It is true that ancient ethics did enjoin beneficent acts on family, friends, and acquaintances of one’s own status when they were in need.  But normally such benefices were expected to produce gratitude and respect (elevating one’s status and social capital) and to bring a return; just as important, they were expected to be reciprocated if misfortune should strike the giver.  That is, they were not acts of pure altruism, or arguably altruistic at all.  Moreover, when social ethics entered into the picture – as they often did – they centered on matters of justice and piety (meaning something like “doing one’s duty” to family, city, and empire) so as to promote the welfare of the collective.  But the collective did not mean “all” the collective. For the elites who wrote and read this ethical discourse, it meant the ruling elite and/or the social class to which they themselves belonged.  That would, of course, make life better for themselves as well.  But there was virtually no concern to help those in lower social classes — that is, the vast majority of the population.  On the contrary, that kind of beneficence was widely and actively discouraged.

The ethical precepts I have just summarized are amply attested not only in the writings of high-level representatives of moral discourse in the early Empire (e.g., Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Plutarch, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius) but also in more “popular” modes of discourse such as widespread proverbs (unattributed nuggets of wisdom), gnomic sayings (attributed nuggets), and exempla (narrative exemplifications of nuggets).

It is scarcely known, let alone appreciated, that this entire ethical landscape of antiquity was transformed with the triumph of Christianity.

mosaic of jesus

The Religious Connections of Ethics

Unlike modern religion as it developed in the west, ethics were only loosely connected with religion in Greek and Roman paganism.  It is true that

to some limited extent the gods were concerned about how people behaved.  They in particular cared about issues of justice and piety, so that acts of oath breaking and, say, patricide, were particularly offensive to the divine order.  But most quotidian ethics – how one behaves in daily life – were not particularly related to religious practice.  The gods did not much care if you if you engaged in unseemly political machinations or slept with your neighbor’s spouse, let alone if your community slaughtered everyone in a neighboring village to acquire their land.  The gods were principally interested in how they were worshiped.  Religions focused on ancient cultic activities: prayer, offerings/sacrifices, and divination.  For that reason, rather than having a religious context, ancient ethics were for the most part a matter of philosophy at the upper echelons of society and of simply good social sense everywhere else.

That was different within the Christianity from the outset.  In the Jewish tradition of Jesus and his followers, “ethics” and social interaction were directly and closely tied to religious practice.  The many laws of the Torah can easily be divided, conceptually, into those involving proper worship and devotion to the God of Israel (avoidance of graven images, making sacrifices, observing Sabbath, kashrut, and so on) and those connected with social interactions — what we today would call “ethics” (proscriptions of murder, adultery, false testimony; provisions for defrauding others, paying restitution when your ox gored a neighbor’s daughter).  In the opinion of some later rabbis, the various provisions of Torah, cultic and ethical, could be summarized by the commandments to love – to love God in the ways he prescribed and to love one’s “neighbor.”

The Law of Moses

The original injunction in the Law of Moses to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) had a fairly restricted focus.  The “neighbor” was not simply anyone in the world.  It was a fellow Israelite.  There was no injunction to love outsiders.  For the most part, Israelites were not expected to love outsiders; on the contrary, they were repeatedly ordered to murder the Midianites, the Canaanites, and … just about everyone else who was a threat to their national security or religious purity.

Some later Jewish teachers, however, came to understand that the concept of love was to be applied more broadly.  We find indications of this broadening within the Jewish Scriptures themselves – for example, in that underappreciated gem of a short story, Jonah, where the prophet is punished precisely for not extending the love and mercy of God to his enemies, the Assyrians (responsible for the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel).  This broadening of the ethical horizon came to be endorsed by Jesus with unusual rigor.  Jesus had his own reasons for urging proper ethical behavior.  It was not in order to help society function well “for the long haul.”  For Jesus there was not going to be a long haul.  As an ardent apocalypticist, he preached that the world order was soon to be brought to a cataclysmic end through an intervention of God, who would destroy all the powers of evil and everyone aligned with them (the vast majority of the human race).  God would then set up a good kingdom on earth, where his chosen ones would live in peace and harmony forever.

Jesus’ Religious Ethics

To enter that “Kingdom of God” people needed to behave in ways he demanded.  Jesus appears to have had very little concern with the cultic laws and purity regulations of Scripture emphasized by other Jewish teachers (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.).  He had a minimal interest in sacrifices and ritual.  He was instead concerned with the “love commandment,” which in our earliest account of his teaching (Mark 12:28-34), is presented as a double commandment, to love “the Lord your God” with your entire being as required by Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and to “love your neighbor as yourself” as enjoined in Leviticus 19:18.

