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Reversing Talionic Ethics: Personal Ethics for the Public Square (Matthew 5:38-42)


One night our family was sitting at the dinner table and my then six year old daughter Keilah asked a thought-provoking question. She said, “If my brother hits me, is it okay if I hit him back?” The personal ethics of potential retaliation confront all of us from the earliest ages. Too much of the world’s ethic is to: 1) strike back; 2) get even; 3) do unto others like they do to you. Many times the justification for retaliation is that ancient law, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” One has to admit that this retaliatory ethic to right an injustice is appealing especially initially when one feels they have been wronged. But Jesus says “No” to using “an eye for an eye” as justification for personal revenge. Instead, He says “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “turn over two garments if sued for one,” and “give to the one who asks from you.” Jesus’ teaching is not merely legal and technical, but extends deeply and profoundly into the practical situations of conflict, oppression, and the needs of everyday life.

Matthew 5:38-42 reads: 38 “You have heard that it was said: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the evil person.2 But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And to the one who wants to sue you and take your tunic, give him your cloak also. 41 And whoever forces you to go one mile, go two with him. 42 Give to the one who asks from you and do not reject the one who wants to borrow.” These verses have been described in the following ways: the hard sayings of Jesus; the most difficult verses in the Bible; hyperbole and impossible; or commands for another world. Jesus’ teaching here is confronting the popular misuse and abuse of the Old Testament law, known as the law of retaliation, in Latin, the Lex Talionis.3 The law of “life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc.

The desire of this paper is twofold. First is to present the case that Jesus’ teaching applies to personal ethics when one has been seriously or even modestly offended but is not addressed to change governmental laws and policy. It is a personal ethic for the disciple of Christ and not a governmental one. Secondly, that the practice of this ethic is not confined to the synagogue or believing community of Jesus’ disciples (by later application the church) but is intended also for the public square. In other words Jesus’ teaching is to be personally applied by the disciple of Jesus in a practical way in the public square resulting in a powerful testimony of Christ-like discipleship. The most pertinent illustration of these points is in fact Jesus himself who practiced his own ethic in the public square.

The Nature Of The OT Law

Imagine yourself for a moment in an ancient situation where you and your family lived in a place with no police force, no courts, no local, state, or federal government – no king or other authority ruling over you or the people around you. Then one day as you are going about your business, you are shocked with the news that one of your neighbors had intentionally and maliciously hit your daughter so hard that four of her teeth are permanently knocked out. What would you do? There is no authority to report it to – to seek justice. What if the situation was worse, and your child was intentionally killed? You would probably want to take the matter into your own hands and seek retribution, maybe even to the point of blood revenge. Perhaps you would try to impose the same type of injury on the attacker that he imposed. Maybe you would even want to punish him in greater degree than his offense. After you take revenge, the attacker’s family may feel that they have been mistreated and may want to respond, setting up a cycle of retaliation and revenge between you and them – the Hatfields and the McCoys so to speak.4 So the institution of the lex talionis into the Mosaic law for the nation of Israel and the ruling authorities was in this writer’s view a real advancement for the cause of justice designed to prevent personal actions of retaliation and revenge. The injured person or relative of the injured person could go to the governing judicial authority in Israel to seek justice. But what should the appropriate punishment be in the case of murder or maiming? This is where the law comes into play: “a life for a life,” “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth.” The punishment must fit the crime – no more than the crime but also no less. It was strict but fair. It was also designed to prevent and deter such crimes. It was there to remove punitive actions for crimes from the hands of the victim and his family and put them into the hands of the governing judicial system. It was designed as a principle of proportional justice. It was also designed to appropriately punish the offender.

