What does the Bible say about the death penalty?

Note: This post has a twin post which talks about the evidence against capital punishment from science.

First, let’s take a look at what the Bible says in general about capital punishment, using this lecture featuring eminent theologian Wayne Grudem.

About Wayne Grudem:

Grudem holds a BA from Harvard University, a Master of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. In 2001, Grudem became Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary. Prior to that, he had taught for 20 years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he was chairman of the department of Biblical and Systematic Theology.

Grudem served on the committee overseeing the English Standard Version translation of the Bible, and in 1999 he was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is a co-founder and past president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the author of, among other books, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, which advocates a Calvinistic soteriology, the verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the body-soul dichotomy in the nature of man, and the complementarian (rather than egalitarian) view of gender equality.

The MP3 file is here.

A PDF sermon outline is here.

Topics:

  • what kinds of crimes might require CP?
  • what did God say to Noah about CP?
  • what does it mean that man is made in the image of God?
  • is CP just about taking revenge?
  • what does CP say about the value of human life?
  • does CP apply to animals, too?
  • could the statements supporting CP be understood as symbolic?
  • one purpose of CP is to protecting the public
  • another purpose of CP is to deter further wrongdoing
  • but the Biblical purpose of CP is to achieve justice by retribution
  • does the Pope make a good argument against CP?
  • what is the role of civil government in achieving retribution?
  • do people in Heaven who are sinless desire God to judge sinners?
  • should crimes involving property alone be subject to CP?
  • is the Mosaic law relevant for deciding which crimes are capital today?
  • should violent crimes where no one dies be subject to CP?
  • is CP widespread in the world? why or why not?
  • what are some objections to CP from the Bible?
  • how do you respond to those objections to CP?
  • should civil government also turn the other cheek for all crimes?
  • what is the “whole life ethic” and is it Biblical?
  • what do academic studies show about the deterrence effect of CP?
  • how often have innocent people been executed in the USA?
  • should there be a higher burden of proof for CP convictions?

You can find more talks by Wayne Grudem here.

What about the woman caught in adultery?

Some people like to bring up the woman caught in adultery as proof that Jesus opposed capital punishment. But that passage of the Bible was added much later after the canon was decided.

Daniel B. Wallace is an eminent New Testament scholar who also teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, an extremely conservative seminary.

About Dr. Wallace:

Dr. Daniel B. Wallace

  • Professor of New Testament Studies
  • B.A., Biola University, 1975; Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979; Ph.D., 1995.

Dr. Wallace influences students across the country through his textbook on intermediate Greek grammar. It is used in more than two-thirds of the nation’s schools that teach that subject. He is the senior New Testament editor of the NET Bible and coeditor of the NET-Nestle Greek-English diglot. Recently his scholarship has shifted from syntactical and text-critical issues to more specific work in John, Mark, and nascent Christology. However he still works extensively in textual criticism, and has founded The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, an institute with an initial purpose to preserve Scripture by taking digital photographs of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts. His postdoctoral work includes work on Greek grammar at Tyndale House in Cambridge and textual criticism studies at the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster.

And Dr. Wallace writes about the passage in John on Bible.org.

Excerpt:

One hundred and forty years ago, conservative biblical scholar and Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, advocated a new translation to replace the King James Bible. One of his reasons was the inferior textual basis of the KJV. Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be…ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” He was speaking about the Trinitarian formula found in the KJV rendering of 1 John 5:7–8. Twenty years later, two Cambridge scholars came to the firm conclusion that John 7:53–8:11 also was not part of the original text of scripture. But Westcott and Hort’s view has not had nearly the impact that Alford’s did.

For a long time, biblical scholars have recognized the poor textual credentials of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). The evidence against its authenticity is overwhelming: The earliest manuscripts with substantial portions of John’s Gospel (P66 and P75) lack these verses. They skip from John 7:52 to 8:12. The oldest large codices of the Bible also lack these verses: codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, are normally considered to be the most important biblical manuscripts of the NT extant today. Neither of them has these verses. Codex Alexandrinus, from the fifth century, lacks several leaves in the middle of John. But because of the consistency of the letter size, width of lines, and lines per page, the evidence is conclusive that this manuscript also lacked the pericope adulterae. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, also from the fifth century, apparently lacked these verses as well (it is similar to Alexandrinus in that some leaves are missing).The earliest extant manuscript to have these verses is codex Bezae, an eccentric text once in the possession of Theodore Beza. He gave this manuscript to the University of Cambridge in 1581 as a gift, telling the school that he was confident that the scholars there would be able to figure out its significance. He washed his hands of the document. Bezae is indeed the most eccentric NT manuscript extant today, yet it is the chief representative of the Western text-type (the text-form that became dominant in Rome and the Latin West).

When P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus agree, their combined testimony is overwhelmingly strong that a particular reading is not authentic. But it is not only the early Greek manuscripts that lack this text. The great majority of Greek manuscripts through the first eight centuries lack this pericope. And except for Bezae (or codex D), virtually all of the most important Greek witnesses through the first eight centuries do not have the verses. Of the three most important early versions of the New Testament (Coptic, Latin, Syriac), two of them lack the story in their earliest and best witnesses. The Latin alone has the story in its best early witnesses.