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2022-09-16T16:04:00-04:00September 11th, 2022|Early Judaism, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

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  1. Bennett September 11, 2022 at 8:12 am

    What about Leviticus 19:34, where it is required that Israelites must “treat the foreigner living among you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself…”. Would this not contravene your statement that Israelites were only commanded to love each other and nobody else?

    • BDEhrman September 12, 2022 at 12:50 pm

      Right! But it’s only the foreigner “living among you” (implied, probably, “adapting to your ways”). Those not were to be destroyed….

  2. meohanlon September 11, 2022 at 6:14 pm

    Prof. Ehrman,

    A couple questions:
    One of the things that interests me the most is the question of Jesus’ relationship to John the Bapist. In Luke, I believe, we find the Baptist preaching fairly similar ethics to Jesus’. To what extent do you think he simply repeated John, versus departing from his teaching?

    Did Jesus knowingly preach ideas whose value didn’t simply depend on how well they prepared the people for the soon-to-come day of judgement? That despite his main motivation being the latter, he was arguably interested in timeless truths as well. For instance, he seems very concerned about people vilifying the other, before examining themselves; not letting their egos get the better of them and fighting evil within first.

    • BDEhrman September 12, 2022 at 1:05 pm

      1. Since we don’t have independent accounts of John’s teachings I don’t think we can know how much of what Jesus said was what John had said earlier. But I’ve never met a student yet who didn’t develop or even contradict his teachers teachings; 2. I think that all of Jesus’ ethical teachings were directed to the same goal, of making a person do what God wanted in view of the imminent day of judgment. The examples you give easily fit that paradigm, I would say.

  3. Stephen September 11, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    1. Sounds like the focus of your book needs to be on Judaism as much or more than Christianity. Credit where credit’s due.

    2. Perhaps the real innovation of Christianity is not this or that practice but the introduction of the concept of a religious community not based on ethnicity or tribalism.

    • BDEhrman September 12, 2022 at 1:06 pm

      1. That’s why I mention it. 2. There were other religions like that as well, of course — including most pagan religions.

  4. Seeker1952 September 12, 2022 at 10:20 am

    In the NT or, to your knowledge, Christian history, is there often thought to be an important distinction between “self-sacrificing love” and “self-giving love”? No doubt there are situations that call for the former, eg, parents for their children. But as a central ideal of Christian love, doesn’t an over-emphasis on self-sacrifice suggest an undervaluing of the loving individual? At least to me, self-giving love suggests that the individual is sharing his/her whole self including talents, personality, etc with others, enriching the lives of others. And that the “self-actualized” person is best able to be the most self-giving.

    I also wonder if this could be an important approach to reconciling the Christian ethic of love with the parts of Greek/Roman ethics that focus on self-actualization.

    • Seeker1952 September 13, 2022 at 10:09 am

      Rather than self-sacrificing or even self-giving love, what about using a term like self-sharing love? That may not be the kind of love that the NT talks about. But it seems like a more balanced ideal of love.

      • BDEhrman September 13, 2022 at 9:02 pm

        Yes, in the modern world that would be more appropriate. but it’s not what early Christians talked about….

    • BDEhrman September 13, 2022 at 5:35 pm

      I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the distinction. But I do think that the early CHristians did not see it as undervaluing the one who made the self sacrifice. Jesus is the model, and he was thought to have done this as God incarnate. The idea is that hte individual giver is *hugely* valuable, but is willing to sacrifice her own value for another.

  5. charrua September 12, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    “That was different within the Christianity from the outset.”

    Paul, encouraging the Corinthians to finance the “collection” (2 Corinthians 9:5-15):

    “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously”
    “God loves a cheerful giver”

    “You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion”

    “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God”

    “others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ…
    and in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.”

    It’s odd that Paul did not promise the Corinthians with points to earn salvation in the upcoming end of the world …no .. the idea is that by giving you are “sowing”.

    You give , the Jerusalem saints praise God and God helps you !!!!

    I can ‘t see any difference with the “pagan ” view .

    • BDEhrman September 13, 2022 at 8:40 pm

      Then you’ll need to read my book. 🙂

      • charrua September 14, 2022 at 2:38 pm

        I will certainly do it!

        But I also follow your suggestion about going to the sources.
        And what a good source Paul’s letters are! a window to the early church and a model to follow by laters chrsitians.