This is the irony and abuse of how people misunderstand this law. It is misapplied now the same way it was at the time of Jesus. A law that was designed to prevent actions of personal retaliatory revenge is used to justify it! The misapplication of the law would say if someone slaps you on the cheek, slap him back (after all “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). If someone sues you, sue him back. If you are forced to go a mile by a Roman soldier, resist and fight back. Jesus is trying to confront that type of teaching and mindset. The lex talionis is stated explicitly three times in the Old Testament. First, in Exodus 21:22-25, it is cited in a way that protected a pregnant woman and her child from death or injury that might occur if two men were in a fight. Second, in Leviticus 24:17-22, it is applied generally to any case where a crime of murder or intentional maiming occurred. This text is the most clear that for the judicial authorities, the law applied to both capital punishment and maiming punishments to be carried out in kind.5 Third, in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, it occurs in a passage to prevent perjury and using the court to execute or punish an otherwise innocent individual.6 It is this latter passage that Jesus specifically seems to have in mind as background for his teaching.7

Non-Retaliation: A Personal Ethic

The audience of the Sermon on the Mount relates to a proper application of Jesus’ teaching on the lex talionis. Certainly, Jesus is speaking to the disciples and in a more general sense the crowds (Matt 5:1),8 but are the exhortations, such as teaching on the lex talionis, to be applied on an individualistic basis only or is the believing community also to implement them on a societal or governmental level? Related to this issue is the larger question of the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount.

The message of John the Baptist and Jesus was the same, that one must repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matt 3:2; 4:17). Entrance and participation in that kingdom was a major concern (Matt 5:20; 7:21). The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five large discourse units in the book of Matthew, each of which ends with the structural marker, “When Jesus had finished . . . “(Matt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1).9 Leading up to and including the Sermon on the Mount, there is a significant emphasis on righteousness (Matt 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33) and the kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19, 20, 21; 6:33; 7:21). After the Beatitudes and some additional instruction, a discourse unit on the law is introduced (Matt 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus states that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. This unit sets up the six antithetical statements.

Matthew describes six antithetical statements characterized by the language, “you have heard that it was said . . . . but I tell you” (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, and 43-44). The teaching on the lex talionis comprises the fifth antithesis. In the first portion of the antithesis (“you have heard that it was said”) a citation of the law is given, and in some cases additional sayings. The first is murder (Matt 5:21; Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17), the second adultery (Matt 5:27; Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18), the third divorce (Matt 5:31; Deut 24:1-3), the fourth oaths (Matt 5:33; Lev 19:12; Num 30:2; Deut 23:21), the fifth the lex talionis, and the sixth loving your neighbor (Matt 5:43; Lev 19:18). In addition to Matthew 5:20, the first portion of the antitheses also provide indication that Jesus is not merely giving his interpretation of the OT but also addressing Pharisaic and scribal interpretation and practice. In regard to the prohibition to murder on the first antithesis, the statement is added, “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court (Matt 5:21).” In regard to loving your neighbor on the sixth antithesis the statement is added “and hate your enemy (Matt 5:43).” These two statements are not found directly in the OT law and strongly suggest Jesus is not only addressing the OT, but the teaching of Jewish leadership and/or mindset of the populace. The second portion of the antitheses should be seen as Jesus’ establishment of his standard of righteousness for his kingdom program.

Based on the OT context it seems that OT lex talionis was to be implemented on a societal and governmental level in a judicial process for the nation of Israel. The commands were directed to the nation’s leadership in the matters of law and justice on how to punish violators of the law in regard to killing and maiming. In the Matthean context, however, Jesus has changed the focus and perspective. Certainly it is addressed to the “community” of disciples but only from the perspective of the victim or person offended. It is what one does when slapped, or sued to take a shirt, or forced to go one mile, or asked for money. It is not directed specifically to the government, courts, or judges on how to punish offenders or carry out the law on a societal level. However, as a community would begin implementing such gracious conduct, the legal system would certainly be affected in that there would less need for it. Offenses are handled, diffused and reconciled on a personal level, although with personal sacrifice on the part of the offended, without resorting to the court or other forms of personal retaliation. It is designed to diffuse conflict from the bottom up as part of Jesus’ encouragement to be a peacemaker (Matt 5:9).

