Matthew 5:29-30,  pluck it out and cut it off

1. Parallel passages

Mark 9:43-48

43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire,  44‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’  45If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame, rather than having your two feet to be cast into Gehenna, into the fire that will never be quenched—  46‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’  47If your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out. It is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire,  48‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

(Mark 9:43-48 WEB)

Mark’s version of Jesus’ saying is a coherent sub-section of a wider dialogue; the full passage, its interpretation, and its context, are considered in more detail in the notes on Mark 9:36-50. It’s overall theme is the gravity of leading others astray. 

The main differences may be summarised as follows:

Matthew 18:8-9

Matt 18:8-9 reads:

8If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into the eternal fire.  9If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire.”

(Matt 18:8-9 WEB)

Matthew 5:29-30 has much in common this passage, although several features make Matt 18:8-9 a closer parallel to Mark 9:43-48 than to Matt 5:29-30:

In the Sermon on the Mount the whole body is cast into Gehenna, but in Matt 18:8-9 it is both hands, both feet and the body that are cast in. 

Whilst there are clear differences, there are still some textual links, for nearby can be found teaching that is closely related to the first antithesis (Matt 18:15-19, cf. Matt 5:22) and also additional teaching on adultery (Matt 19:3-12). This suggests that both Matthew and Mark are recording the same instance, but that it is one in which Jesus modifies and re-deploys rhetoric that has already used in the Sermon on the Mount. 

2. Provenance

With its sub-text so clearly suited to the circumstances of Jesus’ ministry, and  inter-textual allusion to deviation from the way of righteousness, there seem good grounds to suggest that this saying originated both within a setting such as Matthew’s Gospel describes, and as part of the longer discourse in which it is now found. The passage’s multiple attestation, not simply between gospels, but also within Matthew, provides further support for the view that this is an original saying of Jesus. Vermes (2004, 429), who treats Matt 5:27-30 as a single saying, nevertheless considers these verses a genuine hyperbolic interpretation of the type typical of Jesus, especially as its teaching stresses the need to sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.

3. Gouging out the right eye

The general symbolic significance of the eye within the Hebrew Bible is explored in the background notes on the eye. Suffice it to say that the eye was seen as an active organ, not only acting as a source of truth revealing illumination, but also a source of judgement and compassion. However, the picture of gouging out of an eye carries its own message and, within 1st century Judaism, the gouging out of the right eye particularly so.

The immediate context of Jesus’ statement is provided by the blinding of prisoners of war, a well-attested practice in the ancient near-east (Freeman 1972, 185). The idea being that such maiming rendering the individual unable to fight, so putting any further resistance out of the question. Examples include:

Jesus’ audience must have been familiar with this practice of mutilation, if only through the various references to it in the Hebrew Bible.  

There are several biblical examples of rulers forcibly imposing their authority upon rebels by blinding them. For example, when the Philistines sought to subjugate Sampson, they not only cut off his hair, rendering him as weak as any other man, but also put out his eyes (Judg 16:21). Similarly, when Nebuchadnezzar subjugated Zedekiah, he blinded his captive (2 Kgs 25:7; Jer 39:7, 52:11). Other, less obvious references are also to be found. In Josh 23:13 Joshua has just encouraged the people to hold firm to their faith in God, with the warning that otherwise the nations of Cannan will become like the slavedrivers whip or the thorns used to blind eyes. In Ps 69:23, where “Let their eyes be darkened, so that they can’t see” is paralleled with “Let their backs be continually bent” (Ps 69:23 WEB), i.e. blinding is related to enforced servitude. The same association, but in inverted form, is found in Ps 146: “The Lord frees the prisoners. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord raises up those who are bowed down” (Ps 146:7-8 WEB). The assumed inability of the blind to fight also provides the sting behind the Jebusites taunt, that the lame and the blind would keep David out of Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:6).

The Lord acted in a culturally relevant way for a ruler when the Syrians came down against Elisha, striking them blind so that they had to accept the prophet’s authority (2 Kngs 6:18). Jesus would later do a similar thing to accomplish the conversion of Saul (Acts 9:4-8) and to affirm Paul’s authority in his subsequent confrontation with Elymas (Acts 13:11). In all these cases, however, the blindness was temporary.

