Jesus, Judaism, and the “Golden Rule”

What came to be known as the “Golden Rule” offers a strongly suggestive instance of Jesus' teaching as being part and parcel of the same weave, the same textured textile, and give-and-take that characterized the discourse of the Jewish context in which he developed and shared his teachings.  This can serve as a compelling case study since many commentators have seen Jesus’ words as significantly, if not radically, departing from an alleged first-century Jewish standard, perhaps especially in comparison with the Pharisees, often seen as the likely forebears of rabbinic Judaism.

There are two versions of the Golden Rule in the Four Canonical Gospels.  Willis Barnstone in his The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas  (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009) translates Luke 6:31 as:

“As you wish people to do for you, do for them.”

This immediately follows after the call to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" and a few further directives in the same spirit.

Matthew includes it in the Sermon on the Mount – or Teaching from the Mountain – and it too follows, though not immediately, teachings on the love of one's enemies (Matthew 7:12):

“Whatever you wish others to do for you, so do for them.
Such is the meaning of the law and the prophets.”

Much has been made of the positive formulation of this teaching in comparison to the several other formulations of the general principle found in Jesus' fellow Jewish teachers – contemporaries as well as those who precede and follow him by a century or so. Some see Jesus’ formulation as superior in generosity, liberality, love when contrasted with the usually negatively-phrased legal formulations of his Jewish contemporaries.  

Thus the most well-known of these is attributed to Hillel (~ 1st-century BCE – early 1st-century CE):

“What is hateful to you don't do to your fellow.”

To which Hillel immediately added: "This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is interpretation/elaboration-&-application. Go and study it!' (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Matthew's version with its added flourish or emphasis – "Such is the meaning of the law and the prophets" – is widely seen to represent a kind of antinomian honing down of the law to its simplest, most essential, religious ethical spirit. But we see that Hillel adopts the same rhetorical hyperbole.

We also find this similar idea in Jeremiah 7:22-23 where he conveys this experience of the Divine intention: “For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Heed my voice …”

Likewise Hosea 6:6-7 and Isaiah 1:11-16, which is especially telling in that the prophet says the Divine does not desire – indeed abhors – not only animal sacrifices, but also new moon and Shabbat and other gatherings on sacred days and even any kind of prayer!  By means of hyperbole the prophet seeks to drive home how empty these – indeed any and all religious practices – are – not that we can achieve the genuinely religious, spiritual life of inner and outer character transformation without them. But that when these are not taken up as means to a set of appropriately accompanying inspired and channeled inner and outer experiences that involve honest engaging and developing of our better selves – it is such external acts that the prophet critiques.

This is the kind of rhetorical expression Hillel adopts when he says “This is the whole of the Torah.” Indeed he immediately follows this with a kind of paradox – that actually qualifies the characterization that this is the entire Torah; namely his saying that to really understand and know and live out the principle he has stated one must study the rest of the Torah – without which the one principle Hillel has highlighted will actually not suffice! It well represents the whole, but does not on its own exhaust its necessary integral applications.

A striking additional example of rhetorical hyperbole in rabbinic discourse that works at highlighting the key intentionality of the life of Torah with its narrative dramas and commandments is recorded in the volume of the Talmud Makkot 24a. There Rabbi Simlai starts with the whole of the six-hundred and thirteen commandments and then sets out to argue how subsequent teachers after Moses “reduced” them to fewer and fewer until Amos was able to focus all of the teachings into one: “Seek me and live!” (Amos 5:4).

Returning to the “positive” formulation attributed to Jesus – as compared to Hillel's “negative” formulation, this characterization can be very misleading. One can locate an angle of appreciation vis-à-vis the negative form of Hillel's version that highlights, either way, a kind of reciprocity – what is good/bad for you do/do-not-do toward your fellow member of your common human species.  Although the “positive” form may sound and in practice sometimes could involve an intensification of benefiting my fellow; one can imagine that in practice this might not always be so.  Sometimes when we ask more of our selves it is too much; and when that is the case we end up being able to actually respond with less of whatever is being asked of our after-all limited resources. Hillel's challenge can be seen as more realistic given the complex of our mortal response-abilities; setting what is not the ideal or more demanding goal – at least not initially!  Indeed, the one who goes and studies the rest of the Torah's interaction with this basic principle will find that more is asked, indeed demanded, of us – once we have set out and taken-up in daily action at least this starting commitment to our fellow.

As beautifully professing Professor Vermes so responsibly brings to our attention – both before and after first century Judaism the “positive” and “negative” formulations are often interrelated. Thus, for instance: 

Jesus ben Sira in the early second century [BCE] advised his readers (31 [34].15):

‘Be as friendly to your neighbour as to yourself, and (in his regard) be attentive to all that you hate.’

In rabbinic writings, too, the negative Golden Rule is understood as the counterpart of the commandment of love towards one’s neighbour. Thus the lemma, ‘Loving mankind’, introducing chapter 26 in Aboth de-R. Nathan B, the chapter which contains Akiba’s teaching on the (negative) Golden Rule, is borrowed from the Hillel maxim in mAb 1.12, ‘Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind …’. But the most striking expression of the bond between the two concepts occurs in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan’s rendering of Leviticus 19:18:

‘And you shall love your neighbour: whatever you yourself hate, do not do to him.’

All this is not to say that the “positive” formulation by Jesus might not indeed be staking out a particular position that indeed calls us to reach, at least to aspire toward – at the outset – an ideal, an achievement beyond that which Hillel sets forth.  If so, this can simply be understood as evidence that vigorously engaged debate is characteristic of the time of Jesus, perhaps even deeply affirmed and celebrated.  In any case, from a number of angles, a look at proto-rabbinic thought and discourse vis-à-vis this element of Jesus' teaching yields more similarity with that Judaism than it does difference.


[ back to the main text... ]