Stoning is a method of execution during which a group of people, usually peers of the guilty party, throws stones at the condemned person until he or she dies. Death by stoning was prescribed in the Old Testament Law as a punishment for various sins. Both animals and people could be the subjects of stoning (Exodus 21:28), and stoning seems to have been associated with sins that caused irreparable damage to the spiritual or ceremonial purity of a person or an animal.
Some sins that resulted in stoning in the Old Testament were murder (Leviticus 24:17), idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2–5), approaching near to Mount Sinai while the presence of God was there (Exodus 19:12–13), practicing necromancy or the occult (Leviticus 20:27), and blaspheming the name of the Lord (Leviticus 24:16). Stoning was probably the punishment for various types of sexual sin, as well (Deuteronomy 22:24); the related passages in Leviticus 20 do not specify the method of execution, only that the guilty party was to be “put to death.”
The Mosaic Law specified that, before anyone could be put to death by stoning, there had to be a trial, and at least two witnesses had to testify: “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Deuteronomy 17:6). Those witnesses “must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people” (verse 7). In other words, those who testified against the condemned person in court had to cast the first stone. Examples of stonings in the Old Testament are the deaths of Achan and his family (Joshua 7:25) and Naboth, who was condemned by false witnesses (1 Kings 21).
Stoning was the method of execution chosen by the unbelieving Jews who persecuted the early Christians. Stephen, the church’s first martyr, was stoned to death outside of Jerusalem by the Sanhedrin. On that occasion, a young man named Saul, who later became the apostle Paul, held the coats of those who cast the stones (Acts 7:54–60).
In another famous passage of Scripture, the Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus into granting approval for the stoning of a woman caught in the act of adultery. Significantly, the adulterous man was absent—the Law prescribed death for both the guilty parties. Jesus’ response is interesting. The woman was clearly guilty, but Jesus understood the duplicity of His enemies. Instead of giving them a direct answer, Jesus turned to those who had dragged the woman before Him and said, “Whichever of you is free from sin, throw the first stone” (John 8:1–11). By this, Jesus is asking for the witnesses to step forward—the witnesses, bound by an oath, were the ones to cast the first stones. He also shows the compassionate heart of God toward the sinner and silences the mob’s hypocritical allegations.
Another mode of execution that was also considered stoning involved throwing the guilty party headlong down a steep place and then rolling a large stone onto the body. This is exactly what a mob in Nazareth tried to do to Jesus after His speech in their synagogue. Hearing His claim to be the Messiah, “they got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:29). Jesus’ deliverance from this angry mob was miraculous: “He walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (verse 30). It was not the Lord’s time to die (see John 10:18), and He could never have died by stoning because the prophecy said none of His bones would be broken (John 19:36).
Stoning is a horrible way to die. That particular manner of execution must have been a strong deterrent against committing the sins deemed offensive enough to merit stoning. God cares very much about the purity of His people. The strict punishment for sin during the time of the Law helped deter people from adopting the impure practices of their pagan neighbors and rebelling against God. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and Israel was given a stern commandment to stay pure: “You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:7).