This will be the final installment of this series, and indeed the shortest post of them all. If you have stuck with me thus far, thank you! If not, stop reading now, and go to part 1, then read part 2, and part 3 before going any further.
Today we will end with some tangible thoughts on how I think these ideas and facts intersect with modern Western Christianity. I will offer some critique for the modern church that, though it might sound a bit harsh, is said out of a love for her and her mission in this world.
The Slow Fade Into Worldliness
In the pre-Constantinian age, the voices of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Justin, and Hippolytus spoke in unison, condemning the use of violence and military service in the kingdom of God. The idea of taking up the sword to defend the church was never in the minds of the early Christians, for they knew that the most potent weapon they wielded against the empire was their peace, their pacifism. It was not until the time of Constantine that the lines between the empires of earth and the kingdom of God began to blur. It was when Christians inherited the power to command earthly armies that Christians began to meld these two worlds together, and rather quickly, the cross itself, the antithesis of the sword, began to be emblazoned on weapons of war, shields, and helmets. As Christianity merged with Emperor Constantine’s rule and began to receive the benefits of power, it also began to shift its views of the use of violence. Eventually, pure pacifism would give way to a ‘just war’ mindset. The change a slow and gradual one, but once the cross and the sword had been united, Christians would not be able to regain the courage to separate them again until this very day.
Critiquing the Modern Church
It seems that most of the world has always understood that Jesus taught non-violence; most, that is, except for Christians. For many in the modern evangelical church, the answer to violence in the world today is more violence, and the gun has replaced the sword. The now infamous words of the President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, (a self-proclaimed Christian) are forever seared in our collective minds: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”. And the majority of white Evangelical Christians in American seem to agree with this sentiment.
In American Christianity, the firearm seems to have risen to occupy an almost sacred position. The government-sanctioned right to “keep and bear arms,” as the 2ndamendment words it, “shall not be infringed,” and in some Christian circles, these government-given rights are spoken of as “God-given” rights. This divine infused language is not necessarily absent from the very words of the American constitution itself, which argues the “self-evident” truth that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas presumably necessitate the use of personal and deadly force against all those who would threaten those ideals. Like Rome, American ideals are upheld by the sword; by violence. And this scenario has once again put the church in a precarious situation.
Many American Evangelicals are so immersed in the American philosophy of life that it never occurs to them to seek the counsel of the church fathers or the writings of the Apostles to ascertain biblical instruction as to what Jesus Christ reveals about Gods will for his children. Much like in Tertullian’s day, some still point to the Old Testament violence as evidence that the people of God are free to use violence to purge the earth of those who would threaten them and our land. “If you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence,” they might say, “you can always use the Bible to try and find a loophole; you could point out the violence of 1 Samuel 15:3 to ‘Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies;’” And as Tertullian pointed out, that it is what some Christians will do. However, when we use the bible to silence Jesus in this way, we are using an account of the actions of an unfinished people (Israel) to silence the complete revelation of God in the world: Jesus. This is the same Jesus who said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting” (Jn 18:36).
The readiness of the modern church to prepare for war, to use violence, and to join in with the military operations of earthly empires is particularly troubling in light of the faith of the early church. The insinuation is that the martyr has no place in the 21st-century church; that the martyr is simply a fool without a gun whose life has been cut short for lack of firearms training. There seems to be no place in the modern church for the one who utterly refuses to kill, the one who believes that there are things far worse than death (like destroying the imago Dei in another). But if there is no “blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian would call it, then how will the world see the power of the cross to truly save?
The Christian, according to Tertullian, is the “son of peace.” She/he is the one who has traded the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, trading the sword for the cross. If the kingdom of God is to be present in the world, the bride of Christ must once again discover the cross’s power, for it is the power of God unto salvation.
Thus, as the Christian and Latin poet, Commodianus, declared, the Christian must “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Today we will look specifically at how the church fathers responded to the violence inflicted upon them. This is important as it pertains to discussions on self-defense (which we will touch on next week) and the role of the martyrs in the plan of God for evangelism and bringing others into the kingdom. This post addresses what the world sees and feels when they see Christians refusing to use violence in any form, even in the face of great violence against themselves.
Martyrdom as a Display of the Cross
The sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world. Martyrdom became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire. Long before persecution was systematized in January 250, Christians for two-hundred years had been choosing to lay down their lives (rather than fighting for them), dying for their faith (instead of killing for it) in various corners of the empire, and the influence of the martyrs cannot be understated.
It has always been so that, when the church suffers persecution, it grows faster and stronger than at times of peace. And while Roman’s believed that the persecution of the church would represent an unflattering advertisement to those looking to join Christianity, many who watched the Christians die ended up becoming Christians themselves. They marveled at those who would suffer such things and wondering what incredible power this faith must contain that people would ever die for it. Indeed, the courage to respond to violence with utter peace was something that Rome ultimately could not overcome in the war of ideology.
Public martyrdom is responsible for creating some of the greatest thinkers of the early church. Irenaeus of Lyons personally knew and was heavily influenced by the famous martyr, Polycarp, who had been ordained by the apostle John. He served the church during the persecution in what is now France, he spent the rest of his days defending the church against Gnosticism and Heresies, and he is believed to have been martyred near the turn of the third century.
Tertullian started as a well-educated and devout citizen of Rome but was converted to Christianity at the sight of their persecution. He was impressed with their courage and resolve as they were being thrown to lions and burnt alive in broad daylight. Long after his conversion, he is known to have written: “The more we are mown down by you, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Origen, one of the most influential figures in ancient Christianity, saw his father arrested and martyred when he was only 17 years old. He is known to have written a letter to his father, urging him to stand firm in the face of persecution, urging him not to forsake his faith and not to fear for the family he was leaving behind. As he grew, his greatest desire was to suffer the martyrdom that so many great church leaders endured, something that would ultimately escape him as he is known to have survived severe torture at the hands of the Romans for his faith. This torture left him broken, scarred, and unable to continue his work in his old age, but his courageous example of faithful and peaceful endurance of the evils of violent men was passed on to his pupils as well. Notably, during one particularly violent outbreak of persecution under emperor Decius, Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Origen’s pupils, actually survived persecution because of his peace and courage in the face of violence. The soldiers had been scouring the city for days searching for him, and they did not think of going to his house where they would have found him patiently and prayerfully awaiting his arrest and execution.
