Revised: 3 May 2017
“….the Shoot from on high will visit us,
appearing to those in darkness,
and those dwelling in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)
First-century Jews faced an inherent contradiction that challenged the core of their identity. On the one hand, they believed themselves to be in a covenant relationship with the Sovereign of the Universe whose reign was absolute and whose Torah ought, therefore, to be obeyed. On the other hand, first-century Jews had to contend with the reality of Roman imperialism: the fact that a foreign power held sway over every aspect of their lives. Despite their conviction that their God was omnipotent, the might of Rome often seemed more evident, and certainly more present, in their daily lives. The contradiction first-century Jews faced was between faith and empiricism; a conflict every bit as real as that which is so often perceived between religion and science today.
In the face of these contradictions, some first-century Jews sought to release the tension either through total surrender on the one extreme, or by radical resistance on the other. The first alternative is exemplified by Tiberias Julius Alexander. Despite belonging to one of the most prominent Jewish families of Alexandria in Egypt, Tiberias Julius Alexander totally assimilated to the Roman way of life. Not only did he renounce his Judaism (Jos., Ant. 20:100), but as a Roman general, Tiberius Alexander took a leading role in the of the siege of Jerusalem that ended in the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. (Jos., Bel. 5:45-46; 6:237). For Tiberias Julias Alexander there was no internal contradiction at the core of his identity because he had turned his back on his heritage and pledged his sole allegiance to the awful might of Rome.
The opposite alternative, radical resistance, expressed itself both in the self-segregation of the Qumran covenanters from sinful society, and in the popular, though doomed, insurgent uprisings against the empire led by self-appointed prophets of militant Jewish nationalism. What both expressions of radical resistance shared in common was a retreat from reality into fantasy. The Qumran covenanters believed that if they kept themselves pure from the sins of the world God would intervene on their behalf. Passively enduring the humiliations of imperial rule, the Qumran covenanters dreamed apocalyptic visions of revenge upon their enemies. The radical militants, by contrast, were not content to patiently await the appointed time of redemption. The militant Jewish nationalists were convinced that an armed insurrection would provoke an eschatological crisis, forcing God to finally full the prophecies of liberation in response to their own reckless action.
A Middle Way
Many, perhaps most, first-century Jews, however, chose to pursue a middle path between the extremes of assimilation and fanaticism. They attempted to negotiate some kind of balance that allowed them to remain faithful to their ancestral religion while also remaining alive within the Roman empire.
One of the modes by which this middle way expressed itself was through “liberal” interpretations of Scripture by diaspora Jews that accommodated the reality of living as a minority in an alien culture. An example of this accommodating exegesis was the interpretation of the commandment “You must not curse God” (Exod. 22:27) as “You must not disrespect the gods [of the Gentiles].” Such an approach to this commandment allowed first-century Jews to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors that Israel’s God did not enjoin contempt for other religions. It also provided cover for moderate Jews against the the more fanatical and intolerant members of their own community.
Among Jews living in the land of Israel, two famous examples of accommodation to the reality of Roman imperialism were the payment of taxes to Caesar and the offering of sacrifice in the Temple on Caesar’s behalf. Whereas the radical nationalists decried these actions as a betrayal of Israel and its ancestral religion (“Israel has no king but God!”), the moderates were willing to justify these accommodations as necessary for the survival of Israel and the continuation of the divine service in Temple. The moderates pointed out that since neither the payment of tribute nor the offering of sacrifice on behalf of a Gentile was actually prohibited by Scripture, it must be permissible, especially given the political duress under which the people and the Temple operated. But in the eyes of the fanatics such compromises discredited the sanctity of the Temple and delegitimized the standing of the moderates as full members of the people of God.
