Why were the Jewish religious leaders not able to crucify Jesus, but yet they killed Stephen?
John 18:31 records that the Jewish leaders could not crucify Jesus, but then they killed Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). That seems contradictory, but it is not. What follows explains this apparent contradiction. Why did the Jews not crucify Jesus, but then kill Stephen?
Stoning of Stephen
Views about John 18:31.
First there are multiple views about John 18:31,
So Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” The Jews said to him, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death . . .” John 18:31 (NASB)
Here are some of the views. One view claims the Jewish religious leaders did not have the legal right to exact the death penalty, but the Romans ignored their violation of the law when they stoned Stephen. A second view says that the apostle John was historically inaccurate. A third view says the Jews could perform capital punishment on anyone. A fourth view states the Jews could only perform capital punishment on those who violated the temple, except for Roman citizens. What follows provides support for the fourth view.
Why the Jews Could Not Crucify Jesus
Here are ten reasons why the Jews could not crucify Jesus, but they could kill Stephen.
First, Flavius Josephus tells us that the the emperor Titus allowed Israel’s religious leaders to kill anyone who violated the temple. He provided guidance that they must follow. Flavius Josephus reports,
Now Titus was deeply affected with this state of things, and reproached John and his party, and said to them, “Have not you, vile wretches that you are, by our permission, put up this partition-wall before your sanctuary? Have not you been allowed to put up the pillars thereto belonging at due distances, and on it to engrave in Greek, and in your own letters, this prohibition, that no foreigner should go beyond that wall? Have not we given you leave to kill such as go beyond it, though he were a Roman? And what do you do now, you pernicious villains? Why do you trample upon dead bodies in this temple? And why do you pollute this holy house with the blood both of foreigners and Jews themselves?”
The important part of this quote is repeated later in Flavius Josephus’ Jewish War. 5.5.2.
Notice that John 18:31 quotes the Jews as saying there were not permitted to put anyone to death. The truth is they could not unless he or she violated the temple. In that context, they could not kill Jesus. In fact, they did not want to kill Jesus for fear of the people (Matthew 26:5).
Second, the article “Ancient Temple Mount ‘warning’ stone is ‘closest thing we have to the Temple’” written by Ilan Ben Zion in 22 October 2015 provides an important proof of the warning that the Sanhedrin Council had posted to anyone who did not belong on the temple grounds.  The article includes an archaeological artifact “forbidding Gentiles from entering the temple area proper.” It is estimated that the warning existed in A.D. 30. Consequently, it was in effect during the last week Jesus walked our earth. The author of the article quotes Josephus’s Jewish War. 5.5.2.The artifact is shown above and contains the statement, “No alien may enter within the barrier and wall around the Temple. Whoever is caught [violating this] is alone responsible for the death [penalty] which follows.” The photographer, Andrey Zeigarnik from Raanana, Israel, states it is from the “Herodian Period, 37-34 BCE. From Jerusalem in the modern-day State of Israel. (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem).” The photograph has been color corrected.
Third, Acts 21:28-30 affirms that Gentiles were not allowed on the temple grounds.
…”Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was provoked, and 1the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. Acts 21:28-30 (NASB)
So, we have biblical support, historical support, and archaeological support for the question: why did Jews not crucify Jesus, but then killed Stephen?
Fourth, why did the religious leaders then kill Stephen? The answer is given in Acts 6:11-14. Here we are told Stephen was brought to Council, that is, the Sanhedrin Council. It was usually convened in the temple. Then false witnesses said that Stephen was speaking blasphemy against Moses, God, and the temple or the “holy place.” Then Stephen proceeded to offend them (Acts 7:54). This resulted in Stephen’s death in Acts 7:54-60. Since Stephen was a Hellenist with a Greek name and was accused of being on the temple grounds speaking blasphemy, he was stoned to death. The Romans allowed the religious leaders to kill anyone who violated the temple and the Mosaic law. The death sentence for blasphemy was usually by stoning.
Fifth, here is a helpful but lengthy summary, plus select references, by F. F. Bruce from his commentary on “the Gospel & Epistles of John,”
“Their statement, “We are not allowed to put any one to death”, is certainly in accordance with Roman provincial practice, in which capital punishment was the governor’s prerogative. When Judaea became a Roman province in AD 6 and a Roman prefect was appointed by the emperor to govern it, this prerogative was expressly reserved to him. Such exceptions as may be adduced (so far as Judaea is concerned) are the exceptions that prove the rule. As a special concession, the Jewish authorities were allowed to execute a sentence of death against violators of the sanctity of the temple, even if the violators were Roman citizens.  This may explain why, according to Mark’s narrative, an abortive attempt was first made before the Sanhedrin to fasten on Jesus a charge of uttering threats or insults against the temple (Mark 14:57-59). A few years later a conviction on comparable grounds was procured against Stephen (Acts 6:13 ff.), and there was no need to have the death sentence against him ratified by the Roman governor. But normally ‘the capital power was the most jealously guarded of all the attributes of government’.
The evidence of John is confirmed by a second-century rabbinical tradition preserved in the Jerusalem Talmud, to the effect that forty years before the destruction of the temple the right to inflict the death penalty was taken away from Israel. It is curious that the tradition should specify forty years before AD 70, and not sixty-four years; it may be that the remembrance persisted of a situation around AD 30 when the deprivation of this right was of special significance.
. . .
