In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus overrides the Old Testament teaching of 'an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth' - the Lex Talionis law - and commands his disciples to turn the other cheek. James Davis asks how Jesus' teaching in this instance relates to the Old Testament talionic commands, how it relates to New Testament era Judaism and what Jesus required from his disciples and the church. Based on Old Testament texts such as Leviticus 24, Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 19, a strong case can be made that the Lex Talionis law was understood to have a literal application. The text of Leviticus 24 provides the strongest case for a literal and judicial application. However, by the second century AD and later, Jewish rabbinic leadership was essentially unified and the Old Testament did not require a literal talion, but that financial penalties could be substituted in court matters. Yet there is evidence from Philo, Rabbi Eliezer and Josephus that in the first century AD the application of literal talion in judicial matters was a major and viable Jewish viewpoint at the time of Jesus.
Jesus' instruction represents a different perspective from the Old Testament Lex Talionis texts and auguably from the Judaism of his time. Jesus commands the general principle of non retaliation against the evil person and intended this teaching to be concretely applied, as borne out in his own life. This is volume 281 of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement series.
James Davis is on the senior faculty at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, Amman, Jordan teaching New Testament studies. He worked as a Bible translator/editor for the Holman Christian Standard Bible and served as an adjunct faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary.