Violence in the New Testament

Is the New Testament a violent book? Is the God of the New Testament less violent than the God of the Old Testament?

When people imagine an angry male God, dishing out punishments and inflicting suffering, they might identify Him as the God of the Old Testament. When asked to consider stories about inflicting harm, even death, upon others in God’s name, again, they might think they are in Old Testament territory. But the New Testament has its own share of violence committed by both people and God. Christians have sometimes assumed that the ministry of Jesus reflected a radical shift in the nature of God towards peace and love, and away from anger and wrath. Yet, depending on context and point of view, New Testament texts might depict God, and God’s people, as peaceful, or violent, or both.

Name-calling is a common type of violence in the New Testament. In response to the fact that many Jews did not believe that Jesus was the messiah, gospel authors told stories of Jesus attacking them in his teaching. In Matt 23:4-36 Jesus derides Pharisees as the vilest of hypocrites. In John 8:44, Jesus calls “the Jews” the “children of the devil.” While Jews are commonly the target of such name-calling, polytheists are also attacked. For example, Titus 1:12 dismisses the entire population of Crete as “liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”

New Testament texts often reflect, rather than challenge, the violent household and political structures of the ancient world. Jesus tells parables in which beatings, and even killings, of household slaves are affirmed as disciplinary measures (for example, Luke 12:45-47). Paul warns the Corinthians, that as their “father,” he might return to them “with a rod,” presumably to beat them (1Cor 4:21). In Gal 5:12, Paul expresses the wish that those who disagree with him on the matter of circumcision might “castrate themselves.”

The final judgement is imagined in particularly violent terms in the New Testament, with the book of Revelation serving as Exhibit A. Revelation’s pages burst with gruesome scenes of cosmic battles, plagues, and bloodshed. Consider, for instance, the birds who gorge on human flesh at God’s banquet (Rev 19:17-21). While Revelation is often treated as an outlier, it is better to understand this book as fully at home within New Testament apocalyptic longing for God’s violent judgment against non-believers. Paul imagines Christ at the end of time, handing over the kingdom to God, but only after “he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (1Cor 15:24). 2Thess 1:5-10 promises a final judgement with Jesus revealed “in flaming fire,” and inflicting the “punishment of eternal destruction.” Luke’s parable of the nobleman’s return, likely meant to represent Jesus’s second coming, calls for his enemies to be brought forward and slaughtered in his presence (Luke 19:27). Such violent images of final judgement owe to an increasing preoccupation with the afterlife, something of little concern in the Old Testament. This shift in focus between the Testaments once caused Mark Twain to observe that only after the Deity “became a Christian,” did he turn “a thousand billion times crueler,” by inventing and proclaiming hell.

Contributors

  • Matthews-Shelly

    Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School

    Shelly Matthews is Professor of New Testament at the Brite Divinity School. She is the co-author, with Barbara Reid, OP, of Luke, a two-volume feminist commentary in the Wisdom Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2021).