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The Early Christian Attitude to War

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Page 184, cont.


The Jewish War of 67-71 A.D. was itself the fulfillment of certain apocalyptic prophecies which Jesus was believed to have uttered, and as such it got separated off from the general body of Messianic wars (which were regarded in the main as yet to come) and invited the formation of a special judgment concerning itself. The Gospel of Mark, as we have seen, represented Jesus as announcing the devastation of Judaea, the siege and capture of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple, in connection with the "wars and rumours of wars," the rising of nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom, which formed part of the "birth-pangs" that were to usher in the coming of the Son of Man.(1) The unanimous verdict of Christians who wrote after 70 A.D. was that the disastrous war culminating in the fall of Jerusalem that year--in which, it will be remembered, the Christians had refused to take a part(2)--was a divinely ordained









1. Mk xiii (see above, pp. 35, 179).


2. See above, pp. 98 f.


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punishment inflicted on the Jewish nation for its sin in rejecting and crucifying Christ.

Luke and Matthew, in their versions of the apocalyptic discourses and other sayings of Jesus, represent the matter pretty clearly in this light. 'Barnabas' says that the Temple of the Jews was destroyed because they went to war with their enemies.(3) A Christian interpolation in the Sibulline Oracles represents the destruction of the Temple as a punishment for the murders and ungodliness of which the Jews were guilty.(4) The Gospel of Peter pictures the Jews, immediately after the burial of Jesus, as "knowing what evil they had done to themselves" and lamenting and saying: "Woe (to us) for our sins: for the judgment and the end of Jerusalem has drawn nigh."(5) Justinus tells Truphon the Jew:


If ye were defeated in war and cast out, ye suffered these things justly, as all the Scriptures testify.(6) . . . And that the sons of Japheth came upon you by the judgment of God and took away from you your land and possessed it, is apparent.(7)

The Christians of Celsus' time said "that the Jews having punished Jesus . . . drew upon themselves wrath from God."(8) Theophilos mentions God's threat to the Israelites that they should be delivered into subjection to all the kingdoms of the earth, if they did not repent, and adds: "And that this has already happened to them is manifest."(9) Tertullianus tells the Romans that Judaea would never have been beneath their sway, "but for their culminating sin against





3. Barn xvi. 4.


4. Sibulline Oracles iv. 115-118, 125-127.



5. Robinson and James, p. 22.


6. Just Dial 110 (732): the prophecies are quoted in I Ap xlvii.

7. Just Dial 139 (796).


8. Orig Cels iv. 22.


9. Theoph iii. 11.


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Christ"(10); and in the course of his argument against the Markionites, he bids them


recollect that end of theirs, which they (i.e. the Jews) were predicted as about to bring (on themselves) after (the time of) Christ, for the impiety wherewith they both despised and slew him . . . (many prophecies quoted). Likewise also the conditional threat of the sword: 'If ye refuse and hear me not, the sword shall devour you,' has proved that it was Christ, for not hearing whom they have perished,

and more to the same effect.(11) Hippolutos has several allusions to the matter for instance, in his Commentary on Daniel he says:


The Lord having come to them and not being acknowledged by them, they were scattered throughout the whole world, having been cast out of their own land; and having been defeated by their enemies, they were thrust out of the city of Jerusalem, having become a source of hostile rejoicing to all the nations.(12)  

The main burden of the surviving fragment of Hippolutos' 'Demonstration against the Jews' is the awful sufferings they had drawn on themselves from God in return for their treatment of Christ.(13) Minucius Felix makes Octavius say to his pagan interlocutor about the Jews:


For their own wickedness they deserved this (mis)fortune, and nothing happened (to them) but what was previously foretold for them if they should continue in (their) contumacy. So thou wilt understand that they forsook before they were forsaken, and that they were not, as thou impiously sayest, 

10. Tert Apol 26 fin (ii. 432).







11. Tert Marc iii. 23 (ii. 353 f), cf Jud 13.






12. Hipp Dan IV lviii. 3. In De Antichristo 30, he quotes Isaiah's prophecies about the desolation of Jerusalem as being now fulfilled, and mentions the martyrdom of Isaiah and the crucifixion of Christ in connection with them.

