Sell cloaks, buy swords?

“You just shot an unarmed man!”

“Well, he should have armed himself…”

– from Unforgiven.

Here’s a passage from the gospels that I find puzzling and difficult to understand, particularly the highlighted words:

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)

What are we to make of this? Is Jesus really advocating that his disciples arm themselves? Is this passage teaching that Christians have the right – even the duty – to possess (and, by implication, use) lethal weaponry as a defence against persecution?

Personally, as I said on the Boar’s Head Tavern a few days ago, I’ve always assumed that Jesus was being rhetorical when he says his disciples should sell their cloaks to buy swords – that he was pointing out the danger and drama that was about to burst into their lives as the temple guard arrived to arrest Jesus. His “it is enough” is then either heavily ironic – after all, how could two swords be enough to resist arrest by a large, well-armed mob? – or else a rebuke: more “that’s enough!” than “I agree that that is a sufficient number of swords”. This interpretation seems more consistent with Jesus’ words and actions in vv49-51.

Here are a couple of further pointers I’ve found on this passage in the past few days, which tend to support such a reading of Jesus’ words.

First, this post by Ben Witherington argues that using this passage as a justification for Christians owning weapons is “a bad misreading of this text, based in part on a bad mistranslation of it”. Instead, Jesus’ words have to be read as “dramatic hyperbole”, particularly in view of his reference to selling one’s cloak:

That this is dramatic hyperbole is clear enough since the disciples would always need their cloaks if they were planning on going on living. They couldn’t go around in their underclothes all the time, especially not in winter or spring in Israel, particularly in Judea. Jesus is not actually counseling the purchase of weapons here, only making clear that hard and dangerous times will soon be upon them.

Furthermore, in the original Greek Jesus doesn’t say “It is enough” or “That is enough” (which could be read as “Two swords are enough”), but simply: “Enough!” Witherington quotes his own commentary on Luke’s Gospel as follows:

Vs. 38 is heavy laden with bitter irony in light of the previous verse.  Jesus’ own disciples are not to act like thugs or transgressors, and yet here they are gearing up for ‘battle’.  Jesus has just used dramatic language to warn them that hard and hostile times are about to happen […]. But the disciples misunderstand the thrust of what he is saying and in fact they are already packing weapons!  They produce two swords, and will go on to use one of them (22.50).  In total exasperation at their thick-headedness Jesus terminates this discussion with ‘enough’ (hikanon estin) just as he will quickly stop their violence with a sword by ‘enough of that’ (eate eos toutou).   Jesus is not here an advocate of carrying weapons, even for self protection, but he is warning of violent times ahead.

The second is the abstract to a thesis on this passage by Kevin Moore of the University of Denver (regrettably I cannot thoil shelling out $37 on the full thesis!). Dr Moore argues that Luke’s account of this incident is a “literary foil that repudiates a well-known hagiographic tale”.

This tale of the two swords – which I assume Moore sets out in more detail in his thesis – has its origins in Genesis 34, where Simeon and Levi put an entire city to the sword (or rather, two swords) in revenge for Shechem’s rape of their sister, Dinah. The motif crops up again in 1 Samuel 13:19-22, where Saul and Jonathan are described as the only men in Israel’s army to have either sword or spear.

Moore summarises the themes of the “two swords” tradition as being:

family identity and honor; vindication of an honored one; national identity and honor; and justified vengeance.

You can see all those motifs lying behind the disciples’ desire to protect Jesus by force of arms; Jesus’ repudiation of the disciples’ actions (“Enough!”) is thus a repudiation of the “two swords” tradition of “honourable violence” – quite the opposite of a call for Christians to “lock and load”.

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7 Responses to Sell cloaks, buy swords?

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    The words for “is enough” are there. My “A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament” notes that this is impersonal in the neuter, offering “it is enough” as a suggested translation. Your suggested interpretation, though, is still open when we read it that way. Lenski notes that translators before him had suggested this was ironic. He sees it as Jesus ending the conversation with sad resignation.

    The 1 Samuel parallel is the kind of thing I do like to look for.

    I wonder, though, whether we can see the two sword tradition repudiated here. Jesus’ answer seems to say whatever number they happened to find available would suffice. The abstract general form of the counsel sounds more like it’s applicable for the coming age rather than just that night. They’ll be more like rootless vagabonds than upstanding members of the community. They hear this and wonder how to fulfill his counsel that night. Which is not really the point. They’re like children wanting to dress the part for the evening when they’ll be sick of it soon enough.

