For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
For to us a child is born,
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.
5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The word eirene (peace) appears in almost every writing of the NT. It describes an international calm and a relationship of goodwill between God and humans. Most frequently it describes a social reality, a state of reconciliation and wholeness among a group of people.
A. Classical Words
B. Judaism and Peace
C. Early Christian Views of Peace
3. Other Early Christian Writings
A. Classical Words
In classical Greek three words can be translated “peace”: (i) galēnē: the calm of nature, specifically at sea; of the mind or spirit and even of the conscience (Arist. Ep. 5); (ii) homonoia: concord, or the quality of community life which emerges when people think alike or agree; and (iii) eirēnē; the most frequently used and the most inclusive of the terms. Plato speaks of the “profound peace” which comes to older persons when they no longer need to be concerned about their passions (Resp. 329c).
The Greek view of peace has often been portrayed as consisting primarily in the absence of war: the normal human state (Fuchs 1965). More precisely, two contrasting ideals exist alongside each other: the Homeric, or heroic ideal, which presupposes that war will be the arena in which the truly human virtues can be displayed. The other, the unheroic ideal, presupposes that human beings achieve their true potential in work which produces peace and justice (Hesiod). The dominant note in the iambic poets is not exaltation of heroes but using all the resources of art to hold up to ridicule the faults and weaknesses of human nature. Competition in the arts is encouraged (Klassen 1984).
The Homeric ideal is praised in classical literature (tragedy, historical writing, political propaganda) and even dominates the political agenda of the polis. Peace is seen as a positive value, even as the highest value, and war is seen as a necessary stage and the means by which peace is attained. Si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you wish peace, prepare for war”) went the ancient, widely quoted slogan (Haase 1977).
One exception is comedy, especially the comedy of Aristophanes whose anti-war position merits further exploration. The power of Euripides’ protest against war in his plays, The Women of Troy and Medea is felt even to this day.
Prior to Socrates, the adage, “Do good to your friends and harm your enemies” seems to have held the day. With his fundamental dictum that “it is never right to repay anyone evil for evil” (Apol. 30D) a new approach to the resolution of conflict emerged (Dihle 1962). Both Cynics and Stoics built upon Socrates’ insight but forged different concepts of peace. The Cynics praised world citizenship and used illustrations from animal life to deprecate human wars (Malherbe 1977). The Stoics opted for a concept of peace as internal control or inner tranquility (ataraxia) which ran the risk of becoming insensitive to one’s own feelings as well as to the attacks of others. The Stoics however have deeply influenced the later prevailing view of peace through Varro (ca. 40 B.C.E.) whom Augustine copied, and Epictetus (1st century C.E.), whose manual was for centuries the handbook of the soldier (Klassen 1977).
The Latin words concordia and pax correspond to the Greek homonoia and eirēnē respectively. A significant shift has taken place, however, in that pax commonly refers to an enforced pacification program.
B. Judaism and Peace
The Jewish concept of šālôm undergirds the Christian view of peace. For the early Hebrews Yahweh could be designated Shalom (Judg 6:24) and the word designates the state of being well. Whereas the Greeks were clearly comfortable applying peace to the inner nature of humans, the Hebrews tended to use the term primarily for interpersonal or social relations where it comes very close to meaning “justice.” When justice is done it is seen as God’s gift to the people, and the prosperity (šālôm) comes to the people when they live faithfully under God’s covenant (Ravitsky 1987).
The principal word used to express the idea of peace in the Hebrew Bible is šālôm. The root of the word is found in many Semitic languages. The Akkadian salāmū comes closest to the core meaning of the root, “to be hale, whole, complete.” In one form or another the notions of wholeness, health, and completeness inform all the variants of the word. Peace is not, then, simply a negative, the absence of war. Peace is a positive notion, a notion with its own content.
Šālôm is the daily greeting in Israel; šālôm ʿălêkem “peace upon you (pl.)” is a common expression we could translate as “good day.” But it really is closer to “may you be well.” To be well is, of course, to be “whole, to be complete,” to have physical and spiritual resources sufficient to one’s needs.
Wholeness or completeness can be ascribed to things as well. Thus Solomon in 1 Kgs 9:25 offers peace offerings (šelāmı̂m) in the temple he completed (šillam). A debt is made good (šallēm) through payment of money. Vows are completed (šallēm) through sacrificial offerings.
Peace is contrasted with war. Qoheleth notes that “there is a time for peace and a time for war” (Qoh 3:8). In numerous passages peace is negotiated to end or preclude hostilities (Deut 20:10–12; Jos 9:15; 10:1; 10:4; 11:19). R. de Vaux (AncIsr, 254) notes that “peace in a political sense is not only the absence of war in a purely negative sense, but it includes the idea of friendly relations between two peoples” (see Judg 4:17; Isa 7:14; 1 Kgs 5:4, 26; 22:45). Peace is also synonymous with victory (Judg 8:9; 2 Sam 19:25, 31; 1 Kgs 22:27–28; Jer 43:12). Peace and prosperity are paired (Mic 3:5; Zech 8:12; Mal 2:5). In this pairing it would seem that peace is seen as a sort of economic freedom.