13. ANCL ixb. 41, 43-45: cf Kruger 331 f.

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captured with their God, but were given up by God as deserters from (His) discipline.(14)  

In the Pseudo-Cyprianic 'De Pascha Computus' it is said that the Temple at Jerusalem, "with the state itself, was again in the time of Vespasianus destroyed (exterminatum) by our Lord himself on account of the unbelief of the Jews."(15)

Origenes says repeatedly in the course of his reply to Celsus and elsewhere that the calamities which had overtaken the Jewish nation were a punishment for their sins in general and for their treatment of Christ in particular. I select three passages for translation.


One of the (things) which prove that Jesus was something divine and sacred is the fact that (calamities of) such greatness and such quality have on his account befallen the Jews now for a long time. And we say boldly that they (the Jews) will not be restored. For they committed a crime the most unhallowed of all, (in) plotting against the Saviour of the race of men in the city where they offered to God the appointed symbols of great mysteries. It was needful, therefore, that that city, where Jesus suffered these things, should be altogether destroyed, and that the race of Jews should be overthrown, and that God's invitation to happiness should be transferred to others, 



If the Jews, then, after treating Jesus in the way they dared, were destroyed with (all their) youth, and had their city burned, they did not suffer this as the result of any other wrath than that which they had stored up for themselves, God's judgment against them having been passed by God's appointment,  (and) being named wrath according to a certain ancestral custom of (the)


14. Minuc xxxiii. 4.



15. Ps-Cypr Pasch 15.














16. Orig Cels iv. 22.


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The city, in which the people of the Jews asked that Jesus should be crucified, saying: 'Crucify, crucify him'--for they preferred that the robber who had been cast into prison for sedition and murder should be released, but that Jesus, who had been handed over through envy, should be crucified--after no long time was attacked, and was besieged for a long time in such a sort that it was overthrown from the foundations and laid waste, God judging those who inhabited that place unworthy of civic life (tes koinoteras zoes). And--though it seems a strange thing to say (ina paradoxos eipo) -- (when God) handed them over to the(ir) enemies, (He was) sparing them, for He saw (kai oron) that they were incurable so far as (any) change for the better was concerned and that they were daily increasing in the(ir) outpour of evil. And this happened because by their design the blood of Jesus was shed upon their land, which was (consequently) no longer able to bear those who had dared (to commit) such a crime against Jesus.(18)  

It is interesting to notice that Origenes says elsewhere that we must guard against interpreting scriptural references to the wrath of God and His punishment of offenders in a literal or materialistic way: we must seek, he says, for the spiritual meaning, that our feelings and thoughts about Him may be worthy.(19) He explains on another occasion that God's wrath is not a human passion, but a stern disciplinary measure, and though He may make use of the wicked in His administration of the world, the wicked are no less censurable for that.(20)


17. Orig Cels iv. 73.













18. Orig Cels viii. 42. Cf also op cit i. 47, ii. 8, 13 fin, 34, 78, iv. 32, v. 43, vii. 26, viii. 47, 69, Orat xxxi. 7.



19. Orig Princ II iv. 4.



20. Orig Cels iv. 70 (see below, pp. 215 f), 72.

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martyr Pionios at Smyrna (250 A.D.) speaks of "the whole Judaean land . . . testifying up to the present day the wrath of God which came upon it on account of the sins which its inhabitants committed, killing (and) expelling foreigners (and) acting violently."(21) The Pseudo-Cyprianic treatise, 'Quod Idola Dii non sint,' speaks in a general way of the calamities that had overtaken the Jews on account of their sins and in particular their rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.(22) Another Pseudo-Cyprianic work, 'Adversus Judaeos,' says: "Christ, being repudiated by the people, sent (them) the tyrant they wished for, who overthrew their cities and condemned their population to captivity and took plunder and reduced their country to the desolation of Sodom," depicts the exile, misery, and beggary of Israel, and adds: "This is the punishment in Israel('s case) and the situation in Jerusalem."(23)

