Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The adulterous woman and capital punishment

Blair asks how Jesus' acquittal of the adulterous woman affects the Christian view on capital punishment.
In John 8:3,5 the leaders of the Jewish people (the experts in law and religious authorities) challenge Jesus as to what to do with a woman caught in adultery. They directly refer, Jesus, to the law of Moses which states such a person should receive the death penalty. While she has not committed murder she, according to Mosaic law is deserving none the less of the death penalty.

It is clear from the passage that they are not motivated by any sense of the holiness of God, obedience to the law or justice. Rather, their desire is to trap Jesus over a legal question to discredit him (verse 6).

In response, he does not contradict them on their point of law. Instead he issues a challenge to their understanding and application of the law. A challenge that is intended to expose their hearts: before Christ the only one who can administer the punishment they have called for is one who is without sin. Jesus isn't making this point to a group of individuals who are self appointed but to the Jewish leaders (verse 3): those in authority who could 'legally' stone her. It appears to me that in Christ's mind only those who were without sin could administer such a penalty (verse 7).

If the only ones who could administer such a penalty were those without sin - where then does this leave us if, as Christians, we advocate for the death penalty? Surely in the same position as those that Jesus spoke to in (verse 7).

In my mind it is clear from the passage, that as one who never sinned, Jesus considered himself the only one justifiably (from a legal, moral, ethical & spiritual sense) able to administer the death penalty, but in this situation he chose not to. Instead he asked her where her accusers were (after his challenge to her accusers), forgave her and in doing so 'raised' her from the dead (for without his intervention she was as good as dead) while commanding her to go and sin no more. (He met her as her redeemer for her sin, saving her from the death penalty. In choosing to exercise grace and mercy and not judgment or condemnation (verses 10–11) he set her free and restored her to be able to fully partake in society again as one forgiven and restored). This is evident from his question with regards to her accusers and in his command to go and sin no more.
Understanding Jesus' approach to the Mosaic Law is important as it gives us greater understanding in the ways of God. Jesus frequently exposed the inadequate views of Jews of his day. He gave deeper perspectives on what the Law meant and he corrected inappropriate weighting of the Law, that is he showed them what was most important. As an example of the former Jesus taught that hating people in one's heart contravenes the command not to murder (Matthew 5:21); as an example of the latter Jesus taught that tithing while proper (for the Jews) was less important than justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Therefore I am interested in Christian apologetics against the death penalty. I must say however that I have not read any that I find convincing.

There are several reasons why I don't think this passage contradicts my perspective on capital punishment.
  1. Is this passage really part of John's gospel?
  2. I am defending capital punishment for murder
  3. Mercy does not negate the permissibility of the death penalty, or even the necessity of it
  4. The Jews were not able to administer capital punishment in this situation
  5. The question was to give the scribes and Pharisees a charge against Jesus
  6. Jesus was a servant during the first advent
  7. Jesus did not address the question of capital punishment
I will address each of these in turn and then what I think Jesus words to the accusers and the accused imply.

Is this passage really part of John's gospel?
There is considerable debate over the legitimacy of this passage. It is not found in the oldest manuscripts, it is found in Luke in some manuscripts. The ESV Study Bible states
There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John's original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus' ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.
I do not intend to address this debate here. I am prepared to interact with this passage and I am happy that this event is possibly true—it has similarities to the question about paying taxes to Caesar—but I do think the caveat is worth keeping in the back of one's mind.

I am defending capital punishment for murder
In my post I specify that my defence is restricted to murder. I am prepared to extend this to related crimes such as treason and espionage.

I made this restriction as the reason for execution of murderers is not the same as the reason for other crimes. The Israelites were to execute men who drew their neighbours away to worship foreign gods (Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20). While this is appropriate for the ancient Israelites because of God's redemptive plan, I don't think God intends for Christians to kill every infidel in the current age.

Thus even if Jesus does qualify the punishment for adultery within the Mosaic Law (I am not certain he does), this may not affect the appropriate punishment for murder in Gentile nations.

Mercy does not negate the permissibility of the death penalty, or even the necessity of it
There are 2 related questions concerning this (or any) punishment.
  1. Is this punishment acceptable?
  2. Is this punishment required?
If a punishment is: acceptable but not required, then not having such a punishment within the justice system is a possible scenario. In the case of theft, one country may prescribe a fine, another a jail term.

But even if a punishment is required, there are times when we may not give a full punishment. Offering mercy is allowed within a legal framework. One should not show favouritism. Note that when a man knows he deserves a punishment he is more receptive to mercy.

The Jews were not able to administer capital punishment in this situation
The Jew's were not legally allowed to execute criminals under Roman occupation. When the Sanhedrin brought Jesus before Pilate he said
"What accusation do you bring against this man?" They answered him, "If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you." Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." The Jews said to him, "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death."
This means that no Jews were permitted to carry out the death sentence under Roman occupation (at least without their permission).

The question was to give the scribes and Pharisees a charge against Jesus
Because the Jews were unable to execute people under Roman law the question was to try and catch Jesus. It is similar to the situation when they asked him if it was lawful to pay taxes or not. The Jews were not interested in understanding Jesus' interpretation of the Law, they were trying to place him in a catch-22 position.

Jesus was a servant during the first advent
Jesus is God. He is the judge of the world. And we are fully at his mercy. John the Baptist recognised he greatness as did many others.

Jesus was sent on a mission to earth 2000 years ago. That mission was as a servant to men. That is partially why many did not recognise him as a Messiah as they were looking for a king. Now Jesus is in and of himself a king. He set up a kingdom. And he will return as king and judge. But this was not his role during the first advent. So while he is judge by right, Jesus the man denied his role as (an earthly) judge at that time. He submitted himself to the authority structures when appropriate during his earthly sojourn. Where Jesus did act in "judgment" over situations, it was as an eternal judge, not temporal; e.g. "Your sins are forgiven you."

Jesus did not address the question of capital punishment
Jesus' words in this situation do not specifically say whether or not capital punishment is appropriate for this or any crime. And I am uncertain if he did elsewhere. However he noted that all men must face judgment and we need to be ready when we die, whether justly or unjustly.

So what of Jesus' response to the accusers and the woman?
Jesus response to the accusers did not exactly deal with the issue of the appropriate punishment for adulterers. It dealt with the hearts of the accusers. And this is frequently Jesus' modus operandi. People come to Jesus with a question about justice, or requesting a judgment and Jesus speaks to that person's heart. When the man asked Jesus to intervene so an inheritance was divided fairly Jesus spoke to the man's covetness (Luke 12:13). Jesus was not necessarily saying the other brother had done the right thing, Jesus was using the man's plea to focus him on things eternal. Note also in this example that Jesus refuted that he was an appropriate judge in the specific scenario.

Therefore I am not certain that the statement
Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.
says anything about the appropriate punishment for adultery. Jesus is speaking to the hearts of the men bringing the accusation.

Jesus response to the woman was clearly redemptive.
Jesus stood up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." (John 8)
God does not want people to be condemned, Jesus came to redeem them. John 3 says
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
So Jesus does not condemn this woman yet still exhorts her to leave her life of sin.

Still, the focus on redemption leading to life could hint at the possibility that allows an alternative to the death penalty, compare Ezekiel 18, and note also item 6 above.

The several reasons above show why I think this particular passage does not obliterate capital punishment for murder; and I am not even certain the Jesus is suggesting that capital punishment is inappropriate for adultery (in a Jewish context).

I will add that Paul thought that death remained an appropriate punishment from the state in certain situations. Paul said,
If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. (Acts 25)

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