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Weapons of Jesus and the Disciples:

One of the unexpected ways that Volokh.com has helped me as a writer and researcher is the very interesting reader analysis that I receive for articles that were written for a different publication. For example, the Rocky Mountain News website has an on-line forum for reader comments about my bi-weekly media analysis columns. But the comments posted there tend to very short, and often consist of not much more than simply agreeing or disagreeing with what I wrote. In contrast, when I create a short post of the VC, with a link to the column, VC readers will often offer many extended comments, some of which provide additional insights into the topic. It's an unexpected, and constructive media synergy.

As many VC readers know, I also write frequently for America's First Freedom, one of the NRA member magazines. AFF has no on-line published feedback for articles, and only some of the AFF articles are ever posted on the AFF website. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest AFF article, regarding whether the New Testament mandates pacifism. Unsurprisingly, many of the comments were very interesting. I'd like to address some issues raised by the commentators:

1. Since the NT plainly sanctions state violence (e.g., Romans 13), does this, in itself, negate all Christian pacifist arguments? My article, because of space limitations, only addressed the Gospels and Acts. I agree with the commenters who assert that it's intellectually plausible for the NT to sanction state violence, while requiring Christians to abstain from all violence--including by not serving as violent state actors. (That's separate from the question of whether the NT requires Christians to be pacifists in the first place.) The bifurcated view has the support of some eminent early Christian writers, such as Origen, as well as later ones, such as the great 20th century pacifist writer John Cadoux, who wrote that that he was rooting for the Allies to win WWII, even while arguing that Christians shouldn't participate in the fighting. Cadoux, Christian Pacifism Reexamined (Oxford, 1940), p. 141.

In practice, this view was sustainable only while Christians were a minority, without the responsibilities for running a state; in modern times, it's practicted only by Christian sects (e.g., Mennonites) who function as a small pacifist minority within a larger non-pacifist society.

2. Whether Jesus cleansing the Temple with a whip is really an anti-pacifist example. Reinhold Neibuhr, in his famous essay rejecting Christian pacifism, started off by saying that he was sick of people using the Temple cleansing as an anti-pacifist proof text. It's an issue I couldn't address in the magazine article, due to space limitations, but here's why I still think it's a story which tends to undermine pacifism (although it doesn't tell us anything about lethal force):

Even if you accept the etymological point that Jesus' whip was probably an animal control device, and you also infer (from silence) that he never hit anybody, Jesus still entered the Temple, damaged other people's property, and frightened people into fleeing by brandishing a weapon, using it against innocent animals, and implicitly threatening people if they dared to remain in the Temple. It is hardly the behavior of a meek person who never does anything violent.

The great pacifist historian of the early church, John Cadoux, pointed out that all four Gospels use a Greek word meaning "to cast out," and the word is repeatedly used elsewhere in the New Testament in non-violent contexts, including a man removing money from his purse. C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (N.Y.: Seabury Pr., 1982)(1st pub. 1919), pp. 34-35; Luke 10:35. Cadoux continued that the word used in the cleansing of the Temple "need mean no more than an authoritative dismissal. It is obviously impossible for one man to drive out a crowd by physical force or even by the threat of it." Cadoux, p. 35.

Well not really. One man using a weapon, even a non-lethal weapon such as an animal scourge, can often clear a room pretty quickly. Especially if the other people in the room are unarmed, surprised, and (as disarmed subjects of a foreign dictatorship) used to being be submissive to force. The room-clearing is all the easier if the man with the weapon has a strong and fearless personality. It even easier if the man is backed by a wildly cheering crowd in a religious frenzy (such as the crowd that had, in Matthew's version, just welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem and proclaimed him the messiah).

3. What kind of swords the disciples carried. Some commenters have engaged in a discussion of whether they were machetes, which might be true, although I don't see that changing the point of the story. Some additional facts about the sword issue:

The Apostle Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3). It's possible that, as a state actor, he might have been exempt from the Roman prohibition on Jewish sword-carrying, which was enacted sometime between 35 B.C. and 5 A.D.

The typical Roman sword of the Republic was the gladius Hispaniensis, whose blade was approximately thirty inches long. In the first century A.D., the gladius was replaced by the Pompeii-type sword, whose blade was only sixteen inches. "The Roman Sword In The Republican Period And After." The latter type of sword would have been relatively easy to carry concealed, especially under loose garments.

In 1694, the Quaker author Thomas Maule tried to refute the pro-weapons implication of the Two Swords text by arguing that the law is the first sword, and Jesus is the second sword. This is an imaginative symbolic reading, but it is utterly contrary to the sense of the passage to assert that there were no real swords involved. A sermon during the American Revolution addressed the Quaker claim:

I think I need not stand long here to confute that impertinency of a conceit that these were spiritual swords....Indeed I could hardly be brought to believe they [Quakers] did hold such an error, if I had not been informed by a person of credit, who assured me he had it from the mouth of one of their speakers or teachers.
O horrid blasphemy! Purchase the spirit of God, or the sword of the spirit, or a spiritual sword, with the price of an old garment. Surely if this was true, then the purse and scrip must be spiritual too, and these bought by selling of old garments; and yet they would be such spiritual swords as would cut off carnal ears and such as would be both visible and sensible, and two of them would be enough.
A Moderate Whig (probably Stephen Case), "Defensive Arms Vindicated and The Lawfulness of the American War Made Manifest" (published in 1783, delivered in 1779), reprinted in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1990), p. 765.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Weapons of Jesus and the Disciples:
  2. Can a Christian Own a Gun for Self-defense?
john425 (mail):
In section 2--" It is hardly the behavior of a meek person who never does anything violent."

