Lex Talionis and the New Testament

Is Jesus at odds with Moses here?

In my previous article on this topic I noted how the Old Testament expresses the concept of lex talionis, or the principle of retaliation and retribution. I noted the three main passages on this, and sought to provide a larger framework by which we might understand these texts.

A major point I sought to make was that this principle was actually an improvement on that of many other ancient cultures in that it strictly limited personal revenge and sought to put crime and punishment in the context of a just social and political order. As we put it today: ‘the penalty should fit the crime.’ That is how we are to understand this biblical principle.

The relationship between the Old Testament law and the New Testament

The topic of this subheading has been extensively discussed and debated over the centuries, and entire libraries exist with books on this and related matters, so I can only give the briefest of outlines here. For one short and general look at these issues, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/10/08/the-law-and-the-christian/

The simple truth is, we must ask this question and think carefully about it: What aspects or parts of OT law carry over into the NT, and which do not? Those of differing theological persuasions will answer this question differently. Theonomists, or Christian reconstructionists, for example will see almost all of the law carrying through, including the civil laws and their penalties, while other Christians will claim that only the moral law does. And not every believer is even happy with that threefold division of the law (moral, civil and ceremonial).

Again, whole libraries have been penned on such matters. As but one helpful discussion of how OT law fit in to the NT, see the discussion by Roy Gane in his 2004 NIVAC commentary on Leviticus and Numbers, pp. 305-314. Here is just one quote from that work: “Properly viewed within a covenant framework of love and grace, God’s law is not ‘legalistic’ and obedience to it is not ‘legalism’. People are legalistic when they put his law in place of his grace as a means of salvation.”

And Gane wrote an entire book on these issues in 2017: Old Testament Law for Christians. See the details of that book and nearly 40 others I list in the article I linked to just above.

Jesus and lex talionis

But the Christian will immediately think of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5:38-42:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

The question is, do those words nullify what the OT taught about lex talionis? I think not. A major part of understanding what Jesus was referring to here is to realise he is offering a personal ethic for the individual believer. He is NOT saying there is no place for justice to be administered by the state to punish evildoers.

That is, if I am slapped in the face, I can turn the other cheek as a Christian. But if someone seeks to slap my wife, I can defend her. And if evildoers cause me and my family personal injury, there most certainly is a place for taking them to court and seeking their punishment.

Social ethics and personal ethics may differ in these respects, but both are part of how God does things in this world. Thus we must balance verses like Matt. 5:38-42 with verses like Romans 13:1-7. But I have discussed all this in some detail in this older piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/20/difficult-bible-passages-matthew-539/

There I offer a number of important quotes from various New Testament scholars and commentators on this passage. Let me offer three more of them here.

Gordon Wenham, in his commentary on Leviticus, discusses Lev. 24 in the light of the NT. He says this:

In context Jesus’ remarks are a criticism of interpretations of the OT current in his day. These interpretations aimed to take the sting out of OT ethics. For instance it was said, “Murder was forbidden, but it does not matter being angry.” Jesus said that while murder may be the worst consequence of anger, even anger is sinful (5:21ff). Further it was said, “adultery was wrong, but divorce was all right.” Jesus said that remarriage after divorce could be adultery by another name (Matt. 5:27–32). The context of vv. 38–42, therefore, makes it improbable that Jesus was rejecting the lex talionis as such. What seems more probable is that Jesus is attacking those who turn this legal principle into a maxim for personal conduct. Christ’s followers are not to live on a tit-for-tat basis. Total selfless love like that of Christ must characterize their attitude to others. “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (v. 42). It is unlikely that our Lord’s remarks were intended to encourage judges to let offenders off scot-free. The NT recognizes that human judges must mete out punishments appropriate to the offense (Acts 25:11; Rom. 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:14, 20) and declares that it is on this basis that God will judge mankind (Luke 12:47–48; 1 Cor. 3:8ff).

Image of Matthew: (A Paragraph-by-Paragraph Exegetical Evangelical Bible Commentary - BECNT) (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
Matthew: (A Paragraph-by-Paragraph Exegetical Evangelical Bible Commentary - BECNT) (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) by David L. Turner (Author) Amazon logo

In his commentary on Matthew, David Turner puts it this way:

The biblical insistence on punishment matching the crime might seems harsh at first glance, but matching punishment to the crime prevents excessive punishment. Although an eye must be taken for an eye, two eyes or a life may not be taken for an eye. Thus the Hebrew Bible is already concerned with the matter of retaliation, and it prohibits disproportionate revenge (Lev. 19:18; but see Gen. 4:23-24; 34:1-31). . . . This teaching would obviously be at odds with the cause of the Jewish “Zealots,” who favored armed rebellion against Rome, but it is primarily a personal ethic that does not contradict the legitimate role of the state in protecting its citizens from lawlessness and aggression.

Charles Quarles in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount remarks:

No evidence suggests that Jesus intended to contradict the lex talionis of the Mosaic law. Jesus had clearly stated earlier that He did not intend to destroy the Law and the Prophets. In both the preceding and following antitheses, Jesus opposed rabbinic interpretation of the Law rather than the Law itself. Here Jesus opposed the interpretation of the Law that, in this case, distorted the principle of the lex talionis by using it to justify personal acts of vengeance. Perhaps in this case, though, the misapplication of the Law was a product of popular rather than rabbinic interpretation, paralleling the confused application of the principle by those who seek to justify acts of personal vengeance today. Clearly, the lex talionis was not intended to justify revenge. Revenge was explicitly prohibited by Lev. 19:18: “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

And R. Kent Hughes offers these comments as he looks at the Matt. 5 passage:

Today we recognize Lex Talionis as foundational to all justice. The whole system of civil, penal, and international law is based on the idea of reparation and equity that has its focus in Lex Talionis. As it exists in the Bible, Lex Talionis was given to the judges of Israel as a basis for adjudication, as Deuteronomy 19:16-21 makes so clear. Individuals were not permitted to use this law to settle disputes with others. Only the courts were permitted to do so….

The fact is, Jesus’ statement – “Do not resist an evil person” – cannot be interpreted literally as an absolute prohibition of the use of all force, such as the police and court system, unless the Bible contradicts itself. Romans 13:1-7 teaches that the state is a divine institution that has the power to punish wrongdoers. This is impossible without force. The problem comes when we isolate and absolutize Jesus’ words without giving due attention to the context, the flow of the argument, and the specific social implications of the time. Jesus clarified what he meant by providing four one-sentence illustrations of what it meant to “not resist an evil person.” Each of the illustrations is cultural specific, but they give us general principles for today’s living. The principles are not for everyone, but only for those who follow Christ.

In sum, we see no major disparagement between Moses and Jesus on this matter. But see my companion piece on this topic – “Lex Talionis and the Old Testament”: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/07/lex-talionis-and-the-old-testament/

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2 Replies to “Lex Talionis and the New Testament”

  1. Gane’s quote is excellent -“Properly viewed within a covenant framework of love and grace, God’s law is not ‘legalistic’ and obedience to it is not ‘legalism’. People are legalistic when they put his law in place of his grace as a means of salvation.”
    I want to memorise it. There is a specific area of obedience where I am often misunderstood by others and accused of legalism in my stance. I have always explained that my obedience in this matter is not that I regard it as a means of salvation but I do it because I am saved and I love the one who saved me and do it because I love Him, not to earn His favour, but that doesn’t always help. This quote may be a better way of addressing it next time. Many thanks.

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