In AD 165, a debate ensued between Justin Martyr and a pagan philosopher called Crescens in which Crescens, having lost the debate, complained to the authorities that Justin was teaching a forbidden religion. Justin was swiftly arrested, and his trial was brief. He refused to make any sacrifices to the Roman gods before the courts, and together with six other Christians who also had been arrested for their faith, he was scourged and beheaded. He has been seen as an archetype of Christians in persecuted countries ever since, and the word martyr has been permanently transfixed to his name as a way of communicating to all other persecuted Christians that they are in good company.
And by far, the most exceptional example of peaceful Christ-like resistance is the life of Ignatius. Everything that we have of his, the information about his life and the writings of his hands, come to us from captivity while he was awaiting execution for his faith. He was arrested during the persecution of Antioch and was sent to Rome under the guard of ten soldiers. As they sailed west, he was frequently visited by other Christians whom he urged not to intervene with violence to free him. Instead, they are encouraged to let himself “be poured out as a libation to God while an altar is at hand.”
As Ignatius traveled, he wrote of how, through his mistreatment and his bonds, he had become more of a disciple than ever before, even praying that he might “benefit from the wild beasts prepared” for him. He knew that upon his death, the Christians would give him more of an ear than ever before, for the words of the martyr carry more weight than the words of regular men and women, and he knew that he must use this opportunity to edify and instruct the churches.
The letters men like Ignatius come to us from the path of the cross, instead of the sword. They display the power of the cross of Christ in ways that can never be diminished. The victory of the sword of Roman persecutors was swift, but it was temporary, for the world would quickly see the truth that Christ himself has shown us that the cross is stronger because it ends in resurrection. Rather quickly, the writings of the martyrs rose to places of prominence and authority in the church. The church began to gather annually over the graves of the martyrs to venerate and admire their faith, and to ask for strength to follow their examples. This tradition continues until today in some parts of the world.
The word pacifism is often confused with the idea of pacifying or letting the enemy have what they want. However, the actual meaning is found in the root Latin word pax (peace), and it means peace-making. According to Commodianus (250), the call of the Christian is to “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.” In the Roman empire, where the pax-Romana meant peace at the tip of a sword, the church fathers knew that Jesus taught non-violent peace-making. The passage of scripture that comes up more than any other in the writings of the church fathers is Isaiah 2:4-5, which says:
“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
The people of God were looking forward to a day when war, and training for war, would be a thing of the past. They believe that the age of the church was ushering in that day. They believed that they should now focus on planting and reaping, and on kingdom-building and worship, instead of war and survival. They believed that in Christ, God had indeed judged the nations and that it was now time to walk in the light of the Lord; that peace had finally come and was also still coming; that God’s realm was here already, though not yet fully present. Furthermore, they believed that, in this kingdom, there is no place for weapons of war.
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.
Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.
Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17
Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.
READ PART 1: HERE
This week we are diving into the theological arguments of the Early Church Fathers regarding the use of weapons (the sword in their day, the gun in ours) and their use (or lack thereof) to the Christian in responding to evil.
Tertullian’s Argument from Gethsemane
The theological argument for the pacifism of the church fathers comes directly from scriptures, and Tertullian made much of the interactions of Christ with weapons of war in his day.
Matthew 26 records an incident in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus and his disciples were directly confronted by men with swords (1st-century form of law enforcement) seeking to arrest Jesus and have him tried on trumped-up charges. One of the disciples, in an attempt to defend Jesus using violence, draws his sword, and according to Luke, striking a soldier with it. Instead of commendation from Jesus for standing his ground in defense, he receives a rebuke and a command to put the sword away.
So why did Jesus tell them to bring a sword if they weren’t allowed to use it? Luke (22:36-38) informs the readers that the reason he carried the sword was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (that the Messiah would be seen as a violent insurrectionist), and so that he could teach them that the kingdom of God would not be established through the sword, but rather through the cross.
Tertullian, referring to this episode in Gethsemane, says: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”
Skeptics will point out that chapter nineteen of Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” pertains explicitly to military service. However, Tertullian’s argument is not merely that a Christian cannot serve in the military because it is a rival master (although that argument is made there as well), but rather that a Christian cannot serve in the military because the Christian cannot bear the sword. The problem is not merely idolatry, but the use of violence against the image of God in others.
In Tertullian’s day, as well as our own, some choose to look past Christ to the Old Testament in order to justify the use of violence for modern Christians. We can see from his writings that some were arguing that, since Moses carried a rod, and since Aaron carried a buckle (to secure a weapon to his side), and since Joshua led a warring army, then it follows that the Christian might find it acceptable as one of Gods people to also engage in military service.
However, Tertullian will not allow Jesus to be silenced by the Old Testament. He points to Jesus, who heals the soldier that Peter struck with his sword and proclaims: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” 
For Tertullian and the early church fathers, Jesus is the full expression of God, and he has revealed God to be completely and utterly non-violent; choosing to go to the cross rather than to wield the sword.
A Unique People in the World
It is a fundamental understanding of the ancient church in the first two centuries that the Christian community is to be sanctified, set apart from the ways of the world. Paul, speaking directly to the church in Rome, did not diminish the importance of the uniqueness of the Christian life. In Romans 12, Paul explicitly instructs both Jewish and Gentile Christians gathering there to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”
Paul is expectant that the follower of Jesus will live a life that is remarkably different from the Roman culture that they are immersed in every day. For Paul, this uniqueness of life comes from the revelation of Christ, whose response to sin and violence leveled against himself on the cross was a willingness to forgive and restore.
