John P. Meier on Luke 22.35-38

In the second volume of his Marginal Jew series, John P. Meier offers his interpretation of Luke 22.35-38, a passage I’ve discussed in both of my last two posts (here and here):

In Luke 22:35–38 Jesus contrasts the relatively peaceful and protected time the disciples enjoyed during his public ministry with the crisis of fierce opposition that is about to break in both upon himself and upon them. Speaking metaphorically, Jesus enjoins the disciples to take special care and watch out for themselves: “But now let him who has a purse carry it, and likewise his traveling bag. And let him who does not have one sell his cloak and buy a sword” (22:36). As usual, the disciples fail to grasp Jesus’ metaphorical speech. Taking his words literally, they confidently display their weapons: “Lord, behold, here are two swords.” Jesus shows his disdain for their misunderstanding with a curt: “Enough of that!” (v 38, hikanon estin). Both the disciples’ misguided trust in weapons and Jesus’ peremptory rejection of such means of protection are replayed at the arrest in 22:49–51. One of the swords displayed at the Last Supper is zealously and foolishly put to use, and Jesus immediately commands an end to such futile attempts at defense. (2.716)

I suppose fundamentalists could argue that they’re in good company when it comes to taking Jesus literally when he was actually speaking figuratively, thereby misunderstanding what he had to say: even his closest disciples did it!

But, as Jesus would say, “Enough of that!”

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Walter Wink on Luke 22.35-38

In an excursus in his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink discusses the “two swords” story that I discussed in my last post. I thought what he had to say was worth sharing:

That Jesus taught nonviolence is indisputable. But did he live it? Two passages force on us that question: the “two swords” saying, and the misnamed “cleansing” of the Temple.

The first is Luke 22:35-38. Luke has intruded into his passion narrative a piece of mission discourse: “‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals [Luke 10:4], did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ 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.'” This material is wholly out of place in the passion setting. The saying contemplates a journey (“take”), not the arrest. Surely a purse and a bag are of no use in defending Jesus!

The disciples’ response, “Lord, look, here are two swords” (v.38), is clearly Lukan redaction, most likely prompted by the anomaly of 22:49-50–how did disciples of Jesus come to have swords in their possession? Since Luke has also added the proof from prophecy (Isa. 53:12), Jesus’ rebuke for their using the sword, and the healing of the slave’s ear, there can be no doubt that Luke, at least, understands Jesus as censuring armed resistance. That the two swords are extraneous to the story is shown by the fact that only “one of them” wields the sword, just as in Mark, Matthew, and John. Luke has added the “two swords” to the account specifically to provide an occasion for Jesus to condemn their use. This is consistent with his rejection of violence in 6:27-29. (128; emphasis in original)

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Luke 22 and the Right to Bear Arms

I read a curious claim the other day made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. (Fischer was in the news the other day because he was one of the first people to publicly blame the Sandy Hook tragedy on the lack of school-mandated prayer. In the past he’s blamed the Holocaust on “homosexuals in the military,” and advocated for the kidnapping of children of same-sex parents, just to give you an idea of who we’re dealing with.)

One would expect someone like Fischer to have a distorted understanding of scripture, so it didn’t really come as any surprise to read that he finds support for the Second Amendment in the teachings of Christ:

This whole concept of using a weapon for self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Christ. There was a time, the night he was betrayed, he told his disciples, “look, I’m going to be numbered with the transgressors, you’re identified with me so you’re going to numbered with the transgressors, you are going to be thought of as a criminal, there may be a time when you have to defend yourself with lethal force.”

I didn’t remember ever reading the words “lethal force” in the Bible, so I checked the passage he was referring to:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 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; NRSV)

One can see how someone desperate to find support for the right to bear arms in the teachings of Christ might see it here. I had never read it that way, but looking at it now I could see how someone like Fischer might.

Now, I want to be very clear about something: I am not writing this to prove that Bryan Fischer doesn’t know how to read the Bible. If I wanted to do that, I’d just quote him a few more times, because virtually everything he has to say about it is almost comically mistaken. But this particular passage could, at first glance, give the impression that Jesus was encouraging his disciples to carry weapons.

He was not. His disciples interpreted him that way, but when we understand what is really going on here, we see that they were quite wrong, and that Jesus’s response confirms this.

So what is really going on here?

