Some hard sayings of Jesus: amputation

Leading up to and following the overthrow of Greco-Roman paganism by Christian monotheism, Greek-speaking Christian elites gradually transformed Jesus’ original apocalyptic message (i.e. the gospel of God’s impending and annexation judgement of the nations) into a religion that could sustain the now politically dominant church for centuries to come. Through this process, the New Testament was made to transcend, and in fact, shed its imminent eschatological outlook. Such an outlook proved to be far too stifling in the new world, greatly constricting the appeal and application of the faith.

Since then Christians have looked for, and indeed found, timeless moral and philosophical insight within the New Testament texts. No longer a political manifesto concerning God’s capture of the pagan nations in history for the sake of his people, the New Testament became the story of humanity’s spiritual and cosmic redemption. This new New Testament had something to say not just to first century Jews awaiting the arrival of the messianic kingdom and God’s righteous justice in an idolatrous world, it had something to say to all people in all times.

Some particularly stubborn texts, however, especially those among the sayings of the Synoptic Jesus, have sought to escape this new and artificial habitat. Such sayings are held hostage only by the bonds and fetters of strange and fragile interpretive strategies.

And so, in the next few posts I will endeavor to set these prisoners free.

Amputation: Cutting off limbs for heaven’s sake

In a Markan saying,¹ Jesus recommends the excision of certain body parts for the sake of one’s life. Jesus predicates this extreme prescription upon his apocalyptic vision: God will soon cast sinners into the life-destroying fire of Gehenna (cf. Matthew 3:12, 10:28, Jeremiah 7).

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (Mark 9:43-48)

While virtually all Christians banish this saying to the realm of hyperbole and metaphor, Jesus’ amputation-prone attitude extends beyond these verses and beyond the physical body. He proposes, for instance, the excommunication of unrepentant sinners from the church (Matthew 18:17), the abandonment of (unbelieving) family members (Mark 10:28-30, cf. 1:20, 3:32-35), the total renunciation of possessions (Mark 10:21, Luke 14:33), and even the mutilation of one’s genitalia (Matthew 19:12),² all for the sake of the coming kingdom.

Surely these social-type amputations were not merely intended as hyperbole and metaphor. They betray, rather, a fearful intolerance of sin and sinners among God’s people, brought to bear by the rapid closing of time: “the kingdom is at hand, repent and believe.”

bosch cutting the stone

Granted then that Jesus believed fiery judgement was about to rain upon Israel and the world, he may have also felt that radical measures and precautions were in order. Since amputation was sometimes ordained as punishment for crimes in Moses’ Law (Deuteronomy 25:11-12, Exodus 21:23-25, cf. Ezekiel 23:25; 34), it is conceivable that Jesus urged his followers to afflict themselves with righteous wounds before God came in wrath; to save their lives by punishing their bodies and crippling their capacity for sin. Such would correspond well with Jesus’ extremism in regards to sin exhibited elsewhere (cf. Matthew 5:21-48, Mark 9:42). Just as ancient Israel once “purged the evil” from among the people through capital punishment (cf. Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7, etc.), and thus staved off the destruction and exile of the entire community, so too did Jesus recommend the amputation of limbs for the sake of the whole person.

In the end though, regardless of Jesus’ true intentions in Mark 9:43-48, our squeamishness regarding amputation for the sake of sin-management probably originates with us, not with Jesus. In those last days, Jesus announced that salvation required the faith to do the impossible, perhaps even voluntary amputation.

 

1—Matthew redacts these verses in 18:8-9 but also supplies his own unique (though almost-identical) version of the saying in 5:29-30. Unlike the argument from embarrassment, the argument from multiple independent attestation probably fails.

2—It is possible that Jesus’ instruction to remove one’s hand, foot, and eye in Mark 9:43-48 has primarily sexual connotations. The “hand” could allude to the Jewish prohibition against masturbation (cf. Mishnah Niddah 2.1, Babylonian Talmud Niddah 13a-b), the “foot” to male genitalia (cf. Isaiah 7:20, Judges 3:24, etc.), and the “eye” to the erotic gaze (cf. Matthew 5:29).

4 thoughts on “Some hard sayings of Jesus: amputation

  1. Hmmmm… I’m not sure I’m convinced.

    Firstly, if we are going to read consistently in the sense that you advocate we need to ensure that we include verses 27 and 28.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…”

    … which is then followed by the verse in question. This would imply, then, that Christ’s expectation is that those who merely sin in their heart and not even in external action are necessarily required to remove their limbs, appendages, ocular implements, and so on.

    Unless you wish to posit that Christ was spiritualised in the fashion you suggest above within the first generation of disciples, I’m not sure how you can make such a claim as there seems to be no suggestion within any of the Pauline epistles, for instance, of physical self harm for the sake of holiness. What’s even more telling is the fact that Christ never expects people to do such a thing in any of the Gospel accounts in his actions particularly towards sinners. On the other hand we see plenty of examples of individuals undergoing the social amputation which you describe, indicating to me that certainly was a clear expectation; it is perhaps through the lens of these that we make sense of the more extreme command.

