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#97 - What scriptural support is there for capital punishment?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version 184.108.40.206)
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
|1 - Life for life?||2 - Civil authorities' sword||3 - Other resources|
What scriptures support capital punishment? I remember a few years ago there was a lesson in the "Standard Lesson Commentary" that explained this. I no longer have that lesson.
BibleTexts.com Response #97, Part 1 - Life for life, eye for eye?
OLD TESTAMENT TEACHINGS
Arguably the first biblical teaching regarding capital punishment is Gen 9:5-6, in the context of the story of Noah. The ESV provides a somewhat literal, word-for-word translation of these verses, which in Hebrew is awkwardly constructed and is not explicit in its meaning:
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
The TEV's phrase-by-phrase translation of these verses attempts to clarify the meaning somewhat:
If anyone takes human life, he will be punished. I will punish with death any animal that takes a human life. Human beings were made like God, so whoever murders one of them will be killed by someone else.
Exodus 21:22-25, which is part of the Mosaic law, is frequently cited as the most explicit biblical justification for capital punishment. It states states:
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (NRSV)
Other infractions of Mosaic laws specifying capital punishment include the following:
Had King David submitted to the required punishments for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba (2Sa 11:2-5) and his orchestrated murder of Uriah (2Sa 11:14-17), David would have faced capital punishment.
NEW TESTAMENT TEACHINGS OF JESUS
In the Sermon on the Mount [SM], in Mat 5:38-42, Jesus answers Exo 21:22-25 as follows:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometre, carry it two kilometres. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. (TEV)
A few verses earlier, in Mat 5:21,22, referring to Exo 20:13, Lev 24:17, and Deu 17:8.9, Jesus had said that one would be brought to judgment not only for murder but even for being angry with others.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (NRSV)
W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann (The Anchor Bible: Matthew, Garden City, NY: 1971, page 61) write:
The word we have translated liable (Gr. enochos) can also mean "guilty," and is so used in xxvi 66 [Mat 26:66]. Cf. Rabbi Eliezer (end of first century A.D.): "He who hates his brother belongs to the shedders of blood."
Eduard Schweizer (The Good News According to Matthew, translated by David E. Green, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975, page 118) comments:
In the antitheses and other sayings of Jesus it is made clear that there is no longer a sharp line between willing and acting. Wishing to kill is as bad as killing; what is needed is a new heart, created by God (Jer. 31:33; cf. the discussion of Mark 3:1-6). James 1:20 may contain an echo of this saying: "Man's anger does not help to achieve God's righteous purpose" (cf. Matt. 5:20). The crucial point is that attention is no longer focused on us, and our striving to be beyond reproach, but on the other person, and how his living is whittled away by our conduct, even if only by an angry heart. This shift from personal righteousness to the protection of one's fellow men is characteristic of the antitheses...
"Judgment" refers to God's final judgment. The objection that its meaning [in verse 22] would then differ from its meaning in verse 21 is untenable, for carrying out a death sentence according to the Law of Moses is the same as executing God's final judgment. The Pentateuch does not think in terms of a judgment after death, and God's judgment can only be performed in this world.
In Hans Dieter Betz's very detailed and exhaustive commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (Hermeneia: Sermon on the Mount, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995, pages 219), he comments on Mat 5:21,22:
Does the SM [Sermon on the Mount] here seriously propose to regard anger toward the brother as a criminal offense? On the one hand, to do so would hardly make sense. Or is the emended law of vs 22a designed to ridicule the rejected law of vs 21 c? This possibility appears more likely because of the examples in vs 22c and d. Even if vs 22a is satirical, however, it cannot be the sole ethical demand the SM is concerned with here. Yet vs 22a introduces anger as the root cause of murder; its elimination will constitute the ethical demand.
