Does the Bible support capital punishment?

Llet’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:

  • Genesis 9:5: to whom does this passage apply?
  • What makes murder such a serious offense?
  • Romans 13:3-4: what does this verse mean?
  • Capital punishment is a contrast to taking personal vengeance
  • Redistribution on behalf of the victim is the main reason for CP
  • Deterrence of future crimes to protect the public is another reason
  • The purpose of retribution assumes individual responsibility
  • Retribution is more acceptable if you believe in the concepts of good and evil
  • Retribution is less acceptable if you accept that “society is to blame”
  • Secular Europe and liberal US states do no have the death penalty
  • Conservative states that believe in good and evil and individual responsibility do have it
  • Moral relativists are unlikely to support the death penalty
  • Christians who oppose the death penalty say that it has a sinful motive (revenge)
  • Revelations 6:9 has Christian martyrs calling for God to punish their murderers
  • So this argues that the desire for justice is not motivated by sinful motives
  • Colossians 3:25 God provides justice for wrongs in this life
  • 1 Pet 2:23 The example of Jesus is to give up personal vengeance
  • Romans 12:17-21 Personal vengeance on people who wrong you is not acceptable

The second half of the lecture is Q&A, and the questions are good.

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.

So when you take a closer look at the issue, the Bible is very solid on being in favor of capital punishment for serious crimes. I think people who take the Bible seriously should take this view as well. If you go outside the Bible, well, then you might come up with a different view.

7 thoughts on “Does the Bible support capital punishment?”

  1. I was convinced Jesus was against the death penalty because he was to receive the death penalty on the cross for our sins. But now, after you post this evidence, I’m not so sure.

    It poses a new problem, as well. If our canon bibles of today have error on such a fundamentally important issue as this, how do we even know which verses to trust at all?

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    1. There are only 3 significant sections of the NT that are seriously questioned by scholars: the passage on the woman caught in adultery, the Johannine comma, and the long ending of Mark. The rest of the NT text is solid and the only questions are about minor word variants (of which most are easily resolved and none of which affect any major Christian doctrine).

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    2. If Jesus’s death on the cross for our sins were meant to abolish the death penalty, then God would not have mandated the death penalty in the OT, either. God would have just said to sacrifice an animal (figurative for Jesus), and let the murderer live. That is not what God commanded. Therefore, Jesus’s death on the cross for our sins does not abolish the death penalty any more than the animal sacrifices did.

      Also, it deserves note that the law of God required the death penalty. Hence, Jesus could not have spoken against the death penalty without sinning, by taking away from the law. Therefore, Jesus did not speak against the death penalty. In fact, I can think of at least a couple occasions where Jesus specifically endorsed the death penalty during his teachings (Mark 7:10; Luke 19:27).

      The whole idea that Jesus opposed the death penalty is basically premised on the idea that Jesus defied God. That is an incorrect premise.

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  2. @Drew: by no means am I saying Jesus defied God. But if he did support the death penalty (in the purest sense), that means he supported governments killing homosexuals, people who engaged in bestiality, and even those who who have worked on the Sabbath or those who have disobeyed their parents. Jesus said hatred is equivalent to murder and lust is equivalent to adultery. Did Jesus support the death penalty in these instances? I’m fairly certain everyone has broken at least one of the death-warranting commands in the OT, thus showing our great need for a savior.

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    1. He did not say that lust was equivalent to adultery. He said that if you lust, you are committing the crime in your heart, which is a sin. If lust were equivalent to adultery, then that would mean that as soon as you engage in inappropriate covetousness toward someone’s wife, you may as well commit physical adultery with her. That is not correct. Further, I just cited a verse for you in the last post where Jesus specifically said that people who curse their parents should be killed. The Bible does not advocate the death penalty for a mere act of disobedience. Disobedience warrants discipline. Finally, it is not true that everyone has broken at least one death-warranting commandment, although many have.

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