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-Divorce and remarriage in New Testament perspective
-New Testament texts dealing with homosexuality
-War and peace in New Testament teaching
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 6th edition. ISBN: 978-0-19-020382-5
Neusner, Jacob. A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. ISBN: 0-385-47306-0
New American Bible or New Revised Standard Version
I will attach the remaining sources. War and Peace in the New Testament
V i c i OR PAUL FURNISH
University Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Perkins School of Theology
Southern Methodist University
Although the nascent church had no program
for social reform, careful study of the Synoptic
traditions about Jesus and of the letters of Paul
do give us access to early and decisive developments
in Christian attitudes to the world and therefore
to such issues as war and peace
T IS N O T DIFFICULT to find books and articles in which the New
Testament is examined for its teaching about war and peace. 1 Too
often, however, these studies have paid little or no attention to several
factors which make this an especially difficult topic to handle.
1. In contrast with the writings of the Hebrew Bible, those of the New
Testament were all written within a period of approximately one hundred
years, about A D 50—150. Even when due account is taken of the fact that
earlier Christian traditions (e.g., those about Jesus) have been employed
by the New Testament writers, the period is lengthened by no more than
twenty years. Although one must reckon with important changes in the
1 Among the most recent are Stephen Charles Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change
(New York Oxford Univ Press, 1982), Chaps 8-10, Josef Blank, “Gewaltigkeit—Krieg—
Militai dienst im Urteil des Neuen Testaments,” and ” ‘Zieht die Waffenrustung Gottes an
,’ Gewaltlosigkeit—Krieg—Militärdienst Im Früher Christentum,” Orientierung 46
(1982), 157-63 and 213-16, and Willard M Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, Way, and Women
Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, Pa/Kitchener, Ont Herald Press, 1983),
Chap 3 Unfortunately, a volume of important essays edited by Ernst Bammel and C F D
Moule, Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge Cambridge Univ Press, 1984), became
available only after the present article was completed
political situations and issues with which Christians had to deal even
during the course of this ten or twelve decade span, one will not expect to
find the major changes in situation and outlook which can be charted in
the history of Israel.
2. Jesus’ life and ministry, and the subsequent emergence of the Christian movement (including all of the writings which came to be included in
the New Testament), took place within an empire that the Romans had
made relatively secure and free from any serious threat of invasion.
Frontier battles there were (notably, with the Parthians) and civil strife, but
not the kind of major “international” conflicts reflected in certain parts of
the Hebrew Bible.
3. The religious community from which the New Testament writings
came, unlike ancient Israel, had never had a national history of its own and
had no experience of political or military power. The earliest believers
constituted a sectarian minority within Judaism, which was itself an ethnic
and religious minority within the Roman Empire, without effective political power.
4. Finally, and of decisive importance, the New Testament writings
came from a religious movement which understood itself to be in the
world but not of it. Whereas Israel’s faith was oriented to God’s action in its
own national history (even when it looked forward to a future fulfillment),
the church’s faith was oriented to what it perceived God had already
accomplished in Jesus the Christ (even as it also looked forward to a future
fulfillment). Parallels may be drawn—and the early church itself drew
them—between faith in Yahweh’s saving power as manifested in the
Exodus event and faith in God’s saving power as manifested in Jesus’ death
and resurrection. Yet the fact remains that the church understood the
Christ event to have inaugurated not just a new phase of history, but a
whole new age. Whereas Israel closely associated its history as the people
of God with “salvation history,” the church—at least in the earliest periods
of its life—regarded all historical existence, including its own, as radically
qualified by God’s saving work in Christ.
In order to take these several factors into account, this essay does not
begin with an examination of those specific New Testament texts long
considered especially promising or problematic with respect to the topic of
war and peace. It begins, rather, with some observations about the overall
political context within which the New Testament materials originated—
but for which the New Testament itself provides only very indirect evidence. Next, special attention is given to the Synoptic traditions about
Jesus and to the letters of Paul, because it is particularly these materials
that give us access to early and decisive developments in Christian attitudes
toward the world, and therefore toward such issues as war and peace.
War and Peace in the New Testament
Finally, more general comments are made about the rest of the New
What is often called “the New Testament world” was actually, of course,
the world of imperial Rome; it belonged to the Caesars, not to Christ.
