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Why did the Jews stone Stephen but not Jesus?

The Stoning of St. Stephen. Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Question: We were told that the Jews asked Pontius Pilate (the Romans) to crucify Jesus because they were not allowed to administer capital punishment. Yet, the Jews seemed to have the authority to do so with St. Stephen and the woman caught in adultery. Please clarify.

Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado

Answer: It is true that when Pilate told the Jews to try Jesus according to Jewish law, they responded, “We do not have the right to execute anyone” (Jn 18:31). However, those same leaders stoned Stephen to death in Jerusalem without Roman permission (cf. Acts 7:58). The capacity of the Jewish people to maneuver in the complex realities of the time varied, based on the organization and determination of the Roman presence from year to year. In Rome, Caesars would come and go, and with these changes at the top, other changes would ripple through the lower ranks and provinces of the Empire. During an interregnum, the Jewish authorities might get away with various civil actions, including the death penalty. Locally, as well, a Roman leader might be in a strong or weak position based on the shifting of local politics.

So, one explanation for the absence of concern for Roman approval is that Stephen died in about A.D. 35. And, while Pontius Pilate was still the governor of Judea, he was in political trouble because of his slaughter of numerous Samaritans at Mount Gerizim. There were widespread demands for his recall, backed even by Syria’s governor. In such a political climate, the Jews would not fear repercussions for killing Stephen since Pilate had lost influence and authority in Judea.

Another explanation is that Jesus was a widely known and yet controversial figure, whereas Stephen was lesser known, and the violence that led to his death was very local. Consider that, at Jesus’ death, it was Passover, and a huge multitude were in Jerusalem for the feast. Roman authorities were vigilant at such times for any uprising or unrest, which the death of Jesus would surely cause. Jewish leaders had to calculate where they stood in each circumstance and decide to risk civil actions and punishments or not. In the case of Jesus, they calculated that if they acted on their own, a riot might ensue, and the Romans would ruthlessly reply causing great loss of life and damage in Jerusalem. But since Stephen was relatively unknown to the Jewish or Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders figured they could fly under the radar of Roman scrutiny.

In the end, Jewish religious leaders did not have the legal right to exact the death penalty. However, Rome’s interest in enforcing that rule was subject to many factors, not the least of which was whether or not the incident was — in Rome’s view — worth pursuing.

Who gave the Law?

Question: Was the Mosaic Law from God or from Moses? With the stoning of the woman caught in adultery (cf. Jn 8) to an “eye for an eye” (Mt 5:38) to divorce and remarry (Mt 19:7), it seems that these laws were created by man and were not from God. Jesus had to correct them in the New Testament, as well.

Name, location withheld

Answer: We should distinguish between different kinds of law in the Scriptures: the moral law, civil law and the law of custom. The moral law cannot be reversed or changed; it is immutable because it comes from natural law and from the command of God. Civil laws can and do change as do customary laws and, even if mentioned in the Law of Moses, may lose force due to changing circumstances. Hence the requirement to have rails on your roof to prevent falls (cf. Deut 22:8) is no longer pertinent in most settings since the roof is not frequented. Other customary laws such as kosher diets also fell away in the Christian era by the authority of Christ (cf. Mk 7:19).

Punishments due to infractions of the Law can also be distinguished from the Law itself. Many violations of the Law in Old Testament times could bring death by stoning. This does not mean this penalty was always enforced even then. And over the centuries, such severe penalties fell away as the people became more settled in the Promised Land and could adjudicate such matters with less severity. By the time of Jesus, he had good basis to insist on mercy wherever possible without compromising the unchangeable moral law of God.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.

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