary, biblical law gave expression to a highly positive evaluation of human life, and affirmed the bodily and moral integrity of persons individually, in families, and as an ordered and just society. Those whose conduct violated laws that served these interests might, therefore, be subject to the death penalty. Biblical law was particularly concerned lest innocent persons be wrongly executed. Moreover, only those who had recklessly or intentionally committed capital offenses were to be put to death. Numerous due process procedures were designed to effectuate these concerns. And those who sat in judgment were strongly admonished to do so impartially, according equal protection of the laws, whether the accused were rich or poor, native born or foreigners.[2][3]

See also


  1. ^ Alpert, Rebecca (2007). "Lesbianism". In Skolnik, Fred (ed.). Encyclopaedia Judaica. 12. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Pub. House. pp. 660–661. ISBN 0-02-865940-6. OCLC 70174939.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Richard H. Hiers, The Death Penalty and Due Process in Biblical Law, 81 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 751 (2004)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hiers, Richard H. (2009). Justice and compassion in biblical law. Continuum. ISBN 978-0567269096.
  4. ^ Wahonya, Paul Onyango, "Ezekiel 5:5-17 and Theodicy: a Theological Investigation of the Character of God" (2011). Dissertations. 163. Page 21. "examining the horrific imagery of Ezekiel in its ancient context using anthropological perspectives and legal analysis indicates that the punishment for adultery turns out to be one of relative leniency rather"
  5. ^ Numbers 35:30Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15
  6. ^ Exodus 21:12-14, 20-23, 28-32; Leviticus 24:17, 21; 35:6-34; Deuteronomy 19 4-13 (In the last 2 sources, if a death occurred due to negligence, a relative may take revenge by killing the one who caused the death. However, if the one who caused the death reaches one of the designated sanctuary cities, the relative may not kill him while he is there.)
  7. ^ Exodus 21:15
  8. ^ Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7 "If a man is found to have kidnapped a fellow Israelite, enslaving him or selling him, that kidnapper shall die; thus you will sweep out evil from your midst." (JPS)
  9. ^ Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9
  10. ^ Exodus 22:17 or 22:18 (this verse mentions only a female sorceress); Leviticus 20:6; Leviticus 20:27 "A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death" (JPS)
  11. ^ Dennis, Geoffrey. "Witches & Witchcraft". My Jewish Learning.
  12. ^ Exodus 21:18 or 22:19; Leviticus 20:15-16 If a man has carnal relations with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast to mate with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.(JPS)
  13. ^ 22:19 or 22:20; Deuteronomy 17:2-5
  14. ^ Exodus 31:15; 35:2,
  15. ^ Leviticus 20:2
  16. ^ Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22
  17. ^ Leviticus 20:11-12, 14
  18. ^ Bach, Alice (31 October 2013). Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader. Routledge. p. 299. ISBN 978-1-135-23868-1.
  19. ^ Leviticus 20:14
  20. ^ Leviticus 21:9
  21. ^ Leviticus 24:14-16
  22. ^ Numbers 1:51
  23. ^ Numbers 3:10, 3:38; 17:5; 18:7
  24. ^ Deuteronomy 13:5-18
  25. ^ Deuteronomy 17:8-12
  26. ^ Deuteronomy 19:16-21
  27. ^ Deuteronomy 21:18-21 "If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid."(JPS translation)
  28. ^ Deuteronomy 22:13-21
  29. ^ Deuteronomy 22:23-27 "In the case of a virgin who is engaged to a man—if a man comes upon her in town and lies with her, you shall take the two of them out to the gate of that town and stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he violated another man’s wife... But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl, for... the engaged girl cried for help, there was no one to save her." (JPS translation)
  30. ^ Deuteronomy 21:21-22
  31. ^ Chabad, Genesis 2
  32. ^ Babylon Talmud, Sanhedrin 55b.
  33. ^ Numbers 15:32-36
  34. ^ Leviticus 24:23
  35. ^ Numbers 16:1-17:15 or Numbers 16:1-50
  36. ^ Kings 18:40
  37. ^ 2 Chronicles 15:12-14
  38. ^ I Kings 21:1-16
  39. ^ Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17
  40. ^ The Death Penalty, Church of Scotland Church and Society Council, May 2008
  41. ^ Davison M. Douglas, God and the Executioner: The Influence of Western Religion on the Use of the Death Penalty, 9 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 137 (2000)
  42. ^ Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount in Fathers of the Church in Fathers of the Church, vol. 59, 79, 90, 91; Augustine, Letter 87, cited in Augustine and the Death Penalty: Justice as the Balance of Mercy and Judgment, Phillip M. Thompson, Augustinian Studies 40:2 (2009) 181–203
  43. ^ Pope Francis changes Catholic Church teaching to say death penalty is ‘inadmissible’, The Washington Post, August 2, 2108
  44. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church,
  45. ^ Although it was probably not part of the original Johannine text, it may derive from other early gospel texts. It dates to no later than the 3rd century CE; see Cross, F. L.; Livingstone, E. A. (1997). "Pericope adulterae". The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 1256. ISBN 0-19-211655-X.
  46. ^ USCCB Bible John 8:3-11 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.* So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more."
  47. ^ Matthew 27:26, 35, 50. Mark 15:15, 24, 37. Luke 23:25, 33, 46. John 19:16, 18, 30.
  48. ^ USCCB Bible Romans 13
  49. ^ Millersville Bible Church Biblical evidence supports the continued use of capital punishment in cases of premeditated murder (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:1-4)...Jesus is not teaching about how government should respond to lawbreakers. If his teaching was meant to be applied to criminal justice, it would rule out all punishment, produce chaos and contradict clear biblical teaching about government being established by God to punish evildoers (Romans 13:4; Peter 2:14). Jesus is teaching against personal revenge, not civil justice...God forgave us not because he was big-hearted enough to overlook our sin, but because Jesus was willing to bear the capital punishment for our sin.
  50. ^ Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights. Page 108 (Fortress Press, 1980)

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