Thus, what is often called “the New Testament period” may be said to have
extended from Augustus (died A.D. 14), to whose reign the tradition dates
the birth of Jesus, to Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138—61), to whose reign scholars
generally date the latest New Testament writing, II Peter. Three points
related to our topic need to be emphasized about this period.
First, it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, for which the
administrative strategies and military might of the Roman Empire were
largely responsible. Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium
in 31 B.c. marked the end of a long period of civil strife in republican
Rome. Octavian assumed for himself the pretentious title of Imperator
Caesar Divi filius (“Emperor, son of the deified Caesar”), and in 27 B.C. the
Senate added to this the designation “Augustus” (by which he is commonly
known). The new constitution Augustus formulated was shrewdly conceived and, along with other Augustan policies, gave promise of opening
up a new era of domestic tranquillity, worldwide peace, and—at least for
the privileged—economic prosperity. So Ovid (died A.D. 17) could sing:
Come, Peace, thy dainty tresses wreathed with Actian laurels, and let thy
gentle presence abide in the whole world. So but there be nor foes nor food
for triumphs, thou shalt be unto our chiefs a glory greater than war. May the
soldier bear arms only to check the armed aggressor, and may the fierce
trumpet blare for naught but solemn pomp!2
To Aelius Aristides, writing early in the reign of Antoninus Pius, it must
have seemed that Ovid’s prayer had been more than answered over the
course of the intervening century and a half:
You have accustomed all areas to a settled and orderly way of life. . . . Before
your empire there had been confusion everywhere and things were taking a
random course, but when you assumed the presidency, confusion and strife
ceased, and universal order entered as a brilliant light over the private and
public affairs of man, laws appeared and altars of gods received man’s
confidence. . . . Now a clear and universal freedom from all fear has been
granted both to the world and to those who live in it.3
2. Ovid’s Fasti I. 709-22, trans. Sir James George Frazer, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1931), pp. 53-55.
3. To Rome 101, 103, 104, trans. James H. Oliver in “The Ruling Power: A Study of the
Second, from 63 Β c when a Roman force under Pompey had occupied
Jerusalem, Palestinian Jews had existed as one of the empire’s subject
peoples, their fortunes tied to the varying policies—and sometimes
whims—of the emperors and their agents. 4 Herod, the hated Idumean,
was “King of the Jews” (37—4 Β C ) only at the pleasure of Augustus, for
whom he administered Rome’s affairs. While he sought to conciliate his
Jewish subjects, making various concessions that allowed them to continue
the practice of their religion, in most respects his regime was cruel and
oppressive, and he did not hesitate to suppress those Jews who posed a
threat to his power. After his son and successor, Archelaus, was deposed
and sent into exile in AD 6, a succession of Roman governors ruled the
area (among them, Pontius Pilate, 26—36), except for the brief reign of
Herod Agrippa (41-44), who like Herod the Great bore the title of king.
Rome generally sought to exercise its power in ways that would not
alienate the diverse populations under its control, and this included a
certain toleration of the Jews and their religious practices (thus, the
comment of Tertullus to Felix, Acts 24:2). T h e Jews, however, felt bur
dened by the tax enrollment, ordered by the Romans in A D 6, and
organized Jewish resistance movements probably date from that time.
During the reign of Caligula (37—41) various outrages and repressive
measures were directed against the Jews, and although these were some
what relaxed under Claudius (41-54), it was also under that emperor that
disturbances in Rome prompted an edict expelling Jews from the city.
Then under Nero (54-68) the long-simmering Jewish restiveness boiled
over into open revolt as the Zealots and other militant Jewish partisans
seized Jerusalem, thus initiating the Jewish-Roman War of 66—70.
