The death penalty has been, and continues to be an ongoing, controversial debate in today’s society. In fact, capital punishment was extremely prevalent, especially during the time of Christ. In the Bible, mainly the Old Testament, capital punishment was ultimately the primary consequence to any crime that was committed. This may come as a surprise for some when in today’s world, God is commonly known to be all powerful and forgiving. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” (Matthew 6:14). Nevertheless, this was not always the case.
During the time of Christ, the people had a strict set of laws that were to be followed. If any of the laws were to be broken, or even if it was suspected that a law was broken, the person being accused was to pay a serious price. The most common forms of capital punishment in the Bible include burning at the stake, stoning, hanging, and crucifixion just to name a few. A few other punishments that were common but did not result in death include scourging, prison time, and in some cases, cutting off limbs.
Burning at the Stake:
Burning someone at the stake was one of the more common forms of capital punishment used in the Bible. This form was mainly used when someone was being accused of rape or adulterous sex, and sometimes suspected witchcraft. For example, if a man were to marry both a mother and her daughter, all three would be burned to death. “If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you,” (Leviticus 20:14).
Furthermore, if a female were to present herself in such a way that resemble the actions of a prostitute, or was promiscuous in any way, she was to be prosecuted by burning at the stake. “If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire,” (Leviticus 21:9). The culture at the time of Christ believed that women who displayed themselves in such a way, should be held accountable for such a horrendous punishment because “her behaviour resembles that of the sacred prostitutes of the pagan cults and because she profanes her father’s holiness,” (Bar 29). In most cases of illicit sex in the Bible, burning at the stake was the more probable form of capital punishment. Also, most of these cases generally involved a women being put to death. Another reason one may be burned at the stake was for suspected witchcraft. However, the more popular form of capital punishment for such a crime was stoning.
Stoning someone to death was a method in which a group of the town’s people would throw stones at whomever was being indicted of a crime until that person was dead. In many cases, stoning was used when someone was suspected or accused of being a witch, and/or practicing witchcraft. Witchcraft included forms of sorcery and fortune-telling. Witchcraft was commonly seen as Satan-like, and associated with the devil. “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or consults the dead,” (Deuteronomy 18:9-12).
Nonetheless, the methods the people used to prove if someone was a witch or not were not reliable. Thus, it is likely many of the subjects that were accused of witchcraft were indeed innocent, and were stoned to death because of false accusations. However, people were not the only ones that would suffer the torture of being stoned to death. “If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death,” (Exodus 21:28).
One of the more well known capital punishments during the time of Christ was crucifixion. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, during the time of 519 BCE, around 3,000 people were crucified just for political reasons. We hear about crucifixion even in modern day for that is how Jesus was killed. “Crucifixion was most frequently used to punish political or religious agitators, pirates, slaves, or those who had no civil rights,” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Crucifixion is said to be a slow, painful death, and it is meant to torture the subject. Crucifixion generally started with the subject being stripped of their clothes, and then whipped in front of the town’s people (Encyclopedia Britannica). The convict was then forced to carry their own cross to the destination of where they were to be crucified. Crucifixion is the process of nailing someone to a wooden cross. Nails would be hammered into the wrists and feet of the criminal. In most cases, the subject’s name and what they were charged for was noted above their head to inform others the reasoning for their crucifixion.
Once the subject was crucified, the cross would be positioned upright, allowing the whole town to see the subject suffer. However, crucifixion did not immediately result in death. There were many factors that played a role in the criminal’s death. For instance, because there was not enough support for the body’s weight, other than the nails, it made breathing difficult for the subject. “Death ultimately occurred through a combination of constrained blood circulation, organ failure, and asphyxiation as the body strained under its own weight,” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The subject would then go into shock and become dehydrated, dying a very slow, agonizing death.
Punishment Without Death:
A few minor punishments used in the Bible that did not result in death include scourging, prison time, and cutting off the subject’s body parts. Whipping someone was not only typical before someone was crucified, but it was also used as a punishment alone. For example, if there were two individuals who were accusing one another of the same crime, who ever was found guilty dealt with the consequences of being lashed. ” If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves,” (Deuteronomy 25:2).
Whipping someone was a method used to inflict pain on the subject. According to Bible History Online, the whip that was generally used to scourge someone was known as the “flagrum” or “flagellum”. The flagrum was a whip that had three leather ropes attached to the handle. Each rope had collection of small metal shavings, chucks of bones, and/or a substantial amount of bronze within each one. This would cause instant pain and wounds when lashed.
Once someone was found guilty of a crime, that did not initially result in capital punishment, they would have been sent to prison. Depending on the crime, the convict may have faced the price of capital punishment after serving time in prison. Surprisingly, many of the well-known leaders in the Bible were sent to prison. This would include “Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Micaiah, Zedekiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Silas, Paul, Epaphras, Aristarchus, Junia, and even Jesus himself,” (Marshall 5).
The prisons during the time of Christ were usually under grown, and very dungeon like. They were known to be very distressing, and full of diseases. According to author Dr. Christopher Marshall, when Jeremiah was released for interrogation, he begged the judge not to be sent back to his cell for he feared he would die in there. The criminals who were sent to serve prison time usually did not live much longer once they were put into their cell. Because the prisons were contaminated, the subject typically died from diseases soon after, or starvation from the lack of food and water that was given to them.