Friday, March 1, 2013

Jesus and the Two Swords: A Biblical Justification for Bearing Arms?

Detail from Hans Holbein the Younger,
The Passion of Christ (1524-25, Kunstmuseum, Basel)

More than 35 years ago, while an undergraduate student at Cairn University (then Philadelphia College of Bible), my Political Science Professor Lin Crowe assigned a book review of the great Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder's then-new book, The Politics of Jesus. Having grown up in a conservative environment during the heyday of the Vietnam War debacle, I was inherently suspicious of anyone who self-identified as a "pacifist," let alone a Christian who espoused nonviolence or nonresistance as a fundamental tenet of Christian life in the world. And so, as one might imagine, in my paper I argued vociferously against the thrust of Yoder's well thought-out argument. My (presumed) trump card? The famous "two swords" passage of Luke 22:35-38, where Jesus warns the disciples of troubles to come and suggests they buy a sword. Nothing could be clearer, or so I thought at the time.

And so it remains (especially) with general readers and popularizing writers and preachers. Whereas in ages past the Roman Catholic Church used this passage to defend the existence of the Holy Roman Empire, today many Evangelicals resolutely use this text to defend, at minimum, the "right" to bear arms for the purpose of self-defense [Indeed, this morning I encountered what is perhaps the nadir of such an approach when I discovered the existence of an organization called "Two Swords Protection" (see here), based explicitly on Luke 22.] No matter what Jesus says about nonviolence and/or nonresistance in the Sermon on the Mount or in the Matthean version of Jesus' arrest on the Mount of Olives ("Those who take the sword will perish by the sword" [Matt 26:52; for my discussion of this text, see here]), his suggestion that the disciples prepare for the future by buying a sword is commonly given hermeneutical priority and allowed to relativize what he said on those other occasions.

But along the way something happened to me. I attended graduate school to study New Testament and theology. I studied what it meant to do genuinely historical and literary exegesis. Most importantly, I studied hermeneutics and discovered what I should have instinctively known all along, to wit, that our culturally-learned presuppositions and preunderstandings inevitably form the grid through which we filter all the information we encounter and dictate (that's not too strong a word) what we see as the "normal" meaning and significance of that information. And that means, of course, that as an American raised in a conservative environment I instinctively read the biblical text with conservative American presuppositions and assumed a set of questions (and answers to those questions) the text was asked to answer.

The problem with getting an advanced, somewhat sophisticated education is that it tends to upset the apple cart we were attempting to drag behind us. Things become more complicated than we had erstwhile imagined. And, more often than not, we must repent of formerly held views in order to remain intellectually honest. Indeed, the interpreter can never get to the point where she can never rid herself of her presuppositions and read the text "objectively." But, hopefully, the constant back and forth between the horizons of the (historical) text and that of the interpreter can result in a genuine advance of understanding.

What has struck me over the years is how New Testament scholarship is almost unanimous in its support of Yoder's understanding of this text. This applies both to the critical commentariat (e.g., Marshall, Fitzmyer, Stein, Nolland, Bock, Johnson, Green; of those in my library, only Ellis demurs) and to others who have written on the passage (e.g., Brown, Hays, Moo, Bruce). It is not simply a matter of "some" scholars disputing the literal force of the text, as some have presented the matter (for an example from a sermon by an OPC pastor, see here). It is a virtual consensus (though, as I have learned, such does not guarantee the correctness of the consensus). And in this case, I am convinced the consensus has gotten it right.

The relevant text (Luke 22:35-38) is unique to Luke, and reads as follows:
Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.
In the Lukan narrative, this little paragraph is placed in the aftermath of the Last Supper (22:14-23), after which the disciples, in a darkly humorous way, argue among themselves about which of them was the greatest. Jesus quickly disabuses them of such pretensions, teaching them that true greatness is measured by service (22:24-27). Then, because they had faithfully stood by him, he assigns to them a kingdom just as the Father had assigned a kingdom to him (22:28-30). This is a kingdom in which they would exercise their authority via service, just as it is a kingdom which, as Luke's narrative will make clear, will be inaugurated through Messiah Jesus' great act of service on the cross.

Jesus next turns to Peter, informing him that the Satan would attempt to "sift" him like a farmer sifted wheat from chaff. This is the same Satan who had tempted Jesus himself three years earlier to attain his rightful place as world ruler through misguided obeisance to him (Luke 4:5-7), and who had earlier that night "entered into" Judas Iscariot to precipitate the betrayal that would lead to Jesus' arrest and death (Luke 22:3). Peter, with his characteristic bravado, announces that he would never fail Jesus, even if that meant prison and death for him (Luke 22:33) [As an aside, could this have been a flash of insight on Peter's part that Jesus' kingdom program would not work out the way he and his comrades had expected?] . Jesus prophetically responds by announcing that Peter would indeed deny him that very night (Luke 22:34). But he would not be like Judas. Peter's fall would not be final because of Jesus' own intercession on his behalf (Luke 22:32). At this point Jesus turns and speaks to the disciples as a group to warn them, if obliquely, what lay ahead for them in their immediate future.

Jesus' question refers back to his commissionings of the Twelve (Luke 9:2-3) and, especially, the seventy-two (Luke 10:3-4). At that time early in his ministry the disciples were sent out to the towns of Galilee with the express instructions not to take  moneybags, knapsacks, and sandals, depending instead on the gracious hospitality of the people to whom they were sent. Now, however (Luke's alla nyn is emphatic), the situation was about to change drastically for the worse. Not only were they to take such necessary preparations as a moneybag and knapsack. The coming situation would be so dire that, if they lacked even these necessities, they should sell their essential outer cloak (himation) and buy a sword (machaira). The reason (gar) this change of affairs was to take place imminently was rooted in the sovereign plan of God, in particular, the necessity (dei) that Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering servant would be brought to its final fulfillment (telesthēnai) in him: "And he was numbered with the lawless (Isa 53:12)." Many have suggested that this is an oblique reference to Jesus' crucifixion beside the two criminals in Luke 23:32. This is possible, but unlikely in view of the different Greek terms used in the two verses (anomoikakourgoi). Even less likely is the suggestion that the "lawless" with whom the servant (cf. 22:27) would be reckoned were the disciples who wielded swords at Jesus' arrest. The key is the recognition that the text is speaking from the vantage point of those who opposed the servant. With regard to Jesus, he was arrested and crucified precisely because his opponents, both the Sadducean aristocracy and the scribal Pharisees, believed that his actions and teachings ran counter to what they saw as the rightful demands of the Torah. He would be crucified, as later Jewish tradition would put it, for leading the people astray. And the point is a straightforward one: if Jesus was to suffer and be rejected by the people as a "lawbreaker," how much more (i.e., an implicit a fortiori argument) should his closest followers expect to receive the same treatment? The point, in other words, is that the time period in which Jesus' disciples could expect to be received favorably had come to an end, to be replaced by a new stage of salvation-history in which the default response to them would be one of hostility rather than receptivity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Luke's second volume, the Book of Acts, where imprisonment (Peter, John, Paul) and martyrdom (Stephen, James the Great) were the common lot of Christian leaders even as the Gospel of the Kingdom made its inexorable way to Rome.

The question, of course, is whether Jesus meant what he said to be taken in a straightforwardly literal manner. The disciples thought so: "Look, Lord, here are two swords." One suspects, however, that this is simply another example of the disciples' ironic obtuseness. The first indication of this comes in Jesus' somewhat enigmatic reply in verse 38: "It is sufficient" (hikanon estin). Sufficient for what, pray tell? Certainly not to resist the High Priest's posse who in just a couple hours would descend on Jesus and his disciples. More significant is the Lukan expression itself. In Luke's words, Jesus does not say, "they are sufficient" (hikanoi houtoi), but rather uses an impersonal expression precisely parallel to that which YHWH used when speaking to Moses in Deuteronomy 3:26 (LXX): "Enough from you (hikanon estin), do not speak to me of this matter again." As YHWH with Moses, so Jesus with his disciples. He is peremptorily dismissing their suggestion and halting the conversation then and there. As Joseph Fitzmyer wrote, "[T]he irony concerns not the number of swords but the whole mentality of the disciples" (The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985] 1434). As earlier in his Gospel, Luke uses the term "sword" metaphorically (2:34-35; 12:51-53) as a symbol of division and hostility. This understanding is reinforced by two further considerations.

The first concerns the uniform example provided by the apostles when persecuted in the Book of Acts (cf. Acts 4:23-31; 8:1-3; 9:1-2; 12:1-5). Like their master, the disciples followed the principle they learned in the Sermon on the Mount not to resist an evildoer. Secondly, and more importantly, Luke's definitive commentary on the disciples' "two swords" declaration may be found in his account of Jesus' arrest in Luke 22:49-51. When the arresting party arrives, Luke has one of the disciples articulate what can only be described as a stage-setting query representing the high water mark of their theological obtuseness: "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" This question in itself demonstrates that the disciples, even at this late date, operated with a political conception of the kingdom and a Messiah who would conquer so as to establish it. In the Upper Room Jesus had warned them of the imminence of hostilities, and they were prepared to fight with the sword, if necessary, to bring the kingdom about. In other words, Jesus' prior dismissal of their speculations about sword-wielding had not made its desired impact. Later at Gethsemane, with Jesus himself wrestling with God's will, the disciples had slept in the ignorance that God's will entailed that the kingdom would come only through the death of his Messiah. Such theology simply was beyond their comprehension at the time. And so the disciples vainly imagine that they can, against all odds, utilize the sword to defeat an armed contingent of the Temple guard. One of them (the Fourth Gospel identifies him as Peter) even manages to swing his sword wildly, severing the ear of the High Priest's servant. Such impetuously ignorant bravado, however, is not the modus operandi of the kingdom of God. Jesus, demonstrating that, despite appearances, it was he who was in control of the situation, makes this clear when he rebukes the disciples with the peremptory command, "Stop! No more of this! (eate heōs touto; cf. BDAG 269), and heals the servant's ear. Jesus' fate, like that of his followers, was to suffer. Like his remark in Matthew 26:52, Jesus here articulates the logic of the gospel of the kingdom of God, not that of the kingdoms of this world which, because of what he suffered on the cross, are, despite all their apparent glory, passing away.

In short, Jesus' suggestion that the disciples buy a sword cannot be rightly used to justify the bearing of arms by present-day Christians and counteract what Jesus is reported to have said elsewhere. Matters of personal self-defense are simply outside the purview of this text. I can do no better than quote the great Thomas Walter Manson, F. F. Bruce's predecessor in the Rylands chair at the University of Manchester, who wrote way back in 1937:
The verse has nothing to say directly on the question whether armed resistance to injustice and evil is ever justifiable. It is simply a vivid pictorial way of describing the complete change which has come about in the temper and attitude of the Jewish people since the days of the disciples' Mission. The disciples understood the saying literally and so missed the point; but that is no reason why we should follow their example (The Sayings of Jesus [London: SCM, 1949 {1937}]).


  1. The confusing part to me is that if Jesus intended a metaphorical sword then why an explicit statement that includes selling a cloak (something of comfort and protection from the elements) for a sword? Why not a saying with more of a metaphorical flavor such as: "You have been known as traveling without comforts - depending on others to serve the Kingdom and provide for you; but now, you will be known for standing against the rule of law."?
    Could it also be possible that though Jesus' statement is under one set of quotes in our text is actually two separate, distinct thoughts? The one being items they will need and the second being a turn in the conversation that time is about to come for a fufillment of My current mission? His mention of "that is enough" is more along the lines of "the simple items I mention to you are not to be concentrated on but the fact that I am telling you now that the time has come for Me to fulfill My ultimate task."?
    It is interesting that those who hold to a literal sword interpretation for defending the gospel believe that two swords would be enough for 11 guys. Not sure they would use that same percentage today.

  2. Matt, in the narrative flow the commentary on the swords passage is the arrest of Christ. Only Luke has the disciples asking whether they are to use the sword at that time (clearly looking back). In all the Gospels the disciples' obtuseness is evident, and the entire passion account is suffused with irony. Also, the example of the disciples/apostles in Acts also makes a literal referent very unlikely. Your last paragraph is also spot on!