17 Jan 2016

Did Jesus and the Early Christian Church Renounce Violence Against Non-Believers?

All Posts, Religious 34 Comments

Bryan Caplan is sure that they didn’t. In a recent post at EconLog, he first quotes Nathan Smith who wrote:

The Old Testament, to be sure, contains some hair-raising passages that seem very much opposed to religious freedom, but that’s part of the Mosaic law, which St. Paul’s epistles clearly and insistently establish is not comprehensively binding on Christians, but has been superseded, fulfilled, replaced by the higher ethical teachings of Jesus. The early Church never used violence.

Bryan disagreed. In fact, Bryan didn’t merely say, “I think this is slightly inaccurate.” No Bryan said, “Nathan grossly overstates the incompatibility between Christian doctrine and religious violence,” and then went on to write:

Yes, St. Paul did “clearly and insistently establish” that the Mosaic law “is not comprehensively binding on Christians.” But he focuses almost entirely on dietary requirements, circumcision, and the like. If Paul (or Jesus) meant to spearhead a culturally novel rejection of religious violence, he would have explicitly said so. And to make “The early Church never used violence” true, you would have to torturously gerrymander both who counts as “the Church” and when counts as “early.” [Emphasis in original.]

I must admit I was surprised by Bryan’s reaction, especially how confident he was with his claims. I’m going to list a bunch of Bible passages referring to the views of Jesus and Paul, but first I like how Joseph Porter in the comments responded to Bryan’s claim about the early Church:

…I am not aware of any violence perpetrated by any Christian—Orthodox or not—between the time of Jesus’ death (AD 30/33) and the rise of Constantine almost 300 years later. (The earliest Christians, in fact, certainly sound quite opposed to violence.) And I’d say “any self-identified Christian” and “almost 300 years” aren’t tortuous construals of “the Church” and “early.” Of course, my knowledge of the early Church is not encyclopedic—do you have some particular act (or acts) of violence in mind committed by “the early Church”?

Regarding Jesus, there are a bunch of things I could cite, but just some obvious ones:

==> From the Sermon on the Mount He taught, “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are those who show mercy,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and let’s quote this one in full: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

And then we must quote in full starting at verse 38:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Does Bryan really think Jesus needed to say, “By the way, if you encounter someone who doesn’t proclaim that I am Lord, I don’t want you to stab him”?

And in one of my most favored Bible passages, where we see the combination of Jesus as both merciful and an irresistible force, He rebukes Peter for drawing his sword when the mob assembled by the chief priests comes to arrest Him (after Judas led them there). Here’s what Jesus had to say about Peter using violence to try to prevent this injustice:

52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?

If you’re just skimming and the above didn’t do anything for you, you need to stop and re-read it. That passage makes my eyes water.

Now you might say, “Well that’s not really fair Bob, because sure Jesus can call down angels but we can’t. What did Jesus tell His followers to do when they encountered non-Christians?”

Try this passage:

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.

And how is the world to identify a follower of Christ? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

But here’s the clincher. Jesus did do exactly what Bryan wanted. Look at this story from Luke 9:

51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

Is it any surprise to the reader of the book of Luke by this point that Jesus would have rebuked James and John for such a ridiculous suggestion? Would it not have been monstrously out of character for Him to agree with their idea?

* * *

As far Paul, read this one-and-three-quarters chapters on what he thinks about the people of Israel who have not accepted Christ. It’s too long for me to quote, but it’s impossible to read that and think violence is acceptable against non-believers.

For one thing, if you believe in Christ and are saved, you can’t be proud of yourself (according to Paul). You deserved hell as much as anybody who rejects Christ. So it would be weird to think that gives you the moral authority to kill somebody on that account. In any event, though you should click the link to get the full spirit of it, here’s how he wraps up. In context he is explaining how God is letting (some) Gentiles come to Christ to be saved, in order to goad the Israelites to come home:

Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now[t] receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

So if you want to argue about the existence of hell and how arbitrary you think this system is, OK we can have that discussion, but there’s no way you could think Paul has left the door open for followers of Christ to spread the gospel with the sword.

UPDATE: It’s possible by “early Church” Bryan meant once the Catholic Church was up and running and had some earthly power. I could understand someone saying, “Oh sure, the Christians were all meek and humble when they were helpless, but once they had the ability they used violence to get their way.” Right, but my point is that just proves how humans are awful hypocrites. It doesn’t mean Jesus, Paul, or other writers in the New Testament were vague on using violence against non-believers.