No Way to Escape
It is important to recognize that the extreme as well as the moderate options were natural and inevitable responses to Roman imperialism. Each approach was a self-aware attempt to deal with the oppressive reality of being ruled by a foreign power. It is impossible for a people who are subjected to an imperialist government not to be influenced, not to be affected, not to respond. Not one of the options was apolitical. Remaining above the fray was not an option. Even ignoring the political situation (supposing such a thing could have been possible) would have been a conscious response. How to survive under imperialist rule was pressing concern at all times because it affected everything. Anyone who hoped to address the concerns of the Jewish people had to address the fact of imperial rule head on. Failure to do so would have rendered anyone completely irrelevant. And since the historical data suggest that Jesus was not irrelevant in his own day, and since I believe he need not be irrelevant in our day either, a serious attempt must be made to understand how Jesus balanced the tension between God and empire if we want to make any sense of his message and of his life story.
Before tackling the information in the Gospels about Jesus’ approach to his people’s political situation, however, I want to introduce readers to yet one more example of Jewish accommodation to the reality of living as a politically powerless minority within the Roman empire, this one from rabbinic literature.
Because of the Ways of Peace
In rabbinic sources, we find a series of rulings and decisions pertaining to life under foreign rule that bears the tagline דַּרְכֵי שָׁלוֹם (darkhē shālōm), “the ways of peace.” The principle underlying the rulings that were made “because of the ways of peace” was that Jews ought to go out of their way—even in matters of religious practice—to avoid offending their Gentile neighbors. For example, although Jews were required to take a break from cultivating their crops during the Sabbatical year (cf. Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7), the rabbinic sages held that during the Sabbatical year Jews ought to continue helping their Gentile neighbors cultivate crops for Gentile consumption, “because of the ways of peace.” In other words, in order to keep the Gentile majority happy, the Jewish sages required the members of their community to help their non-Jewish neighbors do what they were forbidden to do themselves. The “ways of peace” applied in this situation because the sages realized that it was unreasonable to expect non-Jews to be aware of the peculiar Jewish custom of not planting crops every seventh year. It was even more unreasonable to expect Gentiles to keep track of the Sabbatical cycle even if they had been vaguely aware of the Jewish custom. Therefore, since the Gentiles would have regarded the Jews’ refusal to help them as churlish, Jews were morally obliged to help the Gentiles do what was forbidden to Jews “because of the ways of peace.”
Such bending over backwards in order to get along with the Gentile majority required a subtlety of thought that was lost on the fanatics. The rabbinic sages were able to distinguish between what is moral and what is merely Jewish. Some aspects of Judaism, they realized, are about God’s relationship to Israel, not about right and wrong as such. For Jews to ignore these aspects of Judaism would be wrong because God had commanded Israel to do them, but it would not be wrong for non-Jews to ignore them because God had not told the Gentiles to do otherwise. When it came to these Jewish-but-not-intrinsically-moral-commandments, the rabbinic sages realized that it would not only be wrong to try to force Gentiles to observe them, there was even an obligation not to make Jewish observance of these commandments an inconvenience to the Gentile majority.
Another example of accommodating Jewish custom to life under the imperial rule “because of the ways of peace,” was the decision that the leftover gleanings, the unharvested corners of the field (cf. Lev. 19:9; 23:22), and the forgotten sheaf (Deut. 24:19), which the Torah set aside for the relief of Israel’s poor, were also to be shared with poor Gentiles. A purist might have objected that allowing poor Gentiles to benefit from these protective measures took away from the poor of Israel; a fanatic might have objected that no quarter should be given to the enemy, not even to their miserable poor; but the rabbinic sages looked beyond ethnic and national enmity to see their poor Gentile neighbors as fellow human beings who, like the poor of Israel, were in need of compassionate aid. The sages also realized that refusing to help their Gentile neighbors while doling out relief to their Jewish countrymen would only cause resentment and greater tension between the two communities. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the sages also required that any alms that were collected for the poor in a town of mixed Jewish and Gentile population were to be distributed to poor Jews and Gentiles alike “because of ways of peace.”
Two further provisions “because of the ways of peace” are of interest because they stretch the demands of bending over backwards to the limit. One is the ruling that Jews were permitted to participate in Gentile funerals and to offer condolences to a bereft Gentile family. The other is the decision that on a pagan festival it was permitted to offer Gentiles greetings. These provisions are remarkable, given the hostility that could flare up between Jews and Gentiles. For the fanatics the only good Gentile was a dead Gentile. A fanatic offering condolences to Gentiles—not to mention participating in burials—would have been unimaginable: Let them rot where they lie!