If the Jews had not lost the right of capital jurisdiction, their rulers could have carried out the death sentence in accordance with precedent, which would have been (as later in Stephen’s case) by stoning, the penalty prescribed for blasphemy. Among the forms of execution known to Jewish law, hanging did not normally figure. What Jewish law did know in this regard was the hanging up (not beyond sundown) of the dead body of an executed criminal (Deut. 21:22 f.). In Jewish eyes, as is confirmed by a well-known Qumran text ‘hanging men alive’ was an abomination: ‘it was not so done in Israel.’ But ‘hanging men alive’ was an accurate description of crucifixion, a common Roman form of execution, especially for sedition. And the charge brought against Jesus before Pilate was, in Roman law, tantamount to sedition. What John means, then, is that the obligatory referring of Jesus’ case to Pilate’s jurisdiction made it possible for sentence of death by crucifixion to be passed on him; by the execution of this sentence, he would be literally ‘lifted up from the earth’.
Visit D. A. Carson and Leon Morris for concurring information.
Sixth, notice that John 19:6-7 says,
So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, “Crucify, crucify!” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for bI find no guilt in Him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.” John 19:6-7 (NASB)
Why did the Jewish leaders and the Jews, cry out, “Crucify, crucify!”? They could have asked that Jesus be stoned to death, but they did not do that. The answer is they wanted Jesus to suffer the “most horrible form of death,” according to Lipsius (Lipsius, De Cruce. 2.1). They wanted Jesus to suffer the greatest pain possible.
Seventh, John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33 tell us that Jesus knew He would be crucified. That is, the religious leaders would lift Him up, which was a reference to crucifixion. This would occur because it was the plan of God the Father in His sovereignty from the foundation of the world. The prophecies foretold that the Messiah would die, but the descriptions are satisfied by a crucifixion (Psalm 22:16-18; Zechariah 12:10).
Eighth, the New Testament reveals the religious leaders wanted Jesus to be crucified. This point will be become evident soon. It is significant to notice that the Mosaic Law only allowed four types of capital punishment: sword (Exodus 22:18-24), fire (Leviticus 20:14), stoning (Leviticus 24:16; Deuteronomy 21:21; 22:20-21), and hanging (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). These forms of capital punishment were still available to the Jewish religious leaders under Pontius Pilate according to Flavius Josephus (Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews. book 6, chap. 2, sect. 4 or para.. 124-126). The Roman emperor did not preclude them.
It is important to note the Jews abhorred hanging anyone on a tree because Deuteronomy 21:23 says that anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed. The Jewish Gemara on this passage states an idolator must be hanged. That is what they asked Pontius Pilate to do—crucify Jesus! Galatians 3:13-14 says,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Galatians 3:13-14 (NASB)
Galatians 3:13 quotes Deuteronomy 21:23. So the Jews asked Pontius Pilate to crucify Him in order for our Lord to be cursed on the cross so that “the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
Ninth, because the Romans limited the Jews’ authority to killing when violations of the temple occurred, the Jewish religious leaders were not only forced to ask Pontius Pilate to kill Him, but then they could ask for Jesus to be hanged, that is crucified. Crucifixion was their choice! All of this occurred to fulfill the prophecies. This was the Father’s plan. Notice that the trial of Jesus did not occur in the temple but in the residences of Annas and then Caiaphas, high priests (Matthew 26:58; Mark 14:53-54; John 19:12-15, 24). So, when Jesus said that He was the Son of God (Matthew 26:63-65; Mark 14:61-64; Luke 22:67-71), they believed He blasphemed; but He did not do it on the temple grounds. Is that the reason they did not convene the trial on the temple grounds?
Tenth, Jesus suffered the “most horrible form of death” so that we would not suffer an even more horrible spiritual death and perish in the Lake of Fire. Jesus did that so we can have eternal life (John 3:16).
1. Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews. book 6, chap. 2, sect. 4 or para.. 124-126. William Whiston, The Works of Josephus.
2. Ilan Ben Zion. “Ancient Temple Mount ‘warning’ stone is ‘closest thing we have to the Temple’.” 22 October 2015. (www.timesofisrael.com/ancient-temple-mount-warning-stone-is-closest-thing-we-have-to-the-temple/).
3 Josephus, Jewish War 6.124-126. Thus, when Paul was charged with an offence against the sanctity of the temple, the Sanhedrin, through their spokesman Tertullus, complained to the procurator Felix that the officer commanding the Roman garrison in the Antonia fortress had forcibly taken him out of their hands when they were going to judge him ‘according to our law’ (Acts 24:6 f., Western text).
4. TJ Sanhedrin, Gemara on i, I, Schwab’s French trans. Vol. X, p. 229, standard pagination 18a; TB Sanhedrin 41a, Abodah Zarah 8b. See the statement “Since the Sanhedrin ceased judging cases of capital law forty years before the destruction of the Temple, and Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was in a position of prominence for only forty years, he could not have been a judge in a capital case.” (www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.41a.26?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en).
5. The Dead Sea Scroll] 4QpNah. col. 1, lines 6-8 (commentary on Nab. 2:12). The Qumran commentator interprets Nahum’s ‘lion’ of Alexander Jannaeus, who in 88 BC crucified 800 of his rebel subjects (Josephus, Jewish War 1.97; Antiquities 13.380).
6. D. A. Carson. The Gospel According to John. Eerdmans Publishing. 1995. pp. 590-592.
7. Leon Morris. The Gospel According to John. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Eerdmans Publishing. 1995. p 676-677.
8. Gemara on Mishna V. “Tractate Sanhedrin: Chapter 6.” Jewish Virtual Library. (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/tractate-sanhedrin-chapter-6).
Suggested Links:Jesus Wept — The Destruction of Jerusalem Prophesied
Are there any historical facts about the cross?