Non-Retaliation: An Ethic For The Public Square

Matt 5:38 begins with the first portion of the antithesis. The audience of the disciples in the inner circle and surrounding crowd had often heard the talionic formula an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They had not just read it but heard it said; they knew it; it was in three prominent passages of the Torah; it was an easily memorable OT ethic and likely under well known discussion and debate (See attached Table for summary of the primary passage in the Babylonian Talmud as illustrative of a possible first century type of a debate (B. Baba Qamma 83b-84a)).

The formula itself is stated without the first OT element “life for life” as it had already been separated from the entire formula in the Jewish exegesis and debate.10 The next two elements in line, “eye” and “tooth,” are then given prominence in the equation. They represent an ethic of proportional and retaliatory justice. The formula itself is expressed in elliptical form and proverbial fashion without the verb give (e.g., δώσει Exod 21:23 (LXX)).11 The use of the Greek preposition ἀντι further supports the OT replacement and substitutionary motif of תַּחַת. The preposition can be used in a replacement or equivalent sense. According to BAGD it means, “to indicate that one person or thing is, or is to be, replaced by another instead of, in place of, . . . [or] in order to indicate that one thing is equiv. to another for, as, in the place of . . . .12 A valid interpretation then is: an eye as a replacement in equivalatory justice for an eye, and a tooth as a replacement in equivalatory justice for a tooth.

Verse 39 introduces the teaching of Jesus on the matter (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν). The use of the pronoun ἐγω. in the clause appears to indicate emphasis while the δὲ points to at least a mild contrast.13 At this point Jesus sets forth his general principle on the talionic ethic, “Do not resist the evil person (μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ).” The principle will be followed by four concrete applications. In the general principle, the use of the negative particle μη introduces a prohibition in an independent clause. It is followed by the aorist active infinitive ἀντιστῆναι and as such the action is being viewed as a whole. In several background texts lexically ἀντιστῆναι14 is appropriate for resisting or opposing in the context of court (Deut 19:18), resisting in context of Roman rulership (Jos. War 2.357)15 and in general resisting the evil man (Philo Migr. Abr. 61).16 The illustrations that follow require that a broader understanding of the verb be applied in this context than limiting it to resistance in court or toward insurrection. Used in connection with the talionic formula one must also see an overlapping semantic concept of retaliation included, the exercise of retaliatory justice through the courts or worse, taken into one’s own hands. This aspect of understanding could be somewhat lost through the English translation of “resist” which can communicate a passive idea, but the verb in Greek is active. The prohibition then is not to actively resist (or retaliate). But can one just passively resist? No, the converse side of the instruction makes it clear that positive, not passive, actions will be required in Jesus’ program of righteousness.

The general principle calls not to resist τῷ πονηρῷ. Three major options exist for the meaning of τῷ πονηρῷ: Satan, evil in general (cf. KJV), or the evil person. Πονηρός is found seventy-eight times in the NT, including twenty-six times in Matthew. With the article, πονηρός is found 30 times in the NT including eight times in Matthew (Matt 5:37, 39; 6:13; 12:35. 45; 13:19. 38, 49).17 It is clear that depending on the context, it can refer to the devil (e.g., Matt 13:19), evil in general (e.g., Mark 7:23) or the evil man (e.g., Matt 12:35a). Sometimes if a masculine or neuter form is clear from the morphology it is an aid in interpretation, however in this case (i.e., Matt 5:39) the masculine and neuter form of the dative case are identical.

So what is the best understanding of Matthew 5:39? From the outset it is difficult to understand how Jesus could be teaching not to resist Satan. In using the same verb, James and Peter inform us we are to resist him (Jms 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9). It is not possible that both of their teaching could be so disconnected from that of Jesus. It is true that the terminology is used of Satan elsewhere, but the immediate context must be determinative.18 Evil in general (e.g., KJV)19 also seems unlikely since elsewhere in the NT we are to abstain from evil that may come into our personal lives (e.g., Mark 7:23). Instead, the primary background OT text passage of Deuteronomy 19:19 (LXX) teaches that the τὸν πονηρὸν is the person who is a false witness. The applications that Jesus gives following the general principle strongly argue that Jesus has the “evil person” in mind. The semantic generic category of an evil person (Matt 5:39), a false witness in Deuteronomy, becomes an expanded set of referents to follow (Matt 5:39-42). The negative command stated as a prohibition, turns a corner with the sharp contrasting conjunction ἀλλά. This reverses the context from prohibition to positive command. Jesus first states what not to do in principle; next he will follow with what to do in specific.