Like Paul, Justin Martyr reflected on the words and the revelation of Christ. He describes the church as:
“we who hated and slew one another, and because of customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same from the God who is Master of all.”
Justin considers the rejection of violence and the ability to forgive and pray for enemies as one of the marks of God’s people; it is a part of our unique identity in the world.
Elsewhere Justin references the prophecy of Isaiah and says that Christians have “changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.” The implication here is that the church is a kingdom without weapons of war, for the church does not see war as a tool of any use to the world that they are working towards.
The fundamental answers that the church has to offer the world in response to evil is not the same answer that the kingdoms of earth are offering. If the church’s answer to evil is war, bloodshed, and violence, then our king is not unique, and our kingdom is just as “of this world” as any other. The church fathers understood that the power of the church to bring restoration to the world was rooted in its other-worldly answers. The strange dichotomy of the gospel is that victory comes through defeat, that life comes through death, and that peace comes through the cross, and not the sword.
We will look at how the sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world, and indeed became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire.
 Tertullian, On Idolatry,XIX.
 Justin, Apologia I, XIV. 3.
 Cadoux, Cecil John. 2015. The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. Kindle Location 1954.
The Same Way, or a New Way?
The response to evil in the world is something that the church claims to possess above all other claims. The church claims that the cross of Christ is the answer to those prone to violence, those quick to use the threat of physical violence to coerce, and to those who would attempt to bring peace at the tip end of a sword (or the barrel of a gun). Throughout human history, that answer has been to fight fire with fire; to use violence to try and end violence. Moreover, though the use of ‘redemptive violence’ (a term first coined by American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, Walter Wink) has grown to epic proportions over the last century as an answer to evil, violence in the 20thcentury has not been diminished. In fact, the 20th century was the most violent in human history. Despite the best efforts of good people, war and violence have never ceased for even a single day.
This series of posts will seek aim to clarify the position of the early church to present its answer to violence and war in the world, along with its response to those who would wield it. In this first post, I will look at the attitude of Christians towards the military, the next post will be an exploration of the church Father’s theology of Pacifism. In subsequent posts, I will outline the unique mindset of the Christians in the world that led them to reject the ways of the world, and in my final post, I will speak to the modern church about regaining this uniqueness and aligning herself once again with the power of the cross, and not the sword.
Military Service and the Church
Perhaps the most significant difference between the modern church and the church of the first and second-century has to do with their collective attitude towards military service, something that most American Christians naturally assume is an acceptable and even encouraged vocation for a follower of Jesus. Readers of first and second-century Christian writings are often surprised to find that there was no conversation about the merits of armed forces. In fact, it was assumed that being a follower of Jesus and being a soldier is incompatible.
From the end of the New Testament period to the about A.D. 170-80, there is no evidence whatsoever of Christians serving in the military.In the writings of the early church fathers, military abstention seems to be taken for granted. What is clear is that, outside of the biblical account of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8) and the jailor baptized by Paul (Acts 16:33), there is not a single reference to or record of a Christian serving in the military before 170 CE.
Hippolytus, one of the most important theologians of the second and third centuries, wrote a manual to help guide the church body in his day. In that document entitled The Apostolic Tradition, he states that “a military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor… he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”With that last sentence, Hippolytus is direct and clear in his statement that there is no place in the life of a member of the church for military service.
There are presumably several reasons for this, including the pagan insignia that soldiers were required to wear, and perhaps most of all, the early church would point to the fact that military service required an oath of allegiance made to both the emperor and the gods or the emperor as a god. However, the baptized Christian has been reborn into the service of Christ and Christ alone; they have a single allegiance, and therefore any allegiances given to others are incompatible with the Christian faith as the early Christians understood it. Indeed, they would have rejected any ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to any earthly state or nation. Those pledges would fall under the category of idolatry.
Another reason for the rejection of military service amongst the early church would be the matter of the shedding of blood. The Roman military was brutally violent, often making a public display of torturing and killing dissenters. One incident during the reign of Diocletian describes a Roman Proconsul traveling through the city of Tebessia in Numidia (Algeria) on a mission to recruit soldiers. He came upon a twenty-one-year-old Christian man named Maximilian and demanded that he serve in the third Augustan legion. The young man refused, citing the fact that his Christian faith forbids him to wear the seal around his neck because the seal of Christ had marked him. He was summarily executed as a warning to all passersby.
Besides Hippolytus and Justin Martyr, we also have the words of a protagonist writing against the practice of the Christians to refuse military service. Celsus, a pagan and a critic of Christianity, lashes out against the Christian community for their refusal to serve the empire. His words make it evident that he is well aware of the Christian position, and he argues that “if all men were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent the king from being left behind in utter solitude and desertion, and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians.”He argues that Christianity is a threat to the empire because Roman peace is upheld by the sword, which means that if Christianity spreads, there will be no more swords to uphold the empire at all!
This was not the first time that the Christian ethic of refraining from military service caused problems in the empire. Justin Martyr, in his The First Apology, writing to try and ease the fear of emperor Antoninus Pius, argued that Christians are no threat to the empire because our king is not an earthly and human one. Rather, it is a kingdom that cannot be seen, and which has been already inaugurated, only to be revealed when Christ returns. He quotes the Prophet Isaiah’s words about how his followers “will beat their swords into plowshares” and how they “will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,”all intended to stave any fears of a violent Christian uprising. He says: “We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ.”