Third, the political situation of Christians, at least up to the time of the
Jewish-Roman War, was not very different from that of the Jews. Insofar
as Judaism was tolerated as a strange but relatively harmless eastern
religion, Christians, too, were tolerated as strange but innocuous Jewish
sectarians. There were, however, specific local incidents, as under Clau
dius when Christian activities in Rome prompted the edict which pre
sumably expelled Jewish Christians as well as Jews from the city (Sue
tonius, Claudius 25). Christians there encountered more serious trouble
when, under Nero, they were blamed for a disastrous fire in the city and
Roman Empire in the Second Century after Christ T h r o u g h the Roman Oration of Aelius
Anstides,” TAPhS, NS 43/4 (1953), 906
4 For useful summaries of Roman rule in Palestine see, e g , Eduard Lohse, The New
Testament Environment (Nashville Abingdon, 1946), pp 34-47, and Richard J Cassidy,
Jesus, Politics, and Society A Study of Luke’s Gospel (Maryknoll, Ν Y Orbis Books, 1978), App
I pp 87-97
War and Peace in the New
many of them were executed (Tacitus, Annals XV.xliv; Suetonius, Nero
16). After 70, as Christianity and Judaism became increasingly distinguishable religious communities, even to Roman officials, and as the
Christian presence in the Hellenistic cities of the empire became ever more
visible, possibilities were multiplied for confrontations like these. Nevertheless, through the reign of Antoninus there was no general law that
precluded Christians from maintaining a relatively viable place in society.
Such persecutions as occurred (notably, in Asia Minor under Domitian,
81-96) were usually prompted only by incidents that seemed to threaten
the public order, were of limited duration, local in scope, and directed
more at individuals than at the church per se. 5 Indeed, there is some
evidence that as early as the latter decades of the first century Christians
were both permitted and willing to hold public office, at least at the
municipal level,6 although nothing is heard of Christians serving in the
Roman army before about 175, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.v.l—7).
Access to the life and ministry of Jesus comes only through the church’s
Gospels which are, in turn, dependent upon various earlier traditions.
Although one must not presume that the earliest recoverable forms of
these traditions (e.g., of the sayings and parables of Jesus) bring one into
touch with the “real Jesus” of history (for they remain traditions about him,
however early), there is general agreement on several points about Jesus’
ministry and teaching that are relevant to the topic of war and peace.
First, it is clear that Jesus proclaimed the imminence of the Kingdom of
God and summoned his hearers to repent in anticipation of it.7 This is
apparent from a number of sayings and parables which, once account has
been taken of certain features attributable to the later church, can be
assigned with a fair degree of confidence to Jesus. 8 It is equally clear that
this Kingdom was understood to be God’s own eschatological act of
salvation, the visitation of God’s sovereign power expressed in justice,
mercy, and love. Jesus did not summon his hearers to “bring in” the
5 Karl Baus, From the Apostolic Community to Constantine (Freiburg/Montreal· Herder/
Palm Publishers, 1965), I, 125-37
6 Note Paul’s reference in Rom 16 23 to “Erastus, the city treasurer” (RSV), who is
probably to be identified with the Erastus known to have been an important public official
7 See, e g , Norman Perrin’s expositions of this theme in The Kingdom of God in the
Teaching ofJesus (Philadelphia Westminster Press, 1963) and Rediscovering the Teaching of
Jesus (New Yoik and Evanston Harper & Row, 1967), Chap 2.
8 Exemplary kingdom sayings are Luke 11 20 par and 17 20-21 Exemplary kingdom
parables are Matt 13 44-46 and Mark 426-29
Kingdom, but to receive it as a gift. This is depicted most vividly in the
parable of the seed in Mark 4:26—29. Once the seed has been sown, the
farmer can only wait in awe as it sprouts and grows, “he knows not how.”
In the second place, it is apparent that Jesus’ call to repentance was in
essence a call to place one’s trust and confidence in God’s justice, mercy,
and love. This is evident in, for example, the parable about the judge who
finally responded to the importunate widow and granted her relief from
her adversary (Luke 18:2—5) as well as in the parable of the forgiving
father (Luke 15:11-32). How much more can God be trusted to dealjustly
with those who turn to receive the divine mercy! Moreover, this repentance based on confidence in God’s mercy is to find expression in the
total re-orientation of one’s life, from self to God. This is what Rudolf
Bultmann has called “radical obedience,” 9 and as we meet it in the Jesus
traditions it is understood to involve showing the same kind of mercy to
others that God has shown to us (the point of the parable of the unmerciful
servant, Matt. 18:23-25). While the call to love one’s neighbor (see Mark
12:28-34 par.) was not unique to the teaching of Jesus, 1 0 the concept of
“neighbor” was broadened to include persons outside of one’s own ethnic,
social, or religious group; and the radicalization of the command that
extended it even to one’s enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27-28) seems to
have been quite unprecedented. 1 1
Third, Jesus’ teachings about God’s mercy and about the implications of
this for one’s dealings with others were demonstrated in his own life.