While one could make a good case that all the examples that Jesus gives on when not to retaliate is for the public square perhaps the clearest example is the command to go the extra mile in verse 41. The Greek word ἀγγαρεύω (Latin form is angariare) derives from a Persian loanword.20 Commandeering was an ancient practice imposed by ruling governments that required public service by a subservient people.21 Not surprisingly it was abused and viewed as a heavy burden on the subjected populations.22 It was employed by Solomon in the building of the Millo and repairs to the city (1 Kgs 11:28). It was also used in Israel during the reign of Asa in which no one was exempt from carrying away stones and timber to deplete Baasha’s building supplies (1 Kgs 15:22).23 The Greek word ἀγγαρεύω is rare in the biblical writings with the only other occurrence of it found in Matthew 27:32 and a parallel passage in Mark 15:21. This is the case of Simon of Cyrene, who is forced into service by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross.

In verse 41 the use of the indefinite relative pronoun ὅστις indicates the wide openness of the referent in an implicitly conditional sentence, though undoubtedly the one compelling transport services would have to be in a position of authority such as a political leader or a soldier. Compulsion by a gentile in occupational power could be surmised as being particularly distasteful and offensive worthy of avoidance and resistance. The Roman backdrop here is strongly indicated by the use of ἀγγαρεύσει and the Latin loan word μίλιον. Μίλιον should not be confused with the English mile. It literally means one thousand paces, but became a fixed length of eight stades=4,854 feet =1,478 meters.24

The request/order is that you go one mile (ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν). The first potential response is active resistance, physical retaliation in a likely futile attempt at combat. The second potential response is more of a passive resistance, verbal denial of the request or flight when asked. The third potential response is physical compliance with the request. Meet the minimum requirement and go with him one mile, no more and no less. This response would at least allow for a negative attitude and perhaps comments of complaint and resentment. Jesus recommends none of these. Instead he commands with the present active imperative to go with him two (ὕπαγε μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ δύο).

Many of the Jews despised the Roman occupation. In 66/67 A.D., they started a futile revolt only to be crushed and killed. The temple would be destroyed. Many of them may have wanted a Messiah like Judas Maccabeus who would overthrow the Roman occupation, set up Israel as an independent nation once again, and restore their national hopes. The context of national and messianic hopes must have made Jesus’ teaching on compulsory service all the more jarring and astonishing to His audience.

If Jesus’ ethic of non-retaliation extends to the public square how might this reconcile with being a Christian soldier, or policeman or judge functioning as a representative of the governing authorities. Luz summarizes that the pre-Constantine church generally favored the rigorist line of interpretation, rejecting the entrance of a Christian into the army, the willingness to physically give up one’s clothing, and teaching literally not to strike back if hit etc.25 The father of the “mitigating” interpretation for both Catholics and Protestants, Luz writes, is Augustine. In regard to Matthew 5:38f, he cites Augustine as trying to defuse the conflict between the demands of Jesus and the demands of the state, by stating that Jesus’ commands apply “more to the preparation of the heart which is internal” and that “just war,” punishment, and even capital punishment are legitimate functions of the state but should be carried out with a proper spirit without hatred. Since none of the examples that Jesus gives relate to a person carrying out duties for the State perhaps one could make a case that a legitimate State function such as directing a punishment for an offender is not really within the scope of Jesus’ teaching since the Christian is not exacting personal retaliation but executing the duties of the State. But even in these acts the Christian would have to have a clear conscience that the action is appropriate from a governmental perspective or either withdraw from the action or seek a change in the course of action.

