In the this and a following post I’m going to provide answers to some of the questions/comments in “Would Jesus stone a misbehaving child?” I will start here with a response to MaxVel. Let’s begin by quoting MaxVel’s comments in full:
I think your attempted parallel here doesn’t work well because the original is in a different context.
In the Deuteronomy passage the **father and mother** were required to bring their son to **the elders of the city**. Perhaps Jesus’ response would have been ‘Don’t you know the Law? Where are the boy’s parents?’
Also I think that you are making an illegitimate appeal to emotion by having a ‘young boy’ be brought in. The Deuteronomy passage indicates that the parents can take this measure with their child **if** he has not responded to being “chastened”. The Hebrew word here (yasar) can mean ‘chastise with blows’. So the parents have a last resort if their son will not obey, even at pain of corporal punishment. I think it unlikely in that cultural and social context that any ‘young child’ would be so naughty that parents would have to resort to this. It’s much more likely to be applied to an older child – someone in their later teens and onwards – one who just laughs off his mother smacking him, and is so grown that he no longer fears his father’s punishments either.
Note that in John Jesus doesn’t contradict the OT Law – he **affirms it**, but puts the onus on those trying to trap Him to step forward and carry out the action.
These events were more than likely happening under the watch of Roman soldiers who were in the Temple grounds to prevent incidents and rots at festivals. So anyone starting to stone someone would have been grabbed by the Romans, as Jews were not allowed to administer capital punishment.
Jesus’ answer turns the tables on the Pharisees while affirming the OT Law. They have to retreat, humiliated, and Jesus pardons the woman.
Some assorted responses to MaxVel
Let’s begin with MaxVel’s observation that Jesus affirms the OT Law. This is true of course. Jesus affirmed the Torah unequivocally (see Matthew 5:17-20). But the brilliance and complexity of Jesus is that his affirmation of the Law simultaneously offers a radical deconstruction of popular conceptions of it and a fulfillment of it quite different than anyone imagined. This should caution us all in drawing simplistic conclusions as to what it meant precisely for Jesus to affirm the Law. MaxVel suggests that Jesus might have endorsed the killing of an obstinate child so long as the requirements of the Law were being met. I deny this. Every person will have to decide which strikes them as more likely based on a careful reading of the gospels.
Now let’s go to MaxVel’s reading and ethical defense of the Deuteronomy passage. MaxVel starts by accusing me of an “illegitimate appeal to emotion”. This assumes that emotions do not play a legitimate role in moral reasoning, an assumption I deny most steadfastly. (See “Playing on emotions or reasoning from them?” and “Free will, hell, and reasonable appeals to emotion.”)
Next, MaxVel notes that the child is only pelted to death with rocks after that child has already been beaten and still remained recalcitrant. Moreover, MaxVel believes it is unlikely that a mere boy would retain a rebellious stance following a severe beating, so it would be rare that a child would be executed by stoning. It would be much more likely that a teenager would meet this fate.
The big issue: executing minors
Note that MaxVel’s defense leaves it open that it may be proper for a particularly obstinate eight year old to be pelted to death with rocks which is precisely what the biblical statute does. This raises a question for us: why do virtually all modern, civilized societies believe it is wrong to execute children and young adults, those who have not yet reached the age of majority? Is it because we moderns have simply gone soft on crime? Or are there deeper considerations?
I suspect that most average people would object to the execution of children and young adults, even those guilty of heinous actions. Underlying the intuition is a sense that minors do not experience the same level of culpability as adults because they cannot grasp the implications of their actions in the same way. Let’s look at a couple factors that support these intuitions.
Prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, these intuitions are supported by the fact that the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to reach maturity, affects a broad range of cognitive abilities including, among others, the ability of young people to anticipate the consequences of one’s behavior. (See this helpful discussion for a quick overview.) This is why, for example, teenagers are much more likely to engage in highly risky behavior than adults. (Take a few minutes to peruse the range of idiotic teen stunts memorialized on youtube.)
So consider a legal mandate that says all children who talk back to their parents are to be stoned. A twenty year old can anticipate more fully the consequences of their action than a fifteen year old can. And a fifteen year old can anticipate them more fully than a five or ten year old can. Given this fact, it is recognized that it is wrong to apply to minors the same punishments as one extends to adults, because their prefrontal cortex is not sufficiently developed to anticipate to the same degree the consequences of their actions.
Hormonal changes. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), the advent of puberty brings with it a range of emotional / behavioral issues in teenagers which are still considered part of normal teenage development. These include changing one’s appearance (e.g. dressing “goth”), withdrawing from various aspects of family life, increased argumentativeness with authority figures, and emotional ups and downs. One shivers to think of how many teenagers undergoing normal patterns of development would emerge as candidates for stoning under the Deuteronomy statute.
In conclusion, these two factors reveal a significant shortcoming in the Torah’s legal treatment of children because the statute makes no allowance for the gradual development of the prefrontal cortex and normal hormonal changes, and the commensurate growth in legal and moral culpability that goes with it. (And this is to say nothing of the intrinsic brutality of stoning as a mode of execution.) This doesn’t mean we should blame the ancient Israelites for failing to know what we know. But at the same time we shouldn’t pretend that their legal statutes toward children offer anything more than a relatively brutish step toward a far superior model of jurisprudence.