In order to appreciate how far the sages were willing to stretch for the sake of peace it must be remembered that participating in a burial meant that contracting ritual impurity was inevitable. True, becoming impure was not in itself forbidden, but being in a state of ritual impurity made it impossible for Jews to participate in sacred rites. A Jew who was ritually impure could not go up to the Temple to participate in worship, neither could he eat sacred food (for example the passover lamb). Many impurities could be removed through ritual immersion in water, but the impurity generated by a human corpse was the most severe impurity of all. Corpse impurity was not transmitted only by direct touch; simply being in the same room with a corpse made an Israelite unable to enter sacred space or participate in holy rites. What is more, unlike many other impurities which lasted for only a day, the impurity imparted by a corpse lasted seven days and required a special purification ceremony. To go through all that trouble for the sake of a Gentile shows just how far the sages were willing to extend themselves for the sake of peace.
The permission to greet a Gentile on a pagan festival in some ways required even greater flexibility. The Jewish Scriptures anticipated a time when all people would turn away from their ancestral gods to worship the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, the LORD God of Israel. The Jewish Scriptures also taught that Israel had lost its political independence because of the sin of idolatry. Idolatry was one of the three most heinous sins (the others being bloodshed and sexual impropriety), which Jews were expected to avoid even upon pain of death. Whereas it was permitted to save one’s life by eating pork or desecrating the Sabbath, idolatry was a transgression of another order, being intrinsically immoral, and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, we find that the sages permitted their fellow Jews to greet Gentiles on pagan festivals so as not to offend them on what was, for the Gentiles, a happy occasion. In order not to slight them or provoke their anger, Jews were to greet Gentiles even on days when they sacrificed to idols “because of the ways of peace.”
Jesus and the Ways of Peace
I believe the rabbinic rulings “because of the ways of peace,” which we have discussed, are a useful lens through which to view a series startling commandments found in the Sermon on the Mount:
To whomever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And to whomever wants to bring you to court in order to take your inner tunic, release your outer cloak as well. With whomever commandeers you to go with him for a mile, go two. To whomever asks, give, and the one who wishes to borrow from you do not turn away. (Matt. 5:39-42)
Although it is impossible to say with certainty that “the ways of peace” already existed as a conceptual framework in the first century, there does seem to be a certain kinship between Jesus’ commandments and the rabbinic rulings “because of the ways of peace.”
In any case, Jesus’ commandments in the above passage probably pertain mainly to Jewish-Gentile relations. This is all but certain with respect to Jesus’ command to go a second mile, since the Greek terms that occur in Matthew point to the Roman occupation. The verb translated above as “commandeer” is ἀγγαρεύειν (angarevein), which means “to compel” or “to requisition.” It is a cognate of the noun ἀγγαρεία (angareia, “compulsory service”; Latin: angaria), an official term for the right of Roman officials to requisition property and labor from anyone in the provinces not protected by Roman citizenship. Jewish-Gentile relations is also the most probable context in which a tunic might be seized, since the seizure of a person’s garment was specifically forbidden by the Torah (cf. Exod. 22:26). Turning the other cheek could refer equally to Jewish-Gentile or intra-Jewish relations. One Jew slapping another certainly took place (cf. Acts 23:2), but the slapping of Jewish provincials by Roman officials can also be assumed, and may have been the more common of the two scenarios. Likewise, the command to give to whomever asks accords well with our survey of the ways of peace, according to which the Gentile as well as the Jewish poor were to be the beneficiaries of Jewish almsgiving.
The superficial similarities between Jesus’ commands in Matt. 5:39-42 and the rabbinic “ways of peace” are clear: they pertain to Jewish-Gentile relations, and they both require going out of one’s way for the sake of maintaining peaceful relations with one’s natural enemy. On a deeper level, however, there is a basic difference of orientation between the “ways of peace” as they are presented in rabbinic sources and Jesus’ commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. Whereas the rabbinic “ways of peace” are oriented toward coping with the status quo, Jesus’ commands in Matt. 5:39-42 are oriented toward active resistance against Roman imperialist oppression.
