My book I’m working on now has gone through significant transformations since I first conceived of it a few years ago.  I am at the stage now (finally!) where I really think I know what it’s going to be. 

It started out as a book dealing with the history of charitable giving, morphed into a book on the broader subject of ethics as taught by Jesus, moved onto the specific question of how the Christian concept of “love” differed in significant ways from what could be found generally in the Greek and Roman worlds, shifted to add a discussion of how the Christian idea of “forgiveness” also differed fron what was found elsewhere and … and ended up where it is now.  It is really a book about altruism in the Christian tradition and its effect on the ethical views and practices of western culture.

My tentative title is:  The Origins of Altruism: How the Teachings of Jesus Transformed the Conscience of the West.  As always, I have no idea if my publisher will go with it or not, but I rather like it.  (The book is under contract with Simon & Schuster; my deadline is the end of August.) (Don’t get too excited/distraught by the title yet.  I’ll be explaining what it means and what it doesn’t, as you’ll see).

I decided a week or so ago to write up more concretely what the book would be about, a fairly detailed sketch/outline of how I was imagining it.  And yesterday I realized that it might be interesting, informative, and  useful for me to float this sketch in front of all of you, for any feedback you’d like to give.

This will take five or six posts.  Here is how I begin the sketch:

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The Origins of Altruism: How the Teachings of Jesus Transformed the Conscience of the West.  

Bart D. Ehrman

The Basic Theme/Issue

How the ethics of Jesus radically affected moral reasoning and behavior in the western world.

 

The Overarching Point

Evolutionary psychologists have long known that some forms of altruistic behavior were essential for the survival of hominids in a violent and uncaring world.  As a result, in-group altruism forms a part of our DNA.  But extreme altruism — behavior radically focused on the “other” to the severe detriment of the self — would lead to extinction.

Altruism as practiced from time immemorial till now has focused more on genetically related groups (you are more likely to save your child from a burning house than a distant relative, given the choice) and to others with close social ties (friends instead of strangers).   This evolutionary reality was clearly manifest throughout the ethical views and behaviors of ancient human societies, including the Greek and Roman worlds into which Christianity was born. 

My thesis is that the ethical teachings of Jesus, based on his Jewish inheritance but intensified by his apocalyptic expectation of the coming end of all things, were radically altruistic, focused on the selfless care of others to the extreme.  These teachings came to be mollified by his followers after his death, but even in these altered terms they came to transform the moral sense of those within Christian communities and the behaviors to which they aspired.   When the Christian faith became the dominant religion of the West, moral thought and behavior – on both the individual and societal level – changed significantly from the traditional morality found throughout the Greek and Roman worlds.  The salubrious results of this shift, in both psyche and behavior, have significantly affected western civilization down till today.

 

Further Exposition

Ancient Greek and Roman pagans were just as ethical, in their way, as modern western Christians.  Oddly to many people today, however, ethical instruction for was generally not rooted in religious beliefs and practices, but in (a) common sense, (b) understanding the importance of communal life and, (c) moral philosophy as it trickled down into the broader consciousness.   In that world, as in most societies before and since, “selfless behavior toward others” (a rough definition of “altruism”) was understood as warranted and justified almost entirely only toward close relations – family, friends, and, to a lesser extent, local communities.

The Jewish world shared those views to a great extent.  “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus (19:18)  referred to personal relations within the community.  In the Hebrew Bible Israelites were to treat fellow Israelites considerately, but not outsiders: Israel was (divinely) ordered to slaughter the Canaanites. 

Even so, the God of the Old Testament was a God of love, who insisted that his people love him to the extreme, and to love one another.  “Love” in his context did not entail feelings or emotions per se; it involved actions, behaving in ways (regardless of personal feelings) that benefited others in the community.  In addition, differently from the vast majority of ancient cultures, for Israelites this love of others was not to be enacted only toward one’s close intimates (family, friends, and the local community itself), but also, and especially, for those in need, even if complete (Israelite) strangers.  Such teachings are prominent in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the book of Deuteronomy and Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah and Amos.

