Monday, August 9, 2010

John 8: Did Jesus break God's Law of Capital Punishment?

Did Jesus break God's law by not stoning the woman? Did he overturn the death penalty forever?

Not at all. Most of us are not very familiar with the boring laws of the Hebrew Bible that govern court cases. Rather than waiting to catch someone in a crime, a person must try to warn them and dissuade them first according to the Jewish Talmud. Catching this woman was almost certainly done without such a loving warning. Another of these laws disqualifies a malicious witness's testimony (Exodus 23:1-9). This same passage also invalidates anyone who joins together with a malicious witness. Jesus did not acquit the woman, he threw out the case because of lack of evidence, because he knew all the witnesses were illegitimate. We can't know for sure, but some suspect (as do I) that Jesus is writing this passage from Exodus 23 about proper witnesses and attitudes toward the accused. 

In the Greco-Roman world at the time, juries would vote on a case from oldest to youngest. It is no coincidence that the older ones leave before the younger ones do in this story. I don't think Jesus was asking for a perfect person to throw the first stone. I think Jesus challenged the purity of their motives in breaking court law. In other words, "Let the man who hasn't sinned in bringing this woman here throw the first stone." This verse should not make employers feel guilty for firing employees, or parents from punishing their children. Jesus' statement is not as broad as it tends to be quoted.

Jesus did not put aside the death penalty here. If there were legitimate witnesses against the woman, then this passage would represent a change in God's attitude towards the death penalty. But there weren't any legitimate witnesses against her, this passage can't and doesn't speak to the issue, and there is no other passage that over turns the death penalties of the Torah. While the manner and criteria of the death penalty are open for debate, we should have no illusions that Jesus changed the law or abrogated its penalties. Execution is not fundamentally wrong.

Tune in tomorrow to find out how a loving God could prescribe such a harsh punishment in the first place...

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