Was Jesus a Pacifist?

May 9, 2021

by Barry Fike

Matthew 5:39  "Do not resist evil."  Another saying of Jesus where he seems to have a pacifists concern is this verse.  It is usually translated, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist one who is evil.”  However, when Jesus’ saying is translated back into Hebrew it seems to be a quotation of a well-known Hebrew proverb that appears with slight variations in Ps. 27:1, 8 and Prov. 24:19.[1] 

          This Hebrew maxim is usually translated, “Do not fret because of evildoers,” or “Do not be vexed by evildoers.”  Bible translators apparently have supposed form the contexts of this maxim in Ps. 37 in Prov. 24, which emphasize that evildoers will be destroyed, that the righteous should not be concerned about evildoers or pay them any attention.  This supposition is strengthened by the second half of Psalms 37:1 that, as it is usually translated, advises that one should not be envious of such evildoers.  It thus appears that the verb translated “fret” or “be vexed” is correctly translated.  However, elsewhere in the Bible this verb always seems to have some sense of the meaning “anger.”[2]  Furthermore, the two parallels to this verb in Ps. 37:8, both synonyms for anger, suggest that the verb in Matthew 5 must also have that meaning.[3] 

          The verb in question is from the root h-r-h, whose basic meaning is “burn”.  The nuance of h-r-h is also reflected in the use of “content” in Isaiah 41:11:  “Shamed and chagrined shall be all who content with you” (JPS).  This furious anger leads to a response in kind.  Such anger results in a rivalry to see who can get the better of the other, and in each round of the competition the level of anger and violence rises.  This amounts to responding to evil on its own terms, to competing in doing wrong with those who wrong us.[4] 

          In the first pair of these units, Jesus says, “Do not resist one who is evil.”  Even though the Greek wording cannot be easily retranslated into Hebrew, the idea itself has parallels in rabbinic sources.  To the word “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, as the parallel from Seneca de ira II 34, 5.  See also King Agrippa’s speech in Josephus’ Jewish War, II, 351: “There is nothing to check blows like submission, and the resignation of the wronged victim puts the wrongdoer to confusion.”[5] 

          In idiomatic English, Matthew 5:39a might read simply, “Don’t try to get even with evildoers.” “Wrongdoers” might be preferable to “evildoers”.  Jesus probably was not speaking primarily of confrontations with criminals or enemies on the field of battle, but of confrontations with ordinary acquaintances who have committed an offense.[6]  Not “competing” with evildoers is very different rom not resisting evildoers.  Jesus was not teaching that one should submit to evil, but that one should not seek revenge.  Jesus’ statement has nothing to do with confronting a murderer or facing an enemy on the field of battle.  As Proverbs 24:29 says, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me.  I will pay the man back for what he has done.’”[7]  This harmonizes beautifully with scriptures like 1 Thess. 5t:15; 1 Pet. 3:9; and Romans 12:14, 17-19. 

              [1] Bivin, 104. 

              [2] G. Johannes Bottterweck and Helmer Ringgren, ed.  Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Grand Rapids, Eerdman,s 1986.  5:171-176. 

              [3] Bivin, 104. 

              [4] Bivin, 105. 

              [5] Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 506.

              [6] Bivin, 108.

              [7] Bivin, 106.