Here, in chapter 39 chapter of Justin’s letter, he has set the tone for how the early Christians would exist in the world amongst other kings and kingdoms. The mere attempt to live a normal life in the Roman empire was often disrupted with challenges loyalty to Caesar over Christ. Christians might find themselves unable to buy, sell, or trade in the agora marketplace, a right which was often accessible only after offering incense to Caesar as a god. They would find it impossible to serve in seats of parliament, which required incantations and offerings to other kings and deities.
The propensity of the Romans towards the use of violence was not just limited to military culture, but the broader roman culture also. It was entirely normal to witness extreme acts of violence almost daily in the roman world; gladiators engaging in “blood sport;” men and women alike, fighting in the arena by torchlight in the evenings,and public executions were regular evening events, but these things offended the sensibilities of the Christians, keeping them away. Furthermore, Christianity, not being an officially recognized religion in the empire, was generally looked upon as a bizarre fringe group and a strange thing to be a part of. They were called anti–social for not taking part in attendance of the violent gladiator games; they were called atheists for not worshiping the local deities,and they were called cannibals because of the way they spoke about taking part in the eucharist. All of these things made them a threat to the empire, both culturally and politically.
It is clear then that, while the church was divided amongst many theological issues, there was unity amongst Christians about abstaining from military service. The first recorded instance of a member of the church serving the empire in this way comes to us around 173, listed amongst the ranks of the Thundering Legionunder Marcus Aurelius. From that day forward, the number of Christians amongst their ranks and other areas of government began to grow.
Tertullian confirms, in 197, in his Apology, the presence of Christians in the senate, the forum, and the military;and though he does not explicitly condemn the acts in this particular writing (which was intended to argue that Christians are good citizens and pose no threat to Rome), he also does not offer his support to these supposed members of the church serving earthly kings in this way. In fact, a rebuke of voluntary enlistment written by Tertullian just 15 years laterwill confirm his disapproval of the practice.
The growth of Christian presence in the military in the third century is also confirmed by the presence of two soldiers in Cyprian, apparently martyred during the persecution of Decius in 250, and a record of Galerius’s attempts to weed out the Christians from amongst his ranks.When the persecution broke wide, the Christians in the military were the first to suffer as a number of them are recorded as being executed.
But it is the Christian east which seems to have stood firm for a great deal longer. We have evidence that the Christians were far more inclined to reject taking up the sword in defense of the empire. One piece of that evidence is Origen’s rebuke of Celsus in 248, where he states plainly that where he comes from, “we do not fight under the emperor… although he require it.”
We will look at what Tertullian has to say about the episode with the sword in the garden of Gethsemane, and explore what it means for the church that Jesus commanded Peter to put away his sword.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace:a Historical Survey and Critical Reevaluation, 67.
John Howard Yoder. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 53.
Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, ch16.
Jonathan Hill, The First Thousand Years, 77.
Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 68-69.
Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 39.
Burge, Gary M. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, 72.
Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought,16.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace,68.
Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi.117-121.
Tertullian, De Corona Militis, XI.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace, 68.
Origen,Contra Celsum, VIII, 73.
Today I want to look at a strange verse in Romans. It goes like this:
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thristy, give them somethign to drink; for by doing this your wil heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These verses were very peculiar to me in my youth. A strange mixture of emotions. Both call to love enemies and also an affirmation that we do indeed hate our enemies and have a desire for them to suffer. There even seems to be a moment of gleeful and narrow-eyed satisfaction as your enemy is overcome by anger at the very thought of you doing something nice for them!
I have heard this passage become a method of revenge instead of a path towards reconciliation. I’ve even used it as such in my early pastoral years. There should be satisfaction when the two warring parties are brought together, but this passage seems to encourage bringing the other to a point of burning rage. A victory in the public relations realm. They come off looking bad, and you come off looking like a hero, rising above their petty sinfulness.
The Christian, then, can walk away with everything: both the piety that comes with righteousness and the smug comfort of revenge. But deep inside we know that this can’t be Christlike. What kind of God would take pleasure in the shaming and seething bitterness that others might carry for us?
It seems to be promoting exactly what modern psychology warns against being driven by, “I’ll show them” instead of “I’ll make things right with them.” The former being an unhealthy pattern of behavior that leads ultimately to failure, and the latter being healthy and life-giving.
One piece that we are missing in our interpretation of this passage is the simple picture that a first-century reader might have in their minds as they read about “heaping burning coals” atop the heads of their enemies.
So where do we begin to interpret this passage? Simple, we always start by trying to understand the mindset of the writer before we do any actual interpreting at all!
Paul is quoting a Proverbs possibly written a thousand years before the time in which he lived. It is found in Proverbs 25:21-22
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
This was a time when Israel was likely still carrying with them the imagery of Egypt, from where they came. After generations of slavery, the symbols and patterns of Egyptian temple worship worked their way into the language, the worship rituals, and the spiritual writings of the people of Israel. And some of these ideas stuck with them all the way into the time of the New Testament.
The picture of “burning coals atop the head” actually finds its origins in the ancient Egyptian repentance ritual (J.D.G. Dunn, 1998). In those days in Egypt, someone who wanted to make amends with someone else would carry coals of fire in a dish on their head as evidence of genuine repentance. It was the emotional act of someone who wanted to be forgiven for the wrong they had committed.
In this scenario, the person with the coals on their head is not angry, they are not bitter or envious or you, and they are certainly not wallowing in shame.
This text is meant to be taken in a positive sense, not a negative one. Any idea that the other should be shamed falls out of line with the love and grace of the previous paragraph that is firmly rooted in Jesus teachings in the sermon on the mount.
This passage is a call to love and to genuinely seek the flourishing of those who would desire to harm us. The love that flows from the heart of God is the only thing that can genuinely seep into their hardened shell and bring them to a place of repentance. It is a proclamation of hope for all those who simply cannot find peace with another. Paul is saying “it can be done, commit yourself to love and hold out hope that one day they will come walking towards you in a public act of repentance, seeking your forgiveness and embracing you as a friend!”
