When Jesus was tried, Jewish religious leaders went through the Roman governor, Pilate, since they had no legal right to inflict capital punishment. When Pilate told the Jews to try Jesus according to Jewish law, they responded, “We have no right to execute anyone” (John 18:31). Later, however, a mob led by those same leaders stoned Stephen to death in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58). This seems to present a conundrum: if the religious leaders were not allowed to inflict the death penalty, why did they execute Stephen? Or, if they could administer capital punishment, why did they involve Pilate with Jesus’ death?
The answer lies in the very different circumstances of these two incidents. In the case of Jesus, one of the religious authorities’ concerns was that Jesus’ immense popularity would somehow lead to Roman retribution (John 11:47—48). Specifically, they were afraid that, if Jesus started a revolt, Rome would blame the Jewish leaders. So, part of the motivation for involving Pilate was to prove—or at least give the impression—that the Jewish leadership was loyal to the Roman Empire. This is reflected in the chief priests’ outrageous statement to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
There was no question that Jesus and the religious leaders had been in conflict (John 11:57) and that they wanted Jesus dead (verse 53). But it would have been impossible for them to kill Jesus without making obvious that they’d overstepped their legal bounds under Rome. Even a mob attack on Jesus would have aroused suspicion. On the other hand, having the Romans execute Jesus would give the Jewish leaders two layers of protection: Rome would not object—legally—to His death, and Jesus’ supporters would be discouraged from attempting revenge.
Pilate was already in a precarious political position when Jesus was brought before him. Historical records suggest that Pilate had been criticized for being too violent in his response to Jewish unrest in the past (see Luke 13:1). So, when the Jewish leaders incited a mob to demand the death of Jesus, Pilate was more interested in political harmony than justice (John 19:4, 6, 15–16). The situation only grew worse for Pilate in the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and the Stephen’s stoning. In AD 36, a few years after Stephen’s martyrdom, Pilate lost his governorship.
The difference in Stephen’s case was that Stephen did not have an extensive history of antagonizing the Jewish religious leaders. Stephen was a relative unknown, and his stoning was not likely to attract any attention from Rome. The crowd who actually killed Stephen could always be blamed for taking matters into their own hands, without the official sanction of the Sanhedrin. And, given Pilate’s growing political weakness, there was little chance he would respond to an incident of mob justice, from the Jews, against a Jew. Beyond that, Stephen’s sermon seems to have so infuriated the crowd that it’s possible nobody was thinking logically (Acts 7:54, 57).
The long and short of it is that the Jewish religious leaders did not have the legal right to exact the death penalty. However, Rome’s interest in enforcing that rule was subject to many factors, not the least of which was whether or not the incident was—in Rome’s view—worth pursuing. The stoning of Stephen by the Jews was technically illegal, but the Romans had no vested interest in the matter, and the temple leaders in Jerusalem rightly felt that Rome would not respond. Jesus, on the other hand, had caught the attention of many powerful people, and the Jews would not venture to violate Roman law by executing Jesus on their own.