Broadly, in the OT, crimes are conceived either as religious offences or crimes against society. Both are punishable, even by death in the case of the worship of foreign gods (Exod. 22: 20). Blasphemy also carries the penalty by stoning (Lev. 24: 13 ff.), as does the practice of black arts (Lev. 20: 27). The punishment for failing to celebrate the Passover was excommunication (Num. 9: 13).

Crimes against the person such as rape if the victim was betrothed were punishable by death, as were other offences against the family such as incest (Lev. 20: 11 f.) or persistent disobedience to parents (Deut. 21: 18 ff.). Premeditated murder merited death. Crimes against property, such as enlarging one's real estate at the expense of a neighbour (Deut. 19: 14) or using faulty scales (Deut. 25: 15 ff.), were to be made good by compensation.

Imprisonment was unknown until after the Return from the Exile (Ezra 7: 26). Executions took place outside cities, and it is prescribed in Deut. 17: 7 (corroborated by John 8: 7) that a stoning should be initiated by the witnesses in the case.

The OT legislation on criminal justice is contained in four codes of different dates, of which the earliest is the book of the Covenant in Exod. 20: 22–23: 33 and the latest the Priestly Code, whose prescriptions are scattered through Exod. (12 and 13; 25–31 and 35–40), Lev. (1–16), and Num. (1–10). In between are the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12–18), and the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26), which is included within the Priestly corpus.

Whether the Jewish authorities had the right under the Romans to inflict capital punishment is debated. It is denied in John 18: 31, supported by a saying in the Mishnah. On the other hand notices threatening death warned Gentiles against penetrating into the inner part of the Temple, and Stephen was brought before ‘the council’ and stoned. If Jews did have such a right, then—because Jesus was undoubtedly executed by the Roman method of crucifixion—it is argued that Jesus was accused of inciting to rebellion against Rome: the gospels' accounts of trials before the Sanhedrin are antisemitic Christian propaganda. Nevertheless a good case can be made for the historicity of the Sanhedrin trial. And the stoning of Stephen could well have been a lynching by the mob during the absence of the governor in Caesarea rather than a judicial execution.