Jesus’ Example Of Non-Retaliation In The Public Square

One of the primary issues in determining the applicability of Jesus’ teaching for today is whether or not Jesus really expected compliance with his commands. Or was it and is it beyond the realm of reasonable expectation? Was Jesus using hyperbole to make a point or as an attention getting device, or was he expecting real action of the sort he describes? The literal approach is sometimes ridiculed as being unrealistic, or being absurd such that the giving up of an inner garment would result in having to go naked in public. One place to look that might influence one’s response to this issue is the example of Jesus himself. Did he in essence follow his own instructions in a concrete fashion, which was consistent with his ethic relating to the lex talionis? In addition the context of the following examples points to Jesus practicing this ethic in the public square.

Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26

These passages show Jesus’ nonresistance to the foreign rulership of Rome in relation to taxes. As he is questioned by the Herodians on the unpopular issue of paying taxes to Rome, he states that one should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-50; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:1-11

The initial arrest of Jesus perhaps most vividly portrays Jesus’ example of nonresistance against the “evil person.” Judas, the disciple who betrayed him, a Roman cohort (John 18:3), a multitude with swords and clubs, and the chief priests and elders all arrive to arrest Jesus. In retaliation to this arrest, Peter draws his sword to fight and cuts off the ear of Malchus (John 18:10), the slave of the high priest. Immediately, Jesus calls a cease to the action and tells his disciple to resheathe his sword. Then, expressing a talionic concept, Jesus gives the reason for his command not to fight in resistance. “For all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (᾿Απόστρεψον τὴν μάχαιράν σου εἰς τὸν τόπον αὐτῆς πάντες γὰρ οἱ λαβόντες μάχαιραν ἐν μαχαίρῃ ἀπολοῦνται)(Matt 26:52 cf. Jub. 4:31-32). It is not as though Jesus didn’t have the option of a successful resistance effort. He tells Peter that he could appeal to his Father and he would at once send “twelve legions of angels” in support (Matt 26:53). The aorist imperative, to turn the sword back (᾿Απόστρεψον), hearkens back conceptually, lexically and grammatically to the command to turn (στρέψον) the other cheek (Matt 5:39). The formulation of the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword also represents a fact of the talionic ethic that would have surely led to Peter’s death by sword, then and there, had Jesus not stepped in. However the primary tie lies in the active effort by Jesus not to resist the evil person. Indeed, true to his own system of righteousness, he goes beyond passive nonresistance to actively love his enemy by healing the ear of the high priest’s slave (Luke 22:51).

Matthew 26:57-67; Mark 14:53-65

At the trial before the high priest, false charges are brought against Jesus and he is spit on, slapped, and beaten. What is particularly relevant about this text is its tie to the primary OT text passage in Deuteronomy 19:15-20, which regards what to do with false witnesses. In this passage, the chief priests and council seek false testimony and many false witnesses come forward. As witnesses come forward, Jesus does not argue his case or resist. Instead Matthew records, “Jesus kept silent” (Matt 26:63). He does so until directly asked whether or not he is the Christ. In Matthew 26:67 during the trial scene, Jesus is insulted by the highest level of the Jewish government in most humiliating ways. He is spit on in the face, beat with fists and slapped. Τότε ἐνέπτυσαν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐκολάφισαν αὐτόν, οἱ δὲ ἐράπισαν. In addition to Matthew 5:39, this is the only other place in the NT where ράπιζω is used and it references a face slap to Jesus. Again Jesus follows a standard of non-retaliation verbally and physically, though it is within his power to do so (cf. Is 50:6; Lam 3:30; Mark 14:65).26

Matthew 27; Luke 23:34

The nonresistance of Jesus to “the evil person” continues from these scenes all the way to the crucifixion. He did not resist or offer a defense before Pilate, who, while recognizing his innocence, nonetheless condemns him to die (e.g., Matt 27:11-26). Before the soldiers he is scourged, stripped, mocked, and beaten only to be taken and crucified (e.g., Matt 27:27-37); he is mocked by the crowds and the robber(s) next to him (Matt 27:38-44), yet has the strength of character to not resist but beyond that to declare, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

John 19:23-24

In John 19:23-24, both of Jesus’ garments are given up to the Romans. It is a fulfillment text of Psalm 22:18. It reads: Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments (τὰ ἱμάτια) and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic (τὸν χιτῶνα). Now the tunic (ὁ χιτὼν) was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. 24 They said therefore among themselves, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,” that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots” (John 19:23-24). What is significant about this text is that Jesus gives up both his inner and outer garments to the Romans. Of course they are taken away, but the entire gospel backdrop is that all of these events are done voluntarily by Jesus in concert with his and his Father’s will.