34 Responses to “Did Jesus and the Early Christian Church Renounce Violence Against Non-Believers?”

  1. Reader says:

    I really like this post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Despite being trained in economics, you’re a really good amateur theologian and apologist in my opinion. Imagine if your PhD was in theology. Have a nice day!

  2. Guest says:

    John 18:36 “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

    Here is another important part gun nuts overlook. Gun nuts say the sword of the Bible is the gun of today yet they IGNORE the following passage.
    Luke 22:36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.

    2 swords shared among 12 Apostles.

    Look at what the Bible says about the who rules earth.

    Ephesian 2:2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience

    John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.

    2 Corinthians 4:4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

    Hello, Heaven is where its at.

    Even the OT explains in Psalm 42 ” The deer pants for water”

    A man is all bent out of shape ” deer panting for water” crying out to God for being forgotten and neglected. God replies and explains to this person that he is expecting way to much from this world and should instead be focusing on God and Heaven.

    Hello, Heaven is where its at.

  3. OFelixCulpa says:

    Bob, Thanks for a great and concise response to Caplan’s argument. Another passage which fits well is Jesus’ response to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (Jn 18:36).

    I too wonder what acts or affirmations of violence Caplan could possibly be thinking of. He hasn’t responded yet to any comments. I hope he does.

    Did you read the essay by Smith? Caplan is right to say that it is brilliant.

    I understand your further point about what Caplan counts as “the early church.” It is an imprecise term, but every study I have seen (I’ve seen a lot) clearly excludes Constantine from that era.

  4. Bob Murphy says:

    Thanks for the remarks everyone. OFelixCulpa no, I haven’t read the Smith essay, though the part of it that David R. Henderson later quoted (in a subsequent EconLog post) didn’t sit well with me.

  5. OFelixCulpa says:

    Bob, I looked up the Henderson article. I hadn’t caught that part of Smith’s essay. Most of it wasn’t so arrogant and paternalistic. The point that I found interesting was Smith’s argument to any who oppose the Islamic religion (as Christians do–ideologically) that peaceful treatment of Muslims is the most effective way to decrease the power and spread of the Islamic religion.

  6. enpassant says:

    Amen, Bob.
    Great post.

    The problem is that most people believe that military leaders are religious, because no military leader can draw people to war without invoking some form of religion, like fatherland cult or ancestors cult. But all those who lived to make war specifically despised any pacifist message from religion. True religion is always anti-war. Political religion is always pro-war.

    Caplan is a pacifist. He is not religious, but he has the same goals as true religious people, and the very opposite goals as the people who govern religions as institutions. True religion is much like true money or true commerce or true science: social and spontaneous processes easily corruptible by governments. Caplan, being an anarchist and being a pacifist and being an optimist and being a moralist has all the characteristics of a truly religious person. Believing in the afterlife or in a personal deity is not characteristic of truly religious people, because even devils believe.

  7. khodge says:

    Bob, I think you are absolutely correct with your observations. I would only add that too often we look at 21st century culture and 21st century words and proceed to interpret the past in accord with what we know of today.

    In this case, the early church allowed Christians to be soldiers and, yes, that, no doubt, included some element of war (and occasional slaughtering of dissident Jews), but, most of all, they probably should be thought of as keepers of the peace, e.g. the type of authority that would limit the type of banditry that is illustrated in the story of the good Samaritan. (This was, of course, the time of Pax Romana.)

  8. guest says:

    The context of all the supposedly pacifist passages is suffering *for Christ*.

    Try these, instead: Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:15-16; John 2:13-15; Romans 13:1-4; Luke 22:35-38

    From the information in the multiple accounts of Jesus cleaning the temple, we can deduce that he made a whip and used it *on* the people and physically preventing them from bringing their goods into the temple.

    Whoever the “authorities” are in Romans 13, they don’t carry a sword in vain.

    And after proving that the Father could provide for the disciples if he wanted, Jesus told them that, from then on, they should carry money, provisions, and swords.

    The New Testament does not teach pacifism, per se.

    • Guest says:

      Jesus did cleanse the temple. He was angry. He did use a whip. He did flip over the money changers tables. He did drive them out because they made his house a “Den of Thieves'”.

