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An Eye for an Eye and Turning the Other Cheek

March 3rd, 2009 by Matt

In The Autonomy of Ethics David Brink complains that “tradition and scripture may speak but in conflicting ways”;[1] in a endnote he cites a single example,

Inconsistency is at stake, for example, when we juxtapose the Old Testament doctrine of an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23, 24; Leviticus 24:19, 20; and Deuteronomy 19:21) and the New Testament doctrine of “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:27-31).[2]

Brink contends that the “doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’” (commonly called the lex talionis) and the New Testament teaching of “turning the other cheek” are contradictory. I will argue that this claim is mistaken; first I will respectively outline what the “doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’” and the teaching of “turning the other cheek” are then I will ask whether Christ’s expounding of the latter is inconsistent with the former.

What is the Lex Talionis?
Brink refers to Exodus 21:23-25.

If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

This passage is repeated in several other passages.[3] The Phrase expresses a legal formula which is expounded in proverbial form. The principle is that whatever punishment is imposed (in the immediate case the punishment is a fine) must be proportionate to the harm inflicted on the victim.

Sarna notes, “[r]abbinic tradition understood the biblical formulation to mean monetary payment and not physical retaliation”[4] and he defends this interpretation. Drazin notes that the Halacah in b. B.K 84a and Sanhedrin 79a and Mek each understand the phrase to refer to a principle of commensurate compensation.[5] Plaut states that “few passages in the Torah have been so thoroughly misunderstood” and suggests the text is best understood as requiring “the value of an eye for the loss of an eye”, “the value of a limb for its loss and so on”.

I have defended this way of interpreting talionic formulae in the Torah in a previous post, here I will add that the context makes this evident. Verses 26-27 apply the principle expounded in v 23-25 to an assault upon an ebed (ebed is often incorrectly translated with the English word slave, it actually refers to a form of indentured servitude).

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.

An ebed is a person working off a debt. The requirement to release his servant forces the assailant to write off the debt his/her victim owes him/her. The context clearly understands the lex talionis as the payment of commensurate monetary compensation.

What is Turning the Other Cheek?
Christ expounds the “teaching of turning the other cheek” as follows, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Contrary to common misconceptions, this is not referring to a serious assault. David Daube notes that in the rabbinic law of the period, a slap on the cheek was viewed as a paradigm case of an insult where there was no actual harm or damage to the victim. Moreover, the rabbinic exegesis of the period ruled that one could sue a person who insulted him or her in this fashion for damages proportionate to the shame or damage done to their pride. Something that appears borne out by Christ’s observations a few verses earlier where he states that a person who insults his brother (a fellow Jew) “is answerable to the Sanhedrin.”

Turning the other cheek, then, means refusing to demand compensation for mere insults that do not do any serious damage. Christ is not talking about serious assaults here, as Daube notes, if he did “would the case of a slap in the face not have been an excessively weak illustration of his new position? [Would it not have been necessary] to give a far more serious example”?[6]

It is also clear that “turning the other cheek” is not incompatible with standing up for oneself. In John 18:23-24 when Jesus himself is struck in the face he does not lash back and demand compensation but he does rebuke the person in question. “If I said something wrong, … testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

Juxtaposing the Two Teachings
Brink suggests that “when one juxtaposes the Old Testament doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’” and “the New Testament doctrine of ‘turning the other cheek’” there is an inconsistency. Ironically Christ himself juxtaposes both doctrines in Matt 5:38-39, a passage Brink himself cites; Christ states,

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not retaliate against an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Brink apparently believes that Christ is here citing the Old Testament teaching and then in uttering “but I say to you” contradicting it with his own teaching.

The problem is that this goes against the context and genre of the text. At the beginning of the sermon, in which the above juxtaposition occurs, Christ tells his readers not to interpret his comments as a rejection of Old Testament commands, he states emphatically

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them[7] … Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven”[8]

The contrast Christ draws in v 20 is not between the torah and his own teaching but between faithful obedience and the obedience of the scribes and Pharisees. This suggests that Christ is contradicting, not the torah per se, but a particular interpretation.

Daube provides confirmation of this. Daube notes the contrast in this pericope between “you have heard it said” and “I say to you”. This, Daube points out, was a common way of setting out rabbinic teaching. The rabbi would contrast an excessively formalistic interpretation of the torah that people had “heard” with a fuller correct one that the rabbi himself expounded. This observation fits precisely other parts of the Sermon on the Mount where the same formula is used.

In v 20 Christ contrasts “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder’” with his own teaching (“but I say to you”) to avoid unjustified angry feuds and insults. In v27 he contrasts “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’” with his own teaching to not look at another person’s spouse lustfully. In both cases it is evident that Christ is not rejecting the Old Testament teaching; he is clearly not saying that it is permissible to murder or commit adultery; rather he is rejecting an excessively formalistic interpretation of these commandments.

When these factors are taken into account it is clear, I think, that Christ is not offering a teaching antithetical to the Old Testament. The original law in the Old Testament permitted a victim of assault to gain compensation from his assailant. The lex talionis existed to limit the damages that could be taken to only that which was proportional to the harm done and no more. Some rabbinic teaching of Christ’s time applied this very strictly so that even a person who had suffered an insult, but no actual tangible damage, could sue his insulter. Christ’s response was to reject this as petty and prideful and as such, a wrong application of this law; in cases of insults it was better to simply let it go rather than seeking exact recompense. Nothing in the passage whatsoever suggests that victims of serious harm are not entitled to proportionate compensation from their assailants.

When one examines the teachings of the Old and New Testaments carefully, taking into account such things as literary and historical context of the relevant passages, it is far from obvious that the Old Testament doctrine of an ‘eye for an eye’ and the New Testament doctrine of ‘turning the other cheek’ are inconsistent. Here, as elsewhere, Brink’s objection to theological ethics is based on a superficial exegesis of the traditions he is objecting to.

[1] David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
[2] Ibid, 164.
[3] Exodus 21:23, 24; Leviticus 24:19, 20; and Deuteronomy 19:21 as cited by Brink.
[4] Nahum Sarna J P S Commentary: Exodus (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991) 126.
[5] Israel Drazin, Targum Onkelos to Exodus (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1990) 215.
[6] David Daube The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press, 1956) 256.
[7] Matt 5:17.
[8] Matt 5:19.

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11 responses so far ↓

  • There are several resolutions to this. I have listed 3 here.

    The context in Matthew is about retaliation so I struggle with the idea of it being about just an insult, though I am aware that slapping the cheek is a form of insult.

    I guess I see this as similar to David’s actions. While David spoke up about how he was being mistreated—like Jesus did when he was struck—David did not seek to correct the wrong done to him. That is, we seek justice for others and let God seek justice for us.

    By appealing to the talion individuals were asserting their right to rectify the wrong done to them themselves. God’s way is to allow him to mete out justice (often thru human intermediaries). Jesus command would be consistent with that concept: fight for others and I’ll fight for you.

    The talion does not address this principle; it addresses what justice is, not who should seek it or give it.

  • Matt says, “Christ is not talking about serious assaults here, as Daube notes, if he did “would the case of a slap in the face not have been an excessively weak illustration of his new position? [Would it not have been necessary] to give a far more serious example”?”]”

    Apparently, since Jesus goes on to explain what one ought to do in the case of theft, surely worse than a mere insult, the illustration is to give the thief even more than he/she was stealing, we must then try to keep these two ideas as far apart in our mind as is possible.

    I don’t think that Jesus’ reinterpretation of ‘do not commit adultery’ to ‘you shouldn’t even be thinking of adultery in the first place’ is anything less than smoke and mirrors failing miserably to reconcile the opposing ideas of ‘eye for eye’ and ‘turn the other cheek’.

    It’s no surprise to me that I completely disagree with Matt here, it gives me a headache just trying to imagine how, ‘if someone steals from you, you ought to just offer him/her something more’, isn’t contradicting, ‘You will not steal.”

    This idea that Jesus was simply telling us not to sweat the small stuff, basically watering down his words to allow them to be not contradicting ‘eye for eye’ doesn’t wash if we simply read on to the theft example.

    ‘If someone takes your shirt you should offer them your coat’, somehow must mean that you ought to demand fair compensation?

    This interpretation of Jesus’ teaching has Jesus saying the opposite of what he really means.

    We may as well interpret ‘Jesus wept’ to really mean that Jesus was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his face, since, after all, Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to be just fine.

    “Oh, what a tangled web we weave..” – Sir Walter Scott

  • Apparently, since Jesus goes on to explain what one ought to do in the case of theft, surely worse than a mere insult, the illustration is to give the thief even more than he/she was stealing, we must then try to keep these two ideas as far apart in our mind as is possible.”

    Jesus doesn’t go on to explain what one ought to do in the case of theft he makes a general statement “do not resist with evil” and gives three vivid illustrations of this principle, in the context of a sermon which is highly hyperbolic in its language. The first is turning the other cheek, that is not retaliating in kind to humiliating insult.
    The second example is not a case of theft it is a case where someone sues you for your cloak. A person could legally sue for a cloak in Jewish law, but could not sue for the inner garment. The point is that, when one enemies seek something from you, one should give ones enemies more than they are legally entitled to.

    The same point is illustrated in the second example, of going the extra mile, a roman soldier could legally demand someone carry there kit for one mile and no more. So again the illustration is of giving ones enemies more help than they are entitled to legally.

    I am sure that for you its obvious that what ‘these are not vivid hyperbolic illustrations but literal commands. What Jesus really meant was, when people steal from you your duty is to strip naked and walk around nude, presumably that his original followers all understood this and founded a nudist colony for victims of theft.

    Of course by the same logic the colony would be full of people who had plucked out there eye and throw it away, and cut off their right hands as well, after all Jesus is not giving vivid illustrations he is giving literal instructions. The nudist colony presumably all have specks and logs in each others eyes as well. In the real world however, when people are not trolling and being uncharitable, people realise this kind of interpretation as ridiculous.

