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What Did Jesus Teach About War?

by Bill Edgar

Many years ago while I was a student at Swarthmore College, I spent some days browsing through its library’s Peace Collection. Swarthmore, a traditionally Quaker school, housed a vast quantity of writing about war. Much of the writing dealt with the teachings of Jesus. Was he a pacifist? Would he have supported or opposed the later Christian doctrine of Just War? And so on. One thing that impressed me about most of the literature was its nearly complete lack of historical awareness. Both pacifist and just war writers treated Jesus’ teachings as timeless oracles, not as things He said in a particular time and place. But Jesus was a Jew who lived and taught in Roman-ruled Palestine, so anything that he taught about war needs to keep that context in mind.

Any discussion of what Jesus taught immediately raises the question of the reliability of our sources, most notably the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is a long scholarly tradition of viewing these books with deep suspicion, treating them as the product of the living tradition and life of a later Christian church and not as real history. Perhaps a process of “demythologizing,” to use Bultmann’s term, would allow scholars to discern some underlying kernels of Jesus’ teaching beneath the layers of elaboration that church tradition had added to them, but to take the Gospels as they stand as reliable reports about Jesus was naïve. This scholarly tradition treated the assumed oral tradition behind the Gospels as though it were like a manuscript that had gone through many editorial hands; then the final versions of the Gospels emerged from some anonymous compilers late in the first century.

This skeptical take on the Gospels has never satisfied me. Powerful works of literature do not emerge from the Volk, contrary to the theories of early folklorists. Some individual writes them. Furthermore, the time needed for an oral tradition to produce the “mythologized” Gospels never seemed to me to be nearly long enough: people who actually knew Jesus were still alive when the earlier Gospels were published. And the Gospels contain a huge amount of material that seems utterly irrelevant to the life of the new Church, but makes eminent sense connected to Jesus’ life and times.

A recent book by the English scholar Richard Bauckham, published in 2006, confirms my skepticism of the skeptics. It puts a thoroughly argued final nail in the coffin of mainstream Gospel studies of the last century. Entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham’s book persuasively argues that the Gospels contain the testimony of Jesus’ closest associates. They were written according to the canons of mainstream Greco-Roman historiography. They were not the product of church tradition or later life. The Gospels tell us what Jesus did and taught.

So in this study of what Jesus taught about war, I am going to take the Gospels as they stand as my sources for Jesus’ teaching. They describe a popular teacher and healer who called Himself the Son of Man, who gathered a varied group of disciples about Him. After several years of itinerant ministry, He ran afoul of the Jewish authorities. They handed him over to Governor Pilate as a threat to the Roman peace. Pilate had him crucified outside of Jerusalem. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, commissioned his disciples to spread the Announcement of His saving reign to all nations and to teach new disciples the things that He had taught them, and then left this world. What did Jesus teach about war during his itinerant preaching through the Palestinian provinces of Galilee, Samaria, Perea, and Judea? That is our question. The canonical four Gospels are our source.

Palestine In the Days of Jesus

When we hear the word “war,” we think first of international conflicts between state-supported armies, or perhaps we think of a civil war. The Roman Empire of which Palestine was a small part in Jesus’ day, knew both kinds of war, but not in Jesus’ day. What Edward Gibbon first named the “Pax Romana,” began in 27 B.C. with Augustus’ final victory over Antony in Rome’s civil wars. It lasted, in Gibbons’ accounting, until 180 A.D. In those two centuries, Rome and its provinces faced no significant external enemy, expanded their borders only slightly, and had no civil wars between rival claimants to Rome’s throne. There were occasional border troubles with the Germans to the north and the Parthians to the east. There were also two important Jewish revolts, which we will get to later.

