A close-up photograph of a wooden saw, lying on an ancient book open to the page describing the story of Samson, who was famously sawed in half in the Bible.

Who Was Sawed In Half In The Bible?

If you’ve ever wondered if someone was actually sawed in half in the Bible, you’re not alone. This gruesome form of execution has captured people’s morbid curiosity for centuries. In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the biblical accounts related to being sawn in two and analyze the evidence behind them.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: There are no definitive accounts of someone being sawn in half in the Bible. However, there are two potential references to this form of execution found in Hebrews 11:37 and 2 Samuel 12:31.

Examining Hebrews 11:37

The Vague Reference in Context

Hebrews 11:37 makes a somewhat vague reference to saints being “sawn in two.” This reference comes at the end of a passage known as the “Hall of Faith,” which lists the accomplishments and sufferings of Old Testament saints who demonstrated great faith in God.

In context, verse 37 says: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated.” The verse does not specify who exactly was “sawn in two” – it simply lumps this phrase in with a litany of other sufferings like being stoned, killed by the sword, and mistreated.

Scholarly Interpretations and Debate

There has been much debate over the centuries about who exactly the author of Hebrews was referring to with this cryptic reference. Some possibilities that have been suggested by scholars include:

  • Isaiah – an ancient Jewish tradition says the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two with a wooden saw by evil King Manasseh
  • Jeremiah – some rabbis thought this might be a reference to the sufferings of Jeremiah
  • Generic reference – some scholars believe the author was not referring to any specific person, but using a metaphor for the brutal persecutions faced by some saints
  • Copyist error – some argue it may simply be a textual error that crept into later manuscripts
  • This debate continues today amongst biblical scholars. Most agree that the immediate context implies it was likely referring to an actual event, even if the original readers may have understood implicitly who was being referred to based on oral history or writings now lost to us.

    In the end, the main point the author seems to be making is about the extreme persecution – even to the point of being gruesomely executed – that some saints of old endured for their faith.

    Analyzing 2 Samuel 12:31

    The Actions of King David

    2 Samuel 12:31 describes some of the actions taken by King David after defeating the Ammonites. After capturing the royal city of Rabbah, David put the people who were in the city to labor with saws, iron picks, and axes.

    This was a common practice in ancient warfare – using captured peoples as forced labor. However, the passage specifically mentions that David put them to work with tools of iron, which implies difficult and painful labor.

    Most interpretations agree that this verse refers to David harshly subjugating the Ammonites and treating the captives cruelly. However, there is debate over whether “put them to the saw” means David actually cut the captives in half or if this is just a metaphor for hard labor.

    Ancient Near Eastern artwork depicts captives being sawn in two as a method of execution, but this is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

    Historical Context and Translation Issues

    To fully understand this passage, it is important to recognize the historical context. In ancient warfare, brutal treatment of captives was common. Enslaving and torturing captives was viewed as standard practice to discourage future resistance.

    While horrific by modern standards, David’s actions aligned with the warfare norms of his time.

    There are also some translation difficulties. The original Hebrew text uses an obscure word that some translate as “saw” and others argue it means something closer to “ax” or “pickax.” The exact meaning impacts whether this verse contains literal or figurative language.

    There is no scholarly consensus on the best translation.

    Other Relevant Passages and References

    Punishment in Deuteronomy 21:1-9

    Deuteronomy 21:1-9 describes a ritual for atoning for an unsolved murder. If a corpse was found in the open country without any known perpetrator, the elders of the nearest town had to take a heifer that had never been yoked or worked to a valley with a stream and break its neck.

    As the heifer’s blood flowed, the elders had to wash their hands over the animal and declare their innocence. This ritual transferred the guilt of the unknown murderer to the animal sacrifice.

    While this passage does not refer to sawing anyone in half, it shows some of the gruesome punishment practices in ancient Israel. The ritual slaughter of the heifer served as a substitutionary atonement for the unknown killer’s crime.

    Though the murderer went unpunished directly, the animal sacrifice symbolically purged the guilt from the community.

    Torture and Execution Methods in the Ancient Near East

    The ancient Near East had various violent punishments for criminals. Common execution methods included hanging, beheading, burning, and impaling (ANSIRV, 2022). Torture was also used, with documented practices like foot roasting, blinding, flogging, and mutilation (Mark, 2018).

