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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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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