This is what prison is for…

I’m convinced the death penalty does us no good, and neither does it ultimately restore justice. Whether one agrees with me or not, restoration to society is the aim of imprisonment, and here’s a guy who seems to be on that path.

The letter to the editor of a prestigious archaeology magazine came from inmate No. J81961 at Tehachapi State Prison.

Prisoner Timothy Fenstermacher, a high school dropout, wrote to disagree with an article by an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Archaeologist Orly Goldwasser had based her story on the birth of the alphabet in part on the appearance of the rare “Sinai hieroglyph,” which she said was used in the Sinai during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom.

Fenstermacher thought otherwise. “I believe the rarity of this hieroglyph has been overstated,” he wrote to Biblical Archaeology Review.

Drawing on expertise gleaned from books sent to him in prison, improvised flashcard drills and correspondence with scholars, Fenstermacher gave examples of the hieroglyph’s appearance outside the Sinai.

The magazine published the letter, just as it has others from prisoner J81961.

“The extent of this guy’s self-taught scholarship is mind-boggling,” said the review’s editor, Hershel Shanks, adding that his staff had grown “quite fond” of Fenstermacher. “I wonder how a man could come from such difficulty and achieve such heights of scholarship.”

"Hi Scot, I have benefited so much from your site, and I'm interested to hear ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
""Are women human?" Dorothy Sayers asked. Sad that nearly a century later, we are still ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)
""This attempt is out of place, time-wise, as what is called for now is truth ..."

Willow Elder Of 30 Years Talks
"Good stuff.The problem isn't that vision statements are inherently useless, but that, as you say, ..."

Pastor As Midwife (Mike Glenn)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    It’s sad that Christians can not even agree on issues like this but I am one who is in agreement with you in regards to the death penalty :–)

    I have been doing jail ministry for over ten years where I am currently located and people would be utterly amazed at the raw talent, giftedness, and great abilities many of these people posses. I can’t tell you how many wonderful artists, poets, musicians, singers, pro-lific Bible students I have met who are incarcerated.

    I know there are many in society and even the church that write these people off but I have experienced more godly worship, saintly prayers, and passionate followers of Jesus in jail than any other place I have ever been.

    Can it be that God is still doing his greatest work among the poor, despised, and rejected of society? (1 Cor.1:27-28).

  • Yvette

    Do you have any suggestions on what books to send him? I’d like to encourage him.

  • This man wasn’t on death row; he didn’t murder or kidnap or torture. What has his story to do with the death penalty for those who commit such things, especially against children for example?

    I honestly believe that people such as Manson should not be kept alive, esp. in often better conditions than the poor of our country, and of course their victims never had a choice. Death for the innocent, but life and opportunity (at taxpayer expense) for the guilty? Historically, I don’t think prison was ever meant by society to be redemptive or corrective, but simply punitive, as far as I know.

    But again, since this man did none of those things we’d consider worthy of death anyway, I see this particular blog post as comparing apples to oranges, or a non-sequitur . And there is a scripture passage to consider as well: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” (Gen. 9:6) God invented the death penalty for anyone committing murder. Just something to consider.

  • Yvette

    Paula, thank you. I was so caught up in his story that I missed the obvious.

  • You’re very welcome, Yvette. Please know also that my comment was not directed at you but at the blog post’s using his story as an argument against the death penalty. I try to remember to specify if I’m replying to another commenter. 🙂

    I might also add that this person is quite the exception, not the rule by any stretch. So again, for someone to use his case to argue that no one should ever be put to death for any crime is fallacious, an appeal to emotion at best. This man is exceptional and to be commended, no doubt there. But we have to always put things in context.

  • David

    In response to Paula (#3), “Historicdally, I don’t think prison was ever meant by society to be redemptive or corrective, but simply punitive….” In preparing for an Adult class recently on Hell, I came across Sharon L. Baker’s book, Razing Hell. She challenges the retributive violence of most visions of hell as being unworthy of God.

    Here is what she observes about Paula’s appeal to the Bible: “In Genesis 4 the Bible’s first act of violence occurs. Cain kills his brother, Abel. Rather than killing Cain in a fit of vengeance according to the laws of retribution in those ancient days, God sends him away. But not before God stamps a mark on him that hopefull will serve to prevent others from murdering him. God seems to know that violence begets more violence and so seeks to prevent it from happening. As we move through Genesis, we come to chapter 6, in which God repents from creating the earth. What God created in peace and for peace, we humans corupted with violence. Genesis 6:11-12 tells us that
    ‘the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt’ …. Inerestingly, the only sin mentioned in the text is violence! Now granted, the story continues with great violence wreaked by God, and we can’t ignore that. But we can dig beneath the text for the message of truth contained within.”

  • scotmcknight


    I made a statement about the death penalty because I think it does not do what prison can do … which is what the story of this man illustrates: restoration.

    That’s all I was trying to say … not that he had done something judged as a capital offense. I can see how you saw what you saw, but I routinely opine about the death penalty and also contend that prisons ought to focus on restoration to society or at least for the good of society, even for those who are in prison for life.

  • @David,
    You know that God instituted the death penalty after the Flood; this actually argues against your position. Wasn’t God’s solution to all the violence to send a flood in the first place? How was that not violent? And after God instituted the death penalty, has he had to exterminate nearly the whole earth’s population again? And if keeping violent killers alive and in often better conditions than the taxpayers who support them for life is considered “justice” or any kind of deterrent, why have we not seen a decrease in violent crime? I see no support for your objection.

    I don’t know what I could add to what I’ve said already that would help get the point across about apples and oranges; I don’t see how restoration for a man not penalized by death in the first place means no one should ever be executed. Your post clearly drew a direct connection between a notable exception for a non-murderer and capital punishment, and I simply objected to that connection. That’s all I was trying to say.

