Possibly the best-known teaching of Jesus is the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Many people would consider this the very core of Jesus’ teaching, the one line that sums up his entire message about how people ought to behave and live their lives. And so it probably seems strange that there are scholars who doubt that he actually said it.
Do they have good grounds for thinking so?
In a later post I’ll consider a couple of the best arguments against thinking Jesus said it and then (spoiler alert!). I’ll explain why, in the end, I don’t find the arguments convincing. I think Jesus probably did say it, and even if he didn’t actually say it, I think it brilliantly encapsulates his message.
In this post I’ll set up the discussion by explaining the first appearance of the words in any of our sources, i.e., the Gospel of Matthew.
Before getting to the Gospel of Matthew, I should acknowledge that some of you might be thinking: of *course* Jesus didn’t say these precise words: they are ENGLISH! Yup, fair enough. And it’s even more complicated, since the English words are translations from the GREEK New Testament. And Jesus didn’t speak Greek. He spoke Aramaic. So the Greek words we’re translating into English are themselves Greek translations of words in Aramaic, if they were ever spoken (by Jesus or anyone else) in Aramaic. And something is always lost in translation.
To make things yet more complicated, the common way of stating the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do to you) is not actually a literal translation of what the Greek words of the New Testament say: in the Gospels, when Jesus gives the Golden Rule, the clauses are given in reverse (or rather translators give the clauses in reverse). He *begins* by talking about “the things that you wish people to do for you” and *ends* by saying “do them” or “do likewise.” English translators simply don’t think that way of saying it is as catchy.
Yet more complicated (this is the last complication I’ll mention) the (only) two places in the Gospels that quote the words (in Greek) word them differently; when you see the differences you might think they are rather slight – and fair enough! – but if you want to know what Jesus actually said, it helps to know which words he is said to have used.
The saying is quoted in Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” the three-chapter sermon found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. This is almost certainly the most famous sermon of Jesus in the entire New Testament, filled with famous ethical teachings and presenting the Beatitudes, the Antitheses (“You have heard it said … But I say to you…”), the Lord’s Prayer, numerous famous images and instructions, including, yup, the golden saying of Matthew 7:12: “And so, those things you want people to do for you, do likewise for them.” It is worth noting that Matthew then adds a highly significant statement that explains the supreme importance of the “Rule”: “For this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Nothing could be more important for Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew than fulfilling the law and the prophets, as I’ll try to explain.
I start by pointing out that the Sermon on the Mount is found only in Matthew (i.e., the other Gospels don’t have it, though Luke, especially, has a number of his sayings, delivered by Jesus on various occasions) and Matthew gives it as the first of five major sermons that Jesus gives in this Gospel. Does the fact that this sermon comes *first*, in the Gospel, as the first extended public teaching of Jesus of any kind, say something about its significance?
The first four chapters of Matthew narrate Jesus’ birth, baptism, temptation, and calling of the disciples. Prior to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus (in Matthew) says only seven words (in Greek) to the public (he does talk directly with John the Baptist before being baptized; with the Devil during his three temptations; and to the disciples when he calls them – that is, these are private conversations). After his temptation he begins his public proclamation with the key words that summarize his entire mission, as Matthew himself indicates by saying that “At that time Jesus began to preach and say…” So this was the beginning of his preaching to the public. And what he says (for his entire public ministry) is summarized: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is almost here” (literally, something like, “has come near,” often translated “is at hand”; Matt. 4:17).
What matters for Jesus in Matthew, as well as the other two “Synoptic” Gospels, Mark and Luke, is that God’s kingdom is about to arrive, and people need to prepare for it by repenting of their misdeeds and disobedience and return to God. How does one do that? How should people change their ways? How should they behave? What does God want of them?
That’s what the Sermon on the Mount tells them. As I indicated, many close readers of the Gospel have been struck by the fact that this is the first of *five* major collections of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew (the others are his instructions to his disciples in ch. 10; his parables of the Kingdom in ch. 13; his additional teachings about the Kingdom and the church in ch. 18; and the “woes” directed against the scribes and Pharisees and the apocalyptic description of the coming destruction of all things in chs. 23-25). Why does Matthew have five of these extended discourses?
The number five should resonate with Bible readers. The first extended set of instructions for how people are to obey God and live together are in the Hebrew Bible, the Law of Moses. Which is found in the Pentateuch, which literally means “the five scrolls.” These are the five books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Striking. Moses has five books; Jesus has five sermons.
Is that an accident? It certainly might be. But it is worth while thinking for a second about how Matthew in particular wants to portray Jesus. He does so by telling stories – some of them found only in his Gospel – that show clearly that he sees Jesus as the new Moses who is closely connected with the original Moses, the one who led the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. That is, in the Old Testament, Moses was the one who was used by God to bring salvation.
That, of course, is the point of Jesus in Matthew. We learn that at the very beginning, when Joseph learns that Mary has become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and is instructed to name the child “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21) The Greek name Iesus (comes into English as Jesus) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua (comes into English as, well, Joshua) which literally means “Yahweh is salvation.” So of course he is named Jesus. Through him, God will bring salvation, as he did through Moses.
Matthew then tells a sequence of stories meant to show the close ties between Jesus and Moses. Jesus is born in a nation under foreign control (Rome instead of Egypt); the ruler of the land learns of his existence and considers him dangerous (Herod instead of Pharaoh); the ruler tries to destroy him (sending the troops to kill all young boys in Bethlehem instead of ordering the murder of all the boys in Egypt); but Jesus escapes because Joseph and Mary take him away, precisely to Egypt; after the death of the ruler Jesus leaves Egypt, as Moses did at the Exodus (and Matthew makes the allusion clear by quoting Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” – originally referring to the children of Israel, now referring to Jesus); he passes through the water to begin a new life (the waters of baptism instead of the waters of the Sea of Reeds/Red Sea); he is tempted in the wilderness for forty days (as the children of Israel were tempted in the wilderness for forty years); he then begins to instruct his followers by going up on a mountain and delivering God’s law (the sermon given on the Mount instead of the Law given on Mount Sinai).
Clearly Matthew is portraying Jesus as the new Moses (many of these early accounts are found only in his Gospel). Jesus is the one who gives the new law, in order to fulfill the new covenant. This will not be a contradictory law, but a new understanding of the law, a correct interpretation of the law, a fuller exposition of the law, a true – the ultimately true – explanation of what God really wants as embodied in the law, all in the Sermon on the Mount.
When Jesus then gives the Golden Rule, near the end of the Sermon, he emphatically states, it *is* the law and the prophets: the teaching of the entire Bible. This simple saying is the encapsulation of God’s entire law and the proclamation of all his prophets. Whoa.
Luke also has the Golden Rule. But it’s worded a bit differently, as we’ll see. But did Jesus say it at all? That’s what we’ll be considering in a later post.