The Gospel of John, John 1:17, sheds light on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount's teachings regarding being "liable to judgment" for murder or anger when it tells us:
God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (TEV)
Regarding the "eye for eye" issue in Mat 5:38,39, Betz (Ibid., pages 283-286) further comments:
Nonretaliation is not the only concern here; indeed, it is only a subsidiary concern. The overarching goal is the combating of evil..., that is, the establishment of justice. There can be no question that the evil must be defeated and eliminated if justice is to prevail. The evil committed cannot be eliminated by revenge against the evildoer, however; this evil can be eliminated only by its removal from the evildoer. One should therefore see nonretaliation as a weapon to combat evil and to help justice prevail.
Moreover, nonretaliation does not mean a passive acquiescence in the face of evil; rather it means an aggressive move to overcome evil...
The Golden Rule [Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31] requires that one take positive action to interrupt a vicious cycle of revenge. If the victim of an offense should retaliate, such an attack would only pave the way for recurring violence which, in turn, would lead to new retaliation, and so on ad infinitum. The Golden Rule, however, reverses the cycle: "Whatever you wish that people would do to you, so do to them." Consequently, abstention from retaliation removes the incentive for further violence. Furthermore, the Golden Rule builds on the very old and universally accepted rule of behavior named by the formula Do ut des ("I give so that you may give [in return]"). Thus nonretaliation is a positive gesture of generosity that carries with it the expectation that the adversary will respond in kind. The Golden Rule, then, teaches a preventive ethics that one should apply to a reading of SM/Matt 5:39a.
To conclude: The meaning of the controversial command... ("Do not retaliate") is not to recommend an attitude of resignation and defeatism concerning evil or a principled self-surrender to all kinds of villains. Rather, what is commanded is not nonviolence in general but desistance from retaliation in specific instances. The difference is that such desistance is in effect a positive method of fighting evil and helping justice prevail. This method corresponds to the "intent" of the ius talionis and is thus an adequate way to fulfill the Torah prescription.
Other New Testament texts confirm this interpretation. The Jesus of the passion narratives is shown as an example of desistance from retaliation. The episode of Jesus' arrest (Matt 26:47-56 par.) contrasts him as one who allows himself to be arrested without a fight to the disciple who draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest's slave. Jesus tells this disciple: "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26:52). Jesus does not ask God the Father to send the heavenly army of angels because to do so would be contrary to the fulfillment of the Scriptures and, presumably, the triumph of justice (vss 53-56). When Jesus is beaten (Matt 26:67-68; 27:30 par.), he does not hit back. In Matthew's theology in particular, hitting back would disqualify Jesus from being a righteous man. When, according to Acts 23:2-3, Paul is struck on the mouth by the servants of the high priest Ananias, he does not hit back but rather scolds Ananias for committing an illegal act.
Although such examples of nonretaliation abound in the New Testament, the closest parallels to the SM are found in Paul's discussion of agape and the love command in Rom 12:9-21 and 13:8-10. Rom 12:9-21 is a composition of maxims on agape. Among them we find (12:17): "Repay no evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all"; and vs 19: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God." Paul's own ideas certainly differ from those of the SM, but he approves of these maxims, which he probably received from tradition. He reserves revenge for God; the revenge of one person on another would thus usurp God's prerogative. In dealing with evildoers, the apostle is nearly always concerned with their possible repentance and eschatological future. The SM would certainly have endorsed Paul's final maxim. "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21).
While the passage SM/Matt 5:39-42 does not appear concerned with the positive effect of nonretaliation on the evildoer, the difference at this point between the SIM and Paul is hardly great. Both prescribe desistance from retaliation because it is the just action required by God, not because it is effective. Even if the evildoer continues to do evil, nonretaliation remains the just thing to practice. At the same time, however, the SM is equally as concerned as Paul about the impact of Christian conduct on outsiders. The images of the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world" (SM/Matt 5:13-16) describe vividly the expectations of the community of the Sermon on the Mount.