  • Paula, I think you’re being a little hard on Scot. He gave a personal opinion about the value of the death penalty. Then he wrote, ‘Whether one agrees with me or not, restoration to society is the aim of imprisonment’.

    He makes no connection between the two, he is certainly not using apples to argue about oranges. You made a connection between the two, perhaps because of the strength of your own feelings about the value of execution.

    The answer to your question, ‘What has his story to do with the death penalty for those who commit such things?’, is… ‘Nothing’. At least, that is how I read his post.

  • @Chris Jefferies,

    I gave my personal opinion too, and I think I’ve said all I can to explain my reasons for getting the overall message of the OP as holding up this man as the reason there should be no death penalty, not merely that imprisonment is redemptive. I’m sorry if disagreement is deemed harsh, but of course that goes both ways. 😉

  • That’s a wonderful story, and also a powerful story of external structure giving a person the boundaries within which to change. I pray that his internal & physical discipline will enable him to change his life fully, when the enforced external structure disappears when his sentence is up. I noticed his dreams for outside the walls still seem confined by what he knew, before, not considering that he could reach higher. That, ISTM, would be the point where a healthy church, good accountability, mentoring, as well as opportunities to be challenged academically (even if the credentialing is out of reach), could be useful to ensuring his life may be whole life.

    Paula, you said, Historically, I don’t think prison was ever meant by society to be redemptive or corrective, but simply punitive, as far as I know.

    That may be true about society, but not about God’s work, discipline and word to & for us. Note the name of this blog, and consider Jesus’ words to his followers to love their enemies. As the saying goes, “Loving your enemies strongly implies not killing them.”

  • Larry S

    this is from the link: “The prison confrontation landed him in solitary confinement, where he thrived because he could focus on Egyptology. When time came to return to the general prison population, he sought and won permission to remain in solitary.”

    choosing to stay in solitary isn’t the way to reintegrate back into society.

    of course he may have changed his institutional status and moved back into the general population where I hope he can do some pro-social programs and learn the interpersonal skills necessary to function in society.

    as an aside, I’d change Dr. McKnight’s sentence that “restoration to society is the aim of imprisonment” to restoration to society to a goal of imprisonment. Some offenders due to their crimes and/or mental illness (psychopathology for example) should never get out of custody.

  • I find it difficult to see the justice in allowing someone to live who clearly has no respect for life. Let’s give a convicted killer three square meals a day, educational opportunities, and opportunities to hear from loved ones while his/her victim rots in a grave, losing out on a bright future, never to have contact with family again, at least on this side of the veil.

    Captial punishment is simply justice, not deterence. One who takes a life has forfeited his/her right to life.

    Now I would argue that every possible means needs to be taken to ensure that the right person is convicted. I would further argue that if we can’t do that, then life in prison with no parole is the only option.

    To argue that captial punishment does no good is an affront to the dead and their families. The good it does is justice.

  • @ Mark E. Smith, yes, thank you. Love and justice aren’t just for perpetrators but also for victims. We often forget the latter when we speak of Christian love.

    @Ann, see Mark’s comment 13. When God takes a life, does it mean he no longer loves them? Of course not. Likewise, when a society is charged with seeing to it that there is justice and order for the good of all, it must sometimes remove from society those individuals who are a danger.

    If we care at all for the victims of murder or torture or kidnapping,
    if we have any pity for the survivors who must live out their lives in grief,
    if we want to show that we take safety and peace seriously,

    we will give them the justice they deserve by requiring, as God told Noah, the life of such criminals. As Mark also said, it is the height of injustice and insult to instead pamper those criminals for life. This punishes the victims twice.

  • Matt

    Love the conversation so far and the respect of all, I would just like to add a quick note that the word ‘justice’ has been used above and it may pay to clearly define what framework we are using it from. When I think of justice I would point to the cross (of Christ) and say that our definition of justice was redefined there. When we deserved nothing more than to hang on that cross Jesus redefines a justice of self sacrific and restoration. His whole movement was towards us/ for us not punitive but reconciling. He broke the power of violence and death with sacrificial love. May we learn to live this love more in our lives (me most of all) as we move to restoring/transforming others back to community. I strongly believe one place the church (body of believers) has not been present enough in (especially in Australia) is in the prisons, with those no one sees value in even though they themselves (the prisoners) are made in the image of God.
    …so this didn’t end up being a ‘quick note’, sorry 😉

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. McKnight,

    How is it that imprisonment is a means to restore to society? I thought it was a means of punishment.

  • I believe Ann is right to be cautious about doing harm to those we love. And I believe Paula focusses too much on justice.

    Of course justice is a good thing, even an essential thing. We are to deal justly with one another (ie we are to be unbiased and fair and honest). But justice merges fuzzily and dangerously into vengeance, a place we dare not go. I prefer to stay on the safe side of that fuzzy area and clearly Ann does too.

    Someone said, ‘Vengeance is mine’ and his Son said, ‘Don’t judge’. A time of judgement will come soon enough and all will receive what is due to them.

  • Tim

    “Whether one agrees with me or not, restoration to society is the aim of imprisonment”. That certainly may be one result of imprisonment, as you related with Mr. Fenstermacher, but it is not really the aim of our society’s prisons. And sometimes it palinly isn’t the principal aim. I’ve sentenced thousands of people to jail and prison. For many of these sentencings, the principal aim is simply to protect society.

  • Richard

    “I’m convinced the death penalty does us no good, and neither does it ultimately restore justice. Whether one agrees with me or not, restoration to society is the aim of imprisonment,”

    But it’s “justice” if God does it (see ECT and annihilationism), am I right?