Jesus first "made a whip of cords" (probably reeds). This is a deliberate act. He didn't grab the first stick at hand, rather, he took time to "weave" the cords into a whip. This is not the sign of an angry person.
I think Jesus was trying to make a point with the violence of his act. Consider it an attention-getting device.
1.24.2007 12:50pm
Jay D:

"In practice, this view (sanction state violence, while requiring Christians to abstain from all violence--including by not serving as violent state actors.) was sustainable only while Christians were a minority, without the responsibilities for running a state"


If Christians are running a state, they would be violating the second provision of not serving as violent state actors. They should stop.
1.24.2007 1:04pm
Pine_Tree (mail):
It's also helpful (and in my view accurate) to interpret the temple-clearing as a person orderinig out trespassers.

Lots of folks are welcome in my house. If they do things that I consider inappropriate, I'll retract the welcome and order them out. I might send my son to do it -- he has the same name as I do, and can speak with my authority.

Lots of folks were welcome in the Temple. If they did things that God considered inappropriate, then it's reasonable for him to retract the welcome and send them out. He might send His Son to do it under His authority.

And Jay D, I think you're exactly right. But I think I'd extend it beyond the overt use of "force" to the intrinsic monopoly on force that a state has. If a candidate for office expresses any willingness to steal (tax) from others in my name as a voter, then I'm obliged as a Christian to withhold my vote.
1.24.2007 1:19pm
AK - Cleveland (mail):
Like a good issue-spotting law student, I have been unable to get past the first words of your prior posts on the subject. You said something like "assuming, for the sake of argument, that every word in the NT is to be taken literally." Such would fundamentally (pun intended) change the debate. If every word is taken literally, then we are not talking about Christians but rather a subset of Christianity - fundamentalism. That's fine, if that's what you would like to examine. The point is that this is no longer a debate about christianity but fundamentalism. In fact, every Christian sect will come up with a different answer. It is logicially untenable to challenge the pacifistic beliefs of non-fundamentalist sects if you begin with a fundamentalist proposition.

Can fundamenalists carry guns? In my experience, a fundamentalist will make a decision and then find some text somewhere in the Bible to justify that decision.

If you narrow your inquiry to actual examples of Jesus's conduct, as you have seen, the question becomes much more interesting, but, again, you risk ascribing beliefs to other sects that they may or may not hold.
1.24.2007 1:23pm
AK - Cleveland (mail):
Also like a good law student, I misread your prior post. I'm not sure that it changes anything I said. Various sects will have their own read on the Gospels and Acts (and may even have their own versions of those texts).


[DK: Like some law professors, you may have added unnecessary complexity. I realize that Biblical inerrancy is a big debate among Christians (and Jews), as is the form of inerrancy (e.g., in the original texts only, but not in translation, etc.). I had, and have, no intention getting into that debate, which is irrelevant for my purposes. The only thing I was doing was to frame the discussion within the parameters that almost any Christian would accept; almost all of what I write about religions (see www.davekopel.com/religion.htm for more) asks readers to assume the believer's perspective. So when I write about, for example, Roman Catholic political philosophy, I presume that the Papacy and the hierarchy of Bishops are legtimate institutions; when I write about the Old Testament, I presume that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people. Etc.); when I write about Buddhism, I examine the lessons to be learned from various Buddhist miracles, without tangential discussions of whether the miracles really took place. In the case of my article about the Gospels/Acts, the main effect of my assumption of literal truth is to exclude arguments such as "Jesus never existed" or "Jesus may never have said most of what the Gospels claim he did" (the Jesus Project), or "Event X" never actually happened but was rather a metaphor. I wouldn't dispute that all three of these questions have their place in scholarly discussion of the Bible, but all of them are diversions from what I was interested in discussing in my article, which is orthodox Christian beliefs. Likewise, my article discusses Jesus's claim, at his arrest, that he could pray for 12 legions of angels who would rescue him; for the purposes of my discussion of the story, I wanted readers to presume that Jesus was literally correct. In an article about orthodox Christian moral philosophy, it's a waste of time to go off on sidetracks like "But Jesus was wrong, since angels don't exist. Or Jesus was a preacher with the delusion that he was the Son of God. Or the Gospel account of his arrest is false, because he was actually trying to lead a forcible overthrow of the Roman colonialists and set himself up as the temporal king of Israel. Or whatever."]
1.24.2007 1:26pm
r78:
Romans begins:


1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

If so then the colonial rule of King George III over Americ was the will of God and it was improper to rebel. Likewise, the Regime of Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Hitler, pre-revolutionary France, South Africa's apartheid system, and the current government of North Korea.