The Exodus account demonstrates how blinding of rebels was once a commonplace way for a ruler to deal with challenges to his authority, for, when Dathan and Abiram rebel against Moses, they query if he is seeking to make himself a prince over them (Num 16:12-13) and ask “will you put out the eyes of these men?” (Num 16:14 WEB). In Rabbinic tradition, when the earth swallowed Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num 16:28-32), they descended bodily into Gehenna (m. B. Bat. 74a), thus suggesting a link between this passage and Jesus’ suggestion that descent into Gehenna is the alternative to accepting maiming (Matt 5:29).

The Hebrew Bible’s particular reference to the gouging out of the right eye comes in an incident where Nahash the Ammonite encamped against Jabesh Gilead. The beleaguered city sought to save their skins by entering into a covenant to serve Nahash, but Nahash, keen to undermine Israel’s military reputation, insisted that they accept the putting out of their right eyes, just as if he had captured them in battle. This prompted them to appeal to the king of Israel for help (1 Sam 11:1-2). Such removal of a single eye may have been a familiar practice, for it impairs a warriors spatial judgement, rendering him less effective as an adversary, yet it still leaves him able to carry out menial work.

Speaking of how Nahash treated the Jews, east of the Jordan and prior to moving against Gibeah, Josephus provides the following observations, which underline how Jesus’ contemporaries understood that passage:

(60) He also reduced their cities into slavery, and that not only by subduing them for the present, which he did by force and violence, but by weakening them by subtilty and cunning that they might not be able afterward to get clear of the slavery they were under to him: for he put out the right eyes of those that either delivered themselves to him upon terms, or were taken by him in war; (70) and this he did, that when their left eyes were covered by their shields, they might be wholly useless in war”

(Ant. 6.69–71, Whiston)

4. Cutting off the right hand

The general symbolic significance of the right and left hands within the Hebrew Bible and first-century Palestine is explored in the background notes on the right and left hand, the right hand being particularly associated with power and asserting authority, the left with security and covering over. Once again, however, this appears to be a reference to the practice of prisoner mutilation that, whilst it carried a clear inference within Jesus’ culture, is less easily understood today.

Cutting off of both hands was used as a fitting punishment for theft (Josephus, Life 177), but Jesus is not addressing theft at this point and there is another context that better fits the general theme of adultery, especially spiritual adultery. It comes from the quashing of rebellion. The practice of cutting off the hands of rebels is found as early as the Laws of Hammurabi, where §195 specifies cutting off the hands as the punishment for a son who beat his father (COS 2.131.348). Although severe amputation was probably uncommon (Adamson 1990, 318), the mutilation of prisoners of war by amputation of their hands or feet continued to be well attested in the ancient near-east.  An example is found in the inscription of Asshur-izirpal already cited above in connection with mutilation of the eye. Again, such mutilation was intended to leave the prisoner incapacitated, but still capable of menial work as a slave.

The Hebrew Bible contains several references to the general practice of prisoner mutilation, e.g. when king Adoni-bezek had his thumbs and big toes cut off, to treat him as he had treated captive kings (Judg 1:5–7), or when the prophet Ezekiel warns that the Assyrians cut of the nose and ears (Ezek 23:25). But the Hebrew Bible’s earliest reference to the cutting off of a hand is in Deut 25:11, where it is used to punish a woman who rescued here husband by grasping the private parts of his opponent. Some comments upon this incident, by the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, take us closer to the practice of cutting off a hand as Jesus would have known it, for the philosopher felt it was the sheer audacity involved in this woman’s act that justified such an amputation (Spec. laws 3 147)

The Hebrew Bible contains another, and more subtle reference to cutting off of hands. It is found in Judg 8:5-6, where, in response to Gideon’s plea for food to sustain his pursuit of Zebah and Zalmunna, the princes of Succoth said, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?”’ (Judg 8:6 WEB). This appears to be a reference to the ancient practice of using severed hands as evidence of the number of warriors killed. The same practice is alluded to in the account of the battle of Megiddo (15th C. B.C.E.) found in The Annals of Thutmose III, where the scribe lists the plunder carried off as “hands, prisoners of war, horses, gold and silver chariots and pla[in ones]” (COS 2.2A:11, Hoffmeire)

Roman rule in Judea also brought its own significance to any talk of severing of a hand, for the Roman military were also inclined to amputate hands as a punishment for rebellion. A couple of general examples illustrate the Roman’s use of the practice:

“that his clemency was notorious, and had no fear that any measures which he might be forced to adopt would be misunderstood. He determined, therefore, to inflict upon the garrison a punishment so appalling that all malcontents should in future remain quiet. He would not put his prisoners to death, because, if he did, their fate, though it might be talked of for a time, would soon be forgotten. They were to remain as a living warning to intending rebels. He ordered their hands to be cut off, and sent them forth to exist as they best might.”

