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The Golden Rule

After all the background I gave yesterday, I can now give a succinct answer to the question that was raised by a reader.  Here it is again.



I was surprised to see that, in the Didache, the form of the Golden Rule is in the negative. I’ve read that the positive formulation in the Sermon on the Mount may be original to Jesus. If the Didache used Matthew as a source, how does one account for that reversion?



I think this question has a simple answer.   It is that the Golden Rule, which is known to everyone today mainly by the way Jesus said it, was a common teaching but was almost expressed negatively rather than positively (as I’ll explain below).   When the author of the Didache states the rule he does so in the form that he was most familiar with rather than in the form known to Matthew.

It is important to recognize that when one speaks of Matthew as a “source” for the Didache it is not the same thing as saying, say, that Mark was the source for Matthew.  When Matthew used Mark as a source, he literally copied, in places word for word, entire sentences or even fuller passages from Mark.  Most of Mark’s stories are retained by Matthew, sometimes wholesale, sometimes changed a little, sometimes changed a lot.

The Didachist did not …

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The Didachist did not use Matthew that way.  Instead, if we assume he used Matthew at all (which I do), he took this, that, or the other saying of Jesus from Matthew (and from other sources) and rephrased it (often based on his knowledge of Luke, or some oral tradition, or some other written source).  He was not producing a *Gospel* and so didn’t simply take over entire passages wholesale.

And so, if he knew of a saying of Jesus, such as the Golden Rule, he may have known it from a wide range of sources and did not slavishly reproduce it.  Even if he knew Matthew’s form of the Golden Rule, he doubtless knew it in other forms as well – and usually it was expressed negatively rather than positively (Matthew has the positive form).  I explain some of that in my New Testament textbook as follows:


BOX 9.3 The Golden Rule

The most familiar form of the golden rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Many people think that Jesus was the first to propound this ethical principle, but in fact it was given in a variety of forms by moral philosophers from the ancient world. In most of these formulations, it is expressed negatively (stating what should not be done) rather than positively.

The rule was 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.) said, “I will not myself do that which I consider to be blameworthy in my neighbor,” 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 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 him that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the entire Torah to him while standing on one leg. Hillel’s terse reply sounds remarkably like the statement of Jesus in Matt 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.[/private]

How Were Books Published in the Ancient World?
Once More: The Interesting Text Called the Didache



  1. Avatar
    Eric  March 13, 2018

    In the Hillel story, did the Rabbi stand on one leg while he uttered this? A bit of a picture, a revered sage submitting to a silly challenge.

    • Avatar
      dankoh  March 15, 2018

      Probably. Hillel had a sense of humor.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  March 13, 2018

    Leaving aside his fate and the movement started by his disciples, was there anything truly original or innovative about the historical Jesus and his ideas?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2018

      Probably not.

      • Avatar
        farmert  March 18, 2018

        Do you think any of the parables were original to Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2018

          Yes, I think he certainly spoke in parables — e.g. the various ones involving seeds.

  3. Avatar
    Tony  March 13, 2018

    Why should the Didache not be a source for Matthew, instead of the other way around? The Didache uses Paul’s term “apostles” and not the later gospel “disciples”. It also quotes Paul’s first coming, ( not returning, coming back or again, etc.), of Jesus as in 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2018

      Yes, that’s the other option. But, of course, the term “apostle” gets used throughout the entire history of Christianity.

      • Avatar
        Tony  March 25, 2018

        True, but there are no disciples to be found in Paul’s letters. Disciples first appear in Mark – who turned Paul’s Jerusalem Pillars into Galilean fishermen. Matthew 4:18-22 just copies Mark as per usual.