      Now give me 2 more, different, examples of Jesus even slightly angry? I will be patiently waiting but certainly not holding my breath.

      Romans 13 was prescriptive, not descriptive. Romans 13 said the only purpose of government was to punish evil and commend goodness and government is to take this position 24/7/365. Anytime government does anything different, it is not a God ordained authority therefore defunct and not to be respected.

      Regarding Jesus telling them to carry swords. Jesus told them to sale there stuff and purchase swords. They came back with 2 swords for 12 people and Jesus said that would be enough. Jesus was obviously teaching that swords were not important.

      • Guest says:

        their stuff not there stuff.

        Well anyways, Paul, the author of Romans 13, did escape from civil authority by being lowered down from a window in a basket. This same Paul was eventually beheaded by the Roman government. Do you seriously believe Paul was licking government boots? I think Paul had giant tongue in his cheek when he authored R13.

        Rahab was a prostitute who deceived civil authorities. She is later commended for this action in the NT. There are also many other examples of Gods people disobeying civil authorities and being blessed for their actions. The Bible story would not be possible if Moses and others did not disobey.

        To say R13 is a clear and obvious commandment to lick boots, is simply a disservice to The Lord. Heck, Jesus would not of lived past infancy if He was taken to the King as ordered .

      • guest says:

        “Now give me 2 more, different, examples of Jesus even slightly angry? I will be patiently waiting but certainly not holding my breath.”

        A single example will suffice to prove that something other than pacifism is being taught.

        Regarding the swords, notice also they were told to bring money and provisions, which were prohibited before. Was Jesus also teaching that money and provisions were not important?

        • Guest says:

          36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

          38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

          “That’s enough!” he replied.

          Rather than try to explain the entire lesson, let us stick to the facts. 2 swords for 12 men. Jesus says, that’s enough. Genghis Khan on the other hand would have demanded multiple horses per person, lances, arrows, armor, etc.

          Also add some additional context.

          John 18:11 10Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave’s name was Malchus. 11So Jesus said to Peter, “Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” 12

          John 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

          • guest says:

            “2 swords for 12 men. Jesus says, that’s enough.”

            You’re ignoring the money and provisions bags.

            Again, is it your position that Jesus was teaching that money and provisions weren’t important?

            “Also add some additional context.”

            The context, here, is suffering for righteousness, which I’ve already addressed.

            Also, it doesn’t mention the money and provisions bags, which means that all three of the things that Jesus said to bring with them had a broader purpose than this one event (because all three were prohibited, before).

            • Guest says:

              You are ignoring the obvious, 2 swords are enough.

              • guest says:

                But they were “too much” before.

                Why, then, are money bags, provision bags, and two swords now enough?

                They all must be accounted for with the same reason since they were all prohibited before?

              • Anonymous says:

                Jesus only says 2 swords were enough, Jesus never says the money bags and other provisions were enough. What is this “too much” concept you keep perpetuating? I see no script that backs you up. Jesus first sent them out with nothing(no physical provisions) to teach them to have faith and grow, He then sends them out again into even more peril yet Jesus sends the same message, have faith. Jesus specifically teaches them hat swords will not help even though things were about to get trickier. 2 swords, 1 of which was Peters, divided amongst 12 men. Certainly not a call to arms.

                Jesus has 1 arsenal consisting of; Sword of the Spirit, Helmet of salvation, Breastplate of righteousness, Shield of faith.

                You war mongers have it all wrong. Your heart lust for violence and power.

                Hebrews 4:12

                For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

              • Guest says:

                Hopefully not a repost.

                What is this “too much” concept you keep insisting upon? What is this prohibition you speak of? I see no scripture that says any this. I think you are reading in and omitting. Typical.

                Jesus first sent them out with nothing. They did fine. The mission was dangerous but not deadly. They learned to have faith and live from the generosity of others and the provisions of God.

                Jesus then sends them out again and instructs them to make minor preparations. Foreshadowing a more dangerous mission. They come back from preparation and never ever share how many provisions or money they have. They do share that they only have 2 swords. Jesus reply’s and says 2 swords are enough. 1 of these swords is Peters and 1 is for 12 other men. So obviously Jesus is teaching that this next mission will be tougher yet swords are not required to complete the mission.

