The subject of the punishment for apostasy in religion is guaranteed to provoke fierce passions in the West today. I intend to outline often overlooked and ignored evidence that suggests that all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, later Christianity and Islam) in their original teaching, all required that the apostate face the most extreme penalty: death. The case of Islam is well known, so I will not discuss it in detail here. However the teaching of Jesus on the Law and his reported support for the implementation of the death penalty is commonly overlooked and ignored by those claiming to follow him today.
My analysis is inevitably controversial even shocking, but the historical evidence is, I believe, persuasive.
Without further commentary I cite the well known passage in Deuteronomy which presents itself as the very words of God:
1 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess — as long as you live in the land.
And this is one such law dealing with apostasy and its mandatory punishment:
6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. 9You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
The teaching of Jesus
There is no reported teaching by Jesus about apostasy or its punishment in the canonical gospels. This is where the investigation usually ends, but there are reported sayings of Jesus that suggest, for Jesus, there was to be no change in the applicability of the Deuteronomic law in the Kingdom of God. Consider these well known passages from the gospel of Matthew:
17″Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2″The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
As one of the world’s leading experts on the New Testament, professor James Dunn comments on these passages:
‘Whatever Jesus himself may have meant by any talk of fulfilling the law, he is not to be understood as superseding it, or leaving it behind. On the contrary, ‘fulfilment’ is defined by the antithesis with ‘destroy’: Jesus came not to abolish (the affirmation is repeated) but to fulfil – that is, presumably, to realize or complete the law and thus to establish it, set it on a firmer basis (5.17). The point is strengthened by linking the saying with v.18 by the explanatory ‘for’: Jesus came not to destroy but to fulfil, ‘for so long as heaven and earth endure, not one dot not one letter will disappear from the law until everything has happened’. That is to say, the law will remain inviolate, imperishable until the end of the age, or until the will of God has been fully accomplished. And what that means is clarified in turn by setting out v.19 as a corollary: ‘Therefore whoever relaxes (or sets aside) even the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ (note, not excluded from the kingdom, but definitely a second rate citizen); whereas ‘whoever keeps the commandments and teaches others so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’. Here clearly the law as ‘realised’ by Jesus retains an unconditional validity for those who belong to the kingdom of heaven; and here too is a firm rebuke to other members of the kingdom (other Christians – Matt. 8.11) who were more liberal in their attitude to the law. A similar emphasis is evident in 23.3 – ‘Whatever the scribes and Pharisees tell you practice and observe’ (also 23.23).’
Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, pp 265-266
Therefore, in light of the above passages from Matthew it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus taught that the law in Deuteronomy 13:6-10 is still binding on the disciples of Jesus and apostasy is punishable by death.
There is another passage pertinent to the question of the death penalty and the continuing validity of the law. In the same gospel we read the following:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2″Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6he is not to ‘honour his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8″ ‘These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”
Jesus cites a law found in Exodus 21:17 and Leviticus 20:9: ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death’. He chastises those who ignore this teaching (‘the word of God’) for man-made teaching (‘your tradition’). Incidentally, miscreants were to be stoned to death for this crime.
The story of the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8 is sometimes believed to imply that Jesus abolished the death penalty. However, this story probably does not go back to Jesus as the most ancient manuscripts of the gospel lack this passage and it is almost certainly a scribal insertion into John’s narrative.
Later Catholic and Protestant teaching about apostasy and it’s punishment.
It will come as no surprise to the reader to discover that the death penalty for apostasy was advocated by the leading theologians of the Reformation and by the Roman Catholic Church.
The official teaching of the Catholic church was summarised by St Thomas Aquinas in his theological treatise the Summa Theologiae. Aquinas based his teaching on the New Testament and wrote this concerning the correct treatment of ‘disbelievers, heretics and apostates’:
‘In Luke we are told: ‘Go out into the country roads and lanes and compel people to come in, that my house may be full’. So some people are to be compelled to believe and enter the church. But only people who had once accepted the faith: pagans and Jews can’t be forced to believe since believing is a matter of will. The faithful if they have the power, may use it to stop such disbelievers hindering the faith by blasphemy or propaganda or openly persecuting it. This is the reason Christians frequently wage war on disbelievers: not to force them to believe but to stop them hindering the faith.
However, disbelievers who once accepted and professed the faith – heretics and apostates – can be compelled, even physically, to fulfill their promises and hold to do what they once professed. For even though making a vow is a voluntary matter, keeping it is an obligation. So adopting the faith is voluntary, but sticking to it once adopted is obligatory.
About heretics there are two things to say. Their sin deserves banishment not only from the church by excommunication but also from the world by death. But the church seeks with mercy to turn back those who go astray, and condemns them not immediately but only after a first or second warning. If, however, a heretic remains stubborn, the church, despairing of his conversion, takes care of the salvation of others, separates the heretic from the church with a sentence of excommunication and delivers him to the secular courts to be removed from the world by death.
from Summa Theologiae by St Thomas Aquinas (A Concise Translation by T. McDermott) pp339-340
The life and death of Michael Servetus (1511-1553) is well known to students of the Reformation.
He publicly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and was subsequently executed by John Calvin in Geneva. This punishment was approved by the leading Reformers of the time. Melanchthon, the theological head of the Lutheran Church, supported the execution of Servetus. Afterwards he wrote to Calvin: “I have read your book, in which you dearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus …. To you the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your. magistrates did right in punishing, after regular trial, this blasphemous man.”
In conclusion, we must ask why have the churches at the beginning of the 21st century abandoned the teaching of the Torah, Jesus of Nazareth, the Catholic Church, and the Protestant Reformers?
Perhaps a consideration of the larger social context will suggest a possible solution.
Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar in his book The Quran and the Secular Mind (2008) comments provocatively:
‘We must note that there are now few authentically religious Jews and Christians in the West even among the clergy and the rabbinate. All intellectually sophisticated Jews and Christians are secularised and, in their attitudes towards domestic issues, as opposed to foreign policy, are typically humane capitalists whose religious beliefs serve as a decorative veneer on their underlying secularised religious humanism. All charges are variations on the stock Muslim accusation, rooted in the Qur’an, that Jews and Christians have achieved a cosy accommodation with the world – or with modern secularism, in our day – at the cost of being unfaithful to their dogmatic traditions. Modern versions of Christianity and Judaism appear to be carefully disguised variants of secular humanism. Predictably, therefore, many Jews and Christians, unlike virtually all Muslims, live conscientiously and comfortably within the arrangements of the liberal secular humanist state. Islam is now unique in its existential decision, though not intellectual capacity, to confront rather than accommodate the secularist world-view. It is a faith whose adherents are sounding a lone note of courageous defiance in the battle against secularism while other trumpets are blowing retreat. (Page 7)
The phrase “What would Jesus do?” (often abbreviated to WWJD) became popular in the United States as a personal motto for thousands of Christians who used the phrase as a reminder of their belief that Jesus is the example to be followed in daily life, and to act in a manner of which Jesus would approve.