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The New Testament and Violence. Part Two: The Nonviolence of Paul

[This is the second part of my ongoing series.  For Part One, see here.  I will turn to the Sectarianism of John in my next section, before offering some concluding remarks in a final post.]
The Nonviolence of Paul
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the assembly of God and was ravaging it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many contemporaries in my nation, being far more of a zealot for my ancestral traditions ~ Gal 1.13-14.
The turn from Jesus to Paul leads to what some may consider to be an unexpected reversal. Having noted the violence of Jesus, it is interesting to note how Paul develops the Jesus tradition in a more thoroughly nonviolent, or pacifist, manner. Just as our assumptions about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” have been challenged, so also our assumptions about Paul, the man blamed for legitimizing the sword of the State along with a host of others evils, end up being reworked in light of what the texts actually do and do not say.
Of course, like Jesus, Paul has not entirely escaped from the ideologies of the triumphant that seek to impose “legitimate” violence upon one’s enemies. Like Jesus, Paul sometimes speaks of a coming moment of cataclysmic divine violence and judgment (cf., for example, Ro 2.5-11; 2 Cor 5.10; Gal 1.8-9; Phil 3.18-19; 1 Thess 1.9-10, 2.16). Also like Jesus, he is not beyond verbally abusing his opponents – even wishing that some of his opponents in Galatia would go ahead and castrate themselves (Gal 5.12 – Paul refers to a comparable group as “dogs” in Phil 3.2)! However, it is worth noting that in relation to both of these areas, Paul seems to exhibit more grace than Jesus. In relation to violent divine judgment, Paul focuses God’s wrath upon the here-and-now, with God’s wrath simply being God’s refusal to intervene and prevent the inevitably tragic end result of a people’s self-chosen sinful activities. When speaking of final judgment, however, Paul does not have a lot to say and, in fact, he refuses to cast any sort of judgment upon either those outside of the assemblies of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 5.9-13) or the enemies of those assemblies (cf. Ro 12.14-21). Even when Paul does find it necessary to pronounce an exceedingly harsh judgment upon another Jesus-follower, something he describes as handing a person “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” Paul still limits this judgment to the temporal realm, so that the spirit of this man “may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5.5; see also 1 Cor 3.12-15). Finally, not only does Paul limit his reflections upon some final divine act of violence, but he also leaves the door open for a great final act of universal salvation. Thus, he writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15.22) and again, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Ro 5.18 – some tantalizing results are also produced when Phil 2.10-11 is read in conjunction with Ro 10.9!).
Turning to the second parallel, having noted that Paul sometimes loses his temper and verbally abuses his opponents, it is still worth noting that Paul is much more focused upon redefining enemies as non-human structural, cosmic and spiritual Powers. Again, in this regard, it seems to me that Paul demonstrates more grace than Jesus – not only holding out the possibility of final salvation for the worst offenders and for his opponents, but also shifting the focus of one’s warfare or hatred to the non-human realm. This emphasis comes through especially strongly in the Deutero-Pauline epistles of Colossians and Ephesians (which remain much more faithful to Paul than the Pastorals), but it is already found in the non-contested Pauline letters. Thus, in Ro 13.12, Paul calls the Jesus-followers to put on armor, not of metal in order to battle other people, but of light in order to battle darkness and the vices of the flesh (a metaphor further developed in Eph 6.10-17). Thus, while some of our contemporary bourgeois pacifists may express discomfort with Paul’s usage of warfare imagery here or elsewhere, the point is that Paul has shifted the terrain of the war from the personal to the spiritual and structural realms.
Therefore, when we compare Paul’s rhetorical violence to that of Jesus, we discover a Paul who is much more gentle, meek, and mild than Jesus. This difference is only heightened when we compare Paul’s actual actions to those of Jesus. For, unlike Jesus, we are hard pressed to find any sort of violent action employed by Paul as God’s ambassador to the nations.
However, it is important to note that this refusal of violence comes after Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. Prior to that apocalyptic event, both Paul and Luke claim that Paul was engaged in violent actions – arresting and imprisoning some, seizing property, and even assisting in the executions of others. Here Paul’s references to his allegiance to “Judaism” (a term coined to express opposition to “Hellenism” and highlight separation from other nations), to being a “Pharisee” (meaning a “separated one”), combined with the mention of his “zeal,” all lead to the hypothesis that Paul, before his encounter with Christ, was a member of a Pharisaic group that modeled itself after the likes of Phinehas and the other “heroes of zeal” in the Hebrew Scriptures—people whose unconditional commitment to the distinctiveness of Israel was exhibited in a willingness to use violence, even against other Judaeans. For Paul and other zealots (i.e. others who were “zealous” for Israel), zeal was “something you did with a knife” (to borrow the words of N. T. Wright).
Therefore, one of the ways in which Paul’s call produces a significant conversion in his work post-Damascus is the way in which it moves him from violent to non-violent actions. Instead of violently purging the people of God, Paul embraces non-violence in order to suffer with Christ and extend the offer of the peace of God to the members of all the nations. Paul’s zealous violence has given way to zealous love which now manifests itself, not in the willingness to kill but in the willingness to die. Of course, Paul does not completely break with his old behaviours – in Acts 13.6-12, for example, we read of Paul temporarily blinding a sorcerer named Elymas – but the transition is a very significant one.
Does this mean that Paul understands the conflict between that which is life-giving and that which is death-dealing in a different way than Jesus? Do his different tactics reflect a different agenda? I do not think so. It seems to me that Paul is just as deeply committed to the pursuit of life, and the worship of the God of Life, over against Death and the death-dealing Powers of his day. Paul’s embodied proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ lordship, still runs completely against imperial modes of domination. Thus, Paul urges economic mutuality, along with the emancipation of slaves, and the equal status of all – men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, within the assemblies of Jesus. Yet almost nowhere does he engage in the same sort of violence against private property exhibited by Jesus. I can only think of one example of Paul engaging in an illegal action of that nature.1 While in Philippi, Paul and Silas encounter a female slave who is possessed by a pythonic fortune-telling spirit. This slave, Luke tells us, made a great deal of money for her masters. However, Paul ends up casting this spirit out of her, thereby enraging the owners who end up getting Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, flogged and imprisoned by the magistrates (cf. Acts 16.16-24). By casting out the spirit, Paul has damaged the value of the slave-owners property (the female slave was legally considered a thing, not a person). Thus, he destroys “property” in the service of life. Of course, Luke frames this act as though is arose spontaneously on Paul’s part (Paul became too “annoyed” to properly control himself), but it actually fits in rather well with Paul’s entire trajectory regarding slavery, wherein slaves were to be treated as people, as equals, as siblings, as citizens of heaven, and as children and heirs of God.
This is just one area that demonstrates Paul’s desire to create alternative communities of life within central places of the Empire. For Paul, this is such a crucial and dangerous task that he tries to “fly under the radar” rather than jeopardize his mission in any other way (indeed, even without any outright actions of violence against property, Paul is still executed by the Roman imperial powers, an observation that demonstrates the degree of risk involved in his work). Therefore, what we see when we compare Jesus and Paul are different tactics employed in the pursuit of the same goal. While it is tempting to psychologize the differences between the two – perhaps by suggesting that Jesus was better equipped to ably employ violence whereas Paul needed to more wholeheartedly avoid this realm of possible actions due to the violent nature of his past – I do not wish to press that point. I simply want to observe that the tactics of both are different but legitimate options available to those who seek to follow Jesus and imitate Paul.

