"Turning the Other Cheek" (The Non-Hebraic Pre-Christian Origins of)
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12 January 2002
Revisions through 13 September 2007
An important aspect of Christ's teachings to his disciples was that they should not seek revenge on their enemies, they are to "turn the other cheek":
Matthew 5:38-41, RSV
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say unto you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."
Matthew 5:43 RSV
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is heaven."
Romans 12:14, 17-21 RSV
"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them...Repay no one evil for evil...live peaceably with all...never avenge yourselves...if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
This concept of not giving "evil for evil" to one's enemies is not to be found in the Hebrew Bible. God is repeatedly portrayed as outraged and vindictive towards those Hebrews who showed mercy towards the nation's enemies. Via God's prophets -who are portrayed as human vessels who reveal God's wrath- we are informed in several instances that God will destroy those who show mercy to their enemies.
Saul spares the life of Agag, the king of the Amalekites, and the prophet Samuel, speaking for God, declares that Saul's mercy for the national enemy has outraged God, who will take the kingdom from Saul and give it to one who is more worthy, David:
"But Saul and the people spared Agag...The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 'I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments..." (1 Samuel 15:10-11)
Samuel informs Saul that God had commanded the utter annihilation of the Amalekites:
"And the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, 'Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed...Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king." (1 Samuel 15:18-23)
Samuel then takes up a sword, and in front of the assembled nation shows everyone how to obey God's commands- he "hews" the Amalekite king to pieces:
"Then Samuel said, 'Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites...And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." (1 Samuel 15:32-33)
King Ahab mercifully releases the Syrian King Ben-Hadad after defeating his army and capturing him. God's prophets reveal God's wrath and predict that God will take Ahab's life for setting free Ben-Hadad (1 Kings 20:33-43):
"Thus says the Lord, 'Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore you shall go for his life and your people for his people." (1 Kings 20:42, RSV)
If God is outraged over acts of mercy extended to the enemies of his people, where is Christianity getting the notion that "one should not give evil for evil"? As the above verses suggest, Christianity is not drawing its notion from Hebraic sources, that is, from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).
I suspect that Christianity is drawing this notion of not giving "evil for evil" from Hellenized Judaism, which apparently derived it from Greek metaphysical thought. The concept appears to be a Platonic Greek idea, enunciated by Plato in his portrayal of Socrates. He has Socrates defending himself against those who would seek his life. Socrates relates in a narrative, that his personal daemon/daimon (whence the later Christian concept of "demons") has advised him "not to render evil for evil" for this kind of action will go against him in the judgement of the dead in the afterworld:
"Now you [Socrates] depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements...wronging those whom you ought least to wrong...the laws in the world below will receive you as an enemy..." (p.484, "Crito," Benjamin Jowett, Translator, Plato: The Republic and Other Works. Anchor Books. Doubleday. New York. 1989. ISBN 0-385-09497-3)
Plato had censored the early Greek poets, Homer and Hesiod, for their portraying the gods as wrathful, lustful, and envious. Plato argued that "God" was not to be portrayed in this manner. God possessed all, and could not be envious, and that God wished only "GOOD" for mankind. Evil could not be attributed to God. AS GOD IS ONLY GOOD, thus man must emulate God; man must be virtuous if he desires to be allowed after death to be in God's presence and enjoy his companionship.
Christianity's success in winning over the hearts and minds of the Hellenized world of the Roman Empire, was in part, due to the Greek notions which Christ taught as a Hellenized Jew (or were later attributed to Christ in the Gospels), that GOD ONLY WAS GOOD ( Mark 10:18 ) originally a Platonic notion.
I note that Christ rebuked an admirer who called him "GOOD Master," claiming that only God is GOOD. Is this Platonic thought being assimilated into and preserved within Early Christianity?