(Holmes 1899, 192-3)

From somewhat closer to both the temporal and geographical contexts of the Sermon comes Josephus’ autobiographical account of how he, with twenty men, faced down a large and treacherous Galilean mob. Josephus (37-c100 C.E.), having secured his house, used a pretext to invite a representative of the mob to come. He then had the Galilean whipped, cut off one of his hands, and sent him out. Seeing this, the crowd concluded that Josephus had sufficient men with him to impose a similar punishment on all of them, and so they disbursed (Josephus, Life. 145-8). On another occasion Josephus, in a bid for the support of Justus, reminded Justus how the Galileans had cut off the hands of Justus’ brother, because he had been accused of being a rogue (Josephus, Life. 177). Josephus also describes how, at the siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., captive rebel’s hands were severed, before Titus then released them back into the city so that their report might undermine certain false rumours of even worse Roman brutality (Josephus, Wars. 5.455). Romans were still using the threat of a severed hand to crush rebellion long after the birth of the Church, for Constantinus (272-337 C.E.) ordered Eusebius, Bishop of Samosata (died c. 379 C.E.) to relinquish a document, under threat of loosing his right hand should he refused (TheodoretEcclesiastical History 2.28)

Mark 9:43-48, by failing to qualify which hand and eye, looses the power of inter-textual allusion found in the Sermon on the Mount. However, that passage provides further evidence that Jesus was talking about rebellion, for it thrice quotes from the last words of Isaiah, “where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched ” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48 WEB). Consider, however, the context of these words in Isaiah, They shall go forth, and look on the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring to all flesh” (Isa 66:24 WEB). The prophet originally uses them to describe the fate of those who rebel against God, so their emphatic use in Mark 9:43-48 strongly suggests that both this teaching was addressed to rebels. By implication, the same might be said of its parallel in the Sermon on the Mount . 

5. Causing you to stumble

In Matt 5:29-30, the word generally translated “fall,” “stumble,” “offend,” or “sin” is σκανδαλίζωr (skandalizo). France (1985, 121-2) notes that this word is only ever used metaphorically within the New Testament. The related word σκάνδαλον (skandalon) is frequently encountered in the Septuagint, but σκανδαλίζωr (skandalizo) is far less common, occurring three times in the wisdom teaching of Sirach and once in the Psalms of Solomon.

Perhaps the most notable occurrence of σκανδαλίζωr (skandalizo) in the Septuagint is in Sir 9:5-6, where it occurs in the context of sexual sin and juxtaposed with a warning that harlotry can lead to loss of your inheritance: “Gaze not on a maid, that thou fall not by those things that are precious in her. Give not thy soul unto harlots, that thou lose not thine inheritance” (Sir 9:5–6 KJV). However, it is also found in an injunction to accept God’s discipline: “Whoso feareth the Lord will receive his discipline; and they that seek him early shall find favour. He that seeketh the law shall be filled therewith: but the hypocrite will be offended thereat” (Sir 32:14–16 KJV).

The single reference to σκανδαλίζωr (skandalizo) in the Psalms of Solomon is again in the context of restraint from sexual sin (Ps Sol 16:7).

The meaning of σκάνδαλον (skandalon) illuminates the interpretation of its rarer cousin. In Ps 68:22-3 LXX (= Ps 69:22-3 in the Hebrew) it is found immediately preceding the parallelism already noted for its association with the practice of blinding those forced to serve:

22Let their table before them become a snare.
          May it become a retribution and a trap [=skandelon].  
23Let their eyes be darkened, so that they can’t see.
          Let their backs be continually bent.”

(Ps 69:22-3 WEB)

In the LXX, σκάνδαλον is consistently used in this fashion, of a snare, net, or trap, e.g.:

13 know that the Lord will no more destroy these nations from before you; and they will be to you snares and stumbling-blocks [=skandala], and nails in your heels, and darts in your eyes, until ye be destroyed from off this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.”

