Tuesday, January 06, 2009


I have now listened to many, many media interviews about the Gaza tragedy in which dropping bombs, sending in tanks (Israel) or launching rockets (Hamas) has been justified "as a legitimate response" to "what the other side is doing". On some occasions the "eye for an eye" aphorism has been directly used - or, rather, abused. One should not forget the key questions about occupation, dispossession and disproportion, of course. The futile politics of what is going on is frightening - and rather well summarised by Peter Beaumont. But the issues of the destructiveness inherent in endemic revenge go deep into the human psyche and point us toward a root sickness. This is an issue I have tackled in a short Ekklesia piece, On not being left eyeless in Gaza. It also provides an opportunity to begin to plug the forthcoming Gene Stolzfus visit.


Anonymous said...

Oh please Simon - get real!
The last thing needed to help Palestinians is more endless rhetoric! Have you not noticed that the world is awash in the stuff?
We've been living in the New Way of the Spirit for 2000 years. What has "tooth for a tooth" got to do with us now? You are playing right into the word-games of the Prince of Liars a.k.a. The False Prophet. Unabashed slaughter, aided and abetted by British and American administrations for 90 years is what the Palestinians have lived with. That is what they want addressing and action on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Simon,

You make several excellent points in "On not being left eyeless in Gaza," not the least of which is "Whereas the lex talionis is about limiting violence, the Gospel takes the next step and seeks its abolition." I hope you will consider some constructive criticism.

First, you say, "The aphorism 'an eye for an eye' is Jewish in origin." It is not. One of the most pernicious myths fueling the violent heresy of Christian Zionism is the idea that the people of the Bible were Jews and that these people practiced Judaism.

In the case of "an eye for an eye," although it may be a later emendation, the Biblical narrative locates this in the Israelite era before the conquest of Canaan and certainly before the emergence of the rabbinic (as opposed to priestly), Talmudic (as opposed to Biblical i.e. OT/Tanakhic), synagogue-based (as opposed to Temple-based), and legalistic (as opposed to sacrificial) religion we know as Judaism. To refer to the Israelite religion as Judaism is anachronistic and harmful. The appearance of "an eye for an eye," according to the Biblical narrative, even predates the Old Testament canon and the Temple-based cult I have contrasted with Judaism above. Further, a solid case can be made that "an eye for an eye" and lex talionis is Babylonian in origin, specif. in Hammurabi's code (ca. 1760 BC).

Second, you refer to "rabbi Jesus." Inasmuch as Jesus was a teacher this is, strictly speaking, correct but in the Aramaic vernacular that Jesus likely spoke he would have been referred to as "rabboni." Referring to Jesus as "rabbi," although a faithful transliteration of the Koine, is anachronistic because that term has become associated with the clergy of Judaism. And this feeds the mistaken notion that Jesus and some of his contemporaries were Jews when they were not, which in its turn fuels Christian Zionism. Leaving aside the question of whether the Judeans of Jesus' day can accurately be called Jews, it is clear that Jesus was not, in any case, a Judean but a Galilean.

I don't mean to nitpick here, Christian conceptions about the Bible and Jesus have a significant impact on world affairs. I reckon that what I have argued may be new or objectionable to you and so I would like to leave you with some scholarly references to consult.

John H. Elliott. "Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a 'Jew' Nor a 'Christian': On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature." Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 5, No. 2, 119-154 (2007).

Steve Mason, "Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History." Journal for the Study of Judaism, 38 (2007) 457-512.

"Ioudaios." Bauer-Danker Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. (2000) p. 478.

On a particular source of the 19th century Judaization of Jesus in Western thought see Susannah Heschel. Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus. (U Chicago Pr., 1998).



Splat Vision said...

What bothers me most is that a child's life, any child's from any side, is valued so little and is just so blatantly disregarded...Colateral damage is the most evil PR term ever concocted..

Simon Barrow said...

David: Reality is more complicated than you are suggesting. As well as corrupted superpower politics it involves cycles of self- and other-reinforcing revenge. Both need to be tackled. Reducing one to the other will not do.

Michelle: Many thanks for your comments. What you are talking about is the evolution and mutation of a tradition in interaction with others, and you are right to do so. But the ethic of proportionality is, whichever way you look at it, rooted in Israelite and Jewish thought from early times. I should have said "modern origins', and I'll make that amendment. In earliest formations there was a response to Babylonian practices and a pushing of them in a more definitively restrictive direction as part of a holiness code. My main point is that the trajectory is against violence, and that is where our conversation and practice needs to go. There are all kinds of scholarly tangles involved in this. See Gordon Zerbe, Non-retaliation in Early Jewish and New Testament Texts (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 1993).

Anonymous said...

Simon, you write: "My main point is that the trajectory is against violence, and that is where our conversation and practice needs to go." I'll grant there is a trajectory against violence but it is certainly not the dominant trajectory of Anglo-American societies for the last few hundred years. The 20th century saw violence on an industrial scale and in the post-Cold War era the US-UK have killed millions of Iraqis via bombs, bullets, and sanctions. My own country, the US, locks up proportionately more of its own citizens than any other country and that is certainly a form of institutionalized violence. As an American member of the Anglican Communion and one who is in touch with the broader American church, it seems to me that Christian resistance to American violence at home and abroad is abominably feeble, at best.

Simon Barrow said...

Michelle: Greetings again. I wasn't writing about Anglo-American societies (of course I agree with you about this) but the tradition of lex talionis.