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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