(Josh 23:13 LXX [Brenton], emphasis mine)

(note the association here with mutilation). And:

15 The heathen are caught in the destruction which they planned: in the very snare which they hid is their foot taken. 16 The Lord is known as executing judgments: the sinner is taken in the works of his hands.”

(Ps 9:15–17 LXX [Brenton], emphasis mine)

Significantly, although σκάνδαλον (skandalon) is not found in the LXX version of Pr 7:18-25, the man who responds to this hypothetical-adulteress’ allure is still likened to an animal stepping into a trap, or a bird enticed to a snare:

18 Come, let’s take our fill of loving until the morning.
Let’s solace ourselves with loving.
19 For my husband isn’t at home.
He has gone on a long journey”  . . . 

. . . 21 With persuasive words, she led him astray.
With the flattering of her lips, she seduced him.
22 He followed her immediately,
as an ox goes to the slaughter,
as a fool stepping into a noose.
23 Until an arrow strikes through his liver,
as a bird hurries to the snare,
and doesn’t know that it will cost his life.
24 Now therefore, sons, listen to me.
Pay attention to the words of my mouth.
25 Don’t let your heart turn to her ways.
Don’t go astray in her paths”

(Prov 7:18-9, 21-5 WEB, emphasis mine)

In the light of this, perhaps Matt 5:28 is best rendered in line with the NASB95’s “makes you stumble,” or even as  “ensnares you,” for the inevitable sin into which the thought life stumbles is a trap from which only God can free the victim. Note also this passages implication this is a way that leads astray.

6. Throw it away

The instruction to cast the severed member away uses the word βάλλω (ballo). Matt 5:29-30 parallels the use of βάλλω (ballo) for the disposal of both the eye, and the hand, but as this has no parallel in Mark 9:43-48, one must ask whether the word’s use here is to add a particular emphasis. The word is fairly frequent in the LXX where it is particularly associated with casting lots (e.g. Ps 21:19, Joel 4:3), throwing stones (e.g. Sir 22:20) and raising siege works (e.g. Isaiah 29:3, Ezekiel 21:27). However, Isaiah makes the trappings of idolatry the subject of such a call to cast away (ἐκβάλλω in LXX) (Isa 2:20), urging men to do so before their land, which is full of idols, is judged on the day of the Lord (Isa 2:12, 17).

The use of βάλλω (ballo) for the consignment of the whole body into Gehennah, the place of fiery cleansing, may be inspired by the Septuagint’s account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being cast (ἐβλήθησαν) into the fire (Dan 3:21, cf. Matt 13:41-2). In the furnace, a type of Gehennah, the bonds that kept the men captive were burned away whilst the three remained unharmed (Dan 3:25)

However, if the sentiment of casting something from you is, in this case, more significant than the wording, Ezek 18:31 is also significant, for it occurs in the context of deviating from God’s ways and calls Israel to casting away their rebellion, פָּשַׁע (pashaʿ), lest they die:

29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is not fair.” House of Israel, aren’t my ways fair? Aren’t your ways unfair? 30 Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, everyone according to his ways, says the Lord GOD. Return, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all your transgressions, in which you have transgressed; and make yourself a new heart and a new spirit: for why will you die, house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies, says the Lord GOD: therefore turn yourselves, and live. ”

(Ezek 18:29-32 HNV)

Such transgression also features, in the context of the Lord’s way, in Hosea’s concluding remark:  

“Who is wise, that he may understand these things?
Who is prudent, that he may know them?
For the ways of the LORD are right,
and the righteous walk in them;
But the rebellious stumble in them”

(Hos 14:9 HNV)

7. Profitable self-mutilation?

Within biblical cultures, self afflicting a minor punishment was a way of showing remorse and avoiding a more significant punishment. Indeed, this seems a likely rational behind donning sackcloth, sitting amidst the ashes, and fasting at times when divine judgement was anticipated (e.g. Esth 4:1-3, Jer 6:26). A later example of this kind is found in the Talmud, where Nahum of Gamuz is credited with invoking upon himself blindness, amputation of his hands and feet, and boils, all because he let a poor man die of hunger and presumable feared a reciprocal judgement before God (b. Taʿan. 21a)

Jesus’ contemporary, Philo, suggests a somewhat different motivation. Contrasting the senses of the wicked which appear liable for judgement and those of the wide, which appear pure, he notes the indiscriminate nature of the senses and suggests “that all men who are not utterly uneducated would choose to be mutilated and to be come [sic] blind, rather than to see what is not fitting to be seen, to become deaf rather than to hear pernicious discourses, and to have their tongues cut out if that were the only way to prevent their speaking things, which ought not to be spoken” (Philo, Worse 175 [Yonge]).

