August 8, 2018

“Do Not Resist by Evil Means”? (Matthew 5:39)

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

In his lectures on Matthew 5:38-42, Peter Leithart, following Glenn Stassen, who is following Clarence Jordan, claims that Jesus is not saying “Do not resist the evil one” but rather is saying “Do not resist by evil means.” It is, after all, a dative: to ponero.

That’s pretty attractive, given that elsewhere in Scripture we are told to “resist the devil” and given what appears to be resistance of some kind to evil people on Jesus’ part throughout his ministry.

On the other hand, the verb here, anthistemi, seems to take its direct object in the dative in many many passages. Furthermore, if it was supposed to be “by evil means,” would there be an article? Wouldn’t it just be  ponero, instead of to ponero?

Greek scholars out there, is there anything to be said for the Leithart/Stassen/Jordan interpretation? Is it even possible? Or must we, however regretfully, set it aside and conclude that Jesus was indeed saying that we must not resist “the evil one” (whatever that means, and whoever that might be)?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:49 pm | Discuss (0)

“Do Not Violently Struggle Against Evil”? (Matthew 5:39)

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

In his recent commentary on Matthew, Peter Leithart says that Matt 5:39 can be translated, not “do not resist evil” or “do not resist the evil one,” but rather “do not resist by evil means.” He footnotes N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 290-291.

But that’s rather puzzling. When I turn to that page in Wright, I find nothing of the sort. Wright does not suggest that the term translated “evil” here can be taken instrumentally: “by evil means.” He accepts the usual translation: “do not resist evil.”

But Wright focuses on the word translated “resist” and claims that the Greek verb here, antistenai, is “almost a technical term for revolutionary resistance of a specifically military variety,” footnoting an essay by Walter Wink and noting that Josephus “uses the word with the sense of ‘violent struggle’ 15 times out of 17 uses.”

So Wright’s paraphrase might be “Do not violently struggle against evil [or: the evil one].” And, in this context, he seems to take it to mean that Jesus’ followers are not to become (proto-)Zealots.

Maybe so. On the other hand, a glance at BDAG indicates that this verb appears several times in the NT and I can’t spot one clear instance in which it refers to “violent struggle” or has any necessary implication of violence at all.

Besides its appearance in Matthew 5:39, antistenai itself shows up in Luke 21:15; Acts 6:10; and Ephesians 6:13. The related anteste appears in 2 Tim 4:15; anthistato in Acts 13:8; antesten in Gal 2:11 (did Paul violently struggle against Peter when he “opposed” him to his face?!); antestesan and anthistantai in 2 Tim 3:8 (was Moses ever violently attacked by the Egyptian wizard priests?); anthesteken in Rom 9:19; 13:2 (along with anthestekotes); and antistete in James 4:7 and 1 Peter 5:9 (are these authors telling us to “violently struggle” against the devil?).

The only passage in the NT where “violently struggle” might just perhaps fit is Rom 13:2 and that’s certainly not obvious to me. In every instance — probably including Rom 13:2 — the verb has to do with opposing someone or something in some form or another, but it doesn’t ever necessarily connote violence. Maybe in Josephus, but not in the NT.

That leaves us with the puzzling fact that we do seem to see some resistance on the part of Jesus and the apostles to wicked men. James and Peter tell us to resist or oppose the devil, while Jesus in Matthew uses the very same verb and says “Do not resist the evil one.”

Wright’s solution — that Jesus is telling his disciples not to become violent revolutionaries against the Romans who might force them to walk a mile or even strike them — is attractive in its way. Certainly it’s true enough as an application. But was this the specific thing Jesus had in mind?  Pace Wright, there does not seem to be a solid lexical basis for saying so.

[Update: It seems that there is a mistake in Leithart’s footnote.  The source of this interpretation, taking “evil” as a dative of means instead of as a direct object, is not Wright but rather Glen Stassen, drawing on Clarence Jordan.  See my next post.]

Posted by John Barach @ 2:43 pm | Discuss (0)