Rhomphaia in the New Testament

Remember when I was playing with biblical weaponry and speculated on a muddy, probably-impossible-to-prove distinction between rhomphaia and machaira as divine and human swords, respectively?  You have suggestive uses like the cherubim wielding a rhomphaia to keep people out of the garden; you have an explicit contrast in Ezekiel’s doom against Egypt between the machaira Pharaoh wields and the rhomphaia God will give to Babylon; but mostly you have an unclear mixture of the two throughout the Old Testament.  It feels to me like there’s an idea lurking behind it all but much too obscure and inconsistent to do much with it.

Well, enter the New Testament.

New Testament authors refer to swords 36 times and there is a very strong pattern indeed.  Here’s a quick list, with commentary to follow.

Machaira (29 instances):

Matt 10:34, 26:47, 26:51, 26:52 (x3), 26:55; Mark 14:43, 14:47, 14:48; Luke 21:24, 22:36, 22:38, 22:49, 22:52; John 18:10, 18:11; Acts 12:2, 16:27; Romans 8:35, 13:4; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12, 11:34, 11:37; Revelation 6:4, 13:10 (x2), 13:14

Rhomphaia (7 instances):

Luke 2:35; Rev 1:16, 2:12, 2:16, 6:8, 19:15, 19:21

The machaira in the New Testament most famously appears in the Passion account of all four Gospels, where it is the weapon both of the mob that comes for Jesus and the disciple who tries to fight for his master.  Machaira is the sword that Herod uses to slay St. James and the weapon of St. Peter’s guard.  It is a feature of the powers of this world that make trial of the saints as they go forth to live and spread the Gospel.  And finally the machaira is part of the climactic violence of the end, when the world suffers in its attempt to reject the Gospel.  It is the sword of this world.

Rhomphaia, by contrast, only shows up in two places.  In the Apocalypse of St. John rhomphaia is the weapon of the Son of man seen in His heavenly splendor, and in the Gospel of St. Luke it is the rhomphaia, not the machaira, that will pierce the heart of the Christ-child’s mother.

So far I like this pattern!  Still, taking a sweep across all New Testament authors is risky at best.  How does it look when we get into each book?  Only two books use both sword-words: St. Luke’s Gospel and St. John’s Apocalypse.

Take St. John’s Apocalypse.  In Revelation the machaira is the sword being used by all the worldly powers in the chaos leading up to the victory of the Lamb; it is pretty clearly the sword of the Beast.  Rhomphaia, by contrast, is clearly the sword of the Lamb, the sword wielded by the Son of man who stands amidst the lampstands and who presides over the final triumph of the Gospel.

The challenge to this pattern, or the interpretive moment if you prefer, comes in Revelation 6 when the Lamb opens the seals and sends forth riders to the earth.  The second rider, seated on a red horse, comes forth with a great machaira to take peace from the earth so that men should slay one another.  Just a few verses later the Lamb opens the fourth seal and sends forth Death as the fourth rider, the pale-horse rider, with Hades in his train.  Death kills with rhomphaia and famine and pestilence and wild beasts of the earth.

It’s difficult to know what to do with the distinction between rhomphaia and machaira here.  On the one hand we could expect the same sword-word since they are both riders sent forth by the Lamb.  Both inflict temporal, worldly torments.  It’s reasonable to push the other direction, to say that Death as the last rider wields a different sort of power, but then again Death’s rhomphaia is part of a list of otherwise banal, earthly sufferings that we would expect to associate with machaira.  And if we are going to argue that Death wields rhomphaia, why not the second rider as well?  Aren’t both of them agents of the Lamb?

Allow me to stretch all the way back to Genesis and the punishment for sin, to Exodus and the power that crushes Pharaoh, to Kings and the divine wrath poured out on Sennacherib’s army, in order to make an interpretive move here.  There is a “sword,” a violence and killing of the world, that God permits, and much of the conflict throughout Scripture even into the end times is nothing more than God giving over the sinful world to its own violent law.  Then there is the killing that God directly wills, the sword of His mouth.  Death just is God’s rhomphaia.

The second rider merely unleashes on the world all the violence done by the world itself and permitted by God.  The fourth rider, Death, brings God’s direct punishment upon the world.  Often we speak of the “wages of sin” being the unavoidable consequence of self-destruction, a death we inflict on ourselves…by machaira, if you will.  But there is also a divine punishment, a death that God inflicts with the rhomphaia of His mouth.  This is the rhomphaia that in the end overthrows the beast, casts him into the lake of fire, and slays all his host–God’s final reckoning of the wages due to His wicked servants.