While Palestine had enjoyed a short period of independence under the Hasmonean Dynasty (164-63 BC) after the Maccabean revolt, the country was firmly under Roman rule when Jesus was born. When Jesus was born, Herod the Great (74 BC – 4 BC), successor of the Hasmoneans, was “King of the Jews” by order of the Roman Senate. After Herod’s death, the provinces of Palestine were divided. At the time of Jesus’ death, Judea had a Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate (ruled 26 – 36 AD). Herod Antipas (20 BC – 39 AD), one of Herod the Great’s sons, ruled Galilee. To maintain order and to protect the Empire’s borders, Rome usually had a cohort (6 centuries) of about 500-600 men stationed in Jerusalem, a larger force at Caeserea Philippi on the coast, and at least a legion (6 cohorts, or 5000 men) in Damascus to the north. Jesus personally dealt with a centurion at least once (Matthew 8:5, Luke 7:2), who asked him to heal his servant. The commander of the Roman cohort in Jerusalem sent some of his troops to oversee his arrest (John 18:3).

Given the general peace between and within nations in Jesus’ day, it is to be expected that the Gospel writers would record very little that Jesus had to say directly about war. He probably said very little. He did use going to war as an instance of prudent weighing the cost of following Him.

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple…Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Of else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple (Luke 14:25-33).”

One other time, Jesus refers directly to what we usually mean by the term “war.” In talking about the future of his disciples, he mentions “wars” as troubling things to be expected in human affairs. But arresting as wars are, they should not trouble his followers, nor make them think that the end of the world was near. Jesus said,

“But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Mark 13:7-8).”

Palestine Restless Under Roman Rule in the Days of Jesus

While Palestine was peaceful under Roman oversight, however, the Jews were restless. Many longed for a hero who would free them from Roman rule. One indication of that longing for a hero is revealed in the names they gave to their sons. Using all available sources such as literary sources, burial inscriptions, papyri such as legal documents, and so on, the Israeli scholar Tal Ilan published the Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE – 200 CE in 2002, altogether about 2625 male names and 325 female names. The most popular male names in that ancient period surrounding the life of Jesus were the following: Simon, Joseph, Judah, Eleazar, Yohanan, and Joshua. The most popular female names were Mary and Salome. Readers of the Gospels will, of course, recognize these names. The name Simon, for example, was so common that the Gospel writers regularly attached a second identifier to it, so that readers could keep track of who is who. There was Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot, two of the twelve disciples, Simon the Leper, Simon one of Jesus’ brothers, Simon of Cyrene, and Simon Iscariot, Judas’ father. The book of Acts adds Simon Magus and Simon the tanner. The next name on Ila’s list, Joseph, is familiar as Joseph the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, and Joseph of Arimethea, in whose tomb Jesus was laid. Mary was the most common female name. In the Gospels, there is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the sister of Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Clopas. What is interesting about these names is that six of the top nine male names in Ilan’s list come from the Maccabean family: father Matthew and his five sons John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan. The female names Mary and Salome were prominent women’s names in the Hasmonean dynasty.

Given their prominence in the ancient history of Israel, one might expect some sons to be named David, Moses, or Elijah, but there are none in the Gospels or in other ancient sources. Palestinian Jews longing for a Messiah to deliver them from Rome knew the Scripture promises about a coming messianic age. Hebrew prophecy indicated a prominent role in that age for Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), Elijah (Malachi 4:5), and David (Jeremiah 23:5-6 and many more). So it seems that no one dared to name a son David, Moses, or Elijah. But they could and did name their sons after the Maccabean heroes who had defeated Palestine’s Greek Syrian rulers in the second century BC and then set up an independent Jewish kingdom.

Indeed, a generation after Jesus in 66 AD, the Jews did rebel against Rome. They wiped out the Roman garrisons in Palestine, then did the same to the legion stationed in Damascus when it came south to restore order, and then held out for another three years against four Roman legions under Generals Vespasian and Titus. After finally conquering Jerusalem, the Romans destroyed the Temple that Herod the Great had built and brought an effective end to Temple worship. Sixty years later in 132 A.D., the Jews revolted again under Bar Kokhba, in a war that lasted for over three years. After that war, the Romans forbade any Jews to live in Jerusalem.

