AT 33: Jesus and the Two Swords: Did Jesus Endorse Violence?

Jeremy Thomson
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 33, June 2003

There is one passage in the Gospels in which Jesus endorses the possession of weapons of violence, if not their violent use:

He said to them, ‘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, NRSV)

Does this mean that Jesus, though he had previously advocated love of enemies,1 was now envisaging that extreme situations would arise for disciples, in which violence would be an unfortunate necessity? Was he, in his true humanity, accommodating himself to the ‘non-ideal’ context of human fallen-ness, as some have suggested?2

The written records of the Anabaptists give us no clues as to how they understood this passage.3 Before their time, the notion of ‘the two swords’ had been used to justify the Holy Roman Empire by early medieval thinkers, and then theorists of the High Middle Ages grounded the notion of a papal theocracy in the same. For Martin Luther, however, it was a literal interpretation of Romans 13:4 that was basic to his conception of ‘Sword’, and this dominated the discussion of all temporal use of force between the Magisterial Reformers and the Anabaptists.

It is in more recent times that Mennonites and others in the peace tradition have tried to find an understanding of this passage that escapes an endorsement of violence from Jesus himself. I will briefly discuss three of these before suggesting what I believe to be a more convincing approach.

Non-literal readings of the passage

In a previous generation, Guy Herschberger pointed out that the disciples, alert to plots to kill their master, had already acquired swords with which to protect him. However, they had failed to grasp Jesus’ radical rejection of violence, as they had many other elements of his mission. Thus Jesus’ command here should be taken ironically as a rebuke to Peter’s lack of faith (especially in view in the preceding verses, 22:31-34), and Jesus’ conclusion, ‘It is enough,’ should be taken as a regretful ‘What more can I say?’4

More recently, John Stoner has seen our passage as Jesus’ final examination of the disciples’ grasp of his teaching of non-violence, focused on the threat of violence in the impending crisis. Their failure to protest or question his command constituted failure of the test, while his response meant, ‘That is enough. Obviously you do not understand. We shall go on.’5

Richard Hays, in the course of an important chapter-length presentation of the New Testament case against the use of violence, attends to our passage. He takes Jesus’ command as a figurative warning of impending opposition, while the disciples’ literalist response provokes the impatient dismissal, ‘Enough already!’6

Now non-literal ways of taking Jesus’ command are common among commentary writers on Luke who accept the integrity of the narrative, for they must take account of Jesus’ rejection of violence at his arrest (22:49-51). Hays supports his figurative reading of Jesus’ instruction by quoting Howard Marshall: ‘The saying can be regarded only as grimly ironical, expressing the intensity of the opposition which Jesus and his disciples will experience, endangering their very lives.’7 The general approach of more recent commentators, however, has been to take Jesus’ command as a metaphorical reference to the impending reality of hostility against the disciples, not just during, but after his passion.8

However, I can see why such explanations are unsatisfactory to sceptics; figure and irony are difficult to prove. I believe that irony is employed elsewhere in Luke’s writing (e.g. in Paul’s remark concerning the high priest in Acts 23:5), but the only reason to appeal to a figural interpretation here is Jesus’ rejection of sword-use later in the chapter. More immediate considerations count against it. First, if the disciples had misunderstood Jesus, why did he not correct them – as he did on other occasions? Immediately before this interchange, he had punctured Peter’s extravagant expression of devotion (22:31-34). Second, Jesus supplies an explanation of his command in his quotation from Isaiah 53:12 in verse 37. His double insistence here on scriptural fulfilment concerns the culmination of his own career, i.e. in the next few hours. This requires that the command is not a general instruction for the disciples’ future disposition in mission, but has to do with an immediate estimation of Jesus as outlaw (in the eyes of the authorities?).