My argument in this book is that Jesus inherited this moral sense of “helping those in need” – which is more or less his definition of “love” – but that he radicalized it in two major ways: 

  1. Since Jesus, like many others in his day, held an apocalyptic understanding of the Jewish faith, he believed that the world was currently under the sway of evil powers opposed to God and his people, but that God had appointed a limit to this age of wickedness and was very soon to intervene to reassert his sovereignty over the world by destroying everything and everyone who opposed him and setting up a new order on the earth, a Kingdom ultimately ruled by himself, the Kingdom of God. God had designed this world originally as a paradise (Eden), but humans (or angelic forces) had botched it, leading to the horrific reality of life on earth.  God, however, was soon to return the world to his original purpose, ending all suffering caused by the forces of evil and inaugurating a new age of peace, joy, and love, for all time.  Jesus believed that to enter this utopian Kingdom people needed to follow God’s will and oppose the forces of evil, doing everything in their power to reverse their painful effects.  This happened through helping those who were desolate, starving, homeless, outcast, victimized, and in any other way suffering.  Moreover, since the promised end was coming soon, no one should hold back any resources to intervene in countering evil. Those with wealth and property should sell all they have and give to the poor.

It is not enough to be generous.  One should give up everything – even their own life if necessary.  This is a kind of prophetic ethic on apocalyptic steroids.

  1. In addition, such acts of altruism were not to be restricted in scope. God had created the entire world and the entire human race, starting with Adam, not just the Jewish people starting with Abraham; God loved the world, not just his chosen ones; God would redeem the world, not just Israel.  His salvation would come to everyone who followed his ways, whether Jew or Gentile.  “Many will come from East and West and enter the kingdom”(Matthew 8:11).  Being a Jew would not bring salvation when the coming destruction arrived.  Living as God wanted would. 

For Jesus, salvation would come to those who provided food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, housing for the homeless, clothing for the naked – helping those in need, whatever their nationality, beliefs, religious practices, social standing, or anything else (the good Samaritan who helps the enemy is the model, Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus thus not only stressed the urgency of the moment here at the End of the Age, he universalized the focus of the prophetic call to help all those in need and claimed that such altruistic behavior would lead to the kingdom for gentiles as well as Jews (as in, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats; Matthew 25:31-46).

 

I will pick up at this point in the next post to explain further what I’ll actually be arguing (it’s not a book just about Jesus, but about the history of ethical thinking in the West) and how the book will be structured.

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2024-01-16T14:50:37-05:00January 17th, 2024|Book Discussions, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

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42 Comments

  1. 4q1b56o63ip7 January 17, 2024 at 7:54 am

    How the Teachings of Jesus Transformed the Conscience of the West = how US evangelical Christians came to believe the precise opposite of Jesus’ teachings?

    • BDEhrman January 17, 2024 at 12:23 pm

      Yeah, it’s interesting how some evangelical leaders are saying that Jesus was “too soft” in the Sermon on the Mount.

  2. fishician January 17, 2024 at 9:55 am

    I hear people criticize the teachings of Jesus: giving away your possessions only creates one more poor person; turning the other cheek enables bullies; plucking out your eye if it causes you to stumble is self-mutilation. I think this is the result of ignoring the apocalyptic nature of his teachings and simply thinking too shallowly about philosophic teachings. In your book will you address the potential downside of Jesus’ teachings, or try to counter such arguments?

    • BDEhrman January 17, 2024 at 12:26 pm

      Oh yes.

    • Erland January 22, 2024 at 7:08 pm

      Also, if you sell all you have and give to the poor, then who shall buy it? The buyer then can’t enter the kingdom, since (s)he shouldn’t have bought your stuff, but given the money directly to the poor. So, Jesus doesn’t seem to care for the future of the buyer. A flaw in Jesus’s ethics and logic.

  3. haydenps January 17, 2024 at 12:08 pm

    Very excited about your new book. In five or six posts at this length you might just have the book itself!

    I remember a talk you did and you mentioned the book The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar, and how a portion of Jesus’ sayings are later development. For example, “Since when do the able-bodied need a doctor? It’s the sick who do.” This is listed by them as unoriginal (p. 23).

    So my question is: are you going to be looking at his least-contested sayings, or the gospels in their entirety?

    Excited to read it regardless.

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:09 pm

      I’ll be focusing on his key ethical teachings, as I see them, and insofar as I think they are historically his own teachings. I’m interested in Jesus’ actual message more than the question of the reliability of the Gospels or the Gospel writers’ views.

  4. TimONeill January 17, 2024 at 12:48 pm

    Your new book sounds a lot like Tom Holland’s *Dominion* (2019), which makes exactly the same argument.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_(Tom_Holland_book)

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:11 pm

      Yes, there will be overlap and we have similar views on some major issues. But the books will be massively different, in range, depth, and expertise.

  5. rivercrowman January 17, 2024 at 1:47 pm

    Bart, I’m excited about your latest book proposal. What about the early ethical thinking in the East? Like Buddhism, for example. Will you draw a red line separating these world regions in your book? Thanks!

