Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Jesus' Parabolic and Analogical Reference to "Torturers" in Matthew 18:34, as a Relevant Consideration in Arguments Over the Ethics of Waterboarding and Coercive or Corporal Punishment in General

 Fr. Brian W. Harrison

There was a huge discussion pro and con about waterboarding on my Facebook page. I am myself agnostic at present on the issue, but I wish to examine arguments pro and con, time-permitting, in-between my breadwinning duties.

One of the things I ran across in perusing Fr. Brian Harrison's two articles (one / two) on corporal punishment in the Bible and Catholic history, was the following parable (in his Part I):

Matthew 18:32-35 (RSV) Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; [33] and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' [34] And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. [35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." 

Fr. Harrison commented on it:
. . . the New Testament mention of "torturers" ["jailers" above]. . . may refer to torture in this will-coercing sense, but could also imply simple punishment. In any case, no moral disapproval of the kind of action being carried out by these "torturers" is suggested by Jesus in this parable. . . . It would be implausible to try reading any ethical censure into Jesus’ mention of temporal torture in the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Mt 18: 34), in view of his immediate comparison of this treatment with that to be meted out in eternity by "my heavenly Father" . . .

My initial comment on it was as follows:

The NT passage is interesting because it makes an analogy of the master's servant to God's. Since God's behavior can't be immoral, therefore, the master's -- by analogy -- cannot be, either. And that entailed "torture"; so I suppose the next thing there would be to look up the Greek word.

My Facebook friend Felix Lopez (also agnostic on waterboarding) wrote: 

The Gospel parable was just using as an analogy the Roman and Herod's prison conditions where the prison guards weren't very nice. It is not an endorsement of the practice.
I replied:

It's not nearly that simple, Felix. Jesus can't use a direct analogy to God's behavior and have the analogy be to an intrinsically immoral practice. For the very analogy to be valid, the two have to be morally parallel. And so they were in that passage. It's yet another argument (from Fr. Harrison) that the "antis" here have not dared to deal with at all.

In other words, Jesus could never, e.g., give a parable that included an evil act, such as saying, "If you don't do good works and have faith in God, He will judge you, just as the abortionist murders a child."


Regarding the gospel parable, that's a good point you made. I would be interested to consult a good Scripture commentary or scholar on that. But, as Fr. Harrison said the word for "torture" can be meant as a punishment and not to extract information (e.g. the whereabouts of hidden gold or assets to pay off debts). It can also be a case where the prisoner is punished for not doing their assigned labor if they are assigned mandatory labor to pay off the debts. It would then be a case of justifiable corporal punishment.

But, as I said, there is a difference between punishment and the process of forcefully extracting information (e.g. coercing the will). In fact, Justice Antonin Scalia in his arguments in defense of waterboarding was that it could not be argued on the basis of "cruel and unusual punishment" since in his view it isn't a punishment. They would have to argue on some other grounds like say if there is a federal statute against such a treatment in interrogation.
So, if torture is inflicting bodily or mental pain to coerce the will, then waterboarding is wrong.



 But isn't the parable to some extent about "extraction" of the debts owed? It was extraction of debt being sought, not merely punishment for not having paid the debt. It's fascinating that "torturers" is the word used [in some translations].  


The word in KJV at 18:34 is "tormentors". It's Strong's word #930: basanistes (used only here in the NT); defined by Strong as "torturer"; "tormentor". Cognates: #928 basanizo / #929 basanismos / #931 basanos: "torment". This is a fruitful avenue for argumentation as to coercion, sanctioned by Jesus Himself.

Thayer's Greek Lexicon describes basanistes in Matthew 18:34 as describing a jailer and noting that "the business of torturing was also assigned to him." Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
lists the word in this passage under "Tormentor" and defines it: "properly, 'a torturer' (akin to basanizo, see TORMENT, B), 'one who elicits information by torture,' is used of jailors, Mat 18:34."

Vincent's Word Studies comments on the passage: "Livy pictures an old centurion complaining that he was taken by his creditor, not into servitude, but to a workhouse and torture, and showing his back scarred with fresh wounds (ii., 23)." A. T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament states (citing Vincent in entirety, which I've omitted):

The tormentors (toi basanistai). Not to prison simply, but to terrible punishment. The papyri give various instances of the verb basanizw, to torture, used of slaves and others. . . . Till he should pay all (ew [ou] apodwi pan). Just as in verse Leviticus 30 , his very words. But this is not purgatorial, but punitive, for he could never pay back that vast debt.

Kittel (one-volume edition, p. 97) observes: "basanistes is used in Mt. 18:34, not for 'tester,' but for 'tormentor.'"