1There is one great act of Christian property destruction in Acts, when the sorcerers at Ephesus burn their books, which had a combined approximate value of 50,000 drachmas – however, while this fits into the general trajectory of supporting the destruction of property that is idolatrous and death-dealing, it was a voluntary action performed by the owners of the property and so no crime was committed. Cf. Acts 19.17-20.

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  1. The series continues to be excellent. Great to see Paul being rescued from those who have made him a war monger much to the detriment of all. I especially like your expansion of the story of the slave woman and how this is a story of property destruction. Brilliant.
    The only place I would push back you are already aware of and deal with well – the often presumed discontinuity between Jesus and Paul (though usually in the opposite direction you take it) can only be stretched so far. Paul is who he is, because of his encounter with Christ, and behaves the way he does because he believes it is in keeping with Christ’s will. If he is, as you argue here, nonviolent he must be so because he believes it is Christ’s will, especially given his obvious willingness for violence in his previous life as a zealot. This, to me, makes your previous claim that Jesus promoted violence against property problematic. Paul doesn’t seem to agree.

  2. How sure are you that the buring in Acts 19 shouldn´t be considered illegal? As I read the greek, there are no words that actually spells out who was the “owner” of the books, although one could argue that this could be read out from the context. And even if the books did belong to the converts, I think the point of the story is that this act of property destruction was a public and deliberate confrontation with the powers that be. So our focus should not be on the (potential) “not illegal”-part, but on the “public confrontation”-part.
    I sometimes have been longing for a gathering a crowd just outside a big bank office and together publically cut up our credit cards and throw the pieces all around. This would be a real Acts 19-party.
    Great text. I agree, and I have been thinking along these lines too regarding Paul´s and Jesus´ relationship to property destruction, although my own take on it is that Paul might despite everything still be leading the christian in a more conservative (status quo) direction. It seems to me that Paul sometimes had too much belief in what god would do with or through the roman administration (as in Romans 13:3).


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