Loving and serving your enemy is not some psychological form of revenge. It is not meant to piously raise you up above them in order to “win.” These types of interpretations allow the hate within us to remain and even to grow.
The point of humbling ourselves to meet the needs of our neighbor is to bring them to a place of softening and eventually repentance. The desire of Christ is always reconciliation. Paul understood it as an expression of outgoing love seeking only good for the enemy, and this is how we should see it as well.
FYI: Skip to the bottom for my list of recommendations
Reading a commentary while you study the scriptures is the best way to ensure that you are correctly interpreting the text. There is no shortage of people, even pastors, interpreting and teaching the Bible without any help from biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to helping you better understand the text and interpret it the way that it was meant to be interpreted.
First off, you might be asking “what is a commentary?”. Well, it is a book (usually pretty large) that is written about a single book of the Old or New Testament. They move chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the text and are often times the culmination of years of arduous and intense scholarly work. It’s like having an expert in biblical interpretation walking you through the text, pointing out things that you might never have seen.
A good commentary will equip you with the tools that you need to read the text in a way that is well-informed and even life-changing. When the text is rightly interpreted, it can make you a more loving and content person and a blessing to those around you. When it is misunderstood and the meaning is simply guessed at or even twisted to fit our own agenda, the Bible can easily become a dangerous book that can bring out tribalism and even promote idolatry that hurts the world at large.
So as an avid commentary reader and one who has made a daily habit of expanding my Biblical literacy, I wanted to write some advice to put you the path to well-informed biblical interpretation. My hope is that you will eventually come to stand on your own and not rely on the interpretive skills of others, even more so, I want you to be able to spot bad interpretation in a sermon, a small group, or in the media. Too often we say to ourselves “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply don’t know why. Well, read these tips, grab a cup of coffee, and start interpreting.
#1 Choose a commentary from the last 25 years.
While certain long-established segments of Christianity tend to read commentaries from the 19th century, and all the way back to the medieval time period, I would recommend reading something much newer. Biblical scholarship has made huge strides in the recent half-century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naag Hamadi Codices, many things have changed:
– Our understanding of Judaism in the first century has been vastly altered, which affects how we read books like Romans and Ephesians.
– Our understanding of the Greek language has been greatly expanded. And with a deeper understanding of casual greek, many words have taken on more complex meanings.
– This is just the tip of the iceberg here, there are so many things that historians and archeologist have brought to the table, and this work is still being done, so try and keep up!
Despite what you have heard, biblical scholarship and how we understand the work of God and the church really does change with the academic work and scholarship of every generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, and it comes to new conclusions about how different texts should be read and understood. Newer commentaries will be interacting with both the theology of the past and the newer discoveries of the day.
#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at least for now).
Some people start reading commentaries, but they get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For instance, you might be reading Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew 11 and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, see something like this:
(Jos. Life 66; Theissen 1991:36).
This can get confusing because you might worry that you are missing something. Don’t worry, you aren’t. In fact, go ahead and assume that if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not for you.
But here’s a quick crash course anyways: The first part (Jos. Life 66) is letting you know that he learned what he just wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) is simply referencing a scholar named Theissen’s writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36.
Remember, you are not missing anything. Don’t feel like you are stepping into the middle of a conversation. If there was something important to know, it would be written in the text.
In time, you will learn to move right on by without even noticing them. And if you keep reading, one day you will see a reference to a scholar that you’ve already read in those parentheses, and you will suddenly say to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!”. It’s a great feeling!
#3 Don’t get bogged down in the details.
Most commentaries start with an introduction to the passage, then they move to a verse-by-verse analysis, then they end with a summary and some thoughts. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. That is where the scholar is bringing it all together.
The middle verse-by-verse will often be difficult to read. It will contain ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and will talk about how those words were used in their day. It will also often times take part in a debate with the commentaries that were written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given more argumentative support. It is okay to skip these parts if they are arduous and boring for you and move to the meat of the applicable material.
#4 There is no Rush!
For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, and their study habits tend to reflect that. They typically want to study large swaths of scripture in short periods of time. But the reason I love commentaries is that it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery of each paragraph. Walking slowly through the text and resisting the urge to rush through is a spiritual discipline that yields a ton of fruit.
So if you find yourself considering picking up a commentary (I highly recommend that you do!) Here are a few on my current commentary reading list on the book of Matthew which is what we are studying in the church where I minister (Watermark Tampa).
The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
(Thorough and contextual, but a bit pricey)
Donald A. Hagner: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33a, Matthew 1-13
(Very affordable, more scholastic. Focus on the Intro’s and Summaries of each passage)
Leander Keck: The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Volume 8)
(Well rounded and accessible, I would recommend this for a wide range of people)
Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A personal Favorite. Very easy to read!)
N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15
(Great for Beginners)
William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I (The New Daily Study Bible)
(Inexpensive, super easy to read, can be used as a daily reader.)
Brian K Blount: True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Covers entire New Testament in small bites from an African American Perspective)
Bruce Malina: Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
(Covers entire New Testament, fascinating social study of 1st century Culture, not theologically focused)
The Pharisees were absolutely committed to the law. In 1 Maccabees 2:35-8, we see just how far they would actually go. Under Judas Maccabaeus, they refused to fight on the Sabbath against Antiochus when he sent a detail of men to slaughter them in the caves in the wilderness.
“Let us all die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.” 38 So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and livestock, to the number of a thousand persons.
Fast forward to Matthew 12:9-14, which ends with the Pharisees (the religious elite) planning to kill Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. Jesus was indeed in violation of the law.
he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
It was permitted that a man could receive medical treatment to keep him from getting worse on the Sabbath, but he could not be made better. You could apply a bandage, but no ointment or salve. The penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death (Numbers 15:32-36).
