Suicide in Jewish and Roman Thought (brief working draft)

English: Chart showing he circumstances for su...
English: Chart showing he circumstances for suicide in 16 states in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am working through some academic things, dissertation and the what not, and for the next few weeks, I am working on all things voluntary death. This includes suicide. Before you go off and suggest suicide is a moral crime and start citing bible verses, see here. What follows is a brief draft that I will amend, emend, and expand during the coming weeks. 

The concept of suicide (strictly defined as taking one’s life seemingly without external cause) is found in various Jewish texts, although, save in one case, it is usually condemned. Perhaps most notably is the suicide of Judas (Matthew 27.5, although the accounts of success differ between the Matthew, Luke, and Papias); however, there are suicides in the Hebrew canon including Abimelech (Judges 9.53–5), Achitophel (2 Sam 17.23), Zimri (1 Kings 16.15–20) and Saul (1 Chronicles 10.3–13). In other Second Temple literature, suicide is passively addressed as in the case of Tobit 3.10. The only heroic suicide is found in 2 Maccabees 14.37–46, in which Razis, a loyal Jew who was soon to be arrested, killed himself because, “εὐγενῶς θέλων ἀποθανεῖν, ἤπερ τοῖς ἀλιτηρίοις ὑποχείριος γενέσθαι, καὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐγενείας ἀναξίως ὑβρισθῆναι.” Compare this to the death of Antiochus Eupator who ended his life in 2 Maccabees 10.13, where the author states, “μήτʼ εὐγενῆ τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἔχων, ὑπʼ ἀθυμίας φαρμακεύσας ἑαυτὸν ἐξέλιπε τὸν βίον.Suicide was common enough, at least in the time of Josephus, to have ritualistic responses. Because the mentions of self-homicide were not accompanied with mentions of either condemnation or penalty, David Daube has suggested suicide is best seen as either natural or perhaps even heroic.

Rabbinic Judaism, however, quickly forbade suicide. Rabbi Eleazar interpreted Genesis 9.5 to stand as an opposition to the taking of one’s life. Suicide became the same as murder and as such, later rabbis turned to deal with the intentionality and culpability. According to Sidney Goldstein, not all suicide was considered suicide. Indeed, if the motivation was repentance, then the crime is overlooked by the intention. Suicide was also allowed to avoid suffering, such as in the case of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion.

The Romans had a long tradition of suicide. As E.R. Dodds states, “in these centuries a good many persons were consciously or unconsciously in love with death.” Roman suicide, like most things Roman, found its genesis among the Greeks. Plato’s work, Phaedo, contributed greatly the Stoic view, among other schools as well, of suicide as the final mastery of fate. Plato borrows Socrates’ words to suggest that death, because of the promise of a reward on the other side, is preferred and urged his students to follow him quickly. Granted, he refused to offer a chance for his disciples to take their own life, as this was strictly forbidden. After arguing over his moral clause, Socrates proposes a solution. Rather than taking one’s life freely and simply to join ranks with the living who have died, he demands a necessity. If a necessity to take one’s life is found, then it is no longer immoral. Perhaps this is why so many Stoics would find themselves with such a great necessity, even to the point of interpreting the breaking of a finger or the stubbing of a toe as the call of a god to die.

More important to our present study is Seneca’s Epistle 70. Here, he writes to laud suicide if it entails political freedom. He ends the epistle with the solemn, almost horrific announcement, “Eadem illa ratio monet, ut, si licet, moriaris quemadmodum placet; si minus, quemadmodum potes, et quicquid obvenerit ad vim adferendam tibi invadas. Iniuriosum est rapto vivere, at contra pulcherrimum mori rapto. Vale.” Seneca would go on to commit suicide after the failure of a conspiracy to kill Nero.

Suicide was such a commonplace sight in Rome it gave rise to a concept, Romana mors, complete with images of dramatic suicides serving as the evening’s entertainment. The act of taking one’s own life became almost a standard norm but it was not associated with depression. Rather that the stark contrast offered by depression or a joy to die, the reality was more often an overreaction to events. Romans took their own life due to certain “signs,” losses in war, even criminal charges. Added to this is the developed ritual and even stylistic etiquette Romans used. At one point, suicides become a public event, a transformation prompting parodies at Nero’s court.

