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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Capital Punishment

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The death penalty legally sanctioned by a society or government for extremely serious offenses. Capital punishment was legislated in ancient Israel and appears to be divinely ordered. Whether this divine sanction was for all time and places is a matter of biblical interpretation for today.

Offenses Calling for Capital Punishment: 1. Intentional homicide (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-21 ,Numbers 35:16-21,35:29-34 ); 2 . False witnessing in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-21 ); 3 . Idolatry (Leviticus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 13:2-19; Deuteronomy 17:2-7 ); 4 . Abducting persons for slavery (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7 ); 5 . Sexual acts of incest, homosexuality, and bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:11-17 ); 6 . Rape (Deuteronomy 22:23-27 ) including the girl if she did not cry for help; 7. Adultery (Leviticus 20:10-12; Deuteronomy 22:22 ); 8 . Sex relations outside of marriage: (a) before marriage, but discovered afterward (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 ), the woman alone to be executed; (b) relations with another's betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 ), both to be executed; (c) the harlotry of a priest's daughter (Leviticus 21:9 ); 9 . Witchcraft and false claim to prophecy (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Deuteronomy 18:20; 1Samuel 28:3,1 Samuel 28:9 ); 10 . Profaning the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-17; Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36 ); 11 . Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14-16 ,Leviticus 24:14-16,24:23; 1 Kings 21:13; Matthew 26:65-66 ); 12 . Cursing or striking one's parents (Exodus 21:15 ,Exodus 21:15,21:17 ).

Forms of Capital Punishment Stipulated or Mentioned: 1. Stoning was the usual method in Israel (Exodus 19:13; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 22:24; Joshua 7:25; compare Luke 20:3-6; Acts 7:58 ). At least two witnesses were needed to verify a charge, and they had to throw the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:6-17; compare John 8:7 ). 2 . Burning was the penalty for incest (Leviticus 20:14 ); harlotry (Genesis 38:24 ), particularly by a priest's daughter (Leviticus 21:9 ). 3 . Sword (Exodus 32:27; Deuteronomy 13:15 ), spear (Numbers 25:7 .), and shooting by arrow (Exodus 19:13 ). 4 . Beheading was reserved especially for those who cursed or insulted royalty (2 Samuel 16:9; 2 Kings 6:31-32 ). 5 . Crucifixion was carried out in New Testament times only by Roman decree and by Roman soldiers (Matthew 27:22-26 ,Matthew 27:22-26,27:33-50; Luke 23:13-33; John 18:28-19:30 ) for those convicted of political insurrection against Rome. Jewish authorities under Roman rule were not normally permitted to execute anyone (John 18:31 ), although rare exceptions are recorded (Acts 5:27-33; Acts 7:57-60; Acts 26:10 ); whether these were approved by Rome is difficult to say.

Does Scripture Require Capital Punishment? How do we reconcile Exodus 20:13 (“Thou shalt not kill”) with Genesis 9:6 (“Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed”)? If an individual kills another, it is murder; if the state kills, it is not murder, some would say. Is Genesis 9:6 the mandate for capital punishment? Its rationale appears to be the unique value of persons, “for in the image of God made he man” ( Genesis 9:6 ). Yet what about other commands in Genesis 9:1 ? What about the prohibition against eating meat with blood in it (Genesis 9:4 ), or the execution of animals who kill humans (Genesis 9:5; compare Exodus 21:28-36 ). Has the Lord spoken forever against eating rare meat and for executing killer animals? Is it sound biblical interpretation if we interpret “by man shall his blood be shed” as a divine command for capital punishment yet consistently ignore the other commands in the context in which it is found?

How do we explain the Lord's protection of Cain in Genesis 4:15 where a “mark” was placed on him to fend off self-appointed executioners? God's grace spared the original first-degree murderer.

Maybe Genesis 9:6 is more descriptive than prescriptive much like Jesus' words, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” ( Matthew 26:52 ). Genesis 9:6 seems too broad to be a divine order requiring all societies in all ages to kill their killers.

What about Paul's instruction regarding the role of the state in preserving order? The political ruler is a “minister of God to thee for good”; the ruler “beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4 ). It seems that the authority of the state is divinely established to protect the good and punish the evil. Is authority to punish a mandate to kill? If the sword is to be taken literally and the state's hold on the sword is a mandate to kill, then capital punishment should be the primary punishment the state has available to use, and it should always be by a literal sword. Literalism presents serious problems. However, if the sword is symbolic, then various forms of punishment and deterrence are available to the state.

Scripture does not present capital punishment as always mandatory. The early Christians apparently did not believe so. All Scripture should be filtered through the perspective of the apostolic tradition and especially through the mind of Jesus Christ who himself was a victim of capital punishment on the cross.

Does Scripture Permit Capital Punishment? If Scripture does not require the state to execute killers, does it allow such action by way of exception? A generally accepted principle of killing not subject to punishment is self-defense, whereby killing is forced on us as the only way to prevent someone from killing us. In this sense capital punishment may be a form of self-defense on the part of the state. Killing in a just war is a similar response. Does the state have a right to defend its people by executing killers? The Scripture certainly does not prohibit the state from exercising this right.

Arguments For and Against Capital Punishment 1. Deterrence: capital punishment will discourage murdering. Yet the only one who is knowingly deterred from killing again is the executed offender. No scientific evidence is available to prove that the death penalty lowers homicide rates. Since most murders are among friends and relatives, these “crimes of passion” are the least likely to be repeated of all offenses by the same people. 2. Protection: Capital punishment protects other prisoners and guards from killers sentenced to life in prison. If released these may kill again. Capital punishment protects the other citizens. Yet the available statistics do not support this argument. 3. Economics: It is cheaper to execute than to imprison. Again, statistics do not support this. 4. The Complexities and Inequalities of the Criminal Justice System: The system favors the rich over the poor. It is so often inefficient, inept, and sometimes wrong in its judgments. Some innocent people have been executed. The guilty are often set free over legal technicalities. 5. Punishment: This is the only argument that has any Scriptural support. Yet, are there more humane ways of punishment than execution? Many see that life in prison without possibility of parole is a greater punishment than death. A sense of justice requires that a murderer be punished, yet nonlethal punishment preserves the life-valuing role of the state. Is this more in line with a biblical sense of justice which also values life? To be effective, punishment should be certain, swift, and impartial. Yet with capital cases in many courts, this is rare.

In summary, the Bible prescribed capital punishment for certain cases in its society. It also set up love for human beings in being like Christ as the highest ethical norm. The modern student of Scripture must ask if cases in our society really find parallels in biblical society. Which methods of biblical interpretation allow us to determine where capital punishment should apply? How do biblical forms of capital punishment relate to modern society? Does Scripture absolutely require capital punishment? In what situation(s) does a government have the right and/or responsibility to carry out capital punishment? Are there scriptural answers to the arguments for and against capital punishment?

Guy Greenfield

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Capital Punishment'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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