Death penalty in the Bible

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

The Bible records various proscriptions and instances of the death penalty.

Old Testament

Genesis 2 and 9

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."[1] According to the Talmud, this verse is a death penalty.[2]

In Genesis 9:6, as part of the Noahide covenant, God tells Noah "Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man."[3] Rashi says that there must be two witnesses of a murder for a murderer to receive the death penalty, because murder destroys the image of God.[4]

Capital sins

Certain sins are punishable by death in the Torah, including idolatry,[5] taking God's name in vain,[6] violation of the Sabbath,[7] rebellion against parents,[8] murder,[9] and adultery.[10]

Elijah and the prophets of Baal

In 1 Kings 18:40, Elijah kills the prophets of Baal.[11] The Talmud explains that, while Elijah himself deserved death for offering sacrifice on a mountain,[12] the mitzvot Elijah had contravened was abrogated.[13]

New Testament

Woman caught in adultery

John 8:3-11 records a woman caught in adultery being brought to Jesus for judgment.[14] Jesus does not condemn her, but says "Go and from now on do not sin any more."

Michael Barber says that the Jewish leaders had set a trap for Jesus: Yes to stoning means he'll break Roman law and No to stoning means he'll break Jewish law.[15] He also says Jesus turns the trap on the leaders by saying "Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone": Yes to stoning means they'll break Roman law and No to stoning means they'll break Jewish law.[16]

Death of Jesus

Jesus is sentenced to death and dies on a cross in all four Gospels.[17] The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that crucifixion was an illegal form of Jewish punishment[18] and that Jesus did not receive a Jewish trial before death.[19]

Ananias and Sapphira

In Acts 5:1-11, Saint Peter spoke words of judgment upon Ananias and Sapphira for lying to God (Ananias) and testing the Spirit (Sapphira), after which each of them fell dead.[20] Deuteronomy 6:16 forbids testing the Lord.[21]

John Chrysostom, in Homily 12 on Acts, says that no one was forced to give anything to the apostles,[22] that Ananias and Sapphira had committed sacrilege by keeping the money they had promised to give[23], that Peter did not correct Ananias because he would not have accepted correction,[24] that Peter had questioned Sapphira to give her the chance to repent,[25] and that Ananias and Sapphire were justly punished.[26]

Romans 13

In Romans 13:3-4, Saint Paul says "...But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer."[27] Pastor Steven Cornell cites this verse as an instance of civil justice and support for the death penalty.[28]


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."[29]

Some Christian groups, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, cite Genesis 9:5–6, Romans 13:3–4, and Leviticus 20:1–27 as the basis for permitting the death penalty.[30][31]

Some atheists believe the death penalty in the Bible is extremist[32] and proof that God is evil.[33] Some atheists believe Christians are hypocritical for not killing people that commit capital sins, such as gay people.[34]