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:12 pm

      Nope, I’m sticking to the West. Mainly because I don’t think the teachings of eastern regions played a major role in the formatoin of the Christian church that took over the empire. Others will, of course, notice similarities.

  6. Duke12 January 17, 2024 at 1:51 pm

    Looks very interesting and possibly very important! Christianity “worked” and still “works” in many ways for a reason, which may have far less to do with intricate theological doctrines and a transcendent/imminent Savior Man God than we think!

    I believe neuroscience may be shifting towards seeing the evolutionary benefits of radical altruism. We manifest it in our own bodies with cells whose only purpose is to do a job and die for the benefit of the organism. And yet we’re descended from single celled organisms. So cooperation among unrelated cells must have been beneficial to survival. These evolved into related cells dividing and performing differentiated roles, giving up autonomy for the sake of the whole. As humans do that (voluntarily!), whole nations can exist in relative harmony as opposed to isolated warring family/clan groups. None of this is inevitable, but humble altruism is where true power lies, I suspect.

    Also, former Evangelical Christian, Frank Schaeffer, recently published a book on what he calls “survival of the friendliest” titled”Fall in love, have children, stay put, save the planet, be happy.” It’s a popular book with no reference bibliography, but the acknowledgements section might provide some useful human resources for your research.

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:13 pm

      His father was one of my heroes once upon a time. (And his as well!)

  7. RichardFellows January 17, 2024 at 3:07 pm

    Good summary. The following should be reworded. “But extreme altruism — behavior radically focused on the “other” to the severe detriment of the self — would lead to extinction.” Surely the species would thrive if everyone had extreme altruism. A person would not refuse to eat, for example, but would do so to please the altruistic people around them.

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:17 pm

      Yeah, I’m not comfortable with the statement either, but need to think about it. I can actually see both sides of it; the issue is not just how individuals thrive but how the species does in the face of other species; can the “group” be selfish if no one “in” it is? If not, how does it compete with other species?

  8. Seeker1952 January 17, 2024 at 4:12 pm

    I wonder why Jesus thought that was what God wanted humans to do. Was he implying that this is what God himself does?

    With 4 or 5 more posts still to come in this string, I don’t mind waiting if you’ll address it in one of those.

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2024 at 6:26 pm

      Yup, god brings rain on the just and the unjust — doing good for all.

  9. nanuninu January 17, 2024 at 4:36 pm

    The Evolution of the Conscience of the West: From the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus to Imagine by John Lennon

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2024 at 6:28 pm

      Ha! Love the song, but have always had a funny feeling about Lennon in particular singing about “imagine they’re no possessions….”

  10. AndySeattle January 17, 2024 at 7:14 pm

    When did the idea that “Jesus loves you” become a prominent part of Christianity?

    My wife and I were watching The Last Kingdom TV series, about the formation of England. A street preacher exhorted passers-by to accept the gospel because Jesus loves them. My wife asked whether the idea that “Jesus loves you” was a prominent selling point for early evangelists. Can you answer her question?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2024 at 6:34 pm

      I don’t know, but surely it’s modern.

  11. mini1071 January 17, 2024 at 7:32 pm

    So, in God’s Kingdom, the rich give all to the needy until they have nothing..
    But then they (now destitute?) are taken care of in the Kingdom by… others until… all needs are satisfied. Does not those teachings of Jesus, as we understand them, eventually imply miraculous intervention by God to … foot the bill? Did early Christians push Jesus logic that far when confronted with reality?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2024 at 6:35 pm

      The opponents of the idea certainly did! A famous sermon by Clement of Alexandria takes jsut that line, to conclude that Jesus couldn’t really mean it…

  12. Julioherrera1987 January 18, 2024 at 1:08 am

    I am learning English with you Books. Hi from Mexico.

  13. deke January 18, 2024 at 3:08 pm

    My evangelical friend said: when Jesus advised the rich man to give up everything he had, Jesus was not prescribing this action to all people, but only to this particular man. Jesus could see into this man’s heart and saw that the man was attached to wealth. So, the rich man needed to let it all go to enter the kingdom.

    Is there any evidence that the historical Jesus was discerning on which particular individuals should give up everything? Or do you think it is more plausible that Jesus prescribed that all people should give up wealth?