Jesus’ teaching on the lex talionis represents a new perspective, different from that of the OT lex talionis texts. It is integrally tied to his introduction of a standard of righteousness for his eschatological kingdom program. Jesus addresses the disciples and crowds concerning offending situations from the perspective of the offended, while the law on the lex talionis addressed it from the perspective of what to do with the offender.

Instead of personal retaliation either direct or through the courts based on a talionic type of ethic, Jesus prohibits in a generic way resistance against the evil person. The examples to follow include settings both in and out of a court environment. Turning the commands to the positive in a specific way, Jesus illustrates that the evil person, from the perspective of the person offended, is the person who slaps you, or sues for your garment, or forces you to go a mile or makes a financial request either for charity or loan. These situations are put in descending order as to the severity of offense. Thus, the backhanded slap would be the most offensive while the request to borrow money would be the least.

Jesus’ commands personalize and in a certain sense, put the talionic ethic into reverse. He urges going in an opposite direction than proportional retaliatory justice both in attitude and in action. He commands to turn the other cheek exposing it to a further strike; he commands giving up your second piece of clothing when only sued for one; he commands going two miles when only required to go one; he commands giving when asked and not turning away when asked to loan not on the condition of repayment. The commands Jesus gives are difficult but not impossible.27 As Tannehill well put it they border “on the edge of the possible.”28 They seem extreme from the average person’s perspective but not out of character in regard to other teachings of Jesus or the example he set for believers to follow. It is a personal ethic for the disciple of Jesus.

The contexts of the practice of such an ethic while appropriate and needed for the church and family (cf. 1 Pet 3:8-9) is not limited to the confines of the believing community. In addition to Jesus’ personal example, the case of practicing the ethic before a Roman soldier provides perhaps the clearest example that the ethic Jesus is discussing extends to the public square.

But someone might say “No one has ever given me a backhanded slap, sued for my clothes, forced me to carry a pack for a mile, or asked me for a loan as a really needy person.” But the point is these are just examples of offending situations. You have to plug in the particular situation that is offending you, and apply the principle of not only foregoing retaliation, but instead taking a stunning action that gives your offender a blessing.

1 This paper was given at the 2006 National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Washington D.C. For more information on this topic especially relating to the early views of Judaism on the lex talionis see James F. Davis, Lex Talionis in Early Judaism and the Exhortation of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42 (JSNTSup 281; London: T & T Clark International, 2005).

2 Or “Do not retaliate against the evil person.”

3 The term lex talionis itself comes from the ancient Roman law of the Twelve Tables 8.2: Si membrum rupsit, ni cum eo pacit, talio esto. Twelve Tables 8.2. E. H. Warmington, trans. and ed., Remains of Old Latin, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 477. A translation of this text is, “when anyone breaks a member of another, and is unwilling to come to make a settlement with him, he shall be punished by the law of retaliation.” S. P. Scott, trans., The Civil Law—Including The Twelve Tables, The Institutes of Gaius, The Rules of Ulpian, The Opinions of Paulus, The Enactments of Justinian, and the Constitutions of Leo: Translated from the Original Latin, Edited, and Compared with All Accessible Systems of Jurisprudence Ancient and Modern (Cincinnati, OH: Central Trust Company Publishers, 1932), 1:70. The Roman law is dated to have been established about 451— 450 B.C. H. F. Jolowicz, Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 4.

4 Genesis 34 records an actual incident like this between Jacob’s family and the family of Shechem. After Jacob’s daughter Dinah is physically abused, Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek revenge by first deceiving Shechem’s family into getting men circumcised, and then they take the retaliatory action of killing all the males. Of course, it is clear from later in Genesis 49:5-7 that God did not approve of this action.