See also

Religion and capital punishment


  1. ^ Chabad, Genesis 2
  2. ^ Babylon Talmud, Sanhedrin 55b An objection is raised: The ministering angels asked the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Sovereign of the Universe! Why didst Thou impose the penalty of death upon Adam?' Said He to them, I gave him an easy command, yet he violated it.' 'But Moses and Aaron fulfilled the whole Torah,' they pursued — 'yet they died'. 'There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath,' He replied, showing that death may come without sin — He maintains as the following Tanna. For it was taught: R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: Moses and Aaron too died through their sin, for it is said, Because ye believed not in me[...therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them]: hence, had ye believed in Me, your time had not yet come to depart from the world. On the view that they died sinless, this deduction is made: but had ye believed, you would have led the assembly into the land, etc. The punishment therefore was that they would not lead, not that they should die, which would have been disproportionate to their fault (Maharsha).
  3. ^ Chabad Genesis 9
  4. ^ Sefaria: Rashi on Genesis 9:6 "'through man shall his blood be shed': If there are witnesses you kill him. Why? Because in the image of God [made He man] and he has destroyed the Divine image (Genesis Rabbah 34:14)"
  5. ^ Chabad Deuteronomy 13:6 And that prophet, or that dreamer of a dream shall be put to death; because he spoke falsehood about the Lord, your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and Who redeemed you from the house of bondage, to lead you astray from the way in which the Lord, your God, commanded you to go; so shall you clear away the evil from your midst.
  6. ^ Chabad Leviticus 24:16 And one who blasphemously pronounces the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death; the entire community shall stone him; convert and resident alike if he pronounces the [Divine] Name, he shall be put to death.
  7. ^ Chabad Numbers 15:32–36 When the children of Israel were in the desert, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood presented him before Moses and Aaron and before the entire congregation. They put him under guard, since it was not specified what was to be done to him. The Lord said to Moses, The man shall be put to death; the entire congregation shall pelt him with stones outside the camp. So the entire congregation took him outside the camp, and they pelted him to death with stones, as the Lord had commanded Moses.
  8. ^ Chabad Deuteronomy 21:18-21 If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them, his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place. And they shall say to the elders of his city, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a guzzler." And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.
  9. ^ Chabad Joshua 20:2-3 "Speak to the children of Israel, saying, 'Prepare for you cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses. To which a slayer that kills any person unawares, unwittingly, shall flee and they shall be for you as a refuge from the avenger of blood."
  10. ^ Chabad Leviticus 20:10 And a man who commits adultery with [another] man's wife, committing adultery with the wife of his fellow the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.
  11. ^ Chabad, 1 Kings Then Elijah said to them, "Seize the prophets of the Baal; let no one of them escape." They seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and there he slaughtered them.
  12. ^ Chabad Deuteronomy 12:13-14 Beware, lest you offer up your burnt offerings any place you see. But only in the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes; there you shall offer up your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.
  13. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Abrogation of Laws According to I Kings, xviii. 31, the prophet Elijah offered a sacrifice upon the altar erected on Mount Carmel. This was in contravention of the law in Deut. xii. 13, which forbade the offering of sacrifices outside of the central sanctuary. The rabbis defend the act of the prophet on the ground that it was a temporary measure necessitated by the circumstances (Yeb. 90b).
  14. ^ 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."
  15. ^ The Sacred Page: The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent If Jesus says not to stone her he will be accused of not keeping the law, which requires adulterers to be punished with death (cf. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Since Jesus had just accused the Pharisees of not keeping the Law themselves (cf. John 7:19), to not carry out the Law here would discredit him--i.e., he would be exposed as a hypocrite! Yet if Jesus commands the woman to be stoned, he will be guilty of treason and executed, for only the Romans could carry out an execution (cf. John 18:31).
  16. ^ The Sacred Page: The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent With these words Jesus turns the tables and places his opponents in the same precarious position they had intended for him: If they stone her they will be guilty of treason. They can't say Jesus authorized them to do so because he condemns them as sinners! If they don't stone her they admit their guilt (i.e., they not "without sin"). Implicitly, they affirm Jesus' words about them!
  17. ^ Matthew 27:26, 35, 50. Mark 15:15, 24, 37. Luke 23:25, 33, 46. John 19:16, 18, 30.
  18. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Crucifixion A Jewish court could not have passed a sentence of death by crucifixion without violating the Jewish law.
  19. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Jesus of Nazareth Nothing corresponding to a Jewish trial took place, though it was by the action of the priests that Jesus was sent before Pontius Pilate
