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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Stoning

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The three Greek verbs in the NT translation ‘to stone’ are λιθοβολέω, λιθάζω, and καταλιθάζω. The Septuagint almost invariably employs the first of these as the equivalent of the Heb. synonyms סָקַל and רָנַם, which mean (1) the pelting of stones by a mob at a person who has merited their ill-will (Exodus 8:26; Exodus 17:4, 2 Chronicles 24:20 ff.; cf. Hebrews 11:37, Acts 5:26); (2) the infliction, of the death-penalty by stoning (Leviticus 20:2, Deuteronomy 13:10).

The method which an enraged crowd took of executing vengeance with the weapons lying readiest to their hand came to be employed afterwards as a regular and legal method of inflicting the death-sentence on a criminal. Stoning is the only form of capital punishment recognized in the Mosaic Law. To stone an offender with stones means the same thing as to put him to death, the two expressions being sometimes used together as synonymous (Leviticus 20:2). Wherever stoning is not explicitly stated to be the mode of execution, it is implied. The Pentateuch gives no details as to the manner in which the punishment was to be carried out. Certain restrictions, however, were specified, as that (1) the stoning should take place outside the city (Leviticus 24:14, Deuteronomy 17:5; (cf. Acts 7:58), and that (2) the witnesses, of whom two or more were necessary to secure conviction, were to cast the first stone, and then all the people (Deuteronomy 13:9; Deuteronomy 17:5 ff.; cf. Acts 7:58). Death by stoning is the penalty prescribed in the Pentateuch for various offences against religion and morality. Blasphemy occupied a prominent place among the former (Leviticus 24:16; cf. 1 Kings 21:13, Acts 6:13).

For information as to the process of stoning in NT times, reference is necessary to the Rabbinic law, which lays down the rules and precautions to be observed in carrying it out (Mishna, Sanh. vi.). These were intended to secure (1) that the condemned person should have every opportunity of obtaining a reversal of his sentence on the way to execution, by the production by himself or others of fresh evidence in his favour; (2) that his sufferings should be shortened as much as was possible in the circumstances. After sentence was pronounced, the criminal, in the absence of further evidence sufficient to establish his innocence, was preceded by a herald or crier, whose function it was to announce, in terms of a prescribed formula, the name and parentage of the offender, and the nature of his offence, together with the names of the witnesses. The place of execution was outside the town. On his arrival there, he was divested of his clothing, apparently by the witnesses, a loincloth alone being left him. Failing a natural eminence somewhere in the vicinity, he was placed on a platform twice the height of a man. It was then the duty of one of the witnesses to precipitate him violently to the ground, in the hope that the force of the concussion would produce a fatal effect. In the event of this effect not being attained, the second witness was to cast a heavy stone on his chest. If he survived this treatment, the bystanders completed the dispatch of the unhappy victim by stoning him.

Two instances of stoning call for special consideration-that of the proto-martyr Stephen (Acts 7:58-60), and that of St. Paul at Lystra (Acts 14:19 f.).

1. The stoning of Stephen.-In connexion with the stoning of the first Christian martyr, a much-debated question is whether it was (a) tumultuary, (b) legal, or (c) a blending of both.

(a) Baur maintains that the whole proceedings from first to last were tumultuary. Stephen was simply done to death by a fanatical mob without even the pretence of a hearing, and the idea of a trial before the Sanhedrin, followed by a regular Jewish stoning, must be summarily dismissed (Paul: his Life and Works, Eng. translation , 2 vols., London, 1873-75, i. 56). Modern criticism, following suit, rules out the references to the Sanhedrin in Acts 6:12; Acts 6:15, on the ground that they are editorial additions, or belong to an inferior source, and were introduced for the purpose of making out that a trial took place before that body. ‘Stephen’s arrest,’ says Moffatt, ‘was the result of a popular émeute, which restrained itself just long enough to allow him to defend himself before a suspicious and exasperated audience, which numbered-perhaps unofficially-several members of the Sanhedrin’ (article ‘Stephen’ in Encyclopaedia Biblica iv. 4789). ‘It is plain,’ he adds, ‘that Stephen died, not on the testimony of witnesses (Acts 6:13, Acts 7:58 b), but on account of his own recent word and confession’ (ib. 4794). But, if the occasion which led to Stephen’s being put on his defence was the accusation of blasphemy brought against him by the witnesses (and the statement of Acts 6:13 can hardly be challenged), it is difficult to conceive of a self-constituted tribunal attempting to adjudicate upon a grave charge of the sort, involving the penalty of death, with which the supreme court of justice alone among the Jews had authority to deal. The presence of the witnesses from first to last (Acts 6:13, Acts 7:58; (cf. Acts 22:20) affords a strong presumption that the case was tried before the Sanhedrin, and that the martyrdom was not the result simply of foul play on the part of an excited mob who had lost all control of themselves.

