Knife Control

Charlton Heston never played Jesus in a film, to the best of my knowledge, but he famously was Moses and also played John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told. I so much wanted to hear him say, “You can have this sword when you pry it from my Cold. Dead. Hands!”

Deacon Michael D. Harmon



Christopher Johnson, a non-Catholic who has taken up the cudgels so frequently for the Church that I have named him Defender of the Faith, takes a verbal axe at Midwest Conservative Journal to the latest bizarre explanation of why Christ was condemned by Pilate:

Premise: a Christian event that happened over 2,000 years ago has been pondered, studied and debated from the moment it occurred until the present day and general agreement about the significance of that event has been reached.  You, on the other hand, with the able assistance of “Christian scholarship,” have come up with a Radically New InterpretationTM of the meaning of that event:

Jesus may have been crucified because his followers were carrying weapons, according to a scholarly analysis of New Testament books.

Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies at Yale University, says that this aspect of stories about Jesus, as told in the gospels, has received too little attention, but could alone explain Jesus’s execution and also show that the man from Nazareth was not the pacifist he’s usually made out to be.

The biblical books of Mark and Luke both state that at least one (and probably two or more) of Jesus’s followers was carrying a sword when Jesus was arrested shortly after the Last Supper, at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. One disciple, Simon Peter, even used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those arresting Jesus, according to the Gospel of John.

This militant behavior almost certainly wouldn’t have been tolerated by the Romans, led by the prefect Pontius Pilate, Martin tells Newsweek. For example, historical documents show that it was illegal at the time to walk about armed in Rome and in some other Roman cities. Although no legal records survive from Jerusalem, it stands to reason, based on a knowledge of Roman history, that the region’s rulers would have frowned upon the carrying of swords, and especially wouldn’t have tolerated an armed band of Jews roaming the city during Passover, an often turbulent festival, Martin says.

“Just as you could be arrested in Rome for even having a dagger, if Jesus’s followers were armed, that would be reason enough to crucify him,” says Martin, whose analysis was published this month in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

Conclusion: you’re not only wrong but you’re dumber than a bag of hammers.

Paula Fredriksen, a historian of ancient Christianity at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says Martin’s paper has several holes “that you could drive trucks through.”

For one, she doesn’t think it’s legitimate to assume that since carrying arms was illegal in the city of Rome, the same laws necessarily applied in Jerusalem. Control of the city wasn’t too tight, she argues, and the Roman prefect visited only during Passover, to help keep the peace. And during this time it probably would’ve been impossible to police the thousands of Jews that spilled into Jerusalem.

“I can’t even imagine what a mess it was,” she says.

Furthermore, she says, the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife. And these could be easily concealed, she adds. “Only professionals,” like soldiers, “carried swords,” she says.

While we’re on the subject of weapons, people didn’t carry staffs back then only because they needed help navigating the terrain.  Staffs also offered [limited] protection against wild animals.  Or wild people, whatever the case may have been.

Dear Newsweek or the Daily Beast or the Daily Tina Brown’s Ego or whatever you’re calling yourselves this week.  Stop writing about the Christian religion.  Just stop.  You people have no idea how stupid you’re making yourselves look.

Go here to read the comments.  I laughed all the way through this.  The thesis Christopher is critiquing is a typical example of taking 21rst century liberal obsessions and seeing the past through that distorting prism.  No, the Romans did not attempt to impose knife control.  The concept would have struck them as not only silly but impossible to enforce.  Virtually all free men had daggers and many had swords for self defense.  The only place in the Roman empire where any restrictions against weapons were routinely imposed was inside the Pomerium in Rome, the original boundary of the city of Rome, later extended by Sulla, which covered only a portion of that vast metropolis.  Weapons were forbidden there for religious reasons.  Suggestion:  Before propounding a crazy new theory about the past, actually gain a grasp of the relevant history first.

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  1. “Jesus may have been crucified because his followers were carrying weapons…”
    – Dumbo’s synopsis.

    If true, then it wouldn’t be a far reach to assume that St. Peter would of been hauled off or possibly executed for lopping off the centurions ear. Hello?

    The reinventing of history is one of the liberals favorite toys. They just can’t help it. They wish to cast doubt and dissuade the public to achieve their goals. Sick little puppies.

  2. Referring to Pontius Pilate as a “Prefect” does not exactly inspire confidence in an historian. Prefect is a military title; Pilate was an Imperial Procurator. That is why St Paul, as a Roman citizen had to be sent to the governor of Syria, a magistrate of the Roman People, typically a proconsul or propraetor.

    Of course, everyone carried knives. The Romans regarded tearing ones food with one’s teeth as, literally, bestial; everything, even bread or fruit had to be cut into bite-size pieces, before popping it into the mouth. “Minuere,” from which our words minutes and seconds derive, originally referred to slicing bread or cake (second is an ellipsis for “secundum minutum” or second slicing or cutting up of the hour).

    On the language point, μάχαιρα can mean a sword or a dirk – the short stabbing broadsword of ancient infantry, channelled and double-edged. The blade was typically a foot or 18″ long. It definitely refers to a weapon.