If you are going to actually assert that Romans provides authority for the idea that "state violence" is acceptable, then you have to accept the other provisions as well.






3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
1.24.2007 2:32pm
Nick P.:
What kind of swords the disciples carried. Some commenters have engaged in a discussion of whether they were machetes, which might be true, although I don't see that changing the point of the story.

I still think that changes the story rather significantly. Jesus tells his disciples to carry swords, but he doesn't specify why. If the item in question is dual-purpose, serving as both a tool and a weapon, we cannot assume that Jesus intends it used for defence unless he specifically says so.

Perhaps a more modern example would help. I know several mennonites who own firearms. We might assume that they own guns for self defence, but we would be wrong. They are pacifists and own the guns (rifles and shotguns) for deer hunting and varmint control.

I'm not sure that the typical sword carried by Roman soldiers, in the Republic or otherwise, is particularly relevant. Given that the story takes place in Palestine among non-Romans, perhaps the types of blades common in the Hellenistic world would be more relevant.
1.24.2007 2:37pm
Elliot Reed:
I presume you are not talking about Orthodox Christianity, which is a pretty minor influence here in America, so where did you get your standard for what constitutes "orthodox" Christianity? The claim that the Gospels are literally accurate in every detail is not exactly a common view among American Christians except for evangelical Protestants, and whatever evangelical Protestants are they're not "orthodox" - American evangelical Protestantism is a development of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As for literal accuracy, compare, e.g., the view that the Gospels are divinely inspired and get the basic story right but not all the details are literally true.
1.24.2007 2:39pm
Elliot Reed:
As an example, the doctrinal statements of the United Methodist Church appear to say nothing about the Gospels being literally accurate.
1.24.2007 2:53pm
SamChevre:
Just a couple comments.

1) Option 1 is frequently referred to as non-resistance, in an explicit contrast to pacifism. Here's a pamphlet that is a pretty good summary of the traditional Plain position. http://www.anabaptists.org/ras/21e74.html

The traditional explanation of the swords in the Plain world is that they were carried to make a point that Jesus wasn't an earthly king; the goal was to enable the "put up the sword" lecture. (John 18:10-37
1.24.2007 2:54pm
CJColucci:
Being neither a Christian nor a pacifist, I have no dog in this fight, but anyone who follows a theological dispute from the outside quickly learns that the thin source materials available do not provide any solid basis for answers to a whole host of theological questions that must compel the assent of a reasonable person who disagrees. In the end, the questions can be settled only by outvoting, splitting off from, jailing, or killing those who disagree. It is possible to say, and say correctly, that X-defined group of Christians believe Y for Z reasons, or that A-defined group of Christians believe B for C reasons. It is not possible, however, to say whether the beliefs of X or A are true Christian belief. All you can do is pick sides. And most of us have no side in this.
1.24.2007 3:17pm
rc:
"If the item in question is dual-purpose, serving as both a tool and a weapon, we cannot assume that Jesus intends it used for defence unless he specifically says so."

I strongly disagree. I looked up 'Machaira' in the Bible concordance and lexicon, and it clearly means sword.

Let's start with the instances of the word in the new testament: 29. Of those, 27 indisputably refer to a weapon. The other two (involving the disciples' traveling equipment) might be vague.

So I looked up those vague verses in 20 different popular Bible translations. This helps expand the meanings of the original word.

For example, the 'money belt' mentioned in the verse was translated as respectively as 'purse, money belt, money, moneybag, wallet, bag, or satchel.' 'Knapsack' could be 'bag, provision bag, traveler's bag, scrip, knapsack, pack, or bag for food.' 'Cloak' was translated as 'coat, cloak, mantle, garment, clothes, or robe.'

Machaira, on the other hand, (a word supposedly used for multiple and very different meanings) is translated in this verse as 'sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, or sword.' No 'traveler's knife,' no 'butcher knife,' no 'utility knife,' no 'machete.' Sword.

It's hard to imagine how translators found so many different words for irrelevant items, yet were universal when referring to the sword. It's the most contentious item mentioned in the context of Jesus and the disciples, yet the translations are absolutely uniform.

It's hard to justify Jesus as a pacifist if he is arming his disciples with swords for self-defense on the road.

SWORDS. There is no other translation.
1.24.2007 6:44pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I'm surprised Dave, vindication for your position is clearly and explicitly found in the Bible (Armanments, Ch. 4, v. 16--20):


Then did he raise on high the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, saying, "Bless this, O Lord, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the people did rejoice and did feast upon the lambs and toads and tree-sloths and fruit-bats and orangutans and breakfast cereals ... Now did the Lord say, "First thou pullest the Holy Pin. Then thou must count to three. Three shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither shalt thou count two, excepting that thou then proceedeth to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the number of the counting, be reached, then lobbest thou the Holy Hand Grenade in the direction of thine foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it."
1.24.2007 6:52pm
Anthony A (mail):
A little more seriously, Joel 3:9-10 advises:


Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up: Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I [am] strong.
1.24.2007 7:24pm
shecky (mail):
This whole issue is goofy. May as well argue over the sidearms Klingons would be using in hand to hand combat.
1.24.2007 7:42pm
Pine_Tree (mail):

If so then the colonial rule of King George III over Americ was the will of God and it was improper to rebel. Likewise, the Regime of Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Hitler, pre-revolutionary France, South Africa's apartheid system, and the current government of North Korea.

