Capital Punishment and Turning the Other Cheek

Two Historical Examples of Translational Imprecision
and their Resulting Controversy

(   Austin TX February 2005)

It is of curious interest (and proof-positive that Murphey rules...) to note that among the few Biblical concepts which seem to have made their way into general public consciousness, and which have steadfastly remained there, (for better or for worse...) are the ones which have usually been misunderstood and grossly misappropriated over the centuries - due many times to translational imprecision. Of course, this has caused all manner of unnecessary and confusing controversy. For example...

-------------- Murder vs Killing: --------------

Consider the following very-well-known translation of Exodus 20:13 (from the famous Ten Commandments) presented in both the [Catholic] Douay-Rheims Version (Published AD 1610) and the [Protestant] King James Version (published AD 1611):

These two versions are cited here because, relative to the argument presented in this narrative, it may clearly be inferred that they have had a profound impact on Biblical thinking and understanding among the English-speaking public over the last four centuries (!) particularly as it applies to the moral implications underlying the concepts of murder and killing. (And be aware, of course, that this issue is certainly NOT unique to English translations of the Bible!)

Exodus 20:13
According to both the King James and
the Douay-Rheims Versions:

"Thou shalt not kill."

By contrast...
Many later translations of the Bible (given the distinct advantage of centuries of semantic hind-sight and linguistic research) tend to be more precise in their rendering of the verb in question as "murder."  viz.,

New International Version (NIV)

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Amplified Bible (AMP)

English Standard Version (ESV)

New World Translation (NWT)

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

Young's Literal Translation (YLT)

TANAKH, Jewish Publication Society (JPS)


Hopefully, the reader can discern, even without further discussion, a clear and very important difference in meaning between these renderings. And it should be pointed out emphatically, that lexicographers of Biblical Hebrew routinely confirm that the latter, more granular rendition of the Hebrew verb in question (רצח) is absolutely preferred and intended as "murder."  [ By way of further confirmation of this matter, it may be pointed out here that the Greek Septuagint translators (over 2000 years ago) understood the subtleties of this verse as well in that they too translated the Hebrew verb in question with the corresponding Greek verb for murder: ( foneuw ) ]

Thus, as can be seen here, due to early imprecise translation of the verb in question as "kill," many have, over the centuries, boldly (and incorrectly) espoused the notion that killing a human being (or in extreme cases, killing any living thing!) is categorically (and biblically) wrong. Such is not the case however, for the following simple reason:

If this view is to be taken, then one must deal with the glaring inconsistency which results when one reads the clear Biblical injunction that murderers themselves (for disobeying the very law being discussed) are to be put to death. (Numbers 35:16-21)

Therefore, the more precise translation indicated above puts a totally different light on this matter and makes it clear to the reader that it is murder which is categorically (and biblically) wrong, AND, according to divine mandate, must be punished by execution (i.e., [sanctioned] killing) under duly appointed civil authority. This, by the way, is why such authority "bears the sword" - by divine decree - according to the apostle Paul. (Romans 13:1-4; cf, Exodus 21:12,14)

[ Regarding this sensitive subject, it is necessary to bear in mind that civil authority, duly appointed and not-so-duly-appointed, may (and often does) pervert justice. AND it may (and often does) effect miscarriages of justice by simple human error. This does NOT negate the Bible's clear stand on this matter. Perversion of justice and judical error (like murder, corruption and accidents) are human "choice" problems - NOT biblical problems...

And to keep such judicial problems to a minimum...
God's ancient reminder to Israel (and, by extension, to the world at large) regarding the appointment of unbiased and fair judges (and the duty of such judges) is stated at Deuteronomy 16:18,19   "Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous." NIV ]

In view of the above, it becomes clear that if one is a staunch and passionate opposer of capital punishment, then such one must understand that the rationale for this position is his own, and cannot accurately be founded upon the misconstrued "scriptural" injunction, "Thou shalt not kill."

-------------- Slapping vs Striking: --------------

The biblical concept of "turning the other cheek" has also been significantly affected by translational imprecision. Thus, many people attempting to live by Christian mandate have incorrectly (and dangerously!) felt that they were obliged to allow violent aggressors to have free rein in brutalizing them or their loved-ones because they [the victims] are commanded to "turn the other cheek" to those who "strike" (or "smite" KJV ) them, e.g.,

Matthew 5:39

"...If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (NIV)

The more precise translation of the Greek verb in question as slap instead of "strike" removes the confusion. (The verb in question is  "rapizw"   referring to a "hand slap" [to the face] which is intended to embarrass or provoke, but not to harm)

Thus, one may "strike" (or "smite") another with anything from a wet noodle (silly) to a lead pipe, (likely fatal) however, the greek word used here clearly means a mere "slap" as just described. Thus, by "turning the other cheek," a Christian is simply demonstrating self-control under provocation, in a situation which, very likely, is NOT life-threatening. He is NOT, as some imagine, giving free rein to unchecked mayhem to be committed upon himself or his loved-ones.

Interestingly, among modern Greeks, the word under consideration carries the same precise meaning today that it did 2000 years ago. We may thereby assume that Greeks have not had nearly the interpretive difficulty with "turning the other cheek" as the rest of the world has! (in theory...)