The Phrase "Turn The Other Cheek" Does Not Mean What You May Think It Means


The popular connotation of the phrase "Turn the other cheek" is that if someone strikes you, you should not resist or defend yourself; but, allow the attacker to do it again, as it were.

Some people have used this interpretation to mean that those who are "Christian" are, or should be, total pacifists. Others would cite that the Crusades, for example, fly in the face of this interpretation. But, that is not the subject of this writing.

However, abject pacifism is by no means what this phrase meant in Biblical days.

One passage in the Bible from which this phrase comes is:

- From Matthew 5:39, "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

Such Biblical phrases should always be put in the context of when they were written joined with the mores of that day.

The peoples of whom the Bible was written were Jews for the most part. From a nationality standpoint Jews, as well as Arabs, were and are semitic. But, who actually are Semitic peoples?

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica we find this:

"Semite: Person speaking one of a group of related languages, presumably derived from a common language, Semitic (see Semitic languages). The term came to include Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, some Ethiopians, and Aramaean tribes including Hebrews. Semitic tribes migrated from the Arabian Peninsula, beginning c. 2500 bc, to the Mediterranean coast, Mesopotamia, and the Nile River delta. In Phoenicia, they became seafarers. In Mesopotamia, they blended with the civilization of Sumer. The Hebrews settled at last with other Semites in Palestine."

The term "unclean" is a prominent feature of semitic cultures; things like swine, dogs, etc., are all considered "unclean". Also, the use of one's left hand was "reserved" for doing things considered "unclean".

Further, most people then and now are right-handed.

These two items are important to understand the mores of Biblical times relative to the phrase being discussed.

Consider: Being that a person is right-handed, to strike someone on the right cheek would mean that the person doing the striking would have to "backhand" the person being hit. We've all heard the term "backhanded compliment" - it means an insult. Thus it was with the "striking on the right cheek" - the connotation was "insult" not physical assault. Striking someone with one's left hand was culturally not done; remember, the left hand is reserved for doing "unclean" things.

The phrase "Turn the other cheek" in those days meant that one should ignore the insulting party and refrain from "responding in kind" - NOT that one should not defend themselves from physical attack.

If one believes that Jesus was always truthful, it is reasonable to assume that He was also consistent in His message. Therefore, the following should amplify that the phrase "Turn the other cheek" DID NOT mean to refuse to defend oneself.

In the Bible, Luke writes about Jesus being accused of casting out demons via the power of the devil. Jesus replies that, in fact, His power to cast out demons comes from the power of God:

...20 "But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 "When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed . 22 "But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder. 23 "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters."

Other biblical translations of Luke 11:21 -

“When a strong man who is fully equipped for battle guards his own house, his possessions are secure."

"When the strong man, fully armed, guards his own dwelling, his goods are safe."

"When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed ."

So, it seems that Jesus would have been a strong supporter of our Constitution's 2nd Amendment.

Or, did I miss something here?

Yes, Jesus was using the "fully armed" as an analogy for being "armed" with the power of God behind you. But, I feel that He would have used a different analogy were He trying to be consistent with the "Turn the other cheek" phrase as it is NOW widely connoted.

Remember, context is everything relative to "understanding".

Take 2 phrases we've all heard: "That guy is cool" - this, obviously, does NOT mean the person was of a lower temperature than normal. "That dude is bad!" - depending on one's inflection, this phrase has polar opposite meanings.

Now, project yourself 2,000 years in the future. Reading those 2 phrases THEN, how would someone interpret them?

Further, take the word "gay". In the early to mid part of the 20th century the word meant "fun loving", etc. By the end of the century it came to mean homosexual. A person 2,000 years from now seeing the sentence "He is gay." would have to know in what span of about 40 years the sentence was written. "Context" is everything.