The rabbinic “ways of peace” aim for conflict avoidance; Jesus’ commands in Matt. 5:39-42 strive for conflict resolution. The rabbinic “ways of peace” could be compared to an invisibility cloak: they were an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Jesus’ commands, by contrast, might be compared to a flashing neon sign: they are designed to grab one’s attention. The reactions to oppressive measures and aggressive acts Jesus recommends in Matt. 5:39-42 are cleverly devised to invoke the natural dignity of those who are abused by a dehumanizing system and to shock the abuser into recognizing the personhood of the oppressed.
Slapping someone in the face was primarily a means of reinforcing an uneven power relationship. Persons of high social standing were at liberty to strike their social inferiors whenever they felt that an inferior had stepped out of bounds. Turning the other cheek in response to a slap in the face brought the dismissive and disdainful oppressor up short. Instead of crawling away in shame, the person who had been struck demonstrated to himself and to his oppressor that he was a human being. By turning his cheek the person who was struck actualized his own humanity and simultaneously evoked the humanity of the oppressor. Instead of reinforcing an unequal power dynamic as the aggressor had intended, the person who turned his other cheek created a moment of recognition in which both individuals stood as equals before God.
A scenario in which a person’s inner tunic might be demanded in payment of a bill that had come due or in repayment of a debt that had been called up presupposes circumstances of dire poverty. The man’s clothing was forfeit because he had no land, no money, no other valuable goods with which to make payment. To such a poor man no great credit would have been extended, so we must imagine that whatever amount he owed would have been quite small. The man’s inner tunic might well be equal in worth to the amount that was due. But taking away a man’s inner tunic was tantamount to demanding his very last penny. How can anyone hope to achieve economic self-sufficiency when he cannot even provide for the most basic needs of his own body? Of course, as far as the plaintiff was concerned, it wasn’t his problem. Anyone willing to seize the clothes off another’s back has failed to take seriously the other person’s humanity. Stripping naked was way for the defendant to shock the plaintiff into some kind of recognition of the consequences of his litigation. In that moment of extreme vulnerability the tables were turned. By publicly removing all his clothes and freely giving them to the plaintiff, the defendant exposed his true humanity and evoked a humane response from his adversary. The plaintiff, who only a moment ago was not ashamed to take away his opponent’s garment, was suddenly embarrassed to receive the clothes that keep his fellow human being safe and warm.
We have already identified the Roman angaria as the proper context for the command to walk a second mile. While in theory the purpose of the angaria was to supply the Roman military with the goods and services it required to maintain the Pax Romana, in practice the requisitioning of a person’s property and labor was an effective means of humiliating the local population and demonstrating the empire’s superior strength. It was a declaration to the defeated provincials of who was boss and how utterly futile resistance would be. By voluntarily walking a second mile with a Roman official a first-century Jew reassumed his God-given freedom, transforming himself back from a beast of burden to a human being. His subversive action also transformed the role of the Roman official from that of conqueror to fellow traveler. By freely walking a second mile the unbalanced power dynamic between Roman official and provincial subject was dissolved and a new relationship was established between equal companions on the road.
For a powerless people it is easier to take out one’s frustration on the weak and friendless than on the powerful and the well-connected. Refusing to give to a Gentile beggar might have satisfied in some small way the desire to see one’s enemy suffer. Giving to a Gentile beggar not only actualized a Jew’s humanity by drawing on his well of compassion for a fellow sufferer, it evoked the humanity of the beggar, restoring to him a small measure of his human worth.
Each of Jesus’ commandments in Matt. 5:39-42 challenged Roman imperialism by confronting inhumanity with a humane response. Jesus undermined injustice without tearing down human beings. Jesus struck at the evil root that made imperialism possible. This was a response to the political oppression of the people of Israel unlike any of those we discussed above. Jesus’ response is founded on the hope that lives at the core of transformational love, whereas the other options, from assimilation to fanaticism, were counsels of despair.
