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Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom

1479 drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a hanged Pazzi conspirator Bernardo di Bandino BaroncelliCapital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom

By James J. Megivern

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 147, NO. 1 (2003)

Introduction: The Death Penalty and war have long been linked as practices that present special problems for any professedly Christian ethic. What they have most obviously in common is that both engage directly in the intentional destruction of human life. They were already standard practices in both the Roman and the Jewish cultures in which Christianity first arose, which accounts in large part for their eventual acceptance, especially since the Hebrew law codes with some three dozen capital statutes were part of the scriptures taken over as the Christian Old Testament. But this does not mean that there were no questions or struggles over these practices in the process of gaining the mantle of legitimacy.

A part of the problem that has been all too little explored is that it was not the Hebrew Scriptures, with the framework of rabbinical interpretation, that were inherited, but their Greek translation, the Septuagint, which was adopted as prologue to the New Testament writings to form the Christian Bible. This meant that they came to be viewed in an entirely different context in the Greco-Roman culture. One feature that was lost was the restraint in the actual use of death as a penalty in the ancient Hebrew ethos.

Uneasiness over the ready recourse to lethal violence in Roman law led to serious reservations about any Christian involvement, even while conceding to the pagan state the legal right to take life (so, e.g. Origen). Later developments conspired to erode this broad negativity toward killing, without openly abandoning the principle that “the Church abhors bloodshed.” After all, every execution in the New Testament is seen as an unjust abuse of authority: the beheading of John the Baptist, the crucifixion of Jesus, the stoning of Stephen, not to mention the traditions of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul and so many others under the emperor Nero, all the way down to the emperor Diocletian. The very notion of “witnessing” with one’s blood (martyrdom) is but the flip side of unjust state-authorized death penalties. Early Christians had ample opportunity to see the concrete reality of capital punishment as all too often the tool of raw power-politics.

Click here to read this article from the American Philosophical Society

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