Did Jesus Teach the Golden Rule?

In a word, no.

That’s John Meier’s conclusion, anyway, and I’m afraid he’s probably right. So much for the secular wisdom championed by Christianity’s founder. I’ll soon be reviewing Meier’s long-awaited fourth volume of A Marginal Jew, but I wanted to blog right away about the Golden Rule. For whatever reason, I always took Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31 to be securely authentic, no doubt on strength of popularity. Everyone likes this rule, even atheists, and I warm to it even knowing that it’s flawed in principle. By the standards of Jesus’ day, it’s fine wisdom. But why is it not Jesus’ wisdom?

Meier shows that the Golden Rule doesn’t meet any of the criteria of authenticity, least of all discontinuity, enjoying a wide reputation in the Greco-Roman world, going back as far as Herodotus and the sophists. In the NT the saying is only singularly attested (in Q according to Meier, in Matthew according to Farrer-advocates like me) and seems to have been placed on the lips of Jesus by those who revered him as an ethical master (pre-Q or Q, according to Meier; pre-Matthew or the Matthean community itself, I would say), attributing common wisdom to him.

The Golden Rule is thoroughly inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the criterion of coherence. Jesus criticized the ethic of reciprocity left and right (“if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc.), and the Golden Rule is all about reciprocity. It just doesn’t square with the preachings of an uncompromising apocalyptic. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians.” (A Marginal Jew, Vol 4, p 556) Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent (as the ever-wise Dale Allison reminds us), but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this one is a glaring example of the latter.

Since the Golden Rule fails the criteria with flying colors, we should join Meier in bidding it farewell from our reconstruction of the historical Jesus.

12 thoughts on “Did Jesus Teach the Golden Rule?

  1. Thanks for posting on this. I must say I find the argument unpersuasive on two counts. First, while I’ve seen many instances of the so-called “Silver Rule” (don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you), the “Golden Rule” does seem rather distinctive. And, as such, it doesn’t seem to me to reflect an ethic of reciprocity (even though Confucius summed up his version of the rule in such terms). As attributed to Jesus, the meaning seems to clearly be to do to others what we <>would<> want them to do to us, not what they <>have done<> nor what we <>expect them to do<>.

    Does Meier answer these objections? If so, I’d love to learn how – although I may have to buy the book…

  2. Hi James,

    It could be that pre-Mattheans or the Matthean community pressed common wisdom into the less reciprocal service you suggest. But for me to buy that Jesus himself had this idea in mind, I would not only want the saying to be attested in more than one independent source, but would be looking for an emphasis on the difference between his usage and the common one — perhaps with something like, “You have heard it said, but I say…”

  3. I am straining to see how the Golden Rule fits an ethic of reciprocity. Isn’t that precisely what it subverts, since it calls a person to act contrary to how they would normally want to behave? Normally, someone would not want to treat their enemies honorably or justly.

    Isn’t it also asking a little much for Jesus to repeat “you have heard it said, but I say to you…” every time he gave a new/socially radical teaching? One could discount pretty much everything new and radical that he says using that kind of thought process. The Beatitudes, for example, praise attitudes and behaviors that were not well received in Jesus’ culture, but one learns that from background study, not an explicit statement in the text. Jesus also apparently made much of the suffering Messiah motif as found in the Old Testament, which was surely controversial in his day, without giving a prefatory warning each time. If you take the view that a statement of conscious disagreement is a good sign that Jesus really said something new, I think you’re just overlooking the remark in Matthew 5:46; it only makes sense in a Jewish context, given the attitude to tax/toll collectors by many Jews.

  4. Jared, you write:

    “I am straining to see how the Golden Rule fits an ethic of reciprocity. Isn’t that precisely what it subverts, since it calls a person to act contrary to how they would normally want to behave? Normally, someone would not want to treat their enemies honorably or justly.”

    The Golden Rule applies to anyone, not just enemies — certainly in Matthew, though Luke admittedly takes the step of making a closer identification with enemies — and it was all about reciprocity in the common understanding. The philosophers who advocated it expounded on reciprocal expectations. One hoped or expected to be treated likewise.

    “Isn’t it also asking a little much for Jesus to repeat “you have heard it said, but I say to you…” every time he gave a new/socially radical teaching?”

    It’s certainly asking much if it’s reasonably clear that we are in fact dealing with a “new/ socially radical teaching”. But it’s not in this case. Since the Golden Rule derives from a prevalent teaching, and the form as we have it is ambiguous enough to be interpreted that way, and all the other criteria don’t help us at all, we’re wise to leave it out of our construction of the historical Jesus.

