In addition to the texts of the Hebrew Bible [q.v.], known to Christians as the Old Testament, the Christian Bible also includes the books and letters known as the New Testament. These texts are accounts of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth (c. 8–4 B.C. to c. 30–36 A.D.) by his immediate disciples and subsequent followers, expressions of their faith in his divine and human nature as Jesus Christ, the Messiah, and the Son of God, as well as their understandings of the history of their tradition and God’s purpose for the world. Preserved in koine, the Greek dialect common to the eastern Mediterranean regions, these 27 texts include the four gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the historical book of Acts, the letters by and attributed to Paul, letters from disciples, and the Apocalypse (Revelations) attributed to John. These texts from the 1st and possibly 2nd century A.D. form the scriptures distinctive to Christianity, a new religion arising from Judaism that would distinguish itself from both Judaism and the Roman state religion, and within a few hundred years, would itself become the dominant religion in the West. The effort to compile a single, coherent collection of the authoritative early writings of this new religion began sometime during the last decades of the 2nd century, and it was not until the second half of the 4th century that the New Testament reached its settled, final shape.
The texts presented here—from Matthew, Acts, I Corinthians, and Philippians—are placed in the order in which they occur in the canonical New Testament, though this does not reflect their dates of composition. The earliest, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, was written sometime between 50 and 60 A.D., before he was imprisoned in Rome for the first time. Paul’s first extant letter to the church at Corinth, I Corinthians, was written from Ephesus sometime around Easter, probably in the year 55, during one of his many missionary journeys. The Gospel of Matthew was composed between 80 and 90, and Acts, a history of the early church by the author of the gospel attributed to Luke, has been dated as early as 60 and as late as 125.
The text presented here from Matthew describes the only suicide reported in the canonical gospels, that of Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Judas had betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities, a betrayal that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Although a different version of Judas’s death, not involving suicide, can be found in Acts 1:18–20, the account in Matthew interprets Judas’s self-hanging as a suicide of remorse. Some later commentators have seen Judas’s suicide as an act of ultimate atonement for the sin of betrayal, although by the High Middle Ages, Judas’s suicide was often seen as a greater sin than the betrayal itself. Acts also contains an account of the jailor in Philippi who, responsible for keeping Paul and Silas under close guard, attempts suicide when he believes they have escaped; it is Paul who prevents the jailor’s suicide.
Paul’s letters address many questions about church discipline and practice, questions of morality, and fundamental Christian doctrine. The passage from I Corinthians provides part of the theological basis for the Christian prohibition of suicide: the view that the body is the “temple of God,” the place where the soul dwells, the site of the fusion between spirit and flesh that is the human person. Suicide is wrong in part because it destroys the body that is the seat of the soul.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians provides indirect insight into Christian attitudes about suicide. As many later writers (e.g., Angela of Foligno [q.v.]) also do, Paul describes his ambivalence about death: he desires to “depart and be with Christ,” and he sees death and the afterlife it promises as “a gain”; but he also recognizes reasons for remaining in the body, reasons that persuade him that it is better not to end his life. This tension between the desire to die and the obligation to live remains of continuing concern in the Christian view of suicide throughout its later history.
The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, eds. M. Jack Suggs, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Mueller, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 1299-1301, 1414-1415, 1450, 1488.
from THE NEW TESTAMENT
Jesus then came with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there to pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. Distress and anguish overwhelmed him, and he said to them, ‘My heart is ready to break with grief. Stop here, and stay awake with me.’ Then he went on a little farther, threw himself down, and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet not my will but yours.’
He came back to the disciples and found them asleep; and he said to Peter, ‘What! Could none of you stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake, and pray that you may be spared the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
He went away a second time and prayed: ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to pass me by without my drinking it, your will be done.’ He came again and found them asleep, for their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away again and prayed a third time, using the same words as before.
Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Still asleep? Still resting? The hour has come! The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Up, let us go! The traitor is upon us.’
He was still speaking when Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared, and with him a great crowd armed with swords and cudgels, sent by the chief priests and the elders of the nation. The traitor had given them this sign: ‘The one I kiss is your man; seize him.’ Going straight up to Jesus, he said, ‘Hail, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Jesus replied, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came forward, seized Jesus, and held him fast.
At that moment one of those with Jesus reached for his sword and drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. But Jesus said to him, ‘Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword. Do you suppose that I cannot appeal for help to my Father, and at once be sent more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say that this must happen?’
Then Jesus spoke to the crowd: ‘Do you take me for a bandit, that you have come out with swords and cudgels to arrest me? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple, and you did not lay hands on me. But this has all happened to fulfil what the prophets wrote.’
Then the disciples all deserted him and ran away.
Jesus was led away under arrest to the house of Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance till he came to the high priest’s courtyard; he went in and sat down among the attendants, to see how it would all end.