Then there is the idea of dying peaceably. “You shall go to your fathers in peace” (Gen 15:15) is a promise to Abraham; this peace is contrasted to disquiet. The peace of the blessed rest overcomes the natural anxiety about death and the afterlife. These usages of šālôm are “secular” or “profane,” in contrast to the theological understanding of šālôm.
G. von Rad (ROTT, 1:130) observed that “the relationship guaranteed by a covenant is commonly designated by the word šlm” (see Gen 26:30ff; 1 Kgs 5:26; Isa 44:10; Job 5:23). The Hebrew Bible speaks of the bĕrı̂t šālôm “covenant of peace” (Num 25:12; Ezek 34:25; 37:26). This notion of a covenant of peace is particularly useful in developing our understanding of šālôm. The covenant initiates a relationship which is based in some sense on mutually assured obligations. Though God cannot be said literally to be “obliged,” there is an implicit contract that attaches transcendent values to ordinary or customary human actions.
It is this association of šālôm with bĕrı̂t “covenant” and also with mišpat “judgment, justice” that ties together the nuance of wholeness with the notion of peace as an action. In Ps 34:13 the psalmist charges hearers, “Do good, seek peace, pursue it.” Here peace is not something that simply happens; it is a content-laden thing that one can lay hold of. And, further, peace is not seen as a mere product but as an end in itself.
In Zech 8:16–19 the notion of peace is joined with mišpat; where the root šlm again is used in its meaning of true or complete justice. And šālôm is joined with ʾemet “truth.” Peace, truth, and justice are parallel terms. Their association in this passage implies that peace has a content like justice and truth. Peace encompasses a relationship that is ordered, a relationship of equity. So in Ps 85:10 “righteousness and peace shall kiss”; the two join together as partners in the blessed life. And in Isa 32:17 the prophet avers that “peace is the effect of righteousness,” which in the Vulgate becomes “opus justitiae pax” or “peace is the work of justice.” In this we see a profound theological sense to peace which is far beyond the simple idea of the cessation of war or the absence of conflict. Indeed, peace is not seen as tranquility and order, but rather as the deep commitment to the work of justice.
Peace also points to the future, because it reconnects an ideal of justice that is remembered and expected. That the figure of the herald of glad tidings (Nah 2:1), whose task it is to announce a victory, did so to inaugurate peace is very important. The herald contrasts with the false prophet who announces “peace, peace, but there is no peace” (Jer 6:6; 8:11; 8:15). Jeremiah’s contrast is, like that in Isaiah, between justice and injustice, righteousness and unrighteousness. Peace is clearly associated with justice and often synonymous with justice.
The figure, then, of the śar šālôm “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:5—Eng 9:6) is to be seen as the bringer of justice, as the vindicator. He is “in purpose wonderful, in battle God-like, Father of all time, Prince of peace” and his kingdom shall be established and sustained with justice and righteousness. The same confluence of the peace-bringer with the renewal of justice and righteousness is found in Isaiah 40.
Isa 9:5 should be seen also in the light of Isa 11:1–5, where the figure is described who shall inaugurate the peaceable kingdom in which lion and lamb shall dwell together, while “they shall not hunt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isa 11:9). This image of peace as an eschatological event manifests the sense of completion inherent in the idea of peace. Von Rad writes that the anointed one in Isaiah will establish a “paradisal peace … to bring order over into the world of nature and to resolve its conflicts” (ROTT, 2:170). Peace is, in fact, the order of creation (ibid., 147).
The theological implications are clear enough. Creation is depicted as an act of divine completion. “On the sixth day God completed all the work he had been doing” (Gen 2:2). “And God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The order of the cosmos created harmony and peace. Justice, righteousness, and peace are all present in this “original state.” The parable of Adam and Eve is one in which sin is unknown and even “good and evil” are unknown. The depiction of the dissolution of paradise in J’s narrative leads from the serpent’s wiles to the murder of Abel, the Flood, and the division of the peoples of the earth. In brief, creation, once completed, is now fractured and scattered, disunited and without peace.
The apocalyptic eschatology of the late kingdoms and early exile envisioned the restoration of the created order. Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah refer repeatedly to this glorious new creation. “I will make your government peace, and righteousness rule over you” (Isa 60:17). “I will send peace flowing over her like a river” (Isa 66:12). This peace is the mark of the new heavens and the new earth which the Lord will make (Isa 66:22). So peace, šālôm, embraces the notion of the restoration of creation to justice, truth, and righteousness. Peace is a blessing and a sign of the blessed life of the new creation just as it was the hallmark of the first creation. Peace is “from the Lord” (1 Kgs 2:23) and is “the Lord’s own work” (Isa 52:7). Peace is both a restoration of the divine plan of creation and the harbinger of the completion of life to come. And to the ears of a weary planet it brings the good news that strife shall cease and that the peoples of the earth “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”