  5. This is really silly because you're evaluating this statement by the criterion of embarrassment. Of course false world religions will stumble upon truth – the truth has been and will always be true no matter where it's found, but the problem is that there is no greater lie than a *half*-truth. These world religions talk about love and justice as well as mercy and sacrifice. They may even have right ideas about God such as monotheism or God taking up human form. But they're invented by men and stem out of idolatry, and so they won't understand God to be triune in person with 3 Persons all being God yet 1 Being in their monotheism. They won't know that the end of all of those attributes of love, justice, mercy, sacrifice, is God's own glory. They need the special revelation of the scriptures and indwelling Holy Spirit.
    To go so far to avoid a commonality between paganism and worldly fallacy as to reconstruct a Jesus that the New Testament doesn't describe is to come up with an idol and side with counter-christian cults that don't accept the Bible's 'teaching of Christ.' The New Testament bears Christ's image upon them and to not accept their authenticity or to say that we have an altered form that doesn't portray Him in His true light is to lose any way of being saved and born again. If Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 12:31 aren't true, then how can you believe the same text that contains John 3:16, Romans 10:9, Romans 6:23, and so on? You challenge the very meaning of the scriptures and therefore how to know Him in His grace. Then what assurance would anyone have of their salvation if what the Apostle Paul said wasn't true? (And I'm fully aware of certain textual controversies such as the Johannian comma.) You must teach the people that they can trust their Bibles. The New Testament is 99% textually pure. In the 15,000 manuscript conflictions, only 500 of them are significant, meaning that 14,500 of them either spell John as “Johnn” or say “Jesus Christ” except “Christ Jesus” and so on. And of those 500 significant textual variants, none of them touch on points of doctrine or tenants of the faith defended throughout the history of the church.

    Jesus said not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away – not one decorative stroke. Peter calls Paul's writings “scripture” in His epistle (2 Peter 3:16) — even he was aware that the Holy Spirit had used Paul to author something for the church body to canonize, and that it was on par with the Old Testament inspirations he'd accepted all his life, which were also called scripture. The Naghammadi heresies were a collection of controversial heresies and texts of which none of the 27 new testament books appeared among, showing that the early church had a clear idea of what was heresy and what was authentically the writings of Paul or from the apostles or the other writers and what was not. It was clear what was inspired.

    Also, how do you explain that there *are* verses that agree with this other statement of Jesus?
    Matthew 5:38-39, Matthew 25:31-46, Matthew 6:12, Matthew 5:21-24, Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-38. Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 tells the man to go and do the same as the Good Samaritan of His parable – to extend mercy to even a Jew-hated Samaritan. These are all teaches that compliment what men have falsely classed with other worldly teaches as 'the Golden Rule' which is not at all — it's an original teaching of Jesus as pre-described by the law of Moses and prophetically taught as a teaching all over the writing of the prophets all over the Old Testament.

  6. Matthew 7:12 says that it was the sum of the law and prophets. Well, this was concerning a reading of the shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and Leviticus 19:18 — Old Testament texts that taught this to Israel for thousands of years. With Matthew 7:12 Jesus was requoting what the Old Testament said as the heart of the law (Leviticus 19:18) concerning all the other rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that have to do with your neighbor. This is no mistake in the text. After studying it you'll find that it isn't some textual variation that crept into the text later on — no, it's foundational teaching of the entire Bible integrated into several places. Even in our modern day culture – a rule of etiquette is that when there is no defined rule of what to do, do what most respects the host and the other guests and it will be accepted as polite etiquette where you may not know the rule. In the same way, Matthew 7:12 is a summation of the heart of what ran the rules. This is no worldly derivation of the surrounding philosophy but Jesus's right exegesis of the laws of God in what we call the Old Testament. Though the law grants us the right to take vengence on our neighbor who has wronged us (Exodus 21:23-25), Jesus teaches us that we don't *have* to use our own right — but we can willingly instead choose to show mercy, and this doesn't conflict with Jesus.

    The first point of doctrine on any reasonable faith statement is that the scriptures are inerrant, infallible, inspired. This is a true statement (John 10:35b) that has always proven true. The historical Jesus is exactly the Jesus described in the New Testament by the writers and authors inspired by the Holy Spirit themselves. Please, teach the people that they can trust their Bibles, even in English. Please consider these things and make a revision of your post. Thank you.

  7. I think the author may have missed the point of the Golden Rule – isn't the Golden Rule more about empathy than reciprocity? I have learned the Golden Rule to mean something more like: “Do unto others as you would hope you would be treated if you found yourself in his/her circumstance” or “Do unto others as you wish they would do to you.” Neither of these options sounds like reciprocity to me – reciprocity would sound more like: “do unto others as they do unto you,” wouldn't it?

    Understanding the golden rule in light of Jesus's other teachings may have influenced my understanding about what it means, and that, of course, colors my views of it's authenticity, but I believe that the reverse mistake can be equally erroneous.

    Fascinating discussion though, thank you!

  8. There are several possible explanations, including the idea that this is Matthew's attempt to put some portion of Jesus' teaching into a nutshell. I do not personally feel that the argument over authenticity (if I time traveled, could I have recorded Jesus saying this?) is an argument that I can or want to win – I simply do not believe that there is a sufficiently objective way of 'knowing' that silences both doubt and practiced cynicism.

    Instead, I ask other questions: Is this a 'rule' that is in synch with Jesus? Is this an inherently good rule? If not, how can it be misused and how can I avoid that misuse in my own life? I would tend to lean heavilly on the work of the psychiatric community for the latter questions, rather than the faith community. Personally, I believe that the empathetic understanding/implementation of the golden rule is 'good' even if we cannot agree on the true identity of the original author. As such, I would seriously consider incorporating it into my practice of faith as a Buddhist, Jew Christian, or Muslim… even my practice as an American voter.

    Take that for what it is worth, and I bid you a good evening!

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