If you are going to actually assert that Romans provides authority for the idea that "state violence" is acceptable, then you have to accept the other provisions as well.


Err, no. Without turning this into a multi-versevscripture lesson, when God places someone in a position of authority, it's not to do as they please. It's to carry out His will. When a person who has been given authority diverges from this mission and acts in a manner contrary to His will/instructions/etc., then they are acting on their own authority.

If I'm placed in a position of authority, then I have an issue of responsibility, not of power. Overstep it, expand it on my own, or act contrary to God's way and I've become a usurper and tyrant (sic semper tyrannis). From God's standpoint, I've also called greater judgement on myself.

A usurper can't magically transform his own actions into God's will.

So nix on the notion that it's improper to oppose a Stalin, Hussein, Hitler, etc. Not at all scripturally sound.
1.24.2007 8:51pm
Colin (mail):
This whole issue is goofy. May as well argue over the sidearms Klingons would be using in hand to hand combat.

God, not this again. I would like to see one Kopel thread--just one--that didn't eventually turn into a fight about whether a d'k tahg is legitimate in hand to hand combat. Can we please just once not talk about the Right to Bear Klingon Arms?
1.24.2007 9:42pm
r78:

Err, no. Without turning this into a multi-versevscripture lesson, when God places someone in a position of authority, it's not to do as they please. It's to carry out His will. When a person who has been given authority diverges from this mission and acts in a manner contrary to His will/instructions/etc., then they are acting on their own authority.

I was responding to the original post which stated

Since the NT plainly sanctions state violence (e.g., Romans 13),

You appear to be saying that the NT sanctions state violence only when the State carries out the will of the state.

That is something different.

So if the state is following God's will you are obligated to obey it so I guess it is just up to each person to get his or her info from communicationg with God (the way George Bush does, I guess) whether the state is enacting God's will and therefore worthy of heeding.
1.25.2007 1:25am
Evelyn M. Blaine (mail):
rc wrote:
I strongly disagree. I looked up 'Machaira' in the Bible concordance and lexicon, and it clearly means sword.

Let's start with the instances of the word in the new testament: 29. Of those, 27 indisputably refer to a weapon. The other two (involving the disciples' traveling equipment) might be vague.

So I looked up those vague verses in 20 different popular Bible translations. This helps expand the meanings of the original word. [...]

Machaira, on the other hand, (a word supposedly used for multiple and very different meanings) is translated in this verse as 'sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, sword, or sword.' No 'traveler's knife,' no 'butcher knife,' no 'utility knife,' no 'machete.' Sword. [...]

SWORDS. There is no other translation.
This is a question, I think, that is better answered by actually reading the (real) text and looking at the development of the term in the language than by doing a head-count of English versions.

I don't have the skills to do that with any certainty; my Classical Greek is rusty and my knowledge of NT Greek derivative of that. But in Classical times, machaira could clearly mean carving or sacrifical knife, utility knife, and dagger (as opposed to xiphos or phasganon for full-length sword). See the entry in LSJ.

It might be the case that in first- and second-century koine, machaira really did always and unambiguously refer to a large weapon and not an everyday knife. I don't know. But I would want to do some real philology before reaching a conclusion on the matter, rather than just assuming that the consensus of translators is a good way to "expand the meanings of the original word".

(Incidentally, I've always been perplexed by the number of professedly devout, literalistic Christians who either (a) never bother learning Greek or (b) are interested in learning only the very artificial subject of "New Testament Greek", as though one could deeply understand a language at a given period without reading the texts that form its central high-cultural points of reference at that time. It's as though one were attempting to make detailed philological claims about twentieth-century English prose while professing no interest in reading or even being able to read Shakespeare or Chaucer. My sense, again impressionistic, is that traditional Jews and Muslims do not have this sort of lackadaisical relation to Hebrew or Arabic. Or, if they do, they at least feel properly guilty about it.)
1.25.2007 4:11am
rc:
Evelyn M. Blaine responds to my overwhelming evidence that sword means sword.

"This is a question, I think, that is better answered by actually reading the (real) text and looking at the development of the term in the language than by doing a head-count of English versions."

You take all my statistics and reduce them to a 'headcount.' Please produce some statistics of your own. Like the number of greek scholars who call a sword a machete. In a climate where jungles don't exist.

Every large group of scholars gathered to create a version of the bible has called a sword a sword. Those scholars have researched the heck out of every meaning of the bible. Some Bible versions are word for word. Some are thought for thought. Some even stretch the limits and paraphrase. All of them read slightly differently- as the different words for 'purse' 'knapsack' and 'cloak' attest.

