Old Testament and the Death Penalty

Before anybody brings it up, I have read CCC 2266-2267 many, many times and I know there is not, technically speaking, an absolute ban on the death penalty.

But what I want to know is why the Catechism says what it says in light of God commanding the death penalty for loads of sins in the Old Testament. Surely God didn’t command them all because there was some sort of big danger to society if they were left alive? It seems rather contradictory to me!

Clem :slight_smile:

The Christian treatment of the death penalty has developed under the light of Christ, to be contingent on the safety of the community and the general common good as the state knows it. Its symbolic of Gods vengeance as justice in relationship with His people prior to coming of Christ, but Christs light behooves us to be accountable to each other with justice and mercy, as our way of being accountable to God. Love thy neighbour as thyself, is the guiding principle of post-resurrection people and this has developed our Christian view of the death penalty as seen today in Evangelium Vitae and the CCC.

God, being the author of life, is the only one with the ultimate right to extinguish life, even of the innocent, because God knows their destination after earthly death.

With this, you should be able to see that God commanding the death of someone, or a group of people, is different than men commanding the death of someone, or a group of people. Men have a limited right to cause the death of other men which extends only to self-defense, or the defense of others. Even then, the intent should not be to kill, but to stop the harm to yourself or others.

Much of the Old testament is actually written as metaphor. For example, it was written that some people lived for many hundreds of years, with one or two living longer than 900 years. This is probably not what happened. You see, in those days, people equated a long life with a person who lived a Holy and uprighteous life. It was felt that the more holy and uprighteous you were, the longer you would live. Eventually, they started putting numbers to the names. One thing that we CAN infer form this is that Methusaleh was quite possibly the most holy and uprighteous person of his era!
Now, come forward to about 2000 years ago, to the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Since it was documented that He started His ministry at about age 30, and that he died at age 33, does this mean he was an evil and unholy person? By no means! It shows more of the reality of the times, and that people no longer automatically ascribed any specific number of years to a holy and uprighteous life! After all, who could possibly be holier and more uprighteous than Jesus of Nazareth?

In the Hebrew Bible, the death penalty was not administered on a casual basis. (It is virtually never carried out in modern Israel.) There had to be reasonable and sure justification and at least two reliable eyewitnesses to a moral crime for the death penalty to be applied. Even a biblical verse such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was not meant to suggest inflicting cruel and harsh punishment, but in fact the reverse: to be certain not to extract more punishment than was necessary by limiting the punishment to a, figuratively speaking, eye or tooth. Further, when the death penalty was inflicted, it was believed that this ultimate earthly punishment reduced the penalty served in the afterlife purgatory.

Thanks, guys! :slight_smile:

Related question: is killing intrinsically evil? I’m guessing no, although murder is.

Go read 2260 and see what you make of it.

But what I want to know is why the Catechism says what it says in light of God commanding the death penalty for loads of sins in the Old Testament. Surely God didn’t command them all because there was some sort of big danger to society if they were left alive? It seems rather contradictory to me!

  • The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. *(Cardinal Dulles, 2001)

The church acknowledges three situations where human life may be lawfully taken.Q. 1276. Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken?
A. Human life may be lawfully taken:
1. In self-defense…
2. In a just war…
*3. By the lawful execution of a criminal… *(Baltimore Catechism)

First, to clarify a long-held mistranslation:
There is no such Commandment saying “Thou shalt not kill”. CORRECTLY translated from Hebrew into English, it is “Thou shalt not MURDER”! Some people might think they are one and the same, but that is not true.
THE major difference is this: MURDER is done “with malice aforethought”. In other words, it is premeditated. It is planned out ahead of time.
KILLING, on the other hand, can be done in self-defense, as part of a war, or by accident. For example, suppose you are driving down your road in the winter, and hit a patch of black ice. It is not unreasonable to think you could lose control of your car, and that the resulting skid might wind up hitting a pedestrian…who dies as a direct result of the injuries. Now, was this all “premeditated”? Was it a deliberate act? In both cases, the answer is a resounding “NO!” It was an accident, and no jury is likely to convict anyone of murder for what was really just an accident.
Now, if you had said "Tomorrow morning, I am going to end the life of “X”…and you do it…THAT is murder!
God, being all-knowing and Omniscient, would know Himself if it was a purposeful act of ending the life of an innocent person. That’s why many of us agree that abortion is murder: It is a deliberate act that ends the life of an innocent human being. Nobody has that “right”!

Yeah, but what really bugs me is how so many theologians and even the Catechism translate it as “Thou shalt not kill”. It’s really bad of them to do that! :mad:

The problem may also be with the fact that some documents have gone through a myriad of translations: Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to French to English…ad nauseum. However, consider the incredibly bad translation from Isaiah: “The Virgin shall be with child”. There was no such prophecy.
There are 2 distinctly different Hebrew words: “Alma” and “Betulah”. One translates as “Virgin” while the other translates as “young woman”. The thing is that in THOSE days, young women KEPT their virginity until they got married because to do otherwise woudl bring shame and disgrace to the entire family. So while “young woman” does not preclude the mother of the Son of God from being a Virgin, it does not necessarily call for it. (And the word that Isaiah used was the one that translates as “young woman”)
Regardless, my faith in Jesus of Nazareth does not depend on His mother being a Virgin. It is based on His teachings, and the way He conducted His life.
Sad to say, I am not a theologian, even though I have been Called to the Priesthood. Sadly, my age (64) precludes my own diocese from accepting me, as they will not take anyone who is past the age of 50. Why Not? Well, it’s really a matter of money. It would cost about $100,000 to send me to Seminary for 4 years, after which I would have my Masters Degree in Divinity. But at age 64, that means I would be Ordained at age 68, and they interpret that as being a very short Priesthood. Never mind that my mother made it to almost 91, and my aunt to 98! But does anyone want to spend $100,000 over 4 years, in order to get only a few short years of benefit out of it? Sadly, not in this day and age.

Thanks for this answer. :slight_smile: I wish you God’s blessings!

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