This series will attempt to come at an interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in a kind of pincer movement, from the direction of both its background context and its foreground interpretation. Following this survey, it will provide a positive exposition of Jesus’ teaching in accord with theses contexts. Finally, it will offer several possible causes that could explain how the early church slid from Jesus’ teaching to a more stringently pacifistic stance.
Four contexts provide the backdrop against which Jesus presents his views: natural law, literary practices, social setting, and the Old Testament.
It is important to begin our analysis of Jesus’ teaching with his background context, because it is this context that he would have shared with his original hearers. One of the basic rules of hermeneutics, a rule Dr. Martin Joos called “Semantic Axiom Number One,” is the principle of relevance. This principle dictates that “the best meaning is the least meaning.” More explicitly, it states that communicators will assume common context with their audience, and will attempt to convey a message in the most economical means they can.
From one perspective, this hermeneutical rule is simply an application of Ockham’s razor: in attempting to explain the meaning of a communication, we should postulate the fewest causes (of meaning) we can. If we can explain all the details of a text with the words themselves and with two contextually assumed ideas, that interpretation is preferable to one which requires we assume three contextual ideas.
With this point in mind, we can begin to look at what ideas were “in the air”, available to both Jesus and his hearers, when he first spoke his words.
On a previous occasion, I argued that Jesus appealed to natural law as authoritative in his own teaching. He assumed it existed, that it was binding, and that his audience knew it. In light of this, it is fair to ask: what does this law teach about matters of violence and war?
Firstly, Aristotle argued, 1 rightly, that nature directs man towards forming both family and political community. His argument was essentially that humanity cannot survive as isolated individuals, and flourishes when it lives in community. For this reason, he called man a political animal, in that human nature as such directs people towards life in the polis as its natural end. Within this general trajectory, the freedom open to human beings allows for different ways for communities to govern themselves, but most often communities tend to choose to have representative rulers of some kind.
Secondly, throughout history, most natural law thinkers 2 have recognized that the natural order directs animals toward self-preservation, and self-defense. When we recognize that the “self” in human life expands beyond the individual, for people have property and loved ones they also regard as in some way bound up with their own flourishing, the right to self-defense extends to the right to defend others. Again, this is basically taken as common sense throughout the world.
It is important to note that “defense” here is not necessarily an amoral concept, nor is it necessarily physically passive. Rather, defense is aimed at the preservation of natural goods, and so shares in that natural goodness. Hugo Grotius writes in The Rights of War and Peace:
Hence, [Cicero] says, it happens, that if left to his own choice, every man would prefer a sound and perfect to a mutilated and deformed body. So that preserving ourselves in a natural state, and holding to every thing conformable, and averting every thing repugnant to nature is the first duty. ..
So far from any thing in the principles of nature being repugnant to war, every part of them indeed rather favours it. For the preservation of our lives and persons, which is the end of war, and the possession or acquirement of things necessary and useful to life is most suitable to those principles of nature, and to use force, if necessary, for those occasions, is no way dissonant to the principles of nature, since all animals are endowed with natural strength, sufficient to assist and defend themselves. …
Now right reason and the nature of society which claims the second, and indeed more important place in this inquiry, prohibit not all force, but only that which is repugnant to society, by depriving another of his right. For the end of society is to form a common and united aid to preserve to every one his own. 3
This brings us directly to the issue of punishment. And here, too, we find that basically all the cultures of the world have recognized that punishment is a just and necessary form of behaviour in appropriate circumstances. It consists of giving to people what they deserve (the definition of justice in general) when they deserve to hurt, because they have injured others. Prof. C.S. Lewis describes this view of punishment:
[T]he concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. …
On the old view the problem of fixing the right sentence was a moral problem. Accordingly, the judge who did it was a person trained in jurisprudence; trained, that is, in a science which deals with rights and duties, and which, in origin at least, was consciously accepting guidance from the Law of Nature, and from Scripture. We must admit that in the actual penal code of most countries at most times these high originals were so much modified by local custom, class interests, and utilitarian concessions, as to be very imperfectly recognizable. But the code was never in principle, and not always in fact, beyond the control of the conscience of the society. And when (say, in eighteenth-century England) actual punishments conflicted too violently with the moral sense of the community, juries refused to convict and reform was finally brought about. This was possible because, so long as we are thinking in terms of Desert, the propriety of the penal code, being a moral question, is a question in which every man has the right to an opinion, not because he follows this or that profession, but because he is simply a man, a rational animal enjoying the Natural Light.