The chief priests and the whole council tried to find some allegation against Jesus that would warrant a death sentence; but they failed to find one, though many came forward with false evidence. Finally two men alleged that he had said, ‘I can pull down the temple of God, and rebuild it in three days.’ At this the high priest rose and said to him, ‘Have you no answer to the accusations that these witnesses bring against you?’ But Jesus remained silent. The high priest then said, ‘By the living God I charge you to tell us: are you the Messiah, the Son of God?’ Jesus replied, ‘The words are yours. But I tell you this: from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ At these words the high priest tore his robes and exclaimed, ‘This is blasphemy! Do we need further witnesses? You have just heard the blasphemy. What is your verdict!’ ‘He is guilty,’ they answered; ‘he should die.’
Then they spat in his face and struck him with their fists; some said, as they beat him, ‘Now, Messiah, if you are a prophet, tell us who hit you.’
Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a servant-girl accosted him; ‘You were with Jesus the Galilean,’ she said. Peter denied it in front of them all. ‘I do not know what you are talking about,’ he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘He was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘You must be one of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he started to curse and declared with an oath: ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crowed; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times,’ And he went outside, and wept bitterly.
When morning came, the chief priests and the elders of the nation all met together to plan the death of Jesus. They bound him and led him away, to hand him over to Pilate, the Roman governor.
When Judas the traitor saw that Jesus had been condemned, he was seized with remorse, and returned the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said; ‘I have brought an innocent man to his death.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? It is your concern.’ So he threw the money down in the temple and left; he went away and hanged himself.
Acts 16: 16-34: Paul Prevents a Suicide
Once, on our way to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination and brought large profits to her owners by telling fortunes. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, and are declaring to you a way of salvation.’ She did this day after day, until, in exasperation, Paul rounded on the spirit. ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her,’ he said, and it came out instantly.
When the girl’s owners saw that their hope of profit had gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the city authorities in the main square; bringing them before the magistrates, they alleged, ‘These men are causing a disturbance in our city; they are Jews, and they are advocating practices which it is illegal for us Romans to adopt and follow.’ The mob joined in the attack; and the magistrates had the prisoners stripped and gave orders for them to be flogged. After a severe beating they were flung into prison and the jailer was ordered to keep them under close guard. In view of these orders, he put them into the inner prison and secured their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas, at their prayers, were singing praises to God, and the other prisoners were listening, when suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the jail were shaken; the doors burst open and all the prisoners found their fetters unfastened. The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open and, assuming that the prisoners had escaped, drew his sword intending to kill himself. But Paul shouted, ‘Do yourself no harm; we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, rushed in, and threw himself down before Paul and Silas, trembling with fear. He then escorted them out and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Put your trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,’ and they imparted the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. At that late hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds, and there and then he and his whole family were baptized. He brought them up into his house, set out a meal, and rejoiced with his whole household in his new-found faith in God.
1 Corinthians 3: 9-17: The Body as Temple
Or again, you are God’s building. God gave me the privilege of laying the foundation like a skilled master builder; others put up the building. Let each take care how he builds. There can be no other foundation than the one already laid: I mean Jesus Christ himself. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, and precious stones, or with wood, hay, and straw, the work that each does will at last be brought to light; the day of judgement will expose it. For that day dawns in fire, and the fire will test the worth of each person’s work. If anyone’s building survives, he will be rewarded; if it burns down, he will have to bear the loss; yet he will escape with his life, though only by passing through the fire. Surely you know that you are God’s temple, where the Spirit of God dwells. Anyone who destroys God’s temple will himself be destroyed by God, because the temple of God is holy; and you are that temple.
Philippians 1: 12-26: Paul in Prison: On the Desire to Die
My friends, I want you to understand that the progress of the gospel has actually been helped by what has happened to me. It has become common knowledge throughout the imperial guard, and indeed among the public at large, that my imprisonment is in Christ’s cause; and my being in prison has given most of our fellow-Christians confidence to speak the word of God fearlessly and with extraordinary courage.
Some, it is true, proclaim Christ in a jealous and quarrelsome spirit, but some do it in goodwill. These are moved by love, knowing that it is to defend the gospel that I am where I am; the others are moved by selfish ambition and present Christ from mixed motives, meaning to cause me distress as I lie in prison. What does it matter? One way or another, whether sincerely or not, Christ is proclaimed; and for that I rejoice.
Yes, and I shall go on rejoicing; for I know well that the issue will be my deliverance, because you are praying for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ is given me for support. It is my confident hope that nothing will daunt me or prevent me from speaking boldly; and that now as always Christ will display his greatness in me, whether the verdict be life or death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I am to go on living in the body there is fruitful work for me to do. Which then am I to choose? I cannot tell. I am pulled two ways: my own desire is to depart and be with Christ—that is better by far; but for your sake the greater need is for me to remain in the body. This convinces me: I am sure I shall remain, and stand by you all to ensure your progress and joy in the faith, so that on my account you may have even more cause for pride in Christ Jesus—through seeing me restored to you.