Violence in the New Testament by Shelly Matthews

Is the New Testament a violent book? Is the God of the New Testament less violent than the God of the Old Testament?

When people imagine an angry male God, dishing out punishments and inflicting suffering, they might identify Him as the God of the Old Testament. When asked to consider stories about inflicting harm, even death, upon others in God’s name, again, they might think they are in Old Testament territory. But the New Testament has its own share of violence committed by both people and God. Christians have sometimes assumed that the ministry of Jesus reflected a radical shift in the nature of God towards peace and love, and away from anger and wrath. Yet, depending on context and point of view, New Testament texts might depict God, and God’s people, as peaceful, or violent, or both.

Name-calling is a common type of violence in the New Testament. In response to the fact that many Jews did not believe that Jesus was the messiah, gospel authors told stories of Jesus attacking them in his teaching. In Matt 23:4-36 Jesus derides Pharisees as the vilest of hypocrites. In John 8:44, Jesus calls “the Jews” the “children of the devil.” While Jews are commonly the target of such name-calling, polytheists are also attacked. For example, Titus 1:12 dismisses the entire population of Crete as “liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”

New Testament texts often reflect, rather than challenge, the violent household and political structures of the ancient world. Jesus tells parables in which beatings, and even killings, of household slaves are affirmed as disciplinary measures (for example, Luke 12:45-47). Paul warns the Corinthians, that as their “father,” he might return to them “with a rod,” presumably to beat them (1Cor 4:21). In Gal 5:12, Paul expresses the wish that those who disagree with him on the matter of circumcision might “castrate themselves.”

The final judgement is imagined in particularly violent terms in the New Testament, with the book of Revelation serving as Exhibit A. Revelation’s pages burst with gruesome scenes of cosmic battles, plagues, and bloodshed. Consider, for instance, the birds who gorge on human flesh at God’s banquet (Rev 19:17-21). While Revelation is often treated as an outlier, it is better to understand this book as fully at home within New Testament apocalyptic longing for God’s violent judgment against non-believers. Paul imagines Christ at the end of time, handing over the kingdom to God, but only after “he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (1Cor 15:24). 2Thess 1:5-10 promises a final judgement with Jesus revealed “in flaming fire,” and inflicting the “punishment of eternal destruction.” Luke’s parable of the nobleman’s return, likely meant to represent Jesus’s second coming, calls for his enemies to be brought forward and slaughtered in his presence (Luke 19:27). Such violent images of final judgement owe to an increasing preoccupation with the afterlife, something of little concern in the Old Testament. This shift in focus between the Testaments once caused Mark Twain to observe that only after the Deity “became a Christian,” did he turn “a thousand billion times crueler,” by inventing and proclaiming hell.

Shelly Matthews , "Violence in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 18 Oct 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/violence-in-the-new-testament

Contributors

matthews-shelly

Shelly Matthews
Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School

Shelly Matthews is Professor of New Testament at the Brite Divinity School. She is the author of Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity, and The Acts of the Apostles: Taming the Tongues of Fire: An Introduction and Study Guide.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Matt 23:4-36

4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.5They do all ... View more

John 8:44

44You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because ... View more

Titus 1:12

12It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said,
“Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”

Luke 12:45-47

45But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get dr ... View more

1Cor 4:21

21What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

Gal 5:12

12I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

Rev 19:17-21

The Beast and Its Armies Defeated
17Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gath ... View more

1Cor 15:24

24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

2Thess 1:5-10

The Judgment at Christ's Coming
5This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are ... View more

Luke 19:27

27But 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.’ ”

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