      • Avatar
        AGarrow  March 31, 2018

        The option that Matthew used the Didache (a some stage in its development) is worth exploring for at least three reasons.
        1. The Didache is a multi-author text – and yet elements from across the piece appear in Matthew. This is explicable if Matthew quarried material from across the breadth of the Didache (at some stage in its development). Otherwise we have to imagine than each contributor to the Didache happened to treat Matthew or Matthew’s sources in a remarkably similar way.
        2. The places where Matthew and Didache share words and passages virtually always match places where Matthew does not have a specific parallel in Mark or Luke. This is explicable if Matthew drew in material from the Didache where this supplemented similar material in Mark and Luke. Otherwise we have to imagine that different contributors to the Didache all had the same extraordinary affinity for elements of Matthew that do not appear in Mark or Luke.
        3. It is remarkable that, where Matthew and the Didache share common material, Matthew, without exception, places this directly on the lips of Jesus – even though it almost never has this explicit status in the Didache. If the creators of the Didache all knew Matthew’s Gospel, then why did they generally miss the opportunity to enhance the authority of these sayings by pointing out that they are the words of Jesus?

        Assumptions about the primacy of canonical over non-canonical literature have meant that, despite the interesting features noted above, the possibility that Matthew used Luke received no scholarly attention until 2004 – that’s 131 years after the Didache’s discovery. Details of that research are available here: https://www.alangarrow.com/didache-and-matthew.html . Videos of a more recent article arguing that Matthew and Luke both made direct use of Did. 1.2-5a (a passage that includes the Golden Rule) are available here https://www.alangarrow.com/extantq.html .

    • Avatar
      ardeare  March 15, 2018

      Because most scholars date Matthew to 60-70 CE and the Didache to 100-125 CE. If we’re talking about an *oral* tradition of the Didache pre-dating Matthew, I find that extremely interesting. That then opens up the possibility that churches, in the form of meeting houses during Jesus’ lifetime, could have existed and therefore Jesus, not Paul or the Apostles, is responsible for organizing the early church.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  March 16, 2018

        Whom do you include among “most scholars?” My understanding of current scholarship places Matthew after Mark, which means 70s/80s.

        • Avatar
          ardeare  March 18, 2018

          Well, most scholars do have Mark before Matthew. But, they also have Mark earlier than 70 CE. I’m not going to spend time researching articles and books (you can do that) that clearly shows most Christian Scholars put the Synoptics earlier than your dates. The secular folks hold onto certain views very hard. Namely, that the gospels were written later (for purposes of taking away eyewitnesses), that they are anonymous (not even companions of the apostles or relying on any named apostle as a source, such as Matthew), and the original text contains massive changes (from copying again and again). There is probably not a better way to defend these arguments than to push the gospels further and further from the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

          Being that there are far more Christian NT Scholars than Non-Christian provides my reasoning for saying ‘most’. The dates don’t vary wildly. There is only so much of a timetable.

      • Avatar
        AGarrow  March 31, 2018

        ‘Most scholars’ is a potentially misleading phrase. It might be more useful to say is that most contemporary specialist Didache scholars date it to the second half of the first century – and most also judge that it contains materials from a range of different dates across that period. This means that some parts of the Didache may be very early, while others may be later.

  4. Avatar
    Carlflygt  March 13, 2018

    A more impressive formulation is Kant’s:

    Will in such a way that what you do could be willed by all sentient beings, as a law of nature.

    Kant is characterizing the self-consciousness and the world of the angels.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 16, 2018

      If I will to be a psychiatrist, Kant’s imperative would forbid it because the world can’t use 7+ billion psychiatrists. It needs a few plumbers also.

  5. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 14, 2018

    I’ve actually tried to figure out the most unself centered way one might express the rule. I think it would go something like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, if you were they and they were you.”

  6. Avatar
    balivi  March 14, 2018

    It is also possible the Ten Commandments (thereby the Torah) originally came from Confession of negative from Nu’s papyrus, Egyptian Death Book (Brit. Mus. No. 10477, 22. p). It is essential that Jewish writings usually really confession of negative. The interesting thing is that, (in Matt 7:12) Jesus uses a non-denying formula. Was Jesus the only teacher of the day who rightly taught the golden rule? Maybe…

  7. webo112
    webo112  March 14, 2018

    Interesting that you say “probably not”…I’ve been always curious as to your opinions on this.

    So in analyzing the historical Jesus, and removing sayings/ideas that were probably not his, and also putting aside the apocalyptic ideas…there were still nothing innovative/new?
    I thought his views/interpretations on how one should follow the Torah and Jewish laws were in fact new (perhaps I do not know enough based on common disputes and ideas of all the debating Jewish sects)

    Even his ideas of “..loving the father above all else” (if he said this) etc are not unique? Nor his reversal of fortunes (for poor/oppressed etc) and that he “championed” and surrounded himself with the poor and sick?