So that’s rhomphaia in the final book of the New Testament.  What about St. Luke?

The third evangelist uses machaira to name the swords of the Passion account, as said previously.  He also uses machaira when Christ delivers his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem.  Nothing unusual there; world-swords are called for in each passage.  But in the infancy narrative, when Simeon gives his prophecy about the Christ-child and His mother, we find not machaira but rhomphaia: “and your own soul, a rhomphaia will pass through.”  We can do a lot with this one!  A brief sketch of possibilities:

If rhomphaia is the divine sword then this is no mundane prophecy that one day Mary will experience pain or sorrow.  This is something supernatural, something directly willed by God.  She gets to participate in the salvific suffering and death of her own Son?  The death of her Son is directly willed by God, not merely a by-product of the violence of this world rejecting its Savior?  The rhomphaia which never fails to slay the evil-doer will not slay her because she is untouched by sin?  Or how could a machaira, the death and suffering of this world, ever touch her if she is the Immaculate Conception?  Perhaps only the rhomphaia ever could?  And are we completely sure this is meant to be a prophecy about suffering anyway, once we remove ourselves from the concept of worldly violence?  That verb lets you do a lot of different things…

There are other places in the New Testament where the world-sword/God-sword distinction can do interesting work.  In St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says that He comes not to bring peace but “the sword.”  There’s more than one way to take that on face-reading, but once you know it is machaira?  It is not a conflict among us that God wills, but rather one that He permits; it is the same secular conflict we see in Revelation as the world opposes its own Savior.  Or again take St. Paul’s famous dictum in his letter to the Romans that the sovereign “does not bear the sword in vain.”  Again this is machaira, the world-sword, so that even on the most robust reading in favor of capital punishment we are still in the realm of a worldly force that God permits rather than directly willing.

Of course, that passage from Romans also raises a problem for the swords-distinction.  The archon is said to be a minister of God and it does seem that he is executing God’s own punishment, but he does not wield the rhomphaia.  So is there a fancy interpretive move to make there or does St. Paul simply not observe the distinction?  There is considerable risk in applying the idea to all the authors of the New Testament just because it shows up in some of them; only St. Luke and St. John give us anything like a direct comparison.  In fact, St. Paul declines to use rhomphaia when it would make tremendous sense: his letter to the Ephesians.  Granted, this is downstream of an argument about the authorship of that letter.  Still, when that author has a chance to use rhomphaia to name “the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God,” he declines and uses machaira instead.

So there are definitely weaknesses to the theory–not so many as in the Old Testament, but weaknesses nonetheless.  Still, I persist in my belief that this rhomphaia/machaira distinction is important to Scripture, Old and New Testaments alike.

As a post-script, what does St. Jerome say about all this in the Vulgate?  For the most part nothing; he translates both words indifferently as good old-fashioned gladius.  However while I was running down all the citations just to make sure he didn’t slip in something weird like ensis or mucro or whatever, I had an awful shock.  Check out this line from Revelation 2:12

Hæc dicit qui habet rhomphæam utraque parte acutam

I was so confused when I read this line that for a few seconds I thought I was reading in Greek and internally transliterating into the Roman alphabet.  Hapax in the Vulgate!  St. Jerome has already translated rhomphaia dozens of times at this point!  It’s not even consistent with the way he translates rhomphaia in the book of Revelation itself!  NOW he decides to transliterate the Greek and create a new Latin word?  That’s not even the way Aulus Gellius has it!

I can give no reasonable account of this; I can only tear out my hair and give up.  Thanks, St. Jerome.

7 thoughts on “Rhomphaia in the New Testament

  1. As a matter of curiosity, I looked up whether St. Isidore has anything on these, and he does, although it doesn’t give anything directly for your question (Etymologies XVIII.vi):

    Mucro non tantum gladii est, sed et cuiuslibet teli acumen, dictus a longitudine. Nam MAKRON Graeci longum vocant; hinc et machaera. Machaera autem est gladius longus ex una parte acutus. Framea vero gladius ex utraque parte acutus, quam vulgo spatam vocant. Ipsa est et romphea.

    However, it’s notable that Isidore, at least, takes ‘romphea’, used properly, to indicate a two-edged sword. Whether this association is back-dateable in any way, I don’t know. But it’s at least notable that one of the uses of ‘machaira’ of God in the NT (Hebrews 4:12) explicitly qualifies it by ‘two-edged’, just as the ‘rhomphaia’ of Jesus in Revelation 1:16 and 2:12 is also explicitly qualified by ‘two-edged’. And while there are advantages to a one-edged sword, a two-edged sword has the advantage of maneuverability — you can strike in any direction. And that at least seems a fitting metaphor for the difference between the sword of man and the sword of God.

