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 THE DEATH PENALTY / CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

IN THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (NEW TESTAMENT)

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Overview:

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) do not contain new codes of law which govern the death penalty. However, there were many references to capital punishment in the Bible and in non-canonical literature which indicate that the Hebrew Scripture's codes were still being applied during the time of Jesus.

An activity for which God Imposed the Death Penalty Directly

God killed individuals because they engaged in various transgressions in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). However, there was only one instance in the Christian Scriptures:

bulletFor lying about Church donations: Acts 5:1 to 11 describe how a couple, Ananias and Sapphira sold an piece of real estate. They gave part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full proceeds from the sale. Peter interpreted their act as lying to the Holy Ghost. God killed Ananias on the spot. Three hours later, Sapphira repeated the lie to Peter. He cursed her and God killed her immediately. Members of the church were understandably terrified.

This essay continues below

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Capital crimes according to the Christian Scriptures

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) do not contain codes of law which govern the death penalty. However there were many references to capital punishment which indicate that the Hebrew Scripture's codes were still being applied during the 1st century CE:

bulletMark 14:62: Jesus was accused of blasphemy. The high priest asked Jesus Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?. Jesus replied I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:70 contradict Mark's account; they record Jesus as sidestepping the question. However, Christ was still found guilty of blasphemy.
bulletJohn 8:3 - 8:11: This famous passage describes an adulteress who was scheduled for stoning. Jesus told her executioners He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. These verses have often been quoted to indicate Jesus' opposition to the death penalty. However, this passage is apparently a Christian forgery; it is not present in the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, but was added later by unknown person(s). Besides, Jesus does not challenge the right of the accusers to kill her according to the Mosaic law.
bulletActs 6:8 - 7:60 Stephen, a Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy and stoned to death.
bulletRomans 13:1-5 Paul instructs Christians to submit themselves to the authority of the state, because "The authorities that exist have been established by God." Referring to the authorities, Paul writes in Verse 4: "For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." The reference to "sword" might be interpreted literally (to refer to capital punishment) or symbolically (to refer to the power of the state to punish wrongdoers).

If verse 3 is interpreted literally, the passage is clearly mistaken. Paul writes: "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right..." The historical record shows that an individuals' main enemy has traditionally been their own federal government. Consider various religiously based exterminations in recent decades, such as:

bulletthe Nazi holocaust, which largely targeted Jews and Gypsies
bulletBosnian religious cleansing, generally referred to as "ethnic cleansing." This was mainly perpetrated by Christian followers of the Serbian Orthodox church with Muslims and Roman Catholics as victims.
bulletSerious oppression and extermination of Muslims in Kosovo by the former Serbian rulers --followers of the Serbian Orthodox church.
bulletthe murder of about 24% of the Christian population of East Timor by the Muslim Indonesian army.

These atrocities were ordered by governments on their helpless, innocent and law abiding citizens. There are many other such religiously-based conflicts currently active in the world.

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WDJS (What did Jesus say) about execution?

bulletMatthew 5:21-22: Jesus is recorded as saying: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment..." This passage discusses one person murdering -- and even being angry with -- another person. It does not appear to impact on the state execution of a convicted criminal. Presumably, Jesus approved of state executions, because he upheld the validity of the Mosaic law: not even one minor point was to be ignored. For example, he is recorded as having said in:
bulletMatthew 5:18-19: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
bulletLuke 16:17: "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail."
bulletMatthew 5:38-39: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." This might be interpreted as denying the right of the state to punish murder with execution. However, it seems to apply to the relationship between two people, rather than between the state and a convicted criminal.
bulletMatthew 26:51-52: "And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." Jesus' reproached one of his followers who had attacked a priest's slave with a sword. Some have interpreted this as authorizing state execution of convicted murderers -- those who kill others can be expected to be killed by the state in return. Others would point out that the incident in this case was aggravated assault, not murder. Jesus' comment might merely be an observation that violence tends to create more violence.

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Copyright 1997 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2005-MAR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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