Furthermore, it is true that several times in Luke Jesus warns the disciples about their encountering hostility (9:23-27; 12:4-12; 21:12-19), and that two of these clearly refer to post-Easter experiences. Yet, hostility has already been expressed towards Jesus and his disciples (6:1-11; 11:53-54), and he has already said, ‘From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three’ (12:52). Conversely, in Luke’s second volume, the followers of Jesus experience ‘the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2:47), at least initially. So, Luke portrays the disciples encountering a mixture of goodwill and hostility both during and after Jesus’ earthly ministry – there is no overall shift to a bleaker reception of the disciples after his death and resurrection.

A more straightforward reading

Jesus’ command in verse 36 should not be taken as modifying or superseding his earlier commands as to the apostles’ mission lifestyle in general. He wanted his disciples to carry literal swords as his end approached in order to appear among outlaws, precisely because he had such a binding understanding of Scripture’s delineation of his own career. In which case, Jesus’ final remark in the interchange (v. 38) must be taken as at least a measure of approval; ‘Two swords are enough for me to be counted among the lawless.’ How then to reconcile this with the account of the arrest later the same evening (22:47-53)?

There can be no argument that when ‘it came down to the wire’ Jesus rejected the use of the sword, the bearing of which he had earlier enjoined, in an explicit statement, ‘No more of this!’ (v. 51). The miraculous healing of the severed ear emphasised that violence had no place in his peaceable kingdom: its effects were reversed. Jesus then spoke to those who had come to arrest him, insisting that his previous conduct did not warrant their preparations for violence. The Jewish authorities were revealing their true colours by making a forcible arrest away from the crowds: Jesus recognised the darkness of the powers to which they had given themselves (v. 53b), and with which he must grapple. So we still have an apparent anomaly: Why at his arrest did Jesus reject the identification of himself as bandit, if he previously instructed the carrying of swords in order to be associated with outlaws?

So far I have said nothing about the incident that occurs between the two swords interchange and the arrest. Luke depicts Jesus’ struggle in the unnamed place near the Mount of Olives (22:39-46) in terms of his reluctance to go through with the ‘cup’ of suffering. But what alternative was there by which he might accomplish his Messianic task? – it was a choice between the way of suffering or a campaign of violence. Perhaps the thought came to Jesus that those two swords could be wielded in a dramatic break-out, and that, having once resorted to violence, he could subsequently lead a peasant army to victory over the hated Roman occupying forces. If we try to read the account as a genuine struggle – without a pre-determined view of its outcome – then we may imagine that Jesus had no exact blueprint in his mind as to what would transpire.9 Of course, he had the outline of betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection (9:22; 9:44; 18:32f.), but his preoccupation with scriptural fulfilment indicates that this could be filled out only in limited ways. He did not know exactly what was to be done with the swords when he spoke about obtaining them, except that their appearance would entail outlaw associations. The Jewish authorities would know that so far Jesus and his disciples had not borne arms; to come across them at night carrying swords would signal a significant policy change.

But as Jesus emerged from his prayer-trial, he had become even more determined that the old cycle of violence must come to an end. When one of the swords was used, he immediately intervened. The disciple’s assumption of the outlaw role (wielding the sword against the high priest’s slave) gave Jesus the opportunity to stop the violence. His pronouncement, because it was made in the worst circumstances possible (‘your hour and the power of darkness’, v. 53b), assumes the character of an absolute prohibition for all his followers; an end to violence for all time.

Conclusion

It may be profitable to reflect briefly upon my interpretive method. I have deliberately restricted myself to thinking about Luke’s writing in its canonical form, rather than speculating about ‘the historical Jesus’ or how traditions about Jesus have been passed down and assembled by the author. It seems to me that Christians must be guided by the canonical witness to Jesus, rather than such scholarly attempts at reconstruction. A canonical approach, however, must go on to reckon with the witness of the other Gospels, and so some engagement with accounts of Jesus’ arrest in Matthew, Mark and John would be necessary for a full treatment of that incident. Yet discussion of the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds as recounted by Luke cannot escape reflection on what was meant at the time of their utterance, and even some speculation as to what was in Jesus’ earthly mind during the events to which the Gospels testify, for theological reflection upon Jesus concerns more than a textual construct. It seeks to come to terms with his humanity at the same time as his divine Sonship.