If we consult (34) different translations for basanistes in Matthew 18:34, this is what we find:

Moffatt / Rheims / NASB / Rotherham Emphasized  / Jerusalem / NAB / Barclay / Beck / NKJV / Confraternity / RNAB / Wuest torturers
NEB condemned the man to torture
Living torture chamber
Amplified torturers (the jailers)
NRSV / REB / Knox / CEV to be tortured
Williams official torturers
KJV / RV / Wesley / ASV tormentors
Young's Literal inquisitors
Lamsa scourgers

RSV / Goodspeed / Weymouth / Phillips / NIV / Kleist & Lilly jailers
20th Century gaolers
TEV to be punished

20 of the 34 (59%) translate using some form of torture, while six more have tormentors or inquisitors or scourgers (all those notions together adding up to 76% of all the translations above). Only eight have the more mild or more "neutral" jailers / gaolers / to be punished.

This is what Jesus is sanctioning by analogy to the behavior of God in the parable.

Now it could still be (logically or linguistically) that what is here called "torture" is different (closely examined) from the "torture" that the Church and Pope Benedict XVI have condemned as intrinsically evil. In fact, it must be, because faithful Catholics dont think that the magisterium and Scripture could contradict, and no Christian thinks that Jesus could or would condone anything intrinsically evil.

Therefore, it comes back again to the necessity for highly specific, particular discussion as to what is right and wrong in this regard, and when and how it is one or the other. This is what the opponents of waterboarding seem determined not to do; dead-set against. So, for example, Mark Shea argues repeatedly that it is illegitimate and unsavory to argue about lines and "how much we can / 'get to' do" (by way of coercion). He decries that whole line of approach from the get-go, as utterly wrong and indefensible (not to mention despicable and contemptible).

But a person more neutral or in favor of some limited use of waterboarding as permissible, like Jimmy Akin, makes (contra Shea's disapproval) highly particularized arguments as to rightness and wrongness. For my money, it's always better to discuss in as great a depth as possible, any complicated issue, rather than to cut off various strains of analyses as somehow morally dubious from the outset. The moral judgments can wait till sufficient open-minded, seeking discussion has occurred.

[further discussion of this paper and the issue can be found under the cross-posting on my Facebook page]

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11 comments:

Mark Alan said...

This seems to be a very popular topic of late, as it has received multiple articles from various contributors on Catholic Answers, New Advent, and several others.

Dave Armstrong said...

Yes it is. I didn't even intend to "get into it"; I posted "pro" and "con" arguments. But sure enough, a big discussion ensued. But it has led to this paper, which I think is a contribution to the discussion from a somewhat "fresh" biblically-based perspective.

Mark Alan said...

A follow-up aside and a bit off topic, but...I sure have a great deal of admiration for you Apologists, especially after today!

I was listening to one of Patrick Madrid's apologetics recordings, where he was invited to a protestant radio station to answer questions regarding Catholicism....WOW!

All I can say is that the number of anti-Catholic, and by that I mean "hate towards" Catholicism was ASTOUNDING! The number of callers who showed no intention, whatsoever to even attempt to understand or learn the "why" to our Faith, but seemed solely intent on attacking it, was quite large.

Like you, Patrick was extremely calm, cool, and very charitable despite the absolute onslaught of hate that was directed towards him. I have a totally higher level of respect for you guys who can stand up to that. God Bless

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks, but I wouldn't be "calm, cool, and very charitable" in that situation. I have no patience with fools of that sort. hence, I avoid them as much as possible and simply write about the topics.

Raymond Douglas Davies said...

And once upon a time people presented fair and balanced arguments for slavery

Dave Armstrong said...

Yes they did (allegedly). Most of us are quite aware of that.

Martin said...

Hi Dave, forgive me for another hit and run post but you can appreciate that a father's time is precious.

ZippyCatholic happened to repost his carefully indexed answers to Waterboarding. I will post his link below.

As I have thought over your bible verse I cannot reconcile the idea that the verse means torture is ethical with the CCC's instruction that it is not. I hope I can slowly give you some feedback. I hate the FB interface for this so I will avoid it if possible.

http://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/why-i-believe-waterboarding-prisoners-is-torture-and-you-should-too/

Martin said...

Silly me, email followups now activated

Unknown said...

The mentioning of a behaviour in a parable does not imply it is permissible behaviour. What about the dishonest steward?

STTJOHMC

Dave Armstrong said...

In that instance, Jesus (and the one representing God in the parable) was obviously disapproving. That is not the case here.

Unknown said...

At the beginning of the story, yes. But then he alters the accounts of his master's debtors and the master calls him "shrewd". Wasn't this alteration something that would have been dishonest if done literally? And doesn't Jesus make this alteration a metaphor for something we should do ourselves (i.e. forgive others)?