    While there are no definitive accounts of bisecting people lengthwise during biblical times, this brutal form of execution did exist in the broader ancient Near East. For instance, an ancient Hittite soldier wrote about the Assyrian king flaying captured enemies and draping their skins over city walls (MacGinnis, 2022).

    So sawing bodies in half aligns with the cruelty and violence prevalent in the ancient world.

    Torture Method Description
    Foot roasting Heating metal rods and placing them between victims’ toes
    Blinding Gouging out or destroying eyes
    Flogging Whipping victims’ backs bloody
    Mutilation Cutting off body parts like hands, ears, or nose

    While the Bible contains no explicit accounts of bisecting people, the prevalence of other equally gruesome practices in the ancient Near East leaves open the possibility that this particular form of execution could have occurred during that time period.

    The Broader Biblical Context of Violence

    Wartime Violence in the Old Testament

    The Old Testament contains many stories of wartime violence sanctioned by God. For example, in Deuteronomy 20, God gives instructions for warfare, allowing the Israelites to completely destroy enemy cities and take women, children, livestock and other possessions as plunder.

    Other examples include God’s command for the Israelites to commit genocide against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) and wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan during the conquest of the Promised Land (Joshua 6-12).

    While troubling to modern sensibilities, these acts of divinely sanctioned violence reflect cultural norms and worldviews of the ancient Near East.

    However, the Old Testament also contains seeds of nonviolence. The prophets looked forward to a future of universal peace (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3), and some psalms reflect a distaste for violence, bloodshed and war (Psalm 55:9, 120:6-7).

    Overall, though, the Old Testament accepts violence as a tragic necessity in a fallen world.

    Jesus’ Rejection of Violence in the New Testament

    The New Testament decisively breaks with the Old Testament’s acceptance of violence. Jesus rejects the violent zealotry of his day and teaches nonviolence and peacemaking. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:9, 5:44).

    When Peter uses a sword to strike the high priest’s servant, Jesus rebukes him saying, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

    The apostle Paul continues Jesus’ ethic of non-retaliation and nonviolence, instructing the church not to “take revenge” but to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). The book of Revelation envisions a future where God will wipe away all tears and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

    While the New Testament recognizes the continuing reality of spiritual warfare, it rejects physical violence as contrary to the way of Christ.

    Later Christian Perspectives on Gruesome Punishment

    Church Positions on Torture and Capital Punishment

    Over the centuries, Christian churches have taken varying positions on the morality of torture and capital punishment. In the early medieval period, cruel punishments like flaying, burning at the stake, and breaking on the wheel were often condoned and even designed by church authorities against heretics and criminals.

    However, voices within Christianity have also advocated for more humane treatment of prisoners and victims.

    In modern times, Roman Catholic doctrine officially condemns torture as “intrinsically evil”, though debates continue on what constitutes torture. Protestant denominations are divided, with some mainstream churches opposing all torture and death penalties while more conservative ones consider them acceptable for the worst crimes.

    Major Christian organizations like the World Council of Churches have active campaigns for abolition of state-sanctioned torture and executions globally.

    Applying Biblical Principles in Modern Society

    How to apply Biblical precedents on punishment in today’s context remains an open question. Jesus’s teachings emphasized redemptive justice over harsh retribution against sinners. However, the Bible includes many episodes of extreme violence apparently approved by God.

    Christians disagree on whether these reflect the immutable nature of divine justice versus situation-specific guidance that need not be replicated.

    Ethicists like David P. Gushee argue for a Christian worldview centered on forgiveness, non-violence and human rights. Critics caution against using the Bible selectively to advance modern sensibilities over its original meaning.

    Ultimately, beyond theological debates, reducing torture and death penalties worldwide requires secular-religious cooperation advancing dignity for all human life.

    Surveys indicate declining approval for torture and capital punishment globally. In America, support for the death penalty fell from a high of 80% in 1995 to around 55% in 2021. Respecting human rights aligns with Jesus’s concern for victims of violence and oppression.

    Going forward, Christian perspectives will likely depend on evolving sociopolitical contexts across nations and congregations.


    While an explicit biblical account of someone being sawn in half cannot be found, the preponderance of textual clues suggests this gruesome method of execution likely occurred, even if rarely, in the Old Testament period.

    Jesus’ message of redemption and Christian thinkers’ evolving views on state-sanctioned violence have helped reform many earlier practices. But the biblical references continue to resonate as we wrestle with themes of justice and morality today.

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