Jesus’ Non-violence and Roman Law

Jesus was, among other things, a true master of intentional actions.

This morning, I was putting together some notes for a Church History class I will be teaching this fall.  I was researching Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount:

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. [Matthew 5:41]

At first glance, this is a wonderful image of being humble and serving other people, which it is.  But there is also an intentional edge to what Jesus challenged his believers to do.

You see, there was a Roman law called lex angeria which allowed a soldier to compel a civilian to carry his pack for one milion – 1,520 paces.  This is known as a Roman mile.  But the soldier was required to take the pack again at the end of the mile.  He would be subject to punishment if he tried to make the civilian carry the pack further.

By telling his followers to walk beyond the mile, he was actually challenging the Roman authority.  Jesus, in his brilliant non-violence, found a way to show up the Roman system.

Under the threat of Roman force, we might be required to walk a mile.  So, by love we should walk two.

When following Jesus’ command here, the Christian would force the Roman soldier to acknowledge that Jesus’ teachings were more compassionate, loving and humble than the Roman system.  Jesus’ followers were more submitted to him than to Roman law, more willing to do for him what few would do for Caesar.

It is beautifully simple; and yet how could it be denied?

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4 thoughts on “Jesus’ Non-violence and Roman Law

  1. I have searched for, but not found, a reference to authenticate your statement about lex angeria in this post. Could you please offer a citation for this information? Thanks so much!

    • That’s because I spelled it wrong. The word is angaria, and it means “carrying beast”. The name lex angaria is probably anachronistic. The earliest reference to the practice as angaria is from the 4th century.

      Generally, it was called servitus coacta.

      See Alexander Mansfield Burrill’s law dictionary from 1859.

  2. Hi Erick, Could you please give more specific reference, like volume page etc. Thanks for you blog. I am just wondering about the authenticity of your statement of soldiers getting punished if they go extra mile.

    • It has been quite a while since I wrote this, so it would take me a bit of time to find it again. It was one of the sources Stephen Mitchell cited in Requisitioned Transport in the Roman Empire: “A New Inscription from Pisidia,”
      The Journal of Roman Studies
      Vol. 66 (1976): 106-131.

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