A passage like this cannot be understood in isolation. Jesus refers (in Luke 22.35) to the time he sent them out “without a purse, bag, or sandals,” which we remember happening at the very beginning of Luke 10, where he “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (v.1), instructing them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road” (v.4).1

But that was then, and this is now. They were relatively safe in Galilee during his ministry, “but now” the authorities are coming for him, and they are in danger. The Jesuit scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer points out,

Jesus mentions three of the things that he instructed disciples earlier not to carry along with them; now he refers to the same threesome (purse, knapsack, or sandals) but instructs them solemnly and symbolically that they are to take them up.2

Of course, the three items are not precisely the same; he tells them not to take up sandals, but “a sword,” for what should be obvious reasons: he is symbolically expressing the danger they are in, and putting on sandals is hardly an effective symbol.

The disciples, like many Christian interpreters since then, fail to see that he’s speaking symbolically, and say, in effect, “Hey, we have two swords right here!”

Jesus’s response, in Luke’s original Greek, is hikanon estin. The NRSV translates this, “That is enough,” which might, somewhat understandably, be understood as “two swords will be sufficient.”

But we have to consider the context–would two swords be enough to protect Jesus and the Twelve from the officers of the temple police? Surely not.

What Jesus meant is better captured in Fitzmyer’s translation: “Enough of that!”3 They’ve misunderstood what he meant by taking him literally, and he is frustratedly telling them he’s had enough.

Nevertheless, at least one of the disciples’ swords makes an appearance soon after:

When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22.49-51; NRSV)

Why does Jesus not answer the disciple who asks if they should “strike with the sword”? My guess is that Luke wants the sword to be used–as it was in his source, Mark 14.47–but does not want to show a disciple directly disobeying an order from Jesus.4 But it’s clear from Jesus’s response what his answer would have been.

Of course, the strongest rebuttal of Fischer’s interpretation comes not from Luke, but from Matthew. When the disciple cuts off the ear of the slave, Jesus says,

Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (26.52; NRSV)

I’d like to hear Bryan Fischer’s interpretation of that one.


[1] Technically, we are probably meant to remember Jesus’s instructions to the Twelve in an even earlier scene. As Joseph A. Fitzmyer explains,

Jesus’ question in v. 35 is supposed to be a reference to the instructions that he gave to the apostles when the Twelve were sent out (9:1–6; recall 6:13cd). But the items without which they were to go forth, “purse, knapsack, or sandals,” are found in the instructions for the “seventy(-two) others” (10:1-12; cp. 9:3 and 10:4)…Luke now makes no effort to resolve the inconsistency. (Luke, 2.1429-1430).

[2] Emphasis added. Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1430. Fitzmyer actually translates this whole passage quite differently than the NRSV. Where the NRSV translates “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,” Fitzmyer has “the one who has a purse had better carry it; and his knapsack too. If one does not have them, he must sell his cloak and buy a sword” (1428). This is due to an ambiguity about the object of the verb echōn, “has.” A more literal rendering of the Greek would be, “he who hasn’t [one], let him sell his cloak and buy a sword” (my translation). The “one” in square brackets denotes an object that is understood but not explicitly named. Fitzmyer is more literal than the NRSV, but there are a number of translations that assume the understood object of the verb echōn is the sword, such as the KJV, RSV, NJB, and the NAB. I think Fitzmyer’s translation makes more sense, but it doesn’t really make that much of a difference for our present purposes.

[3] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1428. John Nolland, in his WBC commentary on Luke translated it exactly the same way (3.1075), as did Raymond E. Brown in his Death of the Messiah (1.269).

[4] Luke, more than the other evangelists, was concerned not to portray the Twelve in a negative light; so, where Mark says “All of them deserted him and fled” (14.50), Luke leaves that bit out and implies that they remain near Jesus while he was on the cross (23.49). (Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1447.)

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A petty god

From “Facebook Faith #5” at Hackman’s Musings:

Within hours of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, talking heads were on TV and the faithful were on Facebook declaring that we should expect nothing else – because we have kicked God out of our schools.

It seems god is impotent.  Like a vampire, he cannot enter a residence unless he has been invited.

The post includes a picture of a T-shirt that reads:

Dear God,

Why do you allow so much violence in our schools?

a concerned student

Followed by this reply:

Dear Concerned Student,

I’m not allowed in schools.


Theirs is indeed a curious deity: a god who would have prevented the slaughter of innocent children, but for the fact that he was not being prayed to from within the confines of their school building.

If they believe that God is like that, that a god like that is worthy of their faith, can they possibly escape having profoundly warped values? I can’t imagine how.

(h/t slacktivist)

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None of the above?

I saw this amusing poll on a Christian news site, connected to a story about Pat Robertson’s recent apostasy (in the eyes of the Young Earth crowd).

creationist poll 2

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