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Don't Turn the Other Cheek: Misconceptions About the Sermon on the Mount

Douglas focuses on Spiritual Counselling. He has degrees in Psychology, Science and Humanities (and perhaps will add a PhD in the future).

Turning the Other Cheek

The traditional English translation of Matthew 5:39 (as appearing in the King James Variant) is a tortured piece of prose that has, as a consequence, proven difficult to interpret - and it is shown below.

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The standardized original text - in Koine Greek is as follows:

... ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε 'ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα σου στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην.

An alternate might be worth considering - perhaps one that provides a grounded philosophical commentary to the following effect:

Well, I reckon all of you accept that toil, pain and grief - but anyone you beat and strike into a treaty, assurance or pledge will dislocate your jaw-bone ... and more.

So, what we have there is a maxim of sorts - particularly well understood by those who have served in the military - that outlines there are no real winners in armed conflict and those that are beaten into agreements can never be trusted, while otherwise initially 'calling out' the listeners as supporters of the 'an eye for an eye' approach (mentioned in the preceding portion of the speech).

"Sermon on the Mount" by Cosimo Rosselli (1439 – 1507)

"Sermon on the Mount" by Cosimo Rosselli (1439 – 1507)

Modern Advances in Biblical Translation

Something that many people do not understand is that modern scholarship concerning ancient languages has improved dramatically of the last century. One of the reasons that has occurred is the increasing academic access to materials and free of dogmatic shackles. In the past, for example, those with dissenting points of view risked being burned at the stake (or a similar fate). Even today - in certain circumstances - it might be that threats are whispered about funding cuts or job loss, but the negative potential consequences have categorically changed in the modern era.

Consequently, textual analysis in theological studies has advanced significantly. It has moved well beyond being restricted to navel-gazing eisegesis masquerading as exegesis - and may even include genuinely considering alternative reading against traditional interpretations.

To use an example from Matthew (5:39), in the past, the term λέγω may have been translated as "I say" (we now know it to be the 3rd most likely [and 2nd least likely] definition) - when, according to 21st Century scholarship, "I put in order", "I arrange", "I gather", "I choose", "I count" and "I reckon" is considered more likely to be apt when the term is used. Similarly, πονηρῷ is an adjective - not a noun that may be interpreted as "evil" - that has various meanings, including "oppressed by toils", "toilsome", "painful", "grievous", "useless", "injurious", "knavish", "worthless", "base" and "cowardly".

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A portion of a 6th Century mosaic depicting the Sermon on the Mount.

A portion of a 6th Century mosaic depicting the Sermon on the Mount.

What is the Punch-line?

Given that 'set-up', it seems likely that the material might go on to suggest that - instead of complying with intent of agitators to go to war - it could be better to decline the request and leave it to them to do their own dirty work or slink away like the cowards they really are.

Let us see.

Here is the Ancient Greek text of Matthew (5:40-41)

... καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο.

An alternative reading of that seems consistent with the grounded philosophical commentary in the preceding 'new' interpretation, thus:

... and therefore, determine to hand over your coats of mail - and free yourself in the same manner. Even throw your mantles - and whoever seeks to press you into service - a mile ... and thereafter, you, yourself, withdraw two miles".

In other words, "Separate yourself from unnecessary conflict as much as possible".

For those with a keen eye to linguistics, the use of the term μίλιον may be of more than passing interest - it is a term for a Roman military 'mile' (1000 paces). It was not the standard term used for distances in the region of Judea 2000 years ago - which was otherwise στάδιον (μίλιον was a reference used by the Roman military and Imperial officials). The use of that term may be an indication of the audience being addressed - and a reminder that texts should be read in context (rather than mistakenly believing that cherry-picking phrases for general application is apt).

That preceding observation aside, the alternate readings seems sensible enough - possibly a bit better than the King James Variant:

"... and if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain".

So, in short, when it comes to readings of the "New Testament", what does it mean to accept that the text reads "turn the other cheek"? It could be, "you have agreed to being misled by 17th Century translators who were either ignorant or mischievous". The answer to, "Where to from there?" is another matter - some do the same as many who have not even read it ... they try to do the best in every emerging moment for themselves and others.

"Sermon on the Mount" by Carl Bloch (1834 – 1890)

"Sermon on the Mount" by Carl Bloch (1834 – 1890)

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