"And, behold, one came and said unto him, GOOD Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life ?" And he said unto him, "Why callest thou me GOOD? There is NONE GOOD BUT ONE, THAT IS, GOD; but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments."(Matthew 19:17-21 KJV)
"Someone came to Jesus with this question: GOOD Master, what must I do to have eternal life? When you call be GOOD you are calling me God," Jesus replied, "For God alone is truly GOOD." (Matthew 19:17-21, The Living Bible, Paraphrased)
Jesus' reply is in stark contrast to Job's assertion that Evil comes from God, not just Good (Job's view of God is more Homeric, which Plato criticized):
"Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this Job did not sin with his lips." (Job 2:10 RSV)
In accordance with Christ's teaching of not rendering "evil for evil" was the Early Christian notion that Christians were not allowed to take up arms. Christ is portrayed as censuring one of his followers, Peter, for giving 'evil for evil' in that with a sword he cuts off the ear of a "slave" sent to apprehend Christ:
Luke 22:50-51 (RSV)
"And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, 'No more of this !" And he touched his ear and healed him."
Walsh (a Catholic scholar and a former Jesuit), in noting various accusations held against Christians by Pagan critics notes that their failure to take up arms and serve in the Roman army was made:
"Just as Celsus had complained about Christians failing to fulfil their civic duties, he criticized them for avoiding military ones as well. Origen replied: 'We who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars, violate oaths and disturb the peace, are of more help to emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting...And though we do not become fellow-soldiers with him, even if he presses for this, yet we are fighting for him and composing a special army of piety through our intercessions to God.' (Contra Celsum. VIII.73)
It is a neat argument, but it does not alter the facts: Christians would not serve in the army.
Though Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition is basically a liturgical treatise, it contains the following prescription:
'The soldier who is of inferior rank shall not kill anyone if ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed [from the Church]. Anyone who has the power of the sword or the magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him give it up or be dismissed. The catechumen or believer who shall wish to become a soldier shall be dismissed, because they have despised God.'
"Nothing could be clearer, yet ABOUT A CENTURY _LATER_, bishops at the council of Arles determined that Christians had to remain in the army in peacetime. Anyone who rejected military service was to be put out of the Church. THAT WAS IN 314. A year earlier, Emperor Constantine had exempted Christian clergy from fulfilling official state duties. It would appear that the bishops felt obliged to reciprocate." (pp. 211-212. Michael Walsh.The Roots of Christianity. London. Grafton Books. 1986. ISBN 0-246-12757-0. Published 1986 in the U.S.A. by Harper & Row as The Triumph of the Meek: Why Early Chistianity Succeeded.)
"There was no doubt about the Christian attitude. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament forbade killing and idolatry, yet both of these were an inevitable part of Roman soldier's life...For Tertullian the danger of idolatry was the chief argument against Christians joining the army, though he acknowledged others. He summed up his views succinctly in his book On Idolatry:
"When the Lord disarmed Peter he also disarmed all the soldiers to come' (De Idolatria 19:3). The fundamental objection was against the shedding of blood...Christianity was opposed to killing, and even more so to the casual brutality in which armies were wont to indulge." (p. 213. Walsh)
"None of the Christian authors of the first three centuries seemed to find it strange to talk of militia Christi 'soldiering for Christ', and to use the language of spiritual warfare or battle with the devil while condemning the real thing. Christians were, they insisted, a peaceful people, and the coming of Christ had brought an era of peace. Christian tradition was staunchly opposed to military service in the pay of the emperor. Until, that is, the interests of emperor and Church came to coincide, after Constantine granted toleration." (pp. 213-214. Walsh) Please click here for an in-depth listing of works by Walsh.
Freeman on the mechanisms by which Christ as a "man of peace" was transformed into a "Man of War" under Constantine and his successors:
"One of the most important of Constantine's legacies was the creation of a relationship between Christianity and war. Constantine was a brilliant and effective soldier, and he associated his continuing success with the support of the Christian God. Once he had used the victory at the Milvian Bridge as a platform for the granting of toleration to Christians, each new victory strengthened the link. Eusebius makes the point succinctly, describing him as:
"The only Conqueror among all the Emperors of all time to remain irresistible and unconquered, ever-conquering, and always brilliant with triumphs over enemies, so great an Emperor...so God beloved and thrice blessed...that with utter ease he governed more nations than those before him, and he kept his dominion unimpaired to the very end."