And yet, in EVERY SINGLE translation of the Bible, all the most educated scholars agree: the best way to translate 'sword' is 'sword.'

"Incidentally, I've always been perplexed by the number of professedly devout, literalistic Christians who either (a) never bother learning Greek or (b) are interested in learning only the very artificial subject of "New Testament Greek", as though one could deeply understand a language at a given period without reading the texts that form its central high-cultural points of reference at that time."

The best of the best of the best of the best greek scholars, over twenty translations, all with different priorities, all translate 'sword' as 'sword.'

Of twenty meticulously researched bible translations of Luke 22:36:
'Purse'- seven translations.
'Knapsack'- seven translations.
'Cloak'- six translations.
'Sword'- one translation.

The evidence, gathered by the finest greek Bible scholars in the world, is clear.

Sword = sword.
1.25.2007 4:41am
Evelyn Blaine (mail):
rc:

The issue is not how the term should be translated, but what it means. If the semantic value of machaira is ambiguous between the English terms "sword" and "knife", and the translator believes, on the balance of the evidence, that "sword" is a better rendering, then he should use "sword". But the ambiguity is still something that anyone interested in the text should bear in mind, even though any translation will unavoidably flatten it out, eliminating polysemy and making probability and ambiguity look like certainty and clarity. I'm not claiming that machaira definitely signifies in this particular context the thing referred to in English as a "knife", or even that that's the most likely signification, merely that it's not something that one can *rule out* without doing serious research.

If the consensus -- even the unanimous consensus -- of the translators were something that could fully settle all the questions we might have about the meaning of the text, then we should be happy just using translations rather than actually reading the texts. But we're not, or at least the more reflective of us aren't; we might make use of them, and we might judge it not worth our while to learn enough to read the original, but we understand that this is a second-best approach, and we're aware of its limitations.
1.25.2007 5:02am
rc:
Evelyn Blaine- reaching for straws.

"I'm not claiming that machaira definitely signifies... "knife", or even that that's the most likely signification, merely that it's not something that one can *rule out* without doing serious research."
How can you or I attempt 'serious research' that exceeds the consensus of the best Bible greek scholars on the planet? I mean seriously. What are you holding out for?

Vastly different word-for-word translations, thought-for-thought translations, and transliterations vary widely in the way they express the bible. Yet when they all say 'sword', they all mean sword.

This isn't a matter of some amateur washing over the subject and not looking into it. The issue has been addressed, calculated, contemplated, and interpreted by the best in the world. And remarkably, where we expect so many experts to disagree on many things (purse, knapsack, cloak), their take on machaira is absolutely, indisputably uniform:

"Sword."

Do you disagree? All you have to do is refute the respected councils of every translation of the Bible ever written.
1.25.2007 5:31am
Evelyn M. Blaine (mail):
Incidentally, I don't want it to seem like I'm singling out rc for criticism, but this is an important point:
Some Bible versions are word for word. Some are thought for thought.
I've heard a lot of people (although not very many polyglots) say things like this, and it never ceases to amaze me.

I've done a fair amount of translation (both of my own writing and that of others), and it is never the case that, given a text of non-trivial complexity, one has a one-to-one mapping of all the denotations and connotations of the signifying elements in the source language, and all their relative weightings, onto those of the target language. If you're lucky, and you work very hard, you can get a mapping that preserves the most important denotation (and sometimes even the most important connotations) for all or virtually all of the words and significant phrases, and doesn't introduce too many new semantic elements due to the unwanted secondary meanings and connotations of the target terms.

Better than that never happens. And when the text was written 1900 years ago, it's much harder to be certain just what the relevant, contextually determined weightings of semantic values are. Particularly for words, like those for concrete artifacts, that get their sense more through ostension than through explicit definition. (Exercise: ask a German-speaking friend if he can give a short, perfectly unambiguous, and exceptionless rule for mapping the extensions of Griff and Henkel to those of grip and handle.)
1.25.2007 5:39am
Evelyn M. Blaine (mail):
rc:

Again, you're confusing the question of how a word should be translated with that of what it means. Let's simplify and assume an example where intension is unambiguous and completely fixes extension; it still might be the case that the extension of term T in language L is a set 80% of whose members fall under term X in language L* and 20% of whose members fall under term Y in language L*. If context provides no more specific limitations, X will unambiguously be a better translation of T into L* than Y. But it's still clearly not the case that T just *means* X, or that if we know the meaning of X in L* we'll have answered all the questions we might have about the meaning of T in L.
1.25.2007 5:50am
rc:
Ugh, this is ridiculous. Does anyone else have anything to say on this subject? Groups of the best sholars in the world, partners in twenty different projects have agreed that Jesus told the disciples to acquire weapons.

I think I'm about done debating with Evelyn Blaine. Does anyone else want to stick up for her pacifist (or possibly-pacifist) position?

