Someone recently posed the following question to me: "How would you respond to people who try to refute your views by stating that Christ brought forth the period of grace, making the death penalty of that time irrelevant?"
My responses are as follows:
1) Where does the Bible say that the death penalty is irrelevant?
2) On the contrary, the Bible affirms that the civil magistrate is God's minister to administer punishment including death: "For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." (Romans 13:4) The sword/wrath reference is a reference to putting evil-doers to death.
In response to (1) my friend suggested that the people may appeal to the Pericope Adulterae, the story of Jesus saying that the person without sin should be the first to cast a stone at the woman caught in adultery. I respond:
a) The person should keep in mind that the story of the woman taken in adultery is one that is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Scripture. One should be careful about trying to build one's argument primarily on a text that is a major variant.
b) Does Jesus, in the story, say that the death penalty is irrelevant?
- If so, does that mean that the "period of grace" was already in place at that time? That's not usually what I hear from dispensationals. If it was already in place, what were Jesus and the disciples doing celebrating Passover?
- If not, why conclude that the death penalty is irrelevant?
c) What is the point of Jesus saying, in the story, that the person without sin should cast the first stone? Was it to convict them of the fact that this woman supposedly taken in the act was being brought without the man who allegedly was engaged in the act with her? How is just to prosecute only the adulteress and not also the adulterer? In other words, was the point that the prosecution was not being handled justly? There were a lot of irregularities to her trial, if the trial is judged by the standard of 2nd temple Judaism or the Torah itself.
d) How would a point about ending the civil death penalty (either for adultery) fit within the context of John's gospel, where the story is currently found? It doesn't have anything particularly to do with the context.
e) If the conclusion is "no death penalty" because all human judges themselves have sins, why wouldn't this apply also to crimes like murder, rape, and kidnapping? Or perhaps these objectors would also say that the death penalty is forbidden in those cases as well.
f) But where is the justification for stopping at the death penalty? How can such judges impose any penalty at all, if the standard for judgment is that they must be sinless to condemn her?
g) How does Jesus' own non-condemnation of the woman fit within this rubric? He was sinless, yet he did not condemn the woman. Why was it? The lack of sufficient witnesses? The lack of proper judicial process? Or was Jesus' point instead about God's mercy to sinful men?
In short, this appeal to the story of the woman caught in adultery is ill-advised. Not only is there the canonical question, but even assuming its canonicity it does not point at an end to the death penalty either for adultery or in general. Yet, if it pointed to an end to the death penalty for adultery, its grounds of justification would logically apply to all punishment for any crime, since none of us are sinless. That conclusion is absurd, demonstrating the absurdity of the underlying position whose logical conclusion it is.