What stance did Jesus take toward Jewish messianic hopes for a successful rebellion against Rome? He gave no encouragement to the Jews to rebel, rejected a messianic role for himself as leader of such a revolt, but nevertheless prophesied that the Jews would rebel, only to be disastrously defeated. The Gospels consistently record Jesus’ opposition to a military revolt despite the legal record of Jesus’ execution, where the charge posted over his cross was simply, “King of the Jews.”

In at least three instances, Jesus spoke clearly on the side of Jewish acceptance of Roman rule. The first place is in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. He taught, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two (Matthew 5:41 NKJ).” A more interpretative translation reads, “And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles (TEV).” Roman law, following Persian and Greek precedent, provided that a Roman soldier could require a subject, or his donkey, or his wagon, to carry his provisions a mile. That law of legal but limited forced labor was the basis for forcing Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross for him. “Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear his cross (Matthew 27:32).” So when Jesus said, “If someone compels you to go a mile, go two,” he meant, “If Roman troops tell you to carry their equipment, not only should you not resist, you should go twice as far as required.”

A second time that Jesus taught cooperation with Rome was in his famous saying concerning taxation. A week before Jesus’ arrest, the Herodians (collaborators) and the Pharisees (scornful of collaborators) asked Jesus in the temple, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The point was to implicate Jesus with the Romans if he said no, or to cost him popular support if he said yes, pay. Jesus asked for a denarius, they gave him one, and he asked whose name and image it bore. “Caesar’s,” they answered. (That would have been Tiberius Caesar.) Jesus’ famous reply to the question trap then was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, yes, give back these blasphemous coins to Rome! In the ancient world, of course, for a subject country to refuse its payments to the ruling country meant rebellion. So, again, Jesus urged no rebellion.

In a third instance at least, when he was arrested and Simon Peter pulled out a sword to fight the arresting Roman troops, Jesus told him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52).” Then Jesus healed the ear of the high priest’s servant Malchus, which Peter had cut off. After Jesus refused all resistance, his disciples fled.

One further comment by Jesus is revealing about the stance which he took toward the Romans. On one occasion, people told him about a recent atrocity in Jerusalem, “…about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1).” In reply, rather than excoriating an unpopular and brutal governor, Jesus directed his hearers’ attention to Pilate’s victims. He asked, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:2-3).” Then he drove home the point with a reference to a recent disaster, the sort that our insurance companies call an “act of God.” “Of those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:4-5).”

Undergirding Jesus’ policy of not rebelling against Rome seems to have been an acceptance of the legitimacy of Roman rule. First, Roman power had a divine source. When Governor Pilate asked him as he stood on trial before him why he remained silent, given that Pilate had the power to release or condemn him, Jesus replied, “You could have no power at all against me unless it had been given you from above (John 19:11).” Second, the Jews readily made use of the benefits of Roman rule. In his reply about paying taxes, Jesus by asking for a Roman coin, which they readily produced, seems to imply the principle that since the Jews used Roman coinage, they rightly owed them tax.

Finally, Jesus rejected all mob efforts to treat him as a messianic warrior hero or a political ruler. After the feeding of the 5000 in Galilee, the people were ready to come and make him king by force (John 6:15). Jesus fled, refusing to cooperate. When Jesus asked his disciples who the people said he was, they answered, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets (Matthew 16:14).” The surprising name in this list is Jeremiah, but perhaps not so surprising. Jeremiah was the prophet who insistently counseled Judah’s submission to Babylon against the popular determination to resist, a resistance that finally led to the destruction of David’s city and Solomon’s temple within it. And who did they think he was? he asked his disciples. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (Mark 8:29).” Then, rather than sending them out to proclaim his identity and gather a force behind him, Jesus told them categorically not to tell anyone, adding to his disciples’ discomfiture that his destiny was to be rejected by the Jewish leaders and put to death.