This way of reading Luke’s two swords passage avoids a hard-to-prove figural take on Jesus’ command. It pays attention more seriously than do others to Jesus’ scriptural quotation. It integrates Jesus’ experience of prayerful struggle over whether to suffer rather than to inflict violence. Finally, it turns the tables on any suggestion that Jesus might have endorsed the use of violence, by suggesting that Jesus’ words in verse 51 should be taken as a theological pronouncement. For a short time Jesus had allowed the impression to arise among his disciples that he might be ‘armed and dangerous’ but, as one began to implement this scenario, Jesus repudiated such a stance once and for all. Jesus knew that his career would be misconceived (if not misrepresented) by the powers that he threatened; yet, at least among his own followers, he declared: ‘No more of this.’

There are two practical implications of my interpretation of the two swords interchange. First, Jesus’ instruction to buy a sword cannot be used to justify the purchase and carrying of weapons today. Many Christians have, of course, been misled by centuries of compromise with violence, and believe that ‘striking with the sword’ can be justified in certain circumstances, especially as a solution to certain political evils. Like the disciple who used his sword, they do not understand the profundity of Jesus’ way to the cross as impacting the deepest of human antipathies. In refusing the violence option, and having compassion on his enemies, Jesus maintains his integrity. He is able to behave in such a remarkably calm manner because he has allowed himself time to contemplate the full enormity of what he is taking on, and prayed through his horror of it. He instructs his disciples twice to pray that we may not come into such a time of trial, but he gives no guarantees that we will avoid it.

Second, Jesus’ preoccupation with the Scriptures regarding the course of his career is remarkable. The Isaiah passage to which Jesus refers was clearly at the forefront of his mind as his passion drew near. Our lives as Christians are not given such clear delineation in the Bible as was Jesus’, and yet he gives us an extraordinary model of searching the Scriptures in detail for setting our contemporary agendas. And it may be that Jesus did not know exactly how this detail would be played out when he invoked it – only as he went on down the path towards arrest did it become quite clear. So there may be times in our lives when parts of the Bible challenge us in strange ways, require us to re-examine our understanding of God’s call on our lives, and lead us to reckon afresh with the cost involved.

 

Jeremy Thomson is a tutor on the Oasis Youth Work and Ministry Course and a lecturer in Biblical Studies with the Faculty of Continuing Education, Birkbeck College, London.

Notes

1. The details of the question in 22:35 recall, not the instructions to the twelve in Luke 9:1-6, but those to the seventy in Luke 10:4-6.

2. This is despite the fact that there is no account of sword-carrying or -use in the early church (see particularly the echoes of Jesus’ teaching against violence in Rom 12:14-21). The early Fathers, especially Tertullian and Origen, clearly condemn the use of violence.

3. I thank Jared Diener for research that confirmed my suspicion on this point. See also the remarks of Tim Foley concerning the scarcity of Anabaptist comment on Jesus’ supposed use of violence in the Temple incident, ‘A Stubborn Misinterpretation,’ Anabaptism Today 12, (June 1996), 15-20.

4. See Guy F. Hershberger. War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969), 302-303.

5. John K. Stoner. ‘The Two Swords Passage: A Command or a Question? Nonviolence in Luke 22.’ In Within the Perfection of Christ, ed. Terry L. Brensinger and E. Morris Sider (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1990), 67-80. I owe this reference to Jared Diener.

6. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 333.

7. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke NIGCT (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1978), 823.

8. See Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 347, and Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1997), 774. For a slightly different symbolic interpretation see John Nolland, Luke18:35–24:53 WBC (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993), 1076.

9. I am aware that John 18:4 might be taken to imply otherwise. But to say that Jesus knew all that would transpire once the arrest party arrived is not to say that he knew the same at an earlier point in the evening.