    So if there is a Spiritualising going on, it’s happening well before Constantine, even going so far as to occur during the first generation of disciples. But if this spiritualising is happening then, then the Gospels themselves are subject to the same criticism as the Gospels are written by the same generation of believers who are undergoing this very same spiritualising process… which is ultimately self defeating because that would imply that this pericope would be “spiritual”, no? Unless you wish to say that this is some authentic, un-modified kernel from the spiritualising process, which I’m not sure how you could substantiate.

    Thinking on Christianity’s early history with self-mutilation, the earliest incident I can think of where self-mutilation is mentioned is in propagandist accounts against Origen who supposedly self-castrated. As my language suggests, this is narrative appears to be in doubt as it is likely written polemically against him (I might be wrong in these claims here about it being the earliest mention and it being polemical).

    If this is correct, however, the rarity of such incidents, particularly before Constantine, seems to indicate bring your hypothesis into doubt even more so. There is something more subtle and complicated than the spiritualising vs historicising narrative, methinks.

    I could say more – for instance, one has to frame the all of the commands of the sermon on the mount with Christ’s proclamation in vs 17 – 20, where he effectively sets out to proclaim a new Torah which culminates in “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    Likewise, I think there is certainly a surface commonality between the commands to amputate and maim as a means to legally punish offenders in the Torah and between this incident, but in my mind it fails to be appropriately analogised on a few levels. At best, I would say, it borrows from a common language and historical/theological legacy, but it does not result

    Firstly, and unless I’ve misremembered, the punishments in the Torah are always in the case of offending against another person and are executed upon the person by the external community. This section of the sermon on the mount seems to ask for the person who offends against themselves (by sin) to execute judgement upon themselves. This is incredibly odd, to my mind, as Christ consistently places judgement in the hands of God or in the hands of the community of his followers throughout the gospels and in many cases repudiates certain incidences of physical punishment as prescribed by both OT Torah and his new, heightened Torah (the woman caught in adultery comes to mind). How would you deal with, for instance, the many adulteresses/prostitutes that come Christ’s way? At no point does he suggest that they remove their sexual organs.

    Secondly, and I think more importantly is, is the fact that Christ goes on to heighten the very lex talionis principle which you’re appealing to, soon thereafter in this same chapter, in a direct quotation of the OT scriptures (rather than in a mere allusion to particular punishments).

    “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

    It seems more likely to me that Christ is using the language/symbolic worldview of the OT scriptures in both cases, but in the first case he is merely borrowing the language to say something entirely new using familiar language, but in the second case is directly dialoguing with and heightening the expectation of that same law such that there is not meant to be an application of this equal-retribution principle for community judgement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write all this! These are good thoughts and I have to say I am not exactly convinced either (like usual), but thought this would be an interesting and provoking angle on a verse we tend to automatically metaphorize.

      Here’s my attempt to press your insight and questions further.

      1. Stepping back from the specific story about Christ, have other prophets who believed the world was ending and/or about to be dramatically judged recommended self-harming measures among their followers? I don’t know the answer, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did, especially those prophets who prized rejection of the world, body, and pleasure. Do we find anything similar in the Biblical prophets?

      2. I think a weak case could be made that Paul exhibits self-mutilating tendencies for the sake of holiness. Paul, of course, proudly carries in his body the marks of Jesus (cf. Galatians 6:17) which we might compare and contrast with the bodily “mutilation” urged by the circumcision faction (cf. Galatians 5:12). Even if the marks of Jesus on Paul are merely the result of persecution or miracle, Paul accepts these wounds as the path of life. Paul also claims that he “beats into submission” (ὑπωπιάζω) his body so that he won’t be disqualified from his ministry (on account of sin?) (1 Cor 9:27).

      3. I’m not sure the “spiritualization” of the gospel story is really the main motivator here. I think our reluctance to consider the amputation angle in Mark 9 has more to do with our modern embarrassment over self-harm and the unflinching extremism of the proposition. More moral compromise than spirtualization.

      4. “How would you deal with, for instance, the many adulteresses/prostitutes that come Christ’s way? At no point does he suggest that they remove their sexual organs.”

      In my view Jesus ate with sinners who were now repentant. As people repentant of their sexual sin, castration was not necessary. Amputation only makes sense if there is no other way to stop sinning.

      5. I bring up the lex talionis only to suggest that bodily harm for the sake of holiness would not have been a foreign idea to Jesus. If we imagine the Jewish people as a single body, the use of capital punishment was itself a kind of self-amputation; “you will purge the evildoer from among you.” (cf. 1 Cor 5:5).

      I’ve failed to address some of your arguments only because I need to think further on them (or don’t have any good answer). It’s all helpful so thanks.

      Like

  2. Oh, and I hope you’re well, by the way! I realise I didn’t respond to your FB message, but I did read it. I didn’t respond because I’m a lazy, horrible person.

    Liked by 1 person

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