E Blaine says:"It is never the case that, given a text of non-trivial complexity, one has a one-to-one mapping of all the denotations and connotations of the signifying elements in the source language..."

And yet, in twenty different sorts of translations, the best greek scholars in the world have done just that. One-to-one mapping. Maybe that's because the 'swords' passage is simply a passage of trivial complexity. Purse, knapsack, and cloak are all translated differently. Sword is uniform across the board. The translation is indisputably clear.

"(Exercise: ask a German-speaking friend if he can give a short, perfectly unambiguous, and exceptionless rule for mapping the extensions of Griff and Henkel to those of grip and handle.)"

I have a better idea. Exercise: ask a huge group of the finest greek scholars on the planet to map the word 'sword' in Luke 22:36. The result? Absolutely unanimous and uniform. 'Sword.' They couldn't even agree on 'purse,' 'bag,' or 'cloak.' But 'sword is friggin' airtight.
1.25.2007 6:15am
Evelyn Blaine (mail):
I'm not defending pacifism, or a pacifistic interpretation of Luke 22:36, or even claiming that I have anything definitive at all to say about the passage. I'm not a Christian, or a pacifist, or a New Testament scholar. As I said, I don't even have terribly good Greek. I have no stake in this debate. I'm just making the point, which I would have thought fairly obvious, that comparing translations is not the same thing as reading the text, and cannot answer all the questions that one might reasonably have about every word in it. Is it really that strange to think that the way English divides up the semantic field sword/knife/sabre/dagger/dike/etc. might not match precisely onto the way other languages divide it up? Is it really so strange to assert that if you want to figure out the most precise analysis (not the best one-word translation) of a term in a text, you need to read the text and then, perhaps, look at real scholarly reference works (most of which are not online, although I did link to the one that is), and examine other uses of the word in that text and in other texts, and maybe even look at what commentators on the text (rather than translators of it) have had to say about the passage.

If what I'm arguing isn't evident by now, I don't think I can do anything else to make it clearer.
1.25.2007 6:42am
rc:
Evelyn says: "Is it really that strange to think that the way English divides up the semantic field sword/knife/sabre/dagger/dike/etc. might not match precisely onto the way other languages divide it up?"

I agree. One word in greek could mean eight in english. Some greek words in the bible read like a veritable thesaurus when translated into english. Examples from Luke 22:36: 'purse, knapsack, and cloak.' All very different interpretations, depending upon which greek expert you ask.

Which makes it all the more significant that all the best greek scholars call a sword a sword in every single of translation of the bible. This is unprecedented and clear.

"Is it really so strange to assert that if you want to figure out the most precise analysis... you need to read the text and then, perhaps, look at real scholarly reference works."

I would venture to say that this is exactly what every member of every bible translation council has done. You don't get on a bible council unless you're a crazy expert at greek. And you haven't done your job unless you've looked at 'real scholarly works.'

So what does it mean, amidst all the different bible translations and word meanings, that sword is translated as sword twenty out of twenty times? You couldn't find a more consistent translation of a greek passage anywhere.

My score:
29 instances of Machaira in the New Testament, 27 unequivically mean 'weapon.' 2 are slightly ambigous.

In the translations of those two slightly ambiguous instances, every one of the best Biblical greek scholars on the planet, spanning 20 disparate, independant, diverse and accepted translations, all agree that sword means sword. This, even amidst similar terms in the verse, like 'purse, knapsack, and cloak' being translated as vastly different words.

If ever any word ever had any meaning, then sword means sword.

My case could not possibly be any stronger. Any lawyers or lawprofs familiar with defining terms- could you back be up please?
1.25.2007 7:13am
William Oliver (mail) (www):
Heh. It doesn't really matter whether or not they were swords, machetes, or breadknives. The bottom line was that Jesus wanted to make sure that there were enough to protect his group. He was not making sure that there were enough to slash through the jungles of Palestine or suggesting that the disciples share two pieces of cutlery when they stopped off at Outback for a prime rib on their way back home from miracle-working.

The threat, as presented in the Gospel, was from the Jewish authorities who did not have the ability to use the death penalty. Instead they, as is traditional in such cases, used extrajudicial methods including assassination and "spontaneous" mob violence. I have always been taught that Jesus insisted that his people be armed in that instance in order to discourage that particular kind of attack. As modern studies in gun control have shown, the open ownership and use of weapons inhibits opportunistic attacks by criminals. Similarly, the open carrying of weapons by Jesus' supporters would discourage attacks from partisans. The carrying of weapons and the willingness to use the weapons is in some sense a "pacifist" act because it created a situation in which the weapons were not necessary.

Strict pacifists must argue that it is better to not carry such a weapon and thus invite violence than to carry a weapon and prevent violence.
1.25.2007 9:41am
Whadonna More:

rc wildly overstates:

Groups of the best sholars in the world, partners in twenty different projects have agreed that Jesus told the disciples to acquire weapons.