The Didaskalia says:


Our Lord and Saviour, when he came, . . . taught the things that save, and destroyed the things that are of no advantage, and abolished the things that do not save, not only (by) teaching (the truth) himself, but also (by) working through the Romans(24); and he put down the Temple, causing the altar to cease (to be), and destroying the sacrifices and destroying all the bonds which had been enjoined in the ceremonial law.(25)

Lactantius mentions that it had been foretold


that after a short time God would send a king, who should conquer the Jews and level their cities with the ground and besiege them (till they were) consumed with hunger and thirst; that then they




21. M Pionii iv. 18 (Gebhardt 99).


22. Ps-Cypr Quod Idola 10, cf 12 f.




23. Ps-Cypr Jud 6-8.




24. per Romanos operans; a variant reading gives inspirans for operans (cf Harnack C ii. 496 n 2).



25. Didask VI xix. 1.


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should feed on the bodies of their own (people) and consume one another; lastly that they should come (as) captives into the enemies' hands and should see their wives bitterly maltreated in their very sight, (their) maidens violated and prostituted, their sons torn in pieces, their little ones dashed (to the ground), everything finally laid waste with fire and sword, the captives banished for ever from their lands--because they had exulted over the most loving and most approved Son of God. 

After quoting this prophecy, Lactantius adds: "And so, after their death" (i.e. Peter's and Paul's), "when Nero had slain them, Vespasianus destroyed the name and nation of the Jews, and did everything that they had foretold would happen."(26) Eusebios says that the Hebrew Prophets foretold


the unbelief and contradiction which the race of Jews would display towards him (Christ) and the things done by them to him and the calamities which immediately and not long after came upon them for this -- I mean the last siege of their royal metropolis and the entire destruction of the(ir) kingdom and their dispersion throughout all the nations and their enslavement to the(ir) enemies and foes, 

etc.(27) Finally, we read in the 'Dialogus de Recta Fidei': "At last, after Christ stretched his hands over Jerusalem, that people, who did not believe him, was overthrown together with the temple itself and the city; and anyone who by chance survived was exiled from his country and led away as a captive."(28)










26. Lact Inst IV xxi: the prophecy was contained in the so-called 'Preaching of Peter and Paul,' which may be as early as the first decade or so of the second century (see Kruger 61 f).





27. Eus PE 8d, 9a.



28. Adamant i. 11.

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The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., while from the point of view of the Gospels at least it partook of the nature of an apocalyptic event, was perhaps even more accurately regarded as an instance of the divine use of war as a chastisement or punishment for human sin.(29) Besides the allusions, just quoted, to the special exemplification of this principle in the case of Jerusalem, we come across several allusions to the general theory.

Clemens of Rome speaks of God as the champion and defender (upermachos kai uperaspistes) of those who serve Him, and quotes the Isaianic threat: "If ye are unwilling and will not hear me, the sword shall devour you."(30) Theophilos quotes with tacit approval a Sibulline oracle, in which God is said to raise up against the wicked wrath and war and pestilence and other woes.(31) Eirenaios, referring apparently to the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, says that the posterity of cursed Ham was mown down by God,(32) and, referring to the parable of the King's marriage-feast, says of God:


He requites most fairly according to (their) desert(s those who are) ungrateful and do not realize His kindness: He repays with entire justice: and accordingly it says: 'Sending His armies, He destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.' Now it says 'His armies,' because all men are God's.(33)  

Tertullianus assumes the idea of war being a chastisement sent by the Creator as a doctrine common to himself and the




29. Dr. Forsyth makes great use of this argument, in his Christian Ethic of War (10, 30 f, 40, 87 f, 138, etc.).



30. 1 Clem xlv. 7, viii. 4.


31. Theoph ii. 36.


32. Eiren Demonstr 20 (11).




33. Eiren IV xxxvi. 6 (ii. 282 f)--Eirenaios goes on to quote Rom xiii. 1b-6, about the magistrate's sword, an aspect of the case which we shall deal with later. Cf Eiren frag 44 (ii. 509) (Balaam deservedly slain).

