In your podcast on John 18 you note that the Jews were prevented by Roman law from inflicting capital punishment during Jesus’ time. But if the Jews were unable to inflict capital punishment at that time, why were they able to stone Stephen to death (Acts 7)? This was also indicated in John 8 (the adulterous woman caught in adultery). I would see stoning as a form of capital punishment as well. -- Shelley Lim (Singapore)

Good question.

In the first century (Roman times), the execution of Stephen wasn't judicial, but a mob action. What is extrajudicial is outside the law.

Then as now, people often do things that are prohibited by law, whether driving recklessly, defaming someone's character, or failing to declare income on a tax declaration. These actions are still illegal; the law can prohibit, but it cannot always prevent.

However, there seem to have been rare instances when the Romans did in fact allow the Jews the right to execute. As Witherington notes, Josephus, War 6.124-24 implied that the Romans accepted that the warning inscriptions for Gentiles, located around the perimeter of the Court of the Women, authorized the Jews to enforce this warning by summary execution. "In general, the Romans saw it as their job to help protect the sanctity and good order of the great temples in their Empire" (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 644).

It is possible to construe the action against Stephen as legal retaliation for an offense against the Temple (Acts 6:13-14), and yet Stephen had nothing more than criticized the religious establishment. Either way, there is often a gap between the letter of the law and its enforcement. Further, the Romans at times turned the other way -- see Acts 18:17.