I'm certainly glad of the report that the best scholars in the world have focused on translating the New Testament. Now we Christians can get on with figuring out when to turn our other cheek, and when to use our Jesus-sanctioned thermonuclear devices.
1.25.2007 9:44am
Evelyn Blaine (mail):
rc -

Once again, it isn't about translation, it's about meaning. You seem to have this idea that when you know what the best English word to match up with a given instance of a Greek word is, you know everything about what the Greek word means in that passage: that's just not true. The best English word might not be a perfect match: it might just be better than the alternatives.

Look, let me try to explain it this way. What things did Classical Greeks, say 500-300 years B.C., use the word machaira as a name for? I think I know a rough answer to that, from LSJ and from my own knowledge of the language. (If I wanted to, I could do research and find out more exactly, but just bear with me and accept this, for the moment, as a good enough approximation.)

Imagine that you find an ancient Greek and tell him to go through the city and collect everything about which he would say, "This is a machaira." What will he bring you? Pointed metal objects. Imagine you have them all set out in front of you. Some of them will be things about which, in English, you would say "this is a knife." Or maybe more specifically "this is a sacrificial knife" or "this is a carving knife". And some of would be things that you would call "swords" rather than "knives", and some others would be things that you would call "daggers" instead of either. Because there's some overlap between "dagger" and "knife" in English, maybe some of the things would be objects about which you would assent both to "This is a knife" and "This is a dagger." So does that entail that machaira means "sword or knife or dagger"? Not really, because if you went through the same city and got all the objects that your word "sword" referred to, they wouldn't all be things that your Greek informant would call machairai. For some of them, he would say "that's a xiphos, not a machaira". For some others, he might have other words. Some of them he would probably say fall under more than one word. Now imagine getting all the things that you would call knives. Some of them he would call machairai. But for others, he might say "that's not a machaira", that's a kopis". And so on. Again, I'm idealizing greatly: but imagine that in every case, our informant gave a clear yes/no answer to "is this a ... " and that we had perfect knowledge of all these facts.

Now, let's say you're reading a classical Greek text in which one person says to another what Jesus says to his disciples: ho mê echôn [to ballantion], to himation autou kai agorasatô machairan: "he who does not have a purse, let him exchange his cloak and buy a machaira in the market." (Really, the verbs are third-person imperatives, which we don't have in English, and they're aorist so they're perfective rather than imperfective, and so on, but leave that aside.) Imagine that you have no context, just the single sentence. What has the speaker asked the person to buy in the market? A sharp pointed metal object. Is it one of those sharp pointed metal objects that we would call a "knife", or one that we would call a "sword"? Or will either do? Well, the text gives us no information on that at all, for the very simple reason that the person who wrote it was writing in Greek and neither knew nor cared what word we would use to describe the object. He only cared what word he would use to describe the office. (Do you stop, every time you write or speak the sentence "John went into the room", to think "Oh no, a French person reading this wouldn't know whether I mean room in the sense of salle or room in the sense of chambre. I'd better add some more information to make sure he can answer that question"?)

Now, perhaps context can make it clear that the machaira that the speaker wanted was a specific type of machaira that would very luckily match up to a subclass of the things that fall under the word "knife" and not "sword", so that we can truly say "if X is a thing that would satisfy the speaker's request, then X is a thing that in English would be called a 'knife'". Maybe, for instance, we know that the speaker is asking for a machaira for the purpose Y, and it just happens that the only machairai that satisfy purpose Y are machairai about which an English speaker would say "That's a knife and not a sword." Or vice versa. But it's not guaranteed that we'll be that lucky.

Now imagine that you're a translator reading this text, in one of those cases where context doesn't determine further what kind of machaira is wanted, and you need to translate this sentence. (In fact, imagine instead, for the sake of the experiment, that you know the context perfectly and that you know that the speaker would accept any machaira as an adequate response to his request.) Do you say "sword" or "knife"? Remember, we're imagining that you have perfect knowledge of all those things that your Greek informant would specify as falling under the term. Maybe 80% of the machairai are things that in English would be called swords and 20% knives (ignore overlap, other terms, etc.), and maybe 50% of all the things that are called "sword" in English would be things that are called machaira in Greek, and 40% of the knives -- under those circumstances, you might have overwhelmingly good reasons to pick "sword". But that has nothing to do with meaning. You've only imposed artificial precison: your translation doesn't mean that, if the person had brought back a thing called "sword" in English, it would necessarily have been a machaira and acceptable to the speaker of the command; it might not have been, it might have been one of the swords that are not machairai. And, by the same token, he could have brought back a thing that was called "knife" and not "sword" in English, but machaira in Greek, and the speaker would have been perfectly happy, because he didn't give a damn which word people speaking another language 2000 years later would use to refer to the thing he wanted. The best translation choice can fail to be a completely adequate expression of the meaning of the original, even when the translator has, by hypothesis, perfect knowledge of both the original and the target language and perfect knowledge of the context.

