Did Jesus actually teach the Golden Rule? Or was it foisted on his lips after his death by later followers?
I have already written a couple of posts on the Golden Rule in the two places it occurs in the New Testament, Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 (see: Little-Known Aspects of The Golden Rule as Found in the Sermon on the Mount and Did Jesus Give the Sermon on the Mount? ). Normally the rule is phrased like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I noted, though, in the Greek clauses are reversed. A literal translation of Matthew’s version would be “Everything you want other people to do for you, you likewise do for them,” to which Matthew, importantly, adds “for this is the Law and the Prophets” (meaning that if you follow this rule, you will be following the entire will of God as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures; Matthew 7:12); Luke is quite similar “Just as you wish people to do for you, do likewise for them” (Luke 6:31; Luke does not add the bit about this being the entire law and prophets).
In this post I want to ask whether it’s something Jesus actually said. Most people would say, “Of course he said it; everyone knows he said it!” But historians don’t base their judgments about the past on what “everyone knows.” They look to see if the evidence and reasons for thinking so are compelling or not.
As it turns out, there have been a number of scholars – possibly a small number, but highly respected and influential ones – who have maintained Jesus did not say it, including arguably the most important New Testament scholar of the 20th century, Rudolph Bultmann.
I think there are two arguments against Jesus having given the Golden Rule that need to be considered before deciding the issue. The first is that, contrary to what people normally imagine, Jesus did not come up with the saying himself. It is widely attested among ethical teachers in antiquity (as I’ll show). Since it was a virtual commonplace, wouldn’t it make sense that later followers of Jesus simply attributed it to him as the kind of thing ethical teachers typically said?
Here are some other instances of the Rule as stated in various ways by other teachers, some of them long before the days of Jesus. In most of these formulations (but not all of them), the Rule is expressed negatively (stating what should not be done) rather than positively (as opposed to Jesus’ formulation).
The rule is found, for example, among the ancient Greeks many centuries before Jesus. One of the characters described by the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century b.c.e.) says, “I will not myself do that which I consider to be blameworthy in my neighbor” (the negative form); and the Greek orator Isocrates (fourth century b.c.e.) said, “You should be such in your dealings with others as you expect me to be in my dealings with you (the positive form). The saying was present in Eastern cultures as well, most famously on the lips of Confucius (sixth century b.c.e.): “Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.”
Nearer to Jesus’ time, the Golden Rule was endorsed (in various forms of wording) in a number of Jewish writings. For example, in the apocryphal book of Tobit, we read, “And what you hate, do not do to anyone”; and in an ancient Jewish interpretation of the book of Leviticus, we find “Do not do to him (your neighbor) what you yourself hate.”
Perhaps the best-known expression of the rule in Jewish circles, however, comes from the most revered rabbi of Jesus’ day, the famous Rabbi Hillel. A pagan approached the rabbi and promised he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the entire Torah to him while standing on one leg. Hillel had a simple response, with a negative phrasing of the Golden Rule, very similar to what Jesus says in Matthew 7:12: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
Jesus, in short, was not the only teacher of his day who taught the Golden Rule, or who thought that the essence of the Law of Moses could be summed up in the commandment to love.
So did Jesus say it? Or was it a commonplace simply attributed to him, as to other great ethical teachers?
My view is that the fact the Rule appears on the lips of others does not mean that it did not also appear on Jesus’ lips. On one hand, if it’s the kind of thing ethical teachers often taught, then that might make it *more* likely Jesus said it. Even so, on the other hand, it is not multiply attested in independent sources as something said by Jesus. It’s true that it is found in both Matthew and Luke, but as often happens, they are therefore getting the saying from a common source, usually called “Q.” And so we have *one* source for Jesus saying it (it’s not, e.g., found in Mark or John) – and we would certainly be more confident that it was authentic if we had more attestation of it. On the yet other (third) hand, the saying does encapsulate so well the ethical teachings of Jesus otherwise that it really does sound consistent with what he would teach. Or does it?
The other argument against Jesus teaching the Golden Rule is not one you would expect. Bultmann and others have argued that the saying is precisely contrary to Jesus’ ethical teaching. The reason is interesting and worth considering. In this interpretation “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is predicated on a tit-for-tat guide to behavior, a rule that says that each person should gauge their behavior precisely on how others behave toward them.. In a sense it is like a positive formulation of the “lex talionis” (literally means: “law of retaliation”) that is, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Morality, here, is based on reciprocity, with your actions determined not by what is “right” or “commanded by God,” but by what the other guy’s doing or that you want him to do. In other words, it’s all about *you*: and what *you* want. In Bultmann’s words, that is nothing more than the “morality of a naïve egoism.”
Whoa. I never would have thought of it like that.
But now that I have thought about it, I don’t think it’s right. The lex talionis is not about how you are to behave in your daily life. It is about judicial punishment for crimes and transgressions. Contrary to what is usually thought, the notion of “an eye for an eye” is NOT meant to be a harsh and strict rule. It is a law that demands mercy instead of excess; the principle is that the “penalty should fit the crime.” If you knock out my tooth, I’m not entitled to lop off your head. The punishment needs to be commensurate.
A very big difference between the lex talionis and the Golden Rule is that the “law of retaliation” indicates how you are to deal with someone who has acted in violation of true moral or legal principles. The Golden Rule is not that at all. It is looking forward to how to treat others, not looking back on how they have treated you; it is a proactive rule not a reactive one, proscriptive not retributive. That is, it is meant as a guide for how you are to live; it is not a response to how others live.
If you ask how should I treat others, you already have the answer. You treat them the way you want to be treated, or like to be treated. You don’t need a list of rules and detailed guidelines, and even if you have such a list, there is more to morality than simply following the prescribed does and don’ts.
The goal of life is to care for others, help others, love others. That is repeatedly Jesus’ teachings: the summary of the law ass “love your neighbor as yourself,” the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the sheep and the goats. Help others in need. Do you need laws to show you what to do if someone is in need? No, just put yourself in their shoes. If you were hungry, what would you like someone with plenty of food to do for you? If you didn’t have a place to spend the night, what would you like someone with a spare room or at least room on the floor to do for you? If you were ill, what would you like someone who was in vibrant health to do for you? If you were being attacked by someone else, what would you like a bystander to do for you?
We all inherently know what we would like others to do for us. Even when we’re not in need. We like people to treat us kindly, to compliment us, say nice things to us, encourage us, support us, boost our spirits. We should do the same thing for them. That should be the guide of all our behavior, in all our relationships and in relationship even for others we don’t know, strangers, people living far off, those who are in need wherever they are.
That’s the Golden Rule. I think it’s perfectly consistent with Jesus’ teachings, that in fact it encapsulates his teachings. And I think he said it.