  • “..And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either..”

    This explanation is completely deviod of your interpolation ‘sue’, which, which you ‘offer’ simply to recontextualise it to be more in line with O.T. law, removing the concept of ‘stealing’.

    If I go to your fridge and take your steaks, according to the principle Jesus lays out, you should offer me the garlic bread that was to go with it.

    I didn’t ‘sue you’ for your steak, I stole it.

    If Jesus had meant ‘sue’, I’m pretty sure that his illustration would have been translated as ‘sue’.

    Your insistence that a ‘general statement illustrating a principle’ isn’t an ‘explanation’ borders on childish.

    What, in Cognitive Dissonance Land is ‘a general statement illustrating a principle’, if it’s not an ‘explanation’?

  • “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” – Luke 6:30

    But of course this means if they sue you for it, that has to go without saying in the mind of Matt.

  • So, Matt has been reduced to insults now, calling me an internet troll. If you only want feedback from those you agree with, you could make your blog private, you could agree with each other via e-mail, you could ban anyone who disagrees with you, censoring their comments.

    I realise that you interpret the Bible through the lens that it is inerrant and that any apparent contradictions must therefore be reconcilable.

    Most Christians will just ‘offer’ that what’s in the O.T. is a deal with the Hebrews so it doesn’t really count for us, when that suits them, of course.

    Seems you’d rather explain to us that a ‘general statement illustrating a principle’ isn’t an ‘explanation’ by giving us a general statement illustrating your principle.

    It’s just a wonder that your mind doesn’t implode trying to reconcile the loving teachings of your Lord with the judicial teachings of the other ‘person’ of your Lord.

    Any word from the third ‘person’ on this?

  • “..And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either..”

    This explanation is completely deviod of your interpolation ‘sue’, which, which you ‘offer’ simply to recontextualise it to be more in line with O.T. law, removing the concept of ‘stealing’.

    Um, really?

    New International Version (©1984)
    And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

    New Living Translation (©2007)
    If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.

    English Standard Version (©2001)
    And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

    New American Standard Bible (©1995)
    “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.

    King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
    And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

    International Standard Version (©2008)
    If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well.

    Aramaic Bible in Plain English (©2010)
    And whoever wants to sue you and take your coat, leave for him also your cloak.

    GOD’S WORD® Translation (©1995)
    If someone wants to sue you in order to take your shirt, let him have your coat too.

    King James 2000 Bible (©2003)
    And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.

    American King James Version
    And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.

    American Standard Version
    And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

    Douay-Rheims Bible
    And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him.

    Darby Bible Translation
    and to him that would go to law with thee and take thy body coat, leave him thy cloak also.

    English Revised Version
    And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

    Webster’s Bible Translation
    And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

    Weymouth New Testament
    If any one wishes to go to law with you and to deprive you of your under garment, let him take your outer one also.

    World English Bible
    If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.

    Young’s Literal Translation
    and whoever is willing to take thee to law, and thy coat to take — suffer to him also the cloak.

  • Well excuse me, Matt and Hugh. It seems that if you look at the Gospel according to Matthew, the writers did couch it in terms of ‘suing’.

    Not so in ‘Luke’.

    Not ‘sue’ in ‘Luke’ either.

    So not only was Jesus, not only God and the Son of God, but also the ‘greatest teacher’, sort of said both, ‘take’ and ‘sue’, or maybe he said ‘take’ at some point then ‘sue’ at another.

    What a fool I was to believe that the Divinely Inspired World of God could say one thing, and not another.

    Of course it says both.(slaps forehead)

  • So, yea Hugh, the “Luke” version of it is devoid of ‘suing’ aspect, no matter how many translations of a line in “Matthew” says it.

    Isn’t that right? The fact that Matthew *is* talking about ‘suing’ makes it worse for Maddy’s lawsuit, since Matt’s apology for the ‘eye for eye’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ is laughably weak, suggesting that it is simply implying that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.

    Even Matt is suggesting that ‘eye for eye’ is hyperbole, and Jesus explicitly contrasts that to his doctrine, which may well be hyperbole too.

    Any Christian who unsophisticately imagines that Jesus is repudiating ‘eye for eye’ and replacing it with ‘turn the other cheek’ would be as a lamb ready for the slaughter at the hands of sophisticated Christians such as Matt.

    In essence, Matt makes a few comparisons and comes to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said at all, no.

    ‘Turn the other cheek’, simply means, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

    Not so fine if you’re a Christian(follower of Christ’s teaching) facing off with a sophistocated Christian(interpreter of Christ’s teaching to suit yourself).

  • Pboy, perhaps you can tell me on what basis you contend the greek word translated “take” in Luke can only refer to theft and not to someone taking your property via a lawsuit? What actual evidence do you have for this conclusion?

  • 598270 123781There is noticeably a bundle to find out about this. I assume you made sure nice factors in options also. 206575