‘Turn the Other Cheek’: Meaning, Analysis and Origin


By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Turn the other cheek’ is a well-known phrase associated with Christianity. But what is the meaning of the expression, and where does it originate?

Let’s take a closer look at the origins of ‘turning the other cheek’, by turning to one very famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in the New Testament. For the phrase ‘turn the other cheek’ appears (albeit not in those exact words) in the Sermon on the Mount, which is regarded as a cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching.

The relevant passage is chapter 5, verses 38-48 of the Gospel of Matthew.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

With this verse, Jesus reminds his followers, who were Jewish, that Mosaic law, laid out in the Old Testament, argued that one crime should be punished in kind. As Exodus 21:24 has it, ‘And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.’

In Roman times, this concept continued to be enshrined in law. It was known as lex talionis, or the law of retaliation. In other words, a punishment for an offence resembles the offence committed in kind and degree. So if someone blinded someone else, the perpetrator would literally lose an eye as punishment, hence ‘an eye for an eye’, and so on. However, the use of ‘eye’ and ‘tooth’ and other body parts is more poetic and symbolic than anything, one suspects.

Jesus was viewed as someone who should uphold Mosaic law, rather than seeking to overturn it. In Matthew 5:17, for example, Jesus states: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’

But rather than simply upholding or reinforcing that Old Testament law, Jesus argued that his followers should go further than that. As verse 39 has it:

This sounds very much as though Jesus is overturning, or ‘destroying’, Mosaic law. If the Old Testament argued for retaliation, and Jesus is telling his followers not to retaliate, that seems to be a pretty clear contradiction.

And yet one might argue that lex talionis was itself an attempt to rein in the impulse for revenge: if someone robs from you, you should take some of their property, rather than calling for them to be killed (which one could argue, even in ancient times, was a somewhat extreme reaction). So if the Mosaic law was already seeking to equalise punishment to fit the crime, Jesus was indeed developing or taking further the same principle: that it is best to reject our base impulse for revenge.

Nevertheless, there is no getting away from the fact that Jesus’ teaching on ‘turning the other cheek’ is a radical departure from (if not total contradiction of) Old Testament teaching. As he says:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This is, of course, the origins of the phrase ‘turn the other cheek’: something which Christians are urged to do. In other words, they should not seek to ‘resist’ evil by fighting it. Instead, if someone hits you on the right cheek, you should present your left cheek to him so that he can hit that too.

So this, then, is the origin of the phrase ‘to turn the other cheek’; contrary to popular belief, it means to turn your cheek towards your attacker rather than away from them in non-violent retreat. In other words, Jesus encourages his followers to give their enemies a chance to double their money, as it were, and strike their victims on both left and right cheek. The emphasis is on refusing to respond in kind, or to react violently. Again, it is about occupying the moral high ground.

Indeed, Jesus argues that his followers love their enemies, bless those who curse them, and do good to those who hate them. In short, answer hate with love, and persecution with tolerance and forbearance. Strive to be perfect, just as God in heaven is perfect.

The examples continue. For example, in verse 40, if a man steals your coat you should offer him your cloak to take as well:

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

This quotation has also become famous, of course, and has given rise to the phrase ‘to go the extra mile’ for someone or something.

In the last analysis, then, the phrase ‘turn the other cheek’ has its roots in the teachings of Jesus, as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. To what extent Jesus is taking Mosaic law further and to what extent he appears to be going against it is open to interpretation, but the main message, perhaps, to take from this passage is tolerance, forbearance, and forgiving one’s enemies. As Oscar Wilde later added, ‘nothing annoys them so much.’

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