While the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for many offenses, Talmudic requirements rendered its application extremely rare. In general Talmudic tradition required:[list]
*] 2 witnesses of the actual offense
*] the perpetrator had to have been warned the action carried the death penalty
*] the perpetrator had to exhibit knowledge that the act carried the death penalty
*] mere confession was not enough, witnesses were needed and circumstantial evidence is not permitted for evidence[/list]
To fulfill all of those requirements is quite rare and thus rendered the death penalties application almost non-existent. In essence when the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for an offense it was understood to show the seriousness of the offense. In fact one of the conversations in the Talmud has one Rabbi stating that: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one.” To which another Rabbi replies: “Or even once in 70 years.”
So while the death penalty was occasionally used, the Talmudic literature is very uncomfortable with it and even discusses banning its use. One scholar in the Talmud is quoted as saying: “If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed.”
The Talmud also discusses in detail the forms of capital punishment for a rebellious child but then declares: “It never happened and it never will happen.”
It is important to remember that while the Scriptures attach a death penalty to certain offenses, it was never understood as an absolute requirement. As such the punishment could be lesser if the Sanhedrin decided so. This was seen as following the example of God who did not take the life of Cain after he murdered Abel, but permitted him to be exiled with a mark of protection from the vengeance of others.
Ancient society was without any kind of real investigative tools available to it and no real way to maintain a prison system, which if they did probably would have been a fate worse than death. The ancient world was one where “might made right” and a society whose members had no fear of serious punishment for certain crimes would eventually descend into chaos.
The ancient laws of the Old Testament are from a brutal time in human history. They were put in place as potential punishments for what were considered very serious crimes, but their existence was mainly meant to highlight the seriousness of the offense and not be an actual blueprint for action.