Friday, April 12, 2013

Two Swords

During the Last Supper, Jesus revealed that Judas would betray Him. Jesus also shared bread and wine with His Disciples, calling them His body and blood respectively, and told the Disciples to repeat this meal gathering in the future in remembrance of Him. In John, Jesus then explained that seeing Jesus was the same as seeing God, and that people were guilty because they had heard and seen Jesus' magnificence, and yet still did not believe. Instead in Luke, the Disciples argued about who would be the greatest among them. Sometime around then, Jesus also revealed that Peter would deny knowing Jesus three times that same evening, despite his passionate claims of loyalty.

Two Swords
Some of the most interesting content in the Gospels is often the content which is unique to particular Gospels. There is a broad scale of those peculiarities, ranging from nearly no unique material in Mark, to John's Gospel consisting mostly of unique material. John, being so different, suggests a possible early divide in traditions. On the other hand, the differences in Matthew and Luke may instead represent a refinement of the same thread of tradition. Let us take a closer look at one of these unique anecdotes found in Luke; a wake-up call for the Disciples.

In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus tried to prepare the Disciples for the harsh realities they would face after He was gone.

Jesus began by reminding the Disciple how, during their First Mission, God had worked to provide everything for them, despite the fact that they started their mission without money, or even shoes on their feet (Luke 22:35). Yet that modus operandi was about to change, as we see in Luke 22:36:
[Jesus] said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." NIV
That seems pretty clear, right? Your cloak, which would keep you warm at night, or help insulate you from the rain, would be of little use for you in a situation when you would need a sword. So if you have to choose between a cloak and a sword, sell your cloak and get a sword. The implication is that there are dangerous times ahead; times when a sword will keep you alive.

So it is clear, but do not worry. The message will become muddied. In fact, it already is, because you cannot reconcile turning the other cheek and giving to anyone who takes from you with standing your ground; sword in hand. Yet before we get to the part where Luke himself muddied the water of life within this same section of verses, Jesus provided some prophesy that He would soon fulfill.

In Luke 22:37, Jesus partially quoted Isaiah 53:12, referencing the prophesy that He would be "numbered with the transgressors. Isaiah 53 is the one Old Testament prophesy which seems closest to actually being about Jesus. Long-time readers of this blog may remember that the detailed study on Isaiah 53 revealed that prophesy as a whole to be unlikely to pertain to Jesus, but that it took some digging into its context to really see that. Although, there were certainly clues within particular verses, like how Isaiah 53:12 begins with "Therefore I will give him a portion among the great". This speaks of honor on the same level as other Jewish heroes, not an elevated position above all, such as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Nope. Just a "portion" of the glory of the great ones before him. Please refer to the detailed study of Isaiah 53 for more information.

OK, back to the point of the message... preparing for the dangers ahead. The Disciples took Jesus at His word, and so in Luke 22:38 we see:
The Disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."
"That is enough," [Jesus] replied. NIV
Hmmm. Two swords... enough for eleven people? Is that right? Something seems amiss... First, let us take a quick look at what some classic Christian commentaries say about this, and then we will discuss the real meaning. ;-)

Most of the classic Christian commentaries, such as John Darby, and John Gill, suggest that this is obviously meant as a figurative message. Some of them, such as McGarvey and Pendleton, and John Gill, support this case off of the fact that two swords would not literally be enough for eleven people. What was this figurative message, according to them? That depends on who you refer to.

Matthew Henry, and McGarvey and Pendleton, suggest a more spiritual arming; as in the "sword of the Spirit", i.e. the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). However, to suggest this spiritual perspective is to rip the sword from the stone of its context, which is obviously a prescription for physical preparations. Having a sword was just one of those preparations.

John Gill and John Wesley both agree that Jesus was really just trying to express that they were entering a dangerous time, but had no intention of them literally buying swords. Yes, indeed, this was a warning to prepare yourself against dangers; dangers like those mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11:26. However, the message was also very literal. It would not make sense for Jesus to instruct them to buy swords, when He did not mean for them to buy swords. So what was going on here?

Well, one commentary did get it right. Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown did recognize the correct literal meaning in Jesus' words, as well as the figurative part. That figurative part was "now". Jesus was not providing instruction for that particular instant, but rather for the future time; the time after Jesus would no longer be with them. So two swords were enough... for now.

As always, it has been humorous to see how various Bible experts interpret the same passage differently, and wrongly at that, but the big question is why is this anecdote even here? Why did Luke include it?

I believe that it was because Luke was forced to face reality. The fledgling faithful Christians were likely experiencing some tough times by the time that Luke got around to writing his Gospel. The trouble was that there was nothing in the Gospel story about defending yourself, and rightfully so. After all, if you are defending yourself, you are relying on yourself, not on God. God had promised to protect and prosper those who obey Him (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), but Luke was not seeing any evidence of that, so he adjusted the message to prepare the believers for the rough ride on their own... without a real God.

(Well, Luke probably still believed in God, but the net effect was the same.)