5 There are numerous examples of capital punishment in the Old Testament, but the only example of a maiming punishment is Judges 1:6-7: Then Adoni-Bezek fled, and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 And Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to gather scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.” Even Adoni-Bezek, who gets maimed here, recognizes the justice of his penalty – thumb for thumb and toe for toe.

6 See Davis, Lex Talionis in Early Judaism, 37-54 for a full examination of these passages.

7 Jesus’ teaching on the lex talionis is tied directly to the passage in Deuteronomy 19:15-20 by the use of the lex itself (Deut 19:21; Matt 5:38), the reference to the resistance (ἀνθίστημι) (Deut 19:18 (LXX), Matt: 5:39) and the reference to the evil person (πονηρός) (Deut 19:19-20 (LXX), Matt 5:39).

8 Guelich notes that the disciples formed the “inner circle” of the audience, while the crowds formed the “outer circle.” Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 51.

9 Ibid., 54.

10 A Jewish monetary interpretation of the maiming elements, while a literal application of “life for life” remained, seems to have been what led to the separation of these two portions of the formula in the literature (e.g., y B. Qam. 8.1, Mek. Exod.; Megillath Taanith) leaving the first two elements of the eye and tooth in the predominant position. Josephus also has the maiming law in a separate discussion (Jos Ant. 4.280). This sheds light on why, when Jesus cites the text in Matthew 5, the first part of the formula “life for life” is absent. When or over what period of time this took place one cannot say, but clearly by the time of Jesus the elements are separated.

11 The observation is made that “all sorts of verbs are omitted in formulae and proverbs which tend to be expressed in laconic form.” F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. and rev. by Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 254.

12 BAGD, 73.

13 While δε is not normally seen as a strong contrasting word, BAGD notes it can be used to emphasize a contrast or bring out a separation. Ibid., 171.

14 The Greek word ἀνθίστημι occurs fourteen times in the NT (Mt. 5.39; Lk. 21.15; Acts 16.10; 13.8; Rom. 9.19; 13.2 bis; Gal. 2.11; Eph. 6.13; 2 Tim. 3.8 bis; 4.15; Jas 4.7; 1 Pet. 5.9). BAGD cites the general meaning of “set against” but notes that in the literature it has the verbal middle sense with the meanings of “set oneself against, oppose, resist, withstand.” (BAGD, 67) In Paul’s writings ἀνθίστημι is used of resisting or opposing God (Rom. 9.19), or God’s ordinance in relation to governments (Rom. 13.2), or the truth (2 Tim. 3.8; 4.15). Romans 13.2 (ὥστε ὁ ἀντιτασσόμενος τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ διαταγῇ ἀνθέστηκεν, οἱ δὲ ἀνθεστηκότες ἑαυτοῖς κρίμα λήμψονται.) provides the general principle not to resist the governmental authorities; for Paul this would have been the Roman government. In this passage ἀνθίστημι is used synonymously with ἀντιτᾳσσω. The Greek word ἀντιτᾳσσω also means oppose or resist. Thus, Jesus’ call not to resist the Roman soldier is seen echoed in Paul’s teaching on the Christian’s relationship to the governing authorities. Ephesians 6:13 is a call to put on the full armor of God so that one may be able to resist in the evil day (ἀντιστῆναι ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ πονηρᾷ). This citation is lexically close to the passage in Mt. 5:39, but the evil is not specified as a person but the “evil day.” James 4:7 gives a perspective that one should submit to God but resist the devil (ἀντίστητε δὲ τῷ διαβόλῳ). This passage is notable since commentators have rightly recognized the influence of the Sermon on the Mount in James. However in this passage the command is to resist, while in Mt. 5:39 the command is not to resist (μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ). This is a strong argument that the evil person in Mt. 5:39 is not to be identified with the evil one, the devil, who is specified in Jas 4:7. First Peter 5:8-9 is also a call to resist the devil (ὁ ἀντίδικος ὑμῶν διάβολος. . . . ᾧ ἀντίστητε).