There can be no question about the authenticity of the tradition that he
associated, and even ate, with “sinners and tax collectors,” for the church
would hardly have invented the kind of charge reported in Matthew 11:19
(Luke 7:34): “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors
and sinners!” Table fellowship seems to have been a regular and central
feature of Jesus’ ministry, an occasion for the grateful celebration of the
promise of the Kingdom and the joyous anticipation of what its coming
would mean (see, e.g., Matt. 8:11; Matt. 22:1-14 par.). That persons
despised by devout Jews and the Jewish religious establishment were
included in this fellowship shows how profoundly Jesus’ understanding of
the Kingdom affected the way he and his followers related themselves to
other people. 12
9. Jesus and the Word (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), pp. 72-86.
10. See e.g., my remarks in The Love Command in the Neiv Testament (Nashville/New York:
Abingdon Press, 1972), pp. 62 (n. 19) and 65 (n. 128), and the texts conveniently collected
by Pheme Perkins in Love Commands in the New Testament (New York/Ramsey: Paulist Press,
1982), pp. 12-21.
11. Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament, pp. 64-67.
12. On the importance of table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry see, e.g., Günther Born-
War and Peace in the New Testament
Finally, one can be certain that Jesus was arrested and executed by the
Romans in response to allegations that he had claimed for himself the title,
“King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26 par.)—a title which Herod had borne, but
not (so far) his successors. This has sometimes been used to bolster the
claim that Jesus was indeed an insurrectionist; that if he was not himself a
Zealot, he was at least sympathetic with the aims and methods of that
movement. 13 As many have pointed out, however, 14 the evidence cannot
support such a conclusion. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God as a
gift stood in direct contradiction to the Zealots’ conviction that the Kingdom could be established by means of a militant revolution; his teaching
about loving one’s enemies stood in direct contradiction to the Zealots’
advocacy of the use of violence to overthrow one’s enemies; and his
association with “sinners and tax collectors,” for which he was well known,
would never have been tolerated within the Zealot movement.
It is also sometimes alleged that Jesus’ action in driving the traders and
money-changers out of the temple precincts (Mark 11:15—19 par.) is
evidence that he was committed to the violent overthrow of Roman rule in
Palestine, since it was only by leave of the Romans that the temple hierarchy was allowed to function. 15 However, it is far more likely that the
tradition exaggerated an originally prophetic word spoken in the temple
or prophetic action performed in the temple than that it played down what
was actually a full-scale assault on the temple traders by Jesus and his
followers, as claimed by S.G.F. Brandon. Any such assault would have
required a large armed force, would certainly have precipitated counteraction by the Roman guard quartered in the adjacent Antonia tower, and
would doubtless have erupted into widespread rioting. 16 Nothing like this,
however, is attested in any ancient source.
Nor do the so-called “sword sayings” of Matthew 10:34 and Luke 22:36
require any qualification of what has already been noted about the ideological distance between Jesus and the Zealots. T h e former, “Do not think
that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace,
but a sword,” is certainly to be understood figuratively, perhaps as a
general reference to the conflict and hostility which those who follow Jesus
kamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), pp. 78-81, and Perrin,
Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, pp. 102-08.
13. Especially by S.G.F. Brandon in Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in
Primitive Christianity (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 208-17.
14. Among others, Oscar CuUmann, Jesus and the Revolutionaries (New York, Evanston,
and London: Harper & Row, 1970) and Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist?, FB.B 28
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).
15. E.g., Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, pp. 331-36.
16. See Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist?, pp. 15-18.
may expect to encounter. This is suggested by the interpretation given of
the saying in verses 35-36 (families will be divided when some members do
not follow Jesus) and also by the one offered in the Lucan parallel, where
“division” stands in place of “a sword” (Luke 12:58). More particularly, the
sword could be a metaphor for martyrdom—especially if the saying
originated in the early church. In either case, the sword is not wielded by
Jesus or his followers but by his opponents. 1 7 The point of the saying is not
to identify the purpose of Jesus’ ministry but, formulated according to “a
Semitic manner of speaking,” 18 to indicate one consequence of following
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