Thirdly, following from these general principles, the classical tradition rightly derived obvious consequences, distilled into the just war tradition. There are many ways of listing the criteria of a just war, but two distinct categories have fixed themselves into the tradition: criteria for whether someone should go to war (jus ad bellum), and criteria for how a war should be conducted (jus in bello). For the purposes of this survey, only the first set need be discussed, and only three of the criteria within that category.
The fact that the common good represents the highest end of human activity, it follows that whatever acts individual and communities perform must be for the common good. But from this follows the axiom that no one should act when the foreseeable effects of an act will cause more harm than good. This is the just war criterion of reasonable prospect of success. Further, the obligation to act for the good of others entails that no one should harm another person unless they deserve it, in which case such actions would take the form of punishment, an expression of justice; in general, people should do good to their fellow human beings. This intuition is summarized in the criterion of just cause. These two points entail a third. In general, political authorities are only such if they possess enough force to overpower any given threat from their subjects (though not necessarily from their entire body politic). In modern terms, they must have a monopoly on violence. The result of this aspect of governments is that the chances of revolutionaries successfully overthrowing the rulers is less probable than failure. Of course, sometimes exceptions happen, but as a general rule, governments are the most powerful force in a given state. In light of this general reality, prudence directs subjects to remain subject to their rulers. And the political nature of human beings more directly leads to this conclusion: people should act in community, and insofar as a government represents a community, members should act in accord with their own government. (Of course, there can be exceptional situations when a government becomes unbearably tyrannical, when it clearly is no longer acting for the common good. But this is not always the case.) This entails the third relevant jus ad bellum criteria: wars should be waged by legitimate authorities, by governments and those they have deputized, not by private actors.
The natural created order, then, provides reason for there to be governments that use coercion, and for subjects to remain subject to them, including in not taking that coercion into their own hands. This provides one context for Jesus’ teachings.
A second context comes in the literary customs deployed in the writing and interpretation of law. In the context of his interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, Dr. Craig Keener writes:
It was perfectly natural in Matthew’s day to suppose that any law would need to be qualified; that there were exceptions to general rules which would need to be articulated was simply assumed. For instance, Quintilian, a famous Roman rhetorician of the first century, cites a Roman law but proceeds to show that exceptions are implicit within it:
“Children shall support their parents under penalty of imprisonment.” It is clear, in the first place, that this cannot apply to an infant. At this point we turn to other possible exceptions and distinguish as follows.
Quintillian’s book is about rhetoric and he was thus making the sort of argument that lawyers would have used when they approached legal texts. 4
This principle of allowing for unstated exceptions also applied outside of strictly legal contexts, in the genre of “wisdom”:
Wisdom sayings, as one gathers quickly from the book of Proverbs, are general principles stated in a succinct manner designed to grab the reader’s attention and to make a point. But wisdom sayings do not exhaust all that is to be said on a subject, nor did anyone suppose that they did. For instance, Proverbs often speaks of wealth as God’s blessing; just as often, however, it condemns wealth acquired by evil means. It is not that some wisdom sayings in Proverbs contradict other wisdom sayings; rather, each states a general principle, and most principles would need to be qualified if we were to try to enforce them in every situation. 5
When Jesus made statements like he did in the Sermon the Mount, then, he spoke into a context where people would assume general rules could have unstated exceptions.
