Peace (in the Bible)

Spring Flower

I thought a biblical conversation on peace in the Bible might be a good way to respond to current issues in Syria and elsewhere, to focus on what we mean and what the biblical authors mean when they speak of peace (Hebrew: shalom; Greek: eirênê ). This is not meant to be a thorough study, simply a reflection on peace.

Part of the inspiration for this piece on peace, apart from current events, is a section in Michael Gorman’s Apostle of the Crucified Lord on the pax Romana, or “Roman peace.”  As he writes, “the empire ended an era of civil strife in Rome and unified a huge area of land containing diverse peoples” (8).  After detailing its practical achievements, though, he goes on to say,


But there was a dark side to this ‘peace’ that cannot be forgotten. An empire was born, but a republic simultaneously died. The Romans established and maintained their empire through conquest, subjugation, and intimidation. It was, in other words, peace through war…And they had a deterrent to make sure those who might threaten the peace understood the consequences: crucifixion. (11-12)

“Peace through war” is one way peace can be meant, a sort of subjugation of the enemy, within or without. Is this peace in the Bible?

The section on eirênê in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) is massive, but we can pull out some key terms and ideas. In addition, I will consult Ceslas Spicq’s Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (TLNT). Both texts speak of the political nature of eirênê in the ancient Greek context. Peace is not a “relationship between several people,” but “a state, i.e., ‘time of peace’ or ‘state of peace,’ originally conceived of purely as an interlude in the everlasting state of war” (TDNT 400-01). TLNT agrees, stating that peace “designates a political and social phenomenon, and first of all the state of a nation that is not at war” (424).  Peace is basically the opposite of war (Greek: polemos).

In the classical Greek context, peace also referred to the “public order,” free from sedition, discord or strife among citizens (TLNT 425). It also came to refer to a peaceful disposition or attitude that people maintained, according to the TDNT, especially that “desired by the Stoics” (401). But Spicq says that “it is quite remarkable that there are no texts evoking the state of soul of a person not troubled by any care, any disquiet, having blessed tranquility – what we would call ‘peace within’” (426), though he also admits that the Greeks used different language to express this inner calm (euthymia).

When we come to shalom in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), we meet a more complex word. “Seldom do we find in the OT a word which to the same degree as shalom can bear a common use and yet can be filled with a concentrated religious content far above the level of average conception” (TDNT 402). It can mean “peace,” but it also has a stronger sense of “well-being,” especially denoting one’s material well-being and health, which includes people and a nation.  The focus of shalom, though, does not just focus on a “state” of well-being, but relationships among people. Spicq talks of “entering another world” with shalom, since the word occurs so frequently in the OT (280 times!) and because of the “new content” (TLNT 426).  It is not just that it focuses on “well-being” of the whole person or nation, or that it focuses on relationships not just state of being, but that “the great innovation of the OT is to make peace a religious idea: it is a gift of God” (TLNT 426-27).  In fact, the foundational belief is “that shalom truly comes only from Yahweh, but from Him all-sufficiently” (TDNT 403). This shalom can be seen in Psalm 85:8-10 –“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” – and in Isaiah 26:12 – “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for indeed, all that we have done, you have done for us.”

The use of peace in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, uses eirênê naturally in place of shalom, but now eirênê has meanings formerly associated with shalom as well (TDNT 407), such as well-being of the whole person and peace in relationships. There is an additional meaning, found also in the Hebrew, in which eirênê speaks of the “good which comes from God, both in this age and the age of salvation” (TDNT 408). Spicq speaks of the eschatological linking of peace, justice and salvation, which can also be connected specifically to messianic thought: “for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) (TLNT 429).

In the New Testament, all of these senses of peace are found – security, absence of war, well-being of the person, peace as gift of God – but the TDNT is clear that“it is not the Greek sense which predominates in the NT” but the Hebrew sense of shalom, which is “particularly plain when we consider that the principal meaning is salvation in a deeper sense” and also the Rabbinic sense “for concord between men” (TDNT 411). For the NT, then, the TDNT sees three dominant usages of eirênê: “peace as a feeling of peace and rest”; “peace as the salvation of the whole man in an ultimate eschatological sense”; and “peace as a state of reconciliation with God” (412-15). Finally, both the TDNT (417) and TLNT (432) note the use by the Apostle Paul of eirênê as “peace of soul” (e.g., Romans 5:1-2, 15:13; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:13-17; Colossians 3:11, 15).

Absence of war (polemos) is the desirable state of things, it is a peace we should pray for and continue to pray for at all times, but it is also clear that in the biblical texts the peace we need to ground this in is the peace that transforms hearts and minds and leads us to desire at all times a path that maintains the well-being of our relationships with others and God and, indeed, a peace in our soul. As Ephesians 2:14 says, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” This is the opposite of “peace through war.”

John W. Martens

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