  1. As usual, it seems to boil down to different messages for different situations. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and also to pick up a sword and fight. The problem is both are written in such a way that they could be interpreted to apply to any given situation

  2. Or maybe even that there are snakes on the ground, out there on the road, and the occasional bandit or thug, so a sword might be needed. Actually just kidding ... seems definitely figurative, as in "trouble and disputants coming", like both then and now. As to the two sword reference, seems simply dismissive, that is, "moving on time." Of course, no analysis will prove it actually happened that way... or any other way. Nice post.

  3. Yeah, Hausdorff, I have certainly come to understand the Gospels in that light; "different messages for different situations."

    Thanks c emerson, although I am not sure I understand what you mean by ' As to the two sword reference, seems simply dismissive, that is, "moving on time." ' If you have got the time, I would love for you to elaborate a little more.

  4. First, to be sure, I have no formal training here, but I have read this material many times. When things seem cryptic, I prefer to take the simplest meaning and move on. One possibility is that J never said any of this - even without getting into the issue of his historical existence. So, the words may have no real meaning. But the general situation is Peter's big profession of 'standing by you' which later text shows he failed at. Then we have the general switch from pacifism to get ready for a figurative or real 'fight' or rough times - i.e., get ready to rougher go of it, so toughen up - sell the cloak, get a fighting tool. It is not unusual for the gospel texts to imply the disciples fail to get J's figurative points (eg., they seem to have a rough time understanding the point of parables). So in other situations, J is reported as saying something like 'time will come when you will get the point' or 'let's just move to next topic', etc. So here (if he said anything like this at all), maybe J had just had enough of this line of talking: "It is enough" may not be any kind of comment about the two-ness of swords, just instead meaning, hey, dummy, it ain't about arming yourself with a weapon count - let's move on - the very next verse J heads out the door to go to mount of olives - i.e., "It is enough" is in simplest meaning simply a 'we are done talking about swords, figurative or literal.' But what do I know? Cheers.

  5. Btw, I am aware that the NIV and other translations sound more specifically directed at the two-ness of swords issue. KJV says, "It is enough" not "That is enough." The problem if translator input added to the written (long) after the fact plus the development of subsequent interpretation and accounts of events plus motives plus theological splits and fights plus plus plus puts a heck of a burden on any 'inspiration' as to literal accuracy ... so I gave that approach up long ago ... but analyzing any 'historical' account of anything from primary materials is tough enuf ... but from secondary material (accounts based on other accounts) ... scholarly guessing game?

  6. Scholarly guessing games are worth it, of course, as your post successfully analyzes on the two-sword issues provided, as you do, we remind ourselves experts can't usually agree, so how can anyone really insist they have the one and only correct view?

  7. What do you mean, c emerson? Clearly only I have the correct view here! ;-)

    But seriously, thanks for fleshing out your perspective on this. I kind of thought that was where you were headed, but I really was not sure. As you say, "analyzing any 'historical' account of anything from primary materials is tough enuf", or a variation on that same theme I often say is "text is tricky".

    It may just be a manner of differing semantics, but it seems that even if it was more of a figurative message, warning them to prepare for struggles ahead, it still comes down to the question of "how do I prepare myself for the struggles ahead?" Perhaps Jesus did not literally mean that everyone should buy a sword, but they should be prepared. Bring a purse (to purchase anything you may need). Bring a bag (backpack full of supplies). Bring a sword (or, at least the means to physically protect yourself). It still seems to come down to a literal, physical preparation, which seems like exceeding odd advise coming from a God who could work to ensure the safety of His followers as necessary, and as allegedly demonstrated in Acts.


  8. That last point is true enough! An odd piece of advice seems to me to be unlikely as an original of J, don't you think? I've jotted your references cuz I may want to see just what the modern range if thought is, but I think it is absolutely fair to point out these "apparent conflicts" - in my 'inspired heart' I suspect they are what I have called 'shapers' - add-one that shape the story to fit subsequent events and motives. Excellent post.

  9. That's add-on not add-one. Must have Google + on my brain. Ideas are Physical, so to speak.

    Here is a blog author interviewed by Grundy, if your readers aren't familiar with that interview:

  10. That is an excellent point, c emerson, regarding "shapers". It is a real challenge to parse out the original, possibly historical, content from the anecdotes that are strung together into a story in each of the Gospels, but I think apparent contradictions like these do help that task.

    Of course, if we are talking about a real person as the inspiration of the story, there is no need to demand for the story to be without contradictions. I am pretty sure I appear to contradict myself quite often! :-)

    Anyway, thanks for the links. Atheist Biblical Criticism definitely appears to be a noteworthy blog.

  11. I think pointing out contradictions is exactly the right task, since it endeavors to bring rational thought into the task of explaining how those contradictions came to be in the texts. However, the existence of contradictions does not by itself provide convincing proof that the text conveys no message. That requires a different argument. As you pointed out, contradictions get into all cultural texts. Cheers.

  12. c emerson,

    "the existence of contradictions does not by itself provide convincing proof that the text conveys no message."