15 Josephus, Jewish War 2.357 is a reference to a speech made by Agrippa to dissuade the Jews against rebellion. It reads, “But our forefathers and their kings, though in wealth and in vigour of body and soul far your superiors, yet failed to withstand a small fraction of the Roman army; and will you, to whom thraldom is hereditary, you who in resources fall so far short of those who first tendered their submission, will you, I say, defy [ἀνθιστασθε] the whole Roman empire?”

16 In Migr. Abr. Philo is expressing concern about people joining with the multitude to do evil. It reads, “Now, in the judgment of men the multitude of the unjust is preferred to the single just; and He charges the just never to agree with the multitude. . . . Should we then be so with few? Nay, not with any bad man [φαυλου]: and the bad man, one though he be, is made manifold by wickedness, and to range oneself by his side is a very great disaster: on the contrary it behooves us to resist [ανθιστασθαι] him and be at war with him”. Philo teaches that one must resist the “bad man” and be at war with him, which serves as a notable comparison with Jesus on the matter. For Jesus the “evil person” is the person who offends you and Jesus teaches not to resist him. In Philo, the “bad man” is wicked in his own character and actions and is to be resisted.

17 Accordance 4.3. Oak Tree Software, Altamonte Springs, FL.

18 Banks argues based on usage in 5:37, 6:13, 13:19, 38 that it must refer to Satan but the near context does not point as clearly in this direction. Robert Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition, Society for New Testament Monograph Series, 28 ed. Matthew Black and R. McL. Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 197.

19 The NKJV updated this phrase in the KJV from “evil” to “evil person.” This writer’s understanding based on the late NKJV General Editor Dr. Arthur Farstad is that the NKJV would not change an interpretation of the KJV unless the Committee thought the KJV rendering was definitely wrong.

20 BAGD, 6.

21 See the following for numerous examples of forced transport in the inscriptions, papyri and other literature. G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1976, vol. 1 (North Ryde Australia: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1981), 36-45; and S. R. Llewelyn, and R. A. Kearsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1982-83, vol. 7. (North Ryde, Australia: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1994), 58-92.

22 Llewely and Kearsley summarize the literature. “The documentary evidence adduced above has highlighted both the heavy burden which angareia imposed on subject populations and the ever present problems posed by abuse. These burdens and abuses were experienced no less in the Roman province of Syria than elsewhere.” Llewelyn, and Kearsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 87.

23 While examples of compliance with laws of commandeering are seen in literature of early Judaism negative attitudes concerning forced labor is clearly present in the materials (y. Ber. 1.1; b. Yoma 35b). In commenting on the OT, Israelite participation in forced labor is also strongly condemned, which even was directed toward Abraham, Asa and Solomon. The feelings appear to be quite strong such that the literature condemns a popular figure like Abraham for the practice, and extols the merits of Jeroboam—who split the Israelite kingdom and promoted idolatry—over Solomon for rebuking Solomon for this (b. Ned. 32a; b. Sota 10b, 46b; b. San 101b).

24 BAGD, 521.

25 In the post-Constantine era these views continued in more minority groups: the Waldesians, Francis of Assisi, Wycliffites, Erasmus, Schwenkfeld, the Anabaptists, the Quakers, Tolstoy (he also mentions Gandhi) and Albert Sweitzer. Ibid., 331.

26 Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, And be full of reproach (Lam 3:30). I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting (Is 50:6)(NKJV).

27 Cohen gives one Jewish viewpoint of how the difficult the message would have been able to be received by the Jews. “The ultra-violent reaction of the gospels to the legal principle of retaliation with an extremely pacifist unworldly ethic of nonresistance to evil would have struck the rabbis of the Talmud as an unrealistic interpretation of a goal realizable only by a few saints on earth, for the Torah was not intended for angels.” Boaz Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1959), 208.

28 Robert C. Tannehill, “The ‘Focal Instance’ as a Form of New Testament Speech: A Study of Matthew 5:39b-42,” 284.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Ethics, Sanctification

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