"In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius refers to Constantine as "God's Commander-in-Chief." So a new element enters the Christian tradition...However, the problem of how to present Jesus the man of peace, in this new Christian world, persisted. The ultimate response was to transform him, quite explicitly, into a man of war. By the 370's Ambrose, bishop of Milan, is able to state in his
De Fide that "the army is led not by military eagles or the flight of birds, but by your name, Lord Jesus, and Your Worship." In the Archiepiscopal Chapel at Ravenna (circa 500), Jesus is shown dressed as a Roman soldier trampling a lion and adder beneath his feet. There is, of course, no New Testament source for the presentation of Christ as a soldier (other than one in the book of Revelation..." (pp. 176-177. "Constantine and Coming of the Christian State." Charles Freeman. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher. 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4085-X)
Secular Humanist scholars understand that the differing portrayals of God's nature in the Old and New Testaments is due to these works being composed in different eras. The wrathful warrior God of the Old Testament mirrors the manner in which the Assyrians and Babylonians portrayed their gods in Pre-Exilic times. The New Testament mirrors the various Hellenistic Greek portrayals of God, from a diversity of schools, Platonic, Stoic, Cynic, etc., which came to influence various sects of Hellenistic Judaism.
After the Emperor Constantine's Edict of Toleration, Christianity came to change its views about Christians becoming soldiers. As the Roman State came to make Christianity the Official religion of the Empire, Christians were told service in the army was service for God. The enemies of the State were the enemies of God, and the Spiritual message of Christians donning armor to fight the Devil and Demons, was reinterpreted to allow Christians to become real soldiers serving in the Armies of the Roman Empire to fight its enemies.
And now, dear reader, you know how it historically came about, that today's Christians instead of "turning the other cheek and praying for them who do evil unto them, in order to be sons of their Father who dwells in heaven," _don't waste their breath_ and instead take up arms and serve in their country's armed forces, destroying their enemies, including their fellow Christians, as for instance Catholic Christian armies vs. Protestant Christian armies of the Reformation.
The Early Christian who wrote in the New Testament about "turning the other cheek, praying for one's persecutors" and "not giving evil for evil" would have recoiled in revulsion to witness Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) burning fellow Christians alive at the stake in "Auto da Fe's" as portrayed in Spanish oil paintings of the 15th-16th centuries for in his days, the first century A.D., the only Christians being burned alive at the stake, were by Nero and his brutal Imperial successors. One assumes that perhaps when the Church became a part of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great, it also eventually came to adopt by Medieval times the barbarous Roman form of punishment, the burning alive of enemies (or so-called Heretics) at the stake, inorder to establish the Church's authority through fear and terror.
Christianity's great success in the West (Europe) was because the Church (be it Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Protestant) _abandoned_ Christ's teachings: Turning the other cheek to one's enemies, refusing to give evil for evil, praying for one's persecutors and the refusal to shed human blood under any circumstances (God would in his own ways exact vengeance on the persecutors of his people, Christians were not to do this).
In the United States of America Conscientious Objectors (Pacificists) were despised as Cowards and in World War I some were imprisoned for their refusal to serve in any capacity in the nation's Armed Forces.
13 September 2007 Update:
What are _my_ "personal views" on all of the above?
(1) My research over the past 37 years (beginning about 1970) indicates to me that the Holy Bible is _not_ the word of God, it is a creation of deluded men.
(2) While I understand that Christianity _turned its back_ on Christ's "pacifistic teachings" (Vengenace is to be taken by God, _not_ by man) I acknowledge that Christianity would not have become the great religion it is today without employing terror and violence and the shedding of human blood to overpower its foes that sought to limit its growth and who also sought its demise.
(3) Commonsense shows us that the world we live in is a violent and brutal one: "kill or be killed." To protect oneself and one's family and loved ones via violence and the shedding of human blood makes sense. The Christian notion that God will exact vengenace and Christians are _not_ to do this is "nonsense" and a sure recipe for annihilation by one's foes.