Let us be clear, Jesus did not need to heal that man on the Sabbath. His hand was paralyzed and likely had been so for many years. He would be just as sick tomorrow. Jesus could have easily kept the law and healed the man. But in the eyes of Jesus, any law that kept someone from being made whole, any law that kept someone in suffering or extended their pain even for one day was to be ignored. Healing, love, and care always came first.
The dichotomy is clear:
Pharisees would rather see death than see the law broken.
Jesus would rather die under the weight of the law than allow another to suffer needlessly.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 has been used by the evangelical church at large as a sort of guide for the Christian ethic of divorce. Many teach that Jesus’ teaching is that divorce is only acceptable in cases of adultery, forcing many to stay in abusive relationships and others to suffer in strife for decades, out of a desire to be obedient to the teachings of Christ. It is also understood that Jesus forbids marrying some one who has been divorce, banishing those who have suffered a divorce to a life lived alone.
But is this really what Jesus was teaching his followers? Are victims of abuse forced to stay in the marriage because of a lack of sexual immorality? Are divorcees really forbidden from marriage again? I would argue that this is not the case at all and I am going to attempt to lay out an argument form scripture that points to a different conclusion, but one that I believe is in line with the intention that Jesus had in his teachings on divorce.
We will start with and focus mostly on Matthew 5, but will also look briefly at other NT passages as well, including Matthew 19 and Pauls words in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
The Setting of the text
These two verses sit within a segment of the Sermon on the Mount centered on what it truly means to “fulfill the law.” At its center the “Sermon on the Mount” insists that the motive with which we act matters even more-so than the action itself (This is the righteousness which surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus talks about in Mt 5:20. It is not mere obedience in the flesh, but acting from a heart of love). Jesus seems to be focusing in on laws which have been perverted from their original intent, and we shall see that Christ’s teachings on divorce are a prime example of this.
Jesus begins with the proclamation: “It has been said.” He then quotes a passage from the Torah (Deut 24:1-4):
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.”
This passage explicitly lays out the rules to divorce for the Israelites in the ancient world. It lists the commands that a woman should receive a certificate of divorce from her husband as a legal means of dissolving or annulling the marriage contract. To better understand the necessity of this law and its relationship Matthew 5:31-32, we must first take a look at the context in which Deuteronomy 24 was written.
Marriage and Divorce in the Ancient World
The ancient world was patriarchal. Women were a commodity, not considered equal with men and were entirely at the disposal of their husbands and fathers. Women could neither initiate marriage nor divorce. Marriage was initiated by a man, usually the woman’s father, and the betrothal was often was motivated by financial reasons (i.e. the financial strengthening of one house by joining it to another). Divorce was easy and swift. “A woman,” said the Rabbinic law, “may be divorced with or without her will; but a man only with his will.” A divorced woman was considered undesirable and would often be left with no resources and no one to care for her. J. Goldingay, writes: “When a husband initiates a divorce, it leaves the woman in an ambiguous position. Her rights need protecting.”
This need for protection is likely the reason for the command that husbands are to write a certificate of divorce for the women they were divorcing. The Torah assumes that divorce in a society is inevitable and therefore the “certificate of divorce” law seeks the minimization of suffering for the woman being divorced by offering protection for her. The certificate of divorce removes her shame and makes clear that she is not an adulteress, while also offering legal protection from her husbands family. And, according to Goldingay, “The assumption that her husband provides her with divorce papers making clear her status is one way the Torah seeks to offer that protection.”
Jesus emphasized this point in Matthew 19 when the pharisees approached and asked him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any reason.” Jesus’ reply enlightens the reader about the intentions of the law:
“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard’.”
Jesus claims that the need for the instructions for divorce in the Torah arise from a hardness of heart and a lack of compassion for the women who were being discarded without legal protection and without a hope of finding stability in their lives again. Women abandoned in this manner regularly ended up as sex workers and prostitutes just to survive. David Instone-Brewer, writing about divorce women in the first century, claims that “Unless you have grown sons who are strong enough to work the land (without the help of tractors and weed killer), you have very few choices. There are few professions for women.”
In light of the context of this passage, both the necessity for and the justice of the commands in Deuteronomy 24 become apparent. Divorced women needed protection, and this law gave it to them.
But if the law as written is already concerned for justice, why is Jesus amending it? Why does he include it in his “you have heard it said” statements, and then proceed to correct it and even go into more in-depth detail than the Mosaic law? The surprising answer to that question becomes apparent in light of a broader conversation that was happening in the 1st century and a conversation into which Jesus enters, and even takes sides. It was a debate about the ethics of divorce.
Divorce in the Second Temple period (530-70CE)
There were several schools of Jewish law in the 1st century, and at the two opposite ends of the spectrum there was the school of Hillel, which was considered far more liberal and generous in practice, and there was the school of Shammai, the more stringent and conservative school. At the center of Hillel focus after loving God was loving your neighbor as yourself. Hillel likely played more “fast-and-loose” with the Torah than any other school in its day. The Shammai were the exact opposite. They were strict and austere, they followed the law to the very letter and even built a hedge of laws around the most important laws to ensure that none were broken.
Until just before the first century, there was an almost universal understanding of how to interpret the divorce commands in Deuteronomy 24, simply put: divorce was only permitted in instances of sexual immorality. So the limits that Moses had places upon divorce were observed and followed.
Leading up to the time of Christ, and during his own lifetime, other views had begun to emerge concerning the ethics of divorce and alternate interpretations of Deuteronomy 24. The disagreement was mainly between the two schools. It started just a few decades before Jesus, and it was centered around Hillel’s new interpretation of what verse 1 meant when it said; “if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her….” His new view of divorce was called the “Any Cause” divorce. The phrase comes from his reading of verse 1 as a man divorcing his wife “because he has found a cause of sexual immorality.” He concluded that due to the spurious use of the word “cause”, this must be referring to something other than sexual immorality that was equally grounds for divorce.
