How do Christians — past and present — interpret 'You shall not murder'?


When are we as Christians allowed to fight back and protect our civilization?


George wonders whether Christians should work in police departments, whose conduct is much in the news, as well as the armed forces or other security vocations that  involve use of violence and possible  injury or death.

The Religion Guy previously addressed various religions’ views of military service in this post. But it’s a perennial and important topic worth another look, this time limited to Christianity. [Thus the following leaves aside the pressing problem of Islam's growing faction that applies religiously motivated terrorism against the innocent, fellow Muslims included.]

The Christian discussion involves especially two Bible passages. In the Ten Commandments, God proclaims, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:17).  Or so say the familiar Douay, King James, and Revised Standard versions. However, most recent Christian translations instead follow the same word choice as the Jewish Publication Society editions of 1917 and 1985: “You shall not murder.”

Hebrew scholars tell us the verb here refers specifically to illegitimate taking of life, that is “murder,” as distinct from various other types of “killing.”

Conservative Judaism’s commentary explains that throughout Scripture the verb in the commandments “is never used in the administration of justice or for killing in war” that may be justifiable. Richard Elliott Friedman of the University of California, San Diego, lists situations where other verbs are used: “manslaughter, killing through negligence, killing in war, execution for crimes, killing animals, animals killing humans, and human sacrifice,” plus deadly mistakes treated in Deuteronomy 4:41-42. (Friedman notes the vigorous debate over whether “killing” in abortion and assisted suicide is the equivalent of biblical “murder.”)

The late Canadian Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” for Judaism’s liberal Reform branch. This work said correct understanding of the Hebrew means “those supporting pacifism or the abolition of capital punishment cannot justifiably base themselves on this word, but must look to other reasons.”

Clear enough. But did Jesus Christ reinterpret this teaching? That brings us to the second scriptural passage, Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, often seen as patterned after God’s giving of the Old Testament law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

This challenging section raises major interpretive questions. Old Testament law functioned when Jews had their own government, whereas the New Testament speaks to Jews and Gentiles utterly lacking in political power. Do Jesus’ words apply only to personal relationships or, as advocates of non-violence and pacifism believe, require that Christians always refuse to bear arms?

As with the Old Testament translations, modern New Testaments have Jesus quote the commandment as “you shall not murder” instead of “kill” in Matthew 5:21-22. Non-pacifists figure Jesus would have followed Old Testament acceptance of certain killings as morally justified since he didn’t overturn this concept.

Continue reading, "How do Christians -- past and present -- interpret 'Thou shall not kill'?" by Richard Ostling.

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