In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says these familiar words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mtt 5:38-39)
Honor and Shame in the New Testament
We normally associate these verses with pacifism but there is a little more to it than that. These verses were spoken in a culture where honor and shame were culturally significant. deSilva explains it this way,
Honor refers to the public acknowledgment of a person’s worth, granted on the basis of how full that individual embodies qualities and behaviors valued by the group. First-century Mediterranean people were oriented from early childhood to seek honor and avoid disgrace, meaning that they would be sensitive to public recognition or reproach. (Dictionary of New Testament Background, 518-522).
A slap in the face was viewed as degrading and was an effort to lower someone’s status as they were publicly shamed.
What does this have to do with the right cheek and then the left cheek? For the answer we have to turn to the Mishnah, which is a collection of legal regulations from 3rd century AD rabbinic Judaism. We have to be a little careful here as the Mishnah was written 200+ years after the New Testament. Yet it can provide some clues that illuminate what we find in the New Testament.
In the Mishnah penalties and compensation are prescribed that are due as punishments for various infractions. There was a difference in slapping someone with the back of the hand versus the palm of the hand. When Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek,” he is talking about a slap with the back of the hand as most people are right-handed. The Mishnah lays out compensation for those who experience such a shaming action. A slap with the palm of the hand carried a penalty twice as much as a slap with the back of the hand (Mishnah, B. Ḳ. viii. 6). Why would it contain a higher fine? Because to be struck on the right cheek, with the back of the hand, would be more degrading and shameful than to be struck on the left cheek with the palm of the hand. In effect, Jesus is saying, if someone degrades or shames you greatly by a backhanded slap on the right cheek, turn your left cheek to him and see if he is willing to say you are closer to his equal than the initial slap indicated. Of course, this also would inflict more compensatory damage to the one doing the slapping.
This verse does not say as much about pacifism as it has to say about the culture of honor and shame that they lived in. They heard these words totally different than we hear them today.