Do you see what I'm getting at? I don't mean for this to sound repetitive, but I feel that you're just not seeing the point I want to make. Is the koine like the classical Greek I used in my (very idealized) example? I don't know; maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Maybe machaira changed meaning to some degree (the references I have seem to suggest that). Maybe a full appreciation of the context would let us be more specific about the kind of machaira wanted, or the purpose it was wanted for. These are the kind of questions that research might resolve. But the fact that a translator picked "sword" can't, by itself, answer these questions; even if a perfectly knowledgeable translator picked "sword" without hesitation, that still wouldn't fully answer the question of what the Greek means. In the general case, even the best conceivable (in the sense of "known definitely to be better than all other possible ones by a translator with perfect knowledge") translation is just not the same thing as a total explanation of meaning. (And of course, in the real world we have imperfect knowledge and imperfect translators.) This point is completely general, and has nothing to do with Greek, or English, or the examples in questions: it's just a general point about langauge.
1.25.2007 11:11am
r78:
Ms. Blaine - it's like you are trying to explain a card trick to a dog. No matter how clear you are . . .

Admirable patience on your part, though.
1.25.2007 12:31pm
David C. (www):
You made a fundamental mistake - assuming the religous groups that use the bible to promote pacifism actually believe the bible is literally true. Most, if not all, of the groups that use the text in that way do not believe in bible is literally true - especially the agressive pacifists.

If you looked at just literal bible believing groups, I think you would find the majority of them do not hold to the pacifist position.
1.25.2007 1:21pm
rc:
Evelyn Blaine: "Once again, it isn't about translation, it's about meaning."

I'll respond with an analogy. Very appropriate to a law blog, I think.

The process of Bible translation is a process of legal interpretation. So let's say that the Greek New Testament is the Constitution, and the English translations are Supreme Court rulings.

As we all know, the difficult task set before the Supreme Court is to interpret and explain the meaning of the Constitution. It's hard because times change, the text is intentionally or unintentionally vague, people disagree on core meanings and intents, etc.

In addition, honest experts can disagree widely on the meaning of the Constitution, especially regarding the vague parts. That's why we get difficult cases, 5-4 rulings, and the Volokh Conspiracy.

But when the Court hands down a 9-0 ruling, we all say 'wow, that was a slam dunk.' Now imagine a twenty member Court, and a 20-0 ruling. It'd be safe to say that the meaning of the Constitution on that particular issue is clear.

The 'Constitutional' issue in question here is the meaning of the word 'machaira.' Yet in a devastating 20-0 ruling, the Gospel Supreme Court (the twenty English Bible translations), deemed the word to mean 'sword.' Why are we still arguing about this issue?
1.25.2007 3:30pm
Splunge (mail):
Evelyn Blaine, your logic is beautiful, and your point as a general point is clearly sound, but plain common sense would suggest that the translators of the Bible knew exactly what you are saying, exactly what your opponent is assuming, and deliberately took both into account.

They were, after all, the best in all history, and they had a great deal of latitude in how they translated the Bible. They were not constrained to pick just one English word for each Greek word, as you do in your example. They could easily have translated a single Greek word into an entire paragraph, if that was how the precise nuance was best conveyed.

That is, it seems likely the Bible's translators were well aware of the nuance and level of ambiguity in the Greek text and did their best to preserve that same nuance and level of ambiguity in the translated text. If they knew some passage in Greek was ambiguous in a particular way -- e.g. some word meant only "some sharp pointed thing" in context -- then they would have made the English translation equally ambiguous in the same way (e.g. written "some sharp pointed thing" instead of "sword").

Contrariwise, it seems unlikely that they -- that all of them -- would have translated an ambiguous Greek passage into the same unambiguous English passage, knowing full well that English-speakers would then falsely assume too much precision in the original meaning.

So if the English text is really as unambiguous and uncontroversial as rc says it is, the simplest explanation is that the Greek text is, too. It's certainly true that some unfortunate coincidence about the two languages could have prevented every translator from conveying clearly into the English an important ambiguity in the Greek, and it's interesting and useful to point this out. However, to suggest (if you are) that this remote possibility should seriously modify the terms of the debate would seem a trifle Jesuitical.
1.25.2007 3:57pm
markm (mail):
EC, English has a perfectly good word for "sharp bladed object that may be a tool or a weapon": knife. We've also got a word for a large knife that is designed for use only as a weapon: sword. That is the only literal meaning of "sword", and the only metaphoric meaning is "weapon". If any good translator thought that "machaira" was ambiguous in this respect, why would he translate it as the utterly unambiguous word "sword" rather than as "knife" or any other word that didn't clearly say that the object in question was a weapon?
1.25.2007 4:35pm
michael (mail) (www):
If you take the perspective of Albert Schweitzer in The Quest For The Historical Jesus, Christ's Christianity ended with "My God; my God. Why hast thou forsaken me?" "In this sign (the cross), you shall conquer!" is the apparition the Emperor, (general) Constantine, had who made Catholicism the state religion. In my education by the Jesuits, Roman texts were part of it; in a sense Arma virumque cano, I sing of Arms and a Man!, is the chorus to 'Blessed are the Peacemakers.' Of course Paul's letter refers to a Roman tradition.
1.26.2007 8:44pm