  20. ^ USCCB Bible Acts 5 A man named Ananias, however, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 2 He retained for himself, with his wife's knowledge, some of the purchase price, took the remainder, and put it at the feet of the apostles. 3 But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the holy Spirit and retained part of the price of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God." 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last, and great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, unaware of what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, "Tell me, did you sell the land for this amount?" She answered, "Yes, for that amount." 9 Then Peter said to her, "Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen, the footsteps of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." 10 At once, she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men entered they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
  21. ^ Chabad, Deuteronomy 6 You shall not try the Lord, your God, as you tried Him in Massah.
  22. ^ New Advent: John Chrysostom's Homily 12 We neither obliged you to sell, the Apostle says, nor to give your money when you had sold; of your own free choice you did it; why have you then stolen from the sacred treasury? ...But wherefore, upon what purpose have you done this? Did you wish to keep it? You ought to have kept it all along, and never to have professed to give it. The sacrilege, beloved, is a grievous one. For another, it may be, coveted what was not his own: but it was at your discretion to keep what was your own. Why then did you first make it sacred, and then take it? Out of excessive contempt have you done this.
  23. ^ New Advent: John Chrysostom's Homily 12 He that has chosen to sell his goods and distribute them, and then withdraws them, is guilty of sacrilege...Do you see that this is the charge brought against Ananias, that having made the money sacred, he afterwards secreted it?
  24. ^ New Advent: John Chrysostom's Homily 12 You will say, they ought to have corrected him. But he would not have received correction
  25. ^ New Advent: John Chrysostom's Homily 12 The woman he would fain save, for the man had been the author of the sin: therefore he gives her time to clear herself, and opportunity for repentance
  26. ^ New Advent: John Chrysostom's Homily 12 First he makes her learn the sin, and then shows that she will justly suffer the same punishment with her husband, since she has committed the same wickedness
  27. ^ USCCB Bible Romans 13
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights. Page 108 (Fortress Press, 1980)
  30. ^ Christian Research Institute. "Statement: CP1303: Capital Punishment". Charlotte, North Carolina. Archived from the original on February 7, 2006. Retrieved 27 April 2016.CS1 maint: Unfit url (link)
  31. ^ Southern Baptist Convention (June 2000). "SBC Resolutions: On Capital Punishment". Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2016.CS1 maint: Unfit url (link)
  32. ^ Friendly Atheist: 9 Basic Bible Facts In the Hebrew (Old) Testament, the most serious violation is that of worshiping heathen gods or idols, which is reiterated a total of 332 times. This unforgivable misbehavior requires the death penalty, which is repeated more than eighty times though explicit decree, murderous action, or threatened elimination. Because god's severe punishments are inflicted tirelessly on his incorrigible children, it can be concluded that Hebrew history developed to a great extent around the first of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." In other words, God conducted universal jihad against infidels in a manner no different from that of the Islamic State. Deuteronomy 13 is a concise statement: family members who recommend worshiping other gods must be executed, and all residents of a town where leaders encourage worship of other gods must be killed and everything burned. This will satisfy god's fierce anger, and he will have mercy and compassion for those adherents who undertook the murderous action in his name.
  33. ^ Evil Bible: Why I am not a Christian Instead of harping on me about something so unapparent, they should go tell it to the Midianites. (Please open your Bibles to Numbers 31) The following verses are a classic example of wholesale slaughter and rape under the direction of the same God they claim to be so merciful...I have had some Christians proclaim that these Midianite girls were not taken for raping but marriage. How ridiculous! If you continue further in the scripture you will find that marriage to a Midianite was a crime against God. A man named Zimri, broke the law and married a Midianite woman this angered God so he sent a plague among the Hebrews. Fortunately, a zealous son of Israel speared Zimri right through the genitals, and the plague went away. So now I ask you, if you could not marry a Midianite, just what were these "virgin woman who were to help multiply" good for?
  34. ^ Desiring God: Doesn't the Bible tell Christians to put Homosexuals to death? "Dear Pastor John, I want to first thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast and for your obedience and love for the Lord. One thing I have always struggled to communicate is the difference between the Old Testament Law and the fulfilled Law after Christ. I have many atheist friends who press me here, specifically when it comes to homosexuality. Why do we as Christians not believe practicing homosexuals should be killed for their sin if that is exactly the prescription in our Bibles in Leviticus 20:13? How would you answer this objection?"

External links

  • Excerpts from Richard H. Hier's The Death Penalty and Due Process in Biblical Law
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