John 8:3–11 (cf. Rom. 13:4)—Did Jesus repudiate capital punishment in this text?
Problem: Passages like Romans 13:4 present a good case for capital punishment, for the passage says, “for it [the government] does not bear a sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (nasb). In John 8 a woman is caught in an adulterous situation, which was cause for stoning according to the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus did not seek her death, but rather forgave her sin. Did Jesus thereby reject capital punishment?
Solution: First, the authority in Romans 13 is the Roman government and the authorities in John 8 are Jewish ones. The point is that the Jews had to act under Roman law. For instance, if they were really going to stone a woman, why did they seek the help of Pilate in the crucifixion of Jesus? For in John 18:31 the Jews respond to Pilate saying, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” But in the case of the adulterous woman, they were ready to stone her.
Second, they did not act in accordance with the Law itself. The Law stated that both the parties, male and female, had to be brought before the people (Deut. 22:22–24). Since this woman was caught in the very act (v.4), why wasn’t the man brought out with the woman to be stoned? The scribes and Pharisees who were supposed to be law abiding citizens failed in a key aspect of their own law.
Third, the motives of these scribes and Pharisees were wrong. They used this opportunity to try to trap Jesus so that they might have a reason for accusing Him (v.6). The crime of adultery did not seem important to them. Rather, it seemed more important to find cause for accusation against Jesus.
This passage, then, is not a good text for anyone who wants to propose that Jesus opposed capital punishment. In fact, other places of Scripture seem to support the very idea (see Gen. 9:6 and Matt. 26:52).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.