Jesus repeatedly indicated that the Jews would in fact rebel against Rome with disastrous results. As he entered Jerusalem for the last time, he wept over the city, prophesying, “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave one stone upon another (Luke 19:41-44).” Sitting outside its walls later, he told his disciples, who were marveling at the splendor of the temple that Herod the Great had built, not to be impressed. The days were coming when it would all be torn down (Mark 13:2). As he went to his death, carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, he said to the lamenting women, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children (Luke 23:28).”

What about the Roman verdict that Jesus was a political rebel, the one posted above his cross? The Gospel writers insist that the verdict was unjust, the result of Jewish pressure on a vulnerable Governor Pilate, the result of a cowardly miscarriage of justice. Their summary of the Jewish leaders’ dislike of Jesus is that it stemmed from envy (Matthew 27:18, Mark 15:10) and fear that Jesus by his popularity would provoke a full Roman takeover, leaving them no remnants of local rule (John 11:48). The Gospels consistently portray Pilate as trying to find some way to release Jesus or to impose a lesser sentence than death, but as giving way when the Jewish leaders threatened to report him to Caesar for letting an enemy of Rome go free (Matthew 27:11-26, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:28-19:16). Finally, as Jesus pointed out when he was arrested, he had not been acting like a rebel leader. For a week prior to his arrest, he had taught publicly in the Temple, where the Roman garrison stationed next to the Temple precincts could have easily arrested him. And while he sometimes attracted crowds, he never gathered an armed force. His disciples had all of two swords among them (Luke 22:38). One can, of course, prefer the Roman verdict to the Gospel accounts, but they are quite consistent: Jesus not only did not advocate or try to lead a war of national liberation; he actually opposed such a war and foretold that it would lead to disaster. He accepted Roman rule.

In summary, what did Jesus teach about war? Concerning war between sovereign nations, nothing at all. Concerning a war of national liberation that many of his compatriots wished to wage, he stood against it.

Why was Jesus, who accepted the title of Messiah from his close followers, even while in public he called himself the Son of Man, opposed to a war of national liberation? Many reasons could be suggested. Jesus foresaw that the Jews would lose such a war, as they did thirty years later. More importantly, Jesus had an interpretation of Scripture prophecy that identified the Messiah with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, who would die for his people, and with the Shepherd-King of Zechariah who would be killed. Finally, Jesus’ opposition to a Jewish war of national liberation rested on his goal of a more thorough transformation of human existence than such a war could possibly accomplish. Jesus came to create a renewed world, where the motives for war are subverted.

A Renewed World Where the Motives for War Are Subverted

The basic theme of Jesus’ preaching was this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15),” a message basically identical to that of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2), except that John portrayed himself as the forerunner, while Jesus identified himself as the one who brought the Kingdom. For example, referring to himself, he said, “…and indeed a greater then Jonah is here…and indeed a greater than Solomon is here (Matthew 12:39-42), or again, he claimed to be new cloth or the bridegroom (Mark 2:19-22), or again, he said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6),” not exactly a humble view of himself. Jesus thought he was the person to change people and societies fundamentally. Rather startlingly, he sometimes portrays himself as an immigrant from a different place, come to spend some time with the people of Israel (see the conversation with Nicodemus, John 3:1-19). He never said that he came to abolish war or even to critique it directly, but he did teach certain attitudes that undercut the common causes of war.

There is, of course, a vast literature aiming to discern the causes of war. Today’s favorite cause of all social maladies, namely poverty, seems not to be one of those causes. The endemic tribal warfare of the New Guinea highlands, for example, seems to be about revenge, pig stealing, and women (Jared Diamond, “Vengeance is Ours,” New Yorker, 21/4/2008, cf. Steven Pinker, “Violence Vanquished,” WSJ, 24/9/2011). Genghis Khan and the Mongols were after booty (Jack Weatherford, Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, 2004). The Trojan Wars were begun to redress the personal insult of a runaway wife (Homer, Iliad). The Punic wars between Rome and Carthage were about who would control the politics and commerce of the western Mediterranean world. In short, wars are about greed, revenge, hunger for power, and fear, recognizable human weaknesses. Poverty interferes with going to war; wealth funds war.