It must be stressed that a canyon of cultural context separates the connection between the Roman suicide and Jewish suicide. Yet, it suffices us to simply point out that in both cultures relevant to the authors of the New Testament, suicide was allowed at least for particular instances, especially to avoid loss and to prevent humiliation. Neither of these instances sufficiently describes the death of Jesus, for reasons I will detail later in this study.


Note that in the cases of Abimelech and Saul, both were mortally wounded and only after acknowledging such a state either asked for a quick dispatch (Abimelech) or fell on their own sword (Saul).

See BJ 3.372–77 where Josephus notes that the bodies of suicide victims were left out in the sun and simply buried because of the great crime they had committed against God. Their souls were sent to divine punishment.

David Daube, “Death as a Release in the Bible.” Novum Testamentum, 1962, vol. 5, 82–104.

See b,Baba Kamma 91b

Sidney Goldstein, Suicide in Rabbinic Literature (KTAV, 1989), 26–29.

For a fuller discussion on suicide and the development of moral restrictions in both Christian and Judaism, see F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, “Suicide”, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 2005) and A. J. Droge, “Suicide,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992).

E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, (Cambridge, 1965), 135.

Plato, Phaedo, 61bc, 64.

Plato, Phaedo, 62c.

Thus is the story of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 7.28.

Seneca, Ep 70.28, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Vol 2. trans. by Richard M. Gummere, (Loeb Classical Library, 1920), 73.

For more on the suicide cult at Rome, see Timothy Hill, Ambitiosa Mors: Suicide and the Self in Roman Thought and Literature (Routledge, 2004).

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3 Replies to “Suicide in Jewish and Roman Thought (brief working draft)”

  1. So Masada. 959 murders and one suicide. Or 960 suicides? Eleazar “for we are born to die, as well as those were whom we have begotten; nor is it in the power of the most happy of our race to avoid it.”

  2. Thought it was worth mentioning. After all, Jews, Romans, suicide, (or murder/religious fanaticism). Josephus, Eleazar’s speech, “we are openly deprived by God himself of all hope of deliverance….this was the effect of God’s anger against us for our manifold sins, which we have been guilty of in a most insolent and extravagant manner with regard to our own countrymen; the punishments of which let us not receive from the Romans, but from God himself, as executed by our own hands….”
    After this portion of the speech,
    “…but although some of them were very zealous to put his advice in practice, and we’re in a manner filled with pleasure at it, and thought death to be a good thing, yet had those that were most effeminate a commiseration for their wives and families; and when these men were especially moved by the prospect of their own certain death, they looked wistfully at one another, and by the tears that were in their eyes, declared their dissent from his opinion…”
    “When Eleazar saw these people …he was afraid lest perhaps these effeminate persons should, by their lamentations and tears, enfeeble those that heard what he had said courageously…he undertook to speak …concerning the immortality of the soul…”
    Then he goes on for another page about his theology of the immortal soul, throwing in some stuff on “Indians”, destruction of the temple, etc.
    Finishing with “This is that our laws command us to do; this it is that our wives and children crave at our hands; nay, God himself hath brought this necessity upon us; ….let us therefore make haste…”
    “Now as Eleazar was proceeding on in his exhortations, they all cut him off short, and made haste to do the work…”

    So I find interesting. Religious fanatics, using the effeminate card, which didn’t work, then appealing to theology (martyrdom), and a bit of nationalism. Not everyone buys into it. But “they all cut him off” to do the work. I question the “all”. Sounds like a mob of radicals. Doubt if everyone went willingly.

    I admit your premise was
    “The concept of suicide (strictly defined as taking one’s life seemingly without external cause)”…
    But Masada ought to be worth discussing. Had external causes, but also fanatic theology, peer pressure, and just flat out crazy people in the first place. Seems like there are certainly lessons to learn today. Masada was not heroic, but flat out stupid. Anyone that thinks so, ought to compare notes with ISIS.

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