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:35 pm

      The story that follows indicates that Jesus praised all his apostles for giving up everything, and elsehwere he says that in fact you have to give up your life (“take up your cross”). Christians over the years haven’t believed he could mean it, and so they have often said that he was just telling this one guy to do it. The idea is that they, the Christians giving this interpretatoin, are themselves *not* attached to money, so they don’t need to do it. On the other hand, if they’re not attahced to money, why don’t they do it? 🙂 I think Jesus taught that God wan’ted his followrs to help others at extreme cost, and having any surplus when others were in need was not loving them as yourself.

  14. Serene January 19, 2024 at 12:22 am

    Jesus was generous, but could we have exaggerated Jesus of Nazareth’s generosity like how we turned Nicholas of Myra into Santa Claus?

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

    *Turning the other cheek:*
    “Don’t give information to the enemy”.

    Jesus exemplifies this when he does not speak to Herod or the Sanhedrin. The Galilee-Nabataea conflict starts because of Herod snd Herodias marrying, which is what John the Baptist protests — so this is in Jesus’ mission timeline.

    *Give away your posessions* (to receive 100X in my father’s kingdom)

    There is no verse where his followers are promised to end up with less. So “Fund my campaign to be a theocratic ethnarch, and my dad will take care of you when we win.“

    “Take the cloak”
    Mishnah has Elijah “ascended to the heavens” (ascended is still a directional term in Israel) and *returning dressed as an Arab* to dispense charity to Jews. If you ascend, you don’t need Canaan clothes.

    Archaeologists find zero malnutrition in Nabataea, but the kingdom was also “hard to get into”. It’s what Galilee’s Arab Nabataean “Queen of the South” , Phaesalis returns to.

    Jesus is neither conservative or liberal. Pro government, just not Judaea’s government. Middle path. Ma‘at. It’s why both sides see themselves..

  15. JM January 19, 2024 at 7:55 am

    I look forward to this book!

  16. Deist January 19, 2024 at 3:27 pm

    Leaving Christianity and objectively reading the Christian Bible has made me believe there is no altruism in the Christian Bible. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines altruism as “the attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them although you do not get anything by doing those acts.” When Jesus teaches to help the poor, etc., it’s always to get a reward from God and never simply because it’s the right thing to do. As you stated, “Being a Jew would not bring salvation when the coming destruction arrived. Living as God wanted would.” The motivation is not altruistic, it’s what’s in it for me – in this case, salvation. The biggest selling point of Christianity is for the individual to become a Christian to avoid the flames of Hell. That’s not at all altruistic. Are there any teachings in the Christian Bible that promote doing good simply to do good?

    Also, the Roman Stoics seem to have promoted altruism, although there was a reward which was getting a good feeling for having done what was right.

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 10:01 pm

      One of the big questions in modern studies of altruism is whether selfless motivations need to be part of it, or if selfless actions in themselves count. I tend these days to go with the latter, since at the end of the day it’s impossible to evaluate motives, certainly of others but also even of ourselves. But it’s certainly the case that giving away riches so as to have “treasures in heaven” is ultimately “other oriented”

  17. mb1980 January 19, 2024 at 9:38 pm

    Jesus teachings were not perfect, he was an apocalyptic preacher convinced that the kingdom of Yhwh and the final destruction of evil and injustice were just behind the corner.
    So he did not envision a long-term plan to reform society and fight poverty.
    He was not a modern socialist or revolutionary.

    And it’s very likely he actually cared only for the “lost sheep of Israel”.

    Said that, his theology was deeply rooted in Judaism and it stressed the importance of works.
    Parables and stories like the one of Zacchaeus (real or not) are all about the change of behavior.
    But many of his so-called followers conveniently ignore that.

    It’s not a coincidence that the favorite gospel of evangelicals and fundamentalists is the 4th, “John”, the less historically accurate; synoptics contain a lot of mythology too but the 4th is mythmaking on steroids.
    Why?
    Because it revolves around “eternal life”, dualism and exclusivism (inside/outside the cult) and magical thinking. In order to be “saved” you have to blindly believe without any evidence.
    But you don’t have to give away all your possessions.

    Of course, the trend was started by Paul and pushed even farther by “John” but took the final shape thanks to “sola fide” protestant theology.

  18. mb1980 January 19, 2024 at 10:03 pm

    Don’t take me wrong. As former catholic (now I identify myself as a rationalist deist in the fashion of Voltaire and Thomas Paine) I am not defending the church.

    They have done terrible things since late antiquity (Theodosius and other emperors persecuted pagans and “heretics”, were intolerant and destroyed temples, libraries, monuments).
    The list of crimes would be very long.