Philo’s suggestion was in keeping with the general Pharisaic approach, which may be liked to building a hedge around potential sin. Knowing, however, how difficult men find it to restrain their sexual thoughts and also that Jesus saw any lustful look as adultery, the logical conclusion of Jesus sharing Philo’s thinking seems farcical, for it creates a nation of blind men. From the first century C.E. period, when Josephus was active in his attempts to quell Jewish rebellion against Rome, comes a more plausible alternative that is entirely consistent with the biblical context. Josephus provides an anecdote concerning a Galilean who was offered self mutilation as an alternative to suffering some worse fate. After Josephus had gained control over the mutinous senate of Tiberius by a mock show of power, there was a call for the ring-leader Clitus to be punished. So Josephus called to Clitus and said “Since thou deservest to lose both thine hands for thy ingratitude to me, be thou thine own executioner, lest, if thou refusest so to be, thou undergo a worse punishment.” After which Josephus recounts “he earnestly begged of me to spare him one of his hands, it was with difficulty that I granted it. So in order to prevent the loss of both his hands, he willingly took his sword, and cut off his own left hand; and this put an end to the sedition” (Josephus, Life 172b-3 [Whiston]).

From the above incident it is clear that voluntarily accepting mutilation, of the type often inflicted by a victor to subjugate a captive combatant, was a way of showing that you would no longer resist the victor’s authority and so deserved mercy. This fits extremely well with the inter-textual context of the mutilation in Matt 5:29-30.

The use of συμφέρω (sumphero = profitable, better, or more advantageous) in Matt 5:29-30 is also of interest, for again this word is relatively rarely used in the Septuagint. Of the eleven occurrences, Prov 19:10 seems particularly pertinent, with its warning that “Delicate living is not appropriate for a fool, much less for a servant to have rule over princes” (Prov 19:10 WEB). There were those in Judea who felt that Jesus should submit to their control, whilst, in practice, they were supposed to be serving the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6).

8. Matthew 5:29-30, the way, and Job 31 

Walking in accord with the way of righteousness is a central theme which is shared by both the Sermon on the Mount and Job 31:5-10. The Key reference to the way comes in Job 31:7, “if my step has turned out of the way” (Job 31:7a WEB). However, Job 31:5-10 also addresses key topics found in Matt 5:29-30 (Stott 1992, 88)

The context of Job 31:5-10 is set by verses 1-4 in which Job states “I made a covenant with my eyes, how then should I look lustfully at a young woman?” (Job 31:1 WEB), moves on to reflect how God brings calamity upon sinners (Job 31:3), and then notes that God is aware of our ways (Job 31:4) and so, if he has walked unworthily, then he should be judged. 

Job 31:5-10 takes the form of a triple parallelism, with each couplet exploring how Job might have failed and what punishment he imagines to be appropriate:

5 If I have walked with falsehood,
and my foot has hurried to deceit
            6 (let me be weighed in an even balance,
             that God may know my integrity);
7 if my step has turned out of the way, 
if my heart walked after my eyes, [a phrase later taken to imply enticement by a woman]
if any defilement has stuck to my hands,
            8 then let me sow, and let another eat.
            Yes, let the produce of my field be rooted out.
9 If my heart has been enticed to a woman,
and I have laid wait at my neighbor’s door, [by implication to see when his wife is alone]
           10 then let my wife grind for another,
            and let others sleep with her.”

(Job 31:5-10 WEB, layout and notes emphasis mine)

Central to this passage is the failure of the eye, it having distracted the heart, and the heart then having been enticed by a woman. However, there are two other types of error identified here, the foot that has carried its owner astray and the hand that has picked up defilement. The mention of both foot and hand in Matt 18:8-9 and Mark 9: 43-48 supports the suggestion that Job 31:5-12 was an inspiration behind them, and therefore also behind the saying in Matt 5:29-30. 