(b) The view that the proceedings were quite regular and orderly throughout has also been advocated. ‘Stephen was formally accused and brought to trial before the Sanhedrim; it is probable that he was formally condemned by that body, and that his death was not the result of a mere tumult, as the account of Luke might seem to imply. This probability is strengthened by the fact that his death was by the legal mode prescribed for the crime of blasphemy, and that the stoning was done not by the crowd in general, but by Stephen’s accusers in the orderly Jewish way’ (A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, p. 90). There is no reason to suppose, however, that the historian of the Acts sought to aggravate the crime of Stephen’s death by leaving the impression that it was the result of a popular tumult rather than of a fair trial conducted to an orderly conclusion. Some of the formalities, moreover, in connexion with legal stoning, were necessarily dispensed with. If the accused was condemned on his own confession, further evidence to attest his innocence would not be admissible.

(c) There is no reason to question the reality of the scene depicted in the narrative, in which, after the utterance that excited the fury of the hearers (‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God’), the court was at once transformed into an infuriated mob, and hurried the alleged blasphemer, now judged out of his own mouth, without further ceremony to the place of execution (Acts 7:57 f.). As regards the subsequent stoning, the narrative places it beyond doubt that the witnesses were present (Acts 7:58; cf. Acts 22:20), and discharged the functions customary on such an occasion. F. C. Conybeare suggests (Expositor , 8th ser., vi. [1913] 466) that ‘it was Stephen’s garments which were ceremonially laid at the feet of Paul’ (by the witnesses [p. 469]), ‘and that the true reading in ver. 58 is αὐτοῦ, and not αὐτῶν.’ But the feelings of horror with which St. Paul recalled the scene in later years were due to the fact that he kept, not the raiment of Stephen (although his may also have been there), but ‘the raiment of them that slew him’ (Acts 22:20). It is probable that the Apostle was present, not as a mere inactive spectator, but in an official capacity, perhaps that of herald, as Conybeare suggests (op. cit., p. 468). If not the prime mover in bringing about the martyrdom, he was undoubtedly one of the active spirits participating in it, and it was not at haphazard that the witnesses laid down their clothes at his feet. Some special significance attaches to the circumstance, although it hardly justifies the assumption that he was a member of the Sanhedrin at the time.

2. The stoning of St. Paul at Lystra.-In the catalogue of hardships and sufferings endured by the Apostle in the course of his missionary labours and journeys, he mentions the fact that in one instance he was stoned (2 Corinthians 11:25). This is probably identical with the stoning to which he was subjected at Lystra during his first visit to Galatia (Acts 14:19 f.). He had left Iconium not long before to avoid similar treatment, which some of the inhabitants of that city, both Jewish and Gentile, were planning to mete out to him and Barnabas (Acts 14:5). The same good fortune did not attend him at Lystra. His Jewish opponents in Antioch and Iconium appeared upon the scene, and so wrought upon the passions of the superstitious townspeople that a riot was created, in which the Apostle was stoned. Although Jews were a party to the outbreak of violence, the stoning was simply the method by which the fanatical mob of a heathen city vented their rage upon an advocate of the Christian faith. The attempt on the Apostle’s life proved unsuccessful. Stunned for a time by the blows of the missiles, he was dragged by his assailants outside the city, and left there for dead. But, as the disciples stood around his prostrate body, he recovered consciousness, and returned with them to the city. The injuries sustained were not sufficiently serious to prevent his leaving Lystra for Derbe next day.

Although the life of the Apostle was not seriously imperilled, he bore ever afterwards the scars left by the encounter, Writing at a later date to the members of the Galatian Church, he closes his Epistle with these solemn words: ‘From hence-forth let no man trouble me: for I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus’ (Galatians 6:17 Revised Version ). Ramsay conjectures that these marks were caused-some of them at least-by the stoning at Lystra. ‘Obviously, it must appeal,’ he says, ‘to something that lay deep in the hearts and memories of the Galatians’ (Historical Commentary on the Galatians, London, 1899, p. 473). Less probable is the conjecture of T. W. Crafer (Expositor . 8th ser., vi. 375-384) that the ἀσθένεια τῆς σαρκός, on account of which he first preached the gospel in Galatia, was caused by the stoning at Lystra. There is no reason to suppose that the maltreatment, however painful for a time, was attended by permanent, or even lengthened, physical disability. The ‘infirmity of the flesh’ in Galatians 4:13 and the ‘thorn in the flesh’ in 2 Corinthians 12:7, are identical, and are best explained as caused by periodical attacks of a painful sort to which the Apostle was subject.

Literature.-T. H. Weir, article ‘Stoning,’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. 679; McClintock and Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, New York, 1881; E. König, ‘Stoning, Hebrew Use of,’ in Schaff-Herzog [Note: chaff-Herzog The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia (Eng. tr. of PRE).] , xi. 105; J. Poucher, ‘Crimes and punishments,’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) i. 527a; S. Mendelsohn, ‘Capital Punishment,’ in Jewish Encyclopedia iii. 557a; I. Benzinger, ‘Law and Justice,’ in Encyclopaedia Biblica iii. 2722; F. W. Farrar, Life and Work of St. Paul, London, 1879, vol. i., Excursus vi.

W. S. Montgomery.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Stoning'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/stoning.html. 1906-1918.

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