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Markionites, and presses in opposition to them the saying that Christ had come to send a sword(34): he refers to a number of incidents in early Hebrew history in which those who had offended against God were punished with slaughter, and concludes:


And thus, throughout almost all the annals of the judges and of the kings who succeeded them, the strength of the surrounding nations being preserved, He meted out wrath to Israel by war and captivity and a foreign yoke, as often as they turned aside from Him, especially to idolatry.(35)

Origenes says that Jesus "had no need of the use of whips and bonds and torture against men in the fashion of the former dispensation."(36) Cyprianus, in answer to the pagan complaint that the frequency of wars, famines, plagues, droughts, etc., was due to the Christians, urges that "those (calamities) happen, not because your gods are not worshipped by us, but because God is not worshipped by you."(37) When, early in the fourth century, the persecuting colleagues and successors of Diocletianus were overthrown in war by Licinius and Constantinus, the Christians regarded the defeat of the former as a divine chastisement for the sufferings they had inflicted on the Church.(38)

It perhaps hardly needs to be pointed out that a belief in the use of war for the divine chastisement of the Jews and of others who have been guilty of great offences, whatever theological problems it may raise, certainly does not involve the believer in the view that

34. Tert Marc i. 24 (ii. 275) (nec fulminibus tantum, aut bellis, et pestibus, aliisque plagis Creatoris, sed et scorpiis ejus objectus-- speaking of the Markionite's flesh), iv. 29 (ii. 435).





35. Tert Scorp 3 (ii. 129).


36. Orig Cels iv. 9.



37. Cypr Demetr 2, 5.


38. Lact Inst I i. 15, VII xxvi. 13 f, Mort Pers lii. 3; Eus HE IX xi. 9, X i. 1, 7, etc., Vit Const i. 3, etc.


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it is right or permissible for him to take a part in inflicting such penalties. While Christians agreed that the fall of Jerusalem and its accompanying calamities were a divine chastisement, no one thought of inferring from that that the Roman army was blameless or virtuous in the bloodthirsty and savage cruelty it displayed in the siege.

And in regard to the more general view of war as a divine chastisement, if it could be inferred from the fact of its being so that a Christian might lawfully help to inflict it, it would follow that he might also under certain conditions help to cause and spread a plague or to inflict persecution on his fellow-Christians--for both plagues and persecutions were regarded as divine chastisements just as war was. The obvious absurdity of this conclusion ought to be enough to convince us that the Christian idea of war being used by God to punish sin certainly does not mean that the Christian may take part in it with an easy conscience: on the contrary, the analogy of pestilence, famine, persecution, etc., which are often coupled with war, strongly suggests that participation in it could not possibly be a Christian duty. And there can be no doubt that the vast majority of early Christians acted in conformity with that view, whether or not they theorized philosophically about it.

At the same time, just as to-day a superficial view prompts some people to leap at conclusions in this matter which their premises do not justify, so probably in those days there were some who allowed their conduct and thought to be unduly swayed by the fact that there were sundry departments of their minds in which war could be thought of without reproach.


A total rejection of war could not follow--for this reason, that God himself,
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according to the view of the earliest Christians, brings about and conducts wars. He has done it in earlier times through Joshua and David; He has done it in the present through the overthrow of the Jewish people and the destruction of Jerusalem; and He will do it in the future through the returning Christ. How therefore can one reject wars in every sense and universally, when God Himself provokes and leads them? Apparently there exist necessary and righteous wars! and such a war will be the war at the end of the day. If that is certain--even supposing it was forbidden to the Christian to go on service--the attitude towards war could no longer be an unbroken one. . . . Thus, apocalyptic, 

and, we may add, the Old Testament, and the Christian philosophy of history generally, each


contributed in its (own) measure to the (result) that the Christians did not shut themselves off altogether against war.(39)




















39. Harnack MC 11 f.