The Bible and the Death Penalty–Some Preliminary Thoughts

The Bible and the Death Penalty–Some Preliminary Thoughts November 10, 2019

I have been asked by the Consistent Life Network to write 800 words on the Bible and the death penalty.  This is to be included in a document that will be some variant of “Consistent Life Answers to Common Questions.”   I readily agreed to do this, but on reflection I am realizing that this is a bit tricky, since I need to be able to speak to this in ways that cross Protestant/Catholic divides and several different ways of interpreting sacred scripture.  So this post is a first pass at writing this document.  I would welcome your critical feedback.

Q:  Doesn’t the Bible Support the Death Penalty?

A:  The Bible has a lot to say about the death penalty but it is not clear cut in support of the death penalty.  The Old Testament contains a number of passages that speak to it directly.  The New Testament, on the other hand, has no explicit discussions about capital punishment, but does contain a number of passages that can inform a Christian understanding of the death penalty.

On the surface, the Old Testament appears to be emphatically in favor of the death penalty, beginning with Genesis:

Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. (Genesis 9:6).

However, the Old Testament presents a much more complicated picture of the death penalty.  First, it was prescribed for a large range of crimes besides murder.  The following is a partial list:

  • Murder (Ex 21:12)
  • Rape of a betrothed woman (Dt 22:23-25); note however that rape of an unbetrothed woman was punishable only by a fine and forced marriage (Dt 22:28-29).
  • Adultery (Dt 22:22)
  • Homosexual acts (Lev 20:13)
  • Bestiality (Lev 20:15)
  • Blasphemy (Lev 24:16)
  • Worshiping other gods (Dt 13:6-10)
  • Disobeying your parents (Dt 21:18-21)

Any attempt to justify the modern death penalty in light of the Old Testament must explain why the list of crimes from the Bible should no longer be subject to capital punishment.

Second, the Old Testament itself does not support the death penalty in every case, even for murder.  In Genesis, after Cain murdered his brother Abel, God did not punish Cain with death (Gn 4:8-15).  Rather, Cain was banished.  When Cain protested that anyone could kill him, God commanded that no one should harm him:  “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Gn 4:15).   In his reformulation of Roman Catholic teaching on the death penalty, Pope John Paul II highlighted the importance of this passage for understanding the death penalty in the Old Testament.  (Evangelium Vitae, 9)

The rabbinic literature was very hesitant to mandate the death penalty, seeing the commandments in the Torah more as principles to highlight the seriousness of the crimes rather than as punishments to actually be imposed.  The rabbis instituted a number of evidentiary and procedural hurdles that, in practice, made it nearly impossible to impose the death penalty.

Nowhere in the  New Testament is there a passage which speaks directly about the death penalty.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is often cited as evidence of biblical support for capital punishment:

But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rm 13:4)

However, in this passage “sword” and “execute” should not be read as referring to capital punishment.  The whole passage (Romans 13:1-7) is about the relationship between the state and the nascent Christian community as a whole, and not just about crimes punishable by death.  The word sword translates the Greek word machaira, meaning a short sword, often worn as a symbol of authority.  And the word “executes” comes from orgē, meaning to carry out (any) punishment ordered by law.

This passage instead seems only to tell Christians that they are to be law-abiding, and that the state (in this case the Roman empire) has legitimate authority to punish wrong-doing.  Now the Roman empire did inflict the death penalty for a number of crimes, but at the time Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome, they had no say in the law.  In later centuries, as Christianity spread, it was debated whether Christian magistrates should enforce Roman death penalty laws.  The answer of a number of important Church fathers, such as Origen and Tertullian, was no.

Jesus himself  was executed and two men were executed with him (Lk 23:32), but he says nothing about the justness of his punishment.  (The “good thief” states that his punishment is merited (Lk 23:41) but that of Jesus is not, but Jesus does not say anything about this.)  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is confronted with  a woman caught in adultery, which the mob wants to stone (John 8:3-11).   They attempted to justify this by appealing to the Mosaic law and pressed Jesus to support their decision.  Some scholars see this as an attempt to entrap Jesus, since he would either have to reject the law of Moses, or condone a killing that was forbidden by the Romans (who reserved capital cases to themselves).   Jesus, however, goes directly to the heart of the matter, questioning whether they are worthy to stand in judgement.  As a consequence, they abandon their attempt to stone the woman and leave.

Jesus portrayed his teaching as a fulfillment of the Law of the Old Testament.  He did not address directly whether a secular state can or should have a death penalty.  But in his teaching and in his actions he established a model for Christian practice that suggests that the death penalty cannot be grounded in Christian faith, and that a Christian who fully embraces his teaching should reject it as contrary to it.

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