    And in the Papal State (i am Italian) Popes and Cardinals during Middle Age and Modern Era lived like kings, surrounded by luxury, while poor people barely survived.
    There was a lot of corruption.

    The historical Jesus would have been shocked seeing how they betrayed his teachings.
    So I can understand the reaction of Martin Luther.

    But the “sola fide” theology was an huge departure from the original preaching of that Jewish rabbi.
    If I remember correctly Luther hated the so-called Letter of James (pseudo-epigraphical but possibly written by someone belonging or close to the Jerusalem community), because it stressed the importance of behavior and stated that “faith without works is dead”.

    Rich bankers and merchants donated money to hospitals and charities for selfish reasons (to avoid hell or to shorten time in purgatory for deceased loved ones) but at least they did something useful.

  19. R_Gerl January 20, 2024 at 3:14 am

    Looks fabulous Dr. Ehrman, I look forward to reading this new book. I learned some important things about how these teachings made changes in western civilization just from reading this blog (and what I learned is valuable to me personally). Thank you so much. My only minor quibble is on the title. It suggests that altruism originated with the teachings of Jesus and, as you pointed out, altruism has some evolutionary roots. Perhaps the title should be something like “The Conscience of Western Civilization and the Teachings of Jesus”. I’m sure the book will be excellent no matter what the final title. I hope this book contrasts the genuine moral teachings of Jesus with Pauline theology because, in my view, Paul’s theology is contrary to the actual teachings of the historic Jesus. I hope your book also applies critical scholarship to the New Testament to discern which teachings probably come from the historic Jesus and those that probably don’t. For example, I don’t believe that the historic Jesus said that people must hate their families to be a disciple (Luke 14:26). Good luck with the book.

  20. chessrev1735 January 23, 2024 at 5:03 pm

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Speaking of new books, I just saw that the 8th edition of your introductory textbook on the New Testament was released in December. Congratulations! I’m sure you’re proud of its success. I am curious, what are the differences between this edition and the 7th? I noticed that you have added a coauthor, Hugo Mendez. What content did Hugo add to the book? Thanks!

    • BDEhrman January 26, 2024 at 7:16 pm

      Thanks! Yes, Hugo did most of the revisions. Among the most significant things, he completely rewrote the sections on the Synoptic Problem (he doesn’t accept Q and explained another theory that can do wihtout it) and the Gospel of John, in a way that’s much better than what I had done, getting away from the use of John to understand social history to an exploration of the meaning of the text itself.

  21. canoetraveler January 24, 2024 at 11:24 am

    In Rodney Stark’s 1997 book “The Rise of Christianity” he argues that it is altruism that was the main driver of Christian expansion. In an age of plagues, the rational thing to do if there was sickness in your village or neighborhood was to run away and abandon the sick. That abandonment often leading to death. Stark argues that Christian communities, with their belief in salvation, would stay and care for the sick, resulting in better outcomes for the community. Eventually, Stark argues, neighboring communities took notice and adopted the Christian religion. This rings true to me.

    As Stark’s argument is now a quarter century old, maybe your new book can update or comment on this line of thinking.

    • BDEhrman January 26, 2024 at 7:25 pm

      I deal with Stark’s view onthis at length in my book The Triumph of Christianity, to show that I think it’s completely wrong. For one thing, Stark simply accepts early Christian authors who say “We are much more compassionate than those heartless pagans.” Stark is not good at considering the biases of the sources. MOreover, if Xns did in fact nurse plague victims more often than others did, it would not increase their population but decrease it — they would have been infected at much higher rates. And in fact that’s what our Christian sources actually *claim*. Cyprian says that when the plague hit, Christians would nurse their dying, and then a few hours later would themselves be carried out feet first. Repeat repeat repeat.

  22. Deist January 24, 2024 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks very much for your response. Are you aware of any parts of the Christian Bible that appeal to a person’s altruism and not to their fear of punishment or desire for a reward?

    • BDEhrman January 28, 2024 at 2:33 pm

      There are lots of injunctions that don’t directly invoke a divine reward for helping others (e.g., Do unto others….). Whether the reward aspect is in the background is a genuine question though. It cetainly is in th eextreme demands (give up everything so you’ll have treasure in heaven, sorts of things)

  23. Apocryphile January 25, 2024 at 8:24 pm

    This is pretty embarrassing (not to mention off topic), but I can’t find the post where I asked you about whether you know if there is a Spanish edition of any of your books. Many Thanks Bart.

    • BDEhrman January 28, 2024 at 3:08 pm

      I’m not sure which post it was — but did you get my reply?

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