How do believers deal with violence in their Scriptures?


When terror preoccupies us, the comparative study of religions becomes a popular sport. We sieve Christianity and Islam to weigh their peaceable against their violent characteristics. As also happens when we try to detect national characteristics in football teams, the local boys usually come out looking good - at least to themselves.

The uncommitted may find the teams more evenly matched. Sharia Law tags the Inquisition; Jihads run through Crusades. They may conclude that on both sides faith has nourished nobility and barbarity.


When the comparison of conduct proves inconclusive, it is natural to turn to the texts sacred to each faith. Christians may detect violence in the Koran. Whereas in the Bible… Well, what of the Bible? For Christian readers the Bible has always posed difficult questions. They believe that the Scriptures are God’s word, but find there an endorsement of violence that seems subhuman, not to say subdivine.

London TerrorTo point the question sharply: those who read Scripture in public habitually conclude by saying, This is the Word of the Lord. Is it possible in good faith to do so after such texts as these:

‘Thus says the Lord of hosts…“go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and baby at the breast, ox and sheep, camel and ass”’? (1 Samuel 15)

Or, after the curse addressed to Babylon:

‘Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock’? (Psalm 137)

Christian interpreters of Scripture have addressed these barbarities in various ways. Some have denied the apparent brutality. An older Catholic Commentary sees in the instruction to massacre a severity necessary when dealing with any barbarous people. For an older Reformed commentary, the command displays the righteous anger of God against sin.

Muslim PrayerOther interpreters have seen that such texts are inconsistent with the Christian understanding of God. Marcion, an early Christian leader, offered the most radical solution. He excised from Scripture the whole of the Old Testament (as well as most of the New). He attributed texts like these to the God of justice. The New Testament is the Word of a different God: the God of goodness, the God of Jesus Christ.

Marcian’s elegant solution was rejected, but the problem of violent texts remained. Many Christians broadened their perspective. They noted that people look to the Scriptures for guidance and illumination, moving easily beyond the literal meaning or historical setting of the texts. So, Augustine compares the babies smashed against rocks to the evil desires that we should crush in their beginnings.

This approach to Scripture was helpful in enabling people to meditate on difficult texts. But if it became a general principle of interpretation, God’s involvement in the history of Israel and in Jesus Christ would be made ethereal.

More recent theologies have placed Scripture firmly within God’s relationship to the people of Israel, and later to the Church. Scripture, which gives authoritative words to that relationship, is both God’s word and a human word.

This tying of Scripture to a community allows room to deal with violent texts that appear to contradict a Christian understanding of God. If the Scriptures represent a developing relationship between God and human beings, they may move from a crude to a sophisticated understanding. We can distinguish what is central from what is peripheral, the material from the spiritual. The Lord who endorses massacres like Haditha is a God poorly understood.

Praying the BibleTo say that one representation of God is authentic, but that another is inadequate, however, we need a standing point from which we can measure and evaluate them. Christian theologians have named many of them – the core of the Scriptures, the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Church’s lived experience of faith, the best insights of the age, to name only a few. All involve a measure of subjectivity. All demand reflection, conversation and judgment.

For many people this subjectivity erodes the sense in which Scripture is God’s word. They turn back to strong doctrines of Scriptural inspiration and inerrancy, and accuse others of drinking Bible Lite.

When Christians deal with violence in texts, they are soon forced to raise the siege on others’ castles, and to defend their own. In this game, strikers may strut their stuff, but goalies are where the action is.



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Existing comments

Years ago, when I was a Sunday School teacher, I was taken aback when a young teenager remarked that the God of the Bible seemed to have become more civilised as time passed.

These days, I would probably respond by saying that the scriptures (any scriptures) simply reflected the culture in which they were written, and to the extent that they represented the best in that culture, they may provide valuable insights into how to live a worthwhile life in another culture.

But selective notions of divine inspiration of some (read 'our') scriptures and not others (read 'their') scriptures turn me off.

Warwick | 27 June 2006  

A really excellent article. Thorough going, and beautifully written.

andrew johnson | 28 June 2006  

We've all heard of the criminal defence team telling how the client heard voices telling of the justification of acts.

russell | 29 June 2006  

Points of difference between Islam and Christianity reflected in the scriptures are of topmost importance to clear the air in open dialogue for tolerant understanding.To examine the writings of the bible and compare them to the exact words of Allah as claimed in the Koran in a spirit of scholarship is the only way forward in encouraging adherents of good faith to accept what people believe.A whole series of such topics is required by scholars. Fr Hamilton's article was finely written and tightly argued but the argument was left open for more views on the future direction for Christiansand Muslims.To muddy the waters further a comparison between the lives of Jesus and Mohammed indicates that one of these holy men lived a life more in tune with aggressive behaviour.

Len Tuohy | 29 June 2006  

I hope that Andrew will take this topic further.There is such a change from the Hebrew Bile to the Christian
Bible. So what happened, for only the Hebrew Scripture was the resource for Paul and the Evangelists?

Annette | 07 July 2006  

Thanks for such clarity about the way Scripture *functions* in areas such as violence, Andy.
A couple of responses: first, to Annette - violence is an issue in both Testaments (as Marcion realised): Revelation as placed in the canon reads as the climax of the whole Bible story, and can all too easily be read as fomenting violence and violent attitudes.
Secondly, the texts about the 'herem', or 'ban of utter destruction', have become particularly dangerous in a nuclear-armed world, especially when some Israelis and some Christians cite or evoke them to justify a 'razed earth' policy towards Israeli opponents.
But thirdly, and in my opinionmost importantly, the crucifixion of Christ - the hinge in the Christian view of the canon - is portrayed (and interpreted by Paul) as the 'absorption' of all violence, even divine violence against evil, death and sin, as the costly expression of rescuing love. Which brings us back to one of the criteria Andrew cites for interpreting the Scriptures as a whole - but it sure ain't an easy path to try and live out, especially at the community / national level!

Charles Sherlock | 13 July 2006  

I like Marcion's radical solution! Finding oneself on the roster for the first reading often goes against the grain. It'a not surprising that many folk on the edge are staying away!
But I realise Marcion's solution may not be as simple as it sounds Jean

Jean Oates | 27 September 2007  

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