[…]It is an important point to note that although the story of the woman caught in adultery is found in most of our printed Bibles today, the evidence suggests that the majority of Bibles during the first eight centuries of the Christian faith did not contain the story. Externally, most scholars would say that the evidence for it not being an authentic part of John’s Gospel is rock solid.But textual criticism is not based on external evidence alone; there is also the internal evidence to consider. This is comprised of two parts: intrinsic evidence has to do with what an author is likely to have written; transcriptional evidence has to do with how and why a scribe would have changed the text.

Intrinsically, the vocabulary, syntax, and style look far more like Luke than they do John. There is almost nothing in these twelve verses that has a Johannine flavor. And transcriptionally, scribes were almost always prone to add material rather than omit it—especially a big block of text such as this, rich in its description of Jesus’ mercy. One of the remarkable things about this passage, in fact, is that it is found in multiple locations. Most manuscripts that have it place it in its now traditional location: between John 7:52 and 8:12. But an entire family of manuscripts has the passage at the end of Luke 21, while another family places it at the end of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place it at the end of Luke or in various places in John 7.

The pericope adulterae has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home. It took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel.

As this debate between Peter Williams and Bart Ehrman shows, there are only TWO disputed passages in the entire NT that are theologically significant. The long ending of Mark and this adultery passage. A good case can be made for the long ending of Mark, but it’s best not to assume it in a debate. The adultery passage is practically impossible to defend as authentic. Dr. Wallace talks about both passages in this Parchment & Pen article. Wallace has also debated Bart Ehrman in the Greer-Heard Forum. What that debate showed is that the New Testament text is actually quite reliable except for those two passages, but it’s important to be honest about the two places that are not well supported.

12 thoughts on “What does the Bible say about the death penalty?”

  1. I’ve heard these arguments before, about that passage.

    Does that mean that passage isn’t the Word of God?

    That we can go ahead and self-righteously stone ‘sinners’ of certain kinds to death (for non-murder crimes) even while ignoring our own sin? Alright! :)

    The fact is, there are other passages about the death penalty, and many are in relation to it as punishment for murder, which is certainly permitted. As for capital punishment for non-murder crimes, there are several instances of that, too, but law generally hasn’t followed suit, in the West…

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      1. Tsk, tsk, tsk, Mr. Knight. I thought we were through this already. ;-) We had a brief email exchange after the posting on the PA back in January, as I recall. If you search your email history you may find it. There I pointed out — and I am no expert on NT textual criticism by any means — that you were confusing the dating of scholar/theologian Theodore Beza’s life and work with the date of the NT MS Codex Bezae (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Bezae) which is in the FIFTH CENTURY (decidedly not 900 years after the NT was written.

        See also the section “textual history” in the wikipedia article on the pericope here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery#Textual_history). Note this sentence: “…it is now considered established that this passage was present in its usual place in some Greek manuscripts known in Alexandria and elsewhere from the 4th Century onwards. In support of this it is noted that the 4th century Codex Vaticanus, which was written in Egypt, marks the end of John chapter 7 with an “umlaut”, indicating that an alternative reading was known at this point.” One can also scroll down in that article to the “manuscript evidence” section. I’m not saying this to argue for authenticity, but merely to correct false notions of its date.

        In addition, you (and any interested readers) might want to read through Maurice Robinson’s “The Case for Byzantine Priority.” (http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/v06/Robinson2001.html). In general, it’s the best overview of the position from a bona fide NT scholar. Specifically, note (under “Principles of External Evidence”) what he has to say about age of MSS versus age of the text found in those MSS (paragraphs 57-64). In point of fact, he argues, there were several “copying revolutions” (paragraphs 60 and 61) in the textual history of the NT MSS that make a casual rejection of later manuscripts (9thC and later) unwise if one is searching for the best text of the NT.

        In any case, it’s somewhat problematic to make a theological point stand or fall on one textually controversial verse/passage of Scripture. The case for Capital Punishment shouldn’t depend solely on the PA’s lack of authenticity, nor should the case against it depend on the PA’s genuineness.

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        1. The 5th century is still 400 years too late, even if we accept your date, though. I think it makes the case better, but I’m not accepting anything that isn’t in the earliest manuscripts.

          Also, in my post, you’ll note that the evangelical New Testament manuscript expert I cited has doubts about the Bezae manuscript. Other than that one manuscript, there is nothing for the eight centuries.

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  2. Wintery if the adultery passage is not athentic then doesn’t Christianity’s claim that the old law or mosaic law doesn’t apply anymore just fall apart ? People point to Jesus forgiving her as proof of abrogation of the old law.

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    1. There are many other passages and examples (sermon on the mount comes to mind) of Jesus fulfilling the law/living for our righteousness. Paul’s gospel message in all of his letters is that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law thus giving us our freedom and being our righteousness before God (those who trust in Christ for salvation that is). Christianity stands strong without the adultery passage.

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  3. Wintery,

    I admit I haven’t listened to the Grudem talk yet (putting it on my iPod now), but one thing I’ve wondered is how one argues for a universal need for capital punishment from a Christian perspective. I wrote a post with capital punishment as one topic not too long ago and had some great comments and challenges. I’d be interested in your thoughts on why capital punishment should be the Christian’s position.

    I tend to favor it, but I am becoming more receptive to the case against it.

    Regarding the Jesus/adultress passage: I agree with the manuscript problems, but personally believe (faith through trust) that it was a story about Jesus. I would be hesitant to make any binding doctrinal statements from it, though.

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