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Clemency as Cruelty: Forgiveness and Force in the Dying Prayers of Jesus and Stephen

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This article clarifies the significance of the dying forgiveness prayers of Jesus and Stephen by placing them aside related bodies of literature including biblical and extra-biblical narratives of persecuted prophets and the suffering righteous, the literature of the Maccabean martyrs, the ethical exhortations to enemy love and non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, and Roman discourse on clemency. Against a recent cluster of scholarship attempting to situate the prayers fully within Jewish scriptural traditions in order to argue that Luke-Acts is not anti-Jewish, it argues that the prayers function to construct a break between the Ioudaioi and the Christianoi. The dying forgiveness prayers are for Luke a Christian proprium. They are potentially more radical than Jesus' ethical teaching on enemy love and non-retaliation, since the former constitute a challenge to the framework of talionic justice which the latter need not. The threat of the forgiveness prayers to the talionic framework of cosmic justice prompted the modification, and even the suppression, of the prayers in some quarters. Those who embraced and celebrated the prayers without modification, like Luke himself, seemed to have understood them intransitively as idealizing the hero who so prays but as having no effect on the prayer's objects. The article concludes with consideration of the Roman discourse on clemency, which functions similarly. Awareness of the cruelty implicit in Roman clemency serves to illuminate the potentially violent effects of certain iterations of the forgiveness prayers, including those preserved in Luke-Acts.

Affiliations: 1: Furman University


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