    Perhaps ‘machaira’ is simply a looser word, so that it can mean something specific, but need not, whereas ‘rhomphaia’ might be the word you would more likely go for if you specifically want to suggest a weapon that could strike from any direction? As a hypothesis to save your hypothesis (nothing wrong with an epicycle or two at the beginning), something like that would save most of the things that you have explicitly looked at.


    1. I almost added a large section on ideas like this, but it made the post too unwieldy. I’m very grateful to have it raised in the comments, even if now I feel like I have to go back and draw up a Part 2!

      The two discriminators I have seen proposed for the swords are size (with machaira being smaller) and edge (as you point out). I didn’t find anything in the Perseus-searchable texts supporting either one of those, although both are reasonable. Maybe I just need to look at more texts; I’m still just swimming around in the shallow end of the pool.

      I’m not completely sold on the two-edged nature of rhomphaia precisely because some authors modify it with the adjective two-edged and because some apply the same adjective to machaira. On the other hand I take your genus/species point about machaira well. If one is more technical than the other then “two-edged” specifies a kind of machaira and emphasizes the main attribute of the rhomphaia like “sharp-pointed spear” or something. If I’m not mistaken Xenophon makes machaira a household word, just like gladius at one time meant a specific kind of sword but eventually just became the generic word. It’s a decent epicycle.

      But the point that really grabs me from your Isidore quotation is actually what he says about framea, spatha, and romphea all being the same weapon, a two-edged sword. I probably just don’t have enough texts read to digest this properly; maybe we don’t even have enough surviving texts. I’m shocked though…what an unexpected twist in the records. Is this just the influence of the Vulgate on readers a century or two later, or something else? Fascinating.

      I was thinking about sending some of this to some of the historical armorers on the internet to see if they want to run with it or already know a quick answer. It turned out to be a much more interesting dive than the initial lark would have suggested.


      1. One thing that did occur to me is that it is possible that Isidore only knows “romphea”, and perhaps some of the others, from the Vulgate, so he could be trying to pin down what is suggested by them based on contextual clues.

        Another thing I was thinking about is that the problem could possibly be that the ancients actually just classified weaponry on a functional rather than the structural basis we tend to like — perhaps (just as an example) ‘rhomphaia’ is just the word they tended to go to for any sharp weapon with some kind of extra reach, or ‘machaira’ for anything that you can stab with.


      2. I have a hunch that your first is correct, although I don’t know if we have the evidence necessary to figure that out. Certainly feels right to me. And I strongly agree with your second–very important point about their classification.

        I did want to rescue a point about Hebrews 4:12 since you brought it up. It’s not quite the same case as the letter to the Ephesians, where the word of God *is* a sword and “should” be rhomphaia. In the letter to the Hebrews it’s *sharper* than any worldly sword, therefore not one, and so even on my simplified, non-epicycle reading it still works out just fine as machaira.

        But then there’s an interesting feedback because the language there is strongly similar to Revelation, where the rhomphaia comes from God’s mouth, and Luke’s Gospel, where the heart/soul language also appears. So even though machaira is the right word choice for the comparison, the allusion is once again to rhomphaia. I cut this material at the last minute because I was tired of adding and developing points, but I might go back and make a full post about it.

        Anyway, thanks for helping me stir the pot on this. I yammer on about this with my office-mate all the time; it’s nice to have someone else to do it with!


    2. Sorry for being so late to the conversation, I’m really sure if you’ll end up seeing this. I noticed this same differentiation in words the other day, and was also confused by the use of rhomphaia in the fourth seal. I really like your theory though, and it makes more sense than anything I could come up with. I’m curious though, how does the divine and direct punishment of god with the rhomphaia, vary from the human killing we see in the second seal? How would humans experiencing these events understand the difference between the two?


      1. Interesting question, Micah. It makes me a little wary since I am opposed to interpretations of Revelation that lead to us trying to read the signs of the times to figure out where we are in the “Apocalypse Timeline.” I think that just signals confusion about what’s really being revealed to St. John and why. Perhaps for those humans alive at the time of the Second Coming, the sword of divine punishment will be Very Clear in the form of supernatural pyrotechnics…and perhaps it will only be clear in the very last instant, with no chance even to say “Oh!” I think the more important point for us now is that, by the mystery of divine providence, the violence we perpetrate and suffer through the ages *is* part of the divine punishment for sin…the punishment of God’s permissive will. There is nothing that does not fall under God’s providence and His rectification of all things.


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