Jesus’ response captured the idealism of the Qumran covenanters, but renounced their hate. Jesus’ response matched the initiative of the militants, but abhorred their violence. Jesus recognized the humanity even of the Romans, but he did not ape their behavior. Jesus embraced the wisdom of the sages, but he directed their wisdom toward redemptive ends. By teaching his followers to be fully and authentically human—even under inhumane circumstances, even toward their enemies—Jesus unlocked the divine.
לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם־בְּרוּחִי אָמַר יי צְבָאוֹת
“Not by might and not by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD of Hosts. (Zech. 4:6)
It would be unfair to rabbinic sages and their enactments “because of the ways of peace” were I to fail to point out that the sources in which these enactments are discussed were created in the aftermath of two disastrous revolts against the Roman empire that ended in crushing defeats for the Jews of Palestine. Their experience of the ravages of war must have colored their vision of what the ways of peace could achieve. I suspect that Jesus’ instructions in Matt. 5:39-42 are an early manifestation of the ways of peace from a time prior to the revolts when there was still hope that catastrophe could be averted.
 On Tiberias Julius Alexander, see Daniel R. Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and his Times,” in The Cambridge Companion to Philo (ed. Adam Kamesar; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9-31.
 For a useful overview of these groups, see Daniel R. Schwartz, “On the Jewish Background of Christianity,” in Studies in Early Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity: Text and Context (ed. Dand Jaffé; Leiden: Brill, 2010), 87-105.
 See Exod. 22:27 (LXX); Philo, Spec. Leg. 1:53; Vit. Mos. 2:203-208; Josephus, Ant. 4:207; Apion 2:237. This “liberal” interpretation was possible because in Hebrew the word for God, אֱלֹהִים (’elohim), takes a plural form. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, אֱלֹהִים was rendered θεούς (theous, “gods”) in Exod. 22:27. Philo knew the Jewish Scriptures only in Greek translation, Josephus on the other hand, would have known the Hebrew text, but he adopted this interpretation anyway when explaining Judaism to a non-Jewish audience. On Exod. 22:27 (LXX), see Pieter W. van der Horst, “‘Thou Shalt not Revile the Gods’: The LXX Translation of Ex. 22:28 (27), Its Background and Influence,” Studia Philonica Annual 5 (1993): 1-8.
 “They strengthen the hands of the Gentiles [i.e., assist them] in the Sabbatical year…because of the ways of peace,” (m. Shev. 4:3; 5:9).
 “They do not prevent the hands of poor Gentiles from gleaning, or from the forgotten sheaf, or from the unharvested corners of the field because of the ways of peace,” (m. Git. 5:8).
 “In a city where there are Israelites and Gentiles…they maintain the poor of the Gentiles with the poor of Israel because of the ways of peace,” (t. Git. 3:13).
 “They lament and bury the dead of the Gentiles because of the ways of peace. They comfort the mourners of the Gentiles because of the ways of peace,” (t. Git. 3:14).
 “They greet Gentiles on their festivals because of the ways of peace,” (t. Avod. Zar. 1:3). As a Gentile living in Jerusalem in 2005-2007, I was deeply touched to be wished a Merry Christmas by my Jewish landlords Shmuel and Nurit.
 For a brief introduction to the concept of ritual impurity in Judaism, see Joshua N. Tilton, “A Goy’s Guide to Ritual Purity.”
 On the Greek verb ἀγγαρεύειν (angarevein, “to compel”) in Matt. 5:41, see See Edwin Hatch, Essays in Biblical Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1889). On Roman requisitioning, see Menahem Stern, “The Province of Judea,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (ed. Shmuel Safai and Menahem Stern; 2 vols.; CRINT I.1-2; Amsterdam: Van Gorcum; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 1:308-376, esp. 334-335; Jonathan P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C.-A.D. 235) (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 110-111, 141-148.
 On face slapping as a privilege of the upper classes toward social inferiors, see John Granger Cook, “Matthew 5.39 and 26.67: Slapping Another’s Cheek in Ancient Mediterranean Culture,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014): 68-89.