    Totally agree, I think saying it conveys no message would be a step too far for sure. I think the impact of contradictions in the bible is dependent on someone's view of what the bible is. In my family, the bible is the inerrant word of God. Under this view contradictions cause problems. Many people make much more reasonable claims about what the bible is, for them the contradictions will not be as big of a problem

  13. Well, c emerson and Hausdorff, I would have to agree with you both. And I would further state that I am 100% confident that there is a message being conveyed. What I am less confident in defining is precisely whose message that is!

  14. @H and @T,
    I agree. Like many, I have some relatives that can only barely engage in a discussion about a possible contradiction, let alone discuss the possibility of less than inspired, subsequent insertions into what for them is literal and infallible text. I'm personally convinced this is a cultural trait and historically always and everywhere has been; thus my position that the text itself can at times block "the message." This leads exactly to your points about how in the world to determine what that message is, let alone how to verify it. Reading both your blogs helps me become more educated on what contradictions exist, and what problems they cause. Incidentally, this problem of finding the message in text that is not taken literally is the very argument I turn back onto the literalist. I do this by asking which literalist authority do they rely upon for a correct interpretation of their 'literal' text. By the way, what did Isaac Newton actually mean when he said .... The problem is always going to be there in anyone's text.

  15. @c emerson,
    I am not familiar with the Newton quote you have given, but (shamefully) I am not too familiar with Newton's works outside of Newtonian physics. Seems like he was quite the religious geek; blasting the Trinity concept and all, and yet purely pious. Anyway, I would want to know the context of the quote to take a true read of it, but there are likely ubiquitous issues in all texts.

    Obviously, I have my own biases, based on what I have learned and experienced, among other factors. While I try to minimize those biases in the full scope of Scriptural analysis, I am sure there are some of those self-influences still remaining. With my own colored lens, I view the message in the NT as a very human one at its core. We may never know truly what that original core was; how it has been twisted and warped by subsequent authors. And with the four versions of the Gospel story, it is difficult to know all of the time which one is closest to the truth of the matter.

    Yet what bears more weight in the assessment of whether or not the original message is divine or human is the consideration of the foundation; the OT prophesies. For an intelligent person, like yourself, I think that starting with the OT prophesies is the better way to get at what the original divine message was; if there was one at all. Or maybe start with Kings/Chronicles to get the story behind the Exile, and then proceed on to the Prophets. My judgement was that the OT prophesies really had little to nothing to do with Jesus, at best. Your mileage may vary.

    There are definitely problems in interpreting text correctly. About the best you can do, as we have discussed a little already, is try to let the text be self-supportive. Does it agree with itself? Does the meaning you thought you had derived from one piece of text also appear in another place? Etc. That has been the strategy I have tried to follow when looking at the Scriptures. I doubt that I have gotten it all right, but it has been pretty strong approach.

  16. First a quick correction - I didn't actually supply a quote from Newton, just misleading punctuation.

    My point was supposed to be that knowing what any author really means is not clear, regardless of whether that author is a scientist, a theologian or a reporter. In other words, even if the biblical texts were all written by eye-witnesses we still would not always know what was meant by what they chose to write down. But even more than that, we often don't know for 100% certain what another person means when they speak out loud, EVEN IF WE are the eye-witnesses! I guarantee I rarely know what a politician, or even a professor, means when they are pronouncing what they think is a well-thought-out message. Speech is always equivocal.

    > There are definitely problems in interpreting text correctly. About the best you can do, as we have discussed a little already, is try to let the text be self-supportive. Does it agree with itself?

    I agree.

    Now having just said, "I agree," do those two words mean that I agree exactly with what you meant by the words you wrote. No. For one thing, what about the words you wrote that I did not include in the quotation. If my point is well-taken, it means even something as simple as that exchange is subject to, not just interpretation, but even dispute on top of interpretation.

    So how do we then explain the high level of confidence many individuals as well as experts have as to their interpretation of ancient texts, especially when they know there are dozens of different translations of those very texts? I just have to ascribe that sense of confidence to cultural history, personal experience and deep-seated values ... but not to objective truth. And I mean that proposition to apply AFTER all serious efforts have been made to examine and reason with, and within, the context of the passages in order to first get the text, as you say, to agree with itself. I admire your efforts to do just that.

  17. Regarding the Newton quote, I was wondering if that was the case, but I am not yet familiar with your writing style enough to fully make that judgement.

    Indeed, c emerson. And it is difficult to get at objective truth. However, when we do speak of certainty, we can borrow from the field of Statistics; specifically on the subject of the study of Uncertainty. If you are really appealing to the most strict of senses of "objective" truth, then applying uncertainty statistics would seem to be the way to go. Of course, you would be stuck with a lot of subjective judgement calls in defining the error percentages, because a fundamental theology error would seem to bear more weight than a mere petty contradiction, but I think you could come up with a pretty decent mathematical model of the "truth" in the Scripture if you were so inclined. That is a lot of work! :-)

    Anyway, thanks for the comments.