        According to Paul the main reasons the corinthians had for helping the Jerusalm saints were:

        1) To win a charity contest against the Macedonians (2 Cor 8:1-12)

        2) To have a kind of insurance, the “Jerusalem saints” eventually could also help them in the future (2 Cor 8:13-15)
        (it is no clear if the retribution would be also in cash…in Romans 15:27 Paul explains that “ if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” maybe is just a variant of point 4)

        3) To avoid embarrassing Paul and themselves (2 Cor 9:1-4)

        4) The aforementioned virtuous circle “You give-Jerusalem saints pray the lord in your name – the lord helps you -you become richer – You give again…and so on” (2 Cor 9:5-15)

        Not a word about the situation of the poors in Jerusalem, Paul prefers to use envy,pride and greed to convince the Corinthians than to generate empathy.

  6. giselebendor September 12, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    Great focus for a new book! Love, the root of all that’s good.

    Many questions:

    Is the right to the ” pursuit of happiness”, a selfish goal, relevant in a strongly Christian nation?

    How does the ” love of neighbor” relate to God’s love in sacrificing his child, and/or Jesus’ humble agreement to be the one sacrificed?

    I’m reading ” The Triumph of Christianity” and saw also there the mention of Rome’s ” domination” character. But I can’t see how the profound dominance of the Church was a better option.

    I am not sure what you mean by later Rabbis synthesizing the Torah by combining “love your God” and ” love your neighbor”. I thought this was an original, genius statement of Jesus!
    It’s perhaps beside the question how can anyone be commanded to love anything at all.

    Lastly, the hate issues. History does not show that the Christian Roman empire loved their enemies, another utopian notion which would have prevented all wars, had it been possible to realize it.

    Conversely, was it ” permitted” to hate evil? Certainly, an apocalyptic God himself promises the massive slaughter of the non-Christians and the non-righteous Christians, whom God considers evil.

    • BDEhrman September 13, 2022 at 8:44 pm

      Ah, too much for one response! Each of them would take an entire post. But pursuit of happiness was the goal of moral discourse in Greek and Roman circles (the explicit point of Aristotle); Christians too sought for personal well-being: but starting with Jesus they thought it could not come until after this life, and everything in this life was to be geared toward it. Deferred gradification. Love of neighbor means giving everything for someone else: God gave his son, his son gave his life, his followers should follow suit. In none of this am I saing it’s my preferred ethic. 🙂 But yes, there are Jewish sources that summarize the Torah with the love command (Hillel, e.g.) and that see the Decalogue itself as being about having a proper relationship with God and a proper relation with humans, sometimes summarized as piety and justice.

      • giselebendor September 14, 2022 at 4:27 pm

        O, my, so sorry! I was just thinking out loud, never expected to be answered. I knew of course it would not be possible. But you did a virtuoso job of answering quite a few, nevertheless. It’s such a magnificent huge subject, it simply inspired much thinking, for which I thank you.

  7. fishician September 12, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Earlier this year I read the Analects of Confucius and I have read about the teachings of the Buddha. Confucius seems mostly concerned with ethics, particularly in government, but not much of what I would call religion. The Buddha seemed more concerned with personal wisdom and a moral lifestyle than religion. Hinduism is very diverse and I don’t know if their system of ethics is necessarily derived from their religious beliefs. So, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions seem to be the ones that tie their moral code directly to their religion, specifically, to the teachings supposedly passed down by God through His chosen prophets. It seems to me that part of the attraction of the Eastern philosophies over Western religion is that they put more emphasis on personal experience, empathy and reflection, and less on questionable external authorities (in theory, at least).

  8. fragmentp52 September 12, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    I’m really enjoying this set of posts Bart. Great work. The “Save to PDF” and “Print Page” are also great additions.

    Most of the Christians I have observed over the journey seem to practice the Levitical version of the Love Commandment, unfortunately.

  9. R_Gerl September 12, 2022 at 5:53 pm

    Sorry for being off topic but I want to ask this: have scholars considered the possibility that Judas Iscariot is a hero? If the pouring of oil on Jesus’ head, Mark 12, was secretly an anointing of Jesus as messiah (that Judas unexpectedly walked in on) then Judas would be scared that their movement would now attack the Romans. He would be scared of (1) their rebellion against the Romans would result in Jerusalem being sacked, (2) the Romans would destroy them first in order to prevent that, and (3) if he gives Jesus to the Jerusalem authorities, to prevent those first two possibilities, then Jesus other followers would kill him in revenge. Judas Iscariot would be terrified after seeing that Jesus is now claiming himself a messiah because no option is good for him. In betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot may have heroically saved Jerusalem from being sacked around 30CE. Perhaps Judas Iscariot was murdered by other disciples of Jesus in revenge for the betrayal and they made it look like a suicide. Maybe that had something to do with them staying in Jerusalem. This theory seems plausible to me.

