Early Challenges to Capital Punishment
By David W. T. Brattston, Court Adjudicator, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
In the Winter 2008 issue of Christian Ethics Today, seminary student Cody J. Sanders exhaustively presented the biblical and social science evidence in the present debate over capital punishment. Another important aspect of this moral issue is the witness of the earliest Christians. The pronouncements of Christian writers before the Decian Persecution of A.D. 249-251 add an interesting argument against capital punishment.
Sanders noted that some present-day proponents of the death penalty interpret Romans 13 in a way supportive of their position, and then he asked, “Would this reading of the text be the same during the first few centuries of the Church when Christians were primary recipients of the death penalty?” The answer is that the earliest Christians were opposed to the death penalty, at least as regards Christians inflicting it.
In addressing a rebellious faction in the church at Corinth, 1 Clement 45 recalled that in the Old Testament when the righteous were persecuted or put to death, it was only by the wicked, the unholy, and the hate-consumed. Variously dated between A.D. 70 and 97, 1 Clement is one of the oldest extant Christian documents outside the New Testament. This letter was written during the time when in the church at Rome “there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles.” It was so authoritative and influential that it was included in some early editions of the New Testament. It refers in passing to a recent government persecution of Christians, which means that the death penalty was not far from the author’s mind as a punishment for some acts and beliefs regarded as criminal.
Around A.D. 177 the philosopher Athenagoras of Athens wrote a defense of Christianity to the Roman Emperors, describing the beliefs and practices of Christians. In the document, he dealt with and refuted pagan allegations that the Christian faith commands its adherents to murder and practice cannibalism.
Athenagoras stated that Christians not only are forbidden to kill anyone for any reason, but also that “we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly. . . . We, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put a man to death?”
For this reason, he added, Christians adjure even such killing sanctified by the law as gladiatorial combats, at that time perfectly legal and favored by the secular authorities.
Tertullian was a prominent Roman lawyer prior to his conversion and ordination in middle-age, which means he was probably familiar with death-penalty cases. His writings are today of great importance in theological discussions, particularly on the relationship between Christianity and culture.
Dated sometime between A.D. 198 and 220, Tertullian’s On Idolatry indicates that Christians could not conscientiously inflict the death penalty. This treatise considers the dangers of contributing to sin inherent in certain professions and trades. One of these occupations was the Roman military, partly because the higher ranks participated in capital punishments. For Tertullian, killing of any sort—including the state-ordered death penalty—excluded military service as a livelihood for Christians. In On the Resurrection of the Flesh 16 he classified hangmen in the same category of reprobates as lascivious women, gladiators, and priests of a pagan cult.
Attributed to the central Italian Pastor-Bishop Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition 16.17 (A.D. 217) is similar. Even if possessing the necessary government authorization and ordered to do so, a soldier “must not execute men.” As a corollary, the church must cast out any Christian who volunteers for military service. The Apostolic Tradition considers such soldiers and volunteers to be in the same category as pimps, priests of idols, makers of idols, gladiators, and prostitutes.
The Book of the Laws of Regions, also called On Fate, is ascribed to Bardesanes, who prior to his death in A.D. 220 was a friend and guest of a king of Edessa. It contains expositions of how the laws of various nations and regions differ from one another, while Christians follow their own law (what we would call “ethics”), no matter where they are. Among the contrasts he observed was the practice in one particular country to stone thieves to death—the implication was that Christians did not do so anywhere, even where secular law permitted them to. Nor did Christians commit “honor killings” of wives and daughters, as non-Christians practiced in another country. In short, the Christian religion forbade its adherents to inflict the death penalty for any offence.
In Against Celsus 7.26 the church father Origen in the late A.D. 240s contended that if Jews were free of Roman control and constituted their own sovereign nation again, they would probably practice stoning and burning of malefactors as Moses had commanded, e.g. put murderers to death. However, Origen wrote, if Christians were in government they would be restrained by the laws of their religion from doing so. In fact, Origen wrote that God’s purpose in destroying the Jewish state was in part to end capital punishment and other forms of bloodshed by the people of God.
Origen was dean of the world’s foremost educational institution of that era (in Alexandria, Egypt) and later established one of his own in Palestine. He was the most influential and most prolific Christian preacher, Bible scholar, and writer of his own day and for centuries afterwards. He was probably the most knowledgeable Christian of the first half of the third century, or at least the most able representative of ancient Christian teaching, evidenced by the fact that he was often called upon as a consultant by pastor-bishops throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Did these early Christian writers represent the earliest Christian beliefs? By default, yes. Of the extant Christian documents from this period, these are the only authors to have considered the death penalty from the viewpoint of Christian ethics, and all considered it forbidden for Christians, even where permitted by secular law. From these surviving records, it is clear that Christian writers strongly opposed capital punishment for the first three centuries.
One possible exception is Clement of Alexandria. He was the leading Christian intellectual of the late second century, Origen’s predecessor as Dean of the Christian school in Egypt, and a pioneer in making Christianity acceptable to educated pagans.
Clement’s Stromata 1.27 has been cited as a pre-Contantinian source in favor of state-inflicted capital punishment, because Clement applied the analogy of surgery to the death penalty: just as a surgeon excises a diseased member or organ lest it harm the whole body, so it would be good to put to death any member of society that “falls into any incurable evil”.
However, there are five reasons why many believe Clement cannot be construed as totally justifying the death penalty. First, he considered the execution to be beneficial to the wrongdoer: “it will be for his good if he is put to death.”
Second, the relevant passage also declares that “it is the highest and most perfect good, when one is able to lead back anyone from the practice of evil to virtue and well-doing, which is the very function of the law.”
Third, the only specific example Clement gave of “incurable evil” was covetousness—which was not a capital offence nor a criminal offence at all.
Fourth, Clement wrote the Stromata for pagan readers and used examples, quotations from pagan philosophers, current Greco-Roman views on morality, and other sources for the purpose of persuading these pagans to embrace or think more highly of Christianity Fifth, an ancient analogy that a non-Christian government might justifiably inflict the death penalty does not mean that an American Christian may in good conscience be an executioner or otherwise contribute to it.
What the earliest Christian authors were expounding was Christian morality, i.e. the ethics that were taught and practiced by early Christians. Because they were describing specifically Christian ethics, unlimited in geography and binding even if they attained political office, the ancients would no more have extended official Roman conduct to present-day believers than they would other undesirable practices of the Roman Empire.
After the Decian Persecution of A.D. 249-251, there was a radical discontinuity within the church, especially affecting what is regarded as sources of authority in Christian ethics. Such changes were as far-reaching and unprecedented for Christianity internally as was the Constantinian revolution for its relations with secular government and its subjects.
Cody J. Sanders, “Prophetic Challenge to Capital Punishment” (CET Winter 2008), 19-22.
 Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.3.3 (A.D. 180s) trans. A. Roberts and W. H. Rambaut at vol. 1 p. 416 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint of the Edinburgh ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson) (hereinafter cited as ANF).
35 trans. B.P. Pratten under title A Plea for the Christians
 Rober D. Sider, “Tertullian” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett Ferguson (New York: London: Garland Press, 1990), 884.
 Tertullian On Idolatry 19.
 The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of Saint Hippolytus of Rome trans. and ed. Gregory Dix, revised Henry Chadwick (London: Alban Press; Ridgefield, Conn.: Morehouse, 1992), 26.
 Apostolic Tradition 16.10-11, 16.15-17 and 16.19-20 at pp. 25-27.
 Bardesan trans. W. Wilson ANF 8.733.
 All quotations from Clement of Alexandria are at ANF 2.339.