As a regular capital punishment, Beheading does not seem to have been known to the Israelites before the time of the Greek dominion. Only cutting off the head of a slain or disabled enemy (I Sam. xvii. 51 et seq.) for a trophy occurs (I Sam. xxxi. 9; practised by the Philistines). Soldiers sent to kill anybody usually brought his head as proof of the faithful execution of their mission (see II Kings vi. 31, 32; II Sam. xvi. 9; xx. 21, 22). The Babylonian and Assyrian monuments abound in representations of such trophies. The Egyptians, however, seem to have employed this mutilation very rarely, except in the earliest times (first and second dynasties). Their belief that life has its seat in the head, and that Beheading means, therefore, a destruction of the soul's second existence—Beheading thus was reserved for the worst criminals as bringing double and eternal death—may possibly furnish a clue for the importance attached to the head as a trophy, among ancient nations. See Capital Punishment.
According to rabbinical opinion, Beheading was one of the accepted modes of execution in the Bible (Mishnah Sanh. vii. 1). Murder and idolatry (when committed by a whole city, Deut. xiii. 14) were the crimes punishable with Beheading (Mishnah Sanh. ix. 1; Mek., Mishpaṭim, 4; Sifre, Deut. 94). Punishing a slave so severely that death followed within twenty-fourhours, was accounted murder; and the guilty master was punished capitally (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 7).
The mode of procedure in Beheading is a matter of dispute, even as early as the Tannaites of the second century, some of whom maintained that the criminal's head was struck off with a sword, "the way the government does"; while, according to R. Judah ben Ilai, the neck of the victim was placed against a block, and the head hewn off with an ax (Mishnah Sanh. vii. 3). This discussion between R. Judah and his opponents (Tosef., Sanh. ix., end; Gem. ib. 52b) reveals the fact that Beheading, as a mode of execution, must have been adopted in late years from other nations—Assyria or Persia, Greece or Rome. The very question, whether ax or sword should be employed, is intelligible only on the supposition that Beheading was a foreign procedure, and one, therefore, not determined by law or custom. It is known that the Roman emperors adopted the use of the sword in lieu of the ax. For the same reason, Beheading was the only mode of execution which a Jewish king might employ, other current modes mentioned in Scripture being reserved for the established courts of law; a king may only claim, as royal privilege, that which kings customarily demand (Maimonides, "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah," Sanh. xiv. 2; ib., Melakim, iii. 8, following the Tosefta, Sanh. vii. 3; Yer. Sanh. vii. 24b).
Beheading was accounted one of the least painful modes of execution; according to the view of R. Simeon, it was the least painful (Mishnah, ib. vii. 1). It was customary to have two different burial-places for executed criminals: one for those who had sufered death by stoning or by fire; the other, for those beheaded or strangled. The punishment was considered a measure of the crime; and it was not deemed right to bury criminals of a minor degree among those of greater wickedness (Tosef., Sanh. ix. 9; Mishnah, vi. 5; Gem. 47b).
- Duschak, Mosaisch-Talmudisches Strafrecht, pp. 10, 11, 41.