    Or is it that the “unique” ideas *are present* BUT seem to come from the various authors and their intended message & audience, and not originate with the historical Jesus himself- concluded on evidence/historical methods?

    It would be very interesting to get your take on this comparison – I have read your historical Jesus book, and have listened to your great courses on this a few times over in fact (it’s my favorite course and book) and I have not really heard these types of commentaries from you, aside from the strong apocalyptic ideas and their context – I thought there were still some new and unique ideas (all bound within his apocalyptic message)


    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2018

      His words about loving God are simply a quotatoin of Deuteronomy 6:4-6. That’s the thing — almost everything he can be shown to have said was said by others as well.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 15, 2018

        If we’re going to be honest, almost anything anybody ever said in history has been said by somebody else before.

        There’s a story called “Lolita.” (Sound familiar?) It’s about an older sophisticated man who falls in love with with the prepubescent daughter of his landlady, and cannot resist acting upon his attraction. The ‘romance,’ if you want to call it that, ends tragically.

        It was written by one Heinz von Lichberg, and published in 1916.


        Nobody has been able to prove thus far that Vladimir Nabokov was familiar with it. The general literary consensus is that his version is best.

        I think the general consensus about Jesus’ Golden Rule is about the same, and it’s a lot less controversial (though all versions of TGR are problematic to carry out in day-to-day reality).

        It’s not about saying it first. It’s about saying it best. And convincing the largest number of people. Jesus didn’t invent The Golden Rule, but he did more than all the others combined to popularize it.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  March 16, 2018

          I have read the opinion that some discoveries, inventions, insights, are a product more of their time and place than the individuals who take credit. Had Albert Einstein been killed in a train wreck in 1904, there may have been no Theories of Relativity in 1905/15, but soon thereafter, the argument goes. Karen Armstrong has tried to popularize the notion that the Golden Rule is a product of the axial age in religion, and came in a space of a few centuries to every major civilization. Was it because of Confucian missionaries or because the time was ripe for such an idea?

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 21, 2018

            Not only would there have been a theory of evolution by natural selection without Darwin, Darwin was actually beaten to the punch there by Alfred Russel Wallace, who would today be remembered as the progenitor of that idea, if he hadn’t made the mistake of sending his manuscript to Darwin, who was still vacillating over the fine details. Darwin had a lot of influential friends, who saw to it that the papers got published together, and Darwin would retain primacy (which even his admirers will admit, mattered a great deal to him).

            Most of Marx’s ideas were just adaptations of various earlier thinkers, socialist and otherwise.

            However, it’s not just the idea that matters, but how effectively you lay it out. Presentation matters. Anyone can have an idea. Not anyone can make that idea forceful enough to break into the larger popular consciousness.

      • webo112
        webo112  March 19, 2018

        Wow, that’s quite surprising and shocking to me…so then it’s what the followers came up with that started to make the Christian movement unique (I’m half way through your new book btw)

        Ok, and would it be accurate to say then that John the Baptist then did indeed come up with a unique idea?

        On this topic, there is no obvious theologian that came up with the idea of the anontment death of Jesus Christ right? This was one of the earliest ideas that came out of the early followers of Jesus….that Paul inherited. But it’s not attributed to any one person or desciple correct? Sorry for such basic question.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 21, 2018

          No, there were other apocalyptic prophets much like John as well! And yes, we don’t know who was first to come up with the idea of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice.

  8. Avatar
    Pegill7  March 14, 2018

    Off the point, but I’m reading your new book for the second time and a question occurs to me concerning Constantine. I can’t recall where I read this and it is probably not true, but an author claimed that Constantine was baptized by an Arian clergyman. In view of the fact that Constantine was not a theologian and may not have understood the details of the Nicean settlement is this possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2018

      He was on his deathbed and had the bishop closest to him in proximity do the baptism; it happened to be an Arian. But yes, he was no theologian and was over his head in theological debates.

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