Having introduced the offence of the eye and the offence of the hand, Job then reflects that, had he done such things, they would have been terrible crimes, worthy of judgement, for they kindle a consuming fire, capable of burning to Abaddon (i.e. one causing complete destruction) and sufficient to burn any unrighteous increase back to the root (Job 31:11-12). It is not hard to see the similarities between the fiery outcome anticipated in Job and the fate, of consignment to Gehenna, that Matt 5:29-30 cautions against. It should be recalled that, for Jesus’ audience the fires of Gehenna were a source of purification and only completely destroyed that which was beyond restoration (see background on Gehenna). 

9. Just hand and eye?

It is worth noting that the three bodily members mentioned in Job 31:5-10, foot, hand and eye, are those found in Matt 18:8 and Mark 9:45. This leaves the Sermon’s reference to only hand and eye appearing deliberate. It is true that only the severed hand and the plucked eye provide the necessary inter-textual allusions to suggest that people should deal with their ensnaring sin by accept Jesus’ authority (as discussed above). However, eyes and hands also had a particular significance within the context of God’s commandments which feet did not, for Individuals judge through their eyes and exerted their authority with their hands (e.g. cf. Exod 15:16, Job 40:12-14). Hence, the Israelites were instructed to bind God’s commandments on their hands and between their eyes (Exod 13:9 & 16, Deut 6:8), a continual reminder that the use of these organs was subject to God’s rule. 

The reference to eye and hand, but not foot, would also have helped target Jesus’ allusions more particularly toward leaders. Leaders were held accountable for the actions of their eyes and hands, as in the case of an individual found unaccountably slain (Deut 21:1-9), where the local leaders had to declare that “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it” (Deut 21:7 WEB). Thus, in the case of Zechariah’s worthless shepherd who slays the choice ones, God warns that their arm and the right eye will be struck with a sword (Zech 11:16-17). Therefore, to call for a leader to self-afflict such a mutilation, was to call for an acknowledgement of error in their leadership.

10. Related New Testament texts

In the Parable of the Weeds, Jesus explains how all causes of sin (σκάνδαλον) will be thrown (βαλοῦσιν) into the fiery furnace (Matt 13:41-2, cf. Dan 3:21).

The book of Acts contains two incidents that link blindness to acceptance of authority. When Jesus confront’s Saul he uses blindness to impose his authority (Acts 9:8) until Saul chose to voluntarily accept that authority, sought out Ananias, and was healed. As Paul, he would mediated a similar blinding of Elymas to establish his superior authority (Acts 13:11). Paul’s letters also contain references to blindness in which one might detect echoes of the Sermon’s teaching. In that to the Galatians, he speaks of their former willingness to submit to him despite his weakened physical state (Gal 4:14), contrasting their current lack of blessedness with that earlier attitude:  What was the blessing you enjoyed? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. So then, have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal 4:14-15). In Romans, the Apostle, speaking of Israel’s failure to accept the authority of Jesus, cites Ps 69:22-3 from the LXX (i.e. Ps 68:22-3 LXX): ‘David says, “Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, a stumbling block, and a retribution to them. Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see. Bow down their back always’ (Rom 11:9-10 WEB), The relationship of the psalmist’s words to the practice of blinding prisoners has already been noted. 

11. Some church perspectives

Jerome, writing in 378 C.E., bids us to understand the right eye and the right hand as the love for family or bretheren that might hinder us. He also seeks to link both to the lust so recently aforementioned in the Sermon (Aquinas 1841, 187).

St Augustine, writing in 396 C.E. (Aquinas 1841, 187), took a similar approach, seeing the right eye as figurative for a greatly beloved friend and counsellor and the offence being that of leading one into dangerous heresy, whilst the right hand was a beloved helper because the hand pertains to action (De serm. Dom. in mont. 1.13.38).

