Israelite law laid down the death penalty for certain offences, some of them religious, others civil (Lev 20:2,10,27; 24:16-17; Num 15:32-36; Deut 13:6-10; 22:20-24; 24:7). Even under the Roman system of law that operated in New Testament times, Paul accepted that the government had the right to carry out the death sentence in certain cases (Acts 25:11; cf. Rom 13:3-4). Many of Israel’s laws were specifically related to the particular relationship that existed between God and Israel under the covenant (e.g. Deut 13:6-10; cf. 5:2,6-7). However, the law that laid down the death penalty for murderers was based on a command that God gave long before the nation Israel existed. God’s command was related to the fundamental sacredness of human life, for human beings exist in God’s image. God therefore laid down that if any person wilfully killed another without divine permission, that person was no longer fit to enjoy God’s gift of life (Gen 9:3-6; cf. Exod 21:23; Num 35:30-34). The normal Israelite method of execution was stoning.

There had to be at least two witnesses to the crime, and these had to participate publicly in the execution by throwing the first stones. This no doubt impressed upon people that they had to be absolutely certain in making an accusation against anyone (Lev 24:14; Deut 17:6-7; John 8:7; Acts 7:58). The dead body was then hung on a tree till evening as a sign that the executed person was under the curse of God (Deut 21:23). Under the Roman administration of the New Testament era, prisoners were executed by either crucifixion or beheading (Matt 27:22; Mark 6:24-28; Acts 12:2; see CRUCIFIXION). Jews could pass the death sentence upon their own people for offences relating to Jewish law, but they could not carry it out. They had to hand over the prisoner to the Roman authorities, who alone had the power of execution (Matt 27:1-2). Yet when the Jews illegally stoned Stephen to death, the Roman authorities took no action against them. They probably thought it wise not to interfere when the Jews were so stirred up (Acts 7:58; cf. Matt 27:24; Acts 12:2-3).

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