The followers of Hillel began teaching that a woman could be divorced for any reason whatsoever, basically overturning the exact reasoning behind the original Mosaic law. They had found a loophole, and it would begin to be exploited to extreme degrees. Keener notes, “The School of Hillel understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast (“any matter”-m. Gittin 9:10; Sipre Deut. 269.1.1).” Hillel believed that as long as a man gave his wife a certificate of divorce, then he wasn’t breaking the Mosaic law.
As was his way, Hillel had found a way to apply the scriptures liberally, except this time it was to great harm. Women began to be thrown out and divorced for any and every reason that the men found cause, and many women found themselves without protection, honor, and provisions for their daily life. And many of them ended found themselves entering into sex work and became as adulterers.
This new view, however, was not accepted by the disciples of Shammai. According to Instone-Brewer, Shammai claims that Hillel “had interpreted the Scriptures wrongly and that the whole phrase ‘a cause of sexual immorality’ meant nothing more than the ground of sexual immorality; it did not mean two grounds: sexual immorality, and ‘Any Cause’.” The followers of Shammai, in their attempt to follow the strict letter of the law, also maintain the integrity of this law. Divorce, to them, is only justified on the grounds of sexual immorality.
Hearing Jesus’ answer anew.
When Jesus says : “You have heard it said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’” he was stepping into the middle of a 1st-century debate on the interpretation of the law of Moses, the Torah. He does so boldly and unafraid of the consequences. Interestingly, he also is unafraid to take the side against those whom he was accustomed to siding with. Jesus answer is clear and precise, with no ambiguity: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Several times throughout scriptures Jesus has sided with Hillel on various issues (The Golden Rule, the welcoming of non-Jewish people, castigating pharisees for apparent excessive legalism, etc.) seemingly because he emphasized grace and love over the law. But here, he sides with Shammai. Jesus bravely rises above earthly categories and insists instead on love and justice. Jesus says that the man who divorces his wife in this way makes her a victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” In other words: A man who casts out a woman unmercifully because he has decided that his vows before God no longer matter is making an adulteress out of her. She is doomed for the streets, the slums, and the sex trade. For no man in that day would take in a woman who bares that kind of shame and who has been thrown out because she now bares the shame of an adulteress. Few men would take her shame upon himself.
Jesus’ answer is Mercy, not condemnation
Many have read this passage as nothing more than a command for Christians to follow regarding divorce. They have understood it to mean simply:
“If there is infidelity, you may divorce. But you may never marry again. Also, do not marry another who has been divorced. Both offenses are equal to adultery!”
But, as we have seen, that was not the intention with which Jesus entered into this ancient discussion about the law. Jesus was confronting the injustice of selfish men who were taking advantage of women, using them, having their way with them, and then abandoning them through simple “any cause” divorce.
Jesus was not calling divorced women “adulteresses,” and he was not calling the men who married them “adulterers”. He was confronting the systemic evil that was being taught and perpetuated by the religious leaders of his day. He was righting the wrongs of “any cause” divorce in his day.
This is further reinforced when we look at other places in the New Testament where divorce is permitted for different reasons. The Apostle Paul, for instance, allows for divorce in the event that someone cannot find peace in their marriage (1 Cor 7:15) because of being married to a non-believer (“The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace”). Paul obviously permits divorce in instances other than infidelity alone. He cites intense strife (i.e. lack of peace) as a plausible motive to dissolve a marriage. So if Jesus only allows for divorce in cases of infidelity, then we have pitted Paul against Jesus, and that ought not be.
If we as followers of Jesus are to find an ethic of divorce that is consistent with not only Matthew 5 but also Matthew 19, Deuteronomy 24, and 1 Corinthians 7, then we must enter into the context of Christ’s own day. We must look to the evils that he was speaking against, namely the abuses of patriarchy that the religious leaders perpetuated and encouraged, as the objects of condemnation. We must also identify and confront any lack of compassion for women, and any a hardness of heart that would allow a man to throw away his wife, thereby bringing shame and suffering upon her. We must also confront these issues in our own day, and join those standing against them.
I have met many pastors who refuse to perform the wedding ceremony of one who has been divorced, and I know that many (if not most) evangelical denominations do not allow their pastors to perform ceremonies for divorce people, and even the denomination in which I am ordained forbids it. I believe this is a poor and uninformed decision that is not based upon a firm grasp of the ancient scriptures. They are ignoring the context in which Jesus spoke these words and are likely hurting or even shaming those who have already suffered great pain and are trying to start again. The ethic of Jesus sermon on the mount is centered on love, restoration and giving hope to the hopeless. The death, burial and resurrection of Christ fully displays that nothing and no one is too far gone. Re-marriage can be a life-giving picture of resurrection and both the pastor and the church have a crucial part to play in that re-birth.
When the church at large condemns one who pursues a divorce for reasons other than “infidelity”, when they pile shame on top of suffering, and when they castigate someone for not sticking the abuse out and waiting for God to intervene, they are missing the point of Jesus teachings.
While divorce is always a tragedy, the writers of Deuteronomy didn’t ignore it’s realities. Instead, they sought to minimize the damage that it causes to the most vulnerable party. I need not present an exhaustive list of acceptable reasons for divorce, but abuse (either physical or emotional) is certainly one of them.
Jesus did indeed give us a law and a rule concerning divorce and remarriage, and they do not include condemnation or shunning. The law is grace, the rule is love and the goal is restoration.
For more info, please see the books below, especially Instone-Brewer.
The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 3rd ed. edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Wright, Tom. Matthew, Part 1: Chapters 1-15. 2 edition. London : Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. (pg 41)
Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1999.