GB Caird (Saint Luke, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963, page 103-105) comments on the parallel text in Luke 6:27-38) as follows:
The Greek language has three words for love, which enable us to distinguish Christian love (agape) from passionate devotion (eros) and warm affection (philia). Jesus did not tell his disciples to fall in love with their enemies or to feel for them as they felt for their families and friends. Agape is a gracious, determined, and active interest in the true welfare of others, which is not deterred even by hatred, cursing, and abuse, not limited by calculation of deserts or results, based solely on the nature of God. Love does not retaliate (vv. 27-31), seeks no reward (vv. 32-36), is not censorious (vv. 37-38).
The men who were bidden to love their enemies were living in enemy-occupied territory, where resentment was natural and provocation frequent. They were not just to submit to aggression, but to rob it of its sting by voluntarily going beyond its demands. To those who believe in standing up for their individual or national rights this teaching has always seemed idealistic, if not actually immoral. But those who are concerned with the victory of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of Satan can see that it is the only realism. He who retaliates thinks that he is manfully resisting aggression; in fact, he is making an unconditional surrender to evil. Where before there was one under the control of evil, now there are two. Evil propagates by contagion. It can be contained and defeated only when hatred, insult, and injury are absorbed and neutralized by Love...
Most people - even sinners - have a rough-and-ready ethic based on common sense, enlightened self-interest, give-and-take; and they can claim to be as good as their neighbours. But the followers of Jesus must go further. The Christian ethic is Ethics Part II. Other systems distinguish what is right from what is wrong: Jesus distinguishes what is good from what is merely right, and urges his disciples not to be content with the lower standard. Duty is not enough. Duty obeys the rules, but love grasps opportunities. Duty acts under constraint, love is spontaneous and therefore gracious. Duty expects to be recompensed or at least recognized, love expects nothing in return. To love like that is to be sons of the Most High; for likeness is proof of parentage. 'Be merciful' might appear to be less exacting than Matthew's 'You, therefore, must be perfect' (Matt. 5:41). In the Old Testament, however, to be perfect means to be completely loyal and is a normal human virtue, but mercy is the very character of God. The son must inherit the attributes of his Father.
Generosity in giving must be matched by generosity of judgement. The rule of measure for measure does not mean that God deals with men on a basis of strict justice - the rest of the sermon belies that - but that intake is in proportion to output. He who gives and forgives sparingly receives sparingly. The gifts of God, including his mercy, come most freely to those who most freely pass them on to others.
BibleTexts.com Response #97, Part 2 - Civil authorities wear the sword as "God's servants to execute wrath"?
A New Testament passage sometimes cited as justification for capital punishment is in Paul's letter to the Romans, Rom 13:3,4. The entire Bible paragraph reads as follows:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. (NRSV)
The TEV translation of those verses is as follows:
1 Everyone must obey the state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God. 2 Whoever opposes the existing authority opposes what God has ordered; and anyone who does so will bring judgement on himself. 3 For rulers are not to be feared by those who do good, but by those who do evil. Would you like to be unafraid of those in authority? Then do what is good, and they will praise you, 4 because they are God’s servants working for your own good. But if you do evil, then be afraid of them, because their power to punish is real. They are God’s servants and carry out God’s punishment on those who do evil. 5 For this reason you must obey the authorities—not just because of God’s punishment, but also as a matter of conscience. (TEV)
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990, page 864) provides insightful commentary on Rom 13:1-5:
1.... Even Rome's imperial authority comes from God, though Rome may be reluctant to admit it. Indirectly, Paul acknowledges the Father as the source of all the welfare and peace brought by imperial Roman rule.
2. anyone who resists authority opposes what God has ordained: A general principle is deduced from the foregoing. Obedience to civil authorities is a form of obedience to God himself, for the relation of human being to God is not limited to the religious or cultic sphere. The supposition running through vv 1-7 is that the civil authorities are conducting themselves rightly and are seeking the interests of the community. The possibility is not envisaged either of a tyrannical government or of one failing to cope with a situation where the just rights of individiaul citizens or of a minority group are neglected or violated. Paul insists on merely one aspect of the question: the duty of subjects to legitimate authority. He does not discuss here the duty of civil authorities.