Jesus’ teaching points in a different direction than a society of conquest, or an honor culture of slights revenged, or a society ruled by fear of enemies. A few verses from Matthew about self-assertiveness and fear of poverty: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God (Matthew 5:9).” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).” “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek (Matthew 6:31-32).”

A few verses from Mark about hunger for power: “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant (Mark 10:42-43).”

Something from Luke about acquisitiveness: “Then one from the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.’ (Luke 12:13-15).” Jesus continued with a story about a rich man who had such good crops that he thought he could retire and rest the remainder of his life. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided? (Luke 12:20).” And from Luke on fear: “And I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after he has killed, has power to Cast into hell: yes, I say to you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5).”

In each Gospel, Jesus appears as a man at ease with the powerful, such as Jairis the synagogue ruler in Capernaum, or the Roman centurion who came to him for help, but not at all interested in climbing a social ladder. He tells his disciples to let women bring their infants to him, he converses with a Samaritan woman at a well, he eats with Zaccheus the collaborating tax collector, and he constantly interacts with Pharisees inside and outside of their houses. He evinces no interest in accumulating power, money, or women, the usual goals of able men. He certainly does not sound or feel like a man intent on fomenting rebellion against Rome. He does sound like a man completely familiar with his own countrymen, who had nevertheless been sent there from somewhere else. He aimed at a more thorough human renovation than simply replacing one political authority with another.

Jesus, in short, aimed at a new world based on himself, which would be born out of the old world and would live in its midst as it matured. That world would have its origin in his death and resurrection, which takes us back to the Suffering Servant Messiah. Finally, Jesus anticipated that the old and the new world would be in conflict. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34).” Families would divide over him. He intended to leave people with no choice regarding himself and his teachings. “He who is not with me is against me (Luke 11:23, see Luke 9:49-50),” he said. Even today, in most places of the world, the introduction of the name of Jesus into a conversation or a situation will frequently provoke an argument that quickly becomes personal.

There is a fourth aspect of Jesus’ career, touching the theme of war, which I have left entirely untouched tonight. The Gospels consistently portray warfare between evil spirits and humanity. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use, the “Lord’s Prayer” for Protestants or the “Our Father” for Catholics, the last request is, “Deliver us from the Evil One.” Jesus, in fact, points to himself as the strong man who can set free men and women who are enslaved to evil (Matthew 12:25-30).


What did Jesus teach about war? Taking the four canonical Gospels as our source, I conclude first of all that he taught nothing directly about war as we usually think of it. His world was at peace. Second, he stood consistently against the rebellious longings of his countrymen, who argued whether paying taxes to Caesar was moral, who named their children after Maccabean heroes, and who sometimes thought they saw in him the hero who could lead them to political independence. Third, Jesus aimed at a more thorough personal and social renovation than simply replacing one set of rulers with another. As part of this new world, which he personally was bringing, he included new values and ethics, which would lead people away rather than toward war.

While Jesus is the only figure from antiquity still provoking heated argument, his continuing authority is so great that all sorts of movements wish to claim him for themselves. For example, Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in a segregated American South invoked him for nonviolent action, liberation theology used him as authority for social revolution in Latin America, and Solidarity in Poland invoked him to resist Communist rule. Some make a better claim than others. Perhaps Solidarity with its refusal to live in fear and instead to think and speak like free men makes as good a claim as any. But all political and social movements that claim his authority mostly miss what Jesus aimed at: a new world based on himself and his teachings in which men and women transformed by his spiritual power turn away from the usual motives for war, of greed, hunger for power, revenge, or fear.