Rear Window: Death by stoning: A bloody end beyond the city walls

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IN THE book of Leviticus God says to Moses: 'He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him.'

It was under this law, for blasphemously allowing himself to be called the Son of God, that Christ was condemned to death by the Jewish high priests. The Gospels say he was handed over to the Romans and crucified, but Enoch Powell, it was reported last week, believes this did not happen.

In a forthcoming book devoted to unearthing a true, original text underlying the Gospels, Mr Powell concludes that Christ was never handed over to the Romans, but was stoned to death in accordance with the law of Moses.

If this view was accepted it would have many consequences, one of which would be to draw much more attention to the gory business of stoning.

Of all the methods of execution that have been absorbed in codes of law it must rank among the most primitive. It takes no imagination to see where the idea came from: in places where stones are plentiful it is a natural course for an angry mob confronted with a victim.

Only last year in Somalia there was an example of this, when a young, London-born photographer, Dan Eldon, was beaten and stoned to death by a crowd. After US air raids in Mogadishu, they were venting their fury on the first foreigner they found.

As part of a process of law it can hardly have been much different. Where the Bible describes stonings they seem peremptory affairs. Naboth, who refused to sell his vineyard to Ahab, the King of Samaria, was treacherously denounced as a blasphemer. 'Then they carried him forth out of the city and stoned him with stones, that he died.'

Similarly in Acts, Stephen is brought before the high priests for blasphemy, convicts himself by denouncing them and is cast out of the city and stoned to death.

That they were both taken out of the city first suggests an absence of ceremony. This was a punishment beyond civilised restraint; the mob was simply allowed to get on with it.

According to Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at Oxford, stoning of this kind under Jewish law was probably always rare, and fell into virtual disuse a couple of centuries after Christ, in large measure because Jews by then lived largely among Gentiles who had their own laws.

But the practice was taken up again with the emergence of Islam. In one of its many echoes of Judaism, the Koran prescribed stoning as a punishment for adultery. It seems, however, that there was no intention that such executions should become commonplace, for the Koran also declared that for adultery to be proved no fewer than four witnesses were required.

In most Muslim countries the practice lapsed long ago. Today, according to Amnesty International, seven states have stoning in their statute books: Iran; Mauritania; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; United Arab Emirates; and Yemen. And in most of these, it is very rare for a sentence to be carried out. The exceptions are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In Iran the penal code goes so far as to lay down the size of the stones to be used. An Amnesty study in 1989 said there had been eight executions by stoning there in a single recent year. It also quoted a description allegedly by an eyewitness: 'The lorry deposited a large number of stones and pebbles beside the waste ground and then two women were led to the spot wearing white and with sacks over their heads. They were enveloped in a shower of stones and transformed into two red sacks.' The victims were then finished off by Revolutionary Guards with a blow to the head.

Why is execution by stoning associated with two religions of Middle Eastern origin, and little known elsewhere? Professor Vermes says: 'I can't tell you, but look at it another way: in the Bible they didn't hang people by the neck.'