The dead cat bounce

I hopefully will restart posting, but we’ll see about that.

In this post I would like to puncture one of the popular myths about Sanhedrin- that it almost never executed anybody. People draw support by quoting the Mishnah that said that a court which executed 1 person every 7 years was murderous and the other opinion being that the acceptable execution rate was slightly under once every seventy years. This Mishnah is taught as proof positive that Beis Din had extremely high standards for execution. However what we need to look at is the death penalty rate. Israel had approximately 5 million people at the height of its power. We know for sure that there was at least one court per tribe which could try capital cases and there probably were more because it seems that every town with a reasonable amount of people in it had one. So let’s say that we had somewhere between 13 (absolute minimum) and 500 courts (1 court per 10,000 people). If the courts killed one person every 7 years there would be between 1.5 and 72 people killed and if it was once every 70 years it would be between .15 and 7.2 people. This seems much, much less than America, but when you adjust for population size the numbers for ancient Israel becomes 90-5400 executions per year or 9-540 executions a year. By comparison the US has executed a maximum of 100 people in a year since 1976.

When you look at the numbers it becomes clear that unless you think that there was an unreasonably small amount of courts the ancient Beis Din was applying the death penalty at least as often than U.S. courts are even if they only executed a person once every 70 years.

2 Responses to The dead cat bounce

  1. Tobie says:

    Of course, the other issue is that the whole thing is being discussed theoretically long executions were no longer relevant and nobody to worry about actually making sure that your country would function. Furthermore, the fact that people are saying how few people you should be executing seems davka to point out that this was not the practiced norm when it was practiced. A separate point- during the second temple, there were only 2-3 tribes around, not thirteen. And 7 and 70 are probably nice round holy numbers instead of literal ones.

    But i agree that using it to prove what was practiced in any functioning judiciary is just silly.

  2. Raatchel says:

    You also have to remember that the Sanhedrin didn’t have the option of life in prison, or any real prison term at all. The US would execute a lot more people if that was the only punishment allowed.

    Conversely, it’s not clear from the Torah that the Sanhedrin was even in charge of executing murderers. It’s more likely that executions were handled privately by the family. After all, the cities of refuge were specifically to protect the manslaughterer from private vengeance – the possibility of communal punishment isn’t even discussed. The only restriction the Torah seems to place on private punishment for murder is that the family can’t accept weregild.

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