4. for they are God's agents working for (your) good: This is a reformulation of v. 1, stressing the delegated character of civil authority; it envisages only a civil government properly fulfillling its functions. The civil government properly fulfilling its functions. The phrase eis to agathon, "for the good," expresses the finis of civil activity. they do not carry the sword for nothing. The sword is introduced as a symbol of penal authority, of the power legitimately possessed by civil authorities, to coerce recalcitrant citizens in the effort to maintain order and strive for the common goal. God's agent to execute (his) wrath on wrongdoers. The context shows that the wrath is divine, as in 12:19; otherwise such authorities would not be God's agents.
5. for conscience' sake. Another motive for obedience is introduced. Paul realizes that fear of punishment will not always deter citizens from violating civil regulations His appeal to conscience suggest a moral obligation for obedience to civil laws, and not one that is simply legal or penal. It links human reaction to civil rulers with the divine origin of civil authority itself.
Early Christian history authority Martin Hengel (Victory over Violence: Jesus and the Revolutionists, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973, 49-50) wrote:
Jesus... did not take jealous zeal as his point of departure for radical interpretation of the law, but the law of love (Lev. 19:18), which he made universally applicable. For the Zealots, imitating the first "zealot" Phinehas (Numbers 25) as a model, the slaying of the godless enemy out of zeal for God's cause was a fundamental commandment, true to the rabbinic maxim: "Whoever spills the blood of one of the godless is like one who offers sacrifice." Jesus, on the contrary , appealing to the Father's love for all men and radicallly extending the Old Testament law of love, demanded love of enemies and renunciation of violence. He thus took a rigorous position against the popular morality of his age. In a sense, the law of love became to him the "law of life in the the kingdom." It corresponds to his requirement of unlimited readiness to forgive and renunciation of all expressions of hatred. Only the experience of God's love can transform the hard heart of man, call the individual out of his bondage, and make him capable of breaching petrified structures.
Mary Baker Eddy (Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1896, page 11) writes in her article "Love Your Enemies:"
Love is the fulfilling of the law: it is grace, mercy, and justice. I used to think it sufficiently just to abide by our State statutes; that if a man should aim a ball at my heart, and I by firing first could kill him and save my own life, that this was right.
Love metes not out human justice, but divine mercy. If one's life were attacked, and one could save it only in accordance with common law, by taking another's, would one sooner give up his own? We must love our enemies in all the manifestations wherein and whereby we love our friends; must even try... to do them good whenever opportunity occurs. To mete out human justice to those who persecute and despitefully use one, is not leaving all retribution to God and returning blessing for cursing. If special opportunity for doing good to one's enemies occur not, one can include them in his general effort to benefit the race.
The last word on this subject comes from Paul, whose words to the Romans (Rom 13:1-5) that were quoted above were immediately preceded by the following words (Rom 12:14-21):
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)
As Christians consider the issue of capital punishment, it would be good to ponder Jesus' and Paul's teachings, as cited above, especially when praying, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mat 6:12, NRSV), or as the TEV translates, "Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us." Mark recorded Jesus' teaching this way, "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mar 11:25, NRSV)
To see other discussions of the texts and genuine history regarding capital punishment at:
"Capital punishment" (response to Larry King Live discussion) at http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa142.htm.
"Capital punishment" (web article on what the earliest Christians did not do & discouraged) at http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/genuine-christianity.htm#capital-punishment.
To further explore the subject of Christian forgiveness in the context of the Lord's Prayer, browse http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/prayer.htm.
To see an examples of dealing with similar issues, you can also browse http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa095.htm and http://www.bibletexts.com/issues/response2attacks.htm.
To explore online articles on "Overcoming violence," browse http://www.bibletexts.com/topics/overcomingviolence.htm.
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer