Chapter 1: Jesus: “Not Peace, but a Sword”

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War
by Albert C. Winn

Chapter 1: Jesus: “Not Peace, but a Sword”

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

(Matt. 10:34)

Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

(Matt. 26:52)


New Testament scholarship has taught us just how difficult it is to break the biblical picture of Jesus down into its components. There was most assuredly a historical Jesus who lived at a particular spot on our map and at a particular time on our calendar. But to extricate that historical Jesus from the Christ of faith is no easy matter. We do have words that he said, but form criticism has shown us that to extricate those ipsissima verba from the forms they have taken in the preaching and teaching of the early church is a hazardous project. Moreover, redaction criticism has shown us that the gospel writers, who arranged the pieces of the tradition, were not mere copyists or scissors and paste artists. Each was a theologian in his own right, writing for the needs of a particular Christian community. To separate what the eyewitnesses remembered from what the theologians wanted to teach is a risky and difficult task. Sociological, rhetorical, and narrative criticism reveal additional layers between us and "the Jesus of history."

It is the total biblical picture of Jesus, made up of all those layers, which has historically been the seat of authority for the church. It is the canonical Jesus who is Lord of the canon. So, in accord with our basic decision for a canonical approach, we shall not spend our time in this chapter or the next on the critical sifting of the tradition. We shall take the biblical picture as it lies and explore its ambiguity regarding peace and war. In this chapter we shall look at those passages that are often quoted by the advocates of peace through strength and neglected by peacemakers.

Jesus Accepted the Fact of a Warring World

Jesus lived in a situation which the liberation theologians have taught us to call institutionalized violence. He and his people were oppressed by a foreign military power and could not forget it any moment of any day. We know from secular sources that insurrections against the Romans occurred every year of Jesus’ life, and we see traces of this in the account of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1) and the mention of Barabbas, who had started an insurrection in Jerusalem (23:19).

Jesus often pictured this warring world in his parables and sayings without any moral comment: neither praise nor blame. One of his parables concerns a king who goes to encounter another king in war, but first he sits down and estimates the odds. Finding his army outnumbered, he sends a delegation and asks terms of peace (Luke 14:31-32). In another parable a nobleman who has received kingly power says, "As for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them -- bring them here and slaughter them in my presence" (Luke 19:27). Again, "The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city" (Matt. 22:7). The owner of the vineyard will destroy the tenants who beat his servants and killed his son (Mark 12:9 and par.). Jesus spoke of civil wars, of a kingdom divided against itself and laid waste (Matt. 12:25; Mark 3:24; Luke 11:17). He spoke of the strong man, fully armed, who attempts to defend his property by use of force; and of the stronger assailant who binds him, takes away his armor, and plunders his house (Luke 11:21-22; cf. Matt. 11:29; Mark 3:27). Fighting was endemic to all earthly kingdoms. "If my kingdom were from this world," says Jesus to Pilate, "my followers would be fighting" (John 18:36).

Jesus predicted that the world would continue to be this way. There will be "wars and rumors of wars. . . nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (Mark 13:7-8 and par.). He did not say, as he is often quoted as saying, that there would always be wars to the end of time, but he certainly predicted them for some time to come.

Jesus befriended and praised warriors. One of his disciples was a zealot, a member of a party that advocated, and from time to time attempted, the overthrow of the Roman military occupation by force of arms (Mark 3:18; Matt. 10:4). He praised the faith of a Roman army officer without, as far as we know, attempting to persuade him to change his profession (Matt. 8:5-10; Luke 7:5-10; cf. John 4:46-53).

Jesus seems to have accepted the necessity of paying taxes, not only to support the temple worship (Matt. 17:24-27) but even when a good part of the taxes went to support the legions by which Rome kept its military grip on the world. While "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s" (Mark 12:13-17 and par.) does not clearly say, "Yes, go ahead and pay your taxes," it has often been interpreted to mean that. Caesar’s image was on the coin, so the coin should go to Caesar. God’s image is on the human person, so the person belongs to God.1

Jesus Was the Center of Conflict

Among the building blocks of the Gospels are not only miracle stories and pronouncement stories, but conflict dialogues. Jesus was in conflict, not primarily with the Roman overlords, but with the religious leaders of his own people. One of the features of Mark’s Gospel is a skillful collection of conflict stories in 2:1-3:6. Early in his ministry, Jesus confronts the Pharisees over such issues as forgiving sins, eating with sinners, fasting, plucking grain on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath. In Matthew and Luke we find the famous series of woes upon "scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" (Matt. 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-52). And the central section of the Fourth Gospel is an almost uninterrupted conflict between Jesus and "the Jews," meaning, again, the religious leaders of his people (John 5-12).

Jesus does not fit the conventional picture of a peacemaker in these conflicts. He pulls no punches. Occasionally he is moved to anger, as Mark candidly records, "He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5). Once his anger erupted into action, when Jesus strode into the temple with a whip of cords, drove out the sheep and oxen, overturned the tables of the money changers, and poured out their coins (John 2:13-17; Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46). It was this conflict that led to his death.

Jesus’ Teaching Includes Militant Sayings

Jesus is quoted as saying to his disciples:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (Matt. 10:34-36)

While it may be argued that the sword here is not meant literally (the parallel passage in Luke 12:51-53 has the word "division"), the divisiveness and strife are entirely literal, hardly the work of peacemaking as it is commonly understood. We know, in fact, that Christianity has often divided families, sometimes bitterly.

As a part of his praise for John the Baptist, Jesus said, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt. 11:12). A parallel saying in Luke reads, "The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force" (Luke 16:16). Surely this is one of the most mysterious of Jesus’ sayings. Commentators disagree as to whether "the violent" are the oppressors and persecutors of the kingdom or its extremely zealous advocates. However that may be, Jesus is not speaking here of "the peaceable kingdom," but of a kingdom connected in some way with violence.

Luke reports that at the Last Supper Jesus announced what seems to be a change of policy regarding carrying defensive weapons:

"When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said, "No, not a thing." He said to them, "But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled." They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." He replied, "It is enough." (Luke 22:35-38)

It has been argued that Jesus did not intend the swords to be used, because that would have prevented the fulfillment of the prophecy which he cited. However, he could easily have had the disciples’ self-defense in view, not their defense of him. It has also been argued that two swords were scarcely enough to defend him or themselves when the arresting party arrived later that night. They were not enough for a skirmish in the garden, let alone a war. Jesus’ final "Enough!" could have meant, "Enough of this! You have misunderstood my saying"; but Jesus does not say clearly that they misunderstood. It is certainly possible to understand the saying as an approval of carrying arms in a dangerous situation.2


This is the picture of one side of the ambiguity of Jesus.3 Taken all together, and in isolation from the other side, can these texts be interpreted to make Jesus a militarist? There are those who would like to do so.

In 1929-30, Robert Eisler published a two-volume work alleging that Jesus espoused and participated in armed revolution against the Roman oppressors of his people.4 According to Eisler, Jesus, under the influence of the Rechabites, was at first critical of the Zealots and taught the nonretaliation that we find in the Sermon on the Mount. Later, perhaps influenced by the Zealots among his own followers, Jesus was convinced that God would intervene only if he took more decisive action of a military kind. He took the sword in order to perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52), believing that his execution would compel God to act for the deliverance of the Jews. Such a reconstruction of history is obviously not supported by the canonical texts we have cited. Eisler based much of his argument on the Slavonic Josephus. When the scholarly consensus identified the Slavonic Josephus as a medieval fraud, Eisler’s work was widely repudiated.

This did not deter S. G. F. Brandon from advancing a similar thesis in 1967.5 Brandon alleges that Jesus was in sympathy with the Zealots all along and in the end joined in armed insurrection against the Roman power out of purely political motives, for which he was executed on the cross. This obviously requires a more radical emendation and interpretation of the biblical texts than Eisler attempted. Mark, says Brandon, writing for Roman Christians, suppressed all the material that showed that Jesus and the early Jewish Christians, along with the rest of the Jews, violently resisted the Roman rule. But traces of that earlier tradition persist, and on the basis of them we can recover the true picture of Jesus as a militant revolutionary. Brandon’s thesis has been used to support the legitimacy of wars of liberation in the third world, but it has not gained wide support from biblical scholars.6

While the texts we have cited hardly make Jesus a militarist, it is fair to say that they can be used to picture a Jesus with whom the majority of Christians in the developed nations of today’s world could feel quite comfortable. This commonsense Jesus recognizes and accepts war as a fact of life. He participates vigorously in conflicts with opposing viewpoints. He occasionally indulges in outbursts of anger and even combative behavior. He approves the use of weapons in self-defense. He is a good citizen of a state which he knows to be founded upon and sustained by violent military power.

But that is only one side of the ambiguity.




1. This, as much that is said in this chapter, is a "surface" interpretation, making the kind of case that peace through strength advocates would find congenial. For a deeper analysis and a defense of contemporary tax resistance, see Lamar Williamson, Jr.. "Limits on a Christian’s Obedience to the State" and George R. Edwards, "Biblical and Contemporary Aspects of War Tax Resistance" in The Peacemaking Struggle: Militarism and Resistance, ed. Ronald H. Stone and Dana W. Wilbanks (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), pp. 103-122. Also Christopher Rowland, Radical Christianity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988), pp. 24-25. For an interpretation "from below," from the standpoint of the world’s oppressed, see José Cardenas Pellares, A Poor Man Called Jesus (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986), pp. 72-76.

2. John Howard Yoder suggests that the swords, while inadequate for defense, were essential to the fulfillment of prophecy. Two swords were enough to make Jesus formally guilty of attempted insurrection, the charge that led to his crucifixion. Thus "he was counted among the lawless." See The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 54,56.

3. Pacifists have often been eager to explain these passages in ways that eliminate any compromise of Jesus with violence. See, for example, John Ferguson, The Politics of Love (Nyack, N.Y.: Fellowship Publications, 1979). I have preferred to accept genuine ambiguity as a part of Jesus’ authentic humanity. Thus I have let the passages stand and admitted the possibility of non-pacifist interpretations.

4. Robert Eisler, IESOUS BASILEUS OU BASILEUSAS, 2 vols. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1929-30).

5. S. C. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967).

6. George R. Edwards specifically and effectively refuted Brandon in Jesus and the Politics of Violence (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).