    • BDEhrman September 13, 2022 at 8:59 pm

      Oh yes, scholars have pretty much considered every option for most everything in the NT! And of course in a number of the portrayals of Judas in fiction and film he is shown to be the good guy, including the basic option you’re tracing here. (E.g., Jesus Christ Superstar)

      • R_Gerl September 14, 2022 at 7:44 pm

        Never saw Superstar, but maybe someday. Since the synoptic gospels say that Jesus `sent out the seventy’ that suggests that Jesus had 70 or 82 disciples (82 if the 70 doesn’t include the top twelve). Each of them would have two or three servants, friends or family members accompanying them, so Jesus public ministry included a caravan of around 300 people with him (not a mere 13 men with a few women as commonly thought). As you know, the New Testament says Jesus had those 300 people spread palms before him as he entered Jerusalem and many of them had swords. Understandably, the authorities and, perhaps, Judas Iscariot would be frightened by what might happen especially over the provocative stuff Jesus allegedly did: disturbing the temple and so on. If Jesus wasn’t trying to start a rebellion, then perhaps he had what psychologists call a death wish: he wanted to die and by claiming himself to be a messiah he could get his wish. In that scenario, the last supper was a deliberate goodbye meal. The bottom line seems to be that there is insufficient information to reconstruct what really happened.

  10. geofff September 12, 2022 at 7:49 pm

    What an excellent post – & certainly a great title! I’ve certainly known a few religious people who seem not to be influenced too much by ethics!!
    I think the bedrock of the ethical teaching ascribed to Jesus, which like most of it was not new, is the supremacy of integrity & the loathing of hypocracy. This can also be expressed as “Be true to yourself” or “Do what you think is right”. Such a universal, timeless & simple message.

  11. Seeker1952 September 13, 2022 at 10:15 am

    Are the Hebrew “hesed” and the Greek “agape” similar or roughly the same in meaning?

    Somewhere I read that the basic idea or original derivation behind hesed was a mother’s love for her children? Is that correct?

    • BDEhrman September 15, 2022 at 7:11 pm

      I suppose they are related. Hesed means something like lovingkindness. I haven’t checked to see how it’s translated inthe Septuagint, but unlike pagan Greek literature, the Septuagint does use the term agape. As to hesed, I don’t think we know how it was originally used since our knowledge of ancient Hebrew all comes from the Bible itself.

  12. Duke12 September 13, 2022 at 1:59 pm

    I’ve read similar explanations of the difference between pagan and Judeo-Christian ethics from Christian intellectuals, but with the implied hint that no non-believing scholar would _ever_ figure out this distinction since they aren’t being guided by the Holy Spirit in their heart. For the non-believing scholar it’s always going to be “Christians bad, non-Christians good” (cite your favorite 18th or 19th Century example here: Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, etc.). You’re messing with this narrative, Bart! 🙂

  13. Jac September 16, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    I still think a lot of Christian giving is deep down not that altruistic. There is the “give and it will be given to you…” (whether material or spiritual blessings) teaching. There is giving to impress outsiders so they might become Christians (and join the giving brigade!). There is giving directed only to fellow Christians with the idea that one will receive if one’s own circumstances become needy. I just don’t see so much giving with absolutely no strings attached.

  14. AndySeattle September 18, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    In Mark 5:31 (NRSV), Jesus says “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.”
    That has to mean that Matthew’s Jesus regards the divorced woman as sinning (b/c adultery was understood to be a sin according to the 10 Commandments), right?

    That strikes me as an unfair rule, but it also seems to be what Jesus said!

    Somebody told me that the NIV translates Jesus’s words as “. . .makes her the victim of adultery.”

    Question: Is there any basis in the original Greek for the NIV translation, or is the NIV just translating freely (maybe in order to make Jesus’s words more acceptable to modern sensibilities)?

    • BDEhrman September 19, 2022 at 12:04 pm

      Do you mean Matthew 5:32? The literally says, “anyone who divorces his wife except on ground of adultery….” You should look at this saying in all the Gospels, since it is given differently in different places (Matthew himself has it twice)

  15. Douglas September 21, 2022 at 10:19 am

    Bart – I stumbled over your first sentence today. The ambiguous word “enjoin” can mean “strongly/officially prohibit” or “strongly/officially require/encourage” — polar opposites. I am most familiar with the legal “prohibit” meaning. I enjoin you to eschew the word “enjoin” and, for clarity, to choose a synonym (require, recommend, encourage) in cases like this. 🙂

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