  3. MPS, Wikipedia, that totally true and never wrong source of information, lists a number of types of Roman prefects, including both military and civil roles:

    • Praefectus praetorio: the Praetorian prefect began as the military commander of a general’s guard company in the field, then grew in importance as the Praetorian Guard became a potential kingmaker during the Empire. From the Emperor Diocletian’s tetrarchy (c. 300) they became the administrators of the four Praetorian prefectures, the government level above the (newly created) dioceses and (multiplied) provinces.
    • Praefectus Augustalis, the title of the governor of Egypt, indicating that he governed in the personal name of the august emperor.
    • Praefectus urbi, or praefectus urbanus: city prefect, in charge of the administration of Rome.
    • Praefectus vigilum: commander of the Vigiles.
    • Praefectus aerarii: nobles appointed guardians of the state treasury.
    • Praefectus aerarii militaris: prefect of the military treasury
    • Praefectus annonae: official charged with the supervision of the grain supply to the city of Rome.
    • Praefectus alae: commander of a cavalry unit.
    • Praefectus castrorum: camp commandant.
    • Praefectus cohortis: commander of a cohort (constituent unit of a legion, or analogous unit).
    • Praefectus classis: fleet commander.
    • Praefectus equitatus: cavalry commander.
    • Praefectus equitum: cavalry commander.
    • Praefectus fabrum: officer in charge of fabri, i.e. well-trained engineers and artisans
    • Praefectus legionis: equestrian legionary commander
    • Praefectus legionis agens vice legati: equestrian acting legionary commander.
    • Praefectus orae maritimae: official in charge with the control and defense of an important sector of sea coast
    • Praefectus socium (sociorum): Roman officer appointed to a command function in an ala sociorum (unit recruited among the socii, Italic peoples of a privileged status within the empire).
    • Praefectus Laetorum (Germanic auxiliary troop, notably in Gaul)
    • Praefectus Sarmatarum gentilium (auxiliary troop from the steppes, notably in Italy)

    In reference to Pontius Pilate, the infallible Wikipedia states:
    “The title used by the governors of the region varied over the period of the New Testament. When Samaria, Judea proper and Idumea were first amalgamated into the Roman Judaea Province (which some modern historians spell Iudaea), from AD 6 to the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 66, officials of the Equestrian order (the lower rank of governors) governed. They held the Roman title of prefect until Herod Agrippa I was named King of the Jews in 41 by Claudius. After Herod Agrippa’s death in 44, when Iudaea reverted to direct Roman rule, the governor held the title procurator. When applied to governors, this term procurator, otherwise used for financial officers, connotes no difference in rank or function from the title known as “prefect”. Contemporary archaeological finds and documents such as the Pilate Inscription from Caesarea attest to the governor’s more accurate official title only for the years 6 through 41: prefect. The logical conclusion is that texts that identify Pilate as procurator are more likely following Tacitus or are unaware of the pre-44 practice…The procurators’ and prefects’ primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes”

  4. The Pilate stone discovered in 1961 settled the fact that Pilate’s title was prefect:

    In practical terms when ruling a province prefects and procurators in the time of Pilate had precisely the same powers. After 44 AD the prefects of Judaea were known as procurators after the death of Herod Agrippa and the imposition of direct Roman rule. If it is confusing to us, I suspect it was confusing also to the Jews who probably used both titles.

  5. I agree Don. The Gospel writers at the time were undoubtedly not fans of Roman governance nor legal connoisseurs, so they just ran with the title in use at the time of composition.

  6. Goodness, I thought I’d have to rethink my knowledge of Roman history– I was pretty sure it wasn’t possible to ban knives, sometimes that’s the only thing folks ate with, and I was going to have to try to find the sources that I’d read that said everyone had swords when traveling, because you’d get robbed if you didn’t. The Good Samaritan story wasn’t outlandish in its setup.

  7. TomD
    The lictors were the equivalent of macers. They carried the fasces, an axe tied up in a bundle of rods before magistrates possessing imperium. It was the symbol of his authority to beat and behead Roman citizens. The king had been preceded by 12 lictors and, when the Republic was established, Brutus ordered that the two consuls should be preceded by 12 lictors on alternate days, so that the citizens should not be overawed by more lictors than under the kings. The fasces were lowered before assemblies of the Roman People, as the magistrates’ powers were suspended in their presence.
    The axe was not borne within the pomerium; the reason is disputed. Some say it is a reference to the Valerian-Hortensian laws that gave a right of appeal to the people (provocation) in capital cases.

  8. The original Pomerium was the furrow ploughed by Romulus, when laying out his new city. The plough was lifted to indicate the sites of the three gates. According to Livy, Remus jumped over the furrow in derision and Romulus slew him for this act of sacrilege.
    It was repeatedly extended, both in Republican and Imperial times
    Magistrates could take the auspices only within the pomerium and these preceded assemblies of the people and certain other official acts.
    According to Mommsen’s theory, the ban on weapons in certain sacred sites was part of a wider ban on iron objects. The Flamen Dialis, the priest of Juppiter, was forbidden to touch iron and sacrificial knives were always of stone or bronze.

  9. According to Mommsen’s theory, the ban on weapons in certain sacred sites was part of a wider ban on iron objects. The Flamen Dialis, the priest of Juppiter, was forbidden to touch iron and sacrificial knives were always of stone or bronze.

    Sounds like an origin for the “cold iron” being nasty for fae thing. Cool.

  10. It’s all about fame and money. Revisionist history and controversial theories unsupported by facts are written by authors who hope for 15 minutes of fame and maybe a book deal or a speaking tour. Editors include such articles hoping to sell more issues of their magazines and newspapers and boost their declining readership.

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