                Jesus has only 1 arsenal for us, here it is, watch closely. Sword of the Spirit, Helmet of salvation, Breastplate of righteousness, Shield of faith, Shoes of peace and Belt of truth. Ephesians 6.

                Here is a little more about the real sword Jesus wants us to use.

                Hebrews 4:12

                For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

      • Josiah says:

        Now give me 2 more, different, examples of Jesus even slightly angry?

        Mark 3:4-5: Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.

        Matthew 21:18-19: Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

        • Guest says:

          Yet still non violent.

          I knew of those 2 examples, that is why I only asked for 2. The second example is a stretch.

          So 3 examples of Jesus becoming slightly unsettled and never elevating to anything of any substance what so ever. It is not like he dropped an atomic bomb or something.

  9. Craw says:

    I (mostly) agree with Bob Murphy.

    None of this is quite as straight forward as it seems, as the different books of the NT represent different times and perspectives. The NT does contain explicit endorsements of “the law”, which is a violent law, but it seems clear that not all early Christians accepted that, and it’s speculative to say they would see it as license for stoning dissenters. There was doubtless some variety of opinion. What is clearly unsupportable is a strong position that all of the early churches saw violence as justified.

    But Caplan’s quoted statement that Nathan “grossly overstates the incompatibility between Christian doctrine and religious violence” doesn’t actually claim any did, only that the pacific stuff is not all there is, which leaves open a path for those seeking justification for compulsion, like Augustine, to find it. That looks pretty defensible to me.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      The NT does contain explicit endorsements of “the law”, which is a violent law, but it seems clear that not all early Christians accepted that, and it’s speculative to say they would see it as license for stoning dissenters.

      Jesus didn’t take a crystal clear view on whether people should be stoned for violating the Mosaic Law? I know Knox Harrington likes to point out that not all manuscripts contain the story of the woman caught in adultery, but I didn’t take Caplan to mean, “If Jesus wanted us to think that, he would have clearly said so, and I don’t mean in a portion that is only in some manuscripts.”

      • Craw says:

        There are places where Jesus, in some books, endorses the law. Jot and tittle; I come to fulfill the law etc. I’m not saying that means “go forth and stone” but it does mean that interpreters can say, “Look, he endorsed the law didn’t he? And that’s the law, isn’t it?”. That’s all Caplan needs.

        Plus Paul was only talking about Gentiles. He agreed that those born Jews should obey the law in its entirety, right? Which involves stoning.

        Take a crystal clear view? No. John 8 is late and unreliable. It is almost certainly not authentic.

        • Guest says:

          Jesus did fulfil the law. Jesus is the blood sacrifice for all sin.

          Sorry to say this but The Law is a Jewish remnant. Yes the Law will always serve as the very best method to teach what sin is. Now that you know you are a sinner, you do not have to make burnt offerings or conduct obsessive ritual or join a covenant or adhere strictly to an impossible set of laws.

          Instead you turn to your Savior Jesus Christ. Repentance follows. Faith will grow. Works will ensue. Fruit will bear.

      • knoxharrington says:


        I don’t think I’ve ever said that. It is true I do make use of textual and content differences between and among the gospels but I don’t recall every citing to that story as one of those examples.

        Not a major quibble.



        • Bob Murphy says:

          Knox OK sorry then I must have you confused with somebody else, because somebody definitely brings that up on the Sunday posts.

          • knoxharrington says:

            Like I said – not a major quibble.

            Have a great day,


          • Keshav Srinivasan says:

            Bob, Ken B was the one who used to keep bringing that up.

  10. Josiah says:

    Acts 5:1-11:

    1 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

    3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

    5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

    7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

    “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

    9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

    10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

    • Bob Murphy says:


      I was thinking someone could bring up that example–I’m glad it was you. Two responses:

      (1) They weren’t non-believers. They were part of the Christian community and were lying to everyone.

      (2) The apostles didn’t use violence against these two; God killed them.

      • Josiah says:


        I don’t see where either Smith or Caplan limited their point to violence against nonbelievers.

        It’s true that St. Peter did not himself use violence against the couple, though he doesn’t exactly seem like a bystander either.

        • Craw says:

          Peter was the finger man.

    • Guest says:

      Sin is death.
      “how is it that Satan has so filled your heart “

      • Guest says:

        Romans 6:23 22But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord

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