  2. John H says:

    Rick: Well, if you’d like to contribute towards the $37 fee for downloading the entire thesis, I’d be happy to blog in more detail on Moore’s argument re the “two swords” tradition. 😉

    (Actually, in all seriousness: if three other people joined me in paying $9 each then I would willingly pay the remaining $10…)

    As for application of Jesus’ words to “the coming age”: I think you’re right, especially re the disciples’ future status as “rootless vagabonds” rather than “upstanding members of the community”. However, I still think Jesus is talking rhetorically rather than literally: see (a) Witherington’s comments on “selling your cloak”, and (b) the fact that we don’t see any evidence in the NT of the disciples using swords in self-defence when facing persecution (e.g. in Acts) – quite the opposite.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    I’m not sure those are the only options. If this is rhetorical here, you still have to ask about the modus operandi of the disciples in the world. As disciples, I think they don’t bear the sword to defend themselves against persecution. But I’m not sure that all self defense in life is ruled out. I find the entire attitude of Scripture in this area paradoxical. When Cain kills Abel, for instance, the life for life principle is announced, but Cain is the first exception to it. What does that say? I also think that it would be strange to paint a picture like this if sword-bearing in self-defense was categorically forbidden forever. When Peter misuses his sword, Jesus seems to refer back to Genesis 9:6 as being still in place. And I would argue that Genesis 9:6 is the sedes doctrinae for the teaching of Romans 13. I think this leaves us with kingdom of the left hand situations in which we fight, and kingdom of the right situations in which we allow ourselves to be carried off.

  4. John H says:

    Rick: I quite intentionally steered clear in my post of a general discussion on self-defence and “bearing the sword”. My point was just that this passage does not support the use of self-defence. On the other hand, to repudiate a particular social “meme” of “honourable killing” isn’t the same as outlawing self-defence per se.

    As for the wider question of self-defence, I’m not sure I’d want to package it up as “left hand = defend yourself” and “right hand = be carried off”, for much the same reason that I shy away from talking of “just war” (while at the same time not actually being a pacifist). Sometimes self-defence is the lesser evil, just as sometimes fighting a war is the lesser evil. I’d never want to say that either was straightforwardly “good” – but if my family were under attack, I trust that I would “sin boldly” in their defence.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    The position you’re suggesting in the second paragraph reminds me of an argument I first read many years back. It was by Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe (the woman famous for beating C.S. Lewis in debate). She was a disciple of Wittgenstein and a Roman Catholic. She wrote an essay titled “Mr. Truman’s Degree.” Here is a passage I found very interesting:
    [Begin quote]
    Pacifism, then, is a false doctrine….It is a factor in the loss of the conception of murder which is my chief interest in this pamphlet.

    I have very often heard people say something like this: “It is very all very well to say ‘Don’t do good that evil may come.’ But WAR is evil. We all know that. Now of course it is possible to be an Absolute Pacifist. I can respect that, but I can’t be one myself, and most other people won’t be either. So we have to accept the evil. And once you are in it, you have to go the whole hog.”

    This is much as if I were defrauding someone, and when someone tried to stop me I said: “Absolute honesty! I respect that. But of course absolute honesty really means having no property at all….” Having offered the sacrifice of a few sighs and tears to absolute honesty, I go on as before.
    [End quote]

    You’ve already said you aren’t a pacifist. But I think your use of the term “evil” seems to be conflated a bit with “wrong” but where the boundaries are hazy. As if you are not only not supposed to do wrong, but also not to do evil. But you see that sometimes you must do evil. The problem here is that once you cross the boundary into evil (killing), you might not see the older boundary of wrong (murder). Tight Just War might be better here than idealizing Pacifism. Loose Just War Theory has made Just War Theory look bad. Anyway, Anscombe may be worth your while. The essay I cited, and another one titled “The Justice of the Present War Examined” can be found in her Collected Philosophical Papers, Volume III.

  6. John H says:

    Rick: thanks, will check that out.

    I can see the danger that Anscombe describes, and I’m not rejecting the “Just War” framework entirely – simply arguing that the “Just War” itself is a hypothetical construct never actually found in reality. I’d say the second world war was the most obviously necessary war (by the time it happened) in recent history, and Britain, the US and the Soviet Union were certainly fighting for a cause that was just. But even then we find occurrences such as the bombing of Dresden, mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers, and so on.

    However, it is clearly better that wars are more “just” rather than less so – which in modern terms means that the combatants abide by the Geneva Conventions, don’t engage in wars of aggression, and so on.

    My problem with pacifism is that it is an over-realised eschatology. But as with many other things that are over-realised eschatologies (such as “entire sanctification” teachings), that doesn’t mean the only alternative is to shed crocodile tears for peace or holiness before going on our way and doing what we like…

  7. Rick Ritchie says:

    Anscombe thought that World War Two was an unjust war. She argued that anyone who participated had to participate for the publicly stated reasons, and not for their own internal reasons. And she found the publicly stated reasons to be flawed. (I think she thought a Just War could have been fought. But that the one that was fought was unjust.) I’m not quite sure what to do with her here. But I am glad she wrote what she wrote to stir my thinking.

    I find “necessary” to be a scary category.

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