Amongst the Pseudo-Chrysostom writings we find:  

“Every thing, however good in itself that offends ourselves or others, we ought to cut off from us. For example, to visit a woman with religious purposes, this good intent towards her may be called a right eye, but if often visiting her I have fallen into the net of desire, or if any looking on are offended, then the right eye, that is, something in itself good, offends me. For the right eye is good intention, the right hand is good desire”

(Aquinas 1841, 188 [Newman])

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407 C.E.), archbishop of Constantinople suggests:

‘Why then did He mention the right eye, and add the hand? To show thee that not of limbs is He speaking, but of them who are near unto us. Thus, “If,” saith He, “thou so lovest any one, as though he were in stead of a right eye; if thou thinkest him so profitable to thee as to esteem him in the place of a hand, and he hurts thy soul; even these do thou cut off.” And see the emphasis; for He saith not, “Withdraw from him,” but to show the fullness of the separation, “pluck it out,” saith He, “and cast it from thee.”’ . . .
. . . ‘This same reckoning do thou make with regard to men also and women: that if he who harms thee by his friendship should continue incurable, his being thus cut off will both free thee from all mischief, and he also will himself be delivered from the heavier charges, not having to answer for thy destruction along with his own evil deeds.’

(Chrysostom, Homily XVIII, 3 [Prevost])For Vermes (2004, 348-349), this passage is indicative that the Kingdom was to take absolute priority and its message employs the sort of hyperbolic imagery, taken to extremes in Matt 19:12’s advocacy of self-castration, that is typical of Jesus (Vermes 2004, 396).

Stott (Stott 1992, 89) notes that the use of similar phrases elsewhere in the gospels are not specifically linked to sexual sin, but the principal appears to be more generically applicable. He observes that “a few Christians, whose zeal greatly exceeded their wisdom, have taken Jesus au pied de la lettre and mutilated themselves” (Stott 1992, 89). He cites the well known case of Origen of Alexandria who castrated himself, then cautions that the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) forbade Christians from such practices (Stott 1992, 89). He suggests that plucking out your right eye means “don’t Look,” in other words, “behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes” (Stott 1992, 89), the advice concerning the hand being similar, i.e. “don’t do it” or “don’t go” (Stott 1992, 89). As a result Stott anticipates that the Christian may have to become “culturally maimed in order to preserve our purity of mind” (Stott 1992, 90). Stott’s approach might be fine for interpreting Mark 9:43-48 or Matt 18:8-9, however it fails to explain the Sermon on the Mount’s application of the principle only to the right eye (Matt 5:29), thus leaving the left side to continue seeing and doing. 

For Bonhoeffer (2001, 83) “even momentary desire is a barrier to the following of Jesus, and brings the whole body into hell, making us sell our heavenly birthright for a mess of pottage.” This is a matter of preserving one’s birthright, but one in which we are bound to fall short for “If we decide not to take it literally, we should be evading the seriousness of the command, and if on the other hand, we decided it was to be taken literally, we should at once reveal the absurdity of the Christian position” (Bonhoeffer 2001, 84). He sees looking to Jesus as the solution to this conundrum, for the eye that looks to Jesus is always pure (Bonhoeffer 2001, 84).

12. In later Judaism

The Mishnah probably reflects an older tradition when it observes that, when the Philistines blinded Samson, he received an appropriate judgement for having followed his eyes (m. Sota 1:7 D; Judg 16:21).

The severing of hands is also attested in the Talmud, through the story of King Janni and the high priest Issachar, of Kefar. The king held that goat’s flesh was the better, but his queen argued that lamb was best. So the king summoned the priest, concluding that one who administered the sacrifices should know. When asked to judge between these opinions, the priest waved his hand in contempt, and inferred that lamb was better, but that the king could order goat to be sacrificed if he so wished. The king was so incensed that he ordered that the cleric’s right hand be cut off (b. Ker. 28b). Neither king, nor high priest, can be identified, so it had been assumed that they dated from a poorly documented part of the second temple period. However, recently it has been suggested that this story is better understood as a satirical parody on Matt 25:31-46 (Amit 2010, n.p.). Certainly, through its link with Jacob’s prophecy over Issachar (Gen 49:14-15 envisages that tribe as a donkey), the name Issachar brings to mind the third-century C.E. Alexamentos graffito, a mocking anti-christian display of a boy worshiping a crucified donkey-headed man from the Palatine Hill (Bauckham 1992, 815). Either way, the story still bears witness to cutting off a hand being considered a fitting punishment for insolence. If the story is indeed satirical, then the satirist’s choice of punishment may represent a particularly barbed swipe, based on the teaching of Matt 3:29.