A third context for Jesus’ teaching was his social setting, and that of his listeners. More explicitly: Jesus spoke as a man without political power to people who were mostly without political power. That this was true of Jesus is obvious, but a little reflection can show it is also true of his audience. Firstly, 1C Palestine was a client kingdom, ruled by the Herods, on behalf of the Roman Emperor. Even within the government, then, the number of people who had power was actually quite small. There was no democracy functioning here. Secondly, in general, representative governments (and all governments claimed to be representative) are smaller in population than the mass of subjects they govern. These two reasons together imply that, if Jesus drew crowds, the average person in those crowds would not have any role as a public representative, with a correlative right to exercise coercion. They were all (at least in general) private citizens. If the powerless constituted the majority of these crowds, then this point applies even more so.
The locus classicus of pacifist proof-texts is the Sermon the Mount. The nearest context to this purported teaching contains an important interpretive guardrail for all of Jesus’ teachings: Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” While we will discuss the meaning of this text in a future installment, the prima facie sense of it implies we must at least consider the OT context of Jesus’ words when discerning their intention. Further, even if Jesus had not made this statement, his context would demand it: Jesus was a faithful Jew, speaking as a religious teacher; everyone listening would have knowledge of the OT law, and thus it forms part of the context of his words.
So we can turn to those scriptures and consider whether he is echoing OT teachings. And when we do this, we find that he is. The OT commands subjects to be subject to their rulers, 6 though not unconditionally, 7 and prohibits murder (which, usually, is motivated by anger and so is a way of taking natural justice into one’s own hands). Dr. Charles E. Carlston rhetorically asks, stressing the perennial nature of the proverb, “[a]nd who first said–or last applied–the truth that ‘All who take the sword will perish by the sword’?” He gives the OT example of Prov 22:8, and outside of the OT, Sirach 27:25-27; Homer, Odyssesy, XVI.294; and Pindar (in Nemean Odes IV.32). 8
It also commands private citizens to treat their enemies lovingly. 9 Further, it assumes it is possible for normal human beings to determine the guilt of others in a legal situation, 10 and that punishment was a permissible kind of action for normal people to perform. 11 More specifically, it affirmed that normal judges could determine when capital punishment was an appropriate sentence, and that the sentence could be carried out, 12 but prohibited private citizens from killing. 13 It also taught that punishment administered by magistrates could effectively deter future lawlessness. 14 Further, the OT law clearly was aimed at dealing with serious injuries, 15 not with trivial harms like insults. 16
It is worth noting that many of these statements stand side by side with laws/narratives which suggest limits, as I noted briefly regarding the general obligation to obey rulers. Further, it should be obvious the commands to love one’s enemies were not meant to contradict commands directing the community to go to war, or to punish murderers, even though qualifications are not explicitly given in the immediate context of either of these kinds of texts. The assumption is that the readers of the Law will read it as a whole, and interpret it seeking coherence, for the readers would have assumed Moses was rational, and that the God he was speaking for was infinitely wise.
Perhaps proverbial, a piece of folk wisdom. The form, which recalls the lex talionis and NT’s so-called sentences of holy law, is in any event thoroughly conventional. We recall m. Abot 2:7: Hillel said: ‘Because you drowned (others) they drowned you’ (probably of Pompey). Cf. also Prov 22:8; Hos 10:13; Ecclus 27:27; Rev 13:10a. Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (International Critical Commentary) Volume III (New York: T & T Clark Ltd, 2004), 512 n. 51.
The words remind one both of Gen 9:6 (‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’) and Tg. Isa. 50:11 (‘Behold, all you that kindle a fire, that take a sword, go, fall into the fire you have kindled and on the sword you have taken. From my Memra you have this: you shall return to your destruction’). Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 512.
Dr. John Nolland writes of other relevant texts:
E.g., Ps. 7:15 (in terms of digging a pit and falling into it); Pr. 26:27 (as Ps. 7:15, but also in terms of setting a stone rolling down a hill); Ec. 10:8 (as Ps. 7:5); Is. 50:11 (in terms of those who set destructive fires); Sir. 27:26 (as Ps. 7:5). John Nolland, The New International Greek Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005), 1113. ↩
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