Barclay, William. 1: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I. Revised, Updated edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. (pp. 174-175)
Goldingay, John. Numbers and Deuteronomy. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. (p. 177)
Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities. 2007 or Later Printing edition. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006.
This essay on the first century is meant to provide a simple surface level overview of the context in which the New Testament was written. It’s not riveting, and it wasn’t meant to be. But I believe it is incredibly important to understand that Jesus and the early Christians lived and wrote in a very different world form our own, and our understanding of scriptures will change based upon our understanding of its context.
The Cultural Background of the New Testament:
Life Under the Roman Empire in the 1st Century
The Roman household was highly patriarchal and centered, not around blood relatives, but a cooperation of men and women brought together under the authority of one man called the “paterfamilias”. He was the father of the unit called a “familia”. He held ultimate power in the house and could buy, sell or even kill his slaves. Everyone in the familia worked for the good of the paterfamilias and their own success in life was dependent upon his own.
Children were expected to display unconditional obedience at all times. Children were governed by the Roman family law patriapotesta or “power of the father,” which gave him absolute power to punish as he liked, to put them in chains, to sell them into slavery or kill them in their youth*. Children were to honor their fathers as one would honor a god. Fathers were strict as an expression of love, and mothers were to be more sensitive and nurturing**.
Marriages were arranged, and women were commonly married in their teens and were usually married to much older men. The woman was considered the property of her father and ownership passed from the father to the husband upon being wed, a custom that was rooted in the Roman Patria potesta. Marriages were usually economically motivated, and contracts were drawn up beforehand which dealt with financial issues such as inheritance***.
For the Roman citizen, honor was held in high regard above all else, and it was defended at any cost, even his very life. The accumulation of honor meant the furthering of your career and stature among your peers. The Paterfamilias’ honor was held in high regard by the entire familia and they all worked to maintain the honor of their leader. Being challenged by a subordinate was a challenge to your very honor, and brought great shame. A man would feel a great responsibility to recover honor that was lost or shame that had come upon them.
Patriotism was also held in incredibly high regard amongst the Romans, especially for those in the service of the Empire like an official, a governor, or a soldier. A Roman who was loyal to the Emperor was called “amicus” to them and was considered trustworthy. Friends of Rome, or “Amici Populi Romani,” were people or states who had loyalty to the Emperor. And any who were not regarded as friends of the Empire could not advance in status and would find their career in jeopardy. Even the rumor of disloyalty would be devastating.
Roman life centered around the cities and the Empire went to great lengths to encourage urban life. Large amounts of money were spent on public plays, feasts, and on arenas where the people could be entertained by violent gladiator matches, all in the pursuit of keeping the Roman citizens happy.
Citizens of Rome were entitled specific rights that slaves, resident aliens, and Jews were not. Citizens could vote and appeal to Caesar when they felt they were being mistreated. Moreover, they were exempt from certain types punishments that were considered humiliating and thus beneath that of a citizen of Rome (like crucifixion)*4.
The Jews in the first century were under the occupation of Rome. They were monotheistic and worshiped their ancient God, Yahweh, rejecting the pantheon of gods of the Gentile world. Idolatry was a great offense to the Jews and they considered any sculpted images, whether of deities or natural beings, to be idols. The Gentiles were quite fond of art, especially sculptures, and decorated their cities with the statues and paintings of, not only created things, but also the divine beings whom they worshiped. The presence of Gentile craven images in Jewish cities was a source of great friction between them.
While there were Jews in the diaspora who had learned to live quite comfortably under the empire, most lived in Jewish communities that made concerted efforts to separate themselves from their barbarian counterparts. They did not take part in Roman life. They did not wear the same clothes, shave their beards, worship Roman gods, or enter into Roman houses. Doing so would make them “unclean,” meaning that they could not continue with their usual worship habits until they were ritually cleansed again, according to their Mosaic laws.
The Jews believe that the Romans were making their cities unclean just by living there and different sects of Judaism had different solutions for this problem. The Zealots concluded that the answer was to wage war against their occupiers, and would regularly commit assassinations by hiding daggers in their clothing and attacking individual soldiers and officials who were in large crowds in public spaces, slipping away in the chaos that ensued. Others, like the Sadducees, believed that they could partner with the empire and negotiate a better life under the umbrella of their safety. In Jesus day, they controlled the priesthood and most of the political affairs. They were more open to Hellenistic influence than most of the other sects*5. The Pharisees were vocal in their dissent of any Gentile occupation and sometimes resorted to outbursts of violence. They managed the synagogue life *6 and were the leaders of middle and lower class peasant Jews. The Essenes, while holding views similar to those of the Pharisees, separated themselves altogether by moving into the wilderness to practice their religion unabated. Almost all believed that one day they would be free of their oppressors and would have their own nation where Yahweh would finally rule, the questions was whether to wage war themselves or wait for God to accomplish it.
Outside of those four main sects of 1st century Judaism was several smaller sects that are lesser known but do offer some significant to NT context. Among them are the Herodians who were supporters of the pro-Roman Herod dynasty*7, and the Am-ha-Eretz, or, “the people of the land” who were mostly poor farmers who were against Roman rule and supported the Pharisees.
In addition to these sects, there was a group called the Samaritans, an off-shoot of the Jews who remained around Schechem when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed. They revised the Hebrew scriptures to argue their own place in Israel’s story and built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim that could be seen from Schechem. They were rejected by the Jewish leaders as discredited and there were significant hostilities between the two.
* Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 3rd ed. edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. p. 202
** Burge, Gary. The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context. Zondervan; unknown edition (February 2, 2009), n.d. p.91
*** Ibid. p.90
*4) Ibid. p. 87-